Ancient Pagan Temple Found in Israel

Mati Milstein in Zippori National Park, Israel
for National Geographic News
August 15, 2008
Ruins of a pagan temple from the second century A.D. have been unearthed in the heart of a Jewish capital that existed during Israel's Roman period.

In its heyday, the temple sat within a walled courtyard abutting the most centrally-located homes in the ancient city of Zippori, about halfway between Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists discovered the temple's foundations under the ruins of a Christian church that had been built on the site during the Byzantine period, which spanned the fifth and sixth centuries.

Although pagan artifacts have been found in Zippori before, the temple represents the first significant structural evidence of a pagan settlement in the capital.

"We have textual accounts from the second century indicating the presence of a pagan population in Zippori," said Zeev Weiss, lead archaeologist of the Noam Shudofsky Zippori Expedition at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Based on the new find, "it is clear [the pagans] had the influence and the ability to erect this temple in the center of the city."

Zippori was a thriving multicultural center where tens of thousands of pagans, Jews, and Christians lived and worshipped, the researchers say.

(Related: "Catacomb Find Boosts Early Christian-Jewish Ties, Study Says" [July 20, 2005].)

Temple of the Gods

The newfound temple measures about 40-by-78 feet (12-by-24 meters). It was built just south of the decumanus, a colonnaded street running east to west that served as the main thoroughfare in most Roman cities.

The temple originally had a decorated façade, but its walls were plundered in ancient times and only the foundations have survived.

No archaeological evidence was found to indicate the nature of pagan rituals carried out in the temple. The structure was not built like a Jewish synagogue, and formal Christian churches did not exist until at least the third century A.D.

(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.

Religious Tension

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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