Archaeology team uncovers mosaics of biblical beasts and first depicted Exodus scene

It’s not every day that an archaeologist makes a find that gives us insight into Biblical events and early religious peoples. But that’s what Dr. Jodi Magness and her team did in Israel this summer upon unearthing a 1,600-year-old mosaic in an ancient Jewish synagogue.

The excavation site is located in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village dating back to the Bronze Age that is mentioned in the Bible.

Image via Wikimedia

Magness, who is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences, has been excavating the site for nine years now and has uncovered much of the village’s history.

For instance, she knows Huqoq must have been prosperous because of the “high artistic quality and the tiny size of the mosaic cubes” that made up fantastic mosaic masterpieces found inside a synagogue whose walls were built using “monumental stones.”

Image via Wikimedia

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes,” she said in 2012.

But now Magness and her team are once again peeling back the history of the village by unveiling more mosaics featuring biblical scenes, this time from the book of Daniel and in Exodus.

During an interview with Heritage Daily, Magness discussed the finds and described them.

“Chapter 7 in the book of Daniel describes four beasts which represent the four kingdoms leading up to the end of days,” she explained.

“This year our team discovered mosaics in the synagogue’s north aisle depicting these four beasts, as indicated by a fragmentary Aramaic inscription referring to the first beast: a lion with eagle’s wings. The lion itself is not preserved, nor is the third beast. However, the second beast from Daniel 7:4 – a bear with three ribs protruding from its mouth – is preserved. So is most of the fourth beast, which is described in Daniel 7:7 as having iron teeth.”

The team only realized the significance of the depiction after one member was able to read the Aramaic inscription a week later.

They also found a mosaic depicting a biblical scene that has not been depicted before.

“We’ve uncovered the first depiction of the episode of Elim ever found in ancient Jewish art,” Magness continued. “This story is from Exodus 15:27. Elim is where the Israelites camped after leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water. The mosaic is divided into three horizontal strips, or registers.

We see clusters of dates being harvested by male agricultural workers wearing loincloths, who are sliding the dates down ropes held by other men. The middle register shows a row of wells alternating with date palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic is carrying a water jar and entering the arched gate of a city flanked by crenellated towers. An inscription above the gate reads, “And they came to Elim.””

Magness pointed out that the mosaics depicted scenes the congregation viewed as important but also raised questions as well.

“The Daniel panel is interesting because it points to eschatological, or end of day, expectations among this congregation,” she said. “The Elim panel is interesting as it is generally considered a fairly minor episode in the Israelites’ desert wanderings, which raises the question of why it was significant to this Jewish congregation in Lower Galilee.”

The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years according to biblical texts, so perhaps the mosaic is meant to represent perseverance in the face of struggles.

The mosaics are also important to archaeologists because few records from early Jews beyond elite rabbis survive today.

“Our work sheds light on a period when our only written sources about Judaism are rabbinic literature from the Jewish sages of this period and references in early Christian literature,” she said. “The full scope of rabbinic literature is huge and diverse, but it represents the viewpoint of the group of men who wrote it. That group was fairly elite, and we don’t have the writings of other groups of Jews from this period.”

The works also may change the view about Judaism and Jews depicted by Christian literature.

“Early Christian literature is generally hostile to Jews and Judaism,” Magness said. “So, archaeology fills this gap by shedding light on aspects of Judaism between the fourth to sixth centuries CE – about which we would know nothing otherwise. Our discoveries indicate Judaism continued to be diverse and dynamic long after the destruction of the second Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.”

Magness and her team are changing the way historians look at ancient Jewish society. These mosaics tell a story about a society that revered the biblical stories of their ancestors and are evidence of a thriving community in Galilee during Roman rule.

The mosaics have already been removed from the site and will be placed on display for the world to see so that everyone can learn more about this village and the people who lived there.

More in the video from UNC-Chapel Hill below:

Featured Image: Screen capture via YouTube

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