Ruins of ancient synagogues exists all over the country. They where built by Jewish and Samaritans alike. Dated from antiquity to the Early Islamic Period. Even these days archaeologists have unearthed remains of syanguges in Israel. Some of them are to before the destruction Jerusalem in 70CE. For example the synagogue at Masada.
Ancient Synagogues Dated to the Second Temple Period
In December 1913, French archaeologist Raymond Weill discovered at the City of David the earliest known inscription from a synagogue. Even Thou the actual structure was never found. So the Theodotos Synagogue Inscription from Jerusalem is usually considered to have come from a synagogue of the Second Temple period. However, the oldest synagogue within modern Israel that has been found to date; is the Modi’in synagogue, discovered between Laturn and the contemporary city of Modi’in.
Although there is some debate as to whether or not synagogues existed before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, we have textual evidence, like in the New Testament, that identifies specific structures as synagogues where Torah reading, teaching, and even prayer took place. For example, in the Gospel, according to Mark 1:21, it is narrated that Jesus and his disciples traveled to Capernaum, and “when the Sabbath came; he [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught.”
The Different Purposes of Ancient Synagogues in Antiquity
Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, ancient synagogues they probably served a different purpose than after that event. It was not a place of ritual, and the practice was centralized at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Their role was more of coming together and philosophizing about the sacred texts. In other words, the synagogues before the destruction were used mainly as a center for reading and teaching the holy Torah. Moreover, it was used as a meeting place for the community.
By contrast, ancient synagogues were used as a place of prayer and ceremonies after the destruction of the Sconed Jewish Temple. And in many ways, it took the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple. Moreover, we know that the post-destruction synagogues were more lavishly decorated with impressive mosaic floors; and were more monumental.
The Most Ancient Synagogues Known Today
Today we have several examples of such ancient synagogues from the time and territory of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties until 70 CE that have been excavated in pre-1967 Israel, on the West Bank and one on the Golan Heights. Naturally, I am referring to the one at Gamla National Park. Also, the synagogue at Jericho may be the world’s oldest, securely dated, mainstream Jewish synagogue. However, the identification of the remains as a synagogue is not specific.
It was built between 70 and 50 BCE as part of a royal winter palace complex near Jericho. Worldwide the oldest evidence of the presence of synagogue buildings is in middle and lower Egypt in the 3rd century BCE. They consist of two synagogue dedication inscription stones and a reference to a synagogue in a papyrus letter dated to 218 BCE. On my guided tours, I enjoy taking my clients to those synagogues that have existed for so long. For Jews and non-Jews alike, there is something emotional about seeing such ancient structures.