Tag Archives: Late Second Temple period

Understanding Jewish Ritual Baths: Archaeometric insights into the production of its plaster

In last month’s Yliopisto Lehti, Rick Bonnie’s fieldwork in Israel was featured. Together with Dr. Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä and Dr. Paula Kouki, Rick has been sampling the plaster of stepped pools (commonly identified as Jewish ritual baths) across various sites in Israel in order to conduct archaeometric analysis. The aim of the research is to get better insights into the production of these pools and whether their ritual functioning also had an impact on the materials used for constructing these pools.


The fieldwork forms part of the University of Helsinki-funded project “Religious Responses to Climate Change in the Southern Levant: Understanding the rise and fall of Jewish ritual purification baths in the Hasmonean-Roman period.” This project, which runs from 2019 to 2021, aims at examining to what extent environmental factors affected the introduction, change and upkeep of Jewish water purification rituals in the southern Levant from around the late second century BCE into the second and third centuries CE.

Materialising Jewish rituals: an Interview with Rick Bonnie

What is your research about, in general terms?
For my research, I currently examine the impact of ‘materials’ in the development and shaping of Jewish religious rituals during what’s been termed the Late Second Temple period in the region of modern Israel/Palestine, that is, roughly the first century BCE and CE. In particular, I research two material features that were introduced into the region during this period: monumental, stand-alone synagogue buildings used for communal gatherings and domestic stepped pools used for purification rituals. Both aspects were used among Jews already before the first of these manmade structures was built. So, why were these structures introduced and so well spread out across Jewish society during the first century BCE and CE? This is a question that has received rather little attention in scholarship, where the idea often still lingers that a material change has little influence on the institution of synagogues and purity rituals. Societies were understood as ‘floating’ outside of the material world – uninfluenced by the material surroundings they themselves created. So my second research question is how then did the material elements of these synagogue buildings and stepped pools shape (or change) the related Jewish religious rituals?

What have I found out so far? Well, in my research I have emphasized, for example, the irregularity of water in these manmade pools, as during the long, dry summers in the region primary water needs (drinking, washing etc.) would come first. This raises the question if people would have shared these pools during such occasions, or whether the tradition of water purification was perhaps altered during such extreme periods, perhaps by simply pouring a smaller amount of ‘pure’ water over one’s body. I’ve also focused on how the standing water in these stepped pools would become dirty and unhealthy over time. With regard to the stand-alone synagogues, the main observation I have made so far is that they were not as ‘public’ as previously assumed. They are nothing like the later synagogues, built during the third to sixth centuries (or our current churches), with their large, grotesque doors (sometimes more than one) and monumental façades inviting the congregation to gather. Instead, the façade of these early synagogues was usually rather unimpressive and, due to a lack of decoration, would have blended in with the larger village surroundings in which it stood. Its door (usually not more than one) was more narrow and usually did not provide a direct line of sight into the main congregation hall of the synagogue. These observations fit well with earlier research that showed that only a rather small percentage (ca. 10-20%) of a town’s population would fit in these buildings. This evidence hints toward a split community to some degree: those who made the decisions and discussing town politics, and those who did not. There appears thus to have been a more significant social segregation in these communities than there was later on, when all people were invited to participate in the congregation.

Why particularly did you choose this topic?
I first came to this topic through my doctoral research at the University of Leuven, in Belgium. There I focused on the socio-cultural development of Galilee in the second century CE. To study this development, I also needed to contrast the period in question with what came before, so the first centuries BCE and CE. Doing so, I felt a kind of unease with the broad claims that were made in some studies about certain ‘traditional’ material elements used by Jews, such as stepped pools and synagogues. In many cases, it felt that these claims were more based on their particular understanding of the texts than on the actual archaeological remains. Why was no one bothered by the fact that the distribution of the archaeological phenomena is so uneven at times. To give one example, we have various homes in Sepphoris with more than one stepped pool, while in others none were found. Clearly there is something going on here in terms of economic, social, cultural, or religious differentiation between these homes which we cannot really put our finger yet on.

