Looking Through Layers of History
Assistant Professor of Religion Chad Spigel hopes to unearth information on an ancient synagogue, as well as on a 20th century Palestinian village, during an excavation in Israel.
By Russell Guerrero '83
March 2012 - To an untrained eye, the site, just north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, did not appear to be anything special - a field of overgrown grass and weeds with large stones scattered about. But for a team of archeologists, including Chad Spigel, assistant professor of religion at Trinity University, the space may hold invaluable information on ancient Jewish synagogues.
Spigel and his colleagues began the Huqoq Excavation Project, named after an ancient village which once stood there, last June and work is expected to continue every summer until 2017. The co-directors of the project are Jodi Magness from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, David Amit, and Shua Kililevitz, both from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Spigel is one of the senior supervisors of the excavation and took two Trinity students to help with the dig in its first year. This January Trinity became an official sponsor of the Huqoq Excavation project and Spigel intends to take a few students back when the dig resumes in June.
At the center of the project are the remains of a foundation of an ancient synagogue which may hold answers to a debate among scholars: sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, synagogues became the center of Jewish worship. Some believe this shift took place in the 2nd or 3rd century while other historians push the date later to the 4th or 5th century.
Spigel said there are a few major details which set this excavation project apart from others. The first is that no one has excavated the site before. Spigel said that is very rare in Israel, where just about every ancient site has been dug up.
"Most excavations took place prior to the 1970s, when techniques were not as careful as today," explained Spigel. Using advanced methods and modern technology, researchers hope to pinpoint the synagogue's age.
A second detail that makes this project different is the team is also paying special attention to objects found from recent history. The synagogue building is located in the middle of a Palestinian village that was abandoned in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. "We decided to be responsible in terms of being historians and we are excavating the Arab village," said Spigel. One of the early finds has been a musket barrel and a pile of musket balls dating back to the 19th or early 20th century.
In addition, the Huqoq project lies in the middle of the area where Jesus practiced his ministry. Spigel and his colleagues believe the project has potential for shedding light on early Christianity as well, although the synagogue being excavated was built several hundreds of years after the time of Jesus.
At Trinity, Spigel teaches several courses related to Judaism, including a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts dating back to the 3rd century B.C. that were hidden in caves until they were discovered in the late 1940s. It took scholars 50 years to sift through the scrolls and to publish the texts. In many instances, all that remained were fragments of scrolls, which were put together much like a jigsaw puzzle.
While the scrolls have been published, controversy continues about their interpretation. Recently, new technology has emerged to read some of the ink on the text, which may lead to new revelations about the scrolls and their content.
"There is still a lot of debate going on about the scrolls and that is what the class is about," said Spigel. He added that students read a number of the scrolls, look at the archeological evidence surrounding the discovery and enter into the debates scholars are having about who wrote and who read the scrolls.
"It's a great class because there is still a lot of controversy that is swirling around the scrolls," said Spigel. "If there wasn't controversy, it wouldn't be as fun."
- Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
- Archaeology, the Bible(s), and Popular Media
- Jewish Traditions
- Dead Sea Scrolls
- "Reconsidering the Question of Separate Seating in Ancient Synagogues," Journal of Jewish Studies, 2012.
- Ancient Synagogue Seating Capacities: Methodology, Analysis, Limits, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, (forthcoming in 2012).