Samaritan Synagogues in Galilee
Though there were many similarities between the Jews and the Samaritans (and outsiders commonly considered the two groups as sects of one religious family) there were in fact some major differences between the Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were much more prone to mix pagan doctrines and artifacts into their worship of God than were the Jews. This may in part account for the fact that Simon Magus was able to make greater headway among his own people than he did with those who were mainline Jews. This also allows us to understand how the early records show that Samaritans in their Dispersion were more easily converted to Christianity (at first to "Gnosticism" and then to Catholicism) than were the Jews. They were also inclined to bring with them into Christianity their syncretic religious doctrines ― their mixing of pagan beliefs with those of the Holy Scriptures.
We are even told by the Samaritans themselves in an early Chronicle of theirs that in the 4th century one of their priests went to Constantinople (he was nephew of the famous Samaritan leader named Baba Rabban) and became a ″Great Skopos" (that is, an Archbishop) in the Catholic Church and that he even crowned kings (emperors) at Constantinople. This reign of Baba Rabban was an important high point in Samaritan influence in the eastern part of the Empire that we now call Palestine. It is important in our study to realize what this Samaritan Chronicle about Baba Rabban has to say because it contains information that only recently has become available for scholars to study. Thankfully, we now have the part of the Chronicle about Baba Rabban translated into English by Jeffery Cohen.
This Samaritan Chronicle contains a great deal of excellent information. It mentions a time when the Samaritans gained considerable power under the rule of the Samaritan priest named Baba Rabban who ruled for about 40 years in Palestine (X.12).
Though the chronology of the Samaritan document is not clear in part, it is known that Baba Rabban flourished somewhere near the time of Constantine (indeed, the document states that Constantinople was then the capital of the Roman Empire and during Baba’s time it states that the Jews started to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem which would no doubt have been in the time of Julian the emperor). This information leads us to the 4th century for the time of Baba, but there are scholars who feel he flourished in the previous century because of the mention of some 3rd century emperors in the text. In my view, the mention of Constantinople as the capital of the Christian world at the time of Baba Rabban and that the Jews started to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem during his reign, appear to be substantial reasons to accept a 4th century date for the historical events associated with Baba Rabban.
Whatever the case, the Jews were in a weakened condition politically during the time of Baba Rabban, and the Romans were having their own difficulties in the wake of the conversion of the Empire to Constantine’s Christianity. Baba Rabban took advantage of the situation. He appeared on the scene in Samaria and gathered the Samaritan people together into a relatively powerful force all over Palestine. The Samaritan people gained a great deal of influence and authority under Baba Rabban. This is important in regard to our present study because the archaeological remains of several synagogues in the general area of Galilee that caused the Jewish scholars of the past few decades a great deal of perplexity come from a period within a hundred years or so after the time of Baba and they may be considered as being inspired by the extensive building of synagogues under Baba Rabban.
The Chronicle tells us that at this time many Samaritan synagogues were built in various parts of Palestine and Galilee (X. 12, and see IX.9 and 19). In fact, the influence of the Samaritans at this period (when the position of the Jews was weaker) extended to most areas of Palestine and even northward into southern Lebanon. In this extensive area controlled by Baba Rabban, he built quite a number of synagogues. The Samaritans began to come back into a fortunate time during the rule of Baba Rabban.
Before mentioning what the Samaritan Chronicle relates concerning the rule of Baba Rabban, let us recall some important points in regard to the area of Galilee. There were many types of people who lived in Galilee in almost all eras. From the 8th century B.C.E. onward, and even in the time of Jesus, the region was known as "Galilee of the Nations" (Isaiah 9:1–2; Matthew 4:14–15). Normally there was a pluralistic society of peoples who lived in the area. And from the last hundred years of the Patriarchate of the Jews (from the time of Constantine’s conversion to C.E. 429 when the Patriarchate ended) the Jews found themselves in a weakened political position wherever they were ― and this is when the authority of the Patriarchate was at its lowest. In the early part of this period is when Baba Rabban and his Samaritans appeared on the scene with more political power than they had ever known at any previous time.
