The Huqoq elephant mosaic explained

The Huqoq ‘Alexander Mosaic’, which actually portrays bar Kamza (King Manu VI of Edessa) giving a calf offering from Nero to the Jerusalem rabbis.
The Huqoq ‘Alexander Mosaic’, which actually portrays bar Kamza (King Manu VI of Edessa) giving a calf offering from Nero to the Jerusalem rabbis.

In 2016 the world of biblical archaeology was treated to a spectacular mosaic find from the ancient Huqoq synagogue, an archaeological site just north of Tiberias. The image-exclusive was published by National Geographic, and it depicted a complex scene with a king and his army meeting with a group of people in white robes. And considering most of the Huqoq mosaics depicted scenes from the Tanakh, one might presume that the white robed characters represented the Jerusalem rabbis.

However, while most of the other mosaics were easily explainable in biblical terms, this mosaic remained a bit of a mystery. Who was this king, who met with the high priest of Jerusalem? The king is dressed in Roman-style armour and wears a diadema headband, denoting his royal status; and he is accompanied by soldiers, war elephants, and a calf. And the bottom register of this mosaic shows that the army of this king had been defeated. So who could this defeated king be? Prof Jodi Magness, the chief archaeologist at Huqoq, initially suggested it was Antiochus IV, who fought a battle with rebel Jewish forces in 167 BC, as detailed in the Book of Maccabees. And the forces of Antiochus were indeed defeated. But for the 2016 National Geographic article, Prof Magness amended this identification to Alexander the Great, who did indeed meet with the Jerusalem priesthood on his way to Egypt, in 332 BC. But this was an odd identification, as Alexander the Great was never defeated by rebel Jews, as this mosaic strongly implies.

In addition, it is abundantly clear that both of these identifications are incorrect, because the king on the right wears a beard, leggings, and a Jewish payot or side-lock of hair. Look at the mosaic again, and note that the king is quite clearly wearing a payot. In great contrast, Alexander and Antiochus were always depicted as clean shaven, bare legged, and most certainly would not have worn a payot. (Wearing leggings was a Parthian or Edessan custom, while Greeks and Romans were traditionally bare legged.)

Having excluded Alexander and Antiochus from this investigation, who can this monarch be? Could it be a fictional story? While this is possible, the other biblio-historical mosaics in this ancient synagogue would suggest not. The many mosaics at Huqoq seem to be instructional illustrations for the congregation, rather like the ‘stations of the cross’ illustrations depicted in many Christian churches. So what kind of biblical or historical lesson could a Jewish congregation learn, from the elephant mosaic?

The answer is to be found in the Talmud, where a character called bar Kamza gives a blemished calf from Emperor Nero to the Jerusalem priesthood, hoping it would be rejected in order to provoke the Jewish Revolt (see the quotation below). Is this not the scene we see here? Here is a monarch, and bar Kamza will be shown later to be a monarch, offering a calf to what appears to be the Jerusalem high priest. It has been claimed that this animal is a bull, but it is clearly a happy little calf – the sacrificial calf that bar Kamza gave to the Jerusalem priesthood. The goal of this calf offering was politically duplicitous. Both Johannan ben Zakkai and bar Kamza were deliberately creating tensions with Rome, by asking Nero to give a Gentile calf-offering to the Jerusalem priesthood, which they knew would be refused and therefore cause offence to Rome. Thus they hoped to spark a tax-revolt against Rome, which was eventually inflamed into the great Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70. And so we can accurately date the events in this mosaic to about AD 65 or 66.

But the stories in the Talmud can be deliberately confusing at times, so the question then becomes: who were these Talmudic characters? Johannan we know, as he was the rabbi who led the tattered remnants of Judaism after the Revolt failed. He became the de facto high priest of Judaea in the early AD 70s, and made many contributions to the Talmud. But who was the more enigmatic bar Kamza, the son of Kamza? In the Talmud, bar Kamza is blamed for starting the Jewish Revolt. Yet in Josephus Flavius’ Jewish War, it was King (Izates) Monobazus and Kenadaeus of Adiabene who started the Jewish Revolt, when they defeated the Roman legion commanded by the Syrian governor, Cestius. However, Syriac history indicates that the enigmatic and ahistorical Adiabene monarchy were actually the kings of Edessa, because they were both ruled by the same queen. This pivotal queen was the famous and wealthy Queen Helena, who saved Jerusalem from famine in AD 47. And Queen Helena was also highly influential in Judaea, owning the largest tomb in Jerusalem; donating the solid gold menorah to the Temple; while her large palace is currently under excavation at the foot of the Temple Mount.

