An Ancient Roman Convert to Judaism Who Became a “Mother of the Synagogues” » Mosaic
In the first centuries of the Common Era, many Roman Jews buried their dead in elaborate catacombs, many of which can still be seen today. One sarcophagus bears the name of Beturia Paulina, whom the inscription—from the 1st century CE—describes as having converted to Judaism sixteen years prior to her death at age eighty-six. Carly Silver writes:
Based on her name, [Beturia Paulina] likely grew up worshiping the gods of the Roman empire. Her epitaph was written in Greek transliterated into Latin. . . . As many converts to Judaism do today, Beturia Paulina adopted a name from the Jewish tradition. The epitaph mentions her as nominae Sara, or “(going) by the name of Sara.” . . . .
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Beturia Paulina received the title of mater synagogarum Campi et Volumni, or “mother of the synagogues of Campus and Volumnius.” This terminology is multifaceted. For one thing, it implies that the idea of the synagogue . . . as a gathering place for people of the Jewish faith existed throughout Italy. And networks of synagogues existed throughout Rome itself, creating links among communities of the faithful. Campus, or “field,” probably refers to the geographic location of one center of worship, perhaps the synagogue near the Field of Mars. [Most likely, the second] synagogue was named for an individual or family called Volumnius. . . .
So Beturia Paulina was clearly closely associated with multiple synagogues in Rome. But what does her title, “mother of the synagogues,” refer to? The late historian Louis Feldman suggested that such monikers were given to women—independently of men—who gave generously to the synagogues in question. [Another] scholar, Bernadette Brooten, posited that their contributions very well might have gone beyond the monetary. Perhaps these women worked actively in these communities as leaders.