Pictorial Paideia: Children in the Synagogue
Abstract and Keywords
Against the background of the centrality of a text-oriented society and the crucial role of the Hebrew Bible in shaping Jewish childhood in antiquity, this chapter considers the role of visual literacy through an examination of synagogal paintings and mosaics. The article asks how images shaped the social experience and acculturation of children into a society governed by communal prayers, commemorative festivities, synagogal gatherings, and rules harking back to Scripture. Why do visuals, illustrating biblical scenes featuring children, suddenly emerge on walls and floors of synagogues, beginning (so far as we can tell) with mid-third century Dura Europos and continuing with synagogues in the Land of Israel?
Keywords: Childhood, Jewish, synagogues, Palestine, Hebrew Bible/Scripture, Stobi, synagogue, Dura Europos, Khirbet Wadi Hamam (Palestine) synagogue, Beth Alpha (Palestine) synagogue, Sepphoris (Galilee) synagogue, children, Exodus, synagogue painting of, David, sy
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jewish children were initiated into Temple cult and ideology during one of the annual pilgrimage festivities.1 When the Temple was destroyed (in 70 CE) rabbinic imagination reconstructed a verbal Temple, down to the most minute architectural detail, sacrifices and services included. Modern scholarship, following the ancient rabbis’ own representation, granted the Mishnah (redacted ca. 200 CE) the status of the definite textual endeavor of biblical exegesis. The Mishnah, and its own exegesis, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (redacted ca. 400 and 600 CE, respectively), became the measuring rods of Jewish identity.2 The rabbinic revolution reinstated the Temple as the mother of (p. 533) Judaism, promoting a textual economy that aspired to dispense with visuals. This is a pure textual lineage. It proved an insufficiently hermeneutical perspective. I consider the history of Jewish education as a story told by both texts and images. Paradigmatic children, lifted out of the biblical text and placed on artful walls or floors of synagogues, promoted a paideia that bred real citizens of Judaism. I do not mean that pictures supplanted texts but rather that as visual reworking of biblical tales they supplemented the lessons derived from Scripture.
If there are no small children, there will be no disciples;
If there are no disciples, there will be no sages;
If there are no sages, there will be no Torah;
If there is no Torah, there will be no synagogues and academies;
If there are no synagogues and academies, the Holy One will no longer allow his
Presence to dwell in this world.
(Leviticus Rabbah 11:7)
A book (the Bible), a congregation, and an assembly house (the synagogue) provide a primary scheme that frames Jewish childhood in antiquity. Each is governed by an ancient history of its own. Together they account for the social experience and acculturation of children into a society governed by communal prayers, festivities, synagogal gatherings, and rules harking back to Scripture. In what follows I explore the role of engraved words and images in constructing identities for Jewish children in the Roman world. I am specifically asking how the visuals suddenly seen on walls and floors of synagogues in late antiquity coalesced to inculcate and perpetuate traditions that groomed children as Jews.
I focus on six late ancient synagogues, two in the Diaspora and four in the Land of Israel (= Roman Palestine) from ca. 200 to ca. 600 CE. My point of departure is a text, a dedicatory inscription from Macedonian Stobi, that marked the transformation of domestic space into a sanctuary with inherited privileges. How did this form of deprivatization shape the lives of the children in the household? I then shift to the frontier town of Dura Europos on the Euphrates where members of this remote congregation were presented (ca. 250 CE) with a remarkable variety of biblical images painted on the walls of their synagogue, likewise a converted room. At the Durene synagogue I examine the message of the scenes featuring children as saviors or as the saved. I conclude with floor mosaics of four Galilean synagogues (Khirbet Hamam, Meroth, Beth Alpha, Sepphoris), each featuring biblical scenes. What kind of novel educational ideology did this radical departure from past decorative traditions herald? As centers of sociability, these synagogues played a role that was far from trivial in determining Jewish identity from infancy via adolescence to adulthood.
Synagogue as Home and Home as Synagogue
A solitary marble column, once gracing a synagogue and later found in a church built into the Jewish sanctuary, is the sole testimony left of the substitution:
The donor, who bore Greek and Latin names, styled himself “father of the synagogue,” as though paternity defined his relationship to the sacred space he dedicated to communal worship. With terms directly borrowed from the civic language employed by Greeks, Polycharmos publicly proclaimed his allegiance to the norms of Judaism. These, as articulated by Philo of Alexandria, a fellow Diaspora Jew of an earlier era (first century CE), were based on key practices of circumcision, Sabbath, festivals, dietary laws, and endogamic marriage.4 Philo further advocated oral learning to establish links between sacred text, sacred space, and the community. The process was most fruitfully established during synagogue services (at least in Alexandria) where experts taught and preached the Law to audiences of fathers and sons.5
- ...Cl[audius] Tiberius Polycharmos,
- also (named) Achyrios (“flaxen hair” or “the unexpectedly fortunate”),
- father (pater) of the synagogue at Stobi,
- having throughout led a life of a citizen
- according to (the precepts of) Judaism,
- (hos poleiteusamenos pasan poleiteian kata ton Ioudaismon)
- [has donated], in fulfillment of a vow the[se] rooms (?) (p. 534)
- to the holy place (hagios topos)…
- Ownership and disposition of all the upper chambers is to be retained by me,
- Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos,
- And by my heirs all our lives...3
At Stobi, the dedicatory inscription would have been visible to all those who frequented Polycharmos’ synagogue, which consisted of a converted space in a building he owned, possibly his own domicile. The location ensured that the lessons and liturgy associated with synagogues became integral components of the family’s spiritual daily diet. Polycharmos’ heirs (kleronomoi), whose property rights to the domestic synagogue were recorded in the inscription, grew up in a tradition that combined adherence to basic Jewish precepts on one hand and to a widely practiced tradition of civic euergetism on the other. Unnamed, these heirs, possibly his sons and his daughters, were in all likelihood quite young, at least young enough for their father to incur the expense of an engraving to commemorate their privileges beyond his own lifetime. As children of a notable figure in the community, they would have borne honorific titles commonly reserved for communal office holders and benefactors. Jewish children at Rome, for example, even as young as seven and twelve, bore the title of a grammateus (secretary), and some were designated archons and archisynagogues at age three.6 Such titles denoted not an actual office but the child’s elevated status (or rather that of his family) as well as the child’s potential role in the community. One visual expression of the youngster’s status would have been reflected in the order of sitting in the synagogue. Polycharmos’ male heirs and their youthful Italian counterparts probably occupied from infancy prominent seats next to their father, close to the Torah ark.
