Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.25

Lee I. Levine, Zeev Weiss (ed.), From Dura to Sepphoris: Studies in Jewish Art and Society in Late Antiquity. JRA suppl. 40.   Portsmouth:  JRA, 2000.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 1-887829-40-7.  $84.50.  $64.50 web discount.  

Contributors: D. Amit, B. J. Brooten, S. Fine, L. Habas, R. Jacoby, E. Kessler, H. L. Kessler, B. Kuhnel, L. I. Levine, E. Revel-Neher, S. Sabar, S. Schwartz, G. Sed-Rajna, R. Talgam, Z. Weiss, A. Wharton, J. Yahalom

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan (
Word count: 3905 words

Like a Near Eastern sleeping beauty the town of Dura Europos lay hidden under the sands of the desert for nearly 1700 years. It came to light in 1917 by chance when a resourceful British soldier, trying to dig a trench, stumbled on a wall covered with paintings. In the 1920s and 1930s several Franco-American expeditions systematically unearthed the site. Without a doubt, the jewel in this archaeological crown is the Jewish synagogue, a structure that welcomed a community with a peculiar taste evident in a dazzling display of paintings of biblical images. That this congregation had its own interpretation of the Second Commandment (No Graven Images) is clear, as is the crucial significance of the cycle for an understanding of the development of early Christian art. The paintings of the Dura synagogue date, with rare precision, to the 240s. They probably owe their state of preservation to the poignant fact that the city fell to the Sasanids barely a decade later, in CE 256, and was never reinhabited.

Although relatively little known, the discovery of the Dura synagogue holds a place of honor with findings such as the better known, or rather better advertised Dead Sea Scrolls, and the unfortunately little known Cairo Genizah. All three are instrumental not only for illuminating various periods in Jewish history but also for their singular contribution to the religious, social, economic and political history of antiquity and the Middle Ages in general. Today the paintings of the synagogue are housed in the Damascus museum where they enjoy, or suffer, from what Annabel Wharton, in a remarkable article in the book under survey, calls 'erasure'. Contemporary middle eastern politics had dictated the removal of all references to the discovery or to very presence of the synagogue even in guidebooks of the Damascus museum itself. Perhaps, as Wharton claims, such erasure paradoxically ensures their survival. Full scale copies of these paintings were housed in the basement of Yale University Art Gallery. A while ago when I inquired about the fate of the originals I was informed that the authorities at Yale, back in the 1930s, opted to receive the Dura Mithraeum and the Dura baptistery and to leave the synagogue in French Syria. The Christian baptistery can no longer be seen because the frescoes disintegrated beyond repair. In 1978 I was able to temporarily remove the copies of the Dura synagogue from storage for an exhibit.

Understandably, the synagogue cycle has exerted considerable fascination and has engendered a lively and ongoing scholarly debate. For Erwin Goodenough, author of the magisterial twelve volumes Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman World (conveniently compressed by Jacob Neusner into one volume in 1988), the synagogue presents a visual allegory which 'translates' the Hebrew Bible along the line of Alexandrian-Philonian theology. Other scholars have tried to forge links with 'normative' Judaism, namely the Judaism gleaned from rabbinic compilations such as the Mishnah, the Talmuds and midrash. The importance of the Dura synagogue lies not only in its apparent violation of the Second Commandment but also in its mode of biblical exegesis, which had been rarely glimpsed through the visual arts or at so early a date.

A few years ago, in Galilean Zepphories, a delightful town that had already yielded an astonishing wealth of magnificent mosaic floors (including the so-called Mona Lisa of the Galilee), archaeologists unearthed a structure which they identified as one of the city's synagogues. Unlike Dura, the town of Sepphoris is familiar to all readers of rabbinic sources. Sepphoris was, to an extent, a bastion of rabbinic networks in late antiquity and its Jewish community was evidently both prosperous and, one would expect, 'mainstream' or 'normative' (in rabbinic terms). It was, therefore, with surprise and aplomb that the announcement of the finding of a mosaic floor in a synagogue was greeted. Although the phenomenon of decorated synagogues in late Roman Palestine is hardly novel, several aspects of the Sepphoris mosaic appear to make it unique, not the least because of its links with remote Dura.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the Sepphoris mosaic is its apparent iconoclasm, evident in a peculiar interpretation of the familiar zodiac cum Helios motif, as well as in its contribution to a refined understanding of contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. Already in 1996, some three years after the discovery, the discoverers of the synagogue published a detailed report and analysis (Z. Weiss and E. Netzer, Promise and Redemption: A Synagogue Mosaic from Sepphoris [Jerusalem 1996]). Several articles in the present collection elaborate on many of the issues raised and provide further reflections on the mosaic and its artistic, social and intellectual environment.

