Was the Zodiac Part of Jewish Beliefs?
In December of 1928 a group of construction workers began to unearth pieces of a mosaic floor. Work was halted and experts called in to examine the potential artifacts. What was found astounded the experts and continues to raise questions today, more than eighty years later. When the area was cleared and fully excavated a majestic mosaic floor was revealed. The mosaic floor measured an astounding 91 feet (28m) by 46 feet (14m) and was in excellent condition. What was depicted on the floor raised more than casual questions and there were no quick or easy explanations.
Located near Beth Alpha, the floor had belonged to a Jewish synagogue occupied around 520 A.D. The area had been the victim of a massive earthquake and the roof of the synagogue fell in as a single intact piece. Fortunately the plaster from the ceiling acted as a protective covering for the mosaic floor beneath. Mosaic floors are always fascinating because they can offer information and insight in the way of maps, names and references to regional events or peoples. This mosaic contained a number of images, several you would not expect to find in a synagogue, while some did not seem to belong at all.
Three separate sets of images were clearly depicted on the mosaic. Just inside the doorway was a depiction from Genesis 22 when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. This type of depiction is known as Righteous Ancestors. This is the traditional beginning of the Jewish faith and it is not surprising to find this scene in a synagogue. The same cannot be said of the second image.
This second shows four women surrounding a wheel with twelve panels. The panels are clearly marked in Hebrew with the twelve signs of the zodiac. The four women represent the seasons and in the center is the image of what appears to be Helios, the pagan god of the sun driving his chariot. Given the fact the Zodiac is considered a pagan belief by Jews, it is surprising to find it in any synagogue, and it is certainly shocking to find it so prominently displayed.
The final image, located the furthest from the doorway depicts the Ark of the Covenant as well as Menorah and several other items clearly associated with the Jewish faith. These images, along with those of the Righteous Ancestors are clearly Jewish, but why do they share a place with the Zodiac? Why would any Jew place images from a pagan religion in their synagogue? Where these Jews studying, following, or perhaps even worshipping the elements of the Zodiac? For many, these images stir up disturbing thoughts and cast doubts on the Jewish people of that era. Are there any simple answers which can explain these odd combinations? Can we decipher what the original builders intended when they constructed these mosaics? Several theories have been presented, but many fail immediately when the facts are more closely examined.
It is clear this was a Jewish Synagogue, and there is no doubt the images are of the zodiac and not from any Biblical account or scripture. Given this, the first thought is that perhaps this synagogue belonged to a splinter group or cult which had broken away from the Jewish mainstream. This explanation fits the evidence at Beth Alpha, but runs aground when all the evidence is examined. The mosaic floor at Beth Alpha with its pictures of the Zodiac turns out are not unique. In fact, as many as eleven other synagogues have been discovered which also display the signs of the Zodiac and other elements found at Beth Alpha. With a dozen or more synagogues with the same set of diagrams, the theory of a rouge cult begins to seem far-fetched at best.
Perhaps the elements of the Zodiac are used strictly as a tool, a calendar of sorts. This theory, with little support to begin with, falls apart completely with a closer examination of the images at Beth Alpha. The elements of the seasons are incorrectly placed, leaving the seasons in the wrong order. This eliminates the possibility of the symbols being used as a calendar, but does raise some additional questions. Why would someone go to the trouble of making such a beautiful mosaic but get the details wrong? Was it designed and constructed by someone with little or no knowledge of the Zodiac? Who would fit that description better than a devout Jew who saw the Zodiac as a useless pagan symbol? If so useless, and if they had no desire to get the details correct, why include it in the synagogue at all? Many look for complicated answers, but the explanation may be far simpler than most realize.
In his article 'Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols" writer Walter Zanger puts forth an interesting possibility. The images shown on the mosaic are not items of worship, but are symbolic of the journey of man and his relationship with God. They are a timeline which begins when you enter the synagogue and concludes at the front of the synagogue. The first image is that of Abraham, when God set aside a people for Himself. No longer were there many gods, there was a singular God who wanted to have a relationship with mankind. Moving forward man acquired a knowledge of the seasons, the routine and regiment of nature and this extended on to the planets, stars and constellations.
The Jewish belief was far different than those of Astrology. Rather than relying on luck, or which constellation you were born under, they believed man had free will. His destiny was not determined by how the stars aligned, but revolved around God, who created the stars and constellations. It is believed the image in the center of the Zodiac was not Helios, but was a depiction of God who the Jews realized ruled over everything, who was literally the center of all existence. This was man's learning period, his infancy with God.
The final image was that of the Ark of the Covenant, which had special meaning to the Jewish people, but also represented the culmination of our journey through history. Tradition holds the Ark of the Covenant held the Ten Commandments, which not only represented God's law, but also God's interaction and His covenant with man, more preciously, the Jewish people. Now God was not a distant mysterious figure, he had directly interacted with man. Not an individual, but His covenant was with all mankind, written in stone for all to see. This was a major difference from how God had interacted with His people previously.
The journey is now complete, from God's first test of Abraham in approximately 2,000 B.C. through the Babylonian's introduction of the Zodiac and concluding with God's Covenant with man following the Exodus from Egypt. While the images do represent pagan symbols, the fact they were incorrectly displayed showed the images were not considered important but simply a sign post on man's spiritual journey.
There is bound to be confusion and major questions whenever pagan symbols are used or combined with any Jewish or Christian writings or artwork. In this instance it seems the point was not to incorporate the pagan beliefs into the Jewish faith, but to show man's developing relationship with God. While this archeological discovery does not confirm or deny any historical aspects of the Bible, it does provide an interesting insight into the lives, thoughts, and beliefs of Jewish peoples more than 1,500 years ago.
Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols - Walter Zanger , Biblical Archaeology Society, 2012
The Ancient Synagogue of Beth-Alpha - E.L. Sukenik, Jerusalem Magnes press , 1932