Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1, January/February 2013

Samson in the Synagogue

By Jodi Magness

At 6:00 A.M. on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, Bryan Bozung made an exciting discovery. A recent graduate of Brigham Young University, he has now begun studying for a Masters in Theological Studies at Yale University. But this morning he was digging at Huqoq, an ancient village in Israel’s Lower Eastern Galilee. This was his first archaeological excavation. As he dug through the loose dirt, his hoe scraped something hard. He excitedly called to me. Gently brushing away the dirt, we saw a beautiful female face peering back at us. Soon we were joined by Shua Kisilevitz, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who is my assistant codirector.1 Within minutes we were joined by other staff members and students who came running as word spread that we had uncovered a mosaic pavement.

In ancient times, Huqoq was a prosperous village of about 7 acres, next to a fresh water spring. It lies about 3 miles west of Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum (where Jesus taught in the synagogue).

Huqoq is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible in descriptions of the borders of the tribes of Naphtali and Asher (Joshua 19:32–34; 1 Chronicles 6:74–75). Our excavations have not reached these early occupation levels, however.

Rabbinic sources indicate that Huqoq flourished during the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (fourth–sixth centuries C.E.). The village is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud in connection with the cultivation of the mustard plant.2

There is evidence of occupation at the site during the Persian, Hellenistic, Early Roman, Abbasid, Fatimid and Crusader-Mamluke periods. The modern village was abandoned in 1948 during the fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. In the 1960s, the site was bulldozed.

Before our excavations began in 2011, the existence of an ancient synagogue at Huqoq was hinted at by carved stone fragments visible among the ruins of the modern village. I chose the site because I wanted to excavate an untouched Galilean-type synagogue to determine its date based on my own work rather than relying on the excavations of others. I wanted to try to clarify the chronology of Galilean-type synagogues. Since the early 20th century, when these synagogues began coming to light, scholars developed a tripartite chronology: The earliest, these so-called “Galilean-type synagogues,” were dated to the second and third centuries C.E., followed by “transitional synagogues” in the fourth century, and then by “Byzantine synagogues” in the fifth and sixth centuries. After analyzing the excavation reports of a number of Galilean-type synagogues, I have concluded that they date to the fourth century or later and therefore are contemporaneous with the other two, supposedly later, types. The earlier dating is still favored by some scholars. So far the debate has not been resolved, even by the excavations at Huqoq. So we will return to a discussion of our excavations.

Of course, we had to investigate more than the synagogue, excavating in the ancient village to understand its context. Previous surveys of the site had already identified cist graves and rock-cut tombs surrounding the ancient village, an ancient wine press and an olive press, as well as the terraces that ancient villagers farmed and the quarries from which they cut their building blocks.

We are excavating a building in the ancient village dating to the fifth–sixth century, consisting of a central courtyard surrounded by rooms with plastered floors. The sturdily built stone walls are preserved to a height of 1 meter and sometimes more. Numerous grinding stones and millstones, loom weights and press weights, a roof roller, worked stones and worked bones attest to intensive agricultural and industrial activity. Soil samples from the building contained large quantities of crushed olive pits, suggesting that olives were processed here.

The quality of construction and rich and diverse finds from this building indicate a high level of prosperity in the ancient village, an impression that was later reinforced by the monumental stones in the synagogue wall and the tiny size of the tesserae in the mosaic floor.

We knew from rabbinic sources that the ancient village was Jewish, as indicated also by a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, on the southern edge of the site. (Therefore, the monumental carved stone fragments scattered around the site that led us to excavate at Huqoq came from a synagogue rather than a church.) Twelve steps in the mikveh provide access to the rock-cut immersion room. The walls and ceiling of the immersion room are plastered with several layers of hydraulic plaster, attesting to prolonged use. The mikveh was later converted to a cistern, as indicated by the shaft cut into the roof of the immersion room from the ground surface above.3

At first we did not know where the synagogue building was located. The only indications were the architectural fragments scattered among the ruins of the modern village. Where to look? Where to start digging? The site was a mess. Dense overgrowth of tall, thorny weeds covered mounds of stone rubble. We decided to focus on a rubble mound in the area where the carved architectural fragments were concentrated.

Clearing some weeds on the western side of the mound revealed an enormous collapse of stones, among which were huge paving stones and threshold blocks. We excavated east of these blocks in an attempt to locate the synagogue’s west wall. Although the synagogue stones clearly were not in situ, they could not have moved far due to their large size. To our disappointment, however, we found only two modern walls with modern and medieval fills next to them. The walls continued below the level of the huge blocks. Excavation hunches are not always successful.

