Sunlight creeps above the horizon east of Galilee when undergrad Bryan Bozung scrapes his hoe across a hard surface. He brushes dirt away, revealing something smooth and black.

He stands up and hollers for lead archaeologist Jodi Magness. She comes running, looks into the open pit, and crawls in. With paint brushes, they carefully sweep the dirt aside to reveal black tesserae—or mosaic cubes. They brush more dirt aside. White cubes. Tan. Brown. Then they stop.

“Whoa,” Magness mumbles under her breath. A beautiful female face stares back at them. Within minutes, the entire dig crew—some 40 people—is straining to get a look.

It’s a mosaic floor in an ancient synagogue. The female face is just one discovery. Days later they uncover the face of Samson, the supernaturally strong biblical figure. Magness, a professor of religious studies at UNC, instantly knows this is a big find. Other archaeologists have unearthed many synagogues with mosaic floors, but only one had an iconic scene of Samson, and that mosaic is not well preserved.

An archaeologist could go her whole career without finding something so significant. “In fact,” Magness says, “most do go without.”

Magness, a passionate researcher, mentor, and teacher, could talk all day about the mosaics and the intricate process of finding and preserving them. But they aren’t why she spends her summers digging in the hot Galilean sun. To her, the mosaics are an ancillary benefit of the dig, beautiful ancient art that’s earned her a lot of attention and given her students a worthy topic for senior theses and dissertations. Magness, though, is just as excited by the common coinage and pottery found below the synagogue floor and inside the building’s foundations. That material helps answer her main question: how old is this synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq? Her discovery, it turns out, could change the way historians view how Jews lived under early-Christian rule.

Magness, who came to Carolina in 2002, has been debating fellow archeologists for years on the age of ancient synagogues. She says some of the buildings date to the fifth or sixth centuries. Some colleagues say the buildings date to the second or third centuries. To your average Joe, the discrepancy means little. To archaeologists, historians, and people interested in how Jewish and early Christian cultures interacted, the date of construction matters a lot.

Here’s the deal: in the second and third centuries, Roman rulers were pagans. In the fifth and sixth centuries—the late Roman era—the rulers were Christians. Some archaeologists believe that pagan Roman rulers would have permitted Jews to build large, conspicuous synagogues. But under oppressive Christian rule in the fifth century, they argue, Jews wouldn’t have had such freedom. Also, experts say that the style of architecture suggests a second or third-century construction date.

Magness disagrees.

My argument,” she says, “is that the pottery and coins found under the floors and in the foundation of the synagogue suggest a later date—possibly the fourth, but more likely the fifth or sixth century.” If so, then Jews had more religious freedom under Christian rule than some historians and archaeologists thought.

Before she began excavating in Huqoq, Magness had been reevaluating other archaeologists’ synagogues through reviews of their excavation reports. “But I wanted my own evidence that I could examine myself,” she says.

For three years, Magness, who’s participated in over 20 excavations in Israel and Greece, traveled throughout Galilee searching for a site with a synagogue that no one had excavated. Finally, she landed at the village of Huqoq, which had been occupied as recently as 1948.

Archaeologists were well aware of the site and had found fragments lying around that could’ve been from a synagogue. But no one had excavated the ancient site, which was buried meters deep. Magness knew there might not be a synagogue, and even if there was one, she knew finding it could prove difficult. Still, she sought a permit to dig from the Israel Antiquities Authority and began rounding up funding for a trip in the summer of 2011. That summer, with students from UNC and elsewhere, her team labored for three weeks to find the synagogue but came up empty. Then, as Magness was about to wrap up the excavation for the season, her team came upon huge stones buried several meters deep. They scraped dirt away, and Magness knew they had found the remnants of a synagogue.

That was extremely lucky,” she says. But she had no time to dig inside the structure. A year passed, and at the start of the 2012 excavation season, as her team dug down to reach the floor of synagogue, Bozung struck the mosaic floor.

During the rest of the month-long dig, Magness’s team found two other mosaics. One contained an inscription alongside two female faces. The second included no human figures. The third was most stunning—it showed part of Samson’s body, a pair of foxes tied to torches, and the feet of another pair of foxes. One team member immediately identified it as a scene from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible.

The next year, Magness found more mosaics: one of a battle scene replete with elephants, and a second with Samson carrying the gate of Gaza—another scene from the Book of Judges. And there could be more to come; the excavation isn’t complete.

Magness’s team has uncovered a 15-meter-long piece of synagogue wall running the length of the building. “I suspect the entire synagogue is no more than 17 to 20 meters long and somewhere between 10 and 15 meters wide,” she says. That’s the equivalent of a modern-day 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom house. In ancient Huqoq, the only thing that big would’ve been a synagogue.

“And we’ve only fully excavated a small corner,” she says.

That’s all Magness thought she’d have to excavate when she started digging in 2011. But now, because of the mosaics, she’s drumming up funding for several more summer digs, during which she’ll continue to bring students from UNC and other universities.

And then there’s her research question. She hopes that unearthing the entire synagogue will convince doubters that the synagogue isn’t as old as they think. “In the area we’ve excavated, the coins and pottery found last summer indicate a date no earlier than the fifth century,” she says. “Someone could still claim that the original synagogue was smaller and the part we excavated was added on later. It’s possible. We’ll have to see.”

But if she’s right—if the synagogue’s construction dates to the fifth or sixth century—“then it puts a whole new spin on how we understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity during the first centuries of Christian rule,” Magness says.

To Magness, the jury is in: Christian rulers did allow the construction of a huge synagogue in Huqoq. The Roman Christians who ruled the province weren’t as antagonistic toward Jews as other archeologists and historians have suspected. The evidence, Magness says, suggests that at least some Christians and Jews coexisted in Galilee centuries after Jesus walked those hills.

She’s quick to point out that Christian rulers wouldn’t have mistaken the building as something other than a synagogue. “It was a basilica constructed of large blocks of stone, with beautifully carved decorations around doors and windows, and a pitched, red-tiled roof,” Magness says. “It would’ve been the only public building in a village full of smaller, undecorated houses with flat roofs.” And at the time, the only public building in a Jewish village would’ve been a synagogue.

“Its construction says a lot about the prosperity and freedom of the Jewish population at the time,” Magness says. They built this building and worshiped in it well after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Of course, other archaeologists still contest Magness’s claim. So she will do the only thing she can—return to Galilee next summer, dig in the dirt, and collect more evidence while her team searches for more mosaics.

Who knows; maybe Delilah will make an appearance.

Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. She receives funding from UNC Study Abroad, Yad Hanadiv—the Rothschild Foundation, Dumbarton Oaks, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, personal donations, and a consortium that includes Brigham Young University, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Toronto. Bryan Bozung was an undergraduate at Brigham Young University during the 2012 dig season. He’s now a graduate student at Yale University.