Religion Today

Friday, August 26, 2011

What did a Synagogue of Jesus' Time Look Like?

The New Testament gospels contain stories of Jesus visiting synagogues in Galilee.  Sometimes he taught in them or read scripture during worship. Unfortunately, the gospels provide few details of what these synagogues looked like. Were they majestic buildings or small structures? How were they furnished? The gospels remain silent.
Indeed, the gospels contain so little description that some scholars have suggested synagogues were simply gatherings that took place outdoors or in people's houses or courtyards. After all, the Greek word "sunagogé" means "coming together," and could indicate a meeting rather than a building.
Against this perspective, the first-century historian Flavius Josephus and other early sources indicate that in the first century the term sunagogé referred to a building in the descriptions placed into his stories of his time in Galilee.
To find out what first century synagogues looked like, then, we have to turn to archaeology. Although archaeologists have found that no synagogue that Jesus could have visited remains, several excavated structures have been proposed as synagogues from Jesus' lifetime.
Some of these synagogues appear in famous places, such as the fortresses of Masada and Herodium, and comprise buildings quickly erected by an army during a time of war. Another structure identified as a synagogue appears at the Maccabean palace outside Jericho and was built a century or more before Jesus' birth.
These buildings do not help us describe synagogues Jesus would have known because they do not appear in a village. They are either in palaces or army camps.
In recent years, four buildings found in villages of Palestine have been preliminarily identified as synagogues and dated to the late first century B.C. or the early first century A.D. These are Gamla in the Golan Heights, Magdala in the Galilee, and Qiryat Sefer and Modiin in western Judea.
Three of these synagogues share common features: Gamla, Qiryat Sefer and Modiin. Each one comprises a large public building made of stone blocks and featuring a large central room whose roof was supported by columns, usually arranged in rows. Other than the columns, the room was open. In two of these buildings, stone benches were built into the walls around the room's outside edge.
These features add up to a rather plain, unadorned public building. There is so little decoration in these that the only thing that indicates its Jewish character is its location in a Jewish village.
Moreover, these structures display no religious markings. They are obviously public buildings, but archaeologists cannot tell if they were built for worship or other religious activities, or whether they basically constitute a town hall or a meeting place for the village governing council.
Literary sources from the time indicate that a variety of activities took place in synagogues, some religious and some secular. Synagogues are described as meeting places for worship services, schools, and councils of elders. They also served as banks, hostels for travelers, and large banqueting halls. So perhaps the image of the synagogue in Jesus' time was as a large, multi-purpose building whose religious function was just one of several roles it played in the community.
Of course, not all decoration is architectural. The plain architecture of these buildings may have been adorned with materials that did not survive the centuries. A hint of this appears in the Gamla and Qiryat Sefer buildings, where the central floors of the main rooms were dirt. This may be because it was covered with soft, decorative carpets and in turn suggests that people were required to remove their shoes and treat the interior with heightened respect, as we would expect for a synagogue.
A fourth public building has been discovered in Magdala, the town of Mary Magdalene. It is probably a synagogue, for it features a dressed stone with a carving of a menorah, a common Jewish symbol. Built with the same architectural features as the synagogues just mentioned, it also features a white mosaic floor and colored plaster walls.
The main question about this site is its dating. While its excavators claim evidence for the first century, the carving, the colored walls, and the mosaic are not otherwise known in synagogues earlier than the third or fourth century. Full publication of the excavation will certainly address this question in detail.
In the end, the best evidence for what synagogues were like in Jesus' day indicates they were large public buildings that were rather plain, although they could have contained different types of temporary decoration. These buildings probably served many functions other than worship, although it is possible that worship formed their primary purpose.

It's OK to Pray in Your School

The school year is arriving again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.
What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?
Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American. It also includes members of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Wicca. Even Pagans and Neo-Pagans can pray, as can members of any religion or worshippers of any god or goddess I have not mentioned. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.
It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.
Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.
What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?
It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.
Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. These general prayers should not be ended with a religion-specific phrase, such as, "In the name of Jesus Christ, amen."
In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.
Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.
These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others. It is this balance that the rules aim to maintain.