Thursday, July 8, 2010

Locating the "Great Synagogue" of Alexandria

I thought I would mention that I was engaged in a small debate with a professor who has written extensively on the location of the Jewish synagogue of Alexandria. A number of people claim that the synagogue would have been closer to the Via Canopica, near the ancient Gymnasium. The primary sources are given on pp. 147-48 of Pearson-Goehring, The Roots of Egyptian Christianity.

The bottom line is that the opinion is very widespread and based primarily on what Philo says in Leg. Gai. 132-35. The basic idea is that everyone agrees that the location of the synagogue was in the eastern part of the city. Everyone reference that the Jews could hear the arrest of Flaccus but those who hold the aforementioned location say that because the Greeks take a chariot out of the Gymnasium and place it in the great synagogue the latter must have been located close to the Gymnasium.

Here is the original passage in Philo:

(132) But as the governor of the country, who by himself could, if he had chosen to do so, have put down the violence of the multitude in a single hour, pretended not to see what he did see, and not to hear what he did hear, but allowed the mob to carry on the war against our people without any restraint, and threw our former state of tranquillity into confusion, the populace being excited still more, proceeded onwards to still more shameless and more audacious designs and treachery, and, arraying very numerous companies, cut down some of the synagogues (and there are a great many in every section of the city), and some they razed to the very foundations, and into some they threw fire and burnt them, in their insane madness and frenzy, without caring for the neighbouring houses; for there is nothing more rapid than fire, when it lays hold of fuel.

(133) I omit to mention the ornaments in honour of the emperor, which were destroyed and burnt with these synagogues, such as gilded shields, and gilded crowns, and pillars, and inscriptions, for the sake of which they ought even to have abstained from and spared the other things; but they were full of confidence, inasmuch as they did not fear any chastisement at the hand of Gaius, as they well knew that he cherished an indescribable hatred against the Jews, so that their opinion was that no one could do him a more acceptable servlce than by inflicting every description of injury on the nation which he hated;

(134) and, as they wished to curry favour with him by a novel kind of flattery, so as to allow, and for the future to give the rein to, every sort of ill treatment of us with-mit ever being called to account, what did they proceed to do? All the synagogues that they were unable to destroy by burning and razing them to the ground, because a great number of Jews lived in a dense mass in the neighbourhood, they injured and defaced in another manner, simultaneously with a total overthrow of their laws and customs; for they met up in every one of theni images of Gaius, and in the greatest, and most conspicuous, and most celebrated of them they erected a brazen statue of him borne on a four-horse chariot.

(135) And so excessive and impetuous was the rapidity of their zeal, that, as they had not a new chariot for four horses ready. they got a very old one out of the gymnasium, full of poison, mutilated in its ears, and in the hinder part, and in its pedestal, and in many other points, and as some say, one which had already been dedicated in honour of a woman, the eminent Cleopatra, who was the great grandmother of the last.
(Embassy to Gaius)

Again the argument that comes from those who say that the synagogue HAD TO BE close to Gynasium because the Greeks just pulled it out of storage.

I don't see how the argument is so persuasive. If the Greeks were trying to demonstrate that the Jews were disloyal to Caesar because they refused to have images of Caligula in their synagogue the physical reality of where the chariot was kept and where the synagogue was located have very little to do with one another.

It's like if I want to plant a murdered body in your house to prove that you were the killer it can't be supposed that I murdered the victim across the street from you! Scholars make bad detectives in my mind.

I would focus instead on the qualifying term that is rarely mentioned:

All the synagogues that they were unable to destroy by burning and razing them to the ground, because a great number of Jews lived in a dense mass in the neighbourhood, they injured and defaced in another manner, simultaneously with a total overthrow of their laws and customs

Just look at the description carefully and you will see that it EXPLICITLY says after referencing 'synagogues that they were unable to destroy' (i.e. because they were too big and so 'the great synagogue' is the most prominent) Philo says explicitly that the great synagogue which wasn't burned to the ground was located in the same Delta area (the Boucolia) that Jews were crammed into at the start of the revolt. It was this synagogue (or 'synagogues') IN THE JEWISH QUARTER which ultimately received the chariot from Gymnasium. The distance is irrelevant when you have explicit testimony like this. These people would have to argue that the Jewish population was crammed into the area around the Gymnasium which is silly

Now I am aware that a document was uncovered recently which questions Philo's and Josephus's identification of the Jewish quarter as the Delta. Nevertheless there have been attempts to explain this situation. The bottom line nevertheless is that everyone identifies the Jewish quarter as being located in the eastern part of the city in Τὰ Βουκόλου. The fact that our two earliest sources identify this eastern area as Delta is a problem for everyone.

I don't see an argument for placing the synagogue in the main city. Any comments welcomed.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.