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10-03-2015, 11:28

The Theodotus Inscription

By the first century B. C.E. and first century C. E., we begin to find archaeologically identifiable remains of synagogue buildings. Among these is the “Theodotus inscription," which was discovered in 1913 in a cistern to the south of the Temple Mount. The inscription commemorates the dedication of a synagogue building, which presumably stood somewhere nearby. Although no remains survive of the building, the inscription provides valuable information about early synagogues. It reads as follows:

Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments; furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water installation for lodging needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid by his ancestors, the elders, and Simonides.

The synagogue's founder has a Greek name (Theodotus), and his father's name — Vettanos — is also foreign (perhaps Latin and possibly indicating Roman citizenship). Some scholars have speculated that the foreign origin of Theodotus' family indicates that this synagogue served a congregation of Diaspora Jews. The use of Greek for the inscription points to Theodotus' elite status. Although Jews in Roman Palestine spoke Aramaic as their everyday language, the upper classes also knew Greek, which was the official language of administration in the Roman East (in contrast, Latin was hardly used in the Roman East, usually limited to Roman officials and soldiers). The personal names, the use of Greek, and the fact that they were priests indicate that this was an elite family. In fact, Theodotus describes himself as an archisynagogos and the grandson of an archisynagogos — a Greek term meaning “leader of the synagogue." Noticeably absent from this inscription is any reference to rabbis. This is because rabbis did not serve as ordained leaders of synagogue congregations in ancient synagogues, in contrast to modern practice. Instead, in Roman Palestine the term rabbi was an informal title of respect used to address a sage with expertise in Jewish law (Torah). Archisynagogos is the most common title used in ancient synagogue inscriptions to denote synagogue leaders (there are other terms as well), although it is not clear whether it was a purely honorific title (for example, given to a major donor), or whether it entailed administrative or liturgical responsibilities (such as leading a prayer service or giving a sermon). It is possible that the meaning of this title changed over time and that it was used in different ways by different Jewish congregations.

14.1 The Theodotus inscription. Courtesy of Zev Radovan/BibleLandPictures. com.

After listing the name and lineage of the founder, the inscription describes the purposes for which the synagogue was built. Conspicuously absent is any reference to prayer or liturgy, as formal prayer services were not yet conducted in synagogues. This feature developed after the destruction of the second temple in 70, as synagogues began to assume a more central place in Jewish religious life. Instead, the Theodotus inscription describes the original function of synagogues: a congregation of Jews for the purpose of “the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments." Synagogues provided a setting where Jews could have the Torah read and explained to them, so they could live their lives according to the laws of the God of Israel (in Roman terms, their ancestral laws). The reading of the law (Torah) is still at the core of every synagogue service today. The book of Acts (13:14—15) describes as follows a visit by Paul and Barnabas to a synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia (Asia Minor):

And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it." (NRSV)

The passage in Acts echoes the Theodotus inscription by referring to “the reading of the law" (Torah). It also mentions the reading of the prophets (readings from prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible), apparently referring to the Haftarah that follows the Torah reading in synagogue on the sabbaths and

14.2 Aerial view of the synagogue at Masada. Courtesy of Zev Radovan/BibleLandPictures. com.

Festivals. After these readings, Paul and Barnabas were invited to teach the congregation about their interpretation of the law.

The synagogue built by Theodotus included a hostel, presumably for Jews on pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple. This highlights the fact that attending synagogue was not intended to be a substitute for participation in the temple sacrifices. Even if some Jewish groups such as the Essenes or Jesus' movement criticized or rejected the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem temple because they considered it polluted or corrupt, they took for granted the existence of the temple and sacrifices.