The Synagogue as a Waypoint for Travellers

Traveling Mercies: A Dialogue

Son: Father, you say that I must lead this community, and yet I know not who I am to lead! What about those who come with their bundles from afar, only to eat, and rest, and take to the road once more?

Theodotus: My dear boy, our community is one of common heritage, not of common place. Many a time have our people fled — and we must teach and look after the needs of all who pass into this sacred precinct1 seeking refuge. The road is a place of danger, hunger, and thirst. In this holy place men come to receive health and salvation2, as much for their bodies as for their spirits.

Son: But… How are we to teach these people? Study of the Law takes so many years — only the oldest and wisest men can become rabbis3!

Theodotus: We teach by our own example. Remember the commandment that man must love the Lord God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength and with all his mind?4 Remember also God’s commandment that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves?5 These commandments are among the most sacred to God, and these we fulfill whenever we love those who come in need of succor.

Dangers on the Road

Safety while travelling is an often underappreciated privilege. The ancient traveller faced many dangers. Some of these dangers were physical: the risk of sickness, or robbery, or injury. Others were spiritual: the risk of temptations; lost contact with family and community; disrupted routines; even despair over the length of the journey and its inherent uncertainties. Much of the surviving literature from the ancient Mediterranean–a hotbed of trade, war, and travel–describes the dangers of journeys. The Odyssey, an epic poem in Greek from perhaps the end of the 8th century BCE, is but a story of a warrior’s long and treacherous journey from Anatolia

[Odysseus and his crew escape a cyclops during their travels.
Arnold Böcklin (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

(modern-day Turkey) to Ithaca, an island located in the Ionian sea between Greece and Italy. A major theme of the Odyssey is the proper interaction between a host and a guest, who is often uninvited, unknown to the host, and nothing more than a traveller seeking food, shelter, and safety.

Jews living along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean often found themselves in want of kindness and hospitality while travelling. As noted in the opening dialogue, the Jewish people were bound by a common heritage and not necessarily geographic proximity. Exile and emigration pervade Jewish history; persecutions and a series of forced flights scattered Jewish communities across the Mediterranean region and beyond. Jews travelled widely, often involuntarily, and relied upon others’ hospitality as they arrived in new lands and made pilgrimages back to Jerusalem.

Accordingly, travelling and tales of dangers on the road feature prominently in both the Old and New Testaments. The gospel of Luke, dating from the same time as the Theodotus inscription, provides us one particularly illustrative example of a traveller whose plans go awry and who stands in need of a stranger’s hospitality: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man travelling the 18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho fell victim to a band of highway robbers.[^6] The robbers stole his clothing, beat him severely, and then disappeared into the surrounding desert. Two different men pass by without giving him the assistance he so desperately needs, presumably because these two men belong to a different city, social class, and religious affiliation than does the beaten man. The beaten man has no one from his own community and tradition to help him. It is only through the unexpected goodwill of a third travelling stranger that the beaten man receives help and preservation from further harm.[^7]

It is in this context of long and dangerous journeys that the Theodotus inscription’s reference to a synagogue-supported hostel for travellers ought to be understood (jeru0591). The word “salvation,” which now carries a spiritual connotation, comes from the Greek word σωτηρία (soteria), which means “safety” or “preservation from harm” in a physical sense. The traveller’s desire for safety is the basis for the rules of hospitality operating in the Mediterranean world from the Odyssey in 8th century BCE Anatolia all the way up to the Aeneid in 1st century BCE Rome and the 1st century CE gospel accounts from Mediterranean Judea. The travellers’ hostel operated by Theodotus’ synagogue provided exactly that — a safe respite for Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews.[^8]


Filson, Floyd V. “Ancient Greek Synagogue Inscriptions.” The Biblical Archaeologist 32, no. 2 (1969): 41–46.

“From Jerusalem to Jericho.” American Bible Society Resources. Accessed June 30, 2017.

Martin, Matthew. “Interpreting the Theodotus Inscription: Some Reflections on a First Century Jerusalem Synagogue Inscription and E. P. Sanders’ ‘Common Judaism.’” ANES 39 (2002): 160-181.

  1. Compare to the ancient Greek temnos, or sacred precinct surrounding a temple. Those inside a temple’s temnos were unassailable and thus safe from all violence or harm. 
  2. In 1st century CE Greek, the word soteria ,“salvation” meant physical safety. The spiritual connotation developed much later when Christianity gained traction. See Filson 44. 
  3. In the 1st century CE, a rabbi was a wise elder who had mastered the Torah. A rabbi did not become a religious leader serving in a formalized capacity until much later. 
  4. Deuteronomy 6:5, paraphrased in Luke 10:27. 
  5. Leviticus 19:18, paraphrased in Luke 10:27. 

Relevant Inscription(s):


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Θ[ε]όδοτος Οὐεττήνου, ἱερεὺς καὶ
ἀ[ρ]χισυνάγωγος, υἱὸς ἀρχισυν[αγώ]-
γ[ο]υ, υἱωνὸς ἀρχισυν[α]γώγου, ᾠκο-
δόμησε τὴν συναγωγὴν εἰς ἀν[άγν]ω-
σ[ιν]νόμου καὶ εἰς [δ]ιδαχ[ὴ]ν ἐντολῶν, καὶ
τ[ό]ν ξενῶνα, κα[ὶ] …
Th[e]odotus son of Vettenus, priest and / a[r]chisynagogos, son of an archisyn[ago]/g[o]s, grandson of an archisyn[a]gogos, bu/ilt the synagogue for the r[ea]d/i[ng] of the torah …
Languages: Greek
Date: -50BCE to 50CE
Dimension: H: 31 cm.; W: 63 cm.; D: —. Letter Height: 2-3 cm.

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