Debating Ancient Synagogue Dating: The Implications of Deteriorating Data

Photo of a plastered oor below the bench beneath the bema in the Khirbet Shemaʿ synagogue (Meyers and Meyers 1970–1980: box 6). (Courtesy of the Eric M. and Carol L. Meyers Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC)

Photo of a plastered oor below the bench beneath the bema in the Khirbet Shemaʿ synagogue (Meyers and Meyers 1970–1980: box 6). (Courtesy of the Eric M. and Carol L. Meyers Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC)

BASOR No. 376, November 2016 article, “Debating Ancient Synagogue Dating: The Implications of Deteriorating Data,” by Chad Spigel (Trinity University).

One of the most well-known debates about synagogue dating concerns the synagogues excavated as part of the Meiron Excavation Project. According to the excavators, Eric Meyers, Carol Meyers, James Strange, and Thomas Kraabel, these buildings were constructed in the second and third centuries C.E. Jodi Magness, however, claims that the archaeological evidence supports moving the construction dates into the late-fourth, fifth, and even sixth centuries C.E. This article addresses a methodological issue that significantly affects how we should interpret the competing historical conclusions. Whereas the excavators’ chronologies are based on evidence that includes the excavation experience, notes taken in the field, discussions in the field and in the lab, unpublished photos and drawings, personal correspondence, etc., the revised chronologies are based primarily on the published evidence. The problem for the revised chronologies is that archaeological data deteriorate from excavation to publication, which means that the two sides of the debate are not basing their conclusions on the same evidence. Using unpublished data from the Khirbet Shemaʿ and Gush Ḥalav excavations, this article shows why traditional print archaeological publications are insufficient as sources of data when writing alternative interpretations of archaeological evidence. It also provides evidence that pushes the dating of the Khirbet Shemaʿ and Gush Ḥalav synagogues in the direction of the excavators’ original conclusions.


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