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Material Culture: Early Judaism

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Material Culture: Early Judaism

Ancient material finds rarely provide substantiation for gender practices described, implied, or envisioned in biblical and ancient Jewish texts. Indeed, such finds can offer the basis for radically different perceptions of how gender distinctions may (or may not) have manifested in the practices of ancient Jews.

Synagogue ruins and burial sites (many with inscriptions) reveal that in antiquity Jewish ritual life was carried out all over the Mediterranean and Middle East—from North Africa and Spain in the west to the Persian/Sasanian Empire and beyond in the east, from the Black Sea in the north, to the upper Nile in the south. Across this wide and varied geographical swath, material remains provide intriguing—and sometimes provocative—glimpses into the everyday lives of ancient Jews and of the synagogues that became their primary collective institutional expressions.

Gendering and Everyday Life

Material evidence fails to corroborate the still widespread assumption that Jews led largely sex-segregated lives in antiquity. Archaeology has provided no indications, for example, of the existence of separate men’s and women’s quarters in ancient Jewish households, nor of domestic architecture that functioned to seclude virgins or married women behind household walls. Quite to the contrary, ancient built environments in both rural and urban settings throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East were such that family and household tasks generally required regular movement of persons beyond domicile walls, while business places such as workshops and retail shops were often integrated with familial residential spaces. Likewise, most peasant agricultural societies, regardless of era or locale, have drawn on the productive labor of both men and women in the seasonal courses of planting, tending, harvesting, and processing of food, fuel, and fodder. Hence, commonly held conceptions regarding the gendering of “private” versus “public” or “work space” versus “domestic space” are not easily mapped onto the living spaces of ancient Jews. Although it is possible that many aspects of ancient Jewish life and labor were gendered, material remains provide few details concerning what such gendering might have looked like and whether or not Jews maintained any distinctive practices in this regard.

Clothing, hairstyles, and head covering could be quite gendered in antiquity, as they are in the present day. Yet material culture yields little evidence of distinctively Jewish or Jewishly gendered sartorial practices. Virtually everyone in antiquity wore woven tunics—most woolen, some linen. Those of most men, children, and enslaved persons were likely shorter; those of most women and the aged were likely longer. The cut, color, and style of overgarments (pallium, toga, stola, shawl, himation, vestments, etc.) were determined by broader cultural context and gendered according to the dictates of those varied contexts rather than by the Jewishness of their individual wearers. Ritual fringes (Num 15; Deut 22) may well have been worn by some Jews, but no remains of these have survived the ravages of time. By contrast, tefillin or phylacteries (Deut 6, 11) have been recovered from the Judaean desert caves of Qumran (c. 130 B.C.E.–68 C.E.) and those associated with the Bar Kokhba uprising (c. 135 C.E.).

Surviving images, such as those from the wall paintings of the third-century synagogue of the fortress of Dura-Europos on the far-eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, provide no evidence of particular hairstyles or barbering practice like those envisioned by Leviticus 19:27, nor of particular Jewish headgear as became legislated or traditional in later eras. Similarly, the assertion made in some rabbinic texts that proper Jewish wives wear some form of head covering finds no clear representation in surviving ancient images. The paintings from Dura-Europos, for example, feature biblical heroes and heroines imagined in a variety of garb and headdress—none apparently linked to marital status. Mosaic images from ancient synagogue floors in the Galilee include a veiled Virgo (labeled in Hebrew as Betullah) in the zodiac wheel of the fourth-century Hammat Tiberias synagogue; female figures who are bareheaded, capped, or cloaked to represent each of four seasons in the zodiac spandrels of the fifth-century Sepphoris synagogue; and portraits of two bareheaded female donors in the fifth- to sixth-century synagogue at Huqoq.

Gendering and Synagogues

Burial and donor inscriptions from Jerusalem to Asia Minor to Rome reveal that both women and men bore high titles associated with synagogue service and benefaction. These include “Head of the Synagogue” (archisynagogos or archisynagogissa); “Leader” (archon or archegissa); “Father” (pater), “Fatheress” (pateressa), or “Mother” (mater) of the Synagogue (among the latter a convert, Veturia Paulla [aka Sara], appears as “Mother” of two synagogues in Rome); and “Elder” (presbyter or presbytera, presbyteressa, or presbyterissa). The title “Rabbi” appears to be exclusive to adult males, but no surviving material evidence points to a functional role for rabbis in early synagogues.

In ancient Asia Minor, in particular, a high percentage of women is notable among the named patrons and benefactors honored for significant contributions to a number of synagogues. These women include Julia Severa of Acmonia, Tation of Phocea, Capitolina of Tralles, Theopempte of Myndos, and Rufina of Smyrna, the latter two called archisynagogos (see Brooten 1982 and Kraemer 1992).

Much early scholarship on ancient synagogues presumed gender-segregated seating such as characterizes current Orthodox practice, along with very limited participation by women. Nonetheless, no material evidence confirms such segregation and limitation in synagogues of late antiquity. Indeed, according to the inscription honoring her, Tation of Phocea received “a gold crown and the privilege of sitting in the seat of honor” within the synagogue she built (see Brooten 1982 and Kraemer 1992). Thus, even in synagogues with evidence of an upper gallery, there are no material indicators that such galleries served to segregate women.

In sum, despite a long history of scholarship attempting to read later Jewish practices back into early evidence and to map textually derived gender prescriptions onto ancient material culture, archaeological finds often resist or complicate such reductive impositions. Material culture poses more questions about gender and Jewish traditions than it answers. It suggests that the gender practices of Jews varied by region and wider cultural context and that they changed over time. Very few such practices, it seems, were “carved in stone.”


  • Baker, Cynthia M. Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Britt, Karen. “The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics” Bible History Daily, 2 Jan. 2013. www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/ the-huqoq-synagogue-mosaics.
  • Brooten, Bernadette J. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982.
  • Ilan, Tal. Integrating Women into Second Temple History. Ada, Mich.: Baker Academic Publishers, 2000.
  • Kraemer, Ross Shepard. “Jewish Women’s Religious Lives and Offices in the Greco-Roman Diaspora.” In Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Cynthia Baker

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