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GARDNER­WEBB UNIVERSITY

THE DURA EUROPOS SYNAGOGUE: THEOLOGY OF ART AS TEXT

SUBMITTED TO PROF. C. ROBERTSON
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY

BY 
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SAMUEL B HARRELSON
12 FEBRUARY 2008
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF DURA EUROPOS

Dura Europos was established as a town sometime shortly after the death of Alexander

the Great in 323 B.C.E. As Alexander's empire split into its successive parts, the generals

who served under him struggled for control over certain areas. Seleukos, a general under

Alexander, claimed Syria and Mesopotamia as his own territory

Just as Alexander had championed an immense building program of new cities to

consolidate power and disseminate Hellenistic culture, his generals followed suit in their

respective areas of control. Dura Europos was founded on an escarpment above the

Euphrates River along a trade route from the larger and more prosperous cities of

Palmyra and Aleppo through the deserts of Syria and what is now western Iraq as one of

these cities.

The city received its original name, Europos (the prefix Dura was a later addition)

from the Macedonian hometown of General Seleukos. As a result, the name “Dura

Europos” never existed until after the 1930's. Dura Europos was laid out in a Hellenistic

grid plan with a central agora and marketplace that changed little over the course of the

city’s existence (besides growing population density).

A century later in around 113 BCE, the city fell to the rapidly advancing Parthian

Empire. The Parthians, as the Macedonians before them, were tolerant of other religions

and cultures and mostly interested in trade. The Greek culture of the city elites began to

mix with the Semitic culture and Parthian influences to create a hybridization of various
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cultures, traditions and artistic programs. Many of the religious buildings dating from this

period attest to this blending of cultures with Greek deities being absorbed into the

Semitic or “oriental” culture and their representations taking on a more Eastern rather

than Hellenistic look.

The city flourished under the rule of the Parthians due to an increased presence of

trade and the liberal social policies of the Parthian kings. However, during the first

century BCE, the growing Roman Empire began a series of skirmishes with the Parthian

rulers and Parthian cavalry stationed at Dura was a part of the battles to fend off the

invading Romans. The Parthians would go on to hold off the Romans until 20 BCE when

Augustus came to a peace accord with the Parthian leadership, setting the boundaries 40

miles upstream from Dura Europos, allowing the city to stay in Parthian control.

For a short while in 116 CE, the city fell into Roman control under the advances

of Trajan (who erected a ceremonial arch outside of Dura Europos), but soon fell back to

Parthia after Trajan's death a year later. Finally, in 165, the Romans army returned and

captured the city. A Roman garrison was installed and the city was soon transformed from

a tolerant trading center with a mix of cultures to a frontier fort with dwindling

importance and finances. The city would eventually fall in 256 C.E. to the Sassanian

Empire under the leadership of Shapur. Soon afterwards, the city would be abandoned

and subsequently forgotten until the 1930’s. However, it is during the Roman period of

the city that we now turn our attention.


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RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY AT DURA EUROPOS

During the Roman occupation of Dura Europos, the city experienced a number of

changes. The physical aspects of the city were quickly altered as a garrison of Roman

soldiers was soon stationed in the city. As a result, the relatively small amount of space

available to townspeople inside the city walls (due to a large ravine on two sides, a steep

cliff on the other and the desert wall separating the city from the wilderness and nearby

necropolis) became even more scarce and valuable.

The Hellenistic grid plan of the city also change as the Roman camp was

expanded over the century long occupation. Inside the area of the Roman camp, all

temples and shrines were demolished with the exception of the Temple of Azzanathkona

and the Temple of Bel, as their cults were popular with the soldiers. Only four new

religious buildings were constructed during this time including a temple to Jupiter

Dolichenus, a Mithraeum, the Synagogue and a Christian House2. Although this century

of Dura's five centuries of existence saw a decrease in the city's prosperity and a

dampening of the tolerant religious attitude of the former Greek and Parthian rulers, most

scholars continue to focus on this period of the city's history.

Christian Community at Dura

The Christian House's baptismal is a “unique document of pre-Constantinian baptismal

practice.”1 It is the earliest Christian baptismal discovered to this point, and like the

1 Annabel Jane Wharton, Refiguring the Post-Classical Ciety (Cambridge: Cambridge


Univ Press, 1995) 54.
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nearby Synagogue, included rich program of art reflecting theological convictions and

even textual scenes. As with similar early Christian congregations, the Dura group met

and worshiped in a private house that would later be renovated into its final format before

the destruction of the city.

