Monumental Roman-era synagogue uncovered

Archaeologists digging just a few kilometers from the fishing village where Jesus is believed to have preached, have uncovered a monumental Roman-era synagogue with an exquisite, colorful mosaic floor with fine female faces.

“An inscription in Hebrew has two female faces on either side. One is destroyed and the other is complete and is absolutely spectacular,” Jodi Magness, a professor of Early Judaism at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Media Line.

Magness, together with David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, are carrying out the excavations at Huqoq near the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Digging through the remnants of a Palestinian village abandoned in 1948 and later bulldozed, archaeologists came upon an ancient Jewish village centered around the large synagogue. The ruins date from the Late Roman period, approximately of the 4th century, a time on the cusp of an “explosion of synagogue building,” Magness said.

“It’s contemporary with synagogues like Capernaum and Hamat Tiberias and Beit Alpha,” she said, adding that the town itself was mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud.

At first they discovered large, well cut stones, indicating an impressive public edifice they assumed to be a synagogue. These assumptions were confirmed when they began excavating down to the floor.

“We had been digging down through the dirt fill and one of volunteers who was on a dig for the first time was gently hoeing and suddenly felt something hard. He got very excited and called me over. We could see a little bit of the mosaic sticking out of the dirt and at that point I got very excited too and we shut down the area until we got our conservator on site to work on the mosaic,” Magness recalled enthusiastically.

One of the mosaics, which are made up of tiny colored stone cubes, shows a biblical scene of Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes (as related in the book of Judges 15). The other major mosaic held the faces with the Hebrew inscription which refers to rewards for those who perform good deeds.

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq),” said Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the department of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

She said the fancy floor and large stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls showed that the village synagogue and nearby houses were built by an affluent society. In some ways, it appeared beyond what a small village like Huqoq would naturally have built.

“That was a little bit surprising to me,” Magness said. “I did not expect the level of prosperity that we see in the village context because this was a village not a town or a city. I am kind of dumbfounded really.”

Besides the fact that it was located near a spring, on a major trade route and surrounded by fertile land, Magness noted that ancient rabbinical sources mention Huqoq was known for its mustard plants.

“I guess mustard was lucrative,” she said.

Only portions of the synagogue have been uncovered so far. Magness said she believes the scale of the building is similar to the one uncovered in Bar Am, an opulent structure from a similar period in the upper Galilee near Safed. She said that the Huqoq synagogue was partially intact, with walls standing to half their original first floor height, and with original plaster.

The mosaic was further dispelled the notion that bans on graven images kept Jews from putting figurines in their synagogues.

“One of the big surprises in the early 20th century when many of these synagogues of this period came to light for the first time was that many of them are decorated with figured images and sometimes even pagan images and this sort of revolutionized our understanding of Judaism in this period. So apparently Jews in this period were not bothered by these kinds of images and chose to decorate their synagogues with them,” Magness said. “Now that we have this wonderful discovery we do want to share it with the public, but it is going to take time because we are still in the midst of a long term excavation project,” she said. 

Options include removing the mosaic for display in a museum or turning the site into an archaeological park, but that depends on the total finds made after a few seasons. Meanwhile, the findings have been covered over to prevent pillaging and damage until next summer when the excavations are scheduled to continue.