As is well-known, the Jews of Palestine largely refrained from using figural art from around the 2nd century BCE (or a bit earlier) to the third or fourth century CE, including the creation of statues. There were, of course, exceptions to this general phenomenon – some figures show up in grave graffiti and on some municipal coins from cities like Sepphoris, that had a strong Jewish population – but when seen against the archaeological record of the Greek and Roman worlds the absence is striking. Equally striking is the virtual explosion of such art beginning in the third and fourth centuries CE. While we still lack identifiably “Jewish” statues, representations of figures begin appearing routinely on synagogue floors, among other places. What happened?
The predominant scholarly explanation for the absence of such art in the earlier period is that Jews interpreted “the second commandment” strictly. This, more or less, follows the explanation of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Yet in a recent essay, Jason Ehrenkrook suggested that Josephus may have had ulterior motives for offering this explanation: it makes it easier to convince his Roman patrons that the Jews refused to erect statues of the Roman emperors due to religious rather than political scruples.
At the other end, scholars have suggested that the explosion of such art in the third century is due to a combination of (1) influence from non-Jewish art and (2) a deliberate reinterpretation of the second commandment or reinterpretation of the art so that it is not covered by this commandment. There are unquestionable parallels between Jewish and Christian (and Roman) art at this time, but that does not really explain why it began when it did. There is also some rabbinic evidence for (2), but it is rather thin and in any case probably was not of much concern to the actual patrons of this artwork.
The question of why Jews avoided figural art for centuries and then took it up with a passion has, undoubtedly, a complex answer. What I would like simply to suggest here, though, is an angle that I am not sure has been sufficiently appreciated.
In an earlier post, I suggested that Jewish knowledge of the Bible through the first century CE may have been far less comprehensive than we sometimes think. It expands, certainly in the Galilee, beginning in the second century CE. This might, I think, help us to understand the changing art.
In antiquity, almost all art was based on myths. If the art – whether from the ancient Near East or the Greek or Roman worlds – did not actually representat such myths, it modeled contemporary scenes on them (e.g., an athlete or monarch portrayed as a mythic hero).
The Jews, though, had no divine or semi-divine figures to represent and, just as importantly, most did not really have easy access to or know the myths that could be represented. Later, as knowledge of the Bible spread, so did the art, which was almost entirely modeled on biblical stories such as the sacrifice of Isaac and the Exodus from Egypt. The increased knowledge of the Bible not only increased access to these myths, but also helped to authorize them for use. It was less the second commandment per se that stopped Jews from figural representation before then than an inability to frame a Jewish myth that would be appropriate for artistic representation. The same, incidentally, applies to Christian art, which also begins to develop around the third century as their sacred texts begin to circulate more widely.
Just an idea.