The Jewish Community at Dura-Europos: Portrait of a People

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The Jewish Community at Dura-Europos:

Portrait of a People

Mary Stephanos

Something extraordinary emerged from the sands of Syria in 1932, an ancient synagogue unlike any other that had yet been discovered. Its walls were filled with bright frescoes of Biblical scenes, which have thrilled and puzzled art historians and religious scholars ever since. What sort of Jewish community would decorate its place of worship in this manner? And what can this decoration tell us about the community’s theological doctrine, its self-conception, and its relations with the non-Jewish population of the wider city of Dura-Europos? These are questions which have been debated since excavations first began. It seems overly presumptuous to expect that the material evidence this group left behind should give us its members’ full story. Indeed, it does not, to such degree that scholars have reached completely conflicting conclusions based on the same physical remains! But our concern is not with these controversies just yet. First, we must try to rebuild on paper, from the nearly 70 years of scholarship that has been published on this site, the flesh and blood community which lived and worshiped and died at Dura-Europos. Only then will we be able to approach a coherent evaluation of the validity of the issues which surround the study of this historical people.

The city of Europos was founded on the Euphrates River in Syria at the end of the 4th century B.C.E. (c. 312 B.C.E.) by the Seleucids, a Macedonian family of Hellenistic rulers, as just one of probably many trading centers and garrison towns on the major commercial and communication route connecting India and the Mediterranean.i Its function was like that of any other Seleucid frontier town: to ensure the entrenchment of Hellenic power in the region and to act as a vehicle for the dissemination of Hellenistic culture among its inhabitants.ii Europos’ population under the Seleucids consisted of two major groups: wealthy land-owning Greek colonists who were to maintain the city’s security and act as representatives of the Hellenistic way of life, and indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia.iii Additionally, small sectors of the population were consistently in flux, with a stream of merchants, soldiers and other officials, as well as civilians, all using the city as a stop in their travels.iv Because of its geography and the very nature of its inhabitants, then, Europos enjoyed a polyglot, urban, and religiously complex culture. Indeed, evidence suggests that the citizens of Europos mixed freely together. Many Greek colonists, for example, married or employed their non-Greek neighbors, and in some families one could find not only Greek names, but also Persian and local Semitic ones, as well.v Furthermore, because Semitic religions were tolerated under Seleucid rule, the spiritual life of the city was marked early on by the worship of both Greek and eastern deities (sometimes fused together).vi

Although Europos was small in size, its location made control of the city essential for any “nation” which wished to establish a firm presence in Syria. As a result, its history was marked by periodic and dramatic shifts in leadership. By the late 2nd century B.C.E., Europos had been taken from the Seleucids by the Parthian Persians, who governed the city during its most prosperous period.vii Its greatest temples were built during the Parthian era, as were a considerable number of private homes, suggesting that Europos was growing both in popularity and in population.viii Trade taxes were instituted for the first time; however, the wealth these taxes brought in was limited to a small number of residents, mainly Parthian officials and aristocratic Greek landowners and merchants.ix Much of the city’s indigenous Mesopotamian population, which worked as independent artisans or were employed by the wealthier citizens of Europos, continued to live on a very low income.x The city, as the seat of the local Parthian governor, acted as a minor political center, while relations with neighboring Palmyra developed, and the Semitic and Persian elements expanded within the city’s growing cultural milieu.xi Despite this, however, Hellenistic culture and the Greek language continued to dominate Europos.xii

We know that by the 1st century B.C.E., if not earlier, the religious mosaic of Europos included Jews because coins dating to the Hasmonean period have been discovered at the site by archaeologists.xiii (The claim made that Judaism came to the city only when the Romans did is incorrect.xiv) Jewish communities began to form throughout the Diaspora at the beginning of the Hellenistic period when localized social groups, such as funerary societies and trade guilds, became increasingly popular.xv Though there is no architectural evidence of a defined Jewish community in Europos at this time, A. T. Kraabel has suggested that the Jews of our city were most likely in the process of forming their own small religiously based group in imitation of the secular societies and guilds which were simultaneously coming together around them.xvi Jews were often hired as mercenary soldiers during the Hellenistic period and may have even served as local government administrators, though admittedly, there is little evidence from Seleucid-controlled Syria to substantiate this.xvii Some Jewish individuals may have even been granted citizenship rights, as Josephus tells us occurred at Antioch, but again, there is no evidence for this at Dura.xviii Since Europos was located on the route which connected Babylon and Palestine, it is probable that during the Hellenistic period the growing Jewish community of the city was periodically augmented by the regular and documented movement of spiritual leaders between the two large centers of Judaism.xix In Ptolemaic Syria, some of the Jewish population was brought into the area as slaves.xx This may have been the case in Seleucid-controlled Dura, as well. The effects of the Maccabean revolt of the mid-2nd century B.C.E. on the Jewish community at Dura, and its consequent antipathy between Jews and non-Jews in Syria, is unclear. Because the city fell under the religiously tolerant Parthian Persians during the years of turmoil, the Jews of our city may not have taken part in the uprising. However, we should maintain the possibility that Dura was split with religious and ethnic hatred for at least some period of time early in the city’s era of Parthian occupation.