The question is, who built those synagogues in Galilee with the pagan decorations along with the symbols of the Tabernacle? Interestingly, the general time those synagogues were built is not long after the period when Baba Rabban and his successors flourished all over areas of Palestine, and this included the region of Galilee and even up to Sidon and near Tyre (section X. 16).
In his day, Baba Rabban divided Palestine into eleven administrative regions and two of them embraced Galilee with the city of Tiberias being a major area in the political designations (section IX.9,19). The Jewish population came under Baba’s authority at the time (section X. 12), and most important to our present study is the fact that Baba Rabban built many synagogues in the regions that he controlled (section X.12). It appears very possible that the remains of the synagogues showing the pagan symbols may well have been built by the Samaritans (and for Samaritan use) during the time of Baba Rabban’s successors. What is remarkable is the similarity of the synagogues (one on the south side of Tiberias), two in Beth She’an and another not far away called the Beth Alpha synagogue. The Torah Shrine is similar in all the synagogues in several respects (Marilyn Chiat, Handbook of Synagogue Architecture, p.108). And interestingly, the synagogue classified as Beth She’an "A" (the synagogue is designated by the letter "A") has among its ruins a Samaritan inscription, and it has led some scholars to surmise that the synagogue was a Samaritan one (Chiat, Handbook, p.131).
And why not? In those synagogues were found artifacts and symbols that the mainline Jews were condemning in their literature written in the period of the Talmud. Not only were there pictures of pagan gods, but there were found even seven branched menorahs (indeed, Goodenough in his volumes catalogued a multitude of seven branched menorahs on lamps, graves, etc.). The making of such objects which belonged only in the Temple were prohibited by the authorities who were mainline Jews. There are three passages which are practically identical in the Talmud which state that no one should make a house like the Temple, or a table like the sacred table in the Temple, or a menorah [the seven branched lampstand like that in the Temple, or of whatever material (Menahoth, 28b; Abodah Zarah, 43a; Rosh Hashanah, 24ab)]. To avoid such imitations, it is stated that one may make a menorah of five, six or eight branches, but not one of seven!
And though Jews a thousand years later began to use the seven branched menorah occasionally, there is still a reluctance among certain groups to do it. If a menorah is seen today it is more often a nine branched lampstand. The fact is, in the Talmudic period, the mainline Jews were prohibited from making a seven branched menorah. This prohibition, however, did not influence the Samaritans who did not consider themselves under the authority of the Patriarchate of the Jews. When one finds seven branched menorahs sketched on synagogue walls (as though they were officially placed there) or on any other artifact which can be dated to the Talmudic period, one has to suspect such designs as NOT being mainline Jewish! One should be careful in classifying such archaeological remains as "Jewish" until an exhaustive and extensive survey can determine them as actually Jewish. Remember, the Samaritans were as active as the Jews in many areas of the Roman world (and especially in Galilee) and such Samaritan influence must be considered as well.
The synagogues in Galilee with their zodiacal signs and pictures of heathen gods could very well be Samaritan in origin. Indeed, as I have already shown there is a Samaritan inscription found in the Beth She’an synagogue (letter A). It also has an inscription stating that the craftsmen who did the mosaics in that synagogue were responsible for the mosaics in the Beth Alpha synagogue (Chiat, Handbook, p.131). The truth is, these synagogues with the pagan motifs have credentials for being Samaritan synagogues built when the power of the Jewish authorities in Galilee was at a low level — at the time of Baba Rabban, or more probably in the period of his successors.
The confusion that always existed in identifying the two peoples (Jews and Samaritans) was recognized even by the apostle John in the New Testament. The confusion was continued by the early Christian fathers to as late as the time of Jerome in the early 5th century. And even today, the confusion in identifying artifacts and other archaeological remains of the two peoples is still in evidence. One must be very careful in evaluating the remains in ancient synagogues and burial grounds. One cannot simply call such things as "Jewish" because they have Old Testament themes associated with them. The Samaritans and the Gnostics from Simon Magus also met in synagogues and used biblical symbols (as well as pagan) in their religious services. Utmost caution should be displayed by the archaeologists regarding such items before making final decisions on such important questions. Indeed, it could well be that some of those synagogues in Galilee were constructed by The People That History Forgot.
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