Hitherto Unknown Biblical Depictions Found At The Roman Era Huqoq Synagogue

HuqoqCopyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

The ancient synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, has been the focal point of yearly excavations since 2011, led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the space of nine years, archaeologists were able to unravel a series of stunning mosaics from the confines of the structure that harks back to the late Roman period (circa 5th century AD). And the interesting part relates to how the spectrum of the subject matter covered by these artworks is extensive, ranging from Biblical scenes (including stories of Noah and Samson), Greco-Roman divine entities to even historical scenarios like (possibly) Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest.

The Newest Discoveries –

Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

To that end, this year’s (2019) newest discoveries have brought forth quite a few fortuitous finds relating to Biblical subject matter. For example, Chapter 7 in the Book of Daniel mentions four beasts that represent four kingdoms leading up to the end of days. And intriguingly, the archaeologists have found mosaics that depict these four beasts. Additionally, they could also identify the first and the only known visual depiction of the episode of Elim (Exodus 15:27) in Jewish art. 

Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

According to Dr. Jodi Magness, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who has been heading the archaeological project at the almost 1,600-year old Huqoq site –

Chapter 7 in the book of Daniel describes four beasts which represent the four kingdoms leading up to the end of days. This year our team discovered mosaics in the synagogue’s north aisle depicting these four beasts, as indicated by a fragmentary Aramaic inscription referring to the first beast: a lion with eagle’s wings. The lion itself is not preserved, nor is the third beast.  However, the second beast from Daniel 7:4 – a bear with three ribs protruding from its mouth – is preserved. So is most of the fourth beast, which is described in Daniel 7:7 as having iron teeth.

We’ve [also] uncovered the first depiction of the episode of Elim ever found in ancient Jewish art. This story is from Exodus 15:27. Elim is where the Israelites camped after leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water. The mosaic is divided into three horizontal strips, or registers. We see clusters of dates being harvested by male agricultural workers wearing loincloths, who are sliding the dates down ropes held by other men. The middle register shows a row of wells alternating with date palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic is carrying a water jar and entering the arched gate of a city flanked by crenellated towers. An inscription above the gate reads, “And they came to Elim.”

Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

History of Huqoq –

Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now in the Biblical scope, Huqoq is mentioned as a border town for the tribe of Naphtali in the Book of Joshua.  As for the historical side of affairs, in the later era of the Romans and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), the settlement functioned as an agricultural village that produced its fair share of mustard, stone vessels, and rabbis (thus attesting to its ancient Jewish population). 

Suffice it to say, the archaeologists were pleasantly surprised by the flurry of mosaics, a feature that was never found before in canonical Galilean synagogues. Essentially, the researchers have hypothesized that these vibrant artworks rather mirrored the thriving nature of the Jewish people in the 5th century Levant, which rather contradicts the popular notion relating to their decline under Christian rule.

As for the compelling link between archaeology and history in the context of Huqoq, Dr. Magness said –

Our work sheds light on a period when our only written sources about Judaism are rabbinic literature from the Jewish sages of this period and references in early Christian literature. The full scope of rabbinic literature is huge and diverse, but it represents the viewpoint of the group of men who wrote it. That group was fairly elite, and we don’t have the writings of other groups of Jews from this period.

Early Christian literature is generally hostile to Jews and Judaism. So, archaeology fills this gap by shedding light on aspects of Judaism between the fourth to sixth centuries CE – about which we would know nothing otherwise. Our discoveries indicate Judaism continued to be diverse and dynamic long after the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.

Chronology of Mosaic Discoveries at Huqoq –

Samson carrying the gates of Gaza. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Going down the chronological line, the first of these mosaics were discovered in 2012 after a year of excavation at the ancient site. The find pertained to the depiction of Samson and his rage-fueled action of setting the Philistines’ fields ablaze by tying burning torches to each unfortunate pair of foxes’ tails (Judges 15:4). In 2013, the researchers found yet another mosaic representation of Samson, this time carrying the gates of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3) – pictured above.

The blonde-haired Greek military commander. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

In the following years, archaeologists were able to uncover even more incredible mosaic scenes, including the ‘non-Biblical’ one that portrays a Greek military commander with golden locks (possibly Alexander the Great), wearing a regal purple attire and a diadem, who is meeting with a white-bearded man clad in white robes (possibly a high priest). 

Egyptian soldiers swallowed by a monster fish. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Quite intriguingly, the Greek commander is showcased in an authoritative light, as he leads a bull by its horns and is followed by soldiers and even an elephant (pictured in the featured image) – an animal that was never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Now while the main hypothesis regarding this panel still leans towards the representation of Alexander the Great, the other possibility relates to the depiction of Maccabees facing off against the Seleucid Greeks.

Pair of donkeys in Noah’s Ark scene. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 2015, the researchers were once again enticed by the pictorial scope of the corresponding panel which depicts a rather vivid scene involving humans, animals and mythological creatures like putti (cupids). And in 2016, archaeologists were able to discern mosaic images pertaining to Noah’s Ark and his adventure, along with the (separate Biblical episode of) parting of the Red Sea. 

The story of Noah’s Ark is represented with the illustration of an ark and pairs of animals, including an assortment of camels, lions, sheep, donkeys, bears and even snakes. As for the momentous scene of the parting of the Red Sea, the very-next mosaic depicts the Egyptian soldiers being swallowed by a monster fish, while their chariots are overturned and destroyed.

Month of Teveth (December-January) with the sign of Capricorn. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

And in 2017, researchers salvaged yet another series of mosaic panels from the ancient Huqoq synagogue. This time around the depictions included – Greco-Roman sun god Helios in a quadriga (four-horse chariot) surrounded by symbolic zodiac signs, the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (where the marine animal is shown to be swallowed by a larger fish, and the larger fish is being swallowed by an even larger fish), and the Tower of Babel being constructed by laborers. Back then, Dr. Magness said –

One of the distinguishing features of the Huqoq mosaics is the incorporation of numerous classical (Greco-Roman) elements such as putti, winged personifications of the seasons, and — in the Jonah scene — harpies (large birds with female heads and torsos representing storm winds). The mosaics also provide a great deal of information about ancient daily life, such as the construction techniques are shown in the Tower of Babel scene uncovered this summer [2017].

Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

And finally, in 2018, the archaeologists came across an arrangement of panels with pictorial depictions and Hebrew inscriptions. One panel with the label ‘a pole between two’ represents a Biblical scene from Numbers 13:23, with the accompanying images depicting two spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes (pictured above). 

Another panel, referring to Isaiah 11:6, had the inscription ‘a small child shall lead them’. The concurrent pictorial panel depicted a youth leading an animal on a rope. On one end of the eastern aisle, the researchers were further able to unveil a fragmentary Hebrew inscription with the phrase ‘Amen selah,’ meaning ‘Amen forever’. These incredible discoveries were complemented by the rare 1,600-year-old finds of intact columns bedecked in colorful, painted plaster.

Wood worker in the Tower of Babel scene. Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill

All Images – Copyright: Jim Haberman, Courtesy: UNC-Chapel Hill.

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