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Are the origins of Christian art Jewish? Some findings at the Dura-Europos Synagogue
When Josef Strygowski suggested some seven decades ago that illuminated Christian Old Testament manuscripts might be rooted in a hitherto undiscovered tradition of illustrated Jewish manuscripts, there was no literary evidence and hardly any artistic evidence to support his contention.
Within the last forty years, however, amazing archaeological discoveries of Near Eastern Jewish artistic remains — for instance, the third-century synagogue of Dura-Europos and the catacombs of Beth Shearim — have given fresh impetus to examining Strygowski's theory of the possible Jewish origins of Christian art. The Dura-Europos synagogue has been the focal point of this question in recent scholarly research; this is understandable, since the paintings in the Dura synagogue are the first known significant, continuous narrative cycle of biblical images. Such extensive and complex figurative biblical decoration does not appear in churches until the fifth century.
The synagogue of Dura-Europos was discovered in 1932 by a group of archaeologists from Yale University and the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. Located between Damascus and Bagdad, Dura-Europos is on the right bank of the Euphrates River in Syria. Its preservation, in what the famous historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff called the « Pompeii of the East » can be attributed to Roman military skill. To protect the city's walls against Sassanian siege operations in 256 A.D., a number of buildings close to the city wall were covered with an earthen embankment. Since the synagogue stood close to the western city gate, it was in the area of