Explaining Zodiacs in Ancient Synagogues

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

At Beth Alpha. Helios in the centre on his four horse chariot.


At Sepphoris


At Hammath Tiberias
At Hammath Tiberias

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. Schwartz (2000:175–6) suggests that the zodiac cycle at Sepphoris “may have been meant to facilitate as a horoscopic aid.”
  9. Magness (2005:49–50) proposes “that Helios and the zodiac cycle symbolized sacred time and sacred space.”
  10. 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 . . .”
  11. 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. 
  12. 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).
  13. 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:
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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).
  17. 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).
  18. Fine (2005:199–205) maintains there is a connection between the zodiac design and the Jewish calendar.
  19. 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.
  20. 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
  21. 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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21 thoughts on “Explaining Zodiacs in Ancient Synagogues”

      1. I am not aware Carrier has said Christianity began as a form of astrology or that it was derived from astrology. He does address the cosmological views of the time, in particular in the Neo-Platonist thought world of the day — building on Earl Doherty’s explanations.

  1. Neil Godfrey finally realizes that astrology is part of the history of religions.
    Thanks for the long series of references that you have reported.
    Of course, now, first of all, Neil known explicit iconographic elements that recur in the Jewish religion, increasingly seen as monotheistic and free from mythological influences and always enjoying the fame that the images were peremptorily prohibited inside the synagogues.
    I hope you will continue with the investigation and that at the end you can also be received by the discovery that Christian theology is primarily founded on astrology.

    To your article I add this other study in which we note the presence of the moon and the sun at the center of the zodiac, the two main deities of the universal religion assimilated by someone to Jesus and Magdalene in christian religion.
    and for insights

    1. I have never disputed the place of astrology in the history of religions nor the place of astronomical imagery and symbolism. (Do a Vridar search on “astrology” to see past posts.) What I have always questioned and still do is astrotheology — not the same thing at all. It is fallacious to assume any reference to an astrological or astronomical motif must necessarily indicate some form of astrological origins in a religion.

      1. It certainly is not immediate to associate with the Jewish religion an astrological iconography, especially the zodiac, which is a symbology used in all religions, but it is certainly very strange since no image could be reproduced in the synagogues. It might, however, think that this rule was next to the period of the discovered mosaics.
        But that also Judaism has astrological roots can be seen from several other considerations, starting from Genesis to finish to Exodus.
        My belief, widely expressed in KRST, is that Elijah, Elisha, Moses, Joshua are all solar avatar as Jesus and John.

        Also I recommend that you read the chapters of Charles Francois Dupuis about Christianity and Revelation.
        You can find them online if you do not have the book

  2. Fascinating. All this must have some deep meaning that would make sense of much ancient religion if only we had a more complete picture. Interestingly, the books of Enoch also have a lot to do with zodiac / changing of the season themes. Enoch, of course, is portrayed as a messiah who carries away the sins of the people acting as a cosmic scapegoat and ascends into heaven (and was sinless, too!).

  3. Here are some difficulties with the astrotheological interpretation as I see them.

    1. It is nearly always easy to find evidence to support a theory we like. Recall my recent posts on conspiracy theories. I am not saying astrotheology is a conspiracy theory by the way, but that we need to beware of confirmation bias.

    2. To guard against confirmation bias we need always to be testing to see what evidence contradicts our theory and paying close attention to that. If we can’t find any then we need to be examining alternative explanations and seeing if they also have reasonable (or even better) explanations for the evidence. I don’t think (in my experience, including the both reading publications and in web discussions with astrotheology advocates) that those astrotheology supporters do this.

    Compare the post above. I have listed about 20 alternative hypotheses to explain the artwork in the synagogues, yet my impression is that all of these have been simply ignored by those interested in pushing an astrotheology explanation. Why?

    Surely a fair investigation would mean we take each hypothesis and examine the evidence for it. (I have not supplied the details here for each, by the way.)

    We would also need to ask if our explanation explains why we find these images in synagogues in late antiquity (as distinct from earlier “biblical” times), Would we really expect to find images of Abraham and Isaac, for example, in the Second Temple era or earlier? Is not the presence of biblical images also as much a curiosity as the images of Helios — if our understanding of the Jewish practice of deploring images is correct?