The Parthians held the city for 300 years until it fell again, this time in 165 C.E. to the Romans, who used it as a frontier military post.xxi It was after the advent of Roman rule, rather than during the earlier Parthian period, that the city’s name was changed from the Macedonian moniker, Europos, back to the original, Dura, an Assyrian term for “fort” (Dura-Europos is a modern construction).xxii Dura remained an undistinguished outpost of the empire for about 50 years until it was made into a colony in 211 C.E. during the Severan dynasty of Roman rulers.xxiii Although the status of colony did mark a special relationship between the city and the emperor who granted the change and symbolized the city’s adoption of a Roman constitution, by the 3rd century C.E. it did not confer any special benefits unless the emperor also granted the city “Italian rights.”xxiv We do know that Septimius Severus awarded such privileges, which included Roman citizenship for all free residents and exemption from taxes, to some cities in Syria.xxv It is doubtful, however, that Dura was one of these cities since its Roman forces did act as an imperial tax collection force.xxvi Romanization, including the development of a Latin-based educational system and the construction of civic institutions, was not a factor in cities such as Dura since Greek urban structures which had already been established during the Hellenistic period were traditionally kept in place by Roman officials.xxvii

It is essential that we understand Durene society during the Roman occupation since it was during these years that the city’s Jewish community blossomed. Based on the names which have survived in extant local administrative records from this period, we see that a social change followed the installation of imperial forces. The wealthy Greek land-owning class of citizens, which had lived and prospered at Dura since its Hellenistic founding in the 4th century B.C.E., virtually disappeared.xxviii Indigenous Semitic peoples continued to form the majority of the city’s population, but they had names based on roots which differed from earlier ones, implying a more general shift in the city’s society toward new elements, peoples of Mesopotamian and Persian origins, for example.xxix In other words, it seems that the Roman presence drove whole groups from Dura, while at the same time attracting new ones from different social backgrounds, as determined by the relative popularity or rarity of certain styles of names. Consequently, under the Romans, Dura consisted of two distinct groups: Roman legions (made up of local Syrian units as well as a few forces from other parts of the empire), and a large Mesopotamian/Persian/Semitic But, as Nigel Pollard has suggested, these two groups for the most part moved in distinct spheres which only occasionally overlapped.xxxi

Dura’s military forces were physically separated from the rest of the population in the newly walled-off northwest quarter of the city, although some individual soldiers were also billeted in private homes.xxxii Interaction with the civilian populace was limited to maintaining external security, civic policing, collecting taxes, and overseeing judicial procedures – all activities which may have increased internal tension within the city because they displaced former local practices and civic traditions.xxxiii Dura had been incorporated into a monolithic Roman Empire in which each city was administered in much the same fashion as the next, with little room for innovation or for the expression of local character. We already know that Hellenistic civic structures were kept in place in cities like Dura, but the extent to which they were actually effective during the Roman period is unclear. In our city, the presence of Roman judicial and police forces, as well as tax collectors, may signify that their Greek counterparts, already existing for over 500 years, had been superceded by an overarching official and military-based local administration, or possibly even replaced.xxxiv That is to say, the Hellenistic components of the city’s urban structure may have been relegated to dealing with only the most minute affairs of daily life as Roman forces asserted primary control. If so, this would have had a profound impact, not only on the daily functioning of the city, but also on the ability of citizens to become a part of and move ahead in the urban structure and the society which depended upon it. Though Greek continued as the common language of the city’s residents (including the Roman soldiers, one should point out), Latin was the official language of the Roman military, and learning Latin was an absolute necessity for entrance into the imperial civic structure.xxxv As mentioned above, however, the standard Roman educational system was probably not established at Dura, where the civilian population was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Persian – not Latin.xxxvi As a result, governmental and political participation must have been severely limited in the city, and the prospects of social mobility greatly curtailed, as were military/civilian relations.xxxvii

Indeed, despite the fact that the Roman forces utilized at Dura were mainly of Syrian background, the close cultural and political relationship of these soldiers to the empire’s center at Rome kept them apart from the city’s Syrian civilian populace.xxxviii As members of an institution, soldiers thought of themselves in military terms, no matter their background, and fostered military-based relationships rather than connections with the indigenous population.xxxix Religious practices further exacerbated these differences. Though the god Mithras (the major object of Roman military worship) was a deity with established eastern origins, for example, there is no evidence that he was worshiped at Dura until the Romans arrived, signifying that Dura’s cult of Mithras had been established and was primarily practiced by the Roman military.xl In other words, this deity, who could have acted as a binding spiritual force for the eastern segments of the city’s population, instead drew an even sharper line between the civilian and military. The worship of Mithras had little relation to other local religious traditions and excluded the majority of the city’s population, while at the same time binding the military even more tightly together as a single, and seemingly exclusive, unit.xli

