An imagined discussion between a father and son explores the role of early synagogues.
The discovery of the so-called “Theodotus inscription” in 1913 provided the first archeological evidence of synagogues prior to the Great Revolt in 66-70 CE. Scholars mainly agree that as a pre-70 CE inscription, this piece of limestone has two main implications for our understanding of ancient Jewish society. First, the inscription provides evidence that ancient synagogues were centers for teaching and learning Jewish law (the Torah). Second, its reference to Theodotus’ line of succession suggests that synagogue leadership could be hereditary. 2
The following dialogue explores some other societal implications of the inscription (jeru0591).
The Theodotus Inscription in all its glory; image credit Zev Radovan 2017.
Setting: Sitting on the front steps of a stone synagogue in Jerusalem, an older man and his young son gaze upon a Greek dedicatory inscription carved into the wall:
Theodotus, son of Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue [archisynagogos], son of a ruler of the synagogue [archisynagogos], grandson of a ruler of the synagogue [archisynagogos], built the synagogue [synagoge] for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for accommodating those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the Elders [presbyteroi] and Simonides founded.1
Theodotus: Do you like the synagogue, my child? Look closely and remember. The building may be new but this family’s duty is old, and leadership has passed from my father’s father, to my father, and finally to me. Someday you will lead your people in worship, and teach them.
Son: Don’t scare me, father. I don’t know how to lead or teach. I don’t understand how you turn this building of stone into a safe place of worship.
Theodotus: Study the words above your head, my child. See? This space was built first and foremost for the reading and the teaching of the Torah, as tradition dictates.5 And yet a community is more than law. Here we pray, and we eat together.6 Here, we welcome those of us who are pilgrims, downtrodden and weary.7 These rooms and the ritual baths8 were built for our community outside Jerusalem, our dispersed brothers and sisters.
Son: I hear your words and yet I find myself confused. Who are our brothers and sisters? Do you speak of those far away in Rome, where my grandfather was an archisynagogos, like his father before him?9 Or do you mean the Jews here and now, with us in Judea?10
Theodotus: Those here in Judea do not need our support, in their homeland with their people and their traditions. No, your duty is to our Greek-speaking brethren, from the lands that your ancestors called home. When they come to Jerusalem we must be ready, with our synagogue and our language, with culture they recognize and a place where they feel safe. Tensions are rising in Jerusalem against our Roman institutions and hierarchies. 11 In the coming years, remember where your loyalties lie.12
Father and son look up at the synagogue together. The lights fade.
Binder, Donald. “Second Temple Synagogues.” Accessed June 23, 2017. http://www.pohick.org/sts/.
Goodman, Martin. “Rome and Jerusalem.” Historically Speaking 9, no. 3 (2008): 43–44. https://doi.org/10.1353/hsp.2008.0095.
———. “Trajan and the Origins of Roman Hostility to the Jews.” Past & Present, no. 182 (2004): 3–29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600803.
Kee, Howard Clark, and Lynn H. Cohick. Evolution of the Synagogue: Problems and Progress. A&C Black, 1999.
Levine, Lee. The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Martin, Matthew. “Interpreting the Theodotos Inscription: Some Reflections on a First Century Jerusalem Synagogue Inscription and E.P. Sanders’ ‘Common Judaism.’” Ancient Near Eastern Studies 39 (2002): 160–81. https://doi.org/10.2143/ANES.39.0.501780.
Runesson, Anders, Donald Binder, and Birger Olsson. The Ancient Synagogue from Its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book. Vol. 72. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Boston: Brill, 2008.
Telushkin, Joseph. “The Great Revolt (66 – 70 CE).” Accessed June 23, 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-great-revolt-66-70-ce.
Center for Online Judaic Studies. “Theodotus Inscription,” December 21, 2008. http://cojs.org/theodotus_inscription-_1st_century_ce/.
Urman, Dan, and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher. Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. BRILL, 1998.
- ibid. ↩
- Runesson, 53-54. ↩
- Scholars mostly agree that the Theodotus inscription must predate 70 CE. This year marks the destruction of the Second Temple towards the end of the Great Revolt, a major Jewish uprising against Roman rule in Judea. Since the inscription’s discovery in 1913, one scholar — Howard Kee — has questioned its dating, suggesting that it originated as late as the fourth century. However, these claims were largely discredited by paleography and archeological context, which place this inscription back in the first century (Runesson 53). ↩
- Extensive research has looked at leadership in ancient synagogues. Some scholars use the Theodotus inscription as an example of the dominance of priests as “the teachers of Israel” (Runesson 4). However, Matthew Martin warns that Theodotus’ role as both priest and archisynagogos may have been inscribed specifically because it was unusual or unique (164). For further reading see also Levine, 421-8. ↩
- “The public reading of Torah [in first-century synagogues] is well attested” (Runesson 7). ↩
- While the Theodotus inscription provides the only physical archeological evidence about synagogues in the first century CE, Roman writers such as Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, in addition to the New Testament, provide written information about synagogues. These sources suggest that public fasting, prayer, and communal meals occurred in synagogues (Runesson 8). According to Levine, “The public, communal dimension is clearly one of the most prominent features of the first-century Judea synagogue” (69). ↩
- See the IIP story The Synagogue as a Waypoint for Travelers ↩
- On the site of the synagogue presumed to be associated with the Theodotus inscription, archeologists found water installations that scholars think were miqvaoth, ritual baths associated with purity and found in association with many synagogues through the first and second centuries CE. Levine notes that the presence of a miqveh “reflects the communal, inclusive nature of the building” (70). ↩
- Several scholars assert that Theodotus’ family was originally from the Jewish Diaspora. The use of Greek in the inscription, the focus on pilgrims, and Theodotus’ Roman surname Vettenos all suggest strong ties to Rome. See Martin 164. ↩
- Levine discusses the divide between Judean communities connected to the Hellenistic Diaspora and internal Palestinian communities. Trends in inscriptions regarding language, location, and cultural tendencies support the idea that these two communities may have viewed themselves as quite distinct. See Levine 423-5, and Martin’s discussion of the “epigraphic habit”, 165-167. ↩
- 66 CE marks the start of the Great Revolt, which eventually led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Class and cultural hierarchies caused tension between Roman and Jewish populations leading up to the revolt. For further reading see Martin Goodman 2007 and 2008. ↩
- Martin Goodman explains that “most diaspora Jews […] kept out of the Judaean war against Rome in AD 66-70” (2004: 9). Given the presumption in this dialogue that Theodotus was part of a Greco-Roman hierarchical system, with close ties to Rome, it is reasonable to suggest that he would have tried to distance himself from Judean rebellion in Jerusalem. ↩
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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 …
Date: -50BCE to 50CE
Dimension: H: 31 cm.; W: 63 cm.; D: —. Letter Height: 2-3 cm.