Again, Meeks points out that these meeting houses were common in both Jewish

and Christian communities in the early centuries of the common era:

“The practice of meeting in private houses was probably an expedient used by


Jews in many places as it was for the Pauline Christians, to judge from the
remains of synagogue buildings at Dura-Europos, Stobi, Delos, and elsewhere
that were adapted from private dwellings.”2

In the Christian House, the group would celebrate the Eucharist and practice the

important rite of baptism. The Christian House was renovated in around 240 CE, just two

decades before the destruction of the city at the hands of the Sassanians.

The Christian House, like the Synagogue and Mithraeum, point inwards. By this, I

mean that they do not follow the classical Roman ideal of being sun-splashed buildings

open to the street. Instead, each of these buildings are non-descript on their public facades

and follow the patterns of the residential structures around them. While it is tempting to

interpret this as a sign that these cults were trying to remain secretive or avoid persecution

from the Romans then inhabiting the city, however, this is not a convention of secrecy.

Rather, this format is a cultural convention of the art and context. These groups were not

seeking privacy but exclusivity and a sense of mystery within their doors. The art

programs, such as that of the Baptismal, reinforce this interpretation.

2 Meeks, 38
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Jewish Community of Dura

Among these communities, the Jewish population at Dura has been the focus of a large

portion of the scholarship on the site. What is factual is that the Jewish community there

constructed a meetinghouse, which has puzzled scholars since its discovery in the sixth

season of excavations (1934-1935). The synagogue was converted from a residence

between 165 and 200 C.E. The Synagogue at Dura Europos was representative of a broad

house type of structure, which was common in the Diaspora, but most similar the

synagogues at Naro and Khirbet Shema.3 This building type featured an east-west

orientation of its columns, which differed from examples of broad house buildings found

in Palestine.

The Synagogue was then refurbished around 244 or 245 C.E., including the rich

painted scenes incorporating narratives from the Hebrew Bible. Wayne Meeks points out

that “before the excavations in Dura-Europos in 1932 most people would have thought the

notion preposterous that third-century Jews in a Roman garrison town would have covered

the walls of their synagogue with narrative paintings.”4

All four walls of the large central meeting room were painted and the ceiling was

decorated with a rich program of tiles, some with personal attributes and signatures of

patrons. The raised seat in the center of the preserved western wall of the meeting room

includes a seat of honor for the elder or archisynagogos.5 The feature is traditionally

described as the “Torah niche.” Over the niche is a clamshell design with symbols of

3 Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of
Jesus and the Rabbis (Harrisburg: Trinity International Press, 1996), 136.
4 Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1983), 32.
5 Horsley, 142.
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fertility (normally ascribed to non-Israelite cultures) such as grape vines and wild animals.

Horsley points out that these chairs cannot be the symbolic seats of “Jewish legal

authority” because the head of such an assembled court would not have sat alone, but with

other members of the court. He also points out that interpreting this seat as a place of

teaching the Torah is problematic because the rabbis did not have such functions in

synagogues in this context.6 Instead, he suggests that the niche, or chair, may have had

connections to Syrian buildings which represented an empty throne for a particular deity.

In this reading, he connects the Torah and niche to Moses and posits that such features

represented the “chair of Moses.”7

When the city was sacked by Sassanian invaders in 255 or 256 C.E., fortifications

made by Dura inhabitants along the western wall of the city (by cutting off the roofs of

buildings adjoining the wall and filling them with rubble and debris) preserved the

elaborate paintings and Torah niche of the west wall. This action also preserved the

Christian House and the Mithraem for posterity.

Before going too far into the presentation on the specifics of the Dura Europos

Synagogue’s artistic program, let us evaluate some of the problems with 20th century

assessments of Dura Europos art and how that affects traditional understandings of the

cultures represented.

6 Horsley, 143
7 Horsley, 144
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STATE OF DURA EUROPOS SCHOLARSHIP

Scholarship concerning Dura Europos is largely undeveloped and not mature in its scope,

approach, and insight. Since its accidental discovery by British troops digging trenches

on an alluvial plateau above the Euphrates River in 1920, the site has experienced periods

of great interest and relative obscurity. What has remained constant is the dated approach

scholars have taken when discussing or writing about Dura.