How would you describe the relevance of your work for society?
I have been struggling with this question for as long as I’ve been doing archaeology. Surely there is a certain societal relevance to my work, but it is not as straightforward and as easy to pin down as, for instance, medical research with the potential of saving babies’ lives. Yet, often it gets forgotten that in those fields, the role of the individual researcher is rather minor – only a small block in a long chain of research toward the actual societal result. The individuality of humanities research often makes the public—and even the researchers themselves—forget about their longer research chain and its societal results (and, thus, relevance). It is this, I think, that has led to the more recent criticism levelled against humanities research—the larger picture and relevance often gets lost. This is why being part of the CSTT is such a great experience—you feel the larger relevance of the centre, as well as that of your own research.

My archaeological research will not be of direct, physical relevance to the person on the street. However, the material emphasis in my study shifts the balance toward the everyday aspects not usually given attention in history books or textual sources, yet which of course played important roles in the community at that time and, as a result, was of significant influence to society. Moreover, archaeology’s concern with ‘context’ provides an opportunity to balance people’s black-and-white views on ancient as well as recent events. The strong partition in society that has grown so clearly over the last decade (producing extremists, nationalists, etc.) is often due to a lack of understanding of contextual information. In our globalized world with more information coming toward us than ever before, clarifying context is crucial.

Which archaeological find, of all those you’ve been a part of, was most exciting to you?  Why?
I must confess, and this may sound odd, that I don’t have a particular find that has excited me the most. To be sure, last year’s mosaic floor at Horvat Kur was a very nice find. It hits a certain emotional level, as the inscription on it mentions the first known name of a person (Yudan bar Susu) to possibly have lived in this village in antiquity. It brings you closer to the actual people who lived here. Even the name of our site, ‘Horvat Kur’, is a modern one and we have no idea how the place was called in antiquity. But I cannot say that this personally was my most exciting find. Perhaps this sounds strange, but it is not the finds that excite me so much about archaeology. This is simply a consequence of the particular location where one digs—there’s more luck than skill in finding something spectacular.

Instead, I get more excited about the knowledge one is able to retrieve from a particular find, whatever it may be: a potsherd, a roof tile fragment, or a soil sample. This knowledge is not inherent in the find itself, but derives from the context where it was found. Perhaps the most exciting finds are the roof tile fragments found at Horvat Kur. Roof tiles? That sounds so dull! That may be, but petrographic research by our Horvat Kur team has shown that a considerable number of them were produced in the region of Cilicia, in south-west Turkey. The fact that a normal, small village in rural eastern Galilee used roof tiles made some 1000 km away shows how well-connected the Roman and Byzantine Empires were.

Is there anything you’ve researched that you never thought you’d find yourself interested in?
Well, this question fits my entire career in a way. It was never my plan to focus my research on Jewish and biblical history, let alone be physically working in a Biblical Studies department. It’s mainly my interest in research as such that brought me here, not the particular subjects themselves. I hold a (perhaps too) wide interest in archaeology, ranging from archaeological theory, ethics and the history of archaeology, to cultural heritage management and materials science. A mentor of mine in Leiden University, first enticed my interest in Roman archaeology, the cultural image of ‘Rome’ and its interaction with native subjects. The Roman Empire interests me, in part, because of how the West leans in its values and politics on Rome’s heritage, though I should say on their interpretation of this heritage. For my undergraduate thesis, I chose in 2005/6 one particular region to examine its cultural exchange with ‘Rome’. This became Galilee, in Israel. The initial topic turned out to be a bit larger than I expected… and, yes, I’m still working on it ten years later!

What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I’m quite excited about plaster… especially the plaster that was used for the stepped pools in order to avoid seepage losses. I am currently planning to do a short field season with colleagues this summer to visit some sites and to analyze the plaster of some stepped pools there. I hope this investigation will show more regarding how it was made, where its natural components originated from, and perhaps if it can tell us something about the water that was held in these pools. Also we’re planning to build some digital 3D models of these pools using photogrammetry. We then can use these digital models for simulating the water level fluctuation in these pools based on paleo-climatic evidence.

