Pt. 1: Three plaques, no synagogue

by René Salm

Note: Bibliography is at the end of this series of posts.

Not only two, but three different plaques

This series of posts, under the heading “New light…” continues the discussion begun by Enrico Tuccinardi relative to the so-called Caesarea inscription. The inscription is significant for several reasons, one being its claimed relation to the settlement of Nazareth. Here I propose to proceed step by step in a study of the inscription, continuing from Mr. Tuccinardi’s article and leading to startling new conclusions. It should be noted that this sort of commentary is hardly likely to be published in any scholarly journal, and hence this website is a perfect venue for such alternative views to reach an interested readership. The conclusions below have a bearing on the history of Nazareth, but they also offer a unflattering commentary on the tendentious manner in which archaeology is sometimes conducted in the land of Israel, even by well-respected scholars.

In the last post Mr. Tuccinardi analyzed the three fragments of the inscription with regards to line spacing and ended as follows: “It is thus possible to confidently conclude, on the basis of character dimension and line spacing, that the much-touted fragment A discovered by Vardaman in 1962 is not compatible with either fragment B or fragment C.”

The above means that there is no “Caesarea inscription” as commonly thought, for we now know that it is not possible to reconstitute a single marble plaque from the extant fragments. At a minimum, we are dealing with two marble plaques each ostensibly listing the twenty-four priestly courses.

This places an entirely new light on the three fragments. Such Byzantine plaques of the priestly courses are quite rare and have been found only in Ascalon, Rehov, possibly Nazareth, and in Yemen—no site yielding more than a single fragment. Thus, the assertion that two different plaques of the priestly courses existed in the same small area of Caesarea must be deemed exceptional, though not impossible. However, I will show in the course of this post that there could not have been two plaques—at a minimum there were three.

We have already seen through the line spacing argument that fragments A and C cannot derive from the same plaque. Support for this conclusion also comes from other arguments, including color and epigraphic criteria such as letter size, alignment, and noticeable differences in the tav and the mem. At this point, however, I would like to briefly focus on a difference between fragments B and C, a difference which shows that they too are incompatible which, in turn, indicates that we are not dealing with merely two but with three different plaques.

Fig. 1. Fragment C scaled according to the lettering (mem) of fragment B. The horizontal lines are 20mm apart.

Fig. 1. Fragment C scaled according to the lettering (mem) of fragment B. The horizontal lines are 20mm apart.
Source: E. Tuccinardi

In fragment B, the three mems are formed with straight lines. In fragment C, however, all three mems have a pronounced downward curvature to the top line. This is particularly noticeable in the bottom two mems, even though these letters are only partially preserved (first letters at the right in the bottom two lines of fragment C). There can be little doubt that these letters on the two fragments were chiseled by different craftsmen—they represent two distinct styles. This argument, added to the noticeably wider line spacing of fragment C, clearly shows that the two fragments come from different plaques.

Incidentally, the same difference is noticeable between fragments A and C. The bottom line of fragment C is ostensibly the top line of fragment A. Both fragments have a mem on this line, yet we note that one mem is curved on top (fragment C), while the other is straight. So we have two different styles of mem even though both letters allegedly share the same line!

All three fragments exhibit the square Hebrew script known “from the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt to the end of the Byzantine period” (Yardeni 67). The style of fragment C may be the latest, in which the curved mem has parallels in writing from the Cairo geniza (early Middle Ages to 15th century–Yardeni 80:fig.97).

There was no synagogue in Area A

The above conclusion showing that we are dealing with three different plaques completely changes the complexion of the matter. We are confronted with an unprecedented situation where three different plaques of the twenty-four priestly courses allegedly came from the same small area of Caesarea. All scholars are in agreement that marble plaques listing the twenty-four priestly courses were found only in synagogues. Thus, we have a strange situation yielding two possibilities: (1) a single synagogue in Area A possessed three different plaques of the list of priestly courses, either on different walls or (alternately) consecutively, e.g., one plaque was replaced by another; (2) two or even three synagogues in the same relatively small area had these plaques affixed to their walls.

As mentioned above, such marble plaques of the priestly courses are rare. No two have ever been found in the same settlement before. To consider now that three existed in the same modest area of Caesarea has no precedent whatsoever.

