First Person: The Sun God in the Synagogue

Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the November/December 2013 issue of BAR

The 92nd Street Y in New York City called me a few months ago, asking me to speak. We discussed possible topics, and I finally chose “What’s a Greek God Doing in an Ancient Synagogue?” They also agreed to my asking two real experts to join me on the platform: Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Steve Fine of Yeshiva University. We had a good time—and so did the enthusiastic audience—but we didn’t solve the problem, at least to my mind.

The mosaic pavement from the Beth Alpha synagogue in Israel. Art Resource, NY

I, of course, had been thinking of the mosaic pavement of the Hammath Tiberias synagogue on the Sea of Galilee. It wasn’t only that there was Helios, the Greek sun god, riding his four-horse chariot (quadriga) right there in the middle of the zodiac, but it was featured in the center of the floor right behind a mosaic of the Torah ark that was flanked by two large menorahs. Below the Helios mosaic was an inscription thanking the good Jews who founded or contributed money to the synagogue.

But that was just the beginning. Mosaics with Helios in his quadriga were featured in half a dozen synagogues in Late Antiquity (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.) sprinkled around upper Judea. And if you try to limit things geographically, I’ll call your attention to a text-only zodiac in the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Interested in mosaics and synagogue imagery? Learn more for free in the Bible History Daily posts “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols: Zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues” by Walter Zanger and “A Samson Mosaic from Huqoq: An Inside Look at Discovering Ancient Synagogues with Jodi Magness.”


Helios is shown in one ancient synagogue excavated in Sepphoris. Gabi Laron/Courtesy Zeev Weiss

In one ancient synagogue excavated in 2000 in Sepphoris, Helios is transformed; instead of his image there is only a sun disk—driving the quadriga.a It’s almost as if the congregation was feeling a little guilty about having a picture of the sun god on the synagogue floor and alleviated their guilt somewhat by picturing only the sun itself driving its chariot instead of the face of the Greek god.

Every attempt to limit our subject has failed. It wasn’t just Helios or the zodiac. In another ancient synagogue (at Chorazin), it was Medusa. Medusa was a mythological female monster with snakes for hair. Looking at her would turn you into stone. Fortunately, she was slain by Perseus. Thereafter portraits of Medusa would be a talisman that protected from evil. Maybe that’s why Chorazin’s congregants put her in their synagogue, as a protection against evil. In any event, there she is, carved in stone, plain as day.

Medusa carved in stone at the Chorazin synagogue. Todd Bolen/

Just south of Chorazin is the justly famous ancient synagogue of Capernaum, so often associated with Jesus. (A building under the Capernaum synagogue may be the synagogue in which the gospels tell us Jesus preached [Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31–36; John 6:59].) Over the beautifully carved main entrance to the upper synagogue—the remains of which tourists marvel—are a series of wreaths that were once upheld by little naked erotes, or winged cupids associated with love and sex. I say “were” because they aren’t there any more. In the eighth century some iconoclasts dug out the offending erotes. We know that they were there, however, because the iconoclasts left the wreaths and the wings of the little figures.

Eighth-century iconoclasts defaced images of fish and fishermen in the colorful floor mosaics at a Christian basilica at Horvat Beit Loya. Read more >>


Sarcophagus featuring Leda and the Swan in Beth Shearim catacombs. Hershel Shanks

As long as we’re on the subject, let’s go to the imposing Jewish catacombs at Beth Shearim. Beth Shearim is where the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic high court, moved after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E. That’s where Rabbi Judah haNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah, the first comprehensive Jewish law book, lived. Beth Shearim is famous for its underground cemetery; that’s where Jews wanted to be buried when Jerusalem was no longer available. The catacombs are filled with Jewish symbols. It also has an imposing engraved sarcophagus featuring Leda and the Swan. In Greek mythology the swan is the form that Zeus took so that he might seduce (or rape) the king’s daughter, the beautiful Leda. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats captured the moment in a sonnet:

The sun god Helios under St. Peter’s in Rome. Scala/Art Resource, NY

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

The ancient sculptor of the Beth Shearim sarcophagus has caught the couple in flagrante delicto!

Lest you think that all this is confined to Judaism, let me close with a picture of Jesus—under St. Peter’s in Rome, no less—portrayed as the sun god Helios.

What does it all mean? I confess I can’t make much sense of it. Maybe some of our readers can.

