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Inscriptions, Synagogues and Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine

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image of Journal for the Study of Judaism

The numerous works of “rabbinic” literature composed in Palestine in Late Antiquity, all of which are preserved only in medieval manuscripts, offer immense possibilities for the historian, but also present extremely perplexing problems. What are their dates, and when did each come to be expressed in a consistent written form? If we cannot be sure about the attribution of sayings to individual named rabbis, how can we relate the material to any intelligible period or social context? In this situation, it is natural and right to turn to contemporary evidence, archaeological, iconographic and epigraphic. The primary archaeological evidence is provided by the large (and increasing) number of excavated synagogues. But, it has been argued, rabbinic texts are not centrally concerned with synagogues or the congregations which met in them. So perhaps “rabbinic Judaism” and “synagogal Judaism” are two separate systems. Alternatively, the epigraphic evidence attests individuals who are given the title “rabbi,” and these inscriptions, on stone or mosaic, include some which derive from synagogues. But perhaps “rabbi,” in this context, was merely a current honorific term, and these are not the “real” rabbis of the texts? It will be argued that this distinction is gratuitous, and that in any case the largest and most important synagogue-inscription, that from Rehov, both is “rabbinic” in itself and mentions rabbis as religious experts.

Affiliations: 1: Hebrew and Jewish Studies Unit, Oriental Institute Pusey Lane, Oxford OX1 2LE, Email:


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