Edessa in northern Syria, modern Sanlurfa in Turkey, looking towards the 1st century citadel.

Furthermore, the Talmud indicates that this same Queen Helena of Edessa became a Nazarite Jew in the AD 40s, and so one of her sons might indeed have worn the long hair and Jewish payot of a Nazirite – who grew their hair long like Samson. Ergo, since the date of the events in this mosaic is AD 66, and this monarch started the Jewish Revolt, I think we can safely assume that bar Kamza was actually the son of Queen Helena – who was King Izates Manu VI of Edessa, a city and principality that resides in northern Syria (now Sanliurfa in modern Anatolia). Prince Manu VI and his mother, Helena, had taken up residency in Jerusalem in the AD 40s and 50s; while his father, King Abgarus V, remained in Edessa. (According to the Doctrine of Addai and Persian Wars, King Abgarus had travel restrictions placed upon him by the Romans, and was not allowed to travel outside of Edessa and Harran).

A later King Abgarus, wearing the traditional robes and crown of the Edessan monarchy.

This is an important detail, because the leader of the Jewish Revolt has never been previously identified, but now we know that he was the king of Edessa in AD 66 – King Izates Manu VI. This is why Josephus Flavius stated that the Jews hoped that: ‘all of their nation who lived beyond the Euphrates would join in the Revolt’ against Rome. But what did Josephus mean by this? It has often been assumed that he was referring to the many Jews who lived in Babylon, in lraq, and had done so since the Babylonian exile some 600 years previously. But Moses of Chorene strongly suggests that King Manu was looking for support from his native home city of Edessa, which did indeed reside ‘beyond the Euphrates’. The reason this important detail has gone unrecognised previously, is that Josephus Flavius was told by Emperor Vespasian to delete the Edessan monarchy from history. And he did – which is why none of the kings of Edessa, nor the city itself, appear in the works of Josephus. Were it not for the Syriac historians, we would have little or no knowledge of this powerful and influential Jewish-Nazarite monarchy that lay just across the Euphrates. But at last we can declare that the Jewish Revolt was precipitated and prosecuted by the king and the princes of Edessa.

This is why the king in the Huqoq mosaic wears: Roman armour, a royal diadema headband, long ginger hair, a trimmed beard, a straight nose, a purple cloak, leggings, and the Jewish payot – because this was standard Edessan royal attire. So the two characters depicted in this mosaic are actually King Manu VI of Edessa and Rabbi Zechariah Abkulas (or perhaps High Priest Phannius). And it depicts a famous scene from the Talmud, where bar Kamza (King Manu VI) gives a blemished calf from Emperor Nero to the Jerusalem priesthood, hoping it would be rejected in order to provoke the Jewish Revolt.

But this explanation also gives us a hidden Jewish history, a possibility that has never been explored previously. The king in this mosaic wears a purple cloak, which was the sole prerogative of the emperor of Rome, and this strongly suggests that King Manu wanted to become the next emperor. And this suggestion is not as unlikely as it may at first seem. After the Pisonian plot to murder Nero in AD 65, this openly despised emperor was a dead man walking and everyone knew it. And without an obvious dynastic successor to Nero, the Throne of Rome would soon be open anyone with a large treasury and a loyal army. Thus there was much jostling for position, that ended up with the suicide of Nero in AD 68 and the tumultuous Year of Four Emperors.