Were there synagogues before the Romans destroyed the Temple, or did they develop only afterward? Find out by reading “Ancient Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora” in Bible History Daily.



a. See Lucille A. Roussin, “Helios in the Synagogue,” BAR 27:02.

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  1. Alfredo says

    Sure. It is called Syncretism.

  2. Gary says

    Let there be light. It’s as simple as that. Goes back to the beginning, so the Jews had no problem appropriating it as a symbol of what Genesis says. Admittedly later, but consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse as well. Four is of numerological importance in all cultures. The square, the four directions. And Moses’ staff ate all of the others. Helios is included in All That Is.

  3. Amy says

    Also, let’s not forget the impact that Greek civilization had on the entire area, especially under the Selucids. It certainly did not go entirely away even after the Maccabean revolt.

  4. William says

    It is a Jewish representation of Psalm 19:1-4 in figures that their neighbors would understand.

  5. jeff says

    The Emperor Constantine, often called the first Christian emperor, was also a worshipper of Helios. The ancients just didn’t switch from polytheism to monotheism overnight — they saw nothing wrong with getting more than one god on your side at the same time.

  6. THOMAS says

    It should be no secret that many in the Jewish nation continued to worship idols in express contradition of the Torah. Even the Major and Minor Prophets identified the practice. The Dispersion under the Assyrians and Babylonians was a direct result of God’s displeasure.

  7. Matt says

    Interesting that this was happening in late antiquity; this type of thing really doesn’t fit with our perception of the Jews at the time of Christ. Hellenisation had of course been happening for centuries, but I don’t think there’s much evidence of it in a religious context before the diaspora. I suppose these worshippers were probably more concerned with culture than piety, and guess this reflects the cultural impact the Roman dispersal had on the Jews a few centuries down the line.

  8. Mary says

    Genesis 49 where Jacob / Israel identifies each of his sons and gives a prophetic utterance regarding each of them, can be related to the 12 constellations.

    The Sun makes its yearly pathway against the background of these 12 constellations as is given in Psalm 19:4-6.
    Yahweh – Sun with respect to each of the 12 tribes.

  9. Jeanie says

    David Fideler: “The early Christian Gnosis did not spring up in isolation, but drew upon earlier sources. In this book, many of these sources are revealed for the first time. Special emphasis is placed on the Hellenistic doctrine of the “Solar Logos” and the early Christian symbolism which depicted Christ as the Spiritual Sun, the illumination source of order, harmony, and spiritual insight. Based on 15 years of research, this is a unique book which throws a penetrating light on the secret traditions of early Christianity. It clearly demonstrates that number is at the heart of being. Jesus Christ, Sun of God, illustrates how the Christian symbolism of the Spiritual Sun is derived from numerical symbolism of the ‘ancient divinities.'”

  10. Kurt says

    What were “the carcasses of their kings” that had to be removed from the temple? The carcasses evidently referred to idols. Jerusalem’s rulers and her people had polluted God’s temple with idols—in effect, making them their kings?Ezekiel 43:2-4, 7, 9

    Ezekiel 43:2-4:
    There I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east,and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters;and the earth was illuminated by his glory.+ 3 What I saw was like the vision I had seen when I* came to bring the city to ruin, and it appeared to be like what I had seen near the river Che′bar;+ and I fell with my face to the ground.
    Then the glory of Jehovah entered the temple* through the gate facing the east.

    Ezekiel 43:7
    He said to me:
    “Son of man, this is the place of my throne+ and the place for the soles of my feet,+ where I will dwell among the people of Israel forever.+ The house of Israel will no longer defile my holy name,+ they and their kings, by their spiritual prostitution and by the carcasses of their kings at their death.
    Ezekiel 43:9
    Now let them put their spiritual prostitution and the carcasses of their kings far away from me, and I will dwell among them forever.

