Rethinking Judaism in the Ancient World

Judaism was both more diverse and more deeply connected with surrounding cultures than we might think. Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, challenged attendees of Westar's Spring 2014 national meeting to make some common-sense connections between what we know about how ancient empires worked and what we know about Jewish history. She brought several important insights to life through sharing recent discoveries from her excavation work in a small village called Huqoq in Galilee (read summaries on Jodi's website about important finds from 2011 and 2012, and how you can support the project).

Ancient political and religious leaders may have said an awful lot about how things ought to be—but that doesn't mean the rest of the community listened. Sometimes we rely so heavily on ancient literature to understand the past that we fail to take into account the stories told by the fragments left behind by daily life. Archaeological finds in the past century have cracked open our view beyond rabbinical and other writings to a larger world.

In the fourth to sixth centuries CE in Galilee and other parts of Palestine, Jews and Christians lived in separate villages. Villages had either a church or synagogue but not both, along with other less dramatic but no less important evidence, such as the presence of mikvaot (ritual baths) in the Jewish villages. This has been documented in multiple sites across the region, including in Huqoq. Urban areas, by contrast, had mixed populations. Yet we shouldn't jump to conclusions about inhabitants' relative access to the larger world. In fact, the evidence at Huqoq demonstrates that the village traded successfully and lucratively, so much so that the inhabitants were able to commission exquisite mosaics on the floor of their synagogue.

The content of the mosaics is also fascinating, and exemplifies how one community used their material resources to say something about who they were and what they hoped for the future. To share just one example, at least two mosaics in the Huqoq synagogue depict scenes of Samson. But why Samson? Was he a local hero? No. What else, then? Christians had a generally positive view of Samson because of Hebrews 11:32–33, 39–40. In fact, Augustine even compared Samson to Christ. But what about Jewish communities?

As it turns out, not all Jewish communities thought alike. Rabbinic literature in this period generally portrayed Samson in a negative light because he fooled around with non-Israelite women, but other rabbinic literature played up the similarity of Samson's name to the word "sun," a common metaphor for the messiah. The Samson mosaic in Huqoq also plays with messianic imagery, but not at all in the way the Christians were doing it. In the mosaic Samson is a giant who towers over his enemies, even though the Bible never describes him that way. He is also dressed like a Roman soldier. What we have, then, is an image of a warrior messiah of gigantic proportions triumphing over his enemies.

If we were to rely solely on rabbinic literature from this era, we might be tempted to think the Samson-messiah motif is a fringe notion without much support. Discoveries like this one at Huqoq and another Samson mosaic a few miles away in Khirbet Wadi Hamam call that into question. Importantly, they remind us of the diversity of early Jewish communities and also of the fragmentary nature of our access to the past.

Last but not least, we can also see that the images of Huqoq's desired messiah and the Christian proclamation of messiah are interrelated, and we can remember that these are communities that touch one another. These are communities that jostle for meaning, authority, and authenticity. As Jodi observed in a separate lecture about burial practices in an earlier historical period, Jewish communities did not necessarily reject the fashions and trends of the broader culture, even of colonizing powers. Around the time of Jesus, for example, Jews were readily adopting Roman household decorations and burial practices, and integrating them into their own daily life. There is no need to claim Judaism as a stark category, a definite "other" against which we define all other cultural groups who shared their world. There was no monopoly on Jewishness in the ancient world, anymore than there is today.

We want to express our gratitude to Jodi Magness for sharing her work at the national meeting, and encourage you to continue to follow her project in Huqoq, which promises to be an important contribution to our knowledge of the ancient world.