BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan?

Who owned the magnificent Lod mosaics?

lod-mosaic

The excellence in artistry and state of preservation of the 1,700-year-old Lod Mosaic is without parallel in Israel. Was the owner of the Lod Mosaic Jewish, Christian or pagan? Photo: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority.

In 1996, a portion of an ancient mosaic was discovered during the construction of a highway in Lod, a town in Israel about 9 miles from Tel Aviv. Subsequent excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) under the direction of archaeologist Miriam Avissar revealed stunning Roman floor mosaics that belonged to what was a house or manor dating to 300 C.E. The Lod mosaics’ artistic quality and fine state of preservation had not been seen before in Israel.

Among the subjects that decorate the exquisite Roman floor mosaics are lions, birds, fish and ships—but there are no human figures. Who lived at the house at Lod? Can the Lod mosaics themselves hint at the identity of the house’s owner? This question is explored in the article “The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan?” in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The Roman floor mosaics that were discovered at Lod during the initial rescue excavation in 1996 are known as “the Lod Mosaic.”1 Measuring 30 feet wide and 56 feet long—the largest mosaic in Israel—the Lod Mosaic is comprised of two rectangular mosaic carpets separated by a colorful band.
Birds and other animals decorate the Lod Mosaic’s south carpet.


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The north carpet features scenes of animals in combat. At the center of the carpet, in an octagonal panel, are a lioness and lion facing off and surrounded by a giraffe, rhinoceros, elephant, tiger, water buffalo and a mythological sea monster in a body of water.

lod-mosaic-animals

The central panel in the Lod Mosaic north carpet. Photo: Nicky Davidov, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority.

Just below these scenes of land animals is a rectangular panel featuring a marine scene: Two merchant ships are depicted amidst various fish, a whale, a dolphin and other creatures of the sea. The ships are not steered by anyone.

lod-mosaic-marine

The marine scene in the Lod Mosaic north carpet. Photo: Nicky Davidov, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority.

In fact, as Rina Talgam, Professor of the History of Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out, no human figures are seen in the Lod mosaics:

“The absence of depictions of human figures raises the question of whether this can be regarded as suggesting that the owners were Jews or Christians, since a pagan certainly would not have been concerned by their presence. … The appearance of small crosses on the prows of the ships and at the ends of the northern mosaic carpet may have been intended to suggest the Christian identity of the owner, but we cannot rule out the possibility that this is merely a decorative pattern.”2

What else can we glean from the Lod Mosaic and from the ancient town at Lod (then known as Lydda or Diospolis)? Can the mosaics and the town offer clues into the identity of the Lod Mosaic’s patron? Learn more by reading the full article “The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan?” in the May/June 2016 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan?” in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Notes:

1. More colorful Roman floor mosaics were discovered during excavations in 2009 and 2014.

2. Rina Talgam, “The Late Roman Mosaics at Lod,” in Israel Antiquities Authority, ed., The Lod Mosaic: A Spectacular Roman Mosaic Floor (New York: Scala Arts Publishers, Inc., 2015), pp. 100–101.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Lod at the Louvre

Mosaics of Faith
A review of Rina Talgam’s book Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land

Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols

Magnificent Menorah Mosaic Found in Galilee

New Huqoq Mosaics

Early Christian Art Symbols Endure after Iconoclast Attack


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 25, 2016.


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6 Responses

  1. Dean Montgomery says:

    Did not ancient Jewish art avoided images of people and animals?

    “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”
    Exodus 20:4

  2. Rob Palmer says:

    For some reason I get the feeling that here the experts should not read too much meaning into the designs, as it could well be a playroom flooring to educate little ones about animals not often seen. Giving archaeologists too much reign, they will come up with a new undiscovered religion from the apparent, as Percival Lowell discovered canals on Mars from Flagstaff. The ships show the means of delivering the strange animals. My guess: a kids playroom floor or possibly a day care center. Sorry to the field scholars.