    There is no record or existing evidence of artwork among the Christians of the first century C.E. It is only during the second and third centuries C.E. that some paintings and sculptures appear in the catacombs attributed to nominal Christians. After the union of Church and State in the fourth century, however, art began to be given a prominence that in time equaled that of the pagan religions and was often related to or in direct imitation of such religions, in both its symbolisms and its forms. Louis Réau, who held the chair of the History of Art of the Middle Ages at the Sorbonne University of France, demonstrates in his work Iconographie de l’art chrétien (Paris, 1955, Vol. I, p. 10) that such paganism has long been recognized by historians of art and that the responsibility for it is to be placed not merely on the artists but on the policies that were followed by the church itself. He points out (p. 50) that instead of really converting the pagans from their old practices and forms of worship, the church chose to respect “the ancestral customs and continue them under another name.”
    Thus, it is not surprising to find the signs of the zodiac, so prominent in ancient Babylon, displayed on cathedrals such as that of Notre Dame in Paris, where they appear on the left doorway and surround Mary in the huge centrally located rose window. (Compare Isa 47:12-15.) Similarly, a guidebook to the cathedral at Auxerre, also in France, states that in the central entrance to the cathedral, “the sculptor there mixed certain pagan heroes: an Eros [Greek god of love] nude and sleeping . . . a Hercules and a Satyr [one of the Greeks’ semihuman demigods]! The register at the lower right represents the parable of the Prodigal Son.”
    Similarly at the entrance of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome appear not only the figure of Christ and the “Virgin” but also that of Ganymede “carried off by the eagle” to become cupbearer of Zeus, king of the gods, and “Leda [who bore Castor and Pollux] fertilized by the swan” Zeus. Commenting further on such pagan influence, Réau asks: “But what is one to say then of the Final Judgment of the Sistine Chapel, the principal chapel of the Vatican, where one sees the nude Christ of Michelangelo lance the lightning like a thundering Jupiter [the Roman father of the gods] and the Damned cross the Styx [the river over which the Greeks believed the dead were ferried] in Charon’s barque?” As he states: “An example that came from so high [that is, approved by the papacy] could not fail to be followed.”

  11. Joe says

    As far as Jesus shown as Helios it seems that for quite sometime no one knew what Jesus looked like, so often He was portrayed as an emperor or a Roman god. Just like artists that portrayed biblical scenes in the dress of the day, as opposed to the dress of the period in which the event took place.

  12. GENE says

    It doesn’t seem like a great mystery to me. In ancient times Jehovah(Yahweh) had often chastised Israel for times that they succumbed to worship of false gods. All of this in violation of the first 2 of the Ten Commandments. Jewish leaders evidently allowed that false worship to implant itself again in the C.E. era.
    After the death of the apostle John, apostate ideas began to creep into Christendom, including adopting pagan holidays and practices associated with false gods. As stated above, by the time of Constantine, his influence and deviant bishops allowed a form of sun worship. But there were those, though small in number, in in the centuries following, that tried to practice their religion according to Bible standards and rejected polytheism.

  13. Kurt says

    Sun worship in Christianity we will see even more abominations of sun worship and how sun worship has crept into the Christian religion and has been blindly accepted by the masses. Many Protestant churches that claim they have separated from the Church of Rome did not complete the separation. They brought with them the pagan sun god of Ra and Horus (below) and Ester, Argus, as well as the pagan god Tammuz in the form of the cross. The Babylonians were sun worshipers, and in ancient Persia worship of the sun was an integral part of the elaborate cult of Mithras. The ancient Egyptians also worshiped the sun god Ra, or Ray. In ancient Greece the deities of the sun were Helios and Apollo. Did you know that Ray is still being worshiped, but under a new name and new symbols in Christianity? You can read the research on these other three pagan gods that has been accepted in the Christian religion at the end of this study.

  14. SpiritMatter says

    Two factors that are possibly going on there are; 1) a cultural/religious Stockholm syndrome and 2) an idea whose time had come. First, when humans are conquered and dominated by a superior power they tend to go into survival mode by not antagonizing their superiors but instead trying to find ways to identify with them and create a human to human connection through common cultural symbols. Second, Paul, and it is not unlikely, Pharisaic/Rabbinic Jewish scholars and teachers, began to understand that it was often the zealous reaction to the false gods that gave them their power. The gods/idols themselves had no real power because it was understood that there was only one Creator. The only power the false gods/idols had, came from the belief in their existence. Paul came to understand that the nutritional/moral value of meat did not depend on whether or not it had been killed in sacrifice to a non-existent false god. However if a “Christian” was around who still believed in the supposed reality or power of the false god/idol and who might be offended to see him eating the sacrificed meat, Paul would stop eating it while in his/her presence. The same thinking could and possibly was extrapolated out to other cultural religious traditions in the places Christians and Jews lived.

