New Testament Significance: Cultural Context
The significance of the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” mosaic to New Testament study also lies in the insight it gives us into the Greco-Roman culture of Galilee in antiquity. Jesus’ ministry started in Galilee (Mark 1:14; Luke 4:14; John 1:43, 2:1), and in the Synoptics at least, this is where he spent most of his time before going to Jerusalem for Passover. Sepphoris is not mentioned as a place where Jesus visited, but there are numerous places around Galilee which Jesus does conduct his ministry in, including Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 2:1), Nazareth (6:1), Genessaret (6:53), and Cana (John 2:1). The Mona Lisa mosaic, although it is from a slightly later era, can still provide useful clues for the social context in which Jesus preached his message.
What makes this mosaic so striking is not necessarily that it is unique in the Greco-Roman world, but that it was found in Galilee, a place which in the first century does not seem to have had any such images portraying human figures (Chancey 196). This is likely rooted in the prohibition of graven images which the Jews living in the region honored as part of the law (Ex. 20:4-6, Deut. 4:15-18). The existence of a few mosaics without human representations in public and private buildings shows that local residents were willing to incorporate some Greco-Roman practices into their lives, but not to violate what they saw as a fundamental commandment forbidding idolatry.
But the mosaics found at this third-century residence shows that things had changed in the city by the time this mosaic was put together. This portrayal of a human image shows us at the very least that the city of Sepphoris had become more assimilated to the practices of the wider Roman world, regardless of whether the owner of this specific residence was a Jew or Gentile. In the account of Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptics, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee where he preached to the Jews, but also went to Gentile territories where he preached to the Gentiles (Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30). Although this is where Jesus began his official ministry to the Gentiles, the presence of extensive Greek influence in Sepphoris suggests that the Galillee of Jesus’ day wasn’t just an isolated Jewish enclave in the Roman Empire, but was in fact deeply connected with other Gentile regions of the Empire.
Of course, there are a number of unanswered questions which limit the conclusions we are able to reach on the extent of this incorporation. Are these Sepphoris mosaics indicative of the culture of the rest of Galilee, or was it only an urban phenomenon? And depending on who owned the house, it might be more of a window into the lives of certain city elites than into the culture of the majority of the population in the region. Nonetheless, the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” does present us with some intiguing possibilities regarding the extent of Greco-Roman cultural influences on the area of Jesus’ ministry.
Chancey, Mark. Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2005.