The problem is even more acute when we consider the focussed work of Marylinda Govaars. This scholar participated in the 1982 “Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima” which worked in Area A (renamed at that time Field O). Govaars was the expedition architect and surveyor. Her unpublished Master’s Thesis is entitled A Re-Examination of the Synagogue Site at Caesarea Maritima, Israel (Drew Univ., 1983). She reviews the structural evidence, including reports from the 1956 and 1962 excavations, with special focus on finding evidence of a synagogue. Govaars’ results are highly critical of traditional conclusions, namely, that any synagogue at all existed within Area A/Field O. Her systematic work is fairly damning, and reveals that a great deal of confusion attended the earlier excavations (especially under M. Avi-Yonah) and their slipshod reports, including mislabeling and reassignment of findspots, of strata, and/or of chronology, a lack of official/final reports, and—perhaps most importantly—no convincing evidence of any structure that corresponds to known synagogue types. Govaars concludes:

        The 1982 plan yields no concrete evidence for the synagogue structures. If the basic forms of traditional synagogue structures are compared with the 1982 drawing, none of the traditional wall plans are similar to the configuration of walls which appear on the 1982 drawing. The wall remains shown in [the] 1982 plan do not indicate an 18 x 9 meter broadhouse as suggested by Avi-Yonah. (Govaars 1983:63)

A capital with inscribed menorah as found in Area A. Original findspot unknown. The capital was probably brought in from elsewhere and reused in a public building. (From Govaars 2009, Fig. 38.)

A capital with inscribed menorah in Area A. Original findspot unknown.
The capital was probably brought in from elsewhere and reused in a public building. (From Govaars 2009, Fig. 38.)

In another place the same author writes: “Overall, Avi-Yonah’s description… is beset with so many difficulties that it is almost impossible to give it a satisfactory date or identification” (1983:59).

Govaars did not stop there but has made Area A/Field O in Caesarea her life’s work. A quarter century later she published a 287 page book on the site: Field O: The “Synagogue” Site (Boston: ASOR, 2009). This tome goes into great depth not only regarding the structural remains in Field O, but also regarding the inscriptions, pottery, and other movable evidence. Govaars also brings a wealth of previously unpublished material to her study, especially new photos. Her procedure is almost forensic as she tries to make sense of conflicting and incomplete reports. It is certain that no one has studied Field O more carefully or fully than Govaars.

There is no space here to give all the passages which substantiate Govaars’ overall conclusion: there is no evidence for a synagogue in Area A/Field O. She traces the history of “synagogue” attribution back to Professor Samuel Klein—the same professor who (in the early 1900s) first elucidated the list of priestly courses together with their places of residence.

Prof. Klein at the time was teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Area A of Caesarea he happened upon a capital with an inscribed menorah and thenceforth assumed the presence of a synagogue. That assumption has remained firmly in the literature for almost a century, strengthening with each generation. It is based on “Jewish” evidence allegedly found in Area A but which is sometimes shown to come from other nearby areas (e.g., Areas D and F). We may wonder at the dynamism of this misguided “synagogue” tradition which over the decades has seemingly attracted Jewish evidence in efforts to ‘prove’ the existence of such a religious structure in Area A. In this connection, perhaps it is significant that the largest funding resource for Avi-Yonah’s two Caesarea excavations was the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation for the Exploration of Ancient Synagogues (emphasis added).

Govaars of course was aware that Caesarea had a large Jewish population and that the city had multiple synagogues. She does not contest the presence of specifically Jewish artifacts in Area A/Field O, but she shows that much of the “Jewish” evidence in the area (including capitals with menoroth) did not appertain to a synagogue but to a secular structure: “Based upon the material recovered from Field O, however, the evidence indicates the presence of a large public structure,” one which she shows was not based on any known synagogue plan (Govaars 1983:65). Furthermore, Govaars shows that much reuse took place in Field O, i.e., artifacts were brought in from other places. We shall see that this may also be the case with all three fragments of the “Caesarea inscription.”

Avi-Yonah inherited Klein’s “synagogue” thesis but, as Govaars laments, he did not use rigorous stratigraphy in his Caesarea work (2009:77). Avi-Yonah saw what the evidence does not reveal. Govaars writes: “There is no evidence on the ground for a north entrance or for the entire north end of the structure as sketched… [N]o evidence for such an apsidal structure was found… The more is learned from the research, the more questions are raised as to Avi-Yonah’s conclusions” (Govaars 2009:121). She writes further:

The Stratum IV structure foundations are still unclear… Avi-Yonah places the fourth-century synagogue in this stratum, but the mosaic pavement fragments do not help with determining an entrance, locations for niches, bema, seating, or orientation toward Jerusalem… The lack of stratigraphy, associated artifacts, and architectural features hinders us. We are left with no real discernible structure… no structural basis—there are no stones or foundation elements to indicate its possible existence… (Govaars 2009:109)

The same author contests Avi-Yonah’s synagogue view not only on archaeological grounds, but also historical: “It is curious, too, that… a new synagogue was built in a provincial capital in the middle of the fifth century, when in 415 and 438 the building of synagogues had been prohibited” (Govaars 1983:26-27).

Conclusion. We are now able to look at the “Caesarea inscription” as an anomaly—as something extraordinary which requires explanation. We have now established that each of the three fragments came from a different plaque. We have also seen that (according to the work of Govaars) no demonstrable evidence exists at all for a synagogue in Area A/Field O. Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary explanation. In the next post, we will look at the findspot problem, namely, the possibility that each of the three fragments of the Caesarea inscription actually came from elsewhere.

To be continued…

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