Lee I. Levine. The Ancient Synagogue. The First Thousand Years. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1999. xviii + 748 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-07475-8.
Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (Faculty of Theology, Utrecht University, The Netherlands)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2000)
In 1922 the great scholar Samuel Krauss published his Synagogale Altertuemer. In its time and for decades thereafter this work was an unsurpassed gold-mine of information about everything one might want to know about the synagogue from the initial stages of its history until the time of Mohammed. It was reprinted in 1966 since it was still unequalled in the mid-sixties. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, our knowledge of this institution has increased so much that by now Krauss has become outdated. It is the Jerusalem professor of Jewish history and archaeology, Lee I. Levine, who has done more than anyone else to create this new situation. Over the past twenty-five years a steady stream of impressive publications on many aspects of ancient Judaism, but especially on the ancient synagogue, has rightly won him the reputation of doyen of synagogue studies of our days, and for that reason he is the best qualified to become the 'Krauss' for the twenty-first century. This is exactly what he has made come true with the publication of his first book in this new century: The Ancient Synagogue.
In this superb and wide-ranging work of some 750 pages, Levine deals with every possible aspect of the subject: historical, architectural, art-historical, epigraphical, sociological, liturgical, organizational, etc. The book has two parts in eighteen chapters: After an introduction about methodology and sources, in Part 1 ('Historical Development') there follow chapters about origins, pre-70 Judaea, pre-70 diaspora, the Second Temple synagogue, later Roman and Byzantine Palestine, and post-70 diaspora synagogues; while in Part 2 ('The Synagogue as an Institution') we find chapters about the building, the communal dimension, leadership, the Patriarch and the synagogue, the sages and the synagogue, women in the synagogue, the role of priests, liturgy, iconography, diachronic and synchronic dimensions, and an epilogue. A bibliography of seventy pages and another seventy pages of indexes, lists of abbreviations and a glossary conclude the book, which also contains nearly one hundred black-and-white illustrations (not all of equally good quality).
Reading this work is a treat. It is very fluently written, difficult issues are set out in exemplary clarity, and the author always comes to well-balanced conclusions. His careful analyses of the evidence, his judicious handling of the sources, and the readiness to say frankly that he does not know the solution to particular problems easily make this work what rightly can be claimed to be not only the most comprehensive but also the best treatment of this fascinating topic to date.
Throughout the book Levine emphasizes the amazing variety in functions, architectural forms, liturgical patterns, and types of organization that characterized the synagogue throughout antiquity, not only from a diachronic but also from a synchronic point of view. At the same time he stresses that also there always was unity within this diversity, if only because reading of the Holy Book was integral to the functioning of the synagogue from its beginnings. He asserts that "Despite the often dramatically different historical, social, political, and cultural contexts within Diaspora Jewry, and between Diaspora and Palestinian Jewry, there may indeed be enough evidence to justify the assumption of a common and shared tradition which affected and influenced Jews everywhere, a heritage which found expression in similar communal and religious frameworks despite differences of language, culture, and immediate political and social contexts." (p. 287)
Levine's use of New Testament sources evinces an admirable sensitivity to problems of NT scholarship (see, e.g., pp. 43-49 and 108-111). Also in his sober and critical attitude regarding the historical reliability of rabbinic sources Levine demonstrates an awareness of the complexities of this matter that one wishes more Judaic scholars would be able to display. He shows his strength at best in what are the two longest chapters of the book, 'The Building' (66 pp.) and 'Liturgy' (60 pp.). Here his mastery of both the primary sources and the secondary literature (in at least five modern languages) as well as his methodoligical sophistication are very impressive. Also his nuanced discussion of the terminology of leadership ('no fixed nomenclature') in the synagogue (pp. 387-428) is a model of judiciousness, as is his argument for the non-Pharisaic character of the pre-70 synagogue.
That is not to say, of course, that there is nothing with which one might disagree. To begin with some minor quibbles: There are several mistakes in the Greek, e.g., at p. 145 hieros should be hiereus and geros should be geron ['o' circonflexe -- L.D.T.], and there are other mistakes in spelling and accentuation at pp. 318 and 400. Further, the well-known article "Observations on Hekhalot Rabbati" was not written by Jonathan Z. Smith (thus pp. 445 and 671) but by Morton Smith (Levine's own dissertation supervisor!). At pp. 144-147 Levine makes a distinction between instruction and sermon in the synagogue that I am not able to find in the sources he mentions; rather, sermon = instruction. Furthermore, even though Levine concedes that Philo's description of the synagogue services of the Therapeutes is idealized, this concession sometimes appears to be lip-service when he seems to treat De vita contemplativa as a reliable historical source. Comparison of Philo's treatise with other descriptions of idealized religious brotherhoods in later antiquity makes me much more skeptical. Too much here belongs to 'standard hagiography.' I also doubt whether he does enough justice to Steven Fine when he says, "whether the presence of scrolls was the pivotal factor in the evolving synagogue sanctity is unclear." (p. 188) I do think that other factors such as transfer of temple symbolism were important as well, but I cannot but agree with Fine that the presence of the Torah, which by this time had become the central locus of divine revelation, must have been the pivotal factor indeed (see my review of Fine's This Holy Place in Biblical Archaeology Review 26, 1  58-60). As Levine himself rightly remarks, "The chest or ark containing the Torah scroll was the undisputed religious focal point in the ancient synagogue" (p. 327), and "Nowhere in the ancient world is there evidence that the primary mode of religious expression for a community was this type of reading and study of sacred texts performed on a regular basis." (p. 594)
All these are rather insignificant points, however, as compared to what Levine offers us here: the wealth of literary, epigraphical, papyrological, and archaeological data, the almost exhaustive bibliographical references (unfortunately E.L. Gibson's The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporan Kingdom [Tuebingen: Mohr, 1999] appeared too late to be taken into account in Levine's discussion of this material), the tentative but intriguing chapter about the origins of the synagogue (replacement of the city gate?), the balanced treatment of the difficult problem of the absence of archaeological data in the Land of Israel from 70 to 250 CE, his sobering paragraphs about the meaning of the 'Jewish symbols' in the synagogues ("There simply is not enough of a historical context to offer a degree of assuredness in determining what a particular symbol or representation might have meant at a specific time or place" [p. 563]), the excellent discussion of the role of women in the ancient synagogue (although Bernadette Brooten will not applaud Levine's raising serious doubts about her theory of the non-honorific nature of the titulature for women-leadership), the stimulating and perhaps slightly provoking remarks on the influence of the Christian church on the synagogal liturgy, the crisp discussion of the enigmatic Helios mosaics in synagogues, et multa alia. This is really mature scholarship. We should be grateful to Lee Levine for this magnum opus.
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Pieter W. van der Horst. Review of Levine, Lee I., The Ancient Synagogue. The First Thousand Years.
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