    What does anthropology tell us about the nature and origins of religious ideas? What lies behind the propensity to worship and imagine deities?

    What does the early textual evidence indicate about its own origins when compared with other related texts? For example, do we find astrotheology in Paul (presumably the earliest Christian evidence) or more usually in much later evidence? If so, then it seems we might be looking at astrological influence over time perhaps but not astrological origins.

    Some of the books I have been asked to read I find take a very naive view of ancient Israelite history. They are out of date with respect to what archaeology has taught us. For example, we can be pretty confident that there never was a time Israelites were slaves in Egypt.

    To explain the other writings of the OT, like Ezekiel, then is not a good place to start with other Jewish literature? I think so. And when we see references to other pagan religions then ought we not consider these in the context of everything else we know rather than jumping to conclusions about the origins of Judaism.

    There certainly are parallels between certain Christian motifs and those in other religions. But again remember “confirmation bias”. Why not stop and study these and learn all we can about them before jumping to the conclusion that one is directly a mutation of the other. They might be, but there might also be other explanation (I have addressed several of these in the past) that also need investigation.

    I think Helms presents a very interesting case for some link between the Lazarus story and the myth of Osiris. But astrotheology supporters seem to ignore Helms’ own explanations for these similarities and jump to the conclusion (without evidence) that the Christian story is a recycling of the Osiris myth itself. Yet in all of this we are overlooking the evidence for something we call emulation and transvaluation — we see evidence of this in ancient literature generally, both Jewish and pagan.

    There is so much more to learn and understand about the ancient world and the nature and origins of religions and religious myths but we won’t see it if we restrict ourselves to looking only at the stars.

    1. LOL, you do a good job on the standard circle-jerk topics but, I’m sorry Neil, you are the last person anybody should trust on the subject of astrotheology as you have already ruined your own credibility on that front across other articles and blogs of yours I’ve read. You know absolutely nothing about astrotheology yet, you desperately attempt to bat it away as if to suppress it by omission due to your own biases.

      I bet you didn’t even read the article as the Jews themselves admit to astrotheological star worship so, why can’t you accept what the Jews themselves have said? It smells like Richard Carrier’s influence here as he does the same thing but at least he admits his own biases against it on video where he admits he has no interest in studying it so, we know for a fact that Carrier is not a reliable source on the astrotheological front either.

      As pointed out by Earl Doherty:

      “…We would condemn any physicist, any anthropologist, any linguist, any mathematician, any scholar of any sort who professes to work in a field that makes even a partial bow to principles of logic and scientific research who yet ignored, reviled, condemned largely without examination a legitimate, persistent theory in his or her discipline … Why not give [astrotheology] some serious consideration? Why not honestly evaluate it to see if it could provide some of the missing answers? Or, if it turns out that the case is fatally flawed, then put it to rest once and for all.

      Doing that would require one essential thing: taking it seriously, approaching the subject having an open mind that the theory might have some merit. Sadly, that is the most difficult step and the one which most critics have had the greatest difficulty taking. It is all in the mindset, whether of the [theist] whose confessional interests are overriding, or of the professional scholar who could never consider that their life’s work might be fatally compromised.”

      – Earl Doherty (I have changed a few words inside the [] to make a point about the study of astrotheology and I think Earl Doherty would agree with the point I’m trying to make. The original quote may be found at the link below)

      “A heavenly location for the actions of the savior gods, including the death of Christ, would also have been influenced by most religions’ ultimate derivation from astrotheology, as in the worship of the sun and moon. For this dimension of more remote Christian roots, see the books of Acharya S”

      – Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, (2009) page 153

      “This book is a slightly revised version of my doctoral dissertation entitled “Solar Worship in the Biblical World” which was submitted to the Graduate School of Yale University in the Spring of 1989. I had at one time planned to cover more territory than sun worship in ancient Israel, but found the material pertaining to ancient Israel so vast that I never got beyond it.”

      – Rev. Dr. J. Glen Taylor, ‘Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel’

      There’s plenty of credible sources confirming the case for astrotheology but you and others in the Carrier camp avoid it like the plague at all costs even if it means being dishonest about it and I find this denial embarrassing and no better than those who claim Jesus existed based on no credible evidence whatsoever. Maybe one day you’ll actually study the subject for once. Next you’ll omit Doherty’s own comments in support of astrotheology (even though Doherty’s celestial Jesus has been borrowed by Carrier) and pretend to have read Dr. Taylor’s book and attempt to claim the opposite of what he states in his own book. That attitude holds us back from making real progress on the case for mythicism. Shameful.