We had better luck on the eastern side of the mound of stone rubble, where we could see an ancient cistern that had been in use up to modern times. Exploration of the cistern revealed underground tunnels branching off from it, which may have been used as a hiding place in times of trouble. Perhaps the cistern was located in a courtyard adjacent to the synagogue. We decided to open an excavation square next to the cistern.

But before opening the square, we had to clear away the stone collapse—no easy task. While the student volunteers carried off some of the stones, the larger ones had to be broken up with a sledge hammer.

The square was then laid out on a slope that rises to the west and slopes down east toward the cistern. After a couple of weeks of digging through dumped debris of the 19th and 20th centuries, the edge of a large stone block appeared. We got ready to peel back the top of it, figuring that this must be the pavement of the synagogue courtyard. Instead, it turned out to be a large ashlar block in a wall running north to south. Another week of digging indicated that this was the synagogue’s east wall, constructed of large ashlar stones and with a threshold running into the south balk.

It was just a wall, but we had located the synagogue. We could now proceed to excavate it.

We resumed excavations of the synagogue in 2012. The synagogue wall that we had found was overlaid by a hard floor of plaster and cobbles from the 19th–20th century. On top of this floor were 32 lead musket balls. Protruding from the balk was a hollow iron rod that turned out to be a musket barrel.

On the east side (outside) of the synagogue wall, we reached the foundation level of the building under the modern debris. Beneath the wall was a thick, compacted layer of undisturbed building chips. The pottery and coins found in and under the layer of building chips should provide secure dating evidence for the synagogue’s construction. Although the analysis is not yet complete, indications are that the synagogue cannot have been built earlier than the late fourth century C.E.

As we dug through the modern and medieval fills and floors inside the synagogue, we found numerous tesserae, some of them in clumps and many of them colored and very small, hinting that there was a mosaic below, although we had no idea what state of preservation to expect. The fills also contained a piece of an imported marble basin with a decorated rim and roof tile fragments, indicating that the synagogue was a monumental building with a pitched, tiled roof, in contrast to the village houses, which had flat, plastered roofs.

After several days of digging through thick dirt fills and building chips, Bryan’s hoe scraped the mosaic. As we brushed away the dirt, we immediately realized that the mosaic was of the highest quality.

With another week of digging, we uncovered as much of the mosaic as we could within our excavation square. It consists of three sections separated by areas where the bedding is intact but without mosaics.

The first section depicts two female faces flanking a Hebrew or Aramaic inscription. One of the women, especially well preserved, has wavy red hair and a white earring in her left ear. Only a fragment of the other woman’s face survived, but enough is there to see that her hair is pulled up in a top-knot and she wears a tiara with three green glass stones in the center. Above both faces are depictions of floral motifs.

The identity of these women remains a mystery. Karen Britt, who is studying the mosaics (her preliminary analysis can be found on the BAR website), suggests they might be personifications of the seasons or female donors to the synagogue, as indicated by their placement on either side of the inscription, which refers to rewards for good deeds. As Britt observes, “In the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, prosperous Jewish and Christian women in this region were important donors to their religious communities.”

The inscription between the women, which is being published by my colleague David Amit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, consists of six lines within a medallion. Only the third line is complete, so much of the translation is necessarily conjectural. The medallion is black with white letters, just the opposite of the usual white background and black letters.

The text seems to refer, as noted above, to rewards for those who perform good deeds. Here is Amit’s translation (brackets indicate reconstructions):

1. [ ]And blessed

2. [are all of the people of the town?] who

3. adhere to all

4. commandments. So may be

5. your labor and Ame[n Se]la[h]

6. P]eace

The text, reconstructed by Amit as Hebrew, is in an endnote.4 Amit’s full scholarly discussion of the inscription is available on the BAR website.

A second section of the mosaic runs along the inside of the synagogue wall. It is made of larger tesserae and contains no figural decoration. Closest to the wall it consists of a white band with a black border. Next to the black border is a colorful, three-strand guilloche (braided ribbon) pattern. A few rows of much smaller tesserae on the other side of the guilloche pattern preserve the beginning of black and red frames.

The final section of the mosaic depicts the midsection of a large male figure whose head is not preserved. The surviving portion (from the abdomen to the thighs) is clothed in a tunic decorated with an orbiculum (roundel), cinched around the waist by a thick decorated red belt. The figure wears a red cloak. The orbiculum has a rare bronze tessera in the center of its geometric motif. The orbiculum signifies status but also, as Britt suggests, has an apotropaic function (to ward off evil).

