Ancient Synagogues in the Holy Land - What Synagogues?

David Landau

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1. If we are to believe archeologists, the history of the Holy Land in the first few centuries of the Christian Era goes like this: After many years of staunch opposition to foreign influence the Jews finally adopted pagan symbols; they decorated their synagogues with naked Greek idols (Hammat Tiberias) or clothed ones (Beth Alpha), carved images of Zeus on their graves (Beth-Shearim), depicted Hercules (Chorazin) and to their repertoire added a large swastika turning to the left (En-Gedi).

I maintain, however, that the so-called synagogues were actually Roman temples built during the reign of Maximinus Daia (305-313 C.E.) as a desperate means to fight what the Roman held to be the Christian menace. That conclusion is based on my study of the orientations of these buildings, their decorations and a testimony of the Eusebius of Caesaria, a fourth-century Christian historian. Many of those structures pointed to Mount Gerizim, whereas no Jewish synagogue, at any time, has pointed towards that mountain. Eusebius tell us about a massive building spree of Romans temples during the time when those structures were apparently erected.

2. In 1928, foundations of an ancient synagogue were discovered near kibbutz Beth Alpha in the eastern Jezreel Valley at the foot of Mount Gilboa. Eleazar Sukenik, the archeologist who excavated the site, wrote (1932: 11):

"Like most of the synagogues north of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan, the building is oriented in an approximately southerly direction. A divergence to the west from this general direction (27 degrees S.W. by compass), which is actually justified in that Jerusalem is S.W. of Beth Alpha, is most probably accidental and due perhaps to the lie of the terrain."

Being curious to know where 27 degrees S.W. (minus 2 degrees due to compass deviation) leads, I used a protractor and a tourist map of Israel to discover that the line runs directly to Mount Gerizim. I am very sorry but the Beth Alpha building was not at all a Jewish synagogue. By definition it must have been a Samaritan one. However, it could not have that either; the building is decorated with figures of human being something the Samaritans would never have done since they observe the Second Commandment strictly.

3. Realizing that an important clue to the nature of the ancient structures may be revealed through their orientation, I continued my investigation with the help of the Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavation in the Holy Land (EAEHL)(1975, 1993) and other sources, a tourist map of Israel and a protractor. It seems that there are several grids of directions.

a) The synagogue at Rehov pointed north, to Beth Shean. The 'Samaritan' synagogue of Beth Shean oriented westnorthwest, which is the direction of Beth Alpha. The line across the synagogue of Na'aran cut the synagogue at Beth Alpha, few dozen kilometers north. The synagogue of Umm el-Amed (Lower Galilee) is pointed toward Beth Alpha and so do the remains of the monastery at Beth Ha-Shittah, just northeast of Beth Alpha.

The line across the synagogue at Eshtemoa (the Judean Desert) leads towards the synagogue at En-Gedi which faced north; its mosaic pointed towards Mount Gerizim and its bema towards Na'aran.

In the synagogue of En-Gedi an inscription consisting of 18 lines was revealed. It calls down a curse on "anyone causing a controversy between a man and his fellows or who (say) slanders his friends before the gentiles or steal the property of his friends, or anyone revealing the secret of the town to the gentiles..." It was argued that the inscription was designed against those revealing the secrets of the balsam industry, but why was it placed in the synagogue and why did it prohibit revealing the secrets only to the Gentiles? Maybe the building served purposes it was not supposed to serve.

The synagogue of Maon (southwest of Gaza) pointed towards what was identified as a third-century Christian basilica at Emmaus (near Latrun). This basilica pointed towards the synagogue at En Gedi. The pavement of Maon has an interesting parallel in a church pavement found at nearby Shellal (which is presently preserved in Australia) and in the synagogue of Gaza.

b) The synagogue at Bir'am (Upper Galilee) pointed directly towards Mount Gerizim. The same line, if continued, falls on what is now West Jerusalem. Signs of the Zodiac were found there. According to travelers from earlier centuries, there were remnants of another synagogue at Bir'am.

c) The synagogue at Husifah pointed towards the synagogue of Beth-Shearim. The latter synagogue, the second synagogue at Beth Shean, the synagogue at Chorazin, the Synagogue at Meiron and the synagogue at Gerasa (which was found beneath a church) are all point to a place few kilometers southwest of the synagogue at Rehov (south of Beth-Shean).

