ArchaeologyLight vs darkness a big part of Jewish worldview at the time

In 2,000-year-old Apollo seal, a sunny glimpse of pluralism in ancient Jerusalem

Sun god, a symbol of health and prosperity, was the only member of the pagan pantheon used by Jews during the Second Temple period, says City of David archaeologist Eli Shukron

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

2,000-year-old seal with the image of Apollo discovered in the City of David near Jerusalem's Western Wall. (Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)
2,000-year-old seal with the image of Apollo discovered in the City of David near Jerusalem's Western Wall. (Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)

Discovery of a rare 2,000-year-old signet ring engraved with the Greek sun god Apollo gives new evidence of a pluralistic Jewry walking the streets of ancient Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, archaeologist Eli Shukron told The Times of Israel.

“It allows us to see a Jerusalem that wasn’t some kind of ultra-Orthodox city, it was more pluralistic,” Shukron said, who is convinced the ring would have adorned a Jew’s finger. The fact that a Jew chose the symbol of a Greek god, “shows the wide variety of practices in Jerusalem. Everyone was a Jew, but there were different groups and perspectives,” he said.

The dark brown jasper gem sealing (intaglio) was recently discovered at the Archaeological Sifting Project at Tzurim Valley National Park during the wet sifting of earth taken from ongoing City of David excavations of the foundations of the Western Wall.

Shukron said there is absolutely no doubt that it is Apollo who is engraved on the tiny, oval-shaped, 13 millimeter-long, 11 millimeter-wide, and 3 millimeter-thick sealing. It would usually have been used as a signature stamp on beeswax to seal contracts, letters, wills, and goods or bundles of money, according to a City of David press release.

The profile of Apollo has long flowing hair spilling over his sturdy neck. He has a large nose, thick lips, and small prominent chin, according to the press release. The styled hair is braided above his forehead, with long curls reaching the shoulder.

All of this adds up to the god Apollo in the eyes of a trained archaeologist. “You cannot miss it,” Shukron said.

Illustrative: Eli Shukron, an archeologist formerly with Israel’s Antiquities Authority, walks in the City of David archaeological site near Jerusalem’s Old City on May 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The question then arises, what is a nice Jewish neighborhood such as 1st century CE Jerusalem doing with a pagan Greek god?

2,000-year-old seal with the image of Apollo discovered in the City of David near Jerusalem’s Western Wall. (Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)

According to Shukron, there are already a handful of archaeological artifacts dated to the Second Temple period in which Apollo plays a starring role: Two other Apollo gem sealings were discovered at Masada and another two were found in Jerusalem, one also from the Western Wall drainage tunnels excavations and one in a tomb on Mount Scopus.

Shukron noted that whereas during the Roman period, other members of the Greek and Roman pantheon make appearances, for the centuries surrounding the turn of the Common Era, only Apollo has been found. The god symbolized light, health and general well-being and success — something everyone generally aspires to, he said, which is why the symbol was considered “kosher” for these Second Temple Jews.

“It’s important to see that Jerusalem is more than conservatism, there are people like this who [as evidenced by his adoption of a pagan symbol as his signature] would have had more freedom in their thinking,” said Shukron. What is also clear, through his very public use of the symbol, is that there would have been a group of Jews who accepted this usage as well.

Expert of engraved gems Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark made an assessment of the sealing and noted that “at the end of the Second Temple period, the sun god Apollo was one of the most popular and revered deities in Eastern Mediterranean regions. Apollo was a god of manifold functions, meanings, and epithets. Among Apollo’s spheres of responsibility, it is likely that association with sun and light (as well as with logic, reason, prophecy, and healing) fascinated some Jews, given that the element of light versus darkness was prominently present in Jewish worldview in those days,” he said.

The 2,000-year-old seal with the image of Apollo from earth taken from the City of David was found in the Emek Tzurim sifting project. (Yael Heitan/City of David)

Amorai-Stark said that this polarization of light versus dark is seen in that the craftsman’s choice of a dark stone layered with yellow-golden and light brown. “The choice of a dark stone with yellow coloring of hair suggests that the creator or owner of this intaglio sought to emphasize the dichotomous aspect of light and darkness and/or their connectedness,” he wrote.

Whether the craftsman was going for a cup half empty or half full view of the world in his workmanship on the sealing, for Shukron the fact of its existence and use during the Second Temple period is an anchor between Jews of two millennia ago and today.

“Like in today’s Jerusalem, everyone looks at things in a different way,” said Shukron.

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