This approach is largely derogatory, and seeks to discover Dura's place in an

evolutionary view of the triumph of Western art. For instance, the first work concerning

Dura Europos to be published was the aptly named Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine

Painting8 by initial observer, James Henry Breasted. This title still commands much of

the thought concerning Dura, relegating it to the Western pre-occupation of 'oriental' and

proclaiming the art of the site as some missing link in the chain that eventually led to

frontal Byzantine Painting and eventually to the height of western culture, the

Renaissance.

Equally slighted in the corpus of scholarship on Dura Europos are the religious

and sociological aspects of the city. In general, scholars focus on the relatively brief

period of Roman occupation of the city (165-255/6 CE) and much has been done on the

military aspects of Dura Europos as a frequently termed “small frontier outpost”.

Work has been done on the Jewish Synagogue, the Christian domus ecclesia, and

8 James Henry Breasted, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting, University of Chicago Oriental
Institute Publications, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1924), 16.
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a few other temples, but they are limited in their scope, range and mid-twentieth century

art historical approaches. Annabel Jane Wharton includes a chapter on Dura Europos and

her concerns over Dura scholarship in her convincing work, Refiguring the Post

Classical City.9 Indeed, I will make numerous references to this important work in this

paper. However, I will seek to examine a specific paint scene on the walls of the

Synagogue in light of the criticisms I raise to the monolithic voice of general Durene

scholarship. By turning to the Esther and Mordecai scene on the west wall of the Dura

Synagogue, I hope to establish a space for the study of the relationship between text and

image in the Durene Jewish community at the time of the paintings (3rd century C.E.). In

this exploration, I hope to critically assess some of the techniques used in conveying

messages in this form such as cultural resistance and context/intra-text.

Scholarship concerning Dura Europos is largely undeveloped and not mature in

its scope, approach, and insight. Since its accidental discovery by British troops digging

trenches on an alluvial plateau above the Euphrates River in 1920, the site has

experienced periods of great interest and relative obscurity. What has remained constant

is the dated approach scholars have taken when discussing or writing about Dura.

The approach described as Orientalism is largely derogatory, and seeks to

discover Dura's place in an evolutionary view of the triumph of Western art. For instance,

the first work concerning Dura Europos to be published was the aptly named Oriental

Forerunners of Byzantine Paintings by initial observer, James Henry Breasted.

This title still commands much of the thought concerning Dura Europos,

relegating it to the Western pre-occupation of 'oriental' and proclaiming the art of the site

9 Annabel Jane Wharton, Refiguring the Post-Classical City (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995),
19.
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as some missing link in the chain that eventually led to frontal Byzantine Painting and

eventually to the height of western culture, the Renaissance.

The history of scholarship on Dura Europos has produced a great number of

valuable insights and observations about the site, which can't simply be dismissed due to

ideological concerns. However, the vast majority of the scholarship has kept in single file

line, declaring that the importance of Dura lies in its appropriation into the line of

development leading to Christian Byzantine art. In this appropriation, the art of Dura is

often lumped together into a single mass and declared static, unimaginative and inferior

to Western productions. For example, Michael I. Rostovtzeff, a famed Near Eastern

historian who led the excavations at Dura in the 1930's wrote,

“The features are always somewhat effeminate, with peculiar languid eyes
traits which are both highly typical of the later Oriental art of the Near
East. In this they remind one of the sensuous late-Hellenistic sculptures of
Babylonia in the Parthian period. Despite their military dress, the military
gods of Palmyra are refined, elegant ephebes of the Oriental type...We
have here a tendency towards the almost complete negation of the
body which is not Greek; indeed, it is a complete and conscious negation
of the principles of Greek art."10

Such appropriations of forerunner and oriental status create a very limited space

for the understanding of the very important communities (and their art) represented in the

historical record at Dura as an outpost of civilization, far removed from the more

culturally relevant communities to the West.

