Beth Alpha is a sixth century synagogue located at the foot of the northern slopes of the Gilboa mountains near Beit She’an, Israel. It is now part of a national archaeological park managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
The Beth Alpha synagogue was uncovered in 1928 by members of the nearby Kibbutz Hefzibah, who stumbled upon the synagogue’s extensive mosaic floors during irrigation construction.
Architectural remains from the Beth Alpha synagogue indicate that the synagogue once stood as two-story basilical building and contained a courtyard, vestibule, and prayer hall. The first floor of the prayer hall consisted of a central nave measuring 5.4 meters wide, the apse, which served as the resting place for the Torah Shrine, the bema, the raised platform upon which the Torah would have been read, and benches.The Torah Shrine within the apse was aligned southwest, in the direction of Jerusalem.
The central panel features a Jewish adaptation of the Greco-Roman zodiac. The zodiac consists of two concentric circles, with the twelve zodiac signs appearing in the outer circle, and Helios, the Greco-Roman sun god, appearing in the inner circle. The outer circle consists of twelve panels, each of which correspond to one of the twelve months of the year and contain the appropriate Greco-Roman zodiac sign. Female busts symbolizing the four seasons appear in the four corners immediately outside the zodiac. In the center, Helios appears with his signature Greco-Roman iconographic elements such as the fiery crown of rays adorning his head and the highly stylized quadriga or four-horse drawn chariot. The background is decorated with a crescent shaped moon and stars. As in the “Binding of Isaac” panel, the zodiac symbols and seasonal busts are labeled with their corresponding Hebrew names.
This zodiac wheel, along with other similar examples found in contemporaneous synagogues throughout Israel such as Naaran, Susiya, Hamat Tiberias, Huseifa, and Sepphoris, rest at the center of a scholarly debate regarding the relationship between Judaism and general Greco-Roman culture in late-antiquity. Some interpret the popularity that the zodiac maintains within synagogue floors as evidence for its Judaization and adaptation into the Jewish calendar and liturgy.Others see it as representing the existence of a “non-Rabbinic” or a mystical and Hellenized form of Judaism that embraced the astral religion of Greco-Roman culture.