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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A new take on the origins of the synagogue Beall, Christopher Egerton


Mystery shrouds the origins of the synagogue. The synagogue is unknown in Jewish literature until the second century BCE , when it becomes ubiquitous in every Jewish, and many Greco-Roman texts. Likewise, the earliest synagogues in the archaeological record do not emerge until the second century BCE in Israel and the Diaspora, yet even the earliest examples seem to share many common features. Since the tenth century, scholarship has sought to uncover the origins of the synagogue. Because o f the paucity of the evidence, countless theories exist, placing the synagogue in every period from time of the First Temple, through to the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. Without further support, however, it is impossible to validate either the position o f the theorists or that of their critics. The lack of evidence for synagogue origins makes it necessary to approach the question f r om a new direction. Instead of returning to the old arguments for the origins of the synagogue, this thesis examines all of the evidence for Second Temple synagogue functions to illuminate the origins of the synagogue. While there is little evidence of synagogue origins, both the textual and archaeological record suggest a multitude of synagogue functions. The different uses for the synagogue by its surrounding community can help in the analysis of the various theories of origins, as what the synagogue was for should indicate why it came about. This thesis isolated four categories o f synagogue functions: religious functions from within Judaism, religious functions borrowed from the surrounding Greco-Roman world, community functions, and functions only found in synagogue from specific areas, indicating some degree of regional diversity. After examining all of the literary and archaeological evidence for the functions of the Second Temple synagogue, it became evident that the synagogue originated during the Hellenistic period to meet different needs in the Greco-Roman Diaspora.

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