This is No Synagogue!

A few weeks ago, I blogged about an interesting find at Tel Huqoq. The excavators thought they were looking at the remains of an ancient synagogue whereas, clearly, we are dealing with the remains of an ancient church.

This week, I was filming at the so-called “synagogue” of Sepphoris. It is part of a group of some six mosaics in houses of worship that archaeologists have identified as Galilean “synagogue” floors, dating from the 4th to the 6th centuries. The identification is based on the fact that there are Jewish symbols on the floor e.g., Biblical scenes, menorahs and images of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But, as Professor Steve Fine notes; “without the menorahs and the Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic inscriptions, the synagogue floor might be mistaken for a church mosaic!” The depiction of the menorahs and the temple, however, may very well reflect the Christian idea that the church is the new temple. What’s also ignored is that the Biblical scenes represented in this mosaic e.g., the “annunciation” by an angel to the Biblical Sarah, Abraham’s wife, of the upcoming birth of Isaac, is common in Christian art, since it was regarded as a foreshadowing of the annunciation in which Jesus’ birth was revealed to Mary. The closest parallel to this mosaic is the wall mosaic from the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy from the 6th century! Most shockingly, these so-called “synagogue” mosaics also have images of pagan gods, humans, the zodiac and little naked boys. Faced with these pictures, the archaeologists concluded that Galilean Jews of the 6th century were a lot more liberal than Jews today. After all, there’s no pictures of little naked boys in my synagogue. Meaning, they stuck to their identification of the houses of worship as “synagogues” and, faced with evidence to the contrary, they didn’t revise their conclusions – they rewrote history!

I was at the “synagogue” of Sepphoris yesterday. I took my 13 year old daughter Iosefa with me. Without any prodding, she went inside, took a look at the zodiac, the pagan images at its center, the human figures, etc. looked up at me and said; “daddy, this is no synagogue”. “Of course it isn’t,” I said.

It’s too bad they don’t teach logic in schools of archaeology. Pagans didn’t mind using Jewish symbols, or any other symbols for that matter. Jews, however, went to their death rather than allowing pagan symbols in their houses of worship. I’m not the only one to realize that there is a problem with these “synagogues”. Professor Jodi Magness, following a suggestion from Professor Rachel Elior, put forward the idea that perhaps the Helios/sun images in these so-called “synagogues” are also supposed to represent “Metatron” i.e., the Biblical Enoch turned into an angel. In Third Enoch, which appears around the same time as the mosaic was made, Metatron is literally called by the sacred name of the God of Israel. So Magness wants to argue that these houses of worship are “synagogues”, but not rabbinic ones. The cult of “Metatron”, kind of.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Metatron was a “Christ-like” figure celebrated by some non-rabbinic Jews. But there is no evidence whatsoever that they set up a church of their own or that he was ever depicted as Helios. In contrast, there is lots of evidence – not least the earliest Christian tomb under the Vatican – that Jesus was depicted as Helios. So there’s no need to invent a non-rabbinic previously unheard of Metatron synagogue simply to keep the mosaic inside Judaism. The fact is that the only house of worship that would have been comfortable blending pagan, Jewish and Christian imagery is an early church. But it would have been a church with a twist, a non-Pauline twist. So who worshipped in these misidentified “synagogues”?

The earliest Christian attestations in the catacombs of Rome are of Valentinian Christians. The Valentinians belonged to what scholars now call “Gnostic Christianity”, a form of mystical Christianity that was banned by the orthodox church. The church fathers accused the Valentinians of engaging in orgies. They probably didn’t. But, the Valentinians had the idea that divine figures called “aeons” ensured the proper functioning of the universe. The whole thing went bad, they said, when one of these aeons, “Sophia”, a feminine goddess, decided to go at it alone without her mate. From that moment on, it was the job of aeons made flesh, like Jesus, to return Sophia to her rightful place in the structure of the universe. This led Gnostic Christianity to celebrate the “bridal chamber”, not the cross. It celebrated the recoupling of the male and female aeons. It celebrated Jesus as a Helios/Metatron figure whose purpose it was to reunite with his heavenly consort, the wayward Sophia. Seen in this light, the mosaic at Sepphoris makes perfect sense – there is the sun and the moon, the male and the female, the restored temple and the restored universe, as exemplified by the zodiac at the center of the mosaic.

Put simply, the only ones who would combine pagan, Jewish and Christian symbols in the 4th to 6th centuries are Gnostic Christians. But they would have been very careful. Their ideology was abhorrent to both rabbinic Jews and orthodox Christians. That’s why the sexuality implied in the “bridal chamber” philosophy is “encoded” in the zodiac images at Sepphoris where, as in pagan temples, the phallus is celebrated. Phallus? What phallus? Look carefully at the pictures; it is somewhat hidden in the folds of the cloaks of the figures in the zodiacs. When you look carefully, you see that the figures wearing the cloaks are not covering their private parts, but lifting their tunics and exposing themselves.

Those Gnostic Christians were very tricky; monotheistic on the outside, but polytheistic on the inside. Modest on the outside, but sexually active and libertine behind closed doors. You shouldn’t take your children to these mosaics, let them wait outside.

So here’s a rule of thumb for archaeologists; if a mosaic has little boys exposing their genitals, don’t label it a synagogue. Which brings me to the beginning; a synagogue it’s not, an orthodox church it’s not. In the 6th century in the Galilee, it’s also not a pagan temple. What we have here is the house of worship of a lost Christianity.

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