The Arty Semite

Mystery Mosaic Discovered in Ancient Galilee Synagogue

By Menachem Wecker

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Photo Credit: Jim Haberman

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brigham Young University, Trinity University (Texas), University of Toronto, and University of Wyoming believe that they have uncovered the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.

In 2012, the team, led by Jodi Magness, Kenan distinguished professor for teaching excellence in early Judaism at Chapel Hill, excavated a mosaic at the 5th-century synagogue at Huqoq, in Israel’s Lower Galilee, which represented Samson tying torches to foxes’ tails, per Judges 15:4. Last year, the scholars found a second mosaic, which depicted Samson shouldering Gaza’s gate (per Judges 16:3).

The third mosaic, which the researchers uncovered in 2013 and continued to unearth through this summer, has an entirely different iconographic program. The mosaic, which is split into three registers along the synagogue’s east aisle, shows spears piercing a bloody bull, and what a UNC press release describes as “a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.”

(Asked if she would provide images of the third mosaic, Magness said, “We are not releasing the new mosaic yet, until my specialist has a chance to study it and prepare it for publication.”)

The other two registers contain representations of young men surrounding a seated older man with a scroll, and a “bearded, diademed soldier wearing elaborate battle dress and a purple cloak [who] is leading a large bull by the horns, accompanied by a phalanx of soldiers and elephants with shields tied to their sides,” according to the release. “He is meeting with a grey-haired, bearded elderly man wearing a ceremonial white tunic and mantle, accompanied by young men with sheathed swords, also wearing ceremonial white tunics and mantles.”

Although Zodiac signs are portrayed at the 6th-century Beit Alpha synagogue (Israel), Magness stresses that the third Huqoq mosaic is the first non-biblical narrative in a synagogue, even though non-biblical imagery exists. “Helios and the zodiac cycle is not a story or narrative,” she says. “The other stories depicted in ancient synagogues (including at Dura Europos) are all taken from the Hebrew Bible.”

Given the dearth of elephants in the Hebrew bible, identifying the figures in the mosaic is difficult. Magness is quoted in the UNC release saying that battle elephants are associated with Alexander the Great and subsequent Greek armies. The depiction, she writes, could refer to the legend that Alexander met the Jewish high priest. Asked if the elephants (and lit oil lamps in the second register) could suggest the Hanukkah story and the Maccabean revolt, Magness said she and her colleagues had speculated about a Maccabean interpretation last year, but the newly uncovered mosaics defy that identification.

“We will need to study this mosaic and prepare it properly for publication before we can make educated suggestions about possible interpretations,” she says.

The Huqoq discovery, said Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, joins other recent discoveries in the area “that deepen our understanding of Jewish religious life in this region.” Fine, who has published extensively on Greco-Roman synagogues and directs the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration project, declined to provide more specific comments before seeing the published images. He noted, however, that Magness is “particularly consciousnesses in this regard” and that she and her colleagues “publish their work quickly and share widely. Not all archaeologists are so appropriate.”

The discovery, Fine said, appears to be “quite fragmentary, and they have no evidence how the building was decorated beyond the floor. For ancient history, though, that is quite a lot.” The trouble with fragmentary discoveries, he added, is that they can resemble Rorschach tests “even if certain forms, or in this case, mostly verbs, seem familiar.”

Magness said the discoveries at Huqoq “highlight the continued diversity of Judaism after 70 C.E., through late antiquity.”

“I also think that our discoveries show how much we don’t know — for example, we never before had a non-biblical story decorating an ancient synagogue, and the Samson imagery is a surprise too,” she said. “Our discoveries attest to the continued flourishing of Jewish settlements in Galilee in late antiquity, that is, under Byzantine Christian rule.”


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