Officers of the Synagogue

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.


"To Stafylus, Archon and Archisynagogos, who performed [his duties] with all honors, Restituta, his wife, set up [this stone] to the well-deserving [one]. In peace your sleep." (Inscription 322 (=CIJ 1. 265, JIWE 2, pp. 269-270; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 303). The epigraphy is in Latin, except for the common closing formula, which is in Greek. The expression "well-deserving" (in Latin, benemerenti) was one of the most commonly found descriptions in Jewish, Christian and pagan epitaphs.

The inscriptions in the Jewish catacombs have informed us of the names of more than a dozen synagogue offices, most of whose titles are in Greek and similar to titles of equivalent positions in the Hellenistic world, while encompassing the particular requirements of Jewish laws and customs.

The archisynagogos seems to have been the most eminent among the leaders of the congregations. According to some scholars, he was the spiritual leader of the synagogue and supervisor of the ritual; to others, he played a political, administrative and financial role in the affairs of the congregation, was entrusted with the construction and maintenance of the cult building, and possibly served as a representative of the congregation before Roman officials (Suggestions have been made that the duties of several lesser officials, such as archons, gerousiarchs, etc., included representing the congregation before Roman officials: Frey, CIJ 1, p. LXXV). Some have equated the archisynagogos role with that of the rosh knesset, who is referred to in Hebrew rabbinical literature (Lee Levine, "Synagogue Leadership: The Case of the Archisynagogue," in M. Goodman, p. 204). He is thought to have presided over the congregation, directed the services, chosen the readers of the Torah, and delivered the sermon: Lee Levine also cites a third century source that mentions a rosh knesset in Bostra who “was arranging the seating in the synagogue (lit. dragging a bench) in the presence of R. Jeremiah (Levine, Archisynagogos, p. 206).

Since the term of office of an archisynagogos is unknown, the holder was probably not elected annually, and the office was not always restricted to one individual at a time (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 171-172; Frey, CIJ 1, pp. xcvii-xcix; B. Lifschitz, Donateurs et fondateurs dans les synagogues juives (1967), p. 38).

The title of archisynagogos did not exclude the bearer from holding other offices (although perhaps not concurrently) such as that of archon, as was the case with Stafylus (above). Upon retirement, some former officeholders were named "archisynagogos for life", a distinction also accorded to some archons.

Outside of Rome there are examples of the office of archisynagogos being handed down from father to son and even grandson. A dedicatory inscription to one Theodotus indicated that, like his father and grandfather, who were both archisynagogoi, he was extremely generous in the building of a synagogue and its well-equipped hostelry in Ophel. Affluence was no doubt of as much advantage as heredity in qualifying for appointment or election to this office. De Rossi recorded an inscription in a Venosa catacomb of an archisynagogos who was a child of three years and three months. Noy commented that, although this is the "only example of a very young archisynagogos in a Jewish inscription," Jewish children were named to other offices, and Christian children received ecclesiastical titles around this time as well.


The gerousiarch held the highly esteemed office of leader of the gerousia, the governing body of the congregation. Although the gerousia itself was not specifically mentioned in Roman Jewish inscriptions, the numerous gerousiarchs whose titles were recorded surely indicate the existence of such a body. The personal qualities of the men chosen for the office may have been a consideration for their holding this position. Of the gerousiarch Theophilos, his children said their "very sweet" father ... "lived a good life and had a good reputation."

The board over which the gerousiarch presided probably functioned much like that of a modern synagogal governing body, regulating both lay and ritual affairs, including business concerning properties, the educational institutions, charitable functions, burials, care of the infirm, and possibly the collection of funds for the Patriarch and the Temple at Jerusalem, and after the destruction of the Temple, for the imperial treasury. In addition, the gerousia functioned as a kind of local Sanhedrin, acting as the religious, juridical, and legislative body for the Jewish community, with prototypes in the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem and in Greek and Roman governing councils. It may have possessed a degree of juridical power in some civil cases involving its congregation. (End, p. 105:3)

A clue to one of the responsibilities of the gerousiarch and his fellow officers may be derived from a marble inscription found at Castel Porziano, about ten kilometers southeast of Ostia. (end, 4) According to this decree, the Jewish synagogue of Ost[ia?], with the gerousia's agreement, gave a parcel of community land to the gerousiarch C. Iulius Iustus to build a family monument.(end, 5) They did this on the motion of three officials: one called the "father" (pater), one a gerousiarch, and one whose position has been speculatively restored as "life-officer." The inscription indicates that in this community the gerousiarch and the pater must have had some influence on the disposition of congregational properties.


