The big three sites to go see among the seven churches of revelation are Ephesus, Pergamon, Sardis, to which one must now add a fourth, Laodicea, because of the amazing archaeological work done there in the last five years. In this blog post and the next we must focus on Sardis. We will look at the major part of this site first, which includes the shops, synagogue and gymnasium complex. In the next post we will focus on the Temple of Artemis, which is a half mile away.
Like most of these sites, from the 4th century on, they became Christian sites, and the Byzantine Christians reused the Greco-Roman resources ready to hand. Here is an excellent example of such repurposing— a Greco-Roman inscription is simply turned upside down and used to carve crosses on!
There is evidence of very wealthy Jews in this city, and if you are wondering how they got along well, most of the time, with their pagan neighbors, it is because these were very Hellenized Jews, Jews who did not have a problem with building an opulent synagogue right next to a gigantic Greco-Roman bath. Indeed, much of the design, and artisan work in the synagogue itself is Greek in character. Consider for example the mosaic floor, which unlike the one in Sepphoris, has no OT stories to tell.
There are honorific inscriptions in the floor amongst the mosaics, indicating important persons and donors who helped build it no doubt. The impression you get is some Jews had done quite well here. This one honors a ‘theosebia’ a God-fearer who must have supported this synagogue….
There is a considerable controversy about the reconstruction of this gymnasium, as there was a lot of reconstruction by the Harvard team. Not mere restoration, but reconstruction. It looks like, like the ancient Jews who were prepared to take the chance of locating themselves right next to the gymnasium/bath complex, and the source of pagan influence in general, the modern archaeologists in this case were prepared to roll the dice, and hope it turned out o.k. However you view, in antiquity this must have been one of the most awesome gymnasiums anywhere in the Mediterranean.