Jewish and Christian figural art emerged at approximately the same time in late antiquity. From the third and fourth centuries C.E. onwards biblical, mythological, and symbolic motifs appear in synagogues, churches, and funerary contexts in the Near East and Roman Italy. In the last two decades scholars of ancient Judaism have pointed to the religious competition amongst late antique Jews and Christians (Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) and to their knowledge of each other’s religious traditions (Peter Schäfer, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). While shared artistic motifs had already been recognized, especially by Rachel Hachlili, no one had examined the relationship between Jewish and Christian artistic expressions in late antiquity. As my study of the interlinks between late antique Jewish and Christian art indicates, the Jewish and Christian communal leaders, donors, commissioners, and viewers engaged in a constant indirect dialogue and competition with each other to accentuate their own theological ideas and to advocate their respective group identity.
In a society in which very few people could read and access the written text of the Torah themselves, visual representations of biblical figures, stories, institutions, and ideas were highly significant. Visual representations could be accessed by everyone, irrespective of his or her language and literacy skills. In the visual environment of Roman-Byzantine Palestine, individuals would have been dazzled by the multifarious imagery that met them in the public space: statues of Greek and Roman gods, amazons and sea creatures, medusa heads, celestial bodies, alongside biblical scenes, menorot and crosses. This visual imagery became meaningful in an oral cultural context in which mime and pantomime performances propagated Graeco-Roman mythology, rhetoricians and philosophers lectured in public, biblical texts were read out aloud in synagogues, rabbis and church fathers gave sermons and walked and talked to their disciples and followers in the marketplace.
It was probably not by mere chance that some of the same biblical and mythological motifs were chosen by both Jews and Christians: e.g., the Binding of Isaac (Aqedah), King David as Orpheus, Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah’s ark, the Zodiac cycle, and birds. Rather than arguing that Christian art was based on Jewish art or vice versa, it is more likely that Jews and Christians made use of a shared field of biblical and mythological images due to their common biblical heritage and Graeco-Roman cultural context. The use of the same motifs does not imply, however, that they had identical meanings and functions in both religious communities. On the contrary, a particular motif, such as the Binding of Isaac, was used to express competing theological views and constituted an indirect critique of the other religious group’s convictions.
In my book Bild und Kontext: Jüdische und christliche Ikonographie der Spätantike, I examine exemplary biblical, mythological, and symbolic images in the context of Jewish, Christian, and Graeco-Roman literary sources to determine their possible uses and meanings within the multi-cultural realms of late antique society. I argue that the images were carefully chosen to engage in an ongoing visual discourse within the public sphere. The use of the same or similar motif for different purposes, to express different meanings, constituted an indirect refutation of the other religious community’s beliefs and convictions. In particular, late antique Jewish art was meant to reclaim the biblical past from its Christian appropriation and to uphold the memory of the Temple within the context of the new “holy place” of the synagogue. Late antique synagogues were visible signs of a flourishing Jewish communities that continued and recreated the biblical and Temple-related heritage in the context of Christian claims of supersession and superiority. Synagogue art constituted an indirect refutation of Christian allegations that the so-called “Old” Testament led to the “New” and that God’s covenant with Israel was replaced by the “new” covenant in Christ.
The biblical story of the Binding of Isaac is represented in synagogue, church, and funerary contexts in both the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. Why was this story so attractive for visual representation and so wide-spread in its reach? When comparing the literary and artistic forms, it becomes obvious that the visual representations were not based on the written text but on oral retellings of the story. In these visualizations specific aspects of the story are selected, emphasized, changed, and omitted. Whereas the Aqedah’s representations in Jewish art (Dura Europos, Sepphoris, Bet Alpha) emphasize the aspect of Abraham’s obedience to God, the Christian representations in the Roman catacombs, on sarcophagi, and in churches (San Vitale in Ravenna; Basilica of Apollinaris in Classe near Ravenna) stress God’s salvific interaction and identify both Isaac and the ram with Christ’s alleged sacrifice, despite the fact that in the biblical story a killing of the son does not actually happen.
Discussions of and allusions to the Abraham and Isaac story in the New Testament, Philo and Josephus, rabbinic Midrash, and the writings of the church fathers throw light on the competing theological contexts in which these visual representations functioned. Jews who used the Aqedah as the major biblical motif on synagogue mosaic floors would have been aware of Christian associations of Isaac with Christ and Christian beliefs in the salvific aspects of his crucifixion, even if they had not read the Letter to the Hebrews and Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context of its blatant Christian appropriation, the Aqedah was a highly charged and controversial motif to use in a synagogue context in late antiquity. Rabbis were aware of the story’s contested meanings. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah they try to defeat the Christian interpretation and reclaim the tradition for Judaism. The Binding of Isaac stands for God’s testing of Abraham, and representatively of Israel, in its history. Both Abraham and Isaac proved their obedience to God and thereby gained merits for generations to come. The location of the Aqedah is associated with Jerusalem, the place of the (destroyed) Temple that was hoped to be resurrected in messianic times. This view served to counter the Byzantine Christian domination of Jerusalem at rabbis’ own times.