d) The synagogues at Hammath-Tiberias, Capernaum, Japhia (near Nazareth), and the unfinished synagogue at Hurvat-Sumaqa (Mt. Carmel) pointed towards the synagogue at Hammath-Gader. The synagogue at Umm el-Qanatir (east of the Sea of Galilee) pointed towards Capernaum. The direction of the mosaic at Hammath-Gader synagogue leads to Pella (east of the Jordan river) and the apse towards Machaerus or to Mt. Nebo in the same vicinity (east of the Dead Sea). No remains of synagogues were found at Pella, Machaerus or Mt. Nebo.

The orientation of the synagogue at Japhia is from west to east, which is certainly not in the direction of Jerusalem. Sukenik argued that this change of orientation could be explained by the fact that Japhia was in Zebulun, presumed to be located on the sea, i.e., west of the Holy City .

The synagogue of Beth Yerah, situated inside a Roman fort, pointed towards Tiberias and so did the synagogue at Maoz-Hayyim, east of Beth-Shean. The direction of a Crusader church at Sepphoris, where remains of a synagogue were found, was also towards that town

The synagogue of ed-Dikkeh (east of the Jordan river) pointed towards Meiron. The mosaic discovered in a monumental building at Sepphoris pointed also towards Meiron. An ancient church at Beth Shearim was also directed to Meiron.

e) The remains of a Greek-style temple on Tell er-Ras, the northernmost peak of Mt. Gerizim pointed 14 degrees east of north, in the direction of the synagogue at Arbel. The synagogues at Kefar-Neburaya (north of Safed), Gush Halav and a church at Susita (east of En-Gev) pointed to Arbel. The synagogue at Arbel pointed towards Gush Halav.

f) The synagogue of Horvat-Rimmon, located in the southern Judaean-Shephelah, about 1/2 km south of Kibbutz Lahav, pointed towards Mt. Gerizim.

g) The synagogue of Khirbet-Shema in Upper Galilee pointed towards Shavei-Ziyyon, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, where remains of an ancient church were found.

h) The synagogue at Jeriho pointed towards Hebron. The bema of the synagogue at Susiya (the Judean Desert) oriented also towards that city.

According to ancient sources, there was a pagan altar at Mamre, 3 kilometers north of Hebron, a pagan altar. The Emperor Constantine ordered the altar to be destroyed when he built a church there. This church was one of the first four Constantine built in the Holy Land.

After the Bar Kochba uprising, Jewish prisoners were brought there to be sold as slaves. This episode and the existence of a pagan temple are probably the reasons why Jews have a negative attitude towards the site. The Halacha forbids Jews from visiting the place (Madrich Israel).

4. My study of the direction of these buildings is far from exhaustive. Not only do I lack data on the direction of several synagogues, but I should also check churches, monasteries and mosques built on ancient foundations. As the remains of the monastery at Beth Hashittah and the church of Emmaus reveal, some clues may be found in those structures too. Actually, we should also look the at areas outside the Land of Israel. For example the walls of the synagogue at Dura Europos feature, among other things, a complete pagan temple, Orpheus wearing a Phrygian cap and playing a harp above the Tora Ark, etc.

The precise nature of the design may indicate the existence of presently unknown cites. It seems to me that all these structures were incorporated into three main grids: one centered in Mount Gerizim, the second one in Mamre and a third in Mount Nebo. There seems to be a missing link between the structures in the northern part of the Land of Israel and the cite at Mamre. I suggest that there existed a building few kilometers southwest of Tel-Rehov (the intersection of the lines running through the synagogues at Beth-Shean, Gerasa, Meiron and Chorazin) and it pointed towards Jericho. The synagogue at Jericho pointed towards Mamre.

Several structures which pointed to Mount Gerizim have been defined as "Samaritan synagogues." The ones at Shaalbim (near Latrun), Khirbet Samara, Tsur-Natan (Khirbet-Mjadal) and Kefar-Fahma also belonged to the same grid. A "Samaritan synagogue" discovered at Ramat-Aviv which faced east (towards Aphek?) is, I suggest, another element in the same system. The list may be extended also to the remain of ancient churches at Bardala, Mishmar-Ha'emek and Khirbet-Jivris which pointed towards Mt. Gerizim (as reported by Zeev Safrai 1977: 102).

