Today is our fourth day exploring the region of Galilee. It contained four stops. These were at Sepphoris, Jezreel, the Beth Alpha Synagogue and Beth Shean. The main topics discussed today were synagogues, tricliniums, and the Last Supper and its biblical context.
Imagery in the Synagogue
Today we saw two synagogues with mosaics covering their floors and both of these mosaics had large zodiac charts surrounding Helios, the Greek sun god, or, in the case of Sepphoris, the sun, riding in a chariot. These mosaics contained graven images which is against the laws of Torah and Mishnah. At least the images at Sepphoris are clothed. There are seven known synagogues with this imagery on the floor. On the Tiberias synagogue’s floor the figures are naked and uncircumcised!
The synagogue in Sepphoris is the only one with the sun riding in a chariot. The other six all have Helios riding in the chariot. Some scholars have supposed that this figure is actually supposed to be Elijah ascending to heaven in a chariot. But, that seems pretty far-fetched.
All seven of the synagogues are in the flatlands of Israel in cities that the Israelites initially failed to conquer and take from the Canaanites. These synagogues are in areas where life was easy in comparison to that of Jerusalem and other cities to the south.
So what is the deal with graven images and zodiacs in Jewish synagogues? There was obviously a lessening of the prohibition against graven images among the Jews of these communities. How did this come to be accepted? What happened in these communities to bring about this adjustment? Were these Jews selling out to contemporary secular culture?
These synagogues were built during the Byzantine/Talmudic era (324-640 AD). At this point persecution of the Jews, who were viewed by most of the world of this time as Christ-killers, was occurring in some parts of the world. It’s possible that the Jews began to accommodate ulterior beliefs and symbols as a way to distance themselves from the Jews of the first century. Or, perhaps these were simply less devout Jews who enjoyed the affluence of their Greek and Roman neighbors and sacrificed some of their beliefs so that they might also enjoy wealth like their pagan neighbors. But, why would they need to create graven images in order to do this?
No one today knows for sure why these signs and images appear on the floors of these synagogues. According to the video we watched at Beth Alpha, one synagogue incorporated these symbols and then the others simply copied it because of the fame of its beauty. Whatever the reason for incorporating pagan imagery into the synagogues, it seems that these were Jews who left the strict belief and adherence to Torah in favor of a more lenient and syncretic religion.
Sepphoris, a Triclinium & the Last Supper
Sepphoris has beautiful mosaics in more than just its synagogue. These are the floors of the wealthy in the community. One of these mosaic floors has a face known as the Mona Lisa of Sepphoris. She is either the home-owner’s wife, his mistress, or what he wished his wife looked like. This mosaic is one of the most beautiful ever created. From a distance all of the stones meld together to form a seamless image with smooth color transitions and accurate human proportions. This mosaic is a small part of the floor of the banquet hall of a house. This banquet hall is called a triclinium. The tables at which guests ate were set in a U-shape around the central mosaic. The host or most important person at the meal would sit on the right, with his closest companion on his left and his second-in-command on his left. Then people would sit in order of descending rank around the tables until the least important who sat at the top of the U on the left side.
In the case of Jesus and the Last Supper, it would make sense for Peter to be sitting on His right side and John, his kind-of adopted son would be on His left. However, when feet were washed, the feet of the most important guests were washed first and the least important last. So at the Last Supper, where was Peter seated? The Bible is not clear on where Peter’s feet were in the order of washing, but it does not sound as though he was the first one as we might expect. Perhaps Peter had picked up on “the last shall be first” teaching by this time and sat himself in the seat of the least important person. He certainly still had a lot more to learn before he grew into his name.