This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is republished with permission.
A new exhibit at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient
World brings to life the ancient city of Dura-Europos, which stands high above
the Euphrates River on the eastern border of modern Syria, a monument to
vanished eras. The exhibition celebrates both the peoples who lived there –
Jews, Christians and pagans – and, more quietly, the scholars who unearthed the
city during the 20th century’s golden age of Near East
Dura-Europos – originally, Europos – owed its creation to
war. It was founded as a militarized trading colony by the Selucid general
Nikanor around 300 B.C.E. and was laid out as a Greek city, with temples to
Artemis, Apollo and Zeus.
Conquered by Iranian Parthians in 113 B.C.E.,
it eventually became the city of Dura (in Assyrian, “fortress”). Its gridded
plan gave way and even Greek gods assumed more “oriental” characteristics and
were joined by local Syrian deities.
The Roman conquest in 165 C.E.
brought still more peoples and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and
Mithraism. Then, just a century later, the city was besieged by the Sasanian
emperor Shapur and fell. Its residents were deported, and the site disappeared
Dura-Europos also owed its re-discovery to war. In 1920,
Indian troops under British imperial command were digging fortifications in the
area when they discovered painted fragments of the city’s walls and wooden
Excavations began in 1922 and continued through 1937, sponsored
by Yale University, whose collection is the chief source of the materials in the
NYU exhibit, and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. They
continue today under a joint French-Syrian project.
The exhibit amply
illustrates the city’s myriad religious rites and identities. We see, for
example a wall painting of Jesus healing the paralytic from the earliest-known
Christian domus ecclesia
, or “house-church,” built in 235 C.E., which is
decorated with relatively crude scenes from both the Bible and the Gospels.
Elsewhere there is a sculpture of the god Arsu from Palmyra, riding a camel, and
objects from the Mithraeum, the Iranian warrior-god cult brought to Dura-Europos
by Roman soldiers. There is a relief of the Greek goddess Tyche – or is it the
Syrian goddess Atargatis?
But the largest, most elaborately decorated building
in Dura-Europos was its synagogue – which was dismantled and reconstructed in
the National Museum in Damascus, where is it displayed today. Built around 165
C.E., it began as a private home and was later enlarged. By the time of its
final remodeling, around 240 C.E., the ceiling was 23 feet high and decorated
with tiles, including some with the names of synagogue patrons written in
Greek. There was a large meeting hall with benches running around the
walls; in the west wall, opposite the main entrance, was a niche for the Torah
The synagogue’s decoration is astonishing. As Clark Hopkins, the
synagogue’s discoverer, described it, “Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed and
suddenly from the dry, brown, bare desert had appeared paintings, not just one
nor a panel nor a wall but a whole building of scene after scene, all drawn from
the Old Testament in ways never dreamed of before.”
The 28 panels from
the frescoed walls show biblical scenes in vivid colors. They depict the
Israelites battling the Philistines at Eben-Ezer, the capture of the Ark, its
delivery to the Temple of Dagon, the collapse of Philistine idols, and the Ark’s
return by wagon to the Israelites. Other scenes show Moses recovered from the
Nile, standing before the burning bush, and leading the Exodus across the Red
Sea. We see Haman leading Mordechai, Solomon’s Temple, Ezra, Ezekiel,
Elijah, Jacob, Samuel and others. Above the Torah niche are images of the Temple
and the sacrifice of Isaac.
Before the discovery of Dura-Europos, it was
never imagined that the Jews of antiquity could have painted in this way; and to
see these fragments is to be transported to an age and a Judaism that are at
once familiar and deeply alien. The scenes use the conventions of the Roman
East. Baby Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s naked daughter; the grown Moses is
depicted in severe Roman fashion. Solomon’s Temple has Greco-Roman
The battle of Eben-Ezer is fought on horseback. At contemporary
and later synagogue sites, even in Palestine, figurative art also abounds,
including “pagan” imagery.
The synagogue Hammath Tiberias – which stood
from the fourth through sixth centuries, the heart of the talmudic period –
displays a mosaic of the Greek sun god Helios and the zodiac cycle. The stew of
languages in Dura-Europos points in the same direction. Greek, Aramaic, Latin,
Parthian, Middle Persian, Hebrew and Safaitic writings are found on countless
parchments, papyri, inscriptions and grafitti. Fragments of Christian
Eucharistic prayers are written in Hebrew.
These discoveries point to the
inadequacy of our fixed conceptions. They show that there is little empirical
evidence to justify denying the diversity of ancient Judaism or viewing it
through strict rabbinic lenses. One Dura- Europos scholar, Joseph Gutmann,
quotes Gershom Scholem’s observation that the “internal censorship of the past,
particularly by rabbinical tradition, has tended to play down or to conceal many
developments whose fundamentally Jewish character the contemporary historian has
no reason to deny.”
The diversity raises underlying questions: What was
Judaism and who were the Jews in late antiquity? Were Jews – and Christians and
pagans – isolated and opposing groups or related points along a spectrum of
beliefs? These questions raise other interpretive issues. Do the pagan motifs
and styles indicate non-rabbinic, effectively mystical varieties of Judaism?
Could biblical characters and stories actually have shared characteristics of
pagan deities and beliefs? Were Jews competing with Christian churches in their
decorative biblical depictions – and, if so, for what audiences? Or did
synagogues and churches simply share the same artisans?
Yet Dura-Europos also
reminds us of the repeating patterns of Jewish Diaspora life: the creation of
communities that followed trade routes, the rapid building of institutions, the
wealthy congregants who stepped forward to bring communal life into being, the
influence of contemporary culture on Jewish practice, and the uneasy coexistence
with other peoples and beliefs. Even more timeless, Dura-Europos is about the
transitory nature of all life, in which thriving cities of one century dry up
and blow away in the next or are burned to the ground and forgotten.The
writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community
Research. This article was first published by ‘Jewish Ideas Daily’ and is
reprinted with permission.