Perhaps the most puzzling mythological motif in the context of the Bet She’arim catacombs is the representation of Leda and the Swan on a sarcophagus. The motif was also common in Graeco-Roman funerary contexts, where it was associated with the apotheosis of the soul, the soul’s symbiosis with the divine after death. It is based upon the popular mythological story of the (semi-)divine origin of Helene of Troy, whose mother is said to have had intercourse with Zeus in the guise of a swan. What could have motivated (Hellenized) Jews to choose this motif for their sarcophagus (or to purchase a ready-made sarcophagus with this motif)? One is immediately reminded of Song of Songs, where Israel is presented as God’s beloved. Could Jews have perceived the Leda image as an expression of the loving relationship between God and his people? Could they have found consolation in the idea that God would take the deceased (or his or her soul) to the heavens with him? If so, the use of the motif at Bet She’arim could indicate a distinct Jewish perception of divine apotheosis where a person’s intimate relationship with God persists after death.
Interestingly, this motif does not appear in Christian burial or church contexts. There is a specific reason for this omission, namely, it’s too close resemblance to the story about Jesus’ birth through Mary’s union with the Holy Spirit, a belief that is already perpetuated by the birth stories of the synoptic gospels. Especially those Christians who stemmed from pagan backgrounds, that is, the majority of Christians from the second century onwards, would have been familiar with the Leda story. They would have avoided it for its mythological associations, to prevent confusion between Leda and Mary, Zeus and the Holy Ghost amongst their pagan constituency. In Christian art of late antique and early Byzantine times the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, the harmless, pure, and peaceful bird of the Bible. The replacement of the swan by the biblical dove by, at the same time, maintaining a union between a female human and male divine, serves to de-sexualize the mythological image. Both Justin Martyr and Cyril of Jerusalem were aware of these connotations and eager to refute the Leda myth. In churches from the fifth century C.E. onwards the dove became a fixed element of annunciation panels as evident, for example, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Besides biblical and mythological images, late antique Jews and Christians came to use idiosyncratic symbols as emblems of their religious identification and group identity. By the fourth century C.E. the menorah had become the quintessential Jewish symbol, while the Chi Rho sign emerged as an emblem of Christian identity. It was Constantine’s association of the cross with his victory at the Milvian bridge that turned a symbol of disrepute (crucifixion) into the emblem of the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. In funerary contexts the labrarum or Christogram was used as a symbol of the deceased’s “victory” over death and eventual resurrection. This use needs to be understood in the context of early Byzantine Christian theology: Christ was considered the kosmokrator, the Christian doctrine basilikos nomos. The Christogram sign in the form of a cross became the symbol of this victory and of Christian political power, a symbol Christians were eager to identify with.
In the same time period the menorah became a ubiquitous Jewish symbol displayed in synagogues and funerary contexts. Together with the other Jewish symbols of the lulav, etrog, and incense shovel, the menorah connected the synagogue with the Temple. In all likelihood, free-standing candelabra supplemented their symbolic depiction on floors and reliefs so that one could perceive an overload of menorot in these spaces. Unlike the cross, the menorah had always had a positive meaning, symbolizing divine power and enlightenment. A constant and ubiquitous reminder of the enduring power and protection of the Jewish God may have been necessary in a social and political context in which Christian leaders tried to subdue Judaism through theological arguments and anti-Jewish legislation. The early Byzantine synagogues of the Land of Israel, which defied the prohibition against new buildings, exhibited Jewish versions of the Aqedah, and displayed the Temple-related symbols of the menorah and ritual implements, would have constituted public assertions of Judaism’s continued vitality in a context of Christian domination.
The combination of biblical motif panels with the Zodiac and Jewish symbols in a some Palestinian synagogues (e.g., Sepphoris, Bet Alpha) points into the same direction. Rather than understanding such combinations as allegorical renderings of theological ideas, we should view them as markers of the synagogue as a “holy place” in continuation with the Temple and Jews’ biblical past. The story of the Aqedah connected the synagogue community to Abraham’s observance of God’s commandments and to Jerusalem and the Temple as the place of (animal) sacrifice. The Zodiac symbolized the Jewish God’s powers over creation and the universe. The menorah was the central implement of both the synagogue and the Temple. The Jewish symbols were directly reminiscent of Temple rituals. Altogether, they were a forceful reminder of Judaism as the true continuation of the biblical past.
Christian churches of the fifth and sixth centuries propagated a different story. They presented Christians as the successors of the biblical ancestors and Christianity as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. In the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore scenes from the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old” Testament) are represented on the side panels, leading the visitors’ gaze to the “New” Testament scenes in the cupola above the altar in the front. This church, built at the very center of the Byzantine Empire, represented Christian theological triumphalism and the state-supported power of the pope. From this perspective, Jews and Judaism were marginalized and delegated to a pre-Christian past. The continued synagogue building activity in Palestine indicates that at least at the peripheries of the Byzantine Empire, vibrant and flourishing Jewish communities not only survived but countered the Christian claims, even if indirectly, though public art.
Catherine Hezser is Professor of Jewish Studies at SOAS, University of London, and Professor II in Jewish Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. Her research focuses on rabbinic Judaism in Roman-Byzantine Palestine and especially on social history, daily life, and legal thinking. Her new book Bild und Kontext: Jüdische und christliche Ikonographie der Spätantike (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018) is based on the Tria Corda lecture series she gave at the University of Jena, Germany, in 2017. Amongst her other recent publications is a monograph on Rabbinic Body Language: Non-Verbal Communication in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017). Follow her on https://soas.academia.edu/CatherineHezser