5. Examining the various orientations of those structures leads me to conclude that none of the so-called "Jewish synagogues" was such. Jews have never built synagogues exactly in the direction of Mount Gerizim, Mount Nebo or Mamre nor towards other structures. The grids are so precise that one should rule out coincidence. Obviously, this does not imply that there were no Jewish synagogues in the Land of Israel in antiquity; according to the Talmud, Tiberias boasted of thirteen synagogues. It indicates only that the Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel had followed, as expected, the biblical commandments and avoided decorating their synagogues with mosaics depicting Greek gods, human beings, animals, flowers, geometric patterns, etc. Their synagogues were, no doubt, simple and unassuming, not very different from the houses surrounding them. archeologists do indeed sometimes have difficulty in determining the location of such synagogues.

Actually, among the "synagogues" I checked only the one southeast of Qazrin in the Golan Heights pointed directly towards Jerusalem. This does not necessarily mean, however, that this structure was a Jewish synagogue. The synagogue on Massada oriented northwest, not exactly towards Jerusalem. I doubt whether there was ever a custom to construct synagogues in the precise direction of Jerusalem.

Neither were these building Samaritan synagogues, since we would not expect depictions of human beings there. Many of the structures actually had two or more layers and the archeologists would not spoil a magnificent mosaic to see what is hidden under it. We cannot rule out that some of these building served earlier as synagogues.

6. I suggest that the structures were actually Roman temples erected at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. for the benefit of a Roman-invented syncretic religious movement designated to thwart the Christian menace. In his Ecclesiastical History (Book VIII, chapter 1:8), Eusebius of Caesarea gives testimony of the erection of temples during the great persecution of Christians during the rein of Emperor Maximinus:

"Accordingly, he applied himself to the persecution against us with more energy and persistence than those before him, ordering temples to be erected in every city and the sacred groves that had been destroyed through long lapse of time to be restored with all diligence."

Those supposed "synagogues" appeared during a crisis in the Roman Empire, which was manifested itself in political anarchy, runaway inflation, famine, plagues, wars, and general instability. Researchers are still puzzled how such edifices could have been erected despite the turmoil. In Eusebius' description of Maximinus' actions, including the erection of the temples, we might find an answer to this puzzle:

"...and he appointed idol priests in every locality and city, and over them as high priest of each province one of those engaged in statecraft, who was the most manifestly distinguished in every branch of the public service, with an escort and bodyguard soldiers; and he recklessly bestowed government and the greatest privileges on all charlatans, as if they were pious and dear to gods. Henceforward he vexed and oppressed, not a single city nor even district, but the provinces under him completely and as a whole, by exaction of gold and silver and unspeakably large amount of goods, and by the heaviest assessments and varied fines."

7. I suggest that the so-called ancient "synagogues" and other structures mentioned above were actually the temples built by Maximinus. My arguments are:

a) The accuracy and systematic nature of the grids indicate that all these structures were part of a single master plan. It is plausible that they were erected, if not by the Romans' initiative, at least with their consent. There must have been reasons why the buildings were arranged in such way, but I cannot figure out what it was. A wild guess is that the plan was based on astrological calculations of some kind.

The system seemed to have three main focal sites: Mt. Gerizim, Mt. Nebo and Mamre. One central point appears to have been the massive Greek-style temple that seemed to have stood on the northernmost peak of Mount Gerizim - Tel er-Ras - and which was later completely demolished. Its massive Aswan granite columns were carried away and strewn around the northern base of Mount Gerizim, as if to erase traces of something to be concealed. The magnitude and technical sophistication of the remains implies Roman participation in the project. Archaeological evidence led the excavator to conclude that the building was the Temple of Zeus built by the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.). There seemed to have been continuous religious centers on Mount Nebo and Mamre.