In the synagogue of Sepphoris the central panel of the floor mosaic features the zodiac with the chariot of the sun, in itself not an uncommon sight in Palestinian synagogues of Late Antiquity. But the chariot in Sepphoris is empty of the usual Helios. Only a disc is seen in place of the god. Other features of the synagogue mosaic likewise prompt questions: should one, for example, regard the congregation of this synagogue as heir to the Dura eccentrics? Should one rather regard the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic as a reflection of changing rabbinic biblical exegesis? Does the art of the Jewish synagogue of Late Antiquity in general and that of Sepphoris in particular suggest that the range of biblical interpretation was wider than previously perceived and by no means limited to rabbinic reflections? These are a few of the questioned addressed by contributors to the volume under review.

Only one article, in fact, deals directly with the synagogue at Dura (many others refer to it). Shalom Sabar ('The Purim Panel at Dura: A Socio-Historical Interpretation', pp. 155-163) attempts to place the Dura conceptualization of the scroll of Esther within the contemporary political context, and specifically against the looming Sasanid threat to the city along the eastern frontier of the Roman empire in the third century. His analysis highlights the difficulties involved in analyzing 'art' and 'society' even when the date of the monument is well established. Sabar suggests that the choice of episodes (humiliation of Haman and of Israel's enemies) to grace the synagogue's walls intended to convey the community's support of Rome by recalling how the "God of the Jews [who is, incidentally, wholly absent from the scroll] had already helped in the past to turn the wheel and save the just from their wicked Persian persecutors" (p. 160).

The Purim panel is one in a series of biblical tales on the walls of the Dura synagogue. As Sabar correctly remarks, the very selection of the Scroll of Esther as a source of artistic inspiration requires comment, for the tiny scroll with its ebullient and crafty heroine had a tough time entering the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Ultimately the rabbis proved more accommodating than Luther. While Sabar's conclusion regarding a political meaning remains open to doubt, it rightly emphasizes the multiplicity of messages which the paintings convey to the beholder, and the malleability of 'art' in service of 'society'. At Dura, a rich array of favored biblical characters and scenes provides a prime example of a specific reading of a sacred text. Side by side with pagan temples, a Christian baptistery and a mithraeum, the (larger) size and the (more lavish) decoration of the synagogue also reflect the pride of the Jewish community in its biblical heritage.

A recent study of the entire painting cycle of the Dura synagogue led Weitzmann and Kessler (K. Weitzmann and H. L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, Washington DC 1990) to the conclusion that the carefully selected images constitute a visual response to the appropriation of biblical themes by Christian typology. Elisheva Revel-Neher ('From dream to reality: evolution and continuity in Jewish art', pp. 53-64) explores this hypothesis with the context of Sepphoris by focusing on the 'revolutionary' aspects of its mosaic, such as the division into seven bands, the centrality of the Tabernacle-Temple imagery, and the absence of Helios. In her reading, the Sepphoris mosaic belongs both to a polemical discourse as well as to a language of remarkable artistic continuity.

Tracing, likewise, a Jewish iconographical tradition throughout late antiquity, Gabrielle Sed Rajna ('A missing link: some thoughts on the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic', pp. 45-51) explores how Sepphoris provides a bridge between Dura and early Christian biblical art. She suggests that Christian artists of later periods were familiar with the models that had inspired the Dura frescoes, as well as with the general programmatic design of prayer halls. The discovery of the Sepphoris mosaic uncovers a crucial missing link for a demonstration of the continuity of artistic and ideological traditions.

An introductory article by Weiss, the excavator of the Sepphoris synagogue, describes each of the its mosaic panels and includes several drawings and photographs ('The Sepphoris synagogue mosaic and the role of talmudic literature in its iconographical study', pp. 15-30). His main hypothesis places these mosaics within a context which reflects "the centrality of Talmudic literature and the scope of its influence in shaping the details and iconographic layout of the synagogue mosaic" (p. 28). Unfortunately Weiss does not discuss in this article the dating of the synagogue. Other articles refer to a fifth century date and even to an early fifth century date without providing supporting data. I assume that Weiss' previous publication (which I have not read) fully covers this important matter.

