Today when we refer to ancient synagogues in Israel we refer to synagogues built in modern Israel and Palestine by Jewish or Samaritan communities from antiquity to the Early Islamic Period. Archaeologists have unearthed many remains of Ancient Syanguges in Israel. Including several dating to before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. For example, The Migdal Syanguge; the Syanguge at Capernaum; the Herodium synagogue; the synagogue at Qumran, and the synagogue at Masada.
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 as well. However, the oldest synagogue within modern Israel that has been found to date; is the Modi’in synagogue; discovered between Laturn and the modern city of Modi’in.
Ancient Synagogues Dated the Second Temple period
Although there is some debate as to whether or not synagogues existed before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. We do have textual evidence like in the New Testament that identifies certain 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 that after that event. It was not a place of ritual; and the ritual was centralized at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, their role was more a place of coming together and philosophize 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 after the destruction of the Sconed Jewish Temple; ancient synagogues were used as a place of prayer and ceremonies. And in many ways took the place 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 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; mainstream Jewish synagogue in the world. Although the identification of the remains as a synagogue is not certain. 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 existed for so long. For a Jew and non-Jews alike there is something emotional seeing such ancient structures.