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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.