Equally slighted in the corpus of scholarship on Dura Europos are the religious

and sociological aspects of the city. In general, scholars focus on the relatively brief
10 Michael I. Rostovtzeff, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical
Studies, 5 (1935), 237-238.
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period of Roman occupation of the city (165-255/6 CE) and much has been done on the

military aspects of Dura Europos as a frequently termed “small frontier outpost.” Work

has been done on the Jewish Synagogue, the Christian domus ecclesia, and a few other

temples, but they are limited in their scope, range and mid-twentieth century art historical

approaches.
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DURA EUROPOS SYNAGOGUE FRESCOES

The art of Dura Europos is unique and astounding in its depiction of life, theology and

culture. Given the city’s strategic point along the Euphrates along with its place in time

as a literal crossroads of various cultures (founded as a Greek city by Alexander’s

generals, then became Persian then Roman, then ultimately sacked) within a relatively

short period of existence.

The Dura Europos Synagogue with its impressive wall of frescoes is one of these

fascinating buildings preserved in the city. This art program not only tells us a great deal

about the Jewish community in terms of Old Testament theology and meeting space

ideals, but we also get a glimpse into how this community of early third century Jews

were appropriating the ideologies from the surrounding religious communities into their

own worship and artistic spaces.

Among all of the religious communities, the Jewish population at Dura Europos

has been the focus of a large portion of the scholarship on the site. Many commentators

have even ventured into the murky realm of trying to make definitive statements about

the historical reality of the Jewish community there.

What is factual is that the Jewish community there constructed a meeting house

which has puzzled scholars since its discovery in the sixth season of excavations (1934-

1935). The Synagogue was converted from a residence between 165 and 200 C.E. The

Synagogue was then refurbished around 244 or 245 C.E., including the rich painted

scenes incorporating narratives from the Hebrew Bible. All four walls of the large central
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meeting room were painted and the ceiling was decorated with a rich program of tiles,

some with personal attributes and signatures of patrons.

When the city was sacked by Sassanian invaders in 255 or 256 C.E., fortifications

made by Dura inhabitants along the western wall of the city (by cutting off the roofs of

buildings adjoining the wall and filling them with rubble and debris) preserved the

elaborate paintings and torah niche of the west wall. This action also preserved the

Christian House and the Mithraem for posterity.

The discovery of the Synagogue frescoes sparked a good deal of debate and

inquiry into the possibilities of why the Dura Jewish community would have proceeded

with such a decorative program in light of the biblical injunctions, particularly the second

commandment and other passages in the Deuteronomistic writings, against doing so.

Annabel Wharton writes,

"…the frescoes of the Dura Synagogue have disturbed received Western


wisdom in a way few other archaeological discoveries have: the paintings
protest the construction of Jews as anconic and nonvisual. The decorative
program of the Synagogue, one of the most extensive figural painting
cycles salvaged from antiquity, threatens the neat, nineteenth century
formulation, still very much with us, of the Jews (the East) as verbal and
abstract and the Greeks (the West) as visual and figural."11

To accommodate this disturbance of the typical assumptions about ancient Jewish

art, scholars have mounted rather unsubstantiated arguments about the question of the

Durene Jewish community’s own orthodoxy. Carl Kraeling in his important, but

frequently biased and assuming, volume entitled (authoritatively) The Synagogue12,

argues that the Durene community was keeping with local Durene customs rather than

11 Michael I. Rostovtzeff, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical Studies, 5 (1935), 237-
238.
12 Carl Kraeling, The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 4.
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following the traditional biblical injunctions against images. Scholars before and after his

work have followed suit and announced that the Durene Jews were either seeking to

replicate works from the Synagogue at Antioch or entirely heterodox in their

appropriation of images.

Scholars such as E.R. Goodenough have put forth claims that Durene Judaism

was unorthodox compared to Palestinian standards.13 His argument holds that and relied

on the interpretation of hired local artists more familiar with working with pagan subject

matter. These local craftspeople would have decorated the synagogue according to their

own cultural conventions. Goodenough posits that these conventions would have

differed from the Jewish community of the area. However, because of the constraints of

building materials in the stone poor area surrounding Dura Europos and the influence of

various sources of artistic and religious traditions brought in by Roman soldiers and the

constant caravans travelling the Euphrates trade routs, the synagogue would have

necessarily taken on a “local Syrian flavor.”14

Along with blurring the received “Judeo-Christian” tradition and its assumptions

about Jewish art, the paintings also have caused scholars much spilled ink in searching

