The ancient ruins of Qumran were exciting and Masada was an invigorating and rewarding climb but no ruins could ever compare with the pleasure of seeing some very nearly completely intact mosaic floors. The frescoes and plastering in the bath houses of Masada couldn’t even come close. As much as I can appreciate the history and design of an ancient site, I love to see remains that are largely intact. When you’re dealing with events that are so far in the past, you feel lucky to get such incredibly intact remains – they give you a real sense of what an ancient viewer would have been looking at and they are generally ripe with interesting meaning. The synagogue floors at Hammath Tiberius and Beth Alpha didn’t disappoint in this respect. Both boasted some very clear remains of mosaic floors with interesting images that generated lots of discussion – both within our group tour and in the readings that were assigned for today. One of the first readings that I read that dealt with controversial floor imagery was Jodi Magness’ article in the Biblical Archaeology Review Samson in the Synagogue. Her work features an excited description of the discovery of a synagogue floor at an excavation at Huqoq. The way that she describes her student’s trowel striking a hard surface only to uncover the beautiful mosaic image of a woman’s face really embodies why I enjoyed the mosaics of this day so much. They feel like such an authentic and concrete part of the past. They’re ancient and beautiful and really there. The floor that Magness and her students uncovered intrigued the excavators due to the presence of an image of Samson. In her article, Magness discusses how Samson has always been considered a prominent Christian hero, compared to Christ himself by some of the early church fathers. As the team examined the image, they began to theorize that the image reflected an emphasis on Samson as a local hero due to his membership within the tribe of Dan. As Huqoq is situated in the historic area of the tribes of Naphtali and Asher (said to have been near the Dan area), the researchers eventually decided that the image was perhaps on a synagogue floor in order to commemorate a biblical figure who was also seen as a local hero. Magness does acknowledge the presence of the image of Samson as an unexpected occurrence though.
Magness is not the only researcher to record strange sights on a synagogue floor mosaic. Hammath Tiberius and Beth Alpha both boast the very pagan symbol of a zodiac in the centre panel of their floors. Rachel Hachlili investigates this art form in the synagogue and its meaning in her article The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Synagogal Art: A Review. She describes the floor structure found in many ancient synagogues spanning the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, picking out the common elements of these zodiacs. The first commonality between these synagogue floors is that they were all divided into three panels across the floor that progress towards the front area of the space. The first panel generally portrays a biblical scene such as Beth Alpha’s Binding of Isaac, the second middle panel contains the zodiac, and the third panel will contain some symbol from the Torah. This order appears to be uniform throughout the synagogues discovered. The zodiacs are a particularly interesting feature of the synagogue floor due to their overt pagan significance. The figure in the centre is clearly a representation of the pagan sun deity Helios, as evidenced by his chariot and the rays of sun that halo his head. The sun god in the centre is surrounded by another circle that contains the twelve symbols of the zodiac which is in turn generally surrounded by a square in whose four corners are represented the four seasons. All evidence points to these synagogue floors having been commissioned especially for synagogue use – they were not residual pieces used by the community as the only available source of flooring.
The relationship that these floors embody is that between early Jewish society and its social context. Hachlili references the theory of scholar Goodenough in her article, who posits that the representation of the sun god Helios at the centre of the zodiac was, for the Jewish community, a representation of their own god. Helios was the chief god of the pagan pantheon of that time, making his image the standard way of understanding a principle deity. The Jewish community use this image, then, because it represents for them the power of their own god, Yahweh. This analysis would seem to point to the Jewish community as being perfectly comfortable with using pagan symbols to express their own sacred beliefs. It should be remembered, however, that Hammath Tiberius is an early example of a mosaic floor. The mosaic at Beth Alpha was constructed fully two centuries after that at Tiberius and Hachlili is very careful to point out that this floor is more abstract in its portrayal of Helios – the sun god portrayed only by his bust and a crown. It seems clear that even while pagan symbols may have been appropriate in Jewish sacred space, not all were in agreement as to how they should be used.
Steven Fine picks up on this divergence between communities in his article on early iconoclasm. He records the incident of a sarcophagus depicting the rape of Leda which was defaced in the eighth century CE. Fine notes that religious groups tend to blame iconoclasm on other groups, who supposedly do not favour the images portrayed and so destroy them. Fine stresses that this damage was likely done by Jewish hands though. The action shows that not all Jews were comfortable with the incorporation of pagan symbols in their sacred spaces. Fine also presents the famous passage from Exodus interpreted as opposing idolatry, adding to it that communities might have interpreted the passage as condemning only images that were worshipped. Thus, as long as the members of the community did not worship the images on the floor, the images in the synagogue would have been perfectly acceptable. Regardless of how each group interpreted which passages of Exodus, it becomes clear from various scholarly speculation around these synagogue floors that the attitude towards images in the synagogue was not clear. The confusion could likely stem from, as Fine indicated, the many adjustments that needed to be made in Jewish worship following the destruction of the Second Temple. The rabbis band together to interpret the laws of the Torah in light of the changes and one can see from the variety of opinions presented in literature such as the Talmud, the rabbis did not always see eye to eye. These floors remain as a testament to the uncertain way in which Jewish communities interacted with the greater society in which they were situated. The earlier community at Hammath Tiberius was not afraid to incorporate a bold image of Helios as they may have understood the image as in line with their own beliefs and even representing their own god. Beth Alpha attests to the way in which even two centuries can make such a large difference. The restrained portrayal of Helios demonstrates that the portrayal of pagan images was likely coming under further scrutiny. Fine indicates that by the eighth century BCE, iconoclasm was in full swing as Jewish communities became influenced by the aniconic Muslim powers that invaded the area. Older synagogues such as Na’aran were then altered – the faces of various images on the zodiac gouged out – so as to bring the spaces into line with new aniconic policies. The progression of Jewish synagogue floors over time demonstrates that the religion was in evolution, still churning with various opinions about how to relate to the world that surrounded these communities.
This struggle of identity against the “other” of the larger society continues today within all religions. I saw this especially reflected in styles of dress permitted in sacred spaces that we visited. These pilgrimage sites do want to invite visitors in, but they very carefully regulate the covering of shoulders and knees in order to assure that their standards of modesty are maintained. Like the early communities that we have seen evidence of, religious groups are always in conflict about the outside world, confused about just how much they want to let in. It seems be the eternal struggle of all religious groups.