      1. Perhaps the problem is to use the word astrology that seems to introduce a discipline divorced from religion. It may be, however, I think the problem is rather the lack of knowledge of astronomy and its phenomena. Those phenomena that have ruled the life of the ancient people who depended on them.

        Today the importance of those phenomena is not understood anymore. Is not understood as the wonder of the night sky around the earth, a sky that changes constantly as if to announce the spring awakening of nature or its winter death.
        No longer grasps the wonder and fascination of the stellar vault and do not grasp the importance of the journey that sun accomplish every year, renewing the life cycle.

        We forget that also Copernicus, who discovered heliocentrism, was an astrologer.

        1. I do agree that there does seem some confusion and overlap whenever the word “astrology” is used. For what it’s worth I was for some years a serious amateur astronomer. I also at one time studied astrology in depth. And as always having had a love for history I am very aware of the overlaps between astronomy and astrology in ancient times and even in some of our more recent famous pioneers in astronomy. Astrology has always been a significant part of the culture of the ancient times we are interested in. Further, I recognize that the Bible contains astrological motifs. My problem with astrotheology is that the arguments for it appear to me to be beginning with many questionable assumptions and fail to address alternative explanations for the same evidence.

          1. I can only agree with my friend Robert Tulip. The astro-theology has brought us closer together and although living the antipodes of each other. And if I decided to publish a paper version in English it is only thanks to his willingness to do a full review of my horrendous English.

          2. Karl, Please read my earlier reply to you below. You come across here as a tiresomely typical astrotheological zealot who responds with abuse and insult whenever their initial proclamations are questioned and countered with arguments relating to evidence and logic. I have read Robert Tulip’s piece and attempted to discuss Robert’s arguments for many hours here and in other venues trying to show the fallacious and erroneous nature of so many assertions that appear in that article and elsewhere. The response has been always a spitting of the dummy and insult for my failure to be persuaded.

            Oh — and every time I respond in detail after reading a work that I have been asked to read I am accused of not having read it — despite or because of the fact that I demonstrate from that work that I have certainly read it with a lot more care and understanding than anyone supporting astrotheology has.

            Now how about actually looking seriously at the arguments against astrotheology instead of just ignoring them, scoffing at them and their author, and tossing up quotes and sources that I have dealt with many times before.

            And I’ll even stop insisting on that apology if you simply resume a civil discourse.

            P.S. I have trashed your subsequent comment because I am tired of reading astrotheologists coming here and kicking me in the guts with insults and then declaring in all innocence that they have been entirely reasonable and that any argument against their views is an insult and evidence of bad character. It is truly tiresome and consistent among every one of you who has ever commented here (with the sole exception of Pier).

      2. Karl, would you like to ask me to delete your uncivil response and replace it with a new comment that is couched in a professional and courteous tone so we can engage in a constructive discussion about astrotheology? I trust your new comment will also address my own points and not ignore them as if attempting to point out the method I use for all historical inquiry is an insult to you. (I am always surprised when Taylor’s “Yahweh and the Sun” is raised in support of astrotheology, by the way. Have any astrotheology supporters actually read that book?)

        I think Pier Tulip is the only supporter of astrotheology I have come across who does not immediately respond with ridicule, sarcasm and insult when faced with an argument opposed to his beliefs. It seems discussion is only tolerated among those who agree with you. No disagreement is tolerated.

  4. Some suggestions by Dupuis showing astrological influences in Judaism:

    The planetary system is there represented, without any kind of equivocation, by a candlestick of seven branches, or by seven candlesticks and seven stars held in the hand of a luminous Genius, similar to the God principle of Light, or to Ormuzd adored by the Persians. Under this emblem they expressed the seven Celestial bodies, into which the uncreated Light is distributed, and in the center of which shines the Sun as its perpetual focus. It is the Angel of the Sun, which under the form of a Genius, resplendent with light, appears to John, and unveils the mysteries, which he shall reveal to the Neophytes. Jewish and Christian writers are furnishing us themselves the explanation, which we give of the seven candlesticks, which expresses here merely the same cosmogonic idea, indicated by the symbol of the candlestick with seven branches, placed in the temple of Jerusalem. Clemens, bishop of Alexandria, alleges that the candlestick with seven branches, which was in the middle of the altar of perfumes, represented the seven planets. On each side spread three branches, each surmounted by a lamp. In the middle there was the lamp of the Sun, in the center of the six other branches, because this luminary, placed in the midst of the planetary system, communicates its light to the planets beneath in accordance with the laws of its divine and harmonious action. Josephus and Philon, two Jewish writers, give the same explanation.