But if the truth were known, there was a fifth contestant for the Throne of Rome – King Izas Manu VI of Edessa, who controlled much of Syria following the defeat of Cestius; and was about to consolidate the whole of the Levant, including Judaea, under his control. However, Rome had sent commander Vespasian to the Levant, and so King Manu got ensnared in a three-way dispute with Jewish forces loyal to Rome and the Roman legions under Vespasian. So while the Jewish Revolt is normally regarded as a simplistic taxation revolt against Rome, it is highly likely to have been a bold bid by the Edessan monarchy for the Throne of Rome.

The two contestants for the Throne were commander Vespasian and King Manu VI, and after the dust had settled in Judaea, it was Vespasian who sailed to Rome as the next emperor. But had King Manu of Edessa won this Revolt, the next emperor of Rome would have been a Nazarite Jew. And while many historians may dismiss this possibility as improbable, much the same did indeed happen a century and a half later, when Elagabalus became Emperor of Rome. Elagabalus was also from Syria and he venerated the elagabal-omphalos stone, just as the kings of Edessa had done. The elagabal stone was reputed to have been Jacob’s massebah-stone,7 which is sometimes translated as a pillar or pillow in the English. It is also called a bethel or House of God, which is what the Edessan monarchy claimed to possess, but the bethel ‘stone’ was actually an Ark of the Covenant style box that contained the sacred elagabal stone. This stone eventually went to Rome with Elagabalus, but went missing after the emperor’s sudden but not too unexpected demise.

Coin of King Wael of Edessa, showing the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ in a temple at Edessa. Coin of Emperor Elagabalus showing the sacred elagabal-omphalos stone in a chariot.

Following the failure of the Jewish Revolt and the elevation of Vespasian to the Throne of Rome, this entire history was deemed to be politically ‘inconvenient’. Vespasian did not want other minor princelings in the Empire deciding to revolt against Rome, and so all references to Edessa and to kings Abgarus and Manu were erased from history, which is why Josephus Flavius never openly mentions them. Likewise the Talmud only mentions them in code, which is why the name bar Kamza (meaning locust) has been used. The only other cryptic reference to the Edessan monarchy is in Acts of the Apostles, where a ‘prophet’ called Agabus gives famine relief to Jerusalem in AD 47 (Acts 11:28) – the very same famine relief that Queen Helena of Edessa sent. Ergo, this biblical Agabus (meaning locust) is actually King Abgarus of Edessa, who was married to Queen Helena.

In short, the depiction on this mosaic is a lot more complex than the archaeologists at Huqoq have suggested. Here is a very early depiction of King Izates Manu VI of Edessa, the Nazarite Jew who wanted to take over Judaeo-Israel as a stepping-stone to taking over the entire Roman Empire. But he lost this battle to Vespasian, was crucified, was reprieved (by Josephus Flavius himself),9 and then sent into exile. And this traumatic event resulted in the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Jewish Diaspora all over the Roman Empire.

So it is not surprising that this ‘Bar Kamza’ mosaic was portrayed in the Huqoq synagogue, alongside all the other momentous events from Judaic history, because the event it portrays is absolutely pivotal within Jewish history. This was the very religio-political spark that ignited the Jewish Revolt – that resulted in the destruction of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jewish Diaspora across the Roman Empire. And so the outcome of the event portrayed in this mosaic was not resolved until 1947, with the establishment of modern Israel. In other words this mosaic portrays a Grand Central Station of Jewish history, and yet nobody appears to realise I.T!

Extract from the Talmud…

The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way …. (Johannan) went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. (Nero) said, How can I tell? He said to him: ‘Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].’ So (Johannan) sent (bar Kamza) with a fine calf (as an offering). While on the way (bar Kamza) made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. But Rabbi Zechariah Abkulas said to them: ‘People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.’ They then proposed to kill bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah said to them: ‘Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?’ Rabbi Johannan thereupon remarked: ‘Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land’. (Gittin 55 – 57)

The sad tale of a scrupulous priest!

About the Author
Ralph Ellis is an English surveyor and computer analyst who has studied and written about Roman and Judaeo-Christian religious history for 40 years. Professor Robert Eisenman agrees with his analysis of the Huqoq ‘elephant mosaic’ portraying the Talmudic story of bar Kamza (but not necessarily the rest of this analysis).
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