Ancient Synagogues in Israel

Holy Land Revealed

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

In This Photo: The Ancient Synagogue at Masada

Ancient Synagogues Dated the Second Temple period

In December 1913, Raymond Weill, a French archaeologist, 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.

In This Photo: The Theodotos Inscription is the Earliest Known Inscription From a Synagogue Dated to the 1st Century CE
Credit: Andrey Zeigarnik (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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 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. In fact, their role was more a place 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.

In This Photo: The Ancient Synagogue at Susya

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.

In This Photo: The Synagogue(Um El Kanatir) On the Golan Heights

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 oldest, securely dated, a mainstream Jewish synagogue in the world. Although the identification of the remains as a synagogue is not specific.

Part of the Mosaic Floor of the Synagogue in Sepphoris Dated to the Byzantine Period.

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 seeing such ancient structures.

Ancient Synagogue Ruins at Kfar Bar’am.
Bar’am National Park in Israel

Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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