Under Roman rule, most of the city was preoccupied with providing services (including housing and supplies) to its resident forces, who were themselves concerned primarily with fortifying the city to withstand an assault from neighboring Persians.xlii Dura developed into a base of operations against Parthia and later Sasania, with its soldiers sallying forth to engage in skirmishes with the Persians along the Euphrates River.xliii Its status as a caravan city decreased as a result since many merchants avoided the area surrounding Dura altogether in favor of more peaceful environs for conducting business.xliv Because the level of commercial activity dropped considerably under the Romans, there was a general decrease in the standard of living for Dura’s population.xlv In the end, the Roman effort to preserve this city, located on the very fringes of its eastern empire, proved futile. Dura was ultimately destroyed by the Sasanian Persians in 256 C.E., despite a desperate attempt by the Roman military, as well as many of Dura’s civilian residents, to ward off the coming assault.xlvi What happened to Dura’s citizens after the Sasanian victory is a mystery, though they may possibly have been sold as slaves.xlvii

So where does Dura’s Jewish community fit under Roman rule? During the Hellenistic period, as mentioned earlier, the Jews may have lived in the city as mercenary soldiers, as local merchants, artisans, and administrators, and as slaves. There is no reason to believe that this did not continue through the period of the Parthians and into the Roman era.xlviii Any Jews who had been fortunate enough to enjoy citizenship during Seleucid rule (e.g., settled mercenaries and officials) may possibly have been awarded Roman citizenship rights, as well, though the number of Jews to whom this actually applied must have been very small. As mentioned above, most of Dura’s population during the Parthian period lived on low incomes, and this probably extended to most of the Jewish sub-population, as well. Each of the three languages spoken by the residents of Dura--Greek, Aramaic, and Persian--are found in inscriptions from the synagogue, but the majority of the inscriptions are in Aramaic, which implies that the community itself was based upon a Syrian, possibly indigenous, population with connections to other Mesopotamian Jewish communities.xlix An increase in the occurrence of Greek and Persian in the written evidence dating to the period of Roman occupation suggests that the Jewish community was also growing and adding new cultural elements to its membership.l No Latin inscriptions have been This may mean that participation by Jews in the Roman imperial administration was minimal, if it happened at all.

The first identifiable synagogue was constructed in a converted private house, which itself dated to the Parthian period (c. 113 B.C.E.-165 C.E.), only five years after the Romans took possession of Dura.lii It held about 60-65 worshipers and displayed nothing on its exterior to signify it as a place of worship to other residents in the city.liii The renovation work on the former private home seems to have focused exclusively on the interior of the building space: a large assembly room was constructed, as well as a Torah niche.liv About 245 C.E., the building was enlarged for a second time with the addition of surrounding houses to the floor plan so that, once completed, the renovated building covered the entire width of a Dura city Two exterior walls had to be destroyed in order to expand the building’s footprint, and the main entrance was relocated to a more prominent street.lvi The assembly room was enlarged further to hold more than 120 members (Christopher Pierce Kelley claims it may have been the single largest public room existing at Dura), and an entry court was added to the front of the building.lvii Two rows of stone benches were constructed along each wall of the assembly room. Decorated tiles, some inscribed with the names of donors and synagogue officials, covered the interior ceiling of the assembly room.lviii Five years following its physical expansion, the synagogue’s interior walls were richly decorated with the stunning frescoes first discovered by the modern world in the 1930s.lix Kelley has suggested that the painted scenes were completed at different stages and by a variety of artists as the community gradually accumulated the financial resources necessary to continue the job.lx However, there is no evidence that the paintings were done in distinct stages during the course of renovation and redecoration of the synagogue.lxi Whether or not the exterior was also significantly altered to reflect the structure as a place of worship to passersby is controversial, but it is difficult to believe that an expansion of this scale, including the relocation of the synagogue’s main entrance, would not have changed its public façade quite obviously.lxii

The renovations of the structure fall into a general pattern of rebuilding and redecorating of public and private spaces which took place while the Romans occupied Dura.lxiii Though the city’s overall standard of living declined in these years, and though there is little evidence that Dura’s military forces traded with local merchants on a large scale, it seems that at least some residents benefitted from commerce with imperial forces.lxiv These particular residents appear to have included among their numbers the leading member, or members, of the Jewish community who commanded enough wealth and resources to direct such a complex and expensive design of expansion for the community’s religious space. The disturbance that this sort of major construction would have caused to neighboring residences has suggested to L. Michael White that Jews may have owned the houses nearest the building, as well as those appropriated for synagogue space; possibly they belonged to the leading members of the community, either officials or patrons of the renovation, who were wealthy enough to be able to donate what may have been their private homes for communal use.lxv Such a relatively grand project implies, then, that during Roman occupation, Dura’s Jewish community was increasing in size and wealth, if not social status.lxvi

The synagogue was situated on a quiet street within a residential sector of Dura along the city’s western wall, but this fact is not as significant as Andrew Seager has claimed it to be.lxvii In his comparison of Dura’s synagogue with the one at Sardis, he claims that the location of the building at Dura reflected a Jewish community which was physically and socially isolated from its non-Jewish neighbors because the synagogue stood in a private area with no direct access to the street.lxviii By contrast, the synagogue at Sardis was located inside part of a converted Roman public baths complex on a major commercial road, which placed it within the thick of urban life.lxix However, he neglects the fact that most of the public religious buildings at Dura were erected in residential areas, most likely from converted private homes.lxx His implication is that the Durene Jews were an insular group isolated from the larger society of the city and concerned with protecting themselves from any possible ill treatment they may suffer. But let’s look more closely at the two communities for a moment.

