(See photos: "Ancient Church Found at Israeli Prison" [November 2005].)
Coins minted in Zippori that date to the time of Antoninus Pius, who ruled Rome from A.D. 138 to 161, depict a temple to the Roman god Jupiter and goddess Fortuna.
Various pagan populations throughout the Galilee region and beyond were known to have adopted Roman gods or integrated aspects of Roman religion into their practices.
"Roman religion of the time was complex and variegated and involved civic religions, mystery religions, personal religions. Romans could function in different religious contexts," said Ed Wright, director of the University of Arizona's Center for Judaic Studies.
Experts don't know exactly when the newly discovered structure ceased to function as a pagan temple.
But the large church built above its foundations indicates that the site maintained its sacred, religious character throughout the various periods of Zippori's history.
The temple "is a testament to the cosmopolitan nature of what was going on at that site," Wright added.
Beth Nakhai, also at the Arizona center, noted that significant tension existed between Jews and pagans in the period leading up to the second century A.D.
During the second and first centuries the Jewish Hasmoneans attempted forced conversions of pagans to Judaism.
"The problems between Romans and Jews culminated in the destruction of the Galilee [region] and of the first Jewish temple, and pagans often were at the vanguard and worked with the Romans," she said.
Under Roman command, pagan mercenary soldiers often led violent attacks on Jews.
"However, by the end of the second century the Jews understood they needed to live together with the Romans and pagans," said Weiss, the excavation leader.
(Explore a time line of early Christianity.)
In fact, the pagan population between the second and fourth centuries had a certain amount of influence on Jewish culture.
A fifth-century synagogue uncovered earlier in Zippori, for example, was found to include a mosaic with an image of Helios, the Greek sun god.
"Interpretation of the textual evidence," Weiss added, "indicated good ties between the Jews and the pagans."
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