The Synagogue the Centurion Built

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The third Evangelist recorded in the seventh chapter of his Gospel a story about Jesus, the Jewish elders of Capernaum, a Roman centurion and their affable relations. From rabbinic texts and other literary sources like the New Testament, we know that despite years of suffering brought upon the Jewish people by their Roman overlords, there were instances when Jew and Roman behaved amicably toward one another. Luke 7:1-10 stands out as one such episode.

The third Evangelist recorded in the seventh chapter of his Gospel a story about Jesus, the Jewish elders of Capernaum, a Roman centurion and their affable relations. From rabbinic texts and other literary sources like the New Testament, we know that despite years of suffering brought upon the Jewish people by their Roman overlords, there were instances when Jew and Roman behaved amicably toward one another. Luke 7:1-10 stands out as one such episode.

Once while Jesus was visiting Capernaum, a centurion sent a delegation of Jewish elders to him with a request to come and heal a dying slave. As part of an appeal to persuade Jesus to accept the centurion’s request, the elders said, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for…he built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5, RSV).

Ruins of the third-century C.E. synagogue at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Ruins of the third-century C.E. synagogue at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo © BiblePlaces.com

In this short article, I simply want to ask, would a Roman officer have had the means to finance the construction of a synagogue in the lakeshore town of Capernaum? To answer this question adequately, two issues must be addressed: 1) the Roman officer’s socio-economic class, and 2) the relative cost of building a synagogue in the first century C.E.[1]

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For further reading:

Shmuel Safrai, “The Centurion and the Synagogue,” Jerusalem Perspective 24 (Jan./Feb. 1990), 3-5.

________, “The Relations between the Roman Army and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael after the Destruction of the Second Temple” in Roman Frontier Studies 1967: The Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress Held in Tel-Aviv (1971), 224-228.

 


  • [1] For the historical and halachic question of how it is possible that a non-Jew, and an officer in the Roman army no less, would build a synagogue for Jews in the land of Israel, see Shmuel Safrai, “The Centurion and the Synagogue.”
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