In the last five years, two mosaics depicting Samson’s biblical exploits have been discovered in Lower Eastern Galilee. Both mosaics were found in synagogues that date to the Late Roman/Byzantine period and are located in close proximity to Tiberias. Because of the rarity of Samson in ancient Jewish art and Samson’s lack of historical ties to the region, the significance of these mosaics requires explanation. This article explores this significance by considering the socio-religious context of the region in which the mosaics were discovered. Sources indicate that apocalyptic thought and messianic expectations flourished in Jewish Galilee throughout late antiquity, particularly in the vicinity of Tiberias. In addition, liturgical texts show that some Jews in this period viewed Samson as a biblical type of the future messiah—a redeemer of the past who foreshadowed Israel’s eschatological redemption. This confluence of evidence suggests that the Samson mosaics can be viewed as apocalyptic images reflecting messianic hopes that were popular in late antique Galilee.
Leibner and Miller“Figural Mosaic”238-64. Originally it was suggested that the giant might be Goliath but the context of the scene (the congregation’s celebration of the giant’s victory) and comparison with Christian artwork ultimately persuaded the excavators that it was a depiction of Samson’s victory against the Philistines. The discovery of a Samson mosaic at nearby Huqoq supports this identification. For Christian parallels to this scene in the Roman catacombs and Byzantine illuminated manuscripts see Antonio Ferrua Le Pitture della Nuova Catacomba di Via Latina (Roma: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana 1960) tav. CV; Sirarpie der Nersessian “The Illustrations of the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus: Paris Gr. 510. A Study of the Connections between Text and Images” DOP 16 : 195 197-228; Kurt Weitzmann and Massimo Bernabo The Byzantine Octateuchs (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999) 291-92 nos. 1514-1516.
Elhanan Reiner and David Amit“Samson Follows the Sun to Galilee,”Ha’aretz(October 6 2012) claim that local tradition viewed Samson’s exploits as occurring in Galilee but the evidence they have published so far is thin and unconvincing. Perhaps their future publications will more clearly articulate and strengthen this suggestion.
Himmelfarb“Sefer Zerubbabel”73-74; Reeves Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic 55-57. It is possible that this passage refers to a short-lived restoration of the temple cult in 614 when Persians briefly held Jerusalem and allowed Jews to return to the city (Reeves ibid. 57 n. 156). Avi-Yonah Jews of Palestine 266 suggests that the Josephite messiah was the actual leader who restored temple sacrifies but there is little evidence to support this conclusion.
Carl H. KraelingThe Excavations at Dura Europos VIII Part I: The Synagogue (New York: KTAV1979) 66-239 and E. R. Goodenough Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman World (New York: Pantheon Books 1953-68) 9:129 10:74-97 argue that these biblical scenes were meant to symbolize God’s future triumph over contemporary paganism. The most extensive discussion of the messianic hopes expressed in this artwork is Rachel Wischnitzer The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1948). For a more recent treatment of the interplay between iconography ritual and future hopes at Dura Europos see Kära L. Schenk “Temple Community and Sacred Narrative in the Dura-Europos Synagogue” AJSR 34.2 (November 2010): 195-229. For cautions in seeing messianism in Dura’s iconography see Paul V. M. Flesher “Rereading the Reredos: David Orpheus and Messianism in the Dura Europos Synagogue” in Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery (ed. Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher; Leiden: Brill 1995) 346-66.
Joseph HeinemannPrayer in the Talmud (Berlin: de Gruyter1977) 222-24 considers earlier scholarship that associates the ʿAmidah with messianic expectations and hopes for eschatological redemption; cf. M. Liber “Structure and History of the Tefilah” JQR 40.4 (April 1950): 331-57 and Leon J. Liebreich “The Intermediate Benedictions of the ‘Amidah’ ” JQR 42.4 (April 1952): 423-26.
Salo Wittmayer BaronA Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press1957) 5:150-52 describes this liturgical poetry a reflection of popular apocalyptic hopes and messianic folklore that was not well represented in Talmudic literature. Discussions of the priestly origins Tiberian setting and eschatological themes of piyyutim include: Wilken Land Called Holy 141-44; Joseph Yahalom “The Temple and the City in Liturgical Hebrew Poetry” in The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period 638-1099 (ed. Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai; New York: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi 1996) 270-94 esp. 275-76; Joseph Yahalom Poetry and Society in Jewish Galilee of Late Antiquity (Tel Aviv: Hikibbutz Hameuchad 1999) [Hebrew].
