Scenes from the life of Samson, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel and the parting of the Red Sea may not seem like extraordinary subjects for ancient synagogue mosaics.
But what about that Hebrew inscription about mitzvot, surrounded by theater masks and naked winged boys? Or that three-tiered mosaic depicting the meeting of two important men — one who may be Alexander the Great and who is accompanied by battle elephants?
That one, archaeologist Jodi Magness told an audience gathered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning Monday night, is the first non-biblical story ever discovered decorating an ancient synagogue.
Stunning and strange may be an apt way to describe the findings of Magness and her team, who for the last seven summers have been excavating the remains of a fifth-century synagogue from the ancient village of Huqoq in the hills northwest of the Sea of Galilee.
That the scientists and historians have uncovered intricate mosaic floors decorating the late Roman building was surprising enough, Magness told the crowd at Pitt, who had gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Cathedral’s Israel Heritage Room.
But the subjects and details of those mosaics may turn on their head long-held assumptions about Jewish communities in the land of Israel following the rise of Christianity.
Magness holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
She and her team, which includes biblical scholars and art historians, is working to figure out what could have been going on in the Jewish community of Huqoq during a time when Christianity had become the official and legal religion of the region, setting out to see whether “Jewish communities continued to flourish, or did they decline,” she told her audience.
Her findings seem to prove that at least the Jewish community of Huqoq — located in a spot only a few miles from the home of Mary Magdalene as well as Capernaum, a synagogue in which Jesus taught — was thriving.
“Jews and Jewish communities continued to flourish, even under Byzantine Christian rule,” Magness said.
As more of it is exposed every year, “the fifth-century synagogue mosaic at Huqoq is proving to be one of the most important discoveries of ancient Jewish art ever found,” said Ben Gordon, assistant professor and Rosenberg-Perlow Fellow in Classical Judaism at the University of Pittsburgh, who was instrumental in bringing Magness to Pittsburgh. “The Jewish community who worshiped in this synagogue in antiquity prayed over venerable scenes from the Bible — Noah’s ark, the splitting of the Red Sea and the feats of Samson, among others.”
“This was a community for whom the Hebrew Bible played an important spiritual role,” Gordon added. “Not only were biblical stories incorporated into prayers and liturgical poetry, but they were also portrayed visually in mosaic art. The results are stunning.”
This past summer, the Huqoq excavations focused on the southern part of the synagogue’s nave, or main hall and exposed three panels.
The northern panel depicts a medallion at its center, with the Greco-Roman sun god Helios in a chariot surrounded by incarnations of the months and the zodiac symbols, and human-like characterizations of the four seasons.
The second panel depicts an unusual representation of the story of Jonah, with Jonah’s legs hanging out of the mouth of a fish that is being swallowed by another fish, which in turn is being swallowed by a third fish.
This is the first discovery of a depiction of the story of Jonah on a mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue in Israel, according to Magness.
The third panel intricately depicts the construction of the Tower of Babel, complete with an ancient pulley system.
Images of many of the mosaics have not yet been published, so photographing the slides presented by Magness was prohibited.
Magness expects her excavations to continue for the next four or five summers.
She acknowledged that some of the mosaics were most definitely unusual for a synagogue and that she did not yet have answers to what all the images meant, or what they were doing there, but hopes her wide-ranging team of scholars will be able to learn more about the Jewish community of Huqoq as their work continues.
She is “optimistic” that the site, which is backfilled at the end of each season to keep it protected, eventually will be developed by Israeli government agencies for tourism.
Following Magness’ slideshow, the audience was invited to tour the Israel Heritage Room, one of 33 nationality rooms in the Cathedral of Learning, according to Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, the chair of the Israel Heritage Room Committee.
Magness’ lecture was a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Israel room, Perlman said, because the décor of that room itself “feels like an ancient Galilean classroom.”
Perlman noted that the Israel Heritage Room Committee raises funds for and provides scholarships allowing students to travel abroad to study “in places of Jewish interest,” including Israel.
The Israel Heritage Room Annual Lecture, which is sponsored by the Jewish Studies program at Pitt, “was made possible by the Giant Eagle Foundation Endowment for Community Outreach,” according to Adam Shear, director of Pitt’s Jewish Studies program. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at