How Important Is a 1st-Century-CE Synagogue and Its Unique Stone Carving?

Aug. 14 2018

In 2009, archaeologists excavating the ancient Galilean city of Migdal (Aramaic Magdala) discovered the remains of a synagogue built and used prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although many ancient synagogues have been discovered in the region, all but a few were built in the 2nd century CE or later, making this one a rare and exciting find. Most fascinating was the engraved stone block in its center, which has sparked many interpretations, including that it was a table for reading the Torah, a place for burning incense, an elaborate symbolic representation of the Temple in its entirety, and even a clue to understanding the origins of Christian theology. David Gurevich, while appreciating the object’s significance, cautions against overreading its symbolism and ramifications:

The Magdala Stone has a rectangular form (60×50×40 cm). Its base consists of four legs. Five of its sides are decorated with reliefs. On the stone’s upper face, there is a rosette pattern, two palm trees, and various plant elements. Another two rosettes with arches are found on a narrow (back?) face. The longer sides depict what may be seen as arched gateways, and a strange artifact that [resembles] a lamp.

The most interesting side of the stone has an extraordinary relief of a menorah flanked by two amphorae [jugs] and two columns. It is a unique finding because the Magdala Stone provides the earliest visual representation of the menorah in synagogue art. Due to the dating, it is possible that the artist had seen the original candelabrum of the Temple with his own eyes. Columns found in later Jewish art . . . are usually explained by scholars as an architectural façade that symbolized the entrance to the Temple. Hence, the appearance of the menorah combined with the façade could not be random. . . .

The menorah was definitely important as a symbol in the Jewish art [of the time] and it is meant to invoke the Temple; but the menorah was also a symbol of Judaism and Jews in the ancient world. It is [entirely] reasonable to find a menorah decorating a place where a Jewish community gathers to study Scripture. This does not necessitate that every single ornament on the stone ought to be linked to Jerusalem’s Temple.

As for the more elaborate interpretations, Gurevich cites the historian Steven Fine, who has compared them to something that might be found in the novels of Dan Brown.

Read more at Bible and Interpretation

More about: Archaeology, History & Ideas, Jewish art, Menorah, Synagogues


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

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