Is Journal of Roman Archaeology in danger of becoming Journal of Huqoq Studies…?

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

A mosaic panel with unparalleled iconography (now popularly known as the “Elephant mosaic”) has been discovered in the 5th c. A.D. synagogue at Huqoq in Israel–but what is its imagery about? The excavation project has been in progress since 2012 and is scheduled to continue for a few more years, but will even that be long enough to arrive at a definitive interpretation of the meaning of the mosaic? The signs so far are that it will not.

With views on the iconography diverging even between the project’s director, mosaic specialists, and other team members, let alone other scholars completely unaffiliated with the project, it could take a new series “Huqoquiana” to publish every possible perspective on the significance of the mosaic. But before the quantity of scholarship on the panel explodes even further, here is an attempt to summarize the main interpretations voiced so far.

Mosaic in the eastern aisle of the Huqoq synagogue.
The panel is made up of 3 horizontal registers, with the greatest height given to the top register where two men seem to engage in a confrontation. The left-hand man, who is set precisely at the center of the panel, is rather old with white hair and beard and wears a tunic and a mantle, with his right index finger pointing upwards to the sky. Behind him (at left) is a group of armed men, similarly dressed, who are sheathing or perhaps rather drawing their swords. The right-hand man at the center, who has a reddish beard, wears a cuirass and a diadem in the manner of a king. He has a bull in tow. Behind him (at right) is a group of armed soldiers accompanied by two war elephants. The middle register shows 9 figures beneath a continuous arcade; an oil lamp set on top of each arch. At the center it seems to show the same white-bearded man, seated on a throne and holding in his lap a scroll or perhaps rather a codex. To his right and left stand presumably the same or similar unbearded men as appear in the top register, a total of eight. Each has a sheathed sword at his side and wears a white tunic and mantle decorated with gammadia, as they look towards the seated man. The bottom register shows the end of a battle, including a fallen soldier and a fallen war elephant with its rider, and a speared bull. For a more detailed description, see JRA S106. Photograph: Elephant panel at Huqoq, detail of encounter between white-haired leader and a Greek monarch (?) in the top register (courtesy J. Magness; Jim Haberman, photographer).

A biblical scene? As part of the decoration of the floor of an ancient synagogue where six other Biblical panels have already been found, narratives from the Hebrew Bible are the default option. But when the authors of S106 K. Britt and R. Boustan further explore such a possibility, it proves challenging to find a plausible enough narrative. The most promising interpretation, in their view, would center around the figure of Abraham. The portrayal in the mosaic bears striking resemblance to some depictions of him in Christian mosaics, as shown in his encounter with either Melchizedek or Abimelech. These narratives both share “the theme of powerful outsiders coming to recognize and even bless a representative of the God of Israel” (S106, p. 44), which seems to match the sentiment behind the Huqoq panel’s top register. The Biblical scene would then be set anachronistically within a Greek or Hellenistic historical context. “Given the movement in the narrative from bloody conflict to mutual recognition and exchange”, the team members argue, “our panel might reflect one such episode, during which the patriarch, having established his military dominance, forges an alliance or covenant with a non-Israelite king through an act such as shared sacrifice.” Ultimately, this interpretation founders, they believe, because the Biblical narratives not only include numerous elements absent from the panel, but also do not account for many of the specific details that are present in the panel.

JRA has recently received, and intends to publish in 2018, an article from another pair of scholars. They identify the scene as a (different) classic story from the Hebrew Bible.  

A “Maccabean” interpretation? A second possibility is that the panel might refer to the mounting conflict between the Judaeans and the Seleucid kingdom under Antiochus IV Epiphanes during the late 170s and 160s B.C, a period during which the Judaeans were subjected to religious repression by Greek rule. According to Britt and Boustan:

“Among the most promising aspects for interpreting the mosaic as a depiction of episodes from, or traditions about, the period of the Maccabean Revolt is its emphasis on various stages of military conflict and negotiated peace between the people of Judaea and the Seleucid king or his representatives. Moreover, armored Indian elephants frequently appear in narratives about attempts by the Seleucid military to subdue Judaea and Jerusalem. Lastly, for political, economic and religious reasons Jerusalem and its temple served as the focal point of the conflicts. By the Maccabean interpretation, the youths in the top register would represent members of the Maccabean family, their military forces or other pious Jews preparing to enter battle against the Seleucids, who are depicted as a Macedonian-style phalanx with their war elephants massed behind their king or general. This hypothesis might also explain the 9 lamps set over the arches in the middle register: they could be related to the practice of kindling Hanukkah lights to commemorate the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Alternatively, […], the white-robed youths and the older man might represent those martyred during the Revolt” (S106, 45-46).

A slightly different interpretation relating to the Maccabean legends was proposed by Asher Ovadiah and Rosario Pierri in an article originally submitted to Liber Annuus, but never quite published.

Nina Vladimirovna Braginskaya, a Classics scholar at the Moscow State University for Humanities, has published a separate Maccabean interpretation of the Huqoq panel, according to which the narrative served to convey historical background to the Hanukkah tradition. If she is correct, the mosaic must be depicting a battle between the Maccabees and the Seleucids, with the spotlight falling on the middle register which Braginskaya considers “the most important one due to its centrality” (in Braginskaya and Tuval, edd., p. 545).  

Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest? The argument favored by the project director Jodi Magness was featured in the Daily Mail and the National Geographic, and is now referred to in more detail in S106, pp. 9-11 and 48-61. Indeed, this has been by far the most publicized interpretation. The heightened publicity is not surprising considering that the panel would become the first of its kind to depict the encounter between the Macedonian and Jewish leaders.  The story of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem and his encounter with the high priest Jaddus circulated widely in multiple languages and across a range of cultural contexts, Jewish as well as non-Jewish. Since it has proven difficult to fix the date and provenance of the story itself, with suggestions ranging from the early Hellenistic period to the middle of the 1st c. A.D., and Alexandria and Palestine being equally likely venues, most scholars have concluded that the episode is legendary. Examining textual accounts of the encounter between Alexander the Great and a high priest, the authors of S106 consider two narrative traditions, the first dictated by Josephus’ Antiquities, and the second by Rabbinical literature. According to Magness, the panel would present the glorified tale of Alexander’s piety as he recognized the Jewish god and offered him a sacrificial bull, with the middle register showing Jaddus waiting for Alexander at the city gates.

A Seleucid king meeting a Hasmonean leader? The fact that Hellenistic kings asserted their power and legitimacy through visual links with Alexander the Great, referred to as the imitatio Alexandri phenomenon, is both good and bad news. The bad news: it raises the problem of how in a late-antique mosaic one can identify any particular ruler who might be depicted in that kingly tradition. The good news: it raises the possibility of looking for a parallel encounter set at a later date. “Since it was the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties that exercised control over regions with significant Jewish communities”, the authors of S106 argue, “we can reasonably focus on events involving these two dynasties” (S106, 63). Britt and Boustan thus favour the view that the upper register shows a truce between the Seleucid king Antiochus VII and the Judean king Hyrcanus I, following the former’s invasion of Judea. The episode is recorded in Josephus. The middle register would depict Hyrcanus and his fighters standing to protect the city, while the lower register would show the actual hostilities prior to the truce. In this manner, they read the panel from bottom to top.

Alternative views. Detailed arguments against the interpretation presented in S106 have been raised by two articles recently submitted to JRA that will be published in 2018. One of those argues that the mosaic depicts an historical event in the High Imperial (Roman) period, identifying the main right-hand figure in the top register as a Roman emperor.

Further discussion. An anonymous referee for S106 remarked that one should try first to read what is actually on the mosaic, in which case the dominant element should be the young men standing triumphantly under the arcade, above the dead bodies of their enemies. It is important to analyze all pieces of the panel together rather than individually, and not have to explain away the parts that do not seem to fit a particular historical scenario. One needs to recognize the local intent and accept that we cannot understand an ancient work of art better than the audience for which it was intended. As Britt and Boustan remark in quoting Kevin Butcher, a fruitful approach would imply accepting that “Symbols of identity tend to be addressed to those who are best equipped to understand their nuances” (S106, 81).

Food for thought:

  • In which direction do you think the panel should be read? Reading the three registers from top to bottom or from bottom to top? Should the middle register (depicting the young men with their leader) be identified as the dominant panel? In that case, what would be the implications for the lamps set on top of the arcade?
  • Is the white-haired leader in the top register exchanging money or is he holding something else in his hand?
  • If the top register shows Alexander meeting the High Priest, how do we explain the central register with the arcade?
  • Is there a relationship between the animals depicted in the top register and those in the bottom register? Is it the same bull in both registers? Do the two registers work together or is the lower frieze more decorative or symbolic? Is the bull in the top register smiling/grinning? Is the bull there to be sacrificed or for some other reason?
  • Are the elephants (the most remarked-upon aspect of the mosaic) actually a “red herring” distracting us from reaching the correct interpretation of a particular legendary or historical event?
  • Is it possible or even plausible that a 5th-century A.D. mosaicist would have included anachronistic details in the rendering of Biblical scenes and historical characters? In other words, does the depiction of costume, weapons and elephants etc necessarily point to a Greek/Hellenistic army as central to the episode being shown?
  • Are we today sufficiently knowledgeable about which written sources were most important to the members of a late-antique Galilean synagogue that we will ever be able firmly to identify the scene?
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1 thought on “Is Journal of Roman Archaeology in danger of becoming Journal of Huqoq Studies…?”

  1. Britt and Boustan have presented the first analysis of the “Elephant Mosaic” and admirably handed it over to the scholarly community for further interpretation and discussion. The authors candidly write that they “cannot claim to have considered every narrative from the Hebrew bible” (S106, 44) – this statement is a call for other scholars to start considering such narratives. In a world of synagogue art that contains only biblical scenes (apart from the mystical/calendrical zodiac and Helios) one must consider all relevant biblical possibilities before deciding whether or not this is the “first non biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue” (S106, 9). Britt and Boustan’s interpretation as a poliorcetic scene is convincing. Though I would personally prefer to read the panel top to bottom considering that the animals and soldiers who are alive at the top register are probably those who are dead at the bottom. As a start all biblical siege stories (that ended well for the besieged) must be considered, even if, to paraphrase the above mentioned anonymous referee, some parts of the panel do not seem to follow the “particular scenario” as we know it from our sources.

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