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UW Professor Excavates Significant Fifth Century Mosaic in Galilee

Professor Paul Flesher of UW's Religious Studies Department
Professor Paul Flesher of UW’s Dpartment of Religious Studies poses with the newly discovered Samson Mosaic on the floor of the Late-Roman synagogue at Huqoq, Galilee. The mosaic depicts Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza. (UW Religious Studies)

University of Wyoming Religious Studies Professor Paul Flesher was part of an excavation team that unearthed a pair of stunning mosaics decorating the floor of a late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s Lower Galilee.

During summer 2012, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4) was discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle. This summer, Flesher and others found another mosaic that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). Adjacent to Samson are riders with horses, apparently representing Philistines.

Although Samson is not described as such in the Hebrew Bible, in both scenes he is depicted as a giant, reflecting later Jewish traditions that developed about the biblical judge and hero. Although biblical scenes are not uncommon in late Roman synagogue mosaics, only one other ancient synagogue in Israel (at Khirbet Wadi Hamam) is decorated with a scene showing Samson (the episode in which he smites the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass).

“The discovery of two Samson scenes in the Huqoq synagogue suggests that it was decorated with a Samson cycle — the first such cycle known in Israel,” Flesher says.

“Those who know the Samson story in the biblical book of Judges may recall that the Philistines are never depicted with horses,” he says. Flesher points out that this portrayal comes from the Targums, which are Jewish translations of the Bible into Aramaic. An expert in these translations, Flesher says, “Huqoq’s image provides clear indication that the Targums and the synagogue images draw upon a common set of ancient understandings of Scripture’s meaning.”

Another portion of mosaic discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle preserves a scene that includes several male figures and an elephant. Below this is an arcade, with the arches framing young men arranged around a seated elderly man holding a scroll. The strip below this shows a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his wounds, and a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.

This mosaic differs in style, quality and content from the Samson scenes, Flesher says. It might depict a triumphal parade, or perhaps a martyrdom story based on 1-4 Maccabees, in which case it would be the first example of an apocryphal story decorating an ancient synagogue. He says apocryphal books were not included in the Hebrew Bible/Jewish canon of sacred scripture.

Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill directs the Huqoq excavations, and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority is co-director of the project, primarily sponsored by UNC. In addition to the University of Wyoming, other sponsoring institutions are Brigham Young University, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Toronto in Canada. Students and staff from UNC and the consortium schools are participating in the dig.

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2014, and UW students will have the opportunity to take part.

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