What Are Pagan Deities Doing on the Floors of Ancient Synagogues? https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/history-ideas/2015/01/what-are-pagan-deities-doing-on-the-floors-of-ancient-synagogues/

January 28, 2015 | Mike Rogoff
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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.”

Read more on Haaretz: http://www.haaretz.com/life/archaeology/.premium-1.639109