Jewish children in Macedonia assumed, like their elders, a triple identity, Roman, Jewish, and local (Stobean). They were citizens of empire, city, and their own (p. 535) community, as though living in a charted land with endless configurations that enabled one to slide imperceptibly from one discourse to another. It was a symbiosis that prevailed throughout the Roman Mediterranean. But the Jews of the Diaspora also instilled in the young an additional line of parentage by positing a link with the Jewish homeland. Polycharmos challenged anyone who would dare to defy his wishes by imposing an enormous monetary penalty to be paid to the Patriarch in Palestine. The long shadow of that venerable figure acted as a guarantor of the local nabob’s plans and privileges. Whether the Patriarch himself was informed remains unclear.
The inscribed words at Stobi’s synagogue recorded an identifiable procedure that projected close association of paternal pedigree, sanctified places, and the biblical homeland.7 Over all loomed the sacred text, the Jewish Bible, which provided the foundation of a universal Jewish identity. Polycharmos does not refer to the Bible or cite a biblical verse. But the space he created for his heirs and his fellow Jews could not function without the Torah and Torah’s audience. In synagogal learning halls, biblically based lessons, translations, and liturgy transformed biblical unreality into contemporary contexts.8 Children, too, were encouraged to read the Torah in synagogues and apparently even to engage in translation.9 Anyone who could recite three times Psalm 145 was certain to become “son of the world to come” (ben ha-olam ha-ba, BT Ber 4b). When arranged alphabetically, as Psalms 145 and 119 were, it should have been a simple enough feat even for young learners to achieve, although the latter is eight times longer. In a sanctified space, like Polycharmos’ synagogue, such reading, most likely an oral recitation, would have constituted a demonstration of affinity with both congregation and Scripture.
The Dura Europos Synagogue: The Children Register and Visual Literacy
Biblical tales and regulations, products of a distant past, simultaneously posed an intrinsic distance between lines and listeners. To resolve the ongoing pedagogical problem of bridging myth and contemporary function of the Torah as promoter of Judaism’s literacy and identity, a visual novelty was introduced.10 In late antiquity biblical scenes (p. 536) sprouted on walls and floors of synagogues, complete with select biblical protagonists and stories. The earliest dated “revolution” of this sort is linked with the Jewish community of Dura-Europos.
At the edge of the Roman world in the frontier zone between Rome and Persia, on the caravan route that linked the Mediterranean via Palmyra to Persia, Jews gathered in a house that, like the Stobaean synagogue, had once been a private residence. In this bustling border town of some antiquity (Dura-Europos had been founded on the bank of the Euphrates by veterans of Alexander’s army around 300 BCE) acts of Jewish euergetism were recorded in Greek, Aramaic, and Persian on decorated ceiling tiles.11 In 245 CE the communal prayer hall was remodeled. The result was a stunning array of paintings inspired by biblical stories.12 In this last phase, a mere decade before Dura fell to the Sassanids and was abandoned (256 CE), the images that crowded all four walls of the synagogue publicly defied the Second Commandment. The scenes selected for design and display were based not only on Pentateuchal narratives but also on stories derived from other biblical books including Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, and Esther. It would appear that those who orchestrated donations and paid for the representations projected a common area where the public, children and adults, were to experience the interplay of verbal and pictorial techniques of biblical interpretation.
Drawn in vivid colors, the paintings postulate precise points of myths of origins. They convert words into images and provide a perfect accompaniment of synagogal sounds and smells. To judge by the endless, and thus far fruitless, modern search for a single key to unlock the alleged homology of Dura’s biblical cycle, it may be useful to begin with a simple acknowledgment of their originality.13 My own analysis is based on a seeming paradox: while recognizing the biblical text as crucial witness to a contemporary reality that functioned as a basis of truth for the fable, the painted scenes simultaneously aspired to instill distance between the Bible and its mythic settings. Because of the overwhelming significance of texts and of oral verbal tradition in ancient Judaism, the addition of visual stimuli to the repertory of learning devices appropriated a reserve of imagination, a store that children could dip into freely.14 (p. 537)
How, precisely, images were integrated into Jewish school curricula in late antiquity is difficult to gauge.15 In the vast corpus of texts associated with rabbis (Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, midrash) there are no sustained discussions of either learning or teaching theories and practices or of visual stimuli.16 Assuming certain universality in matters pertaining to elementary education, the acquisition of rudimentary/functional literacy via letters, syllables, dictation, copying, and recitation would have been conducted through interaction between pupil and teacher as well as among pupils at various levels of learning.17 The latter is strikingly illustrated in a non-Jewish pictorial cycle that delineates universal experiences of early schooling.18
The protagonist, a child named Kimbros, begins his schooling career with the realization that learning involves not pleasures but pain. The first mosaic panel shows Kimbros being flogged by his tutor at home, possibly a slave member of the household assigned to instruct children (Figure 26.1). In the next schooling stage Kimbros is moved from home to the residence of a teacher. There he and other small children are introduced to their new mentor, a man named Alexandros, who is seen embracing his new charge (Figure 26.2). Alexandros is probably a grammaticus, a second-level teacher. The children are further socialized through forming friendships among themselves. Little Kimbros acquires a new friend under the auspices of Philia herself, the very personification of friendship. On another panel, the children, somewhat older, are seen congregating around the teacher whose lecture is delivered directly under the inspiration of Paideia (education) herself. Standing next to Alexandros’ chair, Paideia, or rather her personification, draws words out of his mouth. Her invocation and close association with the teacher serve to bolster the latter’s authority in class.