for biblical texts to explain the paintings. In fact, this search for corresponding texts has

so freighted the discussion of the Dura Synagogue that any serious monograph on the

subject has traditionally been seemingly more occupied with that endeavor rather than the

actual frescoes! Once again, I turn to the insights of Annabel Wharton,

“Most scholars have sought to provide the paintings with a rational


scheme by identifying their content. It seems that the identification of

13 E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period IX-XI: Symbolism in the Dura
Synagogue (New York, 1964) IX, 200, 228.
14 Goodenough, 224.
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subject matter offers some scholarly control over these unruly images. In
any case, the search for the meaning of individual panels [of the
Synagogue] and the theme of the entire program has resulted in a vast
academic production. This desire for a unitary message has promoted the
literary text. The priority of the written word and the propensity for
exclusive meaning are the objects of my criticism. The prominence of the
literary text in the analysis of the images of the Synagogue (and also the
Christian building) has many other grounds: the celebration of the written
word in the West at least since the invention of printing, the availability of
relevant literary texts to modern scholars (if not to the ancient
programmers) and, in the case of the Synagogue of Dura, the absence of
competing claims by the frescoes themselves.”15

15 Wharton, 42.
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SPECIFIC EXAMPLE: ESTHER PANELS OF DURA SYNAGOGUE

In turning to the panels concerning Esther, I hope to posit these two positions (the unfair

subjugation of the Durene Jewish community as a heterodox one, and the primacy of the

written word over the actual image on the panel itself) as points of contention. In doing

so, I think a look at the actual Esther panels themselves will provide an alternative insight

into the actual Durene Jewish community and show the irony of these images lies on the

walls of the Synagogue (now in the National Museum in Damascus) and also in the

reception history constructed by mid twentieth century scholars.


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The Esther scene is in a single frame to the immediate left of the Torah niche on

the west wall in the assembly room. This is a prominent position, and the scene seems to

have direct connotations of the Festival of Purim. On the right side of the panel,

Mordecai, in Persian garb with a flowing robe, is depicted as riding on a brilliant white

horse apparently being led by Haman, who is clothed in the garb of a stable attendant.

To the right of this, four onlookers, apparently a crowd who is praising Mordecai,

dressed in long chitons faces the triumphant Mordecai on horseback. To the right of this,

King Ahasuerus (dressed in the same Persian regal garb as Mordecai) and Queen Esther

sit on thrones of equal height. There are three attendants and what appears to be a

messenger either delivering or receiving a letter from the King.

Although scholars generally agree that the action on the left side of the panel is
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the triumphant Mordecai riding on his steed (Esther 6.6), they disagree on the right side.

It is even difficult to understand how the various scenes in the assembly room fit together

meta-narratively (if they do at all). Searching for a biblical text or rationale to explain the

Synagogue scenes, especially this scene, not only places the primacy of the written text

above the actual image available, but also assumes that there is one meaning ‘encoded’ in

these images for the viewer to decipher and discern based on the written texts.

Reading of the Esther Panels

Rather than looking for a single canonical text to explain these scenes, we should look at

the space already made available by the interplay of the Esther painting itself and with

the other extant scenes. This can be done in two ways.

First, by looking at con-texts and intra-texts and the space of cultural resistance

supported by Jas Elsner16, the Esther sequence can be investigated in its own validity and

the realities constructed in its program.

Wharton proposes a need for the examination of midrash as a guide for examining

the intertextual space of the Synagogue frescoes.17 In this argument, she lays out the

importance of con-texts and intra-texts and rallies against the general scholarly activity of

trying to understand the Synagogue frescoes by correlating them to a specific text:

“The presupposition that an image can legitimately have only one “true”
subject is opposed by the midrash, which provides a model for an
alternative relationship between text and meaning. This other reading
allows the image to have a particular verse from Esther as its subject at
one moment and a different narrative at another moment, depending on

16 Jas Elsner, “Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europos,” Classical Philology
(Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press) vol. 96 n.3 July 2001.
17 Wharton, 42.
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how it operates for its reader/viewer. Both midrash and fresco exemplify
how the juxtaposition of narrative fragments produces a new text.”18

In the Esther fresco, as in midrash, signifiers point to other elements from outside

of the actual event depicted to associate the viewer with a contemporary situation. For

instance, costumes of the figures in the Esther panels are not meant to replicate those of

the actual persons of Esther, Mordecai or even Ahasuerus. Rather, they connect the

viewing audience of the assembly hall with certain important events in the history of the

Jewish people.

