What was the synagogue of the Freedmen?

The apostle Luke wrote: “Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9).

Possible interpretations

This passage is unclear as to the source of the Jews who made up “the synagogue of the freedmen.” The passage may be translated: “the synagogue called [the synagogue] of the Libertines and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians.” This could mean that there was only one synagogue. Its members were mostly freedmen and the others from Cyrene and Alexandria.

However, this translation may also mean that the synagogue consisted only of Libertines. The others referred to were groups of Jews not organized as synagogues but named by their places of origin. If either explanation of this translation is correct, the Libertines may have been the offspring of Jews who had been taken captive from Palestine to Rome by Pompey in 63 B.C. They were later given their freedmen (libertini) by their imprisoners.

There is another translation that calssifies the Libertines who formed this synagogue as coming from Cyrene and Alexandria.  Both locations had Jewish inhabitants.

Archeological evidence

Archeological proof shows that there was at least one synagogue in Jerusalem before A.D. 70 that was dedicated for the use of Hellenistic Jews. Archeologists found a Greek engraving in Jerusalem. This building was erected by Theodotus and used mainly for the use of Jews from the Dispersion. The engraving reads as follows:

“Theodotus, [son of] Vettenus, priest and ruler of the synagogue, son of a ruler of the synagogue, grandson of a ruler of the synagogue, built the synagogue for reading of the Law and for teaching of the commandments, and the guest-chamber, and the rooms, and the water supplies, for a lodging for those who have need from foreign lands, which [synagogue] his fathers and the elders and Simonides founded” (Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East, pp. 439–441).

Although it cannot be verified, it is likely that this synagogue was that of the “Libertines” cited in Acts 6:9. Whether this is correct or not, this engraving proves the existence of such a Hellenistic synagogue in Jerusalem.  This could therefore be the one with whose members the disciple Stephen clashed.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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