Interview conducted by Helen Dixon

Call for Papers: “The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine” (Helsinki, 22-24 Sept 2016)

The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine:  Current Issues and Emerging Trends
22–24 September 2016, University of Helsinki

*Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might be interested*

CFP Synagogue conferenceThe study of synagogues in ancient Palestine is flourishing more than ever. In the last decade at least four synagogues — one from the Late Second Temple-period (Magdala) and three dating to Late Antiquity (Kh. Wadi Hamam, Horvat Kur, Huqoq) — have been exposed by different archaeological expeditions. There is a thriving debate among scholars regarding the functioning and significance of these buildings within the Jewish communities of Palestine. Another continuing debate among archaeologists is the identification and dating of the exposed architectural remains. The excavations of the three above-mentioned late-antique synagogues have exposed richly decorated mosaic floors, which has added to our knowledge of the development of Jewish art. The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine. Current Issues and Emerging Trends provides an opportunity for scholars working on synagogues to discuss current issues in the field.
Four keynote speakers are confirmed: Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director of the Huqoq excavations. Karen Stern Gabbay is Assistant Professor of History, Brooklyn College, and specialized in the cultural identity and material culture of Jewish population in the Greco-Roman world. Zeev Weiss is Eleazar L. Sukenik Professor of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and director of the Sepphoris excavations. Jürgen Zangenberg holds the Chair for History and Culture of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Leiden University, and is director of the Horvat Kur excavations.

We invite papers that evaluate and integrate both textual and archaeological approaches to the synagogue in ancient Palestine and discuss some of the following issues in synagogue studies: The origins and development of synagogue(s); Questions of dating; Archaeology of Galilean and Judean synagogues including the most recent archaeological findings; Synagogue art and architecture; The synagogue within the Jewish community; Synagogues and Christian communities; Methodology; The history of synagogue research in the context of the early modern and current political situation. We encourage also papers from doctoral students.

Please send your abstract of 250–400 words, along with your name, institution, e-mail and tentative title, by Tuesday 15 March 2016 to Rick Bonnie, rick.bonnie@helsinki.fi.

The conference will be held at the University of Helsinki, 22–24 September 2016. There is no registration fee, but participants must cover their own travel and accommodation costs. The conference is organized by Rick Bonnie, Raimo Hakola, and Ulla Tervahauta, Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki.

The conference is funded by the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions and the Centre of Excellence in Reason and Religious Recognition, both Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki. The conference is organized in co-operation with the Foundation of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

Functions of Psalms and Prayers in the Late Second Temple Period (Sept. 25-26, Helsinki)

On September 25-26, 2015, the workshop on the Functions of Psalms and Prayers in the Late Second Temple Period will take place at the University of Helsinki. The workshop is funded by the Nordic Research Council (NRC), the Centre of Excellence in Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions (CSTT), and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation.  Continue reading Functions of Psalms and Prayers in the Late Second Temple Period (Sept. 25-26, Helsinki)

Reflections on Workshop “Functions of Psalms and Prayers in Late Second Temple Period Judaism” (Copenhagen, May 7-9)

By Jeremy Penner and Mika Pajunen

On May 7-9 scholars from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the United States gathered in Copenhagen for a workshop titled, “Functions of Psalms and Prayers in Late Second Temple Period Judaism.” The workshop took place under the auspices of the University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Theology, and was organized by Mika Pajunen, Trine Bjørnung Hasselbalch, Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme, Jeremy Penner, and Årstein Justnes. This workshop was part one of a two-part program, the second to be held in Helsinki on September 24-25 of this year.

Continue reading Reflections on Workshop “Functions of Psalms and Prayers in Late Second Temple Period Judaism” (Copenhagen, May 7-9)

Research seminar on Cognitive Science of Religion (Helsinki, March 3-4)

Trends and Challenges in the Cognitive Science of Religion
University of Helsinki, March 3-4, 2015

Venue: (note: room has changedFaculty Room Room 531, Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki (Vuorikatu 3, 5th floor)

Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) emerged in the 1990s to explain regularities of religious phenomena across time and place by using the growing body of knowledge from cognitive and evolutionary sciences. Today it is a pluralistic and interdisciplinary field that focuses on the intuitive mental mechanisms underpinning religious beliefs and behaviours as well as on the interaction of the human mind, social cognition, and cultural environment. CSR applies a wide variety of different theoretical perspectives, for example, from experimental psychology, neurosciences, biology and research on emotions.  Continue reading Research seminar on Cognitive Science of Religion (Helsinki, March 3-4)

New publication: “Crossing Imaginary Boundaries: The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Context of Second Temple Judaism”

Fresh from the printers! A new publication by the Finnish Exegetical Society, which is edited by two members of the CSTT, has just been released:

Pajunen, Mika S. & Hanna Tervanotko (eds.) (2015) Crossing Imaginary Boundaries. The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Context of Second Temple Judaism. Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society 108. Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society.  Continue reading New publication: “Crossing Imaginary Boundaries: The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Context of Second Temple Judaism”