The Feast of Purim is an important event in the Jewish calendar, and for a people

under subjugation to the Roman army and empire, the festival would be seen as a link to

a past under domination by other empires, such as the Persians (which would have

particular resonance in the city of Dura because of its peculiar location between the

“East” and the “West”). Therefore, the reconstructed reality presented by the Esther

fresco ties the all-important reader-responder to the past and the importance of the present

situation that community found itself in at the moment of the paintings, much in the same

way a rabbi would construct a reality in midrash.

These constructed realities need not be canonical nor monolithic, but just as in

midrash, could be multivalent and point to various moments of insight drawing from the

scenes themselves and the outside elements that are drawn in.

The only text which can be factually claimed to have existed in the Synagogue are

the Aramaic and Middle Persian inscriptions made on the walls of the assembly room, in

many cases on the frescoes themselves. Kraeling comments on these inscriptions in a

18 Wharton, 46.
21

complete chapter of The Synagogue, however they are only translated and their

significance in relation to the frescoes is not explored. Kraeling’s thesis is that they are

simply graffiti in the lowest sense of the word, made by passers through, and not essential

to worship or the experience of the congregation.

However, if these ten inscriptions, or intra-texts, are viewed as important and

meaning loaded texts, the association between them and the frescoes becomes much more

intimate, reaching a level similar to a rabbi expounding in midrash. Many of these

inscriptions appear to have weight and be of importance due to their positioning on the

frescoes. In the ground above the figure of Mordecai reads the Persian inscription, “This

is I, Aparsam, the scribe.”

These inscriptions follow the movement of the frescoes themselves, and often

appear in black placed upon the flesh color of individuals within the frescoes. Rather than

being simple “I was here” graffiti, these inscriptions are signs that point to the authority

of interpreters, whether rabbis or scribes, who were importing their own meanings into

the discussion and viewings of the frescoes, and thereby allowing a multivalence of

interpretations of the frescoes themselves.

The matrix provided is one where the scribe or the rabbi doing the inscription is

establishing their own authority upon the fresco and signifying the importance of the

space that exists in their teachings that correlate to the programs presented on the walls.

Wharton points out that,

“the act of inscribing the paintings permanently affirms the authority of


the authors at the same time that it confers their privilege on the images.
The dipinti thus presume additional strata of meaning within the
Synagogue frescoes, further contradicting the notion that these images
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were closed or canonical in their signification.”19

In this way, the paintings do correspond closely to a midrashic understanding and

appropriation of the text rather than just illuminations of biblical passages. This

importance is key to understanding and appreciating their function for the Dura Jewish

community.

The synagogue at Dura, as other synagogues both in Palestine and in the Diaspora

functioned as much more than just learning centers and Torah research. The synagogue,

both in the sense of an assembly and in the building proper, was more than a place of

worship. Social-political dimensions were inseparable from the religious dimension, so

to speak of any synagogue, including the Dura synagogue, as a place of worship or Torah

research is lacking.20

As Richard Horsley points out,

“It seems clear, therefore, that “synagogues” in Galilee, as well as in


Diaspora communities in the first century C.E., were the assemblies of the
local communities.”21

Due to the place of the synagogue as a cultural center of socio-political, as well as

religious, interaction, the paintings take on significant ramifications outside of simple

illustrations of biblical passages.

Therefore, the significance of the entire Esther panel comes into play as a vehicle

for constructing realities based on authorial privilege (of the rabbi) and reader response.

Instead of being static representations of biblical stories or participating in some

19 Wharton, 46.
20 Horsley, 146.
21 Horsley, 148.
23

heterodox mystical program, the frescoes acted very much like midrash and allowed the

interpretation of contemporary events through and with the representations of the past.

Instead of being un-original, these paintings were based on local oral tradition and

interpretation and therefore hyper-original in their undertaking and performance. Instead

of being poor interpretations lacking sophistication in execution, these frescoes taken

with their intra-texts are important windows into the social world, concerns and needs of

the Durene, and northern Syrian, Jewish community.

