An Ancient Lioness Carving, in Pristine Condition, Uncovered in the Galilee

November 28, 2017 | Ruth Schuster
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Israeli archaeologists recently uncovered a relief of a lioness, carved onto 1,320-pound basalt rock and dating to somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, in the village of el-Araj. While some experts have identified el-Araj with Bethsaida, a town mentioned in the New Testament, and with the adjacent Roman settlement Julias, others are skeptical. For now, the question to be solved is whether the lioness relief belonged to Jews, Christians, or pagans. Ruth Shuster writes that Mordechai Aviam, the excavation’s supervisor, believes it is Jewish, although he admits that it is too soon to say with certainty:

For one thing, during excavations at el-Araj in the summer of 2016, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Second Temple-era Jewish village. For another, Judaism is rich in lion symbolism. Thirdly, the ancient synagogues of the Golan and Galilee often sported lion art, while the Byzantine churches did not. . . .

On the other hand, since the carving was found at a site Aviam believes to have been Julias, a Roman-era town, it could have graced a non-Jewish public building. Various items of art discovered around the region indicate grand construction in the area [at the time], though again, Aviam notes [that] there is no sign that the non-Jewish construction involved lion art. Synagogues, on the other hand, definitely did.

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