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The World's Oldest Church

The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria OPEN ACCESS

Michael Peppard
Series: Synkrisis
Copyright Date: 2016
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 344
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1kft8j0
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  • Book Info
    The World's Oldest Church
    Book Description:

    In his fresh reassessment of the wall paintings on the third-century house-church at Dura-Europos, Syria, award-winning scholar Michael Peppard argues for a radically different interpretation of the paintings’ central motifs.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-21651-6
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. CLARK HOPKINS REFLECTED on a momentous day in the east Syrian desert and penned in his diary: “In the fresco room in front of the tower south of the Main Gate the dirt came off one section and showed 5 people in a boat—2 standing below, one on a bed on the shore. Above, a god on a cloud.”¹

    Over the next three days, Hopkins and Henry Pearson, professors in Yale University’s departments of classics and fine arts, respectively, would dig, scrape, and brush away seventeen hundred years of the past. Working with their Armenian foreman, Abdul Messiah, they...

  2. For Michael Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos was the archaeological find of a lifetime. The charismatic Russian émigré and Yale classicist was so enamored of the endless riches being unearthed that he labeled it the “Pompeii of the Syrian desert,” ennobling it by comparison to the jaw-dropping art and architecture discovered under volcanic rock in Italy.¹ In some ways, the analogy is apt: the excellent state of preservation of some of the buildings, the diversity of the finds, the famous wall paintings. But no Vesuvius buried this Pompeii. To the contrary, portions of this city—including excavation block M8, which contained the house-church...

  3. Seated on benches in the central courtyard of the house-church, Isseos and other catechumens listen to elder Christians, week in and week out, through the windows of the assembly hall. At least that is how we might imagine their probationary period. They have not yet seen the inside of the locked baptistery.

    During the long catechetical lectures, perhaps some of these catechumens were not always paying attention. The plentiful graffiti on the courtyard’s walls might be a record of their idle doodling. We find severalabecedaria—inscriptions of the alphabet—around the walls of the courtyard. For the illiterate, which...

  4. The shepherd David became the anointed lord over Israel. Then in Christian tradition, the anointed son of David, Jesus, became the lordly shepherd. As we process with Isseos from the place of anointing around the room to the font, we encounter fragments of that progression.

    Looking to the upper panel of the baptistery’s artistic program, we imagine what might have been, had the city’s rampart been built a little taller or better, thereby preserving more of these paintings. The top of the eastern and northern walls probably depicted a series of Jesus’ mighty deeds, distinctive examples of how he used...

  5. SO FAR WE HAVE CONSIDERED individual paintings of male biblical figures—David, Jesus, Peter—whose distinct episodes were brought together for viewers during rituals of initiation. We now turn back to take in, as it were, the core of the baptistery’s artistic program: a procession of women toward a large white structure (see plate 1). It occupies the lower, main register of the room’s two uninterrupted walls. It was undoubtedly intended to be the dominant visual image, and it worked. You can’t miss it. Therefore, the core meaning of what happened between these walls depends most emphatically on how we...

  6. OF THE MANY MEANINGS and metaphors attached to the rites of initiation, a central one remains to be examined: how did Christians in Dura-Europos imagine the descent, reception, or incarnation of the Holy Spirit?

    In his study “Baptismal Patterns in Early Syria,” liturgical historian Bryan Spinks records a hunch about how Syrian Christians understood the connection between the ritual of anointing and the descent of the Holy Spirit at initiation.¹ What text or narrative would they have had in mind to lend meaning to the ritual? Previous scholars have usually looked to the baptismal accounts of Jesus himself, and indeed...

  7. We have now completed our procession around the baptistery and seen the main fragments of the world’s oldest church: David and Goliath; the mighty deeds of Jesus, with Peter on the water and the paralytic alongside it; the procession of women toward the font; the shepherd and flock behind it; and finally, a woman at a well. In each case, sources from early Christian Syria have shed light on probable meanings at the nexus of Bible, art, and ritual.

    With our new perspectives on each painting, classic Syrian sources take on new relevance and sound almost tailored for use at...

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 International
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 International.
Funding is provided by Knowledge Unlatched