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  • This Holy Place: On the Sanctity of the Synagogue during the Greco-Roman Period
  • Paul Corby Finney
This Holy Place: On the Sanctity of the Synagogue during the Greco-Roman Period, by Steven Fine. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. 280 pp. 44 illustrations. $35.00.

This informative survey consists of a preface, five chapters, a conclusion, end notes, a useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an index of primary sources. The line drawings are clear and clean; the halftones are sometimes muddy. Footnotes would have been preferable. The book lacks a subject index, which diminishes its usefulness considerably. There is no separate listing of illustrations following the Table of Contents, further diminishing the book’s usefulness.

The beginning of the Introduction rehearses the contents of the chapters to follow: a redundancy that would not have been missed. Informative discussion follows on historiography, on concepts of holiness, on holiness derived by extension from Scripture and from God, on the organization of holiness into time periods. The author makes it clear that this is a revisionist study, intended to correct an interpretive point of view which has suggested that after 70 C.E. Jews did not attach attributes of holiness to the places where they worshipped; hence in Jewish eyes those places, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, were to be classified under the secular rubric. Fine does not mention the fact that this tradition of interpretation goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, or that it was especially important to European Protestant scholars in the Calvinist tradition who promoted a particular view of post-biblical Judaism as the predecessor of Christianity. These are issues that belong to the historiography of Fine’s subject. On the basic point, namely the attribution of holiness to Jewish places of worship, it is good that Fine is now setting the record straight. It is amazing how long the secular view of synagogues has prevailed, despite the overwhelming accumulation of conflicting evidence.

Chapter 1 attempts to reconstruct the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman circumstances that gave Jews the impetus to attribute holiness to their synagogues. Fine devotes most of this discussion to Philo and Josephus, and in the end he comes up with a non licet. He writes that the origins of synagogue holiness are derived by extension either from Scripture or from the Temple, generalizations which Fine repeats throughout the book. He also thinks that the carriers of the synagogue holiness concepts were marginal groups, such as the holdouts as Masada, the Qumran covenanters, and Philo’s Essenes. The place where this story should have begun is Jerusalem in the years 169–67 B.C.E. It is surely the atrocities committed under Antiochus IV, Menelaus, Apollonius, and Jason that gave Jews the occasion to rethink their ideas of worship and holiness, including the attributions of holiness to the places where they congregated for reading and prayer (but no longer for animal sacrifice). Fine’s analysis of this subject would have benefited from a longer analysis of Seleucid Jerusalem. [End Page 113]

Chapters 2 and 3 are concerned with Tannaitic and Amoraic sources which over time increasingly attribute holiness to Jewish places of worship. After 70 C.E. sacred places (synagogues) increasingly became markers of Jewish identity; Jews were understandably bewildered by the troubles they encountered, and synagogues provided a refuge, a locus of community identity where the faithful could pray and could listen to the reading of their sacred narrative, a holy place where the biblical scrolls were housed and where the epithets of traditional Temple holiness gradually gained ground. The scrolls, the cabinet housing the scrolls, the textile wrappers that protected the scrolls, the lampstands and other lighting instruments that illumined the synagogue interiors—all of these things were gradually elevated and sanctified in the community’s view of itself. Naturally the buildings that housed these sacred furnishings also grew in status. Since these two chapters are based on literary evidence, it would have been appropriate for Fine to consider the role that the spiritualization of cult played in the language propounded especially on the fringes by sectarian groups, such as the Qumran...

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