The Jews at Sardis were wealthy and well-treated by the Roman authorities, and inscriptions from the synagogue tell us that many of the patrons of its renovation and redecoration were prominent city officials.lxxi But we should remember that Roman forces at Dura were concerned primarily with military readiness, and the nature of the city itself during this period may have precluded real political participation by any resident since the mechanisms for a traditional Latin-based educational system were never installed. This was not a case of the intentional exclusion of a particular sub-population from civic functions. There is also no indication that Dura’s Jews were ill-treated by the Romans. In fact, quite the opposite seems to suggest itself, as some Jews were obviously engaged in commercial activities which allowed for the accumulation of considerable resources. Further, though the Sardis synagogue appears to have been located in a very popular commercial and social sector of the city, Dura’s residentially based synagogue exhibits greater signs of communal activity. By Seager’s own accounting, the Dura synagogue had, besides its largest room for worship, many other subsidiary spaces attached to it, the likes of which have not been discovered at Sardis.lxxii These included rooms for Jewish officials and visitors, public dining halls and a kitchen, as well as what may have been spaces used for education; in other words, it was obviously a vibrant and active center of Jewish life at Dura.lxxiii Neither is there an indication that the social prominence which the former bath and gymnasium complex at Sardis once enjoyed was still evident after part of the space was given to the Jewish community. Possibly the building had been abandoned by that point, and the Jews worshiped in an area of the city just as ostensibly inconsequential as their brothers at Dura. But even to consider the neighborhood of the synagogue at Dura as inconsequential is a mistake, because it certainly was not at all. When we look at a plan of the city as it was in the Roman period, it is clear that though the building lay on the fringes of Dura-Europos, it was actually located in a fairly active sector. Directly across the street was the Temple of Adonis, and the Temple of the Dura Tyche was situated in the next block. Three blocks to the southeast of the synagogue was the Temple of Zeus Kyrios. Dura’s public baths were only a short walk away, and the main gate, site of much military and trading activity, was also nearby. In fact, the military took over a private residence on the same block as the synagogue in order to house soldiers.lxxiv It is clear, then, that despite Seager’s assertions, Dura’s Jewish community was a thriving one, located in the very thick of the small city’s civic and religious life.

At this point it seems that there should be ample evidence to allow for more than just a sketch of the Jewish community in our city, but it has been very difficult for scholars dealing with Dura-Europos to put a face on the city’s Jews. Graffiti and inscriptions dating to the first phase of the synagogue emphasize the indigenous Syrian or Mesopotamian character of the community before the mid-3rd century C.E. Aramaic names, with Syrian and other local inflections, dominate, suggesting that the assumption made earlier about the nature of the Jews at Dura is correct.lxxv Had any of the most prominent Jews also been Roman citizens they would have had Aurelius, or later Septimius, as part of their names, but no such names have ever been associated with the synagogue.lxxvi Inscriptions in both Aramaic and Greek honoring the sponsors of the second renovation have been found in the building.lxxvii One example gives credit to a community member named Uzzi for the newly painted Torah shrine.lxxviii The same inscription also names Joseph, who apparently had a hand in the redecoration of the synagogue, as well.lxxix The grand patron behind the complex renovation and redecoration at Dura seems to have been a man called Samuel. Two ceiling tiles with Aramaic inscriptions refer to him as priest and as archon, and they celebrate his role as “the builder” of the synagogue.lxxx It is probable that this Samuel, along with being the ostensible spiritual leader of the community, also owned the building itself and, together with a group of community leaders, designed, funded, and implemented its expansion and redecoration in 245 B.C.E.lxxxi Another Aramaic inscription refers to the community’s treasurer, Abram, and other ceiling tiles bear Greek references to additional leaders of the community.lxxxii The position and function of women in the community is unknown, though it seems clear that they did not worship separately from the men.lxxxiii Despite the facts we can surmise from the written material found in the synagogue, the evidence is so limited that our best chances for learning more about Dura’s community of Jews lay with the design of the building itself.