In the Jewish community, the archon, a Greek term meaning "ruler," was an official of the synagogue elected annually at about the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles.(end 10) The archon probably dealt with the secular business of the synagogue, such as financial agreements and political relations. He might have been a member of the local gerousia, if there were one, or a congregational representative to an overall communal council. In spite of the fact that there are almost fifty references to the post, making it the most frequently mentioned title in the Jewish epitaphs of ancient Rome, there is no definite description of the job duties.(end 11) Yet, while some archons were full of years and, one presumes, of wisdom and could preside as elders, several epitaphs were dedicated to young persons who held the title at a surprisingly early age. There is some disagreement about the true meaning of the inscription on the sarcophagus of " ... Caelius Quintus who loved his father, twice an archon, aged 13 (?), a Hebrew boy." Whether it was Caelius or his father who was "twice an archon," there is no doubt that Annianus, " ... archon, child, son of Julianus, Father of the Synagogue of the Campesians... " held the title when he died at the age of eight years and two months (fig. ??).(end 12) It seems obvious that a child honored with the title of archon must have belonged to an illustrious or very wealthy family. Some adults, as well, may have been given the title "Archon" or, an apparently even more illustrious designation found in some inscriptions, "Life Archon," as an honor. (End 13) Archons could be reelected and hold other offices in the congregation as well.(end 14)


The mellarchon was an archon-designate. Alexander, an archon pases times (archon of all honor) raised a monument (fig. ) to "his sweetest child, Alexander, archon-to-be."(end 17) Depending upon the age of Alexander the younger, this epitaph may imply that in certain instances "mellarchon" might also be an honorary title. As Leon pointed out, there was "the surprising case of Siculus Sabinus" who, according to his epitaph, was already mellarchon of the Volumnesians although he was a child of two years and ten months when he died.(end 18) A Latin inscription, recorded in the 18th century but now lost, memorialized twelve-year-old Marcus Quintus Alexus, the scribe and archon-to-be of the Augustesians.


The office of the pater synagogae (Father of the Synagogue), must have commanded respect in circles outside of the local Jewish community, for the holder of that position, along with the archisynagogos and the hiereis (priest or Hebrew cohen), was exempted by the laws of Rome from compulsory service of a physical nature. In later additions to the Roman law codes, presbyters or elders of the synagogue and Christian clerics were also exempted.

The fact that the counterpart title, mater synagogae, was held by women may indicate that the offices were mostly honorary, conferred on the most highly respected, beneficent, and long-established individuals of the community, and may have been associated with charitable duties. The pater and mater synagogae were usually associated with a specific congregation, as Julianus and Q. Claudius Synesius were with the Campesians, Gadias with the Hebrews, and Menophilus with the Calcaresians. But at least one Father of the Synagogue, Asterias, "pious [and] blameless," was memorialized in the Randanini catacomb without his synagogue being named.

The epitaph of Beturia Paulina (above, p. ? ), was inscribed on a sarcophagus in Latin, a language infrequently used in the Jewish catacombs of Rome, with the final formula in Greek words transliterated into Latin. It has been translated as follows: "Beturia [Veturia] Paulla [Paulina?] F (?) settled in her eternal home, who lived 86 years, 6 months, a proselyte for 16 years named Sara, Mother of the Synagogues of Campus and Volumnius. In peace her sleep."

Although Beturia Paulla did not become a convert to Judaism until the age of seventy, at which time she took the traditional biblical name of Sara, she must have been highly esteemed to have been honored as Mother of the Synagogue by two congregations.

The title was bestowed upon Jewish women in other parts of Italy also, as in the epitaph of Caelia Paterna from Brescia in Venetia. In the Jewish catacomb at Venosa in Apulia, the titles of mater and pateressa were found several times. These honorifics might be comparable to Mother of the Synagogue, but it is uncertain whether the Venosa titles are civic or religious, since the term synagogue is not actually used with them.

The titles of pater and mater synagogae had parallels in Greek and Roman religious associations. That of "father" appeared as well in Oriental mystery religions and was a particularly elevated position in Mithraism.


An inscribed sarcophagus fragment, discovered around 1892 in the course of new construction near the Via Portuensis, must have come from the Monteverde catacomb; it was dedicated to Domnus. Called Father of the Synagogue of the Vernaclians, he was three times elected archon, a unique phenomenon in the recorded epigraphy of Rome. He also served twice as phrontistes, another office known in the Greek world. The duties appear to have been those of overseer and business manager of the properties belonging to the community, such as the synagogue itself, the burial grounds, the lands and all the buildings.


A marble plaque in the Monteverde catacomb was dedicated to "Caelius, prostates of the Agrippesians." The duties of the prostates were probably those of a legal representative who, like the patronus, his Roman counterpart, protected the interests of the congregation, particularly in dealing with political authorities.


The grammateus, or scribe, was charged with the secretarial duties of the congregation, to record the proceedings of the gerousia and the general assembly, and to conserve the official documents. Analogies have been drawn between this post and that of the same official in the Greek boulé (council), as well as in the Sanhedrin. As the secretary, he also kept current the list of members of the congregation. He was probably elected by the general assembly of the congregation for life.

The subject of a finely-carved epitaph from Father Fasola's excavations in the upper catacomb under the Villa Torlonia, was Gaianos, a "grammateus, psalmodist, lover of the Law." Fasola observed that this stone bears "the only example in Jewish epitaphs of a term relative to the singing of the psalms in synagogal liturgical service."

Appropriately for a lover of the Law, the center of the upper part of Gaianos's stone is occupied by the Ark, with doors open to reveal twelve Torah scrolls, flanked on the left by a shofar and a vessel (probably for oil), and on the right by a menorah.

