Investigating the So-called Ancient Synagogue of Delos, Greece

The birthplace of the god Apollo has a site dating to the time of the Maccabees that has been labeled one of the world’s oldest synagogues. But is it?

Gabriel Beaton

Mykonos, Greece, is best known today for its throbbing sunset parties, where top international DJs hold court at exclusive beach clubs. That fits, given that Apollo, the god of music and light, was said to have been born two miles away, on Delos – a small island that, many believe, also houses the oldest synagogue in the Diaspora.

In its heyday, Delos was a political, cultural and economic hub of the Hellenic empire. Today, it’s an experiential outdoor antiquities museum, featuring the long-gone civilization through unearthed mosaics, jagged pillars and chipped phallic statues.  And about 15 minutes by foot from what might be considered Downtown Delos, past an unattractive building with displays of busts and busted artifacts, beyond the staff huts, and nearly on the beach lies the Delos Synagogue, basically the outline of a two-room stone structure dating to the second century BCE.

It is known as a synagogue primarily because the museum’s map says it is, and because there is a stone plaque at its entrance with the word “synagogue” chiseled in both English and Greek. Archaeologists proclaimed it such a century ago, but some scholars disagree whether it was in fact a Jewish place of worship, or a Jewish place at all.

A marble throne and a literary trail

Whether or not it really is a Jewish relic, it does serve to remind us of the long, difficult relationship between the Jews and Hellenistic Greece.

Alexander the Great's conquest of Palestine in 332 BCE spurred the Hellenization of the region, and marked the beginning of the Israelites’ strained relationship with the Greeks. After Alexander's death, his empire was split. Palestine, which lies some 700 kilometers from Delos as the seagull flies, became part of the Seleucian empire, founded by Seleucus I Nicator.

In 167 BCE, the Maccabees, a Judean rebel group, revolted against the Seleucid overlords, following a prohibition on Jewish worship practices. The Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire ended in 160 BCE, and the Delos Synagogue is thought to date to around this time.

The synagogue was first identified by André Plassart during extensive excavations of the island by the French School at Athens, an archaeological institute, in 1912 and 1913. (Formally, it is referred to as “GD 80.”) Inscriptions in and near the ruins referring to monotheism, Jewish names and mention of a house of prayer led him to conclude that it must belong to the Jews (or Samaritans, an ancient cousin of the Jews), since Jesus, and thus Christianity, had not yet been born.

Maybe a mikveh

The ruins lie on a cove on the northeast end of the island, facing Mykonos. Thick columns lie flat and broken in one section. Around them, benches line the remains of an exterior wall, in the middle of which is a modest marble throne with rounded legs that curl like a snail.

The most striking architectural feature is a stone arch on one end of a wall that divides the site’s two largest rooms. It hovers above a submerged pool full of fresh, though murky water.

Looking at it through the lens of a synagogue, one might eagerly conclude that it is a mikveh.

But not long after Plassart’s pronouncement, other historians began to dispute his claims, notably Belle Mazur in her 1935 book “Studies on Jewry in Greece.” More recently in a 2007 paper “Unraveling the Myth of the Synagogue on Delos,” historian Lidia Matassa assessed the debate over the site, referencing numerous historians who have weighed in over the past century.

There is literary evidence that Jews lived on the island at the time, Matassa shows, noting mentions in the books of the Maccabees and in writings by the Roman-Jewish scholar Titus Flavius Josephus (a.k.a. Joseph ben Matthias).

“The Jews in Delos and some of the neighboring Jews,” Josephus wrote in a correspondence to Rome that is thought to come from the middle of the first century BCE, “have appealed to me and declared that you are preventing them by statute from observing their national customs and sacred rites.”

So Jews were apparently present on Delos around the time of the synagogue, and were fighting for their right to worship. But does that mean the structure was a synagogue?

First fruits for Holy Argarizein

The inscriptions found on or near GD 80 are not biblical prayers scrawled in Hebrew or Aramaic. That would be too easy. Rather, they reference names that Plassart identified as Jewish (Agathokles and Lysimachos) and contain the word proseuche, which can refer specifically to a Jewish house of prayer - or can be applied more generally as a kind of offering.

If anything, additional inscriptions uncovered in 1979 actually offer explicit evidence of a Samaritan presence. Two of them honor benefactors of the community and begin: “The Israelites on Delos who make first-fruit offerings to Holy Argarizein” – which is a reference to Mount Gerizin, in present day Nablus, which is part of ancient Samaria.

Matassa is unconvinced that this answers the synagogue question one way or another. She points out that there is no way to know whether the dedications where made by a permanent community, or by a passing traveler.

The physical structure of the space offers few clues, since it largely echoes the architecture and design of neighboring buildings. It is, however, found on the eastern shore and has a clear eastern orientation, which is characteristic of many synagogues.

As for the alleged mikveh, Matassa and others claim it is a mere cistern, which, at the time of use, would have been subterranean and impossible for a person to use.

Another historian, Donald Binder, saw it quite differently, claiming in a 1999 paper that accessibility of the pool from two rooms might suggest the first instance of the division of the sexes.

Cistern or a ritual bath? A synagogue for Jews, or for Samaritans – or just a private dwelling? The evidence is inconclusive; the scholars disagree.

But this is true: On a small island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, there lies the footprint of a structure with a label that says “synagogue,” which thousands of tourists visit annually, as they did in ancient times. If not a historic house of worship, consider it a monument – a statement that Jews, too, were here.