This week’s Shabbat encouragement is quite different than my usual. At our virtual oneg a few weeks back, I asked what people have been doing during these COVID-19 days. During a break-out session, one of our congregants Lawrence Strauss, a recognized musician and artist, shared with our small group his recent artwork inspired by artifacts found from the ancient city of Dura-Europos. I was so impressed that I asked him to share his artwork virtually at our oneg this coming Shabbat and to give us a glimpse at the history behind the inspiration.
Here is his writing on that subject:
“In 256 CE to try to hold off the invading Persian army, the Romans dumped sand and rubble into the buildings along a city’s western perimeter to fortify its wall. Among these buildings were a synagogue, a house-church (a Christian assembly in a home) and a temple to the god Mithras. And until uncovered in the 1930s by Yale University and French archaeologists, there beside the Euphrates, under the sand and rubble, lay a record of early 3rd Century Dura-Europos, Syria. The buildings are from about the 230s, making this our closest-to-the-time-of-Yeshua example of a space used by His followers.
Was the house-church Jewish? A case can be made for Jewish involvement: there were Jewish residents of Syria, as evidenced by the synagogue. Sha’ul and Kefa traveled to Antioch 1. Thomas and Thaddeus are said in Orthodox tradition to have gone through the Syrian Desert and as far as southern India. The Nazarene sect of Jewish followers were reported in Syria in the 4th Century 2. The Syrian Orthodox Church bears a unique consonance with synagogue ritual 3, for instance the language used is Syriac (a version of Aramaic), there is a bema from which is read portions from Moses and the Prophets. And in Dura-Europos was found the only known Hebrew fragment of the Didache (the 1st Century teachings of the apostles) 4.
The house-church community’s emphasis was on the immersive water baptism of adults. The wall paintings are floor-to-ceiling in the baptistery (they are not frescoes, but pigments and binder applied to the walls. When discovered, they were originally mishandled — the archaeologists assumed they were the more durable fresco method, and exposed to the desert air where they degraded). The tub is marble-columned and decoratively painted 5. Still the paintings are done with only the three cheapest pigments: iron oxide red and yellow and charcoal black. It was a poor community, but the artwork is decidedly decorative (all the paintings have ornamented borders), and varied in its treatments. The following is meant to give a sense of the variety of approaches the painters used to tell a story of encounters with the divine.
Directly over the baptismal pool, a shepherd approaches his flock, carrying a sheep like a mantle. The shepherd is drawn awkwardly, while a series of sheep are rendered skillfully, playfully. This mixture conveys urgency: the artist tells his message by any means possible. The sheep are being watered, which links it to the 23rd Psalm, and given the painting’s position, initiates are led to think of the reviving waters of immersion.
A fragment of a painting shows a woman at a well, bordered by a luxuriously wide, painted earth red and white frame. It may be the first Annunciation scene 6. It is an intentionally dark painted passage (evident alongside its white border). It suggests she is only hardly emerging from the night. The woman is humble. One can sense her weightiness, her life of work.
And then there is joy in the picture of the disciples on a boat astonished by Yeshua, who holds out a hand to support Kefa as they walk on the water. The boat and disciples are colorful, the sea’s turbulence has become marks in various directions, the figure at left (historians debate which is Yeshua) has his feet in the water to his ankles. Confident serenity is on the face of the left figure, and it might be inferred that Yeshua is here ark-like, supporting Kefa.
Yale’s fragment of one of the largest paintings of the baptistery shows two veiled women in white, carrying torches and bowls, walking toward a white building with yellow stars at its top corners. Most connect it to the Parable of the Ten Virgins 8, to teach initiates to be prepared for Yeshua’s return. This image breaks its frame — the stars and peak of the roof invade our space. The night sky is deep red; the white of the women and building strongly contrast the sky; the stars blaze. The one woman’s face that survives is painted with sensitivity so we can relate to her. She looks ahead, inviting us to look ahead.
In 1942 in a rusty, discarded bicycle seat and handle bars, Picasso saw a Bull’s Head. Of the shards of Roman ruins, medieval church builders made new mosaic floors. Jewish followers of Yeshua, a newly revived community, have little of our own culture, apart from the Besorah, out of which to build our ritual life, our relationships with others, and our values. So how can artifacts of the years after Yeshua rose, be anything but a welcome place to start as we help shape the future?
1 Acts 15, Galatians 2
2 Epiphanius; Panarion 29
3 Enrico Mazza, The Celebration of the Eucharist: The Origin of the Rite, 1999
4 J. L. Teicher, Ancient Eucharistic Prayers in Hebrew, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, Oct., 1963. For a Messianic Jewish assessment of the Didache, see Toby Janicki’s The Way of Life, 2017, Vine of David
5 The Yeshua followers were ascribing to immersion a different significance than ritual purification. Ancient mikvehs were mostly unornamented
6 Michael Peppard ,The World’s Oldest Church, Yale University Press, 2016. The 1st Century, extra-biblical Infant Gospel of James tells of Miriam being visited by the angel as she is outside filling a pitcher of water
7 Yochanan 5
8 Matthew 25”
This coming Shabbat, at our virtual oneg after services, Lawrence will be sharing the paintings he has been working on as we explore this interesting place in antiquity. Hoping you will be able to attend, or if not, that this information will spur you, too, to dig deeper into the mysteries of our story.