What Are Pagan Deities Doing on the Floors of Ancient Synagogues?

Jan. 28 2015

Archaeologists have uncovered a handful of synagogues from the talmudic period (ca. 70 – 600 CE), mostly in the northern parts of Israel. Some of these synagogues contain elaborate mosaics, with representations of various religious symbols and objects, as well as biblical scenes. Surprisingly, some also have depictions of the signs of the zodiac and, in at least two cases, of a pagan deity. Mike Rogoff analyzes various theories of why this was not seen as a violation of the Second Commandment (which seems to prohibit making any “graven image” or “likeness” of terrestrial or celestial bodies), and puts forth his own conclusions (free registration required):

What is astonishing at [two of the best-preserved synagogue mosaics] is the large centerpiece, depicting the wheel of the zodiac, a blatantly Hellenistic-Roman device. It is populated with human figures, seemingly in defiance of the Second Commandment. Four female figures, representing the four seasons of the year (often with their season’s bounty at hand), inhabit the corners of the square frame. Several of the twelve signs of the zodiac are human, with two in [the synagogue at] Hammat Tiberias—Libra and Aquarius—fully naked.

But the real surprise lies at the center of the wheel. Here, in the very heart of the synagogues, is a representation of Helios, the Greek sun god, in the form of a charioteer, whip in hand, riding his four-horse quadriga across the sky. What is the image doing here? . . .

Jews recognized . . . that the universe is entirely in the hands of the Creator; but since any representation of Him was the most severe prohibition of all, they adopted and adapted a long-popular Mediterranean design to convey the idea. There was no veneration of the pagan deities or celestial bodies—after all, the congregation routinely tramped over them—and thus no violation of the second part of the Second Commandment [which states of images:] “…thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them.”

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More about: ancient Judaism, History & Ideas, Idolatry, Jewish art, Mosaics, Synagogues

A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy