The ruins of the Bet Alpha Synagogue, uncovered just after World War I, contain a charmingly naive 6th-century-A.D. mosaic floor that was probably the pride of a small farming community and is now one of Israel's great artistic treasures. Beit Alpha was one of the first ancient mosaic synagogue floors discovered in the Holy Land in modern times. Other synagogue floors found after Beit Alpha's may be more sophisticated in their execution, but none is so filled with feeling and so packed with information for scholars to study. It revolutionized ideas about ancient Jewish attitudes toward representational art, which many previously believed had been nonexistent. Through examination of this and other mosaic floors, we have new clues about how Jews of this era lived and what they may have believed. The floor is divided into three panels: a depiction of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac; a representation of the sun pulled by a star chariot surrounded by the constellations and signs of the zodiac; and a tableau representing The Temple of Jerusalem and religious objects associated with the Jewish religion. This representation of The Temple and its ritual objects would have been made 5 centuries after the destruction of the actual building in Jerusalem. We now know that the combination of a depiction of a scene from the Bible, a zodiac, and a representation of The Temple seem to have adorned other synagogue floors throughout Israel in Byzantine times.

Among the many mysteries of the Beit Alpha floor is the fact that the signs of the zodiac move counterclockwise and do not correspond to the surrounding representations of the four seasons. According to one theory, this indicates that the mosaicists and the Bet Alpha community did not understand the astronomical and astrological relationships of the zodiac, and merely used the design for decorative purposes. Another theory holds that the artisans deliberately rearranged the zodiac to negate its pagan implications. Other scholars theorize that Cancer, the sign of Judaism, was deliberately placed at the top of the wheel, ascendant to Leo, the sign of Rome in order to depict an astrological belief in the eventual victory of Judaism over its oppressor. Some scholars believe that the zodiac motif discovered here (as well as at synagogues uncovered at Na'aran, near Jericho, Hammat Tiberias, and Zippori) was used to symbolize the orderly rhythms of God's universe, or perhaps even the concept of God. It has also been suggested that the geometric mosaic designs to the side of the main floor were boards for games similar to backgammon and chess, and that this may indicate the synagogue was a Jewish community center in every sense of the word. Childlike though the representation of the sacrifice of Isaac may be, look at the terror in the eyes and face of Isaac and the artistic power of the flames. A Greek inscription commemorates Marianos and his son Hanina, two (probably) Jewish artisans who created the floor. It is interesting to note that an inscription on the mosaic floor of the Samaritan synagogue found in Bet Shean attributes part of that floor, so similar in style, to the same father-and-son team, indicating friendly contact between the two monotheistic sects that had formerly been bitter rivals at the time of Jesus. One also wonders if other floors by Marianos and Hanina lie waiting to be discovered elsewhere in the area. When you're there, check out the new explanatory video presentation for the site.