Synagogues of the Diaspora tended to employ local architectural and artistic styles in their construction and decoration, suggesting that there was no canonical synagogue design during this period.lxxxiv Some early scholars maintained that the construction of a synagogue within a former private residence was unique to Dura, but we now know this is not the case. Jews throughout the Diaspora probably met initially in their own homes, which were then later converted for more general religious use once their communities had raised enough money to fund construction.lxxxv In fact, five extant Diaspora synagogues (including Priene) were constructed from converted homes.lxxxvi At Dura, the temples of Bel, Adonis, and Zeus Theos were once all private residences, and other eastern religions exhibited this tendency, as well.lxxxvii Just as the origin of Dura’s synagogue in a private home was not unusual, neither was its structure or decoration unique for the city.lxxxviii In other words, the building’s architecture, as well as its painted interior, reflected other religious structures within the city’s walls, attesting to a kind of artistic syncretism unique to the city--the “Dura style,” as it were.lxxxix The synagogue, the Mithraeum, and the Christian church all resembled one another physically, while Dura’s Temple of the Palmyrene Gods and Temple of Zeus Theos, plus other religious buildings at Dura (including the Mithraeum and church), were each decorated with painted schemes similar to those found in the synagogue (i.e., frescoes organized in triple registers).xc Common local motifs even made it into the details of the paintings. A reclining Elijah resembles local relief sculpture, for example, and the “hand of God” motif has been found in presumably pagan homes in the city.xci All of these buildings, collectively, fit within a larger Mesopotamian artistic and architectural tradition, which fervently maintained the ideal that art should always serve a religious function.xcii Public religious buildings covered with scenes illustrating the most important events in a cult’s history, mythical and actual, are commonly found in temples throughout Syria.xciii In fact, of the Mesopotamian temples which have been discovered thus far, each has been decorated in much the same manner as Dura’s synagogue and the other temples in the city.xciv

This syncretism even extended to the Torah niche in our synagogue. It was located in the western wall of the building (west being the direction in which Jerusalem lay with respect to the city).xcv While such a shrine or niche was common to Jewish assembly rooms, it is only at Dura where we actually get a glimpse of its possible eastern origins. Mesopotamian cults had developed the tradition of erecting, within the religious space, a portrait or statue of the deity inside a painted representation of its temple.xcvi From the evidence provided by many extant Mesopotamian religious structures, we know that the cult niches prevalent at Dura may have evolved from this attempt to depict an idealized model of the temple and the cult’s holiest image inside the prayer space.xcvii For most of the religions at Dura, the holiest image was the deity itself, but for the Jews, who prohibited the figural representation of their god, the shelf that would have normally held a statue or other symbol, instead held the Torah scrolls. That the Torah was of utmost importance to the Jews at Dura is confirmed by the painted figures depicted on either side of the niche praying and reading from written scripture.xcviii Such niches and their placement seem to have been the norm at Dura. During their construction, each of the other religious structures standing along the city’s western wall also had cult niches built into their respective western walls, suggesting that it was the convention for newly established cults to conform to a program of religious expression specific to Dura.xcix

But conforming to the overarching local normative mode of expression sometimes produced results which seemed to contravene a cult’s own tradition of self-expression. The Mithraeum, for instance, which represented the very popular Roman military cult of Mithras and which was normally built underground in a cave-like structure, was erected above ground just like every other religious building at Dura-Europos.c By a similar token, some early scholars found the frescoes in the synagogue at Dura shocking because they believed that this community, in its ambition to create a competitive place of worship within the city, had blatantly disregarded the biblical command and the prohibition found in rabbinic texts which forbid the use of certain figures in the decoration of So why did our community pursue the type of religious decoration it did? First, we should realize that the Talmud of the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E. did allow for some figural representation on the walls and floors of sacred spaces and that evidence of such decoration has been found both in Palestine and in other Diaspora synagogues.cii Furthermore, passages in the Bible can be interpreted as allowing the illustration of figures if there is no intention to worship them.ciii

The 3rd century C.E. witnessed a tremendous explosion of religious activity. Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism were growing, and Mithraism was expanding, as well.civ Because of its location on a major eastern trade route and at a crossroads between civilizations, Dura-Europos had a wide array of religious communities, representing nearly every major cult in the area. Worshipers of the Syrian gods Aphlad, Atargatis, and Hadad existed alongside those of Bel Shamin, a deity with origins in Mithraism, Christianity, and major Hellenistic religions were also prominent in the city during the period of Roman rule.cvi Each sought not only to add new members to their numbers, but also to avoid losing the ones they did have to other cults within the city. The Jews were no exception. At least one Aramaic inscription from the synagogue refers to a prominent proselyte, which means that the community was not exclusive.cvii Rather, it was an attractive religious option open to participation by interested non-Jewish residents of the city. In other words, each religion was challenging the others for supremacy.

