Beth Alpha synagogue

Date: early sixth century
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Israel
Medium: Stone
Dimensions: prayer hall 10 × 8 m
Description: The sixth-century synagogue at Beth Alpha was discovered in northern Israel in 1928, a few years before surprised archaeologists found the third-century painted synagogue at Dura-Europos. The Beth Alpha synagogue was a three-aisle, apsed basilica preceded by a courtyard; it probably had a second-floor gallery (for women?) under a gabled, tiled roof. The apse faces south, toward Jerusalem; originally it would have housed a Torah shrine.

The synagogue floor is decorated with mosaics. The aisles feature geometric patterns, but the nave has three panels of figural imagery. Closest to the apse is a panel with a stylized Temple facade, flanked by lions, menorahs, and other Temple instruments. In the center of the floor is a zodiac wheel centered on the personified Sun in his chariot, with Season personifications in the corners. This is one of several zodiacs represented on synagogue floors in early medieval Israel. They evoke the Jewish solar calendar and imply God's control over time and nature. Finally, the mosaic closest to the entrance depicts the biblical Akedah (Hebrew for "binding"; Gen. 22), with Abraham offering his son Isaac to God. The community served by the Beth Alpha synagogue clearly was not opposed to figural imagery; they saw no potential for idolatry in the personifications or the scene from Jewish history.

Preceding the image of Abraham, visible to anyone entering the worship space, is a damaged inscription in Aramaic. It records that members of the congregation paid for the floor and dates it to the sixth year of the reign of the Byzantine emperor "Justinus" (probably Justin I, r. 518–27). A second inscription, in Greek, identifies the mosaicists as Marianos and his son Hanina and asks that they be remembered. The same father-son pair of artists are named in a Samaritan synagogue in Beth Shean, eleven kilometers away. Their figural style is frontal, schematic, and highly expressive.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 3
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons; Linda Safran

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