By far the most intriguing panel in the series is the mosaic illustrating the use of rhetorical exercises and play enactment (Figure 26.3). A process of petition, a ubiquitous feature of life under Roman rule, is introduced into the day’s curriculum. The pupils engage in its reenactment, with the group divided into two pleading camps. The teacher acts as a judge. Kimbros’ side “loses” the case. This seems to be the conclusion drawn from the scene in which the child is removed from class/courtroom, carried out in the (p. 538) (p. 539) (p. 540) (p. 541) arms of two schoolmates, possibly his equally unsuccessful co-pleaders.19 Another panel depicts Kimbros succumbing to disease—he is shown lying in bed, most likely at home. Was this a result of the judgment scene at school? A happy end follows as Kimbros recovers and rejoins his friends and teacher at school.
It would be idle to speculate on the original setting of such a series or even whether they delineate imaginative or concrete protagonists. The mosaics, possibly placed in the schoolroom itself, highlight a simple and effective use of oral and visual stimuli. Designed to overcome monotonous repetition, these methods challenged the text, be it petitions presented by plaintiffs in real courts of law or Scripture in synagogues where the Torah text was the norm for study, meditation, and patterns of behavior.20 That Jewish teachers employed similar pedagogical strategies may be gleaned from hermeneutic traditions, such as the exegesis attached to the books of the Pentateuch. For example, to drive home the meaning of Leviticus 25:36 (“let thy brother live with you”) where, it may be noted, the original text refers to leniency regarding loans, the following story was concocted:
It can be easily imagined that children were assigned the roles of the two men as they debated the verse.
[Two men] walked in the wilderness with water in their jug sufficient for only one of them. Should only the one drink so that he might reach a place of settlement? If both were to drink, then both would die. They decided it, or at least they based the answer to it on the Torah verse: “Let thy brother live with you.”
At the center of the western wall of the Durene synagogue, the Torah niche facing Jerusalem was embellished with a schematic drawing of three elements: a sanctuary, a symbol, and a story. Instantly recognizable were the Temple (of Solomon), the Temple’s Menorah (candelabra), and the binding of Isaac (Akedah; Genesis 22). No effort was made at correct scaling or accuracy. It would have been a futile exercise of artistic geometry. By the mid-third century CE, the Temple had gone (destroyed in 70 CE), its huge Menorah disappeared, and the Akedah itself belonged to the fogs of the patriarchal mythic past.21 Nevertheless, etched in collective Jewish memory, this combination of biblical references also highlighted the staying power of the biblically centered discourse. Texts and their pictorial representation kept the community separate from the temporal frame of their city.
Simplicity and symbolism are striking. In Dura’s Torah art, side by side with divinely sanctioned structure and holy implements, the boy Isaac remains an indistinct bundle atop a huge altar, a static model like an abstract idealization.22 Fresh from classes replete (p. 542) with patriarchal narratives, perhaps administered in the synagogal complex itself, Dura’s Jewish children gazing at the Akedah picture atop the Torah ark became cognizant of the heroic legends in which founders of race and religion seem at first destined to die young. School lessons would have taught them to identify the locale of the sacrifice (Moriah, Genesis 22:2) with that of Mount Moriah where the Solomonic Temple was erected.23 Read as a story of near death and rebirth, the drawings became an account of a double passage or transition: of protagonists into heroes; and of monuments into memorials. They also reinforced the bond forged in countless biblical tales between God on one hand and land (of Israel) and people (Jews) on the other, a covenant that even a Diaspora existence could not sever.
Dura’s abbreviated version of Genesis 22 (the Akedah narrative) presents a stark contrast with both the wealth and the expert artistic hand evidently at work on the walls of the synagogue. Here I focus on a single register, the lower register of the western wall of the synagogue. Whoever selected its scenes clearly had the younger (and shorter) worshippers in mind. Well within the vision range of children, all the paintings of this register feature biblical tales with children protagonists.24 Four foundational moments are depicted: the salvaging of baby Moses in the floating casket on the Nile by an all-women team (Exodus 2); the resuscitation of a widow’s young son by Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 17; Elijah is labeled); the anointing of the adolescent David by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 16; the Aramaic label reads “Shmuel anointing David”); and the crowning of the youthful Esther as queen of Persia, perhaps at the moment of her triumph over the Jews’ mortal enemy (Haman).
These were instructive stories. They delineated a specifically Jewish manner of acculturation into the faith through careful selection of visuals that emphasized the contribution of the young to the survival of creed and community. Within the specific context of Dura, a town uneasily positioned between Rome and Persia, the story of Esther at the court of a Persian monarch would have carried strikingly contemporary connotations. It is a tale of one girl’s ingenuity, courage, and determination at a dangerous time for her people who are threatened with annihilation by king (Ahasuerus) and minister (Haman). In the panel Esther is seated behind the monarch (Ahasuerus), to whose harem she had been joined by her scheming uncle (Mordechai), seen riding atop a white horse. She, Mordechai, and King Ahasuerus are labeled.25 Her story is the story of a (p. 543) young girl acting as instrument of salvation (the biblical scroll does not include a single reference to Yahweh).26 At Dura, the condensed painted narrative of the Scroll of Esther, embedded within a “children register,” rendered children a pivotal part of the machinery of Israel’s longevity.
