We don’t expect to find the sun god Helios and images of the zodiac, complete with near naked human figures, in Jewish synagogues. So how should we understand these pagan mosaics in synagogues? The best (most completely) preserved are at Hammat Tiberias, Beth Alpha and Sepphoris.
I was intending to post about Yaffa Englard’s explanation for these apparent anomalies simply because I found easy access to “Mosaics as Midrash: The Zodiacs of the Ancient Synagogues and the Conflict Between Judaism and Christianity” by Englard in a 2003 edition of Review of Rabbinic Judaism. But one thing led to another and before long I was catching up with Rachel Hachlili’s Ancient Synagogues — Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research (2013). Hachlili lists a score of different interpretations. About the only thing most (not all) of them seem to have in common is that they work hard at avoiding any suggestion that the Jewish synagogues indicated an interest in astrology.
It is surprising to find the zodiac design depicted on synagogue mosaic pavements in view of its pagan origin, and all the more so as the mosaics, lying inside the main entrances, would have been immediately visible to anyone entering the synagogue. This widespread use of a ‘pagan’ motif over several centuries invites many questions as to its meaning and function in the synagogue. (p. 386)
The following is Rachel Hachlili’s list of interpretations that are out there. I have broken up her lengthy paragraphs into a numbered list.
- The symbolic approach is articulated by a number of scholars: Goodenough (1953, i:3–6; 1958, Viii:168, 171, 214–215) maintains that “Helios and the chariot symbolized the divine charioteer of Hellenistic Judaism, god himself.” He held that despite pagan influences it would be wrong to conclude from the zodiac mosaics that the Jewish community had an interest in astrology.
- Avigad (1976:283) suggested that “the figure in the chariot was the sun, itself a component of the cycle of cosmic forces depicted in the zodiac.”
- Foerster (1985:383, 388; 1987:231–232) contends that the zodiac represents the divine and heavenly order of the universe, the regularity in the courses of sun and moon. Furthermore, the significance of the zodiac as a personification of the universe or cosmos is described by Jewish sources. The zodiac is an illustration, a key to the piyyutim (liturgical poems) of Eretz israel; it is a substitute for the prayers, or functions as some kind of alternative prayer book (Yahalom 1986:313–322; Kühnel 2000:36; Ness 1995:131). Naveh (1989:303; 1992:156) maintains that the zodiac design and inscription is evidence of the penetration of the belief in magical powers into the synagogue; he also assumes that the Jews saw Helios as an angel rather than a god.
- Berliner (1995:179) proposes that the scientific map of the northern sky was used by the Jews in the decorative pattern of the zodiac circle.
- Weiss and Netzer (1996:35) argue that “the zodiac symbolized the blessing implicit in the divine order of the universe. This order is expressed in the seasons, zodiac signs, the months and the celestial bodies, which are all responsible for the cyclical patterns of nature, for growth and for harvest.”
- Weiss (2005:231–23; 2007:25*5; 2009b:369–377) maintains the zodiac panel illustrates the centrality of god in the Creation and argues that the motif of the zodiac “allegorically symbolizes the power and ability of god as the Cosmocrator, the sole ruler of the universe and of creation.”
- Engelrad (2000:42–48) contends that the synagogue mosaics filled a didactic function: the zodiac on these mosaic pavements served as a visual reminder to the Jewish worshippers of the eternal covenant made by god with the Davidic dynasty and the priests. it expressed the longing for the revival of israel and the restoration of the Temple.
- Schwartz (2000:175–6) suggests that the zodiac cycle at Sepphoris “may have been meant to facilitate as a horoscopic aid.”
- Magness (2005:49–50) proposes “that Helios and the zodiac cycle symbolized sacred time and sacred space.”
- Friedman (2005:62) contends that “the zodiac panel thus offers an eschatological and messianic meaning . . . The general theme alludes to the End of days, the rebuilding of the Temple, world peace, and the fulfilment of god’s promise to his people and their salvation . . .”
- Talgam (2010:73–75) maintains that the zodiac, the sun, and the seasons on these synagogue pavements indicate their conversion into a symbolic cosmic temple. The Christian church acquired the same symbolism, though expressing it in other ways.
- The astrological interpretation indicates a widespread belief of the Jews of that time in the zodiac signs (Sukenik 1934:64–67; Renov 1954:189–201; Goldman 1966:59–60; Sonne 1953:9–11; Lifshitz 1974:102–3; S. Stern 1996:400–403).
- Ness (1990) concludes that “the synagogue zodiacs are astrological, the zodiacs symbolize god, His care for His universe, and especially for His people, the Jews.” other scholars dispute this assumption:
- Wilkinson (1977–78:22–24), in his interpretation of the Beth Alpha mosaic pavement, argued that it was unlikely the zodiac design was placed there for astrological purposes; rather it was connected with Platonic cosmology.
- Charlesworth (1977:195) claims that by the 4th century there is archaeological evidence of Jewish interest in zodiac images, but this must not be equated with astrological beliefs.
- The most plausible interpretation for the combination seasons—zodiac signs—sun god design is that the Jewish zodiac mosaic functioned as a calendar (Hanfmann 1951:194; Avi-Yonah [1964:56–57] suggested this in connection with the list of the priestly courses).
- In the zodiac design at Hammath Tiberias B, scholars found links with Hillel II’s publication of the rules for determining the Hebrew calendar in the 4th century CE (Dothan 1967:134; 1983:47–49; Sternberg 1972:72–87; levine 2003c:110–114).
- Fine (2005:199–205) maintains there is a connection between the zodiac design and the Jewish calendar.
- Talgam (2000:101, 104; 2012:449–452) agrees with the interpretation of the zodiac as a calendar but also with the suggestion that the zodiac symbolizes the connection with the ceremony of declaring the new moon.
- She (2010:67–73; 2012:446–451) suggests also that the two early zodiac pavements of Hammath Tiberias B and Sepphoris are an illustration for the spring equinox, as they begin with the month of Nisan, the sign of Taleh (Aries). She further contends that the timing of the zodiac’s appearance on the synagogue pavement was intended as a challenge to the Christian establishment’s effort to undermine the credibility of the Hebrew calendar.6
- Levine (2012:333–336) assumes that the 4th c. Hammath Tiberias B pavement was the origin for the zodiac motif and proposes that it represents “a profound example of Jewish resilience under Byzantine Christianity”
One thing is clear. The mosaics are a reminder of how little we think we know for certain about ancient Judaism.
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