Archaeologists uncover 1,600-year-old ‘revolutionary’ clues to life in ancient Jewish village

Fish swallowing Pharoah's soldier in the Parting of the Red Sea.
Fish swallowing Pharoah's soldier in the Parting of the Red Sea.

A University of North Carolina archaeologist and her team have uncovered 1,600-year-old art in a monumental synagogue in Israel that could rewrite history about an ancient Jewish village.

The team, led by professor Jodi Magness, discovered mosaics in an ancient village in Israel that contradict widespread views about Jewish settlement in the region during the early fifth century.

“The size and rich decoration of the synagogue indicate that this Jewish village continued to flourish in the centuries after the Roman Empire became a Christian empire, and these Jews came under Christian rule, which many scholars today view as having been oppressive to the Jews,” said Magness, a Kenan distinguished professor of early Judaism in the department of religious studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences.

Pair of donkeys in Noah's Ark scene.jpg
Pair of donkeys in Noah's Ark scene. Jim Haberman, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The large, elaborately decorated interior of the synagogue in Huqoq, a village in Galilee, points to a “previously unexpected level of prosperity,” Magness said.

And the content of the mosaics themselves seems to contradict previous historical perceptions.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” Magness said. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.”

The mosaics provide information about the ancient Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and show that Judaism during the 4th through 6th centuries “was dynamic and diverse,” Magness said.

2018 excavation_The Spies Panel.jpg
The Spies panel Jim Haberman, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Magness and her team have been uncovering the mosaics since 2012. Since then, more have been discovered each summer.

This summer, they made their most significant discovery to date — part of the richest, most diverse collection of mosaics ever found in an ancient synagogue.

University of North Carolina archaeologist Jodi Magness and her team discovered “unparalleled” and “revolutionary” mosaics in Israel that uncovered new clues about life in an ancient Galilean Jewish village; many depict biblical scenes.

The mosaics

The mosaics show scenes from several biblical stories and depict the zodiac, including:

Noah’s Ark.

The parting of the Red Sea, showing Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by giant fish.

Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish.

The building of the Tower of Babel.

A panel depicting two spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan, carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes (Numbers 13:23).

A panel referencing Isaiah 11:6 (“a small child shall lead them”), which shows a youth leading an animal by a rope.

Samson and the foxes.

Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders.

A Helios-zodiac cycle.

Month of Teveth with the sign of Capricorn.jpg
Month of Teveth with the sign of Capricorn. Jim Haberman, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The ‘most surprising find

The mosaics don’t only show biblical stories, Magness said.

On one, a Hebrew inscription is surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures, including cupids, along with the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue.

That mosaic shows perhaps, the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

The team uncovered a rare discovery in ancient synagogues — columns covered in colorful painted plaster still intact after nearly 1,600 years.

Huqoq in the Hebrew Bible

The village of Huqoq appears in the Old Testament in connection with the settlement of the Israelite tribes of Asher and Naftali, Magness said.

“In the Roman and Byzantine periods, it was a Jewish village. But until our discoveries, Huqoq was considered only to be an unimportant ancient village,” Magness said. “Now we can see that it was more prosperous than we previously thought.”

Huqoq is not mentioned in the New Testament, but the village did exist during the time of Jesus of Nazareth, Magness said.

Huqoq is only a few miles from Capernaum, the base of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and from Migdal/Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene.

“It is in the heart of the area that was the focus of Jesus’s Galilean ministry – so its possible (even likely) that Jesus was familiar with the village and maybe even visited it,” Magness said.

But the mosaics Magness and her team have uncovered were created about 400 years after the time of Jesus.

The mosaics have been removed from the synagogue for conservation and the excavated areas have been backfilled, according to the university. Excavations are scheduled to continue in the summer of 2019. For more information on the project, go to www.huqoq.org.

Magness and her team were assisted by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University.

Sponsors of the project include UNC-Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the dig, with financial support for 2018 from the Friends of Heritage Preservation, the National Geographic Society, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

Magness, UNC students at 2017 Huqoq excavation.jpg
Left to right: Bottom row: Kirstyn Waller, Stephanie Grant, Joshua Sanders Second row: Matthew Grey, David Culclasure, Bradley Erickson, Jocelyn Burney Third row: MaryRachel Bulkeley, Jodi Magness, Brian Coussens, Timothy Walker, Bryan Bozung Top row: Josue Menjivar, Megan Hynek, Olivia Petrocella, Bryan Towers, Jesse Elovitz, Julia (Rosa) Snyder, Staisha Glenn, Averyl (Avivi) Edwards Jim Haberman, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Footage taken by underwater archaeologist James Spirek during an exploratory dive on Friday, April 21, 2017, in the Port Royal Sound to learn more about the sunken Civil War vessel that is there.

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