Scenes of this sort lent themselves to a multiple interplay between sacred text and congregation, between the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, and between children and adults. They also set apart the Jewish community of Dura from its pagan, Mithraic and Christian neighbors who likewise garnished the walls of their sanctuaries with paintings. With the exception of the David scene, all the narratives involving children are set within a Diaspora context or in a borderland. The agents executing or prompting the divine will were either female or gentile. Here a deliberate blurring of boundaries between Diaspora and the biblical heartland may have been at work, shaped also by the intermittent presence of emissaries from Palestine and by visits to and from relatives in Palestine.
How did these visuals socialize the young at Dura? Their biblical ancestors included a boy like Isaac, who was willing to die in obedience to paternal precepts, and a girl, Esther, who submitted to avuncular command to violate the Bible’s own ban on marriage outside the faith. Were these the models that the Durene Jewish children were expected to follow to demonstrate their faith in God? More likely, idolatry, rather than imminent sacrifice or annihilation, posed a constant threat in multiethnic and multireligious communities like Dura. A Talmudic tale featuring Elijah (at Dura both a savior of children and an avenger of Yahweh) and an unnamed child hints at the manner in which textual and visual stimuli operated in tandem to breed Jewishness:
It was related that Elijah the righteous, searching for those languishing of hunger on the streets of Jerusalem in time of famine, found a child [tinok, a term ordinarily associated with very young children] lying upon a dung heap. He questioned him as to which family he belonged. The boy answered: “To such and such.” “Are any of your family left?” asked Elijah. “None, except myself,” was the answer. Said Elijah: “If I teach you something by which you may live, will you learn?” “Yes.” “Then recite every day Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” [these are the opening words of the Shema, the basic prayer recited by all Jews in the synagogue]. But the child retorted: “Silence. One ought not to mention the Name” [Amos 6:10]. Evidently his mother and his father had not taught him [this prayer]. The child then drew out of his bosom an idol which he proceeded to kiss and embrace till his stomach burst. The idol fell to the ground, with the child on it, thus fulfilling the verse: And I shall cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols.
It is precisely within such a multifaceted context where stories of Elijah’s feats came to life on the synagogue walls that the Akedah, a would-be infanticide (Genesis 22), would fit into the eclectic collection of the children register at Dura.28 As a narrative with endless exegetical strands it suited multiple stages of children’s acculturation. In the liturgy of the synagogue the story became a component of the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), in spite of the fact that Genesis 22 gives no hint of a date.29 Within school curricula, the Akedah narrative, with its infant protagonist, an emblem of purity, provided a partial, if not wholly satisfactory, answer to an odd curricular choice.30 Evidently, the rabbis deemed Leviticus, albeit a text whose appeal to the very young may be doubted, to be a perfect introduction to the study of the Pentateuch. To justify the selection of this least eventful biblical component, some rabbis claimed that Leviticus’ overarching concern for purity (of sacrifices) could be matched only by comparison with the innocence of the (human) young.31 It was but a short rabbinic step from the requirement of Leviticus 1 regarding the sacrifice of animals as atonement (the victim must be male and without blemish) to the Akedah and Isaac as the ideal “sacrifice.” Through school curricula, the one-off act of Genesis 22 had been institutionalized.
The Bible on the Floor: Galilean Synagogues and a New Pedagogy
In a predominantly non-Jewish environment like Dura, visual stimuli like the synagogue pictorial cycles embedded the biblical text within the central communal institution. Perhaps the synagogue, when not attended by adults, served as a schoolroom. Text, traditions, and illustrations projected a sui generis Jewish language of birth and childhood in a town where other communities engaged in discourses carved to set them apart. How such distinctions played within the Palestinian homeland in late antiquity is a question that may be addressed through a series of floor mosaics in Galilean synagogues. The date and decoration of these synagogues have been subjects of lengthy scholarly debates.32 Two characteristics are worth noting. First, the mosaics were all embedded in floors of synagogues, so far as one can tell. Whether (p. 545) the walls were covered with plaster paintings cannot be determined. Second, their decorative schemes juxtapose non-Jewish (Helios, zodiac) with Jewish elements (biblical figures, stories, and rabbinic texts). None of the biblical scenes appears, therefore, in isolation.
A recent discovery of a synagogue in Galilean Khirbet Wadi Hamam just northwest of Tiberias, dated to ca. 300 CE, unearthed three fragmentary mosaic panels, all bearing biblical scenes.33 If the dating is correct, Khirbet Hamam (we have no idea to which Jewish spot the place corresponded in antiquity) constitutes a vital link between two types of synagogues, early Roman (nonfigural or textual) and late Roman (pictorial). Put otherwise, the Hamam series of biblically inspired mosaic pictures seems to have pioneered a new trend in Palestinian synagogal decoration. No less significantly, the discovery of such paintings in a Galilean context that postdates Dura by only half a century suggests that the Durene paintings may not have been a one-of-a-kind phenomenon with neither antecedents nor continuation.34 Does the new visual vogue in the Galilee also reflect new pedagogical approaches to the study of Scripture?
