Oldest mosaic of Bible’s Jonah found in Galilee

Recently discovered panels on an ancient synagogue floor in the Galilee show  famous biblical sagas unfolding.

A mosaic depicting the biblical story of Jonah has recently been uncovered at the synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee. This represents the first time the story of Jonah has been discovered decorating the floor of a synagogue in Israel.

The panel, exposed by a team led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness, shows the biblical story of Jonah and the whale with a twist: Jonah’s legs are shown dangling from the mouth of a large fish, which is being swallowed by a larger fish, with this larger fish being swallowed by an even larger fish.

Additional mosaics found at the late Roman era synagogue at Huqoq include a medallion in the center of the uppermost (northern) panel depicting the Greco-Roman sun god Helios in a quadriga, a four-horse chariot, surrounded by personifications of the months and the signs of the zodiac, contained within a square frame with personifications of the four seasons in the corners.

The third and southernmost panel contains a detailed scene of men at work constructing a stone structure, apparently the Tower of Babel.

Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, along with Assistant Director Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), focused this season of Huqoq excavations on the southern part of the main hall, where the three panels were exposed.

The new finds provide insight into daily life in the fifth century C.E. and expand the collection of already discovered mosaics decorating the building’s floors.

“The Huqoq mosaics are unusually rich and diverse,” said Magness. “In addition, they display variations on biblical stories which must represent oral traditions (midrashim) that circulated among the local Jewish population.”

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work has continued each summer since then. In 2012, a mosaic depicting Samson and the foxes was found in the synagogue’s east aisle. The next summer, an adjacent mosaic was uncovered that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders.

Another mosaic discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

A mosaic panel uncovered in 2015 next to this scene contains a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti (cupids).

Mosaics discovered in the northern part of the main hall in 2016 portray two biblical stories: Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea.

“One of the distinguishing features of the Huqoq mosaics is the incorporation of numerous classical elements such as putti, winged personifications of the seasons, and — in the Jonah scene — harpies (large birds with female heads and torsos representing storm winds),” said Magness. “The mosaics also provide a great deal of information about ancient daily life, such as the construction techniques shown in the Tower of Babel scene uncovered this summer.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation. Excavations are scheduled to continue through summer 2018.

By: Aryeh Savir, World Israel News