  15. Gary says

    If I recall correctly, Rome confirmed the high priest of Israel for the Temple in Jerusalem. Rome was willing to accept other religions in their empire; as long as, they kept order. In the Temple on a regular basis, again recollection, the High Priest was to sacrifice to the Gods of Rome. In fact; if I am to believe some of the writings there was a statue in the Temple to a Roman god.

    If this is the case, then it would be normal for Rome to require a similar observance of the other house s of worship, or as Rome would believe them to be, temples to the god of Israel.

    ThePriest of Israel had a very comfy life it would appear to the life of the people of Israel, so what is a little give for their take.

  16. Scott says

    What surprises me at this point, having long recognized the corruption of Christianity by Greek/Pagan influences, is that the Jews also seemed to have experienced a similar corruption. I had read just a few months back, the work of Uriel DeCosta, who advocated a return to the Mosaic law rather than the Oral Tradition promoted by Rabbis of his time. There was also a dispute about the resurrection and the Immortality (or not) of the soul. DeCosta argued against a resurrection, in part by not also recognizing the prophets in addition to the law. The Rabbis supported the prophets and the resurrection, but also embraced the Immortal Soul doctrine of the Greeks. I agree with the resurrection, but strong disagree and oppose the Immortal Soul Doctrine, which Christianity does seem to cling to. Finding Jews doing so was quite a surprise.

    Both seemed to love pagan imagery as well. To me, the bottom line is that all Jews and Christians who revere the law and prophets, need to go back to those exclusively and reject the Greek/Pagan doctrinal corruptions as admonished by Moses and the prophets, as well as Jesus and the Apostles.

    As well, both “sisters,” Christianity and Judaism, have become very involved in the political machinery of various nations, a sort of spiritual prostitution. God’s interests have no sharing with nations. Service to God must be exclusive and uninfluenced by political concerns, particularly those of war and greed.

    The Jews are responsible for keeping and maintaining the books of God and passing them on as a great heritage to be shared with the world, as Was God’s intention from the beginning. All the world owes them a debt of gratitude for that wonderful gift. As well, good Jews owe themselves the benefit of that gift of pure doctrine obtained strictly from the Scriptures derived from those original temple scrolls.

    For those who believe in the devil ( I do ), we can see that he likes to infiltrate and take over any new movement and bring it around to favor his teachings rather than God’s, (Jehovah/Yahweh, or as I see it, perhaps more likely Yahuweh.)

  17. Robert says

    This is easily explained by the fact that all of the god/gods myth stories are human made and have no basis in reality. If there were a supernatural power that ruled over us you would think it would do a much better job at running the Cosmos and providing some evidence to its creation that it does indeed exist. Instead we have absolutely nothing that indicates the existence of the supernatural other than faith-based bromides that declare that their specific god or gods are the only “true deity/deities” and all others are false. Religious and cultural syncretism has existed for as long as different myth stories have intermixed around the world.

  18. Barrie says

    Both Judaism and Christianity contain elements of paganism inherited from earlier ‘religions’ or perhaps better described as ‘forms of worship’. I visited a church on Easter Island that everywhere has icons of the previously worshiped bird-god. In Peru Christians still use pagan symbols and practices. Even the Hebrew language perpetuates the pagan – the word for God is the plural ‘Elohim’ – ‘Gods’. Hebrew ‘shemesh’ is the word for ‘sun’ that came from the Mesopotamian sun-god; ‘shamash’ in Accadian. At Chanukah, the Jewish festival of light, the main candle of the Chanukiah (candelabra) used for lighting the other candles is called the shamash. There are other examples of Hebrew words descended from pagan gods. For instance ‘Min’ was the Egyptian god of reproduction; the word means ‘gender’ in Hebrew.

  19. Colin says

    Its called art and fashion. No one believed in Helios or Zeus or Eros or Medusa at the time these decorations were made so this is not syncretism or idolatry. This is just art and fashion, pure and simple.

  20. Saul says

    It should not come a surprise that values of other nations that could enhance and help to explain the message of Judaism should use imagery of others. Many of the psalms many have been adapted from Ugarit. Moreover, Judaism of the period in question was developing and had many different streams – Not every branch accepted the Book of Esther. This was also the period in which the Mishnah and Aggadah was “canonized” in that it achieved parallel religious status to the ‘written’ Torah. All the images do is provide a picture into the different ‘denominations’ that existed simultaneously – and quite frankly – also shed light on the beliefs of those who hid their sacred scrolls near the Dead Sea. Judaism was multifaceted, just as it is today. Could these images have been connected with groups that had a mystical bent?