Jacob Neusner believes that the designer of the synagogue’s paintings (Samuel?) responded to these developments by creating a grand scheme of renovation and redecoration clearly meant to champion the Jewish faith and to assert the superiority of Judaism over every other cult of superstition.cviii Indeed, artistic expression seems to have been the means of competition between cults in Dura’s dynamic religious atmosphere.cix

This becomes obvious when we consider the ideas that dominate the synagogue’s frescoes. They emphasize the covenant between the Jews and their god, and the Jews’ status as the chosen people of a god who protects them against the The designer’s intention was to reaffirm for Jewish worshipers the supreme importance of this historic covenant with their god by illustrating the relationship of the righteous believers with their chosen deity.cxi In order to ensure that people remained faithful to that covenant, the paintings portrayed quite clearly the protection that the Jewish god awarded his pious believers, as well as the violent punishment he would mete out to anyone who desecrated him.cxii The figures displayed on the walls were some of the most prominent from the Pentateuch--Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah--and the scenes focused on the history of the Ark, the exodus from Egypt, the defeat of pagan rivals, and other stories, as well as such an everlasting symbol of the Jewish faith as the Temple in Jerusalem.cxiii One scene explicitly depicts the destruction of pagan idols, two of which resemble statues of the gods Adonis and Bel found withing the city.cxiv Images of victorious deities were common in other temples at Dura, and in the synagogue the Jews are depicted as overcoming the oppressive Egyptians, as well as the pagan idol worshipers around them.cxv The entire scheme, stressing loyalty and punishment, must be seen not only as a celebration of the Jewish people and their god, but also as a conscious piece of propaganda necessary for any religion to survive at Dura.

The synagogue was not merely a repository for the confluence of Mesopotamian architectural and artistic ideals which defined the city’s superficial style of religious expression, however. Characteristics of the paintings have suggested to researchers that, not only was this particular Jewish community highly literate in the local modes of expression as outlined above, it was also quite familiar with imperial Roman motifs, as well. The Romans had been at Dura in an official capacity at least 80 years before the second renovation and redecoration of the synagogue, but both Hellenistic and Roman culture had been aggressively active in the area much longer. It is no surprise, then, that there are also heavy Roman artistic and narrative influences in our frescoes.cxvi This is even more understandable when one considers the prominence of Roman public art throughout the empire during this period, even at an outpost like Dura, and the fact that Jewish artistic expression did not have a living figural tradition from which the artists could draw inspiration.cxvii The synagogue artists based their work on popular and widespread Roman techniques of representation which would have been easily understood by a body of people at home in an eastern part of the world overrun for centuries with Hellenistic and Roman cultural practices.cxviii They clearly took their inspirations from circulating Roman issue coins, Roman monuments and sculpture erected in the area, as well as Roman painting itself.cxix In the Exodus scene in the synagogue at Dura, for example, Moses is shown leading the Israelites out of Egypt by marching through a Roman triumphal arch, an example of which had been erected at Dura by the emperor Trajan around 116 C.E.cxx Also, the scene of “Esther and Mordecai at the Court of King Ahasuerus” depicts a typical Roman triumphal procession that the Jews would have seen on the coins of Septimius Severus in circulation at the time.cxxi The artists had used typical Roman conventions, the meanings of which would have been easily understood by anyone living in an urban city such as Dura, to illustrate an historic Jewish victory.cxxii Likewise, in the scene of Moses and the burning bush, the Jewish hero is shown standing in the exact pose used in Roman heroic statuary to symbolize virtue.cxxiii He is also wearing a white toga with a purple stripe, a Roman mark of importance and power, and standing barefoot, a typical Roman indication that he is standing on sacred ground.cxxiv There were other Graeco-Roman influences, as well. The depiction of Pharaoh’s daughter in the river, for example, may have been inspired by local representations of Aphrodite, and Moses himself took on the attributes of the Greek hero Herakles in the Exodus scene, carrying not a staff but a club (canonical iconography for Heracles that had been firmly established during Greece’s early Classical period).cxxv Even the smallest decorative ornament was borrowed from Graeco-Roman sources: marble patterns, theater masks, and animals.cxxvi

If we look more closely at the frescoes, however, we notice that the synagogue’s artists, though they could read the nuances fluently, did not use Roman motifs to celebrate pagan ideology. Instead it is quite clear that they used these paintings to reject it. For example, the triumphal arch featured in the exodus scene mentioned above appears at first glance to symbolize for the community the Israelites’ eventual success after leaving Egypt. But the artist may have placed it in the painting as a combined symbol of the oppression that the Jews had suffered under the Egyptians and now under the Romans.cxxvii There are even greater clues which have led modern scholars to believe that the Jewish community at Dura opposed Roman imperial culture (in their paintings, at least) and may have had a peculiarly interesting view of the Severan emperors. The “Closed Temple” scene had always been thought to have been a depiction of the temple in Jerusalem. Warren G. Moon points out, though, that the entrance to this temple is decorated with, among other things, a possible Mithras bull, a statue of Mars, and three naked figures.cxxviii Mithras was, of course, the deity worshiped heavily by Roman military forces, and Mars was the Roman god of war. Why would the synagogue artists associate these symbols with their most sacred spot? For Moon, the answer is perfectly obvious: the building was not a representation of the Jewish temple at all, but of a pagan one. The scene immediately to the right illustrates the Ark’s destruction of pagan idols at the Temple of Dagon, causing Moon to theorize that the “Closed Temple” was in fact meant to represent that building.cxxix But as with the possible double meaning of the triumphal arch in the exodus scene, this one too, with its Roman elements decorating the doors of the temple, may have also signified the inevitable divine destruction of Roman idols.cxxx The nudity of the male figures bolsters Moon’s claim even further. Throughout the paintings, the artists differentiate between Jews and non-Jews quite clearly by using nudity to signify to the congregation that a figure is not Jewish. Pharaoh’s daughter, for example, rises out of the river naked, and the Egyptians portrayed in the exodus scene are also shown naked.cxxxi The three male figures which decorate the doors of the temple were not only not Jewish, but based on similarities of pose and attributes evident in coins and public statuary, may have represented the emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons.cxxxii

