Archive for the ‘Dura Europos’ Category

Dura Europos and the Early Church

May 23, 2009

I had noted in a comment box (appended to this post) that it would take a real imbecile to think that Dura Europos was typical of the early church.

But many folks who bow down to paintings and statues don’t sweat that history stuff, and consequently end up appealing to a most unique place like Dura Europa where (evidently) even the Jewish synagogue was highly decorated (although in a style borrowed from the Roman pagans). Of course, some of the same people will try to claim that Dura Europos represented a typical Jewish synagogue of the time as well.

But we may leave such issues momentarily aside. One such person (Mr. Bellisario) has tried to counter (between two insults) with the following: “How many other examples do we have of early house churches?”

Such a comment misses the issues in a spectacularly simplistic way. The issue is not how many examples we have of early house churches, but why anyone would think this “example” is a typical example.

For example, we know almost nothing about the “Christians” that lived at Dura Europos at the time. For example, we don’t know whether they were heretics or orthodox, whether they were strict or syncretic in their views. We don’t have any particularly good reason to think that they were orthodox Christians.

We have apparently found some Aramaic texts at the location that appear to be Eucharistic prayers similar to those in the Didache, and (at another location in the garrison town) a tiny fragment of a Greek harmony of the gospels (though not Diatessaron of Tatian). In other words, we have no strong reason for linking this building to any particular branch of “Christianity.”

But, of course, to answer Bellisario’s simplistic question, how on earth would anyone hope to recognize an early house church that wasn’t decorated? If it were not for the murals, we wouldn’t be inclined to call the building they found at Dura Europos a church. We have no way of knowing how many of the myriad undecorated houses we’ve uncovered were house-churches. So, of course, it is a silly question.

But what about the decorations at this building in Dura Europos? They were not icons, they were not statues, they were “murals,” rough sketches marked on the wall. From the images I’ve seen of them, we have to speculate as to how they are intended to relate to the Bible, but there are three main murals, and a couple more that are shown in a fourth image.

1. “Good Shepherd” – The mural shows a shepherd carrying a sheep. Such a depiction is somewhat similar to a “Christ the Good Shepherd” icon but in other ways is more similar to this earlier depiction of a shepherd (link) alleged to be from about the same time period – 3rd century – from Roman catacombs.

2. “Healing of the Paralytic” – The mural shows a man taking his bed on his back, apparently after being cured, which is reminiscent of the healing recorded in John 5. Such a depiction is somewhat similar to a rather modern-looking icon I found (link) but more similar to a fresco/icon from the Dionisian Frescos (1502).

3. “Peter and Jesus Walking on Water – The title is self-explanatory. The closest icon I could find was this one (link).

4. A couple others involving women (link)

As you can see, while there is some resemblance between the icons and the murals, it’s not a real close match. Basically, if you let them be considered matches, then you are basically calling any drawing an icon.

Of course, there were items more like icons at Dura Europos (link), but keep in mind that these are from the local temple of Mithras.

There are plenty of other good reasons (such as the Council of Elvira – about 60 years after the date of the building at Dura Europos, and the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis and Eusebius of Caesarea – leading to sharper battles in the 8th-9th centuries) to think that paintings were starting to enter into Christian churches, but were meeting resistance. As well, as I’ve previously mentioned, much of the writings opposed to novel introduction of icons into worship was destroyed (and/or disparaged) by the icondules.


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