The synagogue’s aisles at Hamam were covered with mosaics. The three surviving fragments, executed by different hands, depict a construction scene, a battle scene, and a marine scene. One panel contains schematically drawn groups of workers wielding various building instruments, all apparently engaged in assembling a hexagonal structure (Figure 26.4).35 The most likely interpretation is that the panel represents the narrative in Exodus 1, namely, the labors of the Israelites in Egypt.36 The subject of the second surviving floor panel, executed by a more adept hand, can be easily identified as the passage of the Red Sea (Exodus 14–15) (Figure 26.5). Visible are horses and chariots, both clearly belonging to the Egyptian army, here shown drowning and dismembered. The Exodus sequence in Hamam reflects the perennial popularity of the narrative of bondage and liberation, annually celebrated during Passover. Yet Hamam’s Red Sea imagery, with its emphasis on the artful watery blotting of the Egyptian chariots, seems unique amid the panoply of Exodus imagery found in Jewish and Christian art of late antiquity. Pictorial representations of the Red Sea crossing and the Egyptian debacle ordinarily display both (p. 546) camps, Hebrews and Egyptians, firmly planted on soil.37 Perhaps the liveliness of the Hamam scene was designed to substitute an ancient enemy (Egypt) for a contemporary forbidden desire (chariot races). Perhaps the dismembered chariots were meant to serve as a warning to children fond of races. Ultimately, artistic versions of Exodus narratives, whether at Hamam or at Dura, highlight the hazards of textual transmission—the (p. 547) illuminated story could have come to an artistic end at any moment, depending on the will and whim of donors and artists.
The third mosaic panel at Hamam’s synagogue depicts a giant clad in what appears to be a military garb, his oversized hand crushing the heads of three smallish, armed figures (Figure 26.6). Between the giant’s feet lie two more figures, dead or dying, while an armed equestrian gallops away from the deadly scene. Of the proposed identifications (i.e. David and Goliath; [1 Samuel 17], Samson smiting Philistines, Og, the giant king of Bashan), the most likely is the first. But the moment depicted is not that of the memorable duel between the youthful David and the giant Philistine. Rather, the mosaic commemorated a battlefield dominated by Goliath, when not a single Israelite, not even David’s three older brothers (1 Samuel 17:13), dared to rise to the challenge. This was the background to the dramatic first public appearance of David after his secretive anointing.
Inserted into these visual narratives were brief texts. The Goliath scene was invaded by an Aramaic inscription commemorating a donation made by “sons of Shimon.” The construction scene bore an Aramaic inscription that referred to Shmuel the scribe (sofer), a title associated with the teaching of children, in itself an activity often placed in the synagogue. Teaching script and Scripture would have benefited from the visual stimuli provided by the pictures on the floors, where height proved no obstacle to vision. (p. 548) Perhaps Shmuel was also the donor of the mosaic depicting the labors of Israel in Egypt. He may have even selected its theme. Because the Torah provided a basic text but not a fixed curriculum, teachers and scribes could be selective, teaching only chosen verses and passages.38 The outcome of this lack of uniformity, coupled with uneven information regarding general access to elementary education in Palestine, is reflected in different levels of literacy among Jews. Even in Roman Palestine, in spite of modern scholarly claims of the universality of elementary education, some communities barely boasted a single man able to conduct basic synagogal services.39 Perhaps, then, the sudden appearance of biblical images on synagogue floors (and walls) in late antiquity did herald an innovation designed to “democratize” elementary education.
Teaching apparently took place in synagogues and in adjacent study houses.40 In theory, as least, schooling constituted the chief parental obligation. Fathers were held responsible for ensuring that their boys learned Torah. Mothers, too, could earn praise “by sending their sons to learn [Torah] in the synagogues, and their husbands to study in the schools of the rabbis.”41 The presence and participation of children in synagogue readings (the latter a duty from the age of thirteen and one day) is reflected in the careful construction of synagogal liturgical poetry (piyyut). Practitioners of piyyutim “graded” their poems, all based on the biblical text, in a manner that proceeded from exceptionally complex and elusive lines to simple references, the latter to be grasped even by children and by men with only rudimentary knowledge of Scripture.42
Like verbal exegesis, pictures introduced a reworking of the biblical stories, invoking a space of imagination and dreams about these events. At Dura and at Hamam, painted panels reflect the centrality of stories, like the Akedah and the Exodus, that have become foundational myths through schooling lessons and annual reenactment. Such painted Bibles represent a system of religion for young people. Accessible to all boys (and girls?) (p. 549) and their fathers (and mothers?), these pictures entrenched the stories in the present, forging a distinct identity around the interpretation of origins.43 Although the few modern presentations of Jewish education in antiquity conspicuously lack references to visuals, the very location of biblical paintings in synagogues, whether along a lower register on walls or on floors, would have been calculated to augment a learned text and to put verbal and visual flesh on its multiple meanings. Side by side with mnemonics, a basic strategy of learning, pictures dramatized and transmitted select aspects of the biblical narratives.44 Against the background of differing translations and interpretations known to have been in use in late ancient Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora, images, too, dictated a reception of the text within a specific communal context.
The local character of these visuals is reflected in a different interpretation of the figure of David. At the synagogue of Meroth (Upper Galilee), the figure of a man seated on a shield surrounded by weapons has been interpreted as David. This is a militant youth, basking in his triumph against all odds and displaying the loot taken from the body of Goliath.45 A donor’s inscription complements the image, as though to emphasize the intimate connection between this David and the donation that paid for it.46 The text also reflected the individual’s commitment to the congregation and to its needs. The selection was hardly accidental. Children at relatively isolated mountainous Meroth would have gorged with gusto on the story of the duel between an adolescent Israelite and a grown-up Philistine. They lived in a community that may have been rarely at peace with itself or with others. A bronze cameo recovered from the site and inscribed in Hebrew and Aramaic (dated to the early seventh century) was purchased or commissioned by one Yossi son of Zenobia, who craved divine assistance to bend the will (p. 550) of the community to his advantage.47 Yossi did not invoke the biblical David, but the incantation addresses Yahweh as a militant divinity ready to smite fellow villagers in a single blow.