Weiss elects to embed the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic within a rabbinic context. This intimate link between rabbinic texts and synagogal imagery is challenged by E. Kessler ('Art leading the story: The Aqedah in early synagogue art', pp. 73-81) for whom the mosaic represents rather a counter-reading. Focusing on the perennially popular sacrifice of Isaac (= Aqedah, Gen 22) Kessler reads in this biblical motif an exegesis that differs not only from rabbinic recreations of Genesis 22 but also from other artistic depictions of the same motif, such as the one at Dura and in the synagogue of Bet Alpha in Israel. These divergences point, pace Kessler, to a trend of biblical interpretation which evidently cannot be teased from surviving written or artistic sources. Both Weiss and Kessler, and practically all other contributors, regard the mosaic as an "artistic midrash", namely an encoded text which aspires to interpret the Hebrew Bible much like rabbinic texts.

Who, then, were the patrons who commissioned this sort of synagogal decoration? Joseph Yahalom addresses this important question by focusing on the scene of the Aqedah. In his opinion, members of wealthy and powerful priestly families in search of status and prestige invested in this type of munificence. Having lost their Jerusalem bastion in 70 CE, these men sought to rebuild and ensure their place in the society of the Jewish Galilee in late antiquity, especially vis-à-vis local rabbinic networks. Yahalom's hypothesis provides a useful corrective to analyses that have viewed synagogue mosaics as visual reflections of a homogenous community.

Bianca Kuhnel ('The synagogue floor mosaic in Sepphoris: Between paganism and Christianity', pp. 31-43) examines the Sepphoris panels within a multiple context of pagan-hellenistic cultural traditions, rabbinic training and learning, and Jewish-Christian polemics. She examines how, through an obliteration of chronological borders between the remote and the more recent past, the mosaic imagery projects hopes of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Using the central motif of the zodiac as an interpretative clue, Kuhnel explores how the mosaic de-paganizes it and how astrology is recruited to extol the God of Israel as a universal omnipotent divinity. She suggests that the Sepphoris mosaic was "attuned to synagogue literature and probably directed not only to the pagan population of Sepphoris but also to the growing influence of Christianity in Palestine" (p. 40). The much discussed Aqedah (=sacrifice of Isaac), for example, would have served to emphasize the continuing hold of Judaism on Jerusalem in face of Christian appropriation of the city and of its biblical landmarks. Christians responded by 'erasing' or deliberately omitting the zodiac from the repertory of ecclesiastical ornamentation.

An analysis of the Sepphoris mosaic within a Jewish-Christian context suggests to Herbert Kessler ('The Sepphoris mosaic and Christian art', pp. 65-72) a context of mutuality and polemics. Sharing a model with Cosmas' Christian Topography, the Sepphoris mosaic hints at mosaicists working for Christians as well as for Jews during the fifth and the sixth centuries. These craftsmen "relied on common conventions even while responding to the particular requirements of their respective religions" (p. 69). To explore polemics Kessler examines the diversity of messages projected by the shared Jewish and Christian imagery. He suggests that representations of the Tabernacle in Jewish and in Christian art expressed controversy rather than concord. In Christian eyes symbols of Temple sacrifice, for example, reinforced belief in the superiority of Christianity. In Jewish eyes these same symbols bolstered belief in the continuing validity of the covenant between Israel and God.

Rina Talgam compares similarities and differences between Christian and Jewish mosaics in late ancient Palestine ('Similarities and differences between synagogue and church mosaics in Palestine during the Byzantine and Ummayad periods', pp. 93-110). Here one ought to note the marked disparity in sheer numbers between the two groups, with ecclesiastical mosaics outnumbering by far synagogal mosaics. The most common themes on floor mosaics of churches were animals, hunting scenes and rural life, popular themes within both a secular and a sacred context in late antiquity. This areligious program is, according to Talgam, largely the result of imperial objections to the depiction of crosses on floors. What, then, would Christian church goers in late antiquity surmise when gazing at such non-committal images? Talgam, like Maguire (Earth and Ocean. The Terrestrial World in Early Byzantine Art [London 1987]), opts for an allegorical interpretation that conveys a specific religious message. Quintessential symbols, such as the Jewish menorah and the Christian cross, highlight the development of a vocabulary of adoption and of avoidance as both religions set out to transmit to the believer eschatological messages.

