Biblical Archaeology Review 27:2, March/April 2001

Helios in the Synagogue

Did some ancient Jews worship the sun god?

By Lucille A. Roussin

Archaeologist Zeev Weiss has described in these pages the extraordinary synagogue mosaic recently uncovered at ancient Sepphoris.a Its most striking feature is a zodiac in whose center is an abstract depiction of the Greek sun god Helios (represented as a radiant sun disk) riding in his quadriga, or four-horse chariot.

What in the world is a Greek god doing in a synagogue? As Weiss correctly observed, the zodiac and Helios together are common features in ancient synagogues. Even worse—in some synagogues, Helios is shown in human form, rather than as an abstract sun disk!

Weiss may have been slightly uncomfortable with his explanation of these symbols. He writes that the zodiac is “intended to remind the viewer of the cyclical pattern of nature.” Since the sun was regarded as the “central body in the universe,” the abstract Helios, he says, was meant “to serve as a reminder of God’s omnipotence.” That he has doubts is reflected in the concluding two sentences of this paragraph: “Does this still leave a puzzle as to why Jews could incorporate in that synagogue a Greek zodiac adapted to Hebrew months and a metaphor for God’s omnipotence involving a Greek god? We leave this for our readers to decide.”

This reader believes she has a better, although perhaps more blasphemous, explanation.

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