In a recent article, Jas Elsner attempts to use various shrines at Dura as an

example of the use of visual images for cultural resistance.22 Elsner’s thesis is

fundamentally separate from the argument I make here, but many issues he raises,

particularly in respect to the Synagogue frescoes, are appropriate to this discussion.

Just as Wharton attempts to locate the intertextual space of the frescoes, Elsner

attempts to locate the space for resistance in various sacrificial scenes in the numerous

shrines and temples of Dura. He identifies the Synagogue as the most active program of

denigration to other religions at Dura by attacking the polytheistic deities of other

religions practiced, and the specific act of sacrifice23.

In particular, Elsner focuses on panels such as the transportation of the Ark of the

Covenant through the wilderness in light of this resistance theme. Such panels are

indicative of an explicit effort by the members of the Jewish community at Dura to create

a 'history of their own' appropriating the tools (artwork and cultural conventions) of the

local community to establish a space and history with their own victory coming in the

22 Jas Elsner, “Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europos,” Classical Philology
(Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press) vol. 96 n.3 July 2001.
23 Elsner, 91.
24

conquering of foreign deities represented as broken vessels around the Ark24.

However it is his comments on the Synagogue itself, which are most appropriate

for the discussion of the Esther panels. In creating space for the active resistance to other

religious practices at Dura Europos, Elsner is supporting the argument that the frescoes

are not simply illuminations of biblical texts. Frescoes such as the Esther panel play an

important role in a combined attempt to discredit other religions and cults by portraying

the victory of the Jewish religion over its foes.

For example, just as Mordecai is riding triumphant at the behest of Haman, and

Esther, who has been crowned Queen, is enthroned at the parallel height of a foreign

ruler, the Durene Jewish community participates in a reality of victory over foreign

domination in a city of various cults and practices. This place of honor for Mordecai and

Esther in the frescoes puts the entire community in a place of honor themselves, and

allows the space for rabbinic expositions on their current situation rather than just a static

interpretation of the written word.

Art as Pre-Text

However, rather than tie the artwork to a specific piece of biblical narrative, I would like

to follow the lead of Wharton and suggest a pre-textual reader (participant) response

exegesis of the image. Rather than relying on a canonical or extra-canonical text to

supply a meaning for this or any image in the Synagogue does damage to the community

of expression. The emphasis of finding a specific meaning for these texts, outside of

themselves, commits the same sins as a reader-response critic would argue that a

24 Elsner, 89.
25

historical-critical reading of a text which seeks to understand keywords and narrative

moments based on time and place contexts does to a text.

In other words, the Synagogue at Dura Europos provides modern (and post-

modern) readers with a firm lesson to avoid the ease of falling into the trap of relying on

authoritative texts to provide sole rationales of meaning for a particular set of other texts,

or even works of art. In the case of the Synagogue frescoes, such as the Esther panels,

this is especially true. Although viewing the religious art of the baptismal in terms of an

illustration of the biblical text, the more powerful reading comes from stressing the

importance of the interaction of the narrative (oral) culture that was transferring these

narratives.

Rather than relying on the canonical, redacted and heavily copied (subject to error

in terms of historical transmission) text that we have interpreted in the twenty first

century, allowing the art-as-text to speak for itself in an authoritative manner can be just

as powerful for contemporary religious congregations as the experience of participation

in the Dura Europos Synagogue must have been eighteen hundred years ago. In other

words, the meaning of the art (and reversely, in text itself) lies with the

viewer/initiate/reader who must draw their own conclusions about the faith experience

rather than rely on the biased interpretations of others.


26

CONCLUSION

Dura Europos is positioned at an interesting place in the world of scholarship and

constructed history. In most every book detailing the history of Christianity or Western

art, Dura is placed in “forerunner” status and given a place in the evolutionary chain that

clearly begins at Sumer and makes its way through the centuries to Michelangelo.

However, as the various ideologies of past scholars are examined, interesting and

neglected cases, such as the site of Dura, come into focus. The various temples and

shrines at Dura posit an incredible chance to explore the interplay of text and image,

author and audience, authority and object. Scholars who view such projects as the fresco

program of the Dura Synagogue seriously limit and threaten the multivalence of this art.

The Esther panels provide a unique chance to discover such interplays and the irony

involved in constructing new realities.


27

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