    Finally, what is the sacred origin of the black Hasidic garb? or for that matter the Shtrimel? Finally, once more, how about Chagall’s use of Jesus on the cross to describe Jewish suffering?

  21. Larry says

    Now that Akhenaten is the positive identity of the pharaoh following the 10 plagues, his worship of Aten was his way to worship Yahweh, which took on the aspects of the sun god, Ra; although, the emphasis was on what the sun did. Aten was thought of as being behind the sun. Worship of Yahweh as the sun god via “Aten” may be entirely unrelated to that expression in later Christian times, the latter suggestive of the influence of paganism. However, Revelation does link Christ to the sun as the “bright morning star.” Some claim this is a reference to Venus, however, Venus is not a star, it is a planet. Because of that, some artwork linking Jesus with the Sun might be just that and not the influence of any pagan sun god like Mithras. Jesus is represented by the sun in esoteric cosmology, just as the moon represents his wife, the church. The cosmos is linked to Christian and Jewish iconography, like the 12 zodiac houses the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes. The sun represents Christ and the moon the church, his wife. So maybe depicting Jesus as a sun god comes from Christian rather than pagan influence.

  22. Chris says

    Well as has been told time and time again Israel sin is apparent not to mention that Platonism was being worked into the Jewish and Christian religions. Modern scholars overlook several facts about how they were and what they did this is part of what Plato did. Instead of giving you a mile long explanation with little facts and just hanging onto personal opinion I thought I would give you the real facts of how paganism entered both Christianity and Judaism as a whole.

  23. Robert says

    I think it is interesting people over look the fact that the scriptures and history show that Jews and Christians over time tended to bring in other influences which later weaken their faith or destroy them. How many times God mentions in Old Testement of Israel’s disobedience to Him by mixing or following other Gods? Quiet a few times it shows God angry at Israel for mixing or following other gods then look at Christianity in Romans times, they willing follow the Government because it was ordered to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (Sunday is the pagan day of worshiping the sun god) because the emperor wanted to please his mother (or wife I forget) worship because she followed a different religion and didn’t like Christians and Jews. They wanted religions to blend together. We see it today with spirituality, and other religions wanted to become one.
    Humans tend to sin and either influence or let influence happen to them.

  24. Ante says

    Representation of Jesus as Sol is literal interpretation of his words: “I am a light of the world.” (John 8: 12). Theologically 100% correct, nothing odd nor heretical in that.

  25. Benny says

    nu? they weren’t so frum…

  26. Duane says

    Actually, it makes perfect sense. They were keeping time according to Gen 1:14-17. The signs of the seasons (Moedim) are divided by the Tequphah. When the Sun moves into the sign in the heavens we know where we are in the time of the year. The Moon divides the months and the Sun the day. The constelations the months of the year. We can go back in time and see right where the flood was, When Israel left Egypt and the Crucifixion and even the Birth of Yeshua.

    Duane Barkel

  27. Max says

    The worshipping of the Sun, dates back from the begining of History of Humankind, as testified in The Bible. Baal, the solar deity in Canaan; which after the 12 tribes of Israel conquered Canaan, they started to worship the Baals, Ashtoreth, and all the idols of those peoples.

    To the author of this article, is it surprising to know that the Dome of the Rock (building constructed by the muslims in the place where used to be the Temple built by Salomon, and restaured by Herodes, then destroyed by the romans), has on its tip, not a crescent, but a circle, which represents the solar disc, which none other than Baal, also known by Zeus, and many other names. This is for you to know, that your eyes be opened: this building is that for which the our Lord Jesus Christ reminded us what prophet Daniel said :”So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Mathew 24:15).
    Yes, worshipers of the Sun exist even today; they are worshipers of Satan.

  28. George says

    It is Ezekiel’s vision that is what these represent the wheel within a wheel.

  29. Ahmet says

    There are some connections between the three middle east religions and the Egyptian Aten worship, as Aten was a sun (disk) god, how likely would it be that the Sepphoris floor mosaic is more close to the origin while Hammath Tiberias was more Romenized version of the picture?

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