  3. AF says:

    Regarding the central panel with the various animals, there’s a passage towards the end of the 1st Epistle of Clement that is striking,
    “Thou… shalt not be afraid of the beasts of the field. For the wild beasts shall be at peace with thee: then shalt thou know that thy house shall be in peace,…”

    Could be just coincidence of course, but if this mosaic was owned by someone with a Christian orientation, then we’d be in a pre-Nicean context, so it would be impossible to assume with absolute certainty what kinds of imagery may or may not have resonated with certain individuals or communities at the time, even though it might not feel that familiar to us today.

    Is there an additional possibility that the mosaic was religiously ambiguous by design, possibly for some kind of political reasons perhaps?

  4. Richard Rogovin says:

    I would find it difficult to believe that a very large and obviously expensive mosaic floor would decorate the home of anyone but a pagan Roman considering that Jewish life in this area practically ended after the Bar Kochba revolt and early Christians were scarce and impoverished. Further, Christian religious symbols have been found on tombs but never on floors of this era.

  5. brentd4 says:

    The main image features a cross so my guess is that it was a Christian’s house. You have thee main image in the the centre followed by the next largest sea creatures top bottom left and right forming a cross. The next size are the four pointed scenes which form an octagon. So maybe the intention by the artists who designed the scenes is to suggest that pagan influences in the form of an octagon have corrupted the early church.

  6. AF says:

    Is the horizontal banner shaped image with a large cup and curly vineage spreading out sideways perhaps a representation of the kind of imagery we find in the Didache’s instructions on the Eucharist?

    “First Concerning the Cup, ‘We give thanks to thee, Our Father, for the Holy Vine of David…'”

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6 Responses

  1. Dean Montgomery says:

    Did not ancient Jewish art avoided images of people and animals?

    “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”
    Exodus 20:4

  2. Rob Palmer says:

    For some reason I get the feeling that here the experts should not read too much meaning into the designs, as it could well be a playroom flooring to educate little ones about animals not often seen. Giving archaeologists too much reign, they will come up with a new undiscovered religion from the apparent, as Percival Lowell discovered canals on Mars from Flagstaff. The ships show the means of delivering the strange animals. My guess: a kids playroom floor or possibly a day care center. Sorry to the field scholars.

  3. AF says:

    Regarding the central panel with the various animals, there’s a passage towards the end of the 1st Epistle of Clement that is striking,
    “Thou… shalt not be afraid of the beasts of the field. For the wild beasts shall be at peace with thee: then shalt thou know that thy house shall be in peace,…”

    Could be just coincidence of course, but if this mosaic was owned by someone with a Christian orientation, then we’d be in a pre-Nicean context, so it would be impossible to assume with absolute certainty what kinds of imagery may or may not have resonated with certain individuals or communities at the time, even though it might not feel that familiar to us today.

    Is there an additional possibility that the mosaic was religiously ambiguous by design, possibly for some kind of political reasons perhaps?

  4. Richard Rogovin says:

    I would find it difficult to believe that a very large and obviously expensive mosaic floor would decorate the home of anyone but a pagan Roman considering that Jewish life in this area practically ended after the Bar Kochba revolt and early Christians were scarce and impoverished. Further, Christian religious symbols have been found on tombs but never on floors of this era.

  5. brentd4 says:

    The main image features a cross so my guess is that it was a Christian’s house. You have thee main image in the the centre followed by the next largest sea creatures top bottom left and right forming a cross. The next size are the four pointed scenes which form an octagon. So maybe the intention by the artists who designed the scenes is to suggest that pagan influences in the form of an octagon have corrupted the early church.

  6. AF says:

    Is the horizontal banner shaped image with a large cup and curly vineage spreading out sideways perhaps a representation of the kind of imagery we find in the Didache’s instructions on the Eucharist?

    “First Concerning the Cup, ‘We give thanks to thee, Our Father, for the Holy Vine of David…'”

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