BYU archaeologists help find rare Jewish art depicting female heroines

Aug 24, 2022, 5:00 AM
A discovery of ancient Jewish art is one of the first depictions of heroines from the Torah found....
The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. Several BYU students were part of the team to help excavate at the ancient Jewish village site. (Jim Haberman/BYU)
(Jim Haberman/BYU)

HUQOQ, Israel — A group of students and faculty at BYU helped discover Jewish art, specifically the first-known depictions of two Jewish heroines, inside a synagogue in Israel.

BYU Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture Matthew Grey joined Utah’s Noon News to talk about the discovery.

“Starting in 2012, we started uncovering a series of beautiful biblical mosaics, depicting scenes from the old testament spread across the floor of this ancient synagogue,” said Grey. “Every season we’ve been able to uncover more and more stories depicted from the Hebrew Bible. This season, we uncovered two stories that depict two women from the Book of Judges chapter 4.”

One scene depicts the prophetess Deborah sitting under a palm tree, guiding Israelite General Barak through battle. The other depicts Jael driving a tent peg through the head of a Caananite general

Grey said this is a pretty rare find.

“There are a handful of ancient synagogues from the late Roman period that depict some biblical scenes, but it’s usually a limited repertoire,” said Grey. “We only get two or three scenes depicted usually in the synagogues that do have mosaics. But in the Haqoq synagogue, we’ve been finding mosaics all over the floor depicting stories from the bible.”

It’s been extremely important and exciting for the study of ancient Jewish art.” 

While beautiful and rare, the mosaic is not fully intact

And though a rare and amazing find — they’re in pretty rough shape.

“Unfortunately, we’re not finding the entire mosaic intact,” said Grey. “We are finding fragments and patches of it. And most of the frags and patches we’re discovering contain enough that survived that help us identify the stories.” 

Those stories include the stories of Samson, Pharoah’s army drowning in the Red Sea, Noah’s Ark, the building of the Tower of Babel, the story of Jonah, and more. 

“This discovery this year was actually very exciting to add to that collection of images,” said Grey. “Especially with these two biblical women that, to our knowledge, have not been found surviving in other ancient forms of Jewish art.”  

KSL NewsRadio’s Kate Davis and Maria Shilaos contributed to this report. 

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BYU archaeologists help find rare Jewish art depicting female heroines