In Lee Levine's 'The history and significance of the Menorah in antiquity' (p. 131-153) the history of the menorah is unfolded from its biblical cradle to late antiquity. There is no exaggerating of the crucial significance of this symbol not only for Jews, for whom it serves as the vital link with both Bible and Temple, but also for non-Jews. The prominent display of the Temple menorah on the arch of Titus demonstrates the power of propaganda through shared imagery of triumph and of defeat. Levine suggests that the menorah's emergence in late antiquity as an extraordinary popular symbol is not only a new development but also one that hints at new ideas and beliefs. For Levine the centrality of the menorah reflects the ways in which images operate in society through an ubiquitous employment or rather deployment of a symbolic language. He believes that in the context of late antiquity the menorah must be understood within a polemical context which required an identifiable Jewish symbol vis-à-vis an identifiable Christian symbol (i.e. the cross). Indeed, the appearance of the menorah on surfaces in the exact places where one usually finds a cross (e.g. chancel screens) lends support to this assumption.

Chancel screens and bemas (raised platforms in synagogues and churches usually enclosed by screens) are the subjects of Lihi Habas' article ('The bema and chancel screen in synagogues and their origins', pp. 111-130). She examines over a hundred churches and a handful of synagogues (a true reflection of the state of survival and preservation), as well as literary texts that attest the liturgical and religious significance of the bema and screen in church settings. Addressing issues of mutual borrowing, she suggests that the bema was less symbolically laden in a Jewish than a Christian context although perhaps still charged with eschatological and redemptive message. Habas further claims that the bema and its surrounding chancel screens were an integral component of ecclesiastical architecture in late antiquity. Within synagogal setting these were rarer, a disparity that argues, says Habas, for Christian influence on Jewish designs.

A cluster of articles provides provocative reflections on scholarly deployment of textual and visual sources. Seth Schwartz ('On the program and reception of the synagogue mosaics', pp. 165-81) raises methodological questions regarding our ability to interpret ancient Jewish art. He challenges the relevance of any Jewish literary sources besides the Bible itself for an understanding of artistic depictions. In his opinion "the variety of late-antique synagogue decoration, the fact that identical pavements have not yet been discovered, argues strongly against the supposition that the art constituted a kind of iconographical code" (p. 169). What, precisely, conveyed a message of holiness remains unclear, according to Schwartz. For the rabbis, for example, any place could be made to serve as a synagogue but only the Torah scrolls carried sanctity. Yet, the diffusion of monumental synagogues and their lavish décor implies a different attitude to sacred space.

Schwartz claims that the Sepphoris mosaic conveys a message of worship through a series of key scenes, from the Aqedah to the Tabernacle-Temple. Because he also argues for the existence of "a loosely constituted and unstable symbolic language" he objects to an attribution of "stable" meaning to the mosaic. Since social context "inescapably affects meaning," Schwartz identifies the "voice which speaks in the overwhelming majority of the extant synagogue dedications" as that of the community. Synagogal poetry (piyyut) is the community's textual and interpretative vehicle. These liturgical poems which were primarily "occasional pieces" highlight the shifting nature of the message of the mosaic: "the paytanim strove to read synagogue art as a commemoration of Israel's place in history and not in the cosmos" (p. 181).

At least one component of the community is well represented in Bernadette Brooten's article on female members of the congregation. Here she returns to the perennially fascinating subject of 'female leadership in the ancient synagogue' (pp. 215-223) by way of an updating and summary of her well-known 1982 study on the same subject. She reiterates her conviction that the titles revealed in synagogal epigraphy indicate actual functions rather than mere honors. Her conclusion is now supported, with due caution, by William Horbury in his masterly 'Women in the synagogue', in The Cambridge History of Judaism III, eds. Horbury et al (1999), 358-410, esp. 388ff. Regrettably, it is difficult to draw inferences from the prominence of women in worship with regard to the selection of decorative motives for synagogal mosaics. Only the Dura frescoes exhibit a remarkable interest in biblical stories which feature women and female feats.

