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BASILICA (Greek βασιλική, talmudic בָּסִילְקִי), elongated rectangular building divided by colonnades. During the Roman period this term was broadened from the narrow meaning of a meeting place for merchants to any assembly hall. In particular the term referred to a hall used in the philosophers' schools and in wealthy homes for reading and lectures. In these basilicas, the apse was the area set aside for the lecturer or teacher. The entire hall was oriented toward the podium set in the apse, which had a concave roof serving as an acoustical ceiling. This type of basilica was the prototype for the early synagogues and churches. Talmudic sources refer to three types of basilicas, which served as palaces, bathhouses, and treasuries (Av. Zar. 16b). They note that the basilica also served as a hall of justice (Gen. R. 68:12) and as a place for the sale of grain (as in Ashkelon, Tosef. to Oho. 18 end).

An early example of the basilica construction is found in the "Royal Stoa" which Josephus (Ant., 15:411–416) describes as having been erected along the southern wall of the Temple Mount by Herod when he had the Temple rebuilt. This basilica had four rows of pillars each 23 ft. (7 m.) high. According to Josephus, its length was one stadion (606 ft. (185 m.)), but it appears to have been longer – about 920 ft. (280 m.). The central hall was 30 cubits wide and 60 cubits high. The width of the side aisles was 20 cubits, and the height, 30 cubits, giving the structure a true basilical form. Two partially carved stone pillars have been found in Jerusalem which by their size indicate that they were destined for this basilica. However, they were cracked and therefore not used. It is possible that Herod modeled his stoa after the Great Synagogue in Alexandria which has been described as "a kind of basilica with a stoa within a stoa" (Tosef. to Suk. 4:6). Conceivably this expression refers to the central area which was constructed between two colonnades. Another interpretation is that this refers to an additional stoa which extended the width of the hall. Such construction was typical of the early synago-gues, remains of which have been found at Masada and in Galilee.

The Christians adopted the western form of basilica, and most of the early churches (fourth–sixth centuries) were built on that model, although the term "basilica" was no longer in common usage. In the early Christian basilicas, the apse served as the seat of the priests. The altar was set before it, and this part of the building was separated from the remainder by a grille which crossed the width of the church. Two or more rows of columns extended the length of the building, separating the main hall in the center from the narrower aisles at either side.

The first churches in Palestine and elsewhere, e.g., the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, were built according to this design. In the fifth century a vestibule (narthex) was added to the front facade of the basilica churches.

Basilicas were also used for secular purposes in the Jewish community in Palestine. One structure of this nature (135 × 49 ft. (40 × 15 m.)) was found in Bet She'arim. It consists of an enclosed paved court, a vestibule, and a basilica with two rows of five columns each. At the far end of the building, opposite the entry, is a low platform. It would appear that this was a hall of justice in the time of R. Judah ha-Nasi.


C.M. Kaufmann, Handbuch der christlichen Archaeologie (1913); R. Cagnat and V. Chapot, Manuel d'archéologie romaine, 1 (1916), 128–34; H. Kohl und C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilea (1916); S. Krauss, Synagogale Altertuemer (1922), 32–102; E.L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934); J.B. Ward Perkins, in: Papers of British School at Rome, 22 (1954), 69–89; H.L. Gordon, in: Art Bulletin, 13 no. 3 (1931); M. Avi-Yonah and S. Yevin, Kadmoniyyot Arẓenu, 1 (1955), 200ff.; B. Mazar, in: YMḤEY, 21 (1957), 153–9.

[Michael Avi-Yonah]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.