Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998
Oldest Synagogue?
Oldest Synagogue Excavated
Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem claims to have found the oldest synagogue yet uncovered -- a structure dating to about 75-50 BCE in the Hasmonean winter palace complex near the banks of Wadi Kelt, near Jericho.

Netzer began excavating the palace following the 1967 Six Day War and returned in January, 1998, after an absence of 10 years.  The synagogue was discovered beneath ruins of a palace built by King Herod late in the first century BCE.  The synagogue had been destroyed by an earthquake in 31 BCE, along with the rest of the Hasmonean complex.

The discovery is one in a string of similar sites uncovered since 1962, when Yigael Yadin identified a synagogue atop Masada.  Another synagogue from the same period – just prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE -- was found at Herodion by Franciscan archeologists.  In the 1980s, Shmaryahu Gutman found the Gamla synagogue, dated to the last half of the first century BCE.
In press accounts, Netzer has reported that "the Jericho structure, measuring 17x11 meters … is lined by colonnades on all four sides. The pillars were spaced along a base some 40-50 centimeters high which lined the entire room and served also as a bench on which the congregation sat.  In one corner, a niche was cut into the  wall [which may] have served to store Torah scrolls.  The synagogue was part of a complex that included a small courtyard, a ritual bath (mikve), and several small rooms.  One of these rooms contained a large U-shaped bench  which was evidently used for ceremonial meals" (Jerusalem Post, March 30, 1998).

Until an excavation report is issued, however, and other scholars have examined the evidence, the designation of the site as a synagogue must remain tentative.

Prof. Emeritus Joseph Gutmann of Wayne State University recently laid out the major arguments for skepticism concerning the claims for Masada, Herodion and Gamla, which can also be applied to the new discovery near Jericho.  In the short article "Ancient Synagogues: Archaeological Fact and Scholarly Assumption" which appeared last year in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute (9, 1997, 226-7), Gutmann quotes scholars Lester Grabbe, Sidney Hoenig, Howard Kee and others to the effect that, in Kee’s words, "there is no evidence that [the purported synagogues] were structures designed for religious purposes."  The discovery of Prof. Netzer, a highly regarded field archaeologist, will further fuel the debate on the origins of the synagogue in Eretz Israel. – SG

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Updated: 1-7-99