It is widely recognized that Jewish art in the pre-70 era, whatever its variety and levels of sophistication, was severely limited. By late antiquity, however, the nature and content of Jewish art had changed dramatically as Jews began to use figural representations of animals, humans, and even pagan mythological characters, biblical scenes, and a variety of religious symbols in their synagogues and cemeteries. The series of religious and cultural developments that occurred throughout the Empire, though primarily in the East, during the first three centuries CE, explains the reinvention of Jewish artistic expression in dramatically new ways in the third century. Rome, Palestine and the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire were influenced by a different cultural context. The chapter indicates the unique cultural context that contributed to the singularity of these sites, and then turns to the finds from the sites themselves.
This article considers the relationship of synagogue art from the third century C. E. onward to the rabbinic literature of the first millennium C. E. A number of central and prominent artistic remains in synagogues appear to reflect a significant distinction from how the sages would have related to such representations. Disparity between rabbinic texts and early Jewish art can be found in images connected with emperor worship and representations of the seven-branched Temple menorah, the story of the binding of Isaac, and human nudity. Many prominent depictions and symbols appearing in synagogues stand in stark contrast to rabbinic views and preferences. The Rabbis’ relationship to the synagogue reflected their overall recognition and acceptance of the institution, although not without a fair amount of ambivalence. They never assumed (nor were they accorded) leadership positions in the synagogue, and when they commented on what transpired therein they might have been heeded or simply ignored. The bet midrash, and not the synagogue, was the focus for rabbinic activity; rabbis were as peripheral to the synagogue as it was to them.