The Theodotos Synagogue Inscription in Jerusalem

September 18, 2018

An interesting artifact displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is the dedicatory inscription, written in Greek, from the synagogue of Theodotos in Jerusalem. This inscription, made of limestone, was discovered in 1913 by Raymond Weill during excavations in the City of David.  Fant and Reddish note: “If its pre-70 C.E. dating is accurate, then this discovery provides solid evidence of a synagogue building in Jerusalem that was built during the end of the first century B.C.E. or early part of the first century C.E. (Lost Treasures of the Bible, Kindle Locations 4613-4614).

Theodotus built the synagogue “for the reading of the Law and the teaching of the commandments.”

Hundreds of synagogues stood in ancient Jerusalem before their destruction by Titus’s Roman forces in 70 A.D.; in one of them hung the following Greek inscription, carved prominently into the 25-by-17-inch limestone slab shown above: “Theodotus son of Vettenus, priest and synagogue leader, son of a synagogue leader, grandson of a synagogue leader, rebuilt this synagogue for the reading of the Law and the teaching of the commandments, and the hostelry, rooms and baths, for the lodging of those who have need from abroad. It was established by his forefathers, the elders and Simonides.” The fact that the language of the inscription is Greek, not Hebrew, and its allusion to “those who have need from abroad,” suggest that this synagogue was used by Jews from the Diaspora, and that it housed large numbers of visiting pilgrims. Some scholars have identified it with the Synagogue of the Freedmen (former slaves in the Roman Empire), mentioned in Acts 6:9 (Shanks, BAR 29:4 July/Aug 2003).

The Theodotus Synagogue Inscription. Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

The term archisynagogos, “ruler of the synagogue,” is significant. Regarding this title held by Theodotus  and his grandfather, Fant & Reddish note:

Not only did Theodotus hold this office in the synagogue, but according to the inscription so did his father and his grandfather. If the traditional dating of the inscription is correct, then Theodotus’s grandfather would have been archisynagogos sometime during the first century B.C.E. This is the earliest known use of this title for the person who served as the leader of the Jewish synagogue, pre-dating by approximately fifty years other examples of a similar use of this term. (Treasures 4615-4616).

This term archisunagogos is found in the following passages in Acts:

  • ESV Acts 13:15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.”
  • Acts 18:8 Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.
  • Acts 18:17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.

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Thessalonian Politarch Inscription & its Bearing on Acts 17:6,8

February 21, 2018

Acts 17:6,8 mention the “rulers of the city” of Thessalonica, who beat and imprisoned Paul and Silas. Luke, the inspired writer of Acts, is a most careful historian. Different cities/districts used specific words to designate their rulers. Here Luke uses the word “politarch” (πολιτάρχης) which was a “very rare title for magistrates” (see Schaff below). Was Luke correct or was he mistaken?

Last month in London I was able to photograph a very important inscription, the Politarch Inscription of Thessalonica, removed from a Roman gateway of the city.

Inscription from Thessalonica using the word “politarchs” to designate rulers, as found in Acts 17:6,8. Photo ©Leon Mauldin. British Museum.

Church historian Philip Schaff, in a section entitled “The Acts and Secular History,” wrote:

The “politarchs” of Thessalonica, 17:6, 8 (Greek text: τοὺς πολιτάρχας, i.e., τοὺς ἄρχοντας τῶν πολιτῶν, praefectos civitatis, the rulers of the city).

This was a very rare title for magistrates, and might easily be confounded with the more usual designation “poliarchs.” But Luke’s accuracy has been confirmed by an inscription still legible on an archway in Thessalonica, giving the names of seven “politarchs” who governed before the visit of Paul.

The Thessalonian inscription in Greek letters is given by Boeckh. Leake, and Howson (in Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Letters of St. Paul, ch. IX., large Lond. ed., I. 860). Three of the names are identical, with those of Paul’s friends in that region-Sopater of Beraea (Acts 20:4), Gaius of Macedonia (19:29), and Secundus of Thessalonica (20:4). I will only give the first line:

ΠΟΛΕΙΤΑΡΧΟΥΝΤΩΝ ΣΩΣΙΠΑΤΡΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΚΛΕΟ. (Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian church (Vol. 1, p. 735). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Inscription in its original setting in Thessalonica. Photo ©Leon Mauldin. British Museum.

Schaff earlier in that section mentioned the significance and importance of such artifacts as pertains to the book of Acts:

Bishop Lightfoot asserts that no ancient work [as that of Acts, L.M.] affords so many tests of veracity, because no other has such numerous points of contact in all directions with contemporary history, politics, and typography, whether Jewish or Greek or Roman. The description of persons introduced in the Acts such as Gamaliel, Herod, Agrippa I., Bernice, Felix, Festus, Gallio, agrees as far as it goes entirely with what we know from contemporary sources. The allusions to countries, cities, islands, in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy are without exception correct and reveal an experienced traveler. Ibid.732)

In other words, time and time again, Luke has been proven to be right! You can trust the Bible!

The British Museum Curator’s comments are interesting:

This large stone was built into a wall at the Vardar Gate of Thessalonica and was removed in 1877. The stone has been assumed to name city officials of the era. The inscription is important to New Testament scholars because it is one of the few stones that attests the existence of the office of politarch, mentioned in the Bible (Acts 17:6 and 8) and in only a few other literary sources. It is also curious because it mentions the mothers as well as the fathers of two of the politarchs. How the number of politarchs in this inscription should be counted varies among the modern editions; the translation here presents the usual interpretation of the inscription (see vom Brocke). (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=398975&partId=1)

I should mention that this inscription is not regularly on display. It took three days to get an appointment to go into the room where is it housed, but it was worth it!

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