Were Fourth to Sixth Century Jews Idolaters?
The plain archaeological evidence from around the Mediterranean world reveals a people who were mixing their paganism with biblical teaching and doing it in the most conspicuous of places ― their synagogues and burial grounds. The remains show a people clearly active throughout their lives in an unadulterated infusion of pagan motifs into biblical themes that most people (including scholars during the first part of this century) thought normal Jews would have abhorred.
While it has long been known that mainline Jews did in fact use decorations to adorn their synagogues and burial places (and these were permissible in the time of the Second Temple), this allowance did not extend to decorating with images of pagan gods. Permissible decorations were those incorporating fruits, leaves, vines, circles, wheels, varieties of cross marks (which indicated the name YHVH ― see Ezekiel 9:4), and even animals like the oxen that Solomon placed in the Temple as long as they were not in positions where people could bow before them which might give the impression of worshiping them. Even in the Talmud it was acknowledged by one rabbi with very liberal tendencies: "That which is treated as a god is forbidden, but that which is not treated as a god is permitted" (from Hershel Shanks, Judaism in Stone, p.147).
The opinion of this rabbi seemed to approach a liberalism that most other rabbis were not allowing at the time. But even this rabbi was conservative because he was not giving the slightest hint that his "liberalism" extended to an allowance of setting up pagan idols or images. All images or idols of heathen gods were in one way or another made for idolatrous purposes, not for mere decorations. But in the Byzantine period when mosaics first came into prominent use, some rabbis asserted that it was allowed "to depict designs" in mosaic fashion (Shanks, Judaism in Stone, p.148). This was a simple allowance to use mosaics (which were then becoming a common architectural form), but the permission did not include the portrayal of pagan idols or images in those mosaics which were expressly designed to be used for idolatrous purposes. None of the rabbis had such allowances in mind and the Talmudic texts do not justify such a conclusion.
The permission of the rabbis mentioned above was simply to allow a continuation of what was permitted in the time of Jesus. It should be mentioned that Jesus himself, apparently with complete approbation for the practice, said unto the Pharisees:
"You are building [present tense] the graves of the prophets and you are decorating [present tense] the tombs of the righteous."
What he meant was the making of new tombs for the prophets of old which were located outside the 2000 cubits zone from the Temple. This zone had been created by legislation in the early 1st century by the Jerusalem authorities. They defined into law a new prohibited area in which tombs were not allowed to exist in Jerusalem except those of David and the prophetess Huldah. I have given examples of such tombs and ossuaries (boxes for the bones of the dead) which had their placements in areas assigned to them outside the 2000 cubits zone. See my book Secrets of Golgotha, pp. 160–162.
Such decorating in the time of Jesus can be seen at the Sanhedriyya Tombs northwest of the Old City of Jerusalem. The entrance to the tombs shows various carvings of acanthus leaves, pomegranates and citrons. Jesus may have had these very decorations in mind when he mentioned what the Pharisees were doing at the time. There was no censure from Jesus in the building or the decorating of tombs (though he did inform the Pharisees that their attitudes were wrong and were the same as their ancestors who killed the prophets). But the outright portrayal of pagan gods in sacred areas such as synagogues was not permitted in the time of Jesus, and the Jewish authorities who compiled the Talmud and other literature from the second to the fourth centuries also condemned such depictions. Yet non-idolatrous decorations had long been allowed in the period of the Second Temple when Jesus was teaching.
Of course, any design or symbol, even those in the Temple, can be made to be "pagan" if one wishes to read a pagan theme into them. Anything in the world can be designated idolatrous if a person wishes to name it so, and this would include the designs and symbols found in the Second Temple. For example, a six pointed Star of David (which is a modern Jewish symbol that denotes the Jewish people and the State of Israel) could be construed, if one wished to do so, as an idolatrous "star god," but most mainline Jews would not adopt that interpretation (and properly so). Look at another example. It would not be surprising to find a flagpole in a Jewish schoolroom in New York City with the United States flag displayed with an American eagle on top of the flagpole. This is because that eagle has not the slightest idolatrous meaning to the Jewish teachers or children who attend that school. Most Christians commonly do the same thing and most would not think it idolatrous (I certainly wouldn’t). This example of the American flagpole is nothing like that of Herod when he erected a golden eagle over the east portal of the Temple (which Josephus said was against the Law). Josephus showed that many Jews were outraged over this action of Herod which they did not think was proper to do (Antiquities, XVII.6, 2–4).