Two pairs of foxes (only partially preserved) face outward, with each pair’s tails tied together around a lighted torch.

Although we don’t have much of the scene, this is clearly a depiction of an episode in Judges 15:4 involving Samson. Samson apparently was attracted to Philistine women. The woman involved in the Biblical episode referred to here was Samson’s wife, before he met Delilah. When Samson went to Timnah to take this wife, her father told Samson he had given her to another and offered Samson her younger sister instead. Enraged, Samson captured 300 foxes and tied a torch between the tails of each pair of foxes. Then he set them free in Philistine grain fields, destroying not only the grain but also vineyards and olive trees (Judges 15:1–5).

Some readers may be surprised to see depictions of men, women and animals decorating a Late Roman/Byzantine synagogue. Before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Jewish art was almost entirely aniconic, that is, without figures. When the ancient synagogues from a later period first came to light in the early 20th century, scholars were surprised. Nothing in rabbinic literature indicates the existence of figural decoration in these ancient synagogues. Today, however, we know of dozens of Late Roman and Byzantine period synagogues decorated with humans and animals. Several synagogues, including those at Hammath Tiberias, Beth Alpha and Sepphoris, have mosaic floors showing the Greco-Roman sun god Helios surrounded by the signs of the zodiac and personifications of the four seasons! It is now clear that rabbinic literature provides only a partial, biased picture of late antique Judaism.

Although figural decoration is not uncommon in ancient synagogues, only a few are decorated with Biblical scenes, and only one or two others contain scenes showing Samson. One of these is the synagogue floor mosaic at Wadi Hamam, an ancient Jewish village about 3 miles from Huqoq that was excavated by Uzi Leibner, where Samson is shown smiting the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.a 5 Why did the Jewish community at Huqoq (and at Wadi Hamam) choose to decorate their synagogue with Samson’s exploits?

Rabbinic literature and texts of the early Church Fathers indicate that Samson enjoyed widespread popularity among Christians as well as Jews in Late Antiquity (fourth–sixth centuries).

Samson’s popularity among early Christians is due largely to the Letter to the Hebrews (11:32–40), which lists Samson among the prophets who accomplished mighty deeds through faith but were denied the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus. Early Christian writers elaborated on this theme, presenting Samson as a saint or even as a Christ-like figure, noting parallels between the two (e.g., both Samson’s and Jesus’ births were foretold by heavenly messengers).6 In a sermon on Samson, Augustine explicitly compared Samson with Jesus: “So Samson did some things in the role of the head, some in the role of the body, everything, however, in the role of Christ.”7

Ambrose of Milan, writing in the fourth century, interpreted the foxes in Judges 15:4 allegorically as wicked and deceitful people (including heretics), who might be free to bark but are shackled.

But what about the Jews?

Samson had a much more ambiguous status among the rabbis. They frowned on Samson’s sexual transgressions with non-Israelite women. For these sins, Samson was punished with death.8

When the Philistines captured Samson (after Delilah famously cut off his hair, the source of his strength), they gouged out his eyes (Judges 16:21). According to the Mishnah, Samson lost his sight because he had followed his eyes by marrying the Timnite woman, reflecting the rabbinic notion of divine justice meted out “measure for measure.”9

Samson’s reputation among the rabbis is not all bad, however. Some rabbinic sources emphasize his military prowess and exploits as a warrior. A few texts even refer to Samson as a messianic figure.10

Although it is impossible to ascertain the relevance of these rabbinic traditions to the Huqoq mosaic, the community must have chosen Samson because they viewed him in a positive light. The orbiculum on his tunic indicates that he is depicted as a military hero. When Samson is described as a messianic figure in rabbinic tradition, it is as a warrior-redeemer. In some of these rabbinic traditions, as in the mosaics at Huqoq and Wadi Hamam, Samson is depicted as a giant, although the Bible describes him only as being very strong.b

Perhaps Samson’s popularity at these two sites has something to do with his origins. Samson was an Israelite judge from the tribe of Dan, which eventually settled in the north after being pushed out of Judah by the Philistines. Although Huqoq is located in the region of Asher and Naphtali, south of the territory of Dan, later Jewish tradition associated Asher and Naphtali with Dan because the three tribes had camped together in the wilderness. In other words, the Jewish communities at Huqoq and Wadi Hamam might have considered Samson a local hero. We don’t have all the answers, but we are still digging.

When our excavations at Huqoq end, this intriguing mosaic will either be removed for permanent display in a museum or will be left in place and the site will become a national park.