Monday, July 27, 2015

Alexander the Great in a Jewish mosaic?

HUQOQ AGAIN: Mosaic of Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish priest is the first ever non-biblical scene to be discovered inside a synagogue
  • Artwork was uncovered in a fifth-century synagogue in Huqoq, Israel
    May depict Alexander the Great, based on the presence of elephants
    Scene is the first non-biblical story to be found in an ancient synagogue
    Depictions of Biblical hero Samson are also part of the decorative floor

Although I have mentioned this mosaic before, I don't think I have highlighted the details of this particular interpretation of it:

The largest top strip contains the scene showing a meeting between two men, who perhaps represent the legendary warrior and a Jewish high priest.

In the scene, a bearded soldier wearing battle dress and a purple cloak leads a bull by the horns, followed by other soldiers and elephants with shields tied to their sides.

He is meeting with a grey-haired, bearded elderly man wearing a ceremonial white tunic and mantle, accompanied by young men with sheathed swords, also in ceremonial clothes.

It's thought the warrior in the rare non-Biblical scene is Alexander the Great becaise of a procession of elephants (pictured). But Professor Magness said the identification of the figures in this mosaic is unclear because there are no stories in the Hebrew Bible involving elephants

Professor Magness said the identification of the figures in this mosaic is unclear because there are no stories in the Hebrew Bible involving elephants.

‘Battle elephants were associated with Greek armies beginning with Alexander the Great, so this might be a depiction of a Jewish legend about the meeting between Alexander and the Jewish high priest,’ she said.

‘Different versions of this story appear in the writings of Flavius Josephus and in rabbinic literature.’
HT Sarah Veale at Invocatio.

Josephus indeed tells a story about Alexander the Great meeting the Jewish High Priest, whom he had seen beforehand in a dream. In this story, the High Priest showed Alexander the biblical book of Daniel and Alexander, believing (correctly) that some of the oracles in the book were about him, was very pleased. It's a nice story (which you can read here along with some Livius commentary), but it's the sort of thing that someone would have come up with whether it happened or not, and there are historical problems. Not least of these, of course, is that the book of Daniel had not yet been written in Alexander's time.

Naturally, the historicity or not of the story has no bearing on whether it is depicted on this late-antique mosaic.

I don't know anything about the rabbinic versions of the story, so I won't try to comment on them here.

Background on Huqoq and its mosaics is here and many links.

UPDATE: Thanks to the readers who sent me the Talmudic reference b. Yoma 69a, which tells the story of Alexander's meeting with the High Priest Simon the Just. You can read a translation of the passage in a book edited by Lawrence Schiffman here. The passage by Josephus (Antiquities 11.321-47) is translated immediately before it.