But using New York City as an example area, one could leave that Jewish school or a Jewish synagogue in New York and walk a few blocks and find a Roman Catholic Church with displays of a Madonna and Child, a painting of Jesus on the cross, and a reproduction of Leonardo de Vinci’s "Last Supper." People could also find a Methodist or a Baptist church with a portrait of Jesus having long hair and a beard just like the pagans used to picture Zeus (the Egyptian Sarapis) or Askelepios the pagan god of healing. In fact, if the apostles could walk into many churches today, they would be aghast at the pictures of pagan gods that are now being called "Jesus, the apostles or other New Testament saints." As we all know, churches (and Sunday School or Sabbath School books) are filled with pictures of Jesus in the manner that the pagans worshiped their pagan deities.
Now let us return to those synagogues and burial chambers found in Galilee. Just as in New York (or in any modern American city) there will be numerous churches in a short distance from one another that differ in architecture and religious designs because we are a very pluralistic society. The same thing was occurring in Galilee in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries because it was also a pluralistic society. Galilee was long known as "Galilee of the Nations" (Matthew 4:15) because many non-Jews lived in the area. In Galilee during that time, it was possible to leave Jewish synagogues and find others not far away with pagan designs and idolatrous symbols. Galilee was a pluralistic area (like most of the modern areas in America) and there were people living there who had varieties of religious beliefs over which the Jewish Rabbinate had no control. These people could build synagogues wherever they got authority to do so, and that is what they were doing.
And while the Jews from the fourth to the sixth centuries did allow various decorations in their own synagogues and burial places (like those of the Second Temple period), outright images and depictions of the gods of the heathen were expressly forbidden by the Jewish authorities from the time of the Second Temple period onward. Yet in the archaeological remains that Goodenough had reference to (for the most part) there were simply too many pagan items being shown, and in strategic areas, that calling the remains as "mere decorations" is not a satisfactory one.
The conclusion of many historians to this archaeological evidence is that the Jewish people from the fourth to the sixth centuries present a different picture of their religious beliefs than what all the voluminous writings and teachings of the Jewish authorities would have us believe represented normal Judaism. Among Jewish literature written during those centuries there is not a scrap of evidence that would suggest that mixing the worship of the pagan gods with themes of the Bible was proper. In fact, all the early Jewish writings make it plain that those Jewish authorities at the time would have been horrified at such activities by the Jewish population, especially with the designs on the synagogues in Galilee and those paintings on the walls at Dura Europos.
There are other explanations to account for this. What we will show in this research study is that the people in the main who left these archaeological remains were principally The People That History Forgot, and that those people were not Jews ― that is, they were not mainline practicing Jews. True enough, we must be practical and admit that we humans are not always faithful to religious principles that we outwardly profess. There could very well have been a few Jews involved in this idolatry that the archaeological remains disclose. It is only logical to assume that there were always renegade individuals or families or even towns of Jews who left the mainstream of Jewish belief from the second to the sixth centuries who could have become a part of the people who adopted these idolatrous themes. But what I am stating is my firm belief that this paganised artwork was not the product of mainline Rabbinic Judaism in the first centuries of our era.
The people who left these archaeological remains, catalogued primarily by Professor Goodenough, have to be identified as idolaters (in the classical sense of the word) whereas the mainline Jews were not. I am stating this belief simply because of evidence (which I will soon give) that shows that Rabbinic Judaism was not guilty of practicing these idolatrous acts. And in this matter I am not trying to whitewash the Jewish authorities. All of us know that any organization in which humans are involved (be it a Christian, Jewish or a Moslem one) is subject to practicing errors. No, I am not defending Rabbinic Judaism itself (or any Christian organization of which I am a part), but I am justifying Rabbinic Judaism from the second to the sixth centuries against the charge of idolatry (or the use of idolatrous practices). Other people did those pagan designs of which I have been speaking. We will find that they were depicted by The People That History Forgot.
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