by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-Archaeologists have unearthed floor mosaics in a number of Roman-era synagogues in Israel. The most beautiful and elaborate of these mosaics are the ones found at Huqoq in the Galilee region. Each summer since 2012, the stunning images released by the excavation team at Huqoq have generated considerable public interest and attention. On October 4, 2018, excavation director Jodi Magness visited Miami University to give an update on the progress of her work at Huqoq in a lecture sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).


Dr. Magness, the president of the AIA in 2018, is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina. In addition to her work with university students, she has communicated information about early Judaism to a wide audience in books including The Archaeology of the Holy Land (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2011).


Magness explained that Huqoq is near the Sea of Galilee, about three miles west of Magdala and Capernaum and next to a fresh water spring. Huqoq is mentioned twice in the Bible. In the description of the land allotted to the Israelite tribe of Naphtali in Joshua 19:32-39, we read that the boundary of that allotment is near Huqoq (v. 34). 1 Chron 6:75 adds that Huqoq was a Levitical town in the territory of Asher, which bordered the territory of Naphtali.1


Huqoq was a prosperous Jewish agricultural village during the early centuries AD. A wine press and an olive press have been found there. The Jerusalem Talmud (Y. Shevi'it 9,1,38c) mentions that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (c. 200 AD-c. 275 AD) visited Huqoq and saw people gathering mustard used to make oil.


Magness' team located a wall of the Huqoq synagogue in 2011, the first year of the excavation there. Based on evidence from pottery and coins, they have determined that the synagogue dates from the early fifth century AD. By that time Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire, but there is no indication that the Jews in Huqoq were being persecuted. Apparently Jewish villages and Christian villages in Galilee coexisted peacefully at that point.


Scenes of Samson

The excavators began uncovering the mosaic floor of the synagogue in 2012, beginning in the east aisle. The first section uncovered has a round medallion containing an inscription in white Hebrew letters on a black background. Of the six lines of writing in the inscription, only the third is complete, so it is not clear exactly what the inscription says. It may be a promise of reward to those who perform good deeds. The 2015 excavation revealed that the medallion is inside a wreath that originally contained four human faces in circular frames. (One of the faces is now missing.) The wreath is held up by four male figures whose feet are on spheres inscribed with theater masks. These spheres, in turn, are held by pairs of winged putti (cupids).


In the same section of the floor is another picture, only partially preserved, of a large man wearing a tunic cinched at the waist with a red belt. To the right of the man are two pairs of foxes, with their faces pointing outward and their tails tied together around lighted torches. The foxes show that the man is Samson, and the scene being depicted comes from Judges 15:1-5. At Samson's wedding to a Philistine woman at Timnah, Samson had made a bet with members of the wedding party that they could not solve a riddle he posed to them (Judges 14). When his bride gave away the answer to the riddle, he became enraged and stormed away. Sometime later he returned, bringing a kid as a peace offering, but by then the bride's father had given her to another man, thinking that Samson had rejected her. It was then that Samson took 300 foxes, tied them together in pairs with lighted torches, and turned them loose to destroy the crops of the Philistines.


Next to Samson and the foxes is another image of Samson, this time holding the gates of Gaza on his shoulders. This scene represents Judges 16:1-3, where the people of Gaza are hoping to capture and kill Samson, but he escapes by picking up the city gates and carrying them away.


The Huqoq synagogue is not the only one with a mosaic portraying Samson. At Wadi Hamam, three miles from Huqoq, another synagogue mosaic shows Samson killing Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15). At both Huqoq and Wadi Hamam, Samson is depicted as a giant, a detail that is not present in the Bible but is part of some rabbinic traditions about Samson. The presence of Samson in both these synagogue mosaics indicates that despite his obvious shortcomings, Samson was revered by Jews of that era as a military hero.


Momentous Meeting in Jerusalem

The most unusual mosaic at Huqoq was uncovered in 2013-2014 in the synagogue's east aisle. The bottom level of this elaborate scene shows a soldier in Greek armor, a battle elephant, and a bull all killed in battle. In the center of the middle level, a high priest sits on a throne. On either side of the high priest are young men gripping swords, apparently prepared for a fight. All of them are dressed in white garments bearing the symbol "H". This is a Greek letter eta, a symbol of high status.


The top level pictures a meeting between two groups of men. On the left are the high priest and the young men from the middle level, with the men putting away their swords. On the right, talking with the high priest, is a Greek ruler and military commander. The ruler is holding a bull, presumably for a sacrifice. Behind the ruler is a large army of men along with some elephants.


Magness believes that this mosaic represents a meeting at Jerusalem between Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest that was reported by Josephus in Antiquities 11.321-347 (11.8.4-7). According to Josephus, the high priest and a procession of people in white garments went out to meet Alexander as he approached Jerusalem. Alexander, based on a dream he had had, decided to honor the God of Israel and bring a sacrifice. Alexander was shown the book of Daniel and was pleased to see chapter 8, where it is predicted that a Greek ruler would defeat the Persians. We can see why this scene would be meaningful to the synagogue community at Huqoq, since it showed a powerful Gentile ruler acknowledging the sovereignty of the true King of the Universe.