In the Randanini Catacomb several epitaphs were found which seem to belong to members of a family in which the title of grammateus was conferred upon three generations.
"Honoratus his father, the scribe, and Petronia his mother, to Petronius the scribe, their incomparable son. He lived 24 years, 4 months, 15 days. Here he lies. In peace his sleep."
"Here lies Honoratus, the pious scribe, who lived 70 years, 8 months, 12 days. Rufus, the Archon, to his most sweet father. In peace your sleep."

"Here lies Honoratus, scribe, small son of Rufus, the Archon. He lived 6 years, 28 days. In peace your sleep."

As in the case of child archons and mellarchons, to have bestowed such a title as grammateus on a six-year-old child must have been done to honor a well-respected family and to acknowledge the tradition of the title being passed down in that family. Perhaps, when the child reached a suitable age, he would carry out the duties of the office. In the Christian community as well, there were child officials too young to fulfill the responsibilities suggested by their titles. The Romans accorded similar recognition to individuals and their families for liberality or civic-minded service. At the age of six, N. Popidius Celsinus of Pompeii was elected a decurion (member of the city council) "for restoring the Temple of Isis from its foundations." Obviously, the benefactor was the child's ambitious, prosperous father, a freedman who had adopted the eminent pre-Roman family name of his former master, Popidius. As a former slave, he himself could not aspire to civic office, but he could start his son's rise to honor.


The Jewish Cohanim (priests; in Greek, iereus, iereis) were the descendants of the family of Aaron and, by heritage, performed the sacrificial rites in the Jewish Temple. Although that function was eliminated with the fall of the temples at Jerusalem and Leontopolis (Egypt), the esteem bestowed upon the members of this family continued as a tradition, as it does today. In Rome, their main activity, apparently, was to deliver benedictions. The priests also were the first to read from the Torah during the service.

Of the six stones from the Roman Jewish catacombs which bear references to priests, five came from Monteverde. The sixth, recorded as a sarcophagus front built into a fountain near Piazza Navona and no longer extant, was probably also from Monteverde, since the inscription indicates that the deceased priest was an archon of the Calcaresians, who used that cemetery. Since Monteverde seems to have been among the earliest of the Jewish catacombs, Leon suggested that its more conservative user-congregations would be likely to cling to the tradition of honoring the priestly families. One marble plaque memorializes "...Judas and Joses, archons and priests and brothers..."; the only epitaph from Monteverde, according to Noy, which commemorates two siblings together, holding the same titles.
By the 4th century, the Christians were using the designation iereus in a wider sense, connoting a "religious functionary," including deacons, presbyters and bishops.


"Flavius Julianus, hyperetes. Flavia Juliana, his daughter, for her father. In peace your sleep." This inscription from the Randanini catacomb contains the only mention to date in the Roman Jewish catacombs of a functionary called the hyperetes. Most scholars consider the office to be that of an attendant in the synagogue who brought out the Torah scrolls for the service, led the synagogue in prayers, and returned the scrolls to the Ark afterward. He was also responsible for maintaining the synagogue lamps, announcing the onset of the Sabbath, and generally assisting the archisynagogos in the more routine practices of the service. The synagogue attendant, called a hazzan in rabbinic writings, was described performing this service in the New Testament. Presumably every synagogue had some one who carried out these duties, and the fact that the office is mentioned in only one Roman Jewish epitaph may imply that no particular honor was attached to it.

In Jewish congregations, eventually the primary role of the hazzan was as a cantor: to lead the chanting of the prayers.


In Num. 11:16,17, Moses was commanded to gather for the Lord "seventy men of the elders of Israel...the officers over [the people]"...who would share with Moses the burden of the people.
The title of presbyter or elder was shared by officials in both Jewish and Christian congregations, and often appears in the plural in epigraphic and scriptural evidence, implying that the presbyters may have acted together as a council.

A vestigial inscription on a fragmentary Jewish epitaph from the Monteverde catacomb has been interpreted by some as being dedicated to ""Metrodoros, presbyter." Although there are many examples of the title in other parts of Italy and the Mediterranean area, this would be the only instance in the Jewish catacombs of Rome, to date, of a male holding the title. Leon noted that "complete certainty is hardly possible" since so little of the inscription remains. He speculated as to whether such officials would have sat on the governing board or Council of Elders of each congregation. Although Jewish presbyters were given special seating in the synagogue during worship and other assemblies, the single appearance of this title, which could, after all, be applied to many "elders," may indicate that the office of presbyter was another position not significant enough, at least in Rome, to warrant mention on a tombstone.

The lack of precise documentary material blurs the distinctions between the various offices. There appear to be overlapping functions among the various synagogue officials; the archons, gerousiarchs, mothers and fathers of the synagogue, phrontistes and prostates, all seem to have served in similar capacities at times and the term "elders" may have been applied to all of them. It seems likely that important officeholders of the congregations all shared an interest, in some way, in financial responsibility, administrative and judicial issues, and representation of the congregation before non-Jewish authorities, along with their participation in other congregational affairs. The archisynagogos and presbyter apparently filled more of a religious role, while the duties of the other officeholders may have been of a more civic nature.