Jerusalem Synagogue Of The Freedmen (prof. Peter Shirokov, Eteacherbiblical)

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Prof. Peter Shirokov

Prof. Peter Shirokov is a long time colleague. I learn from him each opportunity I get. I am excited that he has agreed to offer our new Jewish Background of the New Testament course to our students in New Zealand and Australia. Please, meet Prof. Peter Shirokov and read his very interesting short article Jerusalem Synagogue of the Freedmen.

Here it is:

According to New Testament, Josephus and rabbinic sources in the first century there were hundreds of synagogues across Israel. (Mark 1:21; Luke 7:1; Acts 9:2; Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 105a, Tosefta, Sukkah 4.5, Josephus, Wars 2. 285-290, Life 277, Antiquities XIX. 300). Despite the temple being the central place of worship Jerusalem had many synagogues. The book of Acts mentions one of these Jerusalem synagogues that bears an unusual name.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyre′nians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cili′cia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. (Acts 6:8-10 RSV)

The Synagogue of the Freedmen (συναγωγή τω̂ν Λιβερτίνων) is mentioned in Acts 6:9. The Greek term Freedmen (Λιβερτῖνος) is a loan word from Latin libertini, who were freed slaves. In the Roman world this was a reference to one’s social status, usually for the purpose of differentiating one from someone who was never a slave. In Acts 6:9 those who belonged to this synagogue together with Cyrenian, Alexandrian, Cilician and Asian Jews argued with Stephen, one of the deacons (servants) in the Jerusalem Assembly. As a result of this theological dispute Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy, tried and stoned outside the city (Acts 6:11-7:59). Only a handful of historical references provide clues to the nature and composition of this Synagogue of Freedmen in Jerusalem, producing multiple scholarly theories and speculations.

In seeking to understand the nature of this synagogue some scholars focus on the name Freedmen, who could have been Jews taken into slavery by the Romans under Pompey in 63 BC (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23). The descendants of slaves who were freed were also called Freedmen. It is possible that these freed slaves were proselytes (προσήλυτοι), enslaved non-Jews, who embraced the Jewish way of life. Ancient sources mention thousands of slaves embracing Jewish beliefs (Tacitus, Annals 2, 85, Philo, Embassy to Gaius 155). The names of the synagogues can refer to the makeup of the language of the congregation, such as “synagogue of the Hebrews”. But there are examples of synagogues being named after their patrons and founders, for example, Synagogue of the Agustans, Agrippans, Herodians. The Synagogue of the Freedmen may have been somehow connected to freed slaves at the time of its establishment, but its membership could have been very different in the 1st century. There is also a less popular opinion, based on ancient Armenian and Syriac commentaries, that the synagogue name did not mention freed slaves, but Libyans, which would make all names in Acts 9:6 geographical locations (Levine, Bruce).

A first century inscription, discovered by Raymond Weill in 1913-1914 in the lower City of David, confirmed the existence of a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem. The plaque identifies Theodotus son of Vettenus as a founder, priest and the head of the synagogue. The inscription credits the builder with the construction of ritual baths and a guesthouse available to travelers. Because Theodotus is a Greek name and Vettenus is a Latin name some scholars (Weill, Clermont-Geneau, Reinach, Vincent and others) theorized that Vettenus was a Freedman, who bore the name of his former master. Other scholars (Safrai, Roth-Gerson, Bruce, Kloppenberg and others) reject this theory and connection of the plaque to the Synagogue of the Freedmen mentioned in Acts 6:9 citing lack of tangible evidence.

Despite the scholarly disagreements there is a general consensus that the Synagogue of the Freedmen mentioned in Acts 6:9 was a Greek-speaking synagogue of the first century Hellenized Diaspora Jews. The other groups mentioned in Acts 6:9 (Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia) are all well-known Greek-speaking Jewish Diaspora communities which could have been distinct or a part of this same synagogue. Several Hellenistic Diaspora communities may have shared one facility, making them several synagogues, or gatherings under the same roof. Stephen himself was believed to be one of the Hellenist Jews (Ἑλληνιστής) who spoke and worshipped in Greek. If true, this would explain Stephen’s appointment for service in Acts 6:1-7. However, Hellenistic orientation of the Synagogue of the Freedmen did not make them any less zealous in their beliefs, which is why the synagogue was involved in this conflict in Acts 6:9.

(This text is an excerpt from an entry in Online Lexham Bible Dictionary by Logos Press).

 

 

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  1. Sandra Meyer

    This blog appears to have nothing new since 2014 or is it that this particular topic has not been discussed since 2014?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Sandra, I publish a new post every single week; probably, just this particular topic has not been discussed since then. I hope you can check out the latest articles and find them interesting as well. Blessings!

  2. gustavo vargas angel

    In those days,(just like now) the name of the governor,king or some, was written along the name of the constructor, architect or some, on this way, Ettenus could have been the constructor and Teodotus the governor or some. It could have been the happening, I think(may be wrong, but think).

    1. Peter Shirokov

      Not exactly…Theodotus is very clearly identified as the priest and ruler of the synagogue in the inscription itself. “Theodotus, (son?) of Vettenus, priest and archisynagogos (ruler of the synagogue), son of an archisynagogos, grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments…”

  3. Marcia New

    Excellent article! Thank you for some insight behind the scenes. It helps make sense of some of the different names mentioned in Scripture.

  4. RamonAntonio

    Very interesting facts.
    This suggest to me that the surge in Christian churches in different locations as mentioned in Acts, most of the letters and specially Revelation which was dictated by Jesus expressly directing the messages to those churches may have had a direct influence on this proliferation of synagogues prevalent in that same era.

    1. Peter Shirokov

      Very perceptive thought… People should keep in mind that many Jews, and especially Diaspora Jews were missionary-oriented and spread their beliefs in the Greater Hellenistic World. Some believe that majority of Jews lived outside of Israel in this period.

  5. Juan Montero

    Tiene alguna relación el concepto de “liberto” con el de “gentil”? Existe en Jerusalem en la actualidad alguna Sinagoga sefardí?
    Es asombroso como un concepto moral y una Fé se ha mantenido inalterable a través de los siglos, pese a su “encuentro” con otras lenguas y otras culturas. Eso es una EVIDENCIA de la existencia de DIOs y una cultura divina