For Erwin Goodenough, the adoption of pagan motifs in the synagogue’s frescoes signified a mystical approach to Judaism known primarily from the writings of the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, and at odds with the rabbinic and Talmudic tradition of Palestine. According to him, the Durene Jews adopted pagan artistic motifs intentionally in their depictions of biblical scenes, not merely because they were a part of Dura’s overarching local artistic canon, but also because the pagan ideology behind these motifs was highly significant to the type of Judaism practiced in the city.cxxxiii These included the divinity or semi-divinity of biblical heroes, such as Moses, and the association of David with the Orphic mysteries, for example.cxxxiv Goodenough’s method and ultimate conclusions about the practice of a sort of mystical Judaism at Dura have been debated by numerous scholars; however, he may have been correct, at least in some respects: the paintings in the synagogue at Dura do seem to reflect a distinctive eschatological theology. Jonathan A. Goldstein has developed quite an elegant and enticing theory that the Dura synagogue’s paintings reflected the idea that the Diaspora would ultimately result in the saving of the Jewish populations at the hand of a messiah descended from David.cxxxv This is not so far-fetched since we have already seen that the community was concerned with the messianic claims of the emerging Christian population nearby. By asserting their own brand of messianic theology, the Jews of Dura sought to solidify the legitimacy of their own beliefs. Goldstein points out that the paintings emphasize not only exilic figures, such as Esther and Ezekiel.cxxxvi They also represent other themes such as resurrection, the restoration of the temple, and David as a messiah figure.cxxxvii By the 1st century C.E., there was a popular Jewish belief in a coming war between foreign powers which would ultimately liberate the Jews permanently from domination.cxxxviii Goldstein reads this belief in the paintings which he feels promised a glorious future in the Holy Land for all Jews once all prophecies were fulfilled.cxxxix By the time of the synagogue’s redecoration, “programmatic painting” had fully developed; this meant the use of scenes from ancient texts in new allegorical contexts.cxl So we should not assume, then, that modern scholars who read analogies into material evidence from the Roman period are grasping at straws.

But is it realistic to expect that the leaders of the Jewish community at Dura imparted this ideology, if it existed at all, to those who attended services? Though elements within them may have conveyed ideological underpinnings, the main thrust of the scenes as a whole was to serve a narrative function--they told stories.cxli The paintings decorating the assembly room of the synagogue at Dura were probably used, in fact, to educate a largely illiterate community, something that was typical of the period in general.cxlii The paintings could have been used as reminders or visual cues during recitation of the Torah.cxliii Synagogues in the Diaspora played more of a central role in daily life than in Palestine, so it is not difficult to accept the idea that the paintings were used as teaching tools, probably in a regular program of introduction and reinforcement of the scriptural tradition.cxliv Major figures, like Moses and Esther, are labeled in the paintings, and the Exodus scene has a longer inscription which describes the action (“Moses after he had gone out from Egypt and cleft the sea”).cxlv There is also the hint that a broader thematic scheme was created to present to the community the easily understood contrasts between good and evil behaviors and the glory or consequences of each.cxlvi To the left of the Torah niche, the scenes are concerned overwhelmingly with the acts of the righteous in maintaining the covenant with the Jewish god, while to the right the action takes place largely in a pagan context.cxlvii Using local artistic themes from both the Hellenistic and Roman traditions ensured that illiterate members of the religious community could visualize these contrasts clearly and understand their implications in a meaningful way.cxlviii

It is clear that our community was very concerned about maintaining its own spiritual and cultural identity at Dura, which was threatened by more than the general expansion of religious practice in Mesopotamia during Rome’s period of occupation of the area. Jews and Christians were themselves embroiled in a scriptural and historical debate centered on God’s protection of his chosen people and the restoration of Israel through a messiah descended from David.cxlix Jews were faced with growing Christian communities whose members claimed that Jesus was the messiah and that the Jews’ covenant with their god was no longer valid, i.e, Christians were the new chosen In 240 C.E., five years before the synagogue’s second and elaborate redecoration, another private home at Dura was renovated into a public religious space, this time for Christian worshipers.cli Its exterior architecture was unassuming because of a fear of persecution by Roman authorities, but the interior walls of the main meeting space were decorated with painted scenes from the New Testament, as well as some Old Testament motifs such as David and Goliath, and Adam and Eve.clii These paintings stress the ideology of Jesus as the messiah and savior of his people while at the same time rejecting the symbols of Judaism, such as the Temple.cliii The Christian building also featured a typical Dura cult niche which would have held a copy of the New Testament.cliv Most scholars seem to assume that the synagogue was redecorated before the Christian building, but it seems fairly clear from the evidence that the opposite is true. That the Jews at Dura were aware of and active in this direct threat to the legitimacy of their own religion is evident in the painted scenes which they chose to decorate the walls of the synagogue’s assembly room.clv In fact, it is no coincidence that the Jews at Dura resisted decorating their place of worship in the style popular at Dura until just this moment in history when Christians began to assert themselves.