Fiensy and Darnell“Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers”671-72. Pieter W. van der Horst and Judith H. Newman Early Jewish Prayers in Greek (Berlin: de Gruyter 2008) 3-4 27-29 show that the Apos. Con. adopts and amends other liturgical texts as well including the Didache the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. In the case of the Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers the authors likely had access to some kind of Jewish prayer book from which these prayers were excised and adapted. David A. Fiensy Prayers Alleged to be Jewish: An Examination of the Constitutiones Apostolorum (Chico Calif.: Scholars Press 1985) 153 shows that at least seven of the benedictions in Apos. Con. 7.33-38 follow Jewish Sabbath prayers in content and order and share verbal parallels with extant Jewish prayer manuscripts.
Fiensy and Darnell“Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers”685-86; Hel. Syn. Pr. 7.2-5 (Apos. Con. 7.38.1-8). Liber “History of the Tefilah” 337-38 points out that the first three benedictions of the ʿAmidah similarly remember the pious deeds of the patriarchs as a way of promising redemption to their descendants. In other words the prayer was a “call for the coming of Messiah guaranteed by the merit of the patriarchs.”
Paul V. M. Flesher“The Literary Legacy of the Priests? The Pentateuchal Targums of Israel in their Social and Linguistic Context,” in The Ancient Synagogue from Its Origins until 200 C.E. (ed. Birger Olsson and Magnus Zetterholm; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell2003) 467-508; Beverly P. Mortensen The Priesthood in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Renewing the Profession (2 vols.; Leiden: Brill 2006).
Michael MaherTargum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press1992) 157; cf. Tg. Neof. Gen 49:1 cited in Martin McNamara Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis (Collegeville Minn.: The Liturgical Press 1992) 215-16. F.n. A provides a variant reading: “ he would reveal to them all that was destined to come at the final end (in the days) of the Messiah.”
Roger SyrenThe Blessings in the Targums: A Study on the Targumic Interpretations of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33 (Abo: Abo Akademi1986) 114; Matthew Black An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and the Book of Acts (Oxford: Clarendon 1967; repr. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson 1998) 308.
See Gass and Zissu“Selaʿ ʿEtam and Samson Traditions” 29-30; Magness “Samson in the Synagogue”39; James L. Crenshaw Samson: A Secret Betrayed A Vow Ignored (Atlanta: John Knox 1978) 138-41; F. Michael Krouse Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1949) 34-35.
For example see EphremHymns on Paradise13.12-13; cited in John R. Franke Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IV: Joshua Judges Ruth 1-2 Samuel (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity 2005) 167.
SyrenBlessings in the Targums153-54; T. Kronholm Motifs from Genesis 1-11 in the Genuine Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian with Particular Reference to Jewish Exegetical Tradition (Lund: Gleerup 1978) shows numerous connections between Ephrem’s hymns and Jewish targums.
HippolytusChrist and Antichrist6 25 54; Refutation of All Heresies 9.25; cf. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechesis 15.11. See Hill “Antichrist” 101 104-5. The claim that the antichrist would be a Jew from the tribe of Dan resembles an ancient Jewish tradition that the messiah’s mother would come from Dan and his father from Judah. In the case of Samson that genealogy was reversed; Jewish tradition claimed that Samson’s father was from Dan and his mother was from Judah (Num. Rab. 10:5).
Hill“Antichrist”105. David Biale “Counter-History and Jewish Polemics against Christianity: The Sefer toldot yeshu and the Sefer Zerubavel” Jewish Social Studies 6 (1999): 130-45 shows that just like Christians turned the Jewish messiah into the antichrist the Sefer Zerubbabel described Armilus (the Jewish antichrist figure) as a reflection of Jesus born of a prostitute and a statue (a play on the Mary story). The Sefer Zerubbabel also has the Jewish messiahs fulfill eschatological prophecies that Christians associated with Jesus.
Dan“Armilus”96; Emmerson Antichrist in the Middle Ages 79-81; Sivertsev Judaism and Imperial Ideology 53-55. The Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius also claims that the Danite antichrist was prophesied by Jacob in Gen 49:16-18. This antichrist is the serpent who bites (or deceives) the horse. The riders thrown backwards as a result represent the Christians deceived by his works. After seeing this Jacob longed for the redemption that would come through Christ.