Friday, July 9, 2010

The 'Altar of Alexandria'

By now my readers should know why I am so interested in the so-called 'synagogue' of Alexandria. The fact that almost no reliable information has come down to us about this amazing archaeological wonder from Christian sources makes me highly suspicious that there is more lurking beneath the surface as it were. This is not going to be a 'synagogue' my friends. The first thing that everyone seems to forget is that the word 'synagogue' is almost never used to describe a house of worship. Only once in Philo we find the word synagogue for house of worship. In the period we are discussion (early first century CE) the term proseuche meant the equivalent of our understanding of the term synagogue.

But there is a catch here too. The temple could just as easily be described as an oikos proseuches (Isa 56:7). It is worth noting also that this identification of the Jerusalem temple as an ooikos proseuches makes its way into Christianity (Mark 11.17). Synagogue in this period means 'gathered Jewish community.'

The reason I bring this up is that the massive building that is now underwater in Chatby Beach Alexandrian is called proseuche by Philo. If you read any account of this building however it will simply refer to the building as 'the great synagogue of Alexandria.' It is worth making this absolutely explicit so that the reader will see that our inherited assumptions about what is a 'temple' and what is a 'synagogue' really don't work in ancient Alexandria.

Philo isn't telling us that the large building in Alexandria ISN'T a temple. He uses proseuche because all houses of prayer - big or small - were called 'proseuche' at the time. As such there is no reason for arguing that the great proseuche featured in Flaccus WASN'T the same 'altar of Alexandria' mentioned throughout the rabbinic writings.

So it is also that when we read that after the Jerusalem priests put Onias in women's clothes and tried to kill Onias "he fled to Alexandria in Egypt, where he built an altar to offer burnt offerings to idols" [Tosefta Menahot 13.II.1] there is absolutely no reason for us connecting the 'great proseuche' of Flaccus and the Egyptian temple of Philo with this same narrative. Indeed the rabbinic literature also has detailed instructions for the re-admittance of priests from the Alexandrian temple. This was a real phenomenon (unlike our slavish devotion to Josephus with its conflation and introduction of Isa 19:18 into its narrative).

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