b) In some places, like Gush-Halav and Bir'am, two ancient synagogues existed. Nahman Avigad wrote that Kefar-Bir'am must have been a flourishing Jewish settlement in the third century C.E., since it could afford to build two elaborate synagogues. I suggest that the second so-called ”synagogue” was a Roman temple built despite the opposition of some of the inhabitants: the figures of a relief on the lintel depicting two Winged Victories ("Nike") bearing a wreath had been deliberately mutilated. Similar obliteration is found in Capernaum, Na'aran, Maon, and other places.

c) At Hammath-Tiberias several superimposed synagogue buildings were found, and beneath them was a public building whose function is not clear. I suggest that the original building may have indeed been a Jewish synagogue but that the site was later confiscated for other purposes, an act which needed the blessing of the authorities, that is, the Romans. In many other places there were two or more layers of construction.

d) The Dominican father L.J. Vincent, who excavated Na'aran, concluded that the mosaic was done about the third century. Sukenik (1932: 53) dismissed that conclusion on the grounds that it could not be attributed to a period earlier than the fourth century. He argued that it was not until the time of R. Abun (the first half of the fourth century, see below) that it became permissible to make pictures on mosaic pavements. If we agree that this building was not a synagogue, then the third century as the date of erection is plausible.

f) In the Roman Empire it was a great honor for a city to become a neokoros, that is, the privilege of erecting an imperial temple. There were presumably enough non-Jewish and non-Samaritans inhabitants of that part of the world who would have been willing, for one reason or another, to please the Romans with constructing that kind of temples. The figures of the Zodiac at Hammath-Tiberias, except the virgin, are naked. According to Moshe Dothan (1968: 121), the people who designed the synagogue apparently were not Jewish. In Na'aran there is an inscription which reads:

”Remembered be for good Halifu daughter of Rabbi Safra who contributed [donated] to this holy place, Amen”.

It means that Rabbi Safra himself did not donate money towards the construction of this building, and raises the possibility that also some Jews participated in the scheme.

g) When we add up the images and inscriptions in these structures, defined commonly as ”Jewish synagogues”, we get a religious mishmash: figures of human beings, etrogim, shofarim, lulavim, seven-branched menorahs, hybrid sea horses, eagles holding garlands in their beaks, flora, fauna and geometric motifs, incense shovels, pentagrams (Seals of Solomon), hexagrams (Shields of David) and in En-Gedi a large swastika turning to the left. In the mosaic of Hammath-Tiberias the goddess of the season Tishri holds in her right hand a cluster of seven grapes. The forth-century Christian author St. Epiphanius wrote:

”And the Pleiades, with the seven stars in it, is known to many. But some call it the cluster because of its resemblance to a cluster (of grapes).” (Dean 1935: 81)

Since the people of antiquity, no less than contemporary ones, assigned great importance to symbols, this combination cannot be an arbitrary lot. The common denominator of this hodge-podge seems to be astrology, Judaism paganism and, possibly also early Christian ideas.

There must have been a reason for this undertaking and I suggest that it purpose was to counter the rising power of Christianity, more precisely, to entice those who were attracted by the rising religion. Since persecutions and executions made the situation only worse by creating martyrs, a new method was devised.

There could be little doubt that the Romans indeed built temples since Eusebius described his own time and was eyewitness to these events. In addition, the Romans certainly were no fools and no doubt were aware of the grim truth at that point of history there was no sense to combat Christianity with temples of Roman gods.

My guess is that the Romans, following their typical policy of divide and rule, tried to exploit the dispute among Christians on the nature of Jesus, that is, whether he was merely a human being, an idea advanced by, for example, the Ebionites, a sect of gentile Christians which adopted Jewish customs, or the son of God. According to David Flusser (1983: 109; 1987: 56) the motif of Bar Enosh 'son of man' has a central role in 1 Enoch 37-61 and Daniel 7. Scenes from Daniel were displayed in the temples of Na'aran and Susiya. I suggest that the zodiac at Beth Alpha follows 1 Enoch chapter 82.