The association between education and the visual arts matched religious practices with mythic moments. Parentage and founding events transformed children into Jews. A growing emphasis on the acquisition of biblical literacy in late antiquity led to the remodeling of the Meroth synagogue to include two study spaces, a room to teach infants and a Beth Midrash (house of study) to teach adolescents, the latter decorated with stone relief and mosaics.48 The arrangement confirms rabbinic instructions regarding the sequence of learning, from Torah to Talmud, and from participatory gestures to full participation in synagogue services. The irenic messages that graced the study area posed a curious contrast to the combative tone of both cameo and mosaic imagery at Meroth. At the entry to Beth Ha-Midrash was engraved a phrase from Isaiah’s vision of universal harmony (65:25: “fox and lamb will share a pasture”), complete with appropriate engravings of the relevant animals.49
Images brought back the human order of society, effecting a beneficial exchange and reciprocity between texts and learners. When the Hebrew text turned epic, remote from the daily language of pupils, the pictures evoked a sense of an enveloping divine grace. This is why the solemnity of the biblical Akedah (Genesis 22) proved so spellbinding. From Dura to Galilean Sepphoris and Beth Alpha, the Binding of Isaac was featured in a variety of configurations that reflected the pliability of the Genesis story in the hands of teachers, translators, interpreters, and artists. In none does the Akedah feature by itself. In each case it was embedded within either a panoply of biblical episodes (Dura-Europos) or mosaics centering on a zodiac and embellished with symbols associated with the Jerusalemite Temple (Beth Alpha, Sepphoris) and with texts (character names, biblical verses, recorded donations).50
On a floor mosaic from the Beth Alpha synagogue (near the Jordan River), baby Isaac (labeled) stares at viewers who would have walked right above him (Figure 26.7). He is clutched in one raised arm of his father Abraham (labeled), whose other arm is brandishing a large knife. This was clearly the most dramatic moment in the entire sequence, exactly when tragedy was ready to strike. The episode is completed with images of the two slave boys who accompanied father and son to the site of the projected sacrifice, the donkey who carried them, and the ram ultimately selected as a substitute. At the center of the mosaic appeared the hand of God, next to the words that saved Isaac (Genesis 22:12–3).
Beth Alpha’s Akedah provides the most literal rendering of Genesis 22, a sequence that children could follow verbatim, element by element. Rooted in the biblical text, the (p. 551) mosaic’s vision of the text becomes a heterogeneous juxtaposition of small independent units. It is a mosaic of small reductions that does not challenge the text. And it functions as a perfect synonym for the most basic duty of children vis-à-vis parents, namely, unquestioned obedience. Besides reinforcing the biblical text, visuals like the Beth Alpha mosaic also instilled modes of desired behavior.
South of Meroth, at Sepphoris (Upper Galilee), literalness came with a twist. Here the Akedah apparently consisted of several panels, each representing a stage in the narrative. One, fairly intact, shows a donkey and two men with a mountain and a tree in the background. This is an accurate reflection of Genesis 22:5, in which Abraham specifically commands the slaves to remain at a distance. In the other panel, besides a tree, only two pairs of sandals are visible, one clearly belonging to a child and the other to an adult, both neatly laid side by side. There is no reference in the biblical story to shedding shoes. But the poignant image of the solitary sandals was designed to invoke another biblical narrative. In Exodus 3:5, the voice of the divine, emanating from a burning bush, commands Moses to take off his shoes out of respect for the sanctity of the place. This was a scene of divine revelation, the same kind of manifestation that operated at multiple levels throughout Pentateuchal confrontations between Yahweh and chosen emissaries. In Genesis 22 the divine voice saved the life of Isaac and confirmed the original covenant with Abraham; in Exodus 3, it reconfirmed the covenant between God and Israel.
Webs of synagogue images inextricably mingled the mythic and the concrete. They were aggregations of biblical texts and interpretations. The images planted on the (p. 552) synagogues’ floors project an extension of classroom methodologies of intertwining Scripture and exegesis. They cast synagogues as places where children (and adults) could embark on a visual journey into the universe of Jewish identity. These were spaces of identity consolidation where temporal polarities were juxtaposed in complicity. To emphasize collective identity at Beth Alpha, an Aramaic inscription, fixed below the Akedah, specifically refers to a collective donation of all the members of this rural community.51 At Sepphoris a large number of inscriptions embedded in the mosaics commemorate donations to the synagogue. A Greek one, placed right above the Akedah, refers to a gift of Boethos and his children (teknoi), the latter remaining unnamed. The dedication ends with the word “Amen,” written in Hebrew.
Epigraphical children feature regularly in records of synagogal donations. At Sepphoris, both Aramaic and Greek inscriptions refer to children of donors, either by name (in the Aramaic inscriptions) or in generic terms (in the Greek).52 Elsewhere, blessing formulas placed at entry to sanctuaries often include a specific reference to the younger members of the congregation.53 Throughout synagogues in the Land of Israel dedicatory inscriptions attest the role of individual and communal evergetism in financing the construction, embellishment, and maintenance of sanctuaries.54 The nominal participation of children in these collective enterprises, commemorated in inscriptions and in biblical scenes featuring the young, defined citizenship in terms of descent and good deeds.
Within the sanctified space of the synagogue, children were cast as visual archetypes of obedience to parental and divine precepts, reinforcing an orthodoxy anchored in the commonality of language and liturgy. Synagogal pictures of foundational moments featuring children reflect a dialectical relationship with an environment in which Greco-Roman educational practices aspired to groom the young. This was an alphabet that transmitted images, just as Psalms and prayers reinforced the acquisition of Hebrew alphabet. Like visual narratives in Greek and Roman art, pictorial biblical episodes in synagogues reveal a complex set of relationships between texts and art, education and (p. 553) affiliation, adherence and identity. The emergence of publicly illuminated Bibles on walls and floors, in defiance of an exclusively textual tradition, and the fact that they appear exclusively within the confines of synagogues, hint at a challenge to the established semantic sequence. To tell the story of the Hebrew Bible a new artisanal language was generated to “speak” of birth and breeding.55 Synagogal images became both a powerful tool of acculturation and a component of a competitive and collaborative relationship between Judaism and other Roman imperial cultures. Within the “marketplace of religions” of late antiquity, the artists who created these visual stimuli engendered spaces where pictures and the solemnity of ceremonies combined to instill in children a unique sense of identity. Sounds, images and Scripture engulfed the young within a protective envelope of family and community that came regularly together in the synagogue.
