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9 The Jewish Helios: A Modest Proposal Regarding the Sun God and the Zodiac on Late Antique Synagogue Mosaics

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Chapter Summary

One dark night in late May 2012, the Hammath Tiberias synagogue mosaic was vandalized by a group of irate ultra-Orthodox Jews. The first synagogue carpet mosaic decorated with a zodiac, Helios at its center, was excavated by archaeologists of Jerusalem's École Biblique at Na'aran in 1919. The artist, Zehava Benjamin of Jerusalem, provided a realistic view of Jerusalem, which included recognizably Moslem sacred architecture as well. It is well known that numerous "pagan" and Christian parallels to the Jewish Helios mosaics survive from antiquity. The zodiac mosaic, with Helios at its center, was a useful element of synagogue decor in this region specifically because this imagery so effortlessly complemented the liturgy and homiletics that took place upon it. The differing images of Helios in Jewish mosaics are indicative of local conversations that took place over centuries regarding how to accommodate this iconography on the floor of the synagogue.

Keywords: Hammath Tiberias; Jerusalem; Jewish Helios; synagogue; zodiac mosaic



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