BYU team helps discover 5th-century synagogue mosaic

Friday , July 05, 2013 - 5:53 PM

Jim Haberman


In May and June, Brigham Young University professor Matthew Grey supervised the excavation of an ancient synagogue in which a stunning pair of mosaics was discovered.The floor mosaics decorated the eastern aisle of the Late Roman (5th century) synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s Lower Galilee. One of the mosaics found shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). Adjacent to Samson are riders with horses, apparently representing Philistines.

Another portion of the mosaic preserves a scene that includes several male figures and an elephant. Below that is an arcade, the arches framing young men arranged around a seated elderly man holding a scroll.

The strip below shows a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his wounds, and a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.

The director of the Huqoq excavations, Jodi Magness, explains that this mosaic “might depict a triumphal parade or perhaps a martyrdom story based on 1-4 Maccabees, in which case it would be the first example of an apocryphal story decorating an ancient synagogue.” Magness points out, “Apocryphal books were not included in the Hebrew Bible/Jewish canon of sacred scripture.”

Grey says, “The discovery of mosaics depicting biblical and possibly apocryphal stories makes a significant contribution to our understanding of ancient Jewish art and synagogue worship. It also highlights the diversity of Jewish thought, religious life and scriptural tradition during the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in ways that are very exciting and unexpected.”

During the summer of 2012, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4) was also discovered in the synagogue.

“The discovery of two Samson scenes in the Huqoq synagogue suggests that it was decorated with a Samson cycle — the first such cycle known in Israel,” said Magness. “A cycle is a series of scenes about Samson, in which different episodes relating to Samson are depicted.” Although biblical scenes are not uncommon in Late Roman synagogue mosaics, only one other ancient synagogue in Israel (at Khirbet Wadi Hamam) is decorated with a scene showing Samson (the episode in which he smites the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass).

Grey explains how “the appearance of Samson in the Huqoq and Wadi Hamam mosaics raises an important question: Why were Jewish communities near the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee so interested in Samson during late antiquity? The answer is not immediately obvious, since Samson was not from this region and rabbinic literature from this period emphasizes his moral failures. Ancient liturgical texts … suggest some Jewish communities during the third through seventh centuries celebrated Samson as a messianic prototype who fostered hope in the messiah expected to appear at the end of days. … the Samson mosaics may reflect a popular apocalyptic worldview that is not well represented in rabbinic literature.”

Recent BYU graduate Bryan Bozung, who is now working on an MA in Second Temple Judaism at Yale University, made the initial discovery of the synagogue mosaics in the 2012 and assisted with the conservation of the mosaic floor discovered this summer.

Magness is joined as co-director of the Huqoq excavations by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Sponsoring institutions are University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, BYU, Trinity University in Texas, University of Oklahoma, University of Toronto, and University of Wyoming.

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2014.