New Discoveries Provide Clues to Jewish Life in Galilee After Christ

Scholars previously concluded that Jewish life came to an end in Galilee. They were wrong.

By David Lazarus | | Topics: archaeology
Evidence of Jewish life in Galilee
Photo: UNC press release

As Christianity spread throughout the Galilee during the first centuries after Christ, and the Romans cast the Jewish people into a 2000-year-exile, historians have concluded that Jewish life in the region was unheard of because it had been wiped out.

New discoveries at an ancient 5th century Huqoq synagogue now reveal that Jewish life not only continued but flourished even in the region most identified with nascent Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. Huqoq is a village located near the Sea of Galilee just up the hill from Capernaum and not far from Magdala. This is the region where Jesus gave his revered Sermon on the Mount and performed most of his miracles. Peter grew up in Capernaum and many of the Apostles came from this region. Magdala is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest followers and witness to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Recent archeological finds at Magdalene indicate the presence of Messianic Jewish believers worshipping in the town’s synagogue. Huqoq is also not far from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown and neighboring Zippori, a major Jewish community where important archeological finds have helped us understand the Jewish lifestyle of Jesus. See:

The idea that centuries of Christian conquerors succeeded in supplanting Jews from what they called the “Holy Land” are being challenged by the Huqoq synagogue findings. The synagogue reveals a rich and well-developed Jewish community that continued uninterrupted in the land of Israel for the past 2000 years, not only in the most Christianized regions of Israel, but also in the face of Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and finally Muslim invaders.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” said director of the Huqoq excavations and Professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods,” Magnes said in a press release.

One of the most recent discoveries in the elaborate Huqoq synagogue is a mosaic of the two spies who returned from exploring the Promised Land carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes (pictured). This biblical scene from Number 13:23 includes the Hebrew inscription “a pole between two.” Another image referring to Isaiah 11:6 includes the Hebrew inscription “a small child shall lead them” and depicts a youth leading an animal on a rope. The fragmentary Hebrew inscription concludes with the phrase “Amen Selah.”

A large stone mosaic of the biblical hero Samson at the Huqoq synagogue is also significant according to archaeologist Magness because “only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq). The artistry of the mosaic, which is composed of tiny tiles, together with the large stones used for the walls, attests to the prosperity of the village.”

There are two other figures of Samson carrying the gates of Gaza, and tying burning torches to the tails of foxes, an episode from the Book of Judges 15:1-8. During a battle with the Philistines, Samson catches 300 wild foxes, ties burning torches to their tails and sets them loose to set fire to Philistine grain fields. The mosaic also shows two human faces and a Hebrew inscription promising a reward to those who perform good deeds.

The walls and columns of the synagogue walls were painted in bright colors as witnessed by the many plaster fragments of wall coverings painted with pink, red, orange and white dyes.

All of this and more point to two important conclusions. Despite the modern Palestinian and Arab claim that there was no significant Jewish population in Israel after Christ, large and prosperous Jewish communities have continued to flourish in the land of Israel not only after Christ, but for more than 3000 years, against all odds. Although historical Christianity has strived to erase its own heritage and roots in Judaism, the Land of Israel is an ongoing witness to the permanent and irrefutable connection between Jesus, Jews and the Land of Israel.

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