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.

Click image for larger view.