    The seven inclosures of the temple represented the same thing. There are also the seven eyes of the Lord, denoted by the spirits, resting on the rod, which rises from the root of Jesse, as Clemens of Alexandria continues to remark. It will be observed, that the author of the Apocalypse also says, that the seven horns of the Lamb are the seven spirits of God, and consequently that they represent the planetary system, which receives its impulsion from “Aries” or the Lamb, the first of the signs.

    The learned bishop of Alexandria tells us of the Rational, which ornaments the breast of the High Priest of the Jews, that it is an image of Heaven, that the twelve precious stones, of which it is composed, and which are ranged three by three on a quadrilateral, designate the zodiac and the four seasons, from three to three months. Now these stones, being disposed like those of the Apocalypse, are also the same, or very nearly so. Philon and Josephus, give a similar explanation. On each of the stones, says Josephus, there was engraved the name of one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the chief of the tribes, and these stones represented “the months or the twelve signs, which figure in the zodiac.” Philon adds, that this distribution of three by three, clearly indicated the seasons, which “under each of the three months, correspond to three signs.”

    1. I have read Dupuis but I have also read many works published since his time — and it was his work I had partly in mind (in response to Karl’s reference) when I wrote my previous comment.

      Josephus and Philo tell us what interpretations they placed on some of the scriptural imagery. They do not (and cannot) tell us about origins. Just arguing for one thesis without addressing alternatives is not good method.

      1. I do not think the tracks of Dupus reported by me illustrate a thesis. For me they are data confirming that also Judaism was based on an astrological system.
        We must remember that the only testimony of first-century Judaism is given by Philo. The Jewish documents we have dating back only to the twelfth or thirteenth century.
        To alternatively consider the Jewish theology of the first century also helps us Plutarch with Quaestiones convivales, IV, 6, The god of the Jews

  5. Interesting stuff, thank you. I particularly agree with your own conclusion: “The mosaics are a reminder of how little we think we know for certain about ancient Judaism.”

    But his could be misunderstood, as I seem to read in the comments. For what do you mean by “ancient Judaism”? The mosaics that you refer to were found in synagogues dating from the 4th to the 6th century CE. That was a period where rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism was developing. The beliefs and practices of this late antiquity Judaism differ in many aspects with what we read in the Torah or the prophets in the OT.

    No mosaics were ever found in earlier or later synagogues. I can think of 2 scenarios to explain this ‘period of zodiacs’:

    – this was a phase in the development of Talmudic Judaism,
    – this was a separate branch of Judaism that developed in parallel with Talmudic Judaism, but ran out of steam and disappeared.

    Anyway, it is interesting that a debate raged in Christian church in the 5-7th centuries whether the second commandment forbade human and divine imagery. One could postulate that the Jewish sages forbade this imagery to set Judaism apart from Christianity….

    And back to your opening sentence: “We don’t expect to find the sun god Helios and images of the zodiac, complete with near naked human figures, in Jewish synagogues”. I think our expectation is based on normative, modern Judaism, which strictly forbids making images of God or human figures. This interpretation could first be seen as normative only as late as the early Middle Ages. The practices could have been very different in biblical times:

    The second commandment can be – and was – interpreted in different ways, viz. forbidding idolatry, that is the worshipping of representations of other gods or divine things; but not strictly forbidding making images of human figures or the one true God. NB The first option is open in the Hebrew text but is lost in most translations.

    This explains why images of cherubim (divine spirits, guardians) are mentioned without any reluctance in the scriptures, e.g. the Cherubim of beaten gold on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, and images on the curtains of the tabernacle, and in Solomon’s temple, including two Cherubim made of olive wood overlaid with gold that were ten cubits high.

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