Ultimately, however, the Jewish community at Dura was only able to enjoy its refurbished meeting place and renewed identity for about a decade. In mid-late 256 C.E., Dura’s residents (Roman soldiers and civilians alike) prepared the city for an imminent assault by Sasanian Persians.clvi In order to fortify the western wall, they filled with dirt the buildings which ran the length of “Wall Street”; these included the Mithraeum and the Christian structure, as well as our synagogue.clvii We can only guess at how this arduous process was completed, but most likely, Dura’s populace formed a series of bucket brigades to move the dirt into each building as quickly and easily as possible. If such a system was implemented, the Roman forces would have installed soldiers at every stage to oversee progress of the work fortifying the city’s walls. Unfortunately, the laborious process was futile and the Sasanians successfully conquered Dura. But fortunately for archaeologists and historians, the Persians did not occupy the city permanently after the Romans were defeated so that the structures, particularly those along the western wall, were greatly preserved for centuries under ever-increasing layers of earth. When the dirt which covered the synagogue’s painted walls was first removed in the 1930s, archaeologists immediately noticed that many of the figures had been defaced, particularly their eyes had been gouged out. Carl Kraeling, the archaeologist who reported on the site at the time, believed that the defacement had occurred during the city’s preparations for attack, and it seems to be true that this defacement was completed just at the beginning of the fortification of the western edge of the city.clviii Most of the eye gouging was done on the lowest register of frescoes, though there is also some evidence of destructive activity in the second register, as well.clix Christopher Pierce Kelley has theorized that the defacement of figures inside the synagogue may have been done by one Roman officer installed in the building as the last stage in the bucket brigade set up to fill the building with dirt.clx He bases his conclusion on a pattern of evidence which suggests no other explanation. First, he noticed that the majority of figures affected were wearing eastern-style clothes.clxi This is especially evident in two adjoining scenes which both feature Ezekiel. In one, an Ezekiel wearing Hellenistic clothes has been spared, but three depictions of Ezekiel in eastern dress within close proximity have all had their eyes gouged.clxii But it was not eastern dress alone which motivated this soldier: animals in oriental garb in the first register of frescoes were spared, and other temples at Dura had similar illustrations of people in eastern dress which were not defaced.clxiii Kelley noticed that the synagogue was the only place in Dura where eastern dress coincided with Persian inscriptions and concluded that the Roman had assumed that the Jews of Dura were Sasanian sympathizers.clxiv However, there is a more likely explanation for the defacement of the paintings given the randomness of the occurrence. One of the decorated ceiling tiles put in place during the synagogue’s second renovation was painted with an eye which may have symbolized a superstitious belief in the “evil eye.”clxv The eye gouging may have been done by a Roman soldier, or more likely, a general civilian with a propensity for belief in this spiritual taboo.clxvi

Thus, the eye gouging incident may not reflect on the Jewish community and its relations with the larger community at all. The Jews of Dura-Europos were a people steeped in the veritable melting pot of cultures which defined the Mediterranean world in the 3rd century C.E. The local Mesopotamian styles of religious art and architecture were utilized to their fullest extent in the synagogue, and the diffuse culture of the imperial powers of the Hellenistic and Roman empires was also clearly an influence on its decorative scheme. They moved comfortably in a complex society defined by the cultural and religious explosion of the period, and they had a good command of the visual and cultural vocabulary of the day. Yet the community also persisted in maintaining its distinct identity in an atmosphere focused on militarism and commerce and highly charged with religious competitiveness. Their artwork championed the superiority of Judaism and the righteousness of its believers and may have symbolized the belief in a coming messiah. No matter the controversies and debates; they continue to be an active group whose synagogue has survived as a testament to the lives of an ancient people.


Barclay, John M. G. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE). Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Bickerman, Elias J. “Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue: A Review Article.” The Harvard Theological Review 58, 1 (January 1965): 127-151.
Brilliant, Richard. “Painting at Dura-Europos and Roman Art.” In The Dura-Europos Synagogue: A Re-Evaluation (1932-1972), ed. Joseph Gutmann, 23-30. Religion and the Arts. Missoula: Printing Department, University of Montana, 1973.
Flesher, Paul V. M. “Rereading the Reredos: David, Orpheus, and Messianism in the Dura Europos Synagogue.” In Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, eds. Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher, 346-366. Studia Post-Biblica, Vol. 47, ed. David S. Katz. Boston: Brill, 1998.
Garnsey, Peter, and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
Gates, Marie-Henriette. “Dura-Europos: A Fortress of Syro-Mesopotamian Art.” Biblical

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