8. Even in antiquity the nature of these building was not clear to the casual observer. Lee I. Levine (NEAEHL s.v. synagogues, p. 1423) writes:

”The synagogue adopted many of the prevalent artistic forms of ornamentation of the time...The designs in many mosaic floors were drawn from Byzantine models found in churches, palaces, and villas...A similar influence can be detected in the synagogue façade wall - particularly of the Galilean-type synagogue. Such buildings are indistinguishable from contemporary pagan edifices, as their decorations and plans are identical...One rabbinic source (B.T., Shab. 72b) tells of a man who walked along the street and bowed down before a building, thinking it was a synagogue. Only afterward did he realize that the building was. in fact, a pagan temple.”

Maximinus’ scheme did not work and it is possible that even he himself understood that it failed. Eusebius wrote:

”In truth he carried his drunken excesses to such a point that he became mad and deranged in his cups, and when drunk would give such orders as he would repent of next day when he was sober.” (Ecclesiastical History, VIII 14: 11)

By all accounts, at least some of the structures had been erected before the beginning of the fourth century when Christianity was still an underground movement and could not have operated publicly. After that time, Christians were permitted to displayed their symbols openly but these buildings lack any explicit Christian symbols, like crosses and fishes. Moreover, not even in a church would we expect to find elements as a centaur, a medusa, Hercules with his club (all discovered in Chorazin), or the symbol of the Romans, the eagle, occasionally found on lintels. In fact, since ancient churches almost always pointed to the rising sun (Avi-Yona 1957:264) those structures could not have been build as churches.

9. Examining the data, I cannot escape the conclusion that in some cases early Christians were actually spoofing the Romans and using those temples as secret places of non-Roman worship. At Susiya there were secret tunnels to facilitate a quick escape; at En-Gedi there was a secret to be kept; and at Beth Alpha a baptizing pond covered with heavy stones. In some places, like En-Gedi and Rehov, The structures have burned down. It is possible that the Romans discovered that their temples were being used for non-Roman worship and thus set fire to them.

10. The source of the assumption that Jews sometimes followed a tradition depicting human being in their synagogues despite the clear prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments is based upon a portion of the Jerusalem Talmud preserved in Leningrad and published by J.N. Epstein (as related by Sukenik 1932: 53). It states that "in the days of R. Abun they began to depict figures on mosaic and non protested." Sukenik commented:

”From this it is to be inferred that it was not until the time of R. Abun (the first half of the 4th century) that it became permissible to make pictures on mosaics pavements, the reference obviously being to pictures of animals and the like. Apparently the reference here is to pictures on mosaic pavements in private houses but not in synagogues. It is conceivable that an individual allowed himself to depict figures on Masonic in his private dwelling against the will of the Rabbis. But it is inconceivable that the synagogues should have been adorned with pictures before the contemporary religious leaders acquiesced in.”

One would expect such a major change in Jewish tradition to be discussed extensively in the Talmud but all we get is a general reference in one manuscript, on which archeologists have based such an immense inference. The idea of human figures in a synagogue, and moreover, in the form of naked Greek gods, is absurd. Modern archeologists have turned the sages of the Mishna, Gemra and Talmud into idol-worshipers.


Avi-Yona, M. 1957. Places of Worship in the Roman and Byzantine Period. Antiquity and Survival. Vol. II, 2-3: 262-272.

Dothan, Moshe. 1968. The synagogue at Hammath-Tiberias. Qadmoniot (Hebrew) Vol.1, No.4; 116-123.

Encyclopaedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 1975. London: Oxford University Press.

The New Encyclopaedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 1993. Jerusalem: Carta.

Epiphanius. Treatise on Weights and Measures. Tran. Dean, James Elmer 1935. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Eusebius of Caesarea. The Ecclesiastical History. Trans. Oulton J.E.L. 1957. London William Heinemann LTD.

Flusser, David 1983. Jewish Messianic Ideas in Early Christianity. In "Messianism and Eschatology", ed. Zvi Baras: 103-134. Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Centre. (Hebrew)

1987. Jewish Sources in Early Christianity. New York: Adama Books.

Safrai, Zeev. 1978. Samaritan Synagogues during the Roman-Byzantine Period. Katedra 4, 84-110.

Sukenik, Eleazar L. 1932. The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha. London: Oxford University Press.


Tampere, 1995

Revised: January 2, 2006

See also:
The So-called Ancient Synagogue at Beth Alpha Revisited

Maps (Added: January 28, 2007)

Papinkatu 8 B 38
33200 Tampere

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