In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Art, Ancient

  • Introduction
  • Critical Issues
  • General Overviews and Historiography
  • Journals and Encyclopedias
  • Synagogues in the Diaspora
  • Architectural Elements and Furnishings
  • Civic Monuments
  • Other Media of Interest

Art History Jewish Art, Ancient
Mati Meyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0116


The present article considers the visual material of the Jewish world from biblical times through the early Byzantine era in Palestine and the Diaspora that has been unearthed in archaeological excavations. It addresses art historical and visual cultural aspects of especially prominent monuments and artifacts. Historiographic interest in the subject can be traced back to the late 19th century, but it attracted real scholarly attention only at the turn of the 20th century, much later than the start of the art history field. The prevailing view of Jewish art at the time was essentially twofold: Jews were artless, and if art existed it was mostly aniconic. This perception changed with important disparate events and discoveries of Jewish monuments concomitantly with the firm establishment of the discipline: the discovery of synagogue remains in the Galilee; the Jewish catacombs in Rome (1918); Israelite palaces at Megiddo dating from the 8th and 9th centuries BCE (1920s–1930s); the synagogue mosaics at Na’aran (1919) and at Beth Alpha (1928), both in Palestine; the ancient synagogue and its murals in Dura-Europos in Syria (1923–1933); and the necropolis at Beth She’arim in Palestine (1936). These and many other archaeological sites and findings and the studies of Palestinian archaeologists such as Eleazar L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), served to discredit the aniconic approach attributed to Jews and the notion of a nonexistent Jewish art. Jewish artistic creation was expressed primarily in synagogal and funereal architecture and related visual media, and to a lesser extent in civic architecture and its decoration. Although it always maintained its distinct character, Jewish art absorbed the influences of the surrounding cultures, especially during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The periodization utilized for this article does not necessarily match that of the neighboring cultures: the “Israelite” or “Biblical” era, which ended with the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the First Temple (967–586 BCE), where the archaeological findings are very sparse except for magical bowls; the Second Temple period (536 BCE–63 CE) and the Hasmonean period (164 BCE–63 BCE), when the finds multiply, showing a distinct aniconism but no evidence of figural arts; the Roman period (63 BCE–324) when Jewish art reflects an interest in Roman visual aesthetics but not in its iconography; and the early Byzantine period (324–615), which attests to a return to figural presentation. Unless otherwise indicated, all dates refer to CE.

Critical Issues

Two major related issues have been subject to intensive scholarly discussion: the artlessness of Jews and the extent and impact of rabbinical authority on Late Antique Jewish art. These concerns touch upon a critical historiographic point regarding the dialectic of “Jewish art” and the Second Commandment, which forbids the making of an image (Exodus 20: 4–6). This scholarly view, which engendered the perception (often anti-Semitic or anti-rabbinic) of Jews in Antiquity as being essentially artless and what there was as aniconic, endured during 19th- and early-20th-century Western thought. However, the increasing number of findings eventually challenged the view that Jews avoided figural imagery, and ultimately modified it. Generally, there are two distinct approaches in attempting to respond to the wealth of artistic discoveries. The first explains the problem of the Second Commandment and Jewish art from a halakhic perspective, arguing that when figural, the art reflected the bending of the Jewish law under the impact of the surrounding cultures. Several scholars (see Avi-Yonah 1981; Goodenough 1964; Gutmann 1977; Sukenik 1934, cited under Synagogues in Palestine; Urbach 1959; and Neusner 1998) called this assumption into question, and it has recently been dismissed altogether. The other approach argues for a historical-cultural reading, maintaining that the vibrant and dynamic Jewish art is the result of the exchanges between Jews and the surrounding cultures (Bland 2001; Fine 2010; Pearce 2013; Rutgers 2000, cited under General Overviews and Historiography; and Stern 1997).

  • Avi-Yonah, Michael. Art in Ancient Palestine: Selected Studies. Edited by Hannah Katzenstein and Yoram Tsafrir. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1981.

    Sides with the view that visual creations were in conflict with rabbinic prohibitions.

  • Bland, Kalmann P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Addresses the question of Jewish attitudes toward the visual from the perspective of intellectual history, examining the argument that Jews were “artless” in 19th- and 20th-century Western thought.

  • Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Deals with the question of Jewish attitudes toward the visual in Antiquity and contradicts the 19th-century notion that Jewish culture was aniconic and nonvisual. Drawing on both textual and visual material, he maintains that Jews played an active role in the visual culture of the Greco-Roman world. Originally published in 2005, and republished in 2006, 2007, 2009.

  • Goodenough, Erwin R. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Vol. 9: Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue. Bollingen Series 37. New York: Pantheon, 1964.

    Goodenough underscored the opinion, nowadays discredited, that a Jewish mystic movement that diverged from the normative rabbinic authority was responsible for the creation of Jewish art in Antiquity.

  • Gutmann, Joseph, ed. The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Missoula, MO: Scholars, 1977.

    Considers the attitude of Jews toward the creation of visual images. Maintains that traditionally the Second Commandment forbidding the making of graven images was invoked.

  • Neusner, Jacob. “The Iconography of Judaisms in Honour of Jan Bergman.” In Approaches to Ancient Judaism. Edited by Jacob Neusner, 139–156. New Series 13. Atlanta: Scholars, 1998.

    Studies the symbolic agendas of synagogal art and rabbinic literature, and maintains that the iconography of the synagogue does not reflect a rabbinic impact.

  • Pearce, Sarah, ed. The Image and Its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity. Journal of Jewish Studies, Supplement Series 2. Oxford: Journal of Jewish Studies, 2013.

    The latest contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the topic from the Iron Age through Late Antiquity, focusing on problems of visuality and materiality.

  • Stern, Sacha. “Figurative Art and Halakha in the Mishnaic-Talmudic Period.” Zion 61 (1997): 397–419.

    Counters the opinion in Urbach 1959 regarding the 3rd-century lenient rabbinic attitude toward pagan imagery and contends that it was the result of indifference. Adducing halakhic sources, he proposes to understand the stricter rabbinic concern about imagery during the period within the context of anti-iconic trends among other monotheistic religions in the Near East. Available online by subscription. In Hebrew.

  • Urbach, Ephraim E. “The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts.” Israel Exploration Journal 9.4 (1959): 149–165.

    An essay by the most influential opponent of the Goodenough 1964 overall thesis and the rabbino-centric view of ancient Judaism. His basic argument is that from the 3rd century on, the rabbis adopted a relatively tolerant attitude toward figural imagery as long as it was not used for idolatrous purposes. Also available online by subscription; article continues on pp. 229–245.

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