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(1) The article is one component of my forthcoming book on Jewish childhood in antiquity. I am very grateful to Dr. Ephrat Habas Rubin, who read a draft of this paper and offered insightful criticism. I had the opportunity to share my ideas with Israeli archeologists, experts of Galilean archeology, at a workshop organized by Yaakov Ashkenazi and Mordechai Aviam. I am grateful to Yaki, Moti, Hayim Ben David, and all the participants who offered comments and criticism. The opinions here expressed are mine alone.
(2) The abbreviations used here are: M = Mishna; T = Tosefta; BT = Babylonian Talmud; PT = Palestinian Talmud; ARN = Avot de Rabbi Nathan. For an expanded list of standard abbreviations see The Cambridge History of Judaism or search online via Google under “Abbreviations for EBR” or “Abbreviations for use in TC articles.”
(4) Mendelson 1988. On his ideals of broadly based education see Mendelson 1982. It is impossible to gauge to what extent such ideas permeated other Diaspora communities or even the entire Jewish Alexandrian community.
(5) Philo, Hypothetica 7.12–4. Cf. Josephus, Against Apion 2.178.
(6) Williams 1998, VI.26–30 (Italy), with a majority (four out of five) from Rome, all roughly dating to the third-fourth centuries.
(7) Cf. the numerous donations recorded in Roman Syria: Roth-Gerson 2001; and the various inscriptions collected in Noy et al. 2004 (IJO). Useful parallels can be also drawn with the Jewish communities in Sardis, Ephesus, and Aphrodisias in Asia Minor.
(8) Although the nature and extent of school literacy have yet to be determined. Here the question of languages is also crucial—were children taught only to read or also to write, and if so in what languages? See Hezser 2001: 72–3; Fraade 2011.
(9) M Megilla 4.6.
(10) The question of how this problem had been treated before is addressed in my book on Jewish childhood in antiquity (see n. 1).
(11) Daryaee 2010: 29–37. Apparently these visitors especially liked the Esther panel. See also Fine 2011. Cf. Roth-Gerson 2001: 84–7 for Greek donor inscriptions, noting (85) the rarity of dedicatory inscriptions in two languages (Aramaic and Greek or Hebrew and Greek) outside Palestine, suggesting the influence of the Babylonian–Persian Jewish community. Some names are inscribed in middle Persian characters.
(12) They can be seen on the Internet, as can the other mosaics mentioned but not illustrated here due to constraints of space.
(14) As far as I could see there are no references in the vast literature on synagogues and on synagogal pictorial decoration to the role of biblical images in shaping Jewish education in late antiquity (e.g., Horbury et al. 1999: 282–3, 295, for presentation of mosaics in purely decorative terms, as encoders of complex messages of salvation, and even as a platform for board games).
(16) Textual stimuli, by contrast, appear to have constituted the very core of the rabbinic discourse. For a useful modern guide, essentially a collection of rabbinic excerpts on children, teachers, and education, see Aberbach 1982.
(17) For useful general comments see Horn and Martens 2009: 116. On scenes from school, probably in third century CE Gaul, see Dionisotti 1982; see also the chapters by Bloomer and Vuolanto in this volume.
(18) Marinescu, Cox, and Wachter 2007. I am grateful to Constantine Marinescu for forwarding this article to me and for granting permission to reproduce several panels. The precise provenance of these mosaics is unknown but a Middle Eastern origin is more than likely. They are dated to either the fourth or the fifth century, largely on stylistic criteria. The identity of the child has not been established. The name is rare. It appears in second-century CE documents from the Judaean Desert where it designates a Jewish man.
(22) Kessler 2000: 77, identifying the two small figures as Isaac rather than as Isaac and Sarah. The Torah niche and the colorful paintings on the wall are not contemporaneous, the former apparently preceding the latter. On the dates see Kraeling 1956: 39. See also Sivan 1978.
(24) Modern interpreters of the Dura painting cycle have provided wide-ranging theories about its themes and their meanings. None, to my knowledge, draws attention to the simple fact that the lowest register depicts scenes replete with children.
(25) On Persian graffiti, expressing approval of the scene, Daryaee 2010. On Esther see Zlotnick (Sivan) 2002: 76–92; on the all-female collusion to save Moses, and on the widow who accosted Elijah in order to save her son, see Sivan 2004: passim. Dura’s Esther is thus far unique. The rabbis who dealt with the canonization of Scripture had long debated the inclusion of the scroll in the biblical canon (BT Meg. 7a; BT Sanhedrin 100a), ultimately deciding in favor of its inclusion. It is the sole piece of biblical literature absent from the Qumran library. In spite of rabbinic scruples the story of Esther and its celebration on Purim proved highly popular throughout the Jewish communities both in Palestine and the Diaspora, where public processions numbered adults and children; see Sivan 2008.
(26) Throughout the biblical scroll Esther is designated as naara, an age that rabbinic sources interpret as that between twelve years and one day and twelve years and six months; see Bamberger 1961: 281–94; Leeb 2000, who also interpreted the term as an orphan or a virtual orphan, unprotected and vulnerable.
(27) BT Sanhedrin 63b–64a.
