Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Origins of the Synagogue

My Doktorvater, Anders Runesson, has made a PDF of his own dissertation, The Origins of the Synagogue, available via academia.edu. Published in 2001, The Origins of the Synagogue was the first monograph-length study of the synagogue's origins since the 17th century. Not only that, but I think that Runesson's arguments are basically correct. Certain of his statements in the study are now out-of-date, largely because of more recent archaeological discoveries, but I cannot think of anything that would overturn his basic argument. By any measure, it is a landmark study. It also tends to be read less than it should, probably because--although written in English--it was published through a Swedish publisher.

In order to understand the argument in Origins, one needs to have a sense of where synagogue studies stood in the 1990s, when Runesson was conducting doctoral research and writing the monograph. There were basically two schools of thought on the synagogue. The one argued that the synagogue emerged in the Diaspora, and represented the Jewish equivalent of a Greco-Roman voluntary association (what Runesson calls an "association synagogue" or "semi-public" synagogue). The other argued that the synagogue emerged in the Land of Israel, as a local institution comparable to a village or city assembly (what Runesson calls a "municipal" or "public" synagogue). Runesson's brilliance was to recognize that this wasn't an either/or but rather a both/and. The institution known as the synagogue emerged in the cities of the Diaspora and the villages of the Land more or less simultaneously.

Origins has defined my career in many ways. Reading it as an undergraduate student was a large part of what led me to study under Runesson in the first place. It has defined much of my understanding of how Hellenistic and early Roman era Judaism organized itself, as well as how Christianity likely emerged in institutional terms. I have largely moved "beyond" the arguments contained therein, as of course has Runesson himself. It has been a starting point, a departure, for my own work, rather than a blueprint to slavishly follow. And I really could not have asked for a better starting point.

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