An alternate proposal is that the mosaic depicts the siege of Jerusalem by the Seleucid king Antiochus VII Sidetes in 132 BC, which was also chronicled by Josephus in Antiquities 13.236-248 (13.8.2-3). The siege was ended after successful negotiations by John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean priest-king of Israel. In this proposal, the scene is memorable because it shows a Jewish head of state successfully engaging in international diplomacy.


Detailed Biblical Scenes

There are a number of biblical scenes in other parts of the synagogue, giving more examples of scriptures valued by the synagogue community and showing how the community interpreted those scriptures. In 2016 two major mosaics in the nave of the synagogue were uncovered. At the north end of the nave are pairs of animals preparing to board Noah's ark, with animals including "donkeys, elephants, bears, camels, leopards, a lion and lioness, snakes, sheep, foxes and ostriches," according to the dig's 2016 report. The ark is pictured as "a wooden box supported on legs."


South of the Noah's ark panel is a depiction of a pivotal moment in Jewish history, the drowning of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). Soldiers, horses, and chariots are shown in the water. Some soldiers are being swallowed by fish, a detail that is not mentioned in the Bible but may reflect a tradition known to the synagogue community.


Two more biblical scenes were revealed in the nave in 2017. In the south part of the nave is a panel picturing the first chapter of Jonah. In the center of this panel is a ship with a crew of five sailors. In the foreground on the left we see Jonah, who has been cast from the ship (Jonah 1:15). His legs protrude from the mouth of a fish, which has been swallowed by a larger fish, which has been swallowed by an even larger fish.


The Bible does not say anything about three fish. (Perhaps the three fish are meant to symbolize Jonah's three days in the fish's belly-Jonah 1:17). Magness mentioned that there is a known midrash about three fish swallowing Jonah. Previously the earliest attestations to this midrash came from medieval times.


In the upper left corner of the Jonah panel, three creatures that Magness described as "harpy sirens" stand on a storm cloud, dancing and playing a flute and a lyre. These creatures, which have the thighs, torso, and head of women and the wings, rump and feet of birds, are intended to be personifications of the storm winds that threaten the ship. There is also an allusion here to the story of Odysseus's encounter with sirens, a story often portrayed in ancient art.


A panel on the Tower of Babel incident (Gen 11:1-9) is located south of the Jonah panel. In it workers with diverse skin pigmentations and hairstyles, meant to represent various nationalities, engage in a number of construction tasks, including quarrying stone and sawing, planing, and chiseling wood. A pulley system is used to lift construction materials to workers on the tower. The beginning of divine intervention to halt the project is also pictured, with one worker falling off the tower and two workers from different nations fighting.


In 2018 more biblical scenes were discovered in the north aisle of the synagogue. One panel comes from Numbers 13, where Moses sends twelve spies to investigate the land of Canaan. This panel shows two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes attached to a pole, illustrating Num 13:23: "And they came to the Valley of Eshcol and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them." A Hebrew inscription above this scene says, "A pole between two."


In a second scene a young person is leading an animal, perhaps a wolf. An inscription says, "A little child shall lead them," quoting Isa 11:6. The inscription identifies this panel as an illustration of the idyllic description of the messianic era given in Isa 11:6-9.


Along with these biblical scenes, the 2018 finds included a Hebrew inscription near the main entrance of the synagogue, enclosed in a wreath. The translation of the Hebrew is something like, "Labor is the one thing asked beforehand. Once you labor-you shall achieve. After you labor-you shall notice." Archaeologists are not yet sure about the meaning of this inscription.


What Kind of Jews?

A number of the mosaics at Huqoq are different from any previously found in ancient synagogues. The panel illustrating the meeting between a high priest and a Greek ruler is especially distinctive.


On the other hand, one mosaic found in the nave in 2016, a representation of the calendar, is of a type now quite familiar to archaeologists. In the center is the Greek sun god Helios with a four-wheeled chariot and four white stallions, symbolizing the sun. This picture is surrounded by twelve circles containing pictures for the months of the year and corresponding signs of the zodiac. (The month Tishrei corresponds to Libra, Tevet to Capricorn, Cheshvan to Scorpio, and so on.) This type of calendar representation has been found at eight other ancient synagogues in Israel.


As Magness described this and other mosaics containing imagery from Greco-Roman culture, she asked the rhetorical question, "What kind of Jews were these?" At the end of her lecture, she explained that she thought the answer to her question was "normal ones."


In 2018 we are surprised to see images from pagan mythology in a Jewish synagogue. But if we were to go back in time and meet people from the Huqoq synagogue, we would find that they viewed things differently. They undoubtedly would tell us that they had no intention of worshiping pagan deities. Instead, they were using images familiar in their day to express their faith in the God of Israel. We often do similar things today, with symbols from our culture that surely will look strange to people examining our artifacts fifteen hundred years from now.


Plans are for the excavations at Huqoq to continue for several more years. Additional surprises probably will be unearthed in the years ahead.


1For these and other details about Huqoq and the excavations there, see Magness' article "Samson in the Synagogue" in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Issue 34


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