In the vein of Schwartz's skepticism, Steve Fine deals with Jewish iconoclasm ('Iconoclasm and the art of late-antique Palestinian synagogues', 183-194) as a Jewish phenomenon. He maintains that the destruction of mosaics, evident in several synagogues, reflects internal divisions among the Jews rather than attacks by Christians. Through archaeology it is possible to perceive "a range of attitudes toward art that was broader than that of the rabbinic sages" (p. 187). Fine briefly surveys conflicting rabbinic opinions regarding the appropriateness of images in general and in synagogal context in particular. By the 8th century, he concludes, under the influence of Islamic theology, synagogal aesthetics adopted an aniconic taste which displaced human and animal imagery as the norm.

Two articles (Ruth Jacoby, 'The four species in Jewish and Samaritan traditions', and David Amit, 'The curtain would be removed for them [Yoma 54a]: ancient synagogue depictions') deal with the familiar and important problem of identifying Samaritan synagogues, or rather of drawing clear distinctions between Jewish and Samaritan sacred precincts. Jacoby maintains that absence, rather than presence, of the four species used in the Sukkot celebration provides a clue to correct affiliation while Amit suggests that the depiction of a drawn veil over the Torah shrine indicates Samaritan synagogues.

To my mind the most original article is Annabel Wharton's 'Erasure: eliminating the space of late ancient Judaism' (pp. 195-214). She begins with the Jerusalem Temple, the most important Jewish monument of antiquity, and examines how it has been subjected to a process of erasure from physical destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 to its deletion from Christian sacred space. Christian Jerusalem deliberately kept the Temple area vacant (or 'erased'), shifting the sacred center to the church of the holy sepulchre. "This physical juxtaposition of the dynamism of the new Christian nexus of the sacred and the vacant silence of the sacred center of the Jews was a powerful and present index of the dynamic relocation of sacred authority" (p. 198). I am reminded of the comment made by Jonathan Z. Smith over dinner -- what meaning is there to Christianity (or to Islam, for that matter) without the destruction of the Jewish Temple? A sobering thought indeed.

Turning to late ancient synagogues, Wharton makes the important observation that "the fictionalized records produced in the later 4th and in the 5th centuries describing the frustrated attempt to rebuilt the Temple (under Julian) form the literary counterparts of the all-too-real violence that was contemporaneously directed against synagogues" (p. 200). Here is a provocative corrective to Peter Brown's image of harmonious co-existence which underlies his influential perception of late antiquity. Reviewing manifestations of synagogue erasure Wharton points to deliberate destruction of synagogues in various provinces, to imperial legislation forbidding the erection of new synagogues and even major remodeling, and to Christian appropriation of Jewish sacred space. To complement the map of physical violence Wharton draws a geography of anti-Semitic vitriol, from Ambrose's Italy to Chrysostom's Syria. She regards, not without reason, such denunciations as the verbal dimension of spatial aggression.

Contemporary events lend poignancy to Wharton's observations about the battle over visual hegemony. She refers to the 1987 vandalism of the site of the ancient synagogue in Ostia and to the continuing exertion of damnatio memoriae or deliberate omissions. One example of the latter is the curious spelling of the term 'antisemitism' in the OED and, for that matter, in my MS Word spell check -- not an 'erasure' but a spelling which requires some ingenuity (word is broken into anti and semitism). Another is the omission of an entry for 'synagogue' from the lists drawn for the Harvard Dictionary for Late Antiquity (1999). A third example of the process of obliteration or 'erasure' is the scholarly identification of excavated building remains as churches in spite of the presence of features which suggest the presence of a synagogue. Nor do contemporary extremist groups in Israel escape Wharton's censure.

The war goes on, alas. A recent issue of Quadmoniot, the journal for the antiquities of Eretz Israel and Bible lands, includes an article on the so-called Solomon's stables (Dan Bahat, 'Re-Examining the history of 'Solomon's Stable', Quadmoniot 34 [2001], 125-130). Potentially very important information came to light in the course of major road works undertaken by the Moslem Wakff in the area of the Temple or the Haram al Sharif. Because these works had been executed without permission of the Israeli government there was no archaeologist on site to document the finds. It is impossible at this point to estimate the permanent 'erasure' of knowledge which such actions generate. Regretfully, one must reflect on politics of preservation and demolition in both late antiquity and in our own time. Happily, the site of Sepphoris is well preserved and easily accessible. Let us hope that in the future we can also visit the Dura synagogue either in its original site or in the Damascus museum.

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