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This dry but comprehensive book addresses a variety of issues related to the first known synagogues, mostly between about 240 BCE and 500 CE. (Although Levine and other commentators believe that synagogues existed before the third century BCE, the first documentary evidence of a synagogue appears in late 3rd-century inscriptions from Egypt). Levine covers a variety of issues, include synagogue architecture, art and organization, as well as the roles of rabbinic sages, women, and priests. Generally, Levine emphasizes the diversity among early synagogues; Judaism was more decentralized than early Christianity. Some of the more interesting things I learned were:*The extent to which synagogues honored pagan rulers in some places. Before the Roman takeover of Egypt, Egyptian Jews commonly dedicated synagogues to the ruling royal family. And Roman synagogues were named after Augustus and other political leaders (although such practices were unknown in many other places).*It is clear, based on both the New Testament and other sources such as Philo, that early synagogues included readings from the Torah and from the prophets. However, the extent of prayer in early synagogues is unclear.*Synagogues have been oriented towards Jerusalem since the 3rd century, but not so consistently in earlier centuries. Levine speculates that this fact indicates that the synagogues religious functions became dominant by then (as opposed to its role as center of the Jewish community). But even after that, synagogues included Jewish courts, schools, and other functions not directly related to prayer.*Synagogal art differed dramatically from place to place. Some synagogues had no images of man or beast (perhaps interpreting the Torahs restrictions on pagan imagery more strictly), while others continued a wide variety of art, including pictures of Biblical figures and the signs of the Zodiac.*In the early 300s as today, Jews were often at least somewhat part of the broader community. In Greek-speaking cities, some synagogue remains list Jews holding public office of various types.*What we dont know often outweighs what we know, given the fragmentary evidence available. For example, one synagogue in Asia Minor gave a woman the honor of sitting in the front row of the congregation, indicating that this synagogue (unlike synagogues over the past 1500 years or so) did not segregate men and women. Was this synagogue an aberration? Levine speculates not (given the absence of clear evidence of segregation) but there is no clear archaeological evidence either way.

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