The discovery of a room on Masada they could confidently call a synagogue caused great excitement in the scholarly world.  It had long been believed that the synagogue, an institution in which Jews prayed, was a later invention, created after and because of the destruction of their chief place of worship, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore the assumption was that we would not find synagogues until the second and third centuries, when new norms of Jewish worship had been formulated.

But here was obviously a synagogue which was contemporary with the Temple itself. It had been made when the Temple was still standing!  Even more astonishing, the room had been made in two stages. The upper layer was clearly from the period of the Jewish Revolt, in the 60′s and early 70′s CE, but the lower stratum, on which it was built, dated from the period of Herod himself.

We cannot prove that the older structure had been a synagogue but all the probability is that it was. First, because the room was oriented towards Jerusalem, with an entrance on the eastern side, as a synagogue had to be, for the most part. Second, because Herod certainly has Jewish servants, officials, workers and soldiers with him on the mountain, and must have provided a synagogue for them. Third because religious tradition was very strong in the ancient world.

Religious sites were always built on top of older sites unless they were on virgin ground. This practice was true of the Jews, the Christians and Muslims also; a place became holy and one can find pagan graves, cemeteries, synagogues, churches, even mosques built one right on top of the other. There are many examples of this in Israel.

The find was extraordinary because at the time of its disclosure, the Masada synagogue was the oldest synagogue ever discovered. Its discovery has compelled scholars to revise their understanding of early Jewish liturgical history.

It is not the oldest anymore; a synagogue from the same date has been found on the Herodium, another Herodian fortress that tried to defend itself against the Romans, and an even older one, demonstrably from the first century BCE—which is really the oldest synagogue ever found (so far!)—was discovered in Gamla on the Golan.

The Ezekiel fragment, discovered at they ancient synagogue at Masada, is beautifully reproduced by Biblical Reproductions. Visit the website, www.biblicalreproductions, where this exact, exquisitely presented fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls can be obtained. Biblical Reproductions is licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Author:  Walter Zanger