Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Israel's Oldest Synagogue Volume 51 Number 4, July/August 1998
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

Remains of the oldest known synagogue in Israel, dating to between 75 and 50 B.C., have been found a mile southwest of Jericho near the ruins of a winter palace built by the Hasmonean monarchy that ruled Israel shortly before the Roman conquest. The find gives scholars a clearer idea of the appearance and function of early synagogues, says Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology. Netzer identified the building as a synagogue because its design and proximity to a water source matched literary accounts of early temples.

The synagogue was housed in a stone and mud-brick building that included a ritual bathing area, a small courtyard flanked by seven or eight rooms, and a rectangular main hall measuring 53 by 37 feet. A colonnade, on a platform nearly two feet above the nave, surrounded the hall. The platform provided seating for nearly 70 people; a congregation member is believed to have read from the Torah in the center of the hall. In the northeastern corner, Netzer found a niche with an upper compartment (now mostly destroyed) that may have held Torah scrolls. A lower compartment, mostly intact, possibly functioned as a genizah, where old or unused scrolls were stored. Adjacent to the west side of the main hall was a room that functioned as a triclinium, or banqueting hall, for ceremonial meals and a triangular space most likely used as a kitchen. The triclinium was added to the synagogue hall some years later. Diners reclined on benches against three walls of the chamber while eating. The walls and some of the floors were covered with white plaster.

The synagogue and nearby winter palace were destroyed by an earthquake in 31 B.C. Herod, the Roman client king of Judea, built another palace atop these ruins in the latter part of the first century B.C. The synagogue does not appear to have been rebuilt.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America