The Greek Inscriptions of the Sardis Synagogue

"...the Synagogue is exceptional also for the more than eighty inscriptions recovered from its interior. With the exception of six fragments in Hebrew, the inscriptions are in Greek..."

Excerpted from the:
Harvard Theological Review
Jan, 2001
The Greek Inscriptions of the Sardis Synagogue.

Author: John H. Kroll

Since its discovery and excavation in the 1960s, the Synagogue at Sardis has taken its place as the most significant monument of diaspora Judaism in Roman Asia Minor. Notable for its size, richness, basilical form, and prominent location within the city, the Synagogue is exceptional also for the more than eighty inscriptions recovered from its interior. With the exception of six fragments in Hebrew, the inscriptions are in Greek* and for the most part commemorate members of the congregation who contributed the many elements of interior decoration: the mosaics on the floor, the marbling of the walls, and a number of architectural and ritual furnishings.

The late Louis Robert of the College de France, with the assistance of Jeanne Robert and John G. Pedley, then epigraphical recorder of the excavations, began study of the inscriptions in 1962, the year of the Synagogue's discovery. Robert promptly published twenty of the more significant texts and fragments with commentary in Nouvelles inscriptions de Sardes I, (Robert 1964) part iii: "Inscriptions de la synagogue," which remains the fundamental treatment of the Sardis documents in the wider context of Greco-Jewish epigraphy. Excavations in subsequent years yielded much additional material, and in 1966 the task of assembling a full epigraphical catalogue, including as many texts as could be reconstituted from the hundreds of small inscribed marble wall revetment fragments, was assigned to me. A few of these additional inscriptions have been mentioned and illustrated in the 1966 annual Sardis report (Hanfmann 1967) and in the Synagogue chapter in Sardis from Prehistoric to Roman Times, the 1983 excavation overview edited by George Hanfmann (Seager and Kraabel 1983). In the mid 1970s I expanded the preliminary catalogue into a chapter on the Greek inscriptions for the proposed final publication on the Synagogue; but owing to unforeseen delays in assembling the latter, my typescript, updated in 1994, has been waiting on file in the Sardis publications office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aware of its existence and having requested permission to consult it, several scholars have cited it in their work. But this was clearly not a satisfactory situation for interested scholars at large, and I am indebted to the Sardis Publications Committee and to Marianne Bonz, former Managing Editor of the Harvard Theological Review, for this opportunity to get the corpus of Sardis Synagogue inscriptions finally into print. Since eventually the corpus will be published again in the final Synagogue volume, it is my hope that readers of the present version will bring corrections and suggested improvements to my attention for incorporation in the final publication.

The Sardis Synagogue occupies a long, rectangular space that originally enclosed three lateral rooms within the great Sardis public Bath-Gymnasium complex of the first and second centuries CE. In the late second or early third century this space was opened up into a long basilical hall. To judge from the earliest firm evidence for the conversion of the structure into a synagogue--two coins of ca. 270 from the bedding of the earliest Synagogue mosaic --the Jewish community of Sardis probably acquired it for use as a house of worship soon after middle of the third century. This late third-century Synagogue was entered from the east and extended to an apse with a synthronon of curved stepped seats at the west end. A shallow Porch faced onto the north--south colonnaded street in front of the building. The building was later remodeled by partitioning off the eastern end of the hall and installing a peristyle Forecourt with central fountain behind the Porch. Two pedimented, aedicular shrines, both assumed to be shrines for housing the Torah, were constructed on either side of the central door in the new east wall of the now-shortened Main Hall. Coins beneath the apse mosaic imply that this final remodeling was architecturally completed ca. 320. The structure was still serving as a synagogue when it was destroyed during the Sassanian devastation of Sardis in 616. In general, the inscriptions belong to this final, fourth--sixth century phase of the Synagogue's history, the only sure exception being the donor text 3, which is part of the earlier, aforementioned Main Hall mosaic of the 270s.