(28) Elijah who, in his biblical incarnation, had nothing to do with Passover, came to occupy a place of honor in the festive ritual.
(30) We do not know whether rabbinic curricular ideals spread to communities like Dura. Hence Leviticus may or may not have been used as the primer for the children of that community.
(31) LevR (Leviticus Rabbah) 7.3: “let the pure ones come and occupy themselves with the pure ones.” This is the conclusion inserted into a brief discussion of the appropriate way to launch the Torah in the schools, whether via Genesis or via Leviticus (ibid.).
(34) A direct link between Dura and Hamam has yet to be established. It is not unlikely.
(35) Leibner and Miller 2010: 247 considered Noah’s ark (Genesis 6–8), the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1), the Tabernacle (Exodus 25–6), and Solomon Temple (1 Kings 5–6), opting for the last, not the least on the basis of some similarities with a construction scene featured in the Quedlinburg Itala manuscript. Yet the Temple, a popular theme on Jewish coins, art glass, and mosaics in antiquity, is never shown as a tower, not even as pars pro toto. Rather, its façade invariably resembles that of a Greek temple.
(36) Excluded by the excavators (Leibner and Miller 2010: 247). The closest parallels to this scene are found in the Ashburnham Pentateuch, an illuminated manuscript dating to the fifth–seventh centuries. Especially noteworthy is the representation of the “pyramids,” not as conventionally pointed monuments but as towers with four, six, or eight sides. See Narkiss 2007 for reproductions and iconography; Sivan 2011 for contextual analysis of the manuscript commission.
(37) These representations appear as far apart as the walls of the Durene synagogue and the arch of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
(38) As, reputedly, did Rabbi Akiva when he taught his young son, ARN A 6, with Hezser 2001: 141. Rabbinic recommendations regarding appropriate readings and translations further reflect such selective approach. Among biblical verses that the rabbis recommended to be read only but not to be translated were Genesis 35:22 (Reuven sleeping with his father’s concubine) and the quarrel of Moses and Aaron over the golden calf (Exodus 32:21–35). Among those that the rabbis altogether banned were David’s appropriation of Bath Sheba and the rape of Tamar, daughter of David, by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 11, 13, M Megilla 4:10).
(39) T Megilla 3:12 on synagogues in which only one person could read, a statement that prompts reflections on a rabbinic assertion regarding a decree that established schools throughout the land to enroll all Jewish boys of six (BT Baba Bathra 21a). See Hezser 2001: 40–7 for review of scholarship on the matter, concluding that the information is dubious and that the only reliable reference to primary education in the first to second centuries points to the home and the synagogue as learning venues; T Pesahim 10:8 on attending services in synagogues in other towns where locals could conduct the liturgy, with Bar Ilan (1992).
(41) BT Berachot. 17a. Note, however, that one of the main “trades” that mothers were to teach daughters only concerned public mourning: M Moed Qatan 3:9, based on Jeremiah 9:19.
(43) The questions of the attendance and participation of girls/women in synagogal ceremonies and of girls’ educations have yet to be treated in full. References in rabbinic sources point to an ongoing debate between those espousing a modicum of familiarity with Scripture to those favoring the teaching of Greek (Palestinian Talmud Peah 1.1). Most rabbis interpreted Deuteronomy 11:19 (on teaching the Law to children) as implying sons and not daughters (Palestinian Talmud Berachot 3.3). The basic list of female duties vis-à-vis husbands (Mishnah Ketubot 5.5) makes no reference to intellectual attainments or literacy requirements. Girls probably did attend synagogue services, especially when the Scroll of Esther was read on Purim. In general, see Horbury 1999. I address these questions in detail in my forthcoming book on Jewish childhood in antiquity.
(44) Nor were images solely used as props for school education of the young: in the complicated process of calendrical determinations, especially the day of the new moon, one rabbi had “images of white shapes [painted/engraved] on a tablet and on the wall in his attic to enable inarticulate witnesses to convey precisely the shape of the moon that they had observed” (M Moed 2:8). On the oft-quoted rabbinic dicta regarding art in the synagogue (PT Avoda Zara 3.3 [42d] and Targum Pseudo Jonathan to Leviticus 26:11), see Urbach 1959.
(45) Ilan and Damati 1987; Ilan 1987; Ilan 1995. The David figure is dated to the late fifth century. The synagogue complex underwent several stages of remodeling between the fourth and the seventh centuries CE.
(46) On the terminology of such inscriptions, see Safrai 1987, esp. 93–5 for a table summarizing the location, position of donor, and term used to designated donation as well as where the inscriptions were placed.
(48) The debate over whether study spaces were accommodated in synagogues or in separate buildings is likely to be as interminable as are the discussions relating to the dating of Galilean synagogues. See Urman 1987.
(51) The Aramaic inscription was inserted below one in Greek that mentions the artists who created the mosaic. On the Aramaic inscription, see Naveh 1978: 72–4, no. 43. On the Greek inscription, see Lifshitz 1967: 77.
(52) Cf. the Aramaic inscription from Kafr Kanna (Naveh no. 30) that likewise refers to a man, Yoseh son of Tanhum son of Butah, in terms of three male generations, and to his sons, who are not named, who all “made the mosaic.”
(53) Jericho, Naveh no. 69; cf. no 39 from Isfiya/Husifah, which mentions likewise the “small or young” and the “big or older” members of the village.
(55) Scholars have paid attention to the manner in which rabbinic writings project biblical references to seeing: Boyarin 1990; Wolfson 1994, 1996; Bregman 2003; Kessler 2003. None relate pictorial representations to pedagogy, nor do they trace the circumstances that led to the translation of stories from texts to images. I plan to discuss elsewhere the historical context in which to anchor the birth of pictorial paideia and how this birth marks the beginning of the so-called childhood and sanctions the beginning of education.