An inside look at discovering ancient synagogues with Jodi Magness
Archaeologist Jodi Magness has a theory about the dating of certain ancient synagogues. Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, believes that the traditional dates for so-called “Galilean-type” ancient synagogues needs to be pushed back a couple hundred years to the fourth–sixth centuries C.E. Until 2011, however, she had to rely on others’ records of the excavation of ancient synagogues. She then decided that she needed to do her own synagogue excavation to get some clear answers. The Huqoq excavation was born.
Huqoq was a prosperous village in antiquity and was occupied for much of history until it was abandoned in 1948 during Israel’s War for Independence. Located near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, just 3 miles west of Magdala and Capernaum, Huqoq is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, as well as in Rabbinic literature.
As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.
Jodi Magness and her Huqoq excavation team set out to locate the ancient synagogue amid massive heaps of stone rubble, guided only by displaced architectural fragments that likely came from a monumental building at Huqoq—the synagogue itself.
While they opened excavation trenches in search of the synagogue, Magness and her team also explored other areas of the site to get a better sense of the context and a more complete picture of Huqoq’s history.
By the end of the first season at Huqoq, Jodi Magness’s team had uncovered the eastern wall of the Huqoq synagogue. And 2012 brought another surprise when a high-quality mosaic floor was revealed inside the wall. The Huqoq mosaic consists of three sections separated by areas where the bedding is intact but without mosaics. The first section shows a Hebrew or Aramaic inscription flanked by two remarkably well-preserved female faces that University of Louisville scholar Karen Britt suggests may have been donors to the religious community. The second mosaic section runs along the synagogue wall and does not include figural decorations.
The third section of the mosaic shows a portion of the body of Samson (published for the first time in Biblical Archaeology Review) alongside foxes tied to torches and an inscription. The Samson mosaic shows Samson as a military figure with an orbiculum, similarly to a nearby depiction in a synagogue at Wadi Hamam. Depictions of Biblical scenes are rare in ancient synagogues, and Jodi Magness explores why two nearby communities chose to decorate their synagogues with Samson’s exploits. In her evaluation of this unique ancient depiction of the Samson mosaic showing the scene from Judges 15:4, Magness examines evidence from rabbinic, early Christian and local communities to show that contemporaneous opinion of Samson ranged from disreputable to messianic.
To view the Samson mosaic and to learn more about how the Huqoq excavation is shedding new light on ancient synagogues, read Jodi Magness, “Samson in the Synagogue,” in BAS Library as it appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Mosaic Inscription from a Synagogue at Horvat Huqoq: Huqoq excavator David Amit provides a translation of the mosaic text between two female faces in the Huqoq synagogue.
The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics: Huqoq mosaics specialist Karen Britt provides a detailed artistic analysis of a Huqoq mosaic featuring an inscription and two female faces.
New Huqoq Mosaics: The 2013 excavations revealed additional depictions of Samson in the Bible and a possible portrayal of a scene from the Apocrypha.
Huqoq 2014: Update from the Field: Jodi Magness and Karen Britt discuss a new mosaic discovered during the 2014 excavation season.
Jodi Magness Reflects on a Lucky Discovery: In her Archaeological Views column “A Lucky Discovery Complicates Life” in the March/April 2015 issue of BAR, Jodi Magness reflects on the consequences of discovering stunning mosaics at Huqoq.
Huqoq 2015: New Mosaics Unearthed at Huqoq Synagogue: The Huqoq Excavation Project has uncovered more stunning mosaics during the 2015 excavations in a fifth-century C.E. synagogue in the Galilee.
New Huqoq Mosaics: Noah’s Ark and Exodus Scenes
During the 2016 season at Huqoq, mosaics depicting two well-known Biblical stories were uncovered.
Huqoq 2017: Mosaics of Jonah and the Whale, the Tower of Babel and More: The 2017 excavation season at Huqoq unearthed more stunning mosaics depicting Greco-Roman and Biblical scenes, including the story of Jonah and the whale and the construction of the Tower of Babel.
Huqoq 2018: Mosaic Depicts Israelite Spies: The 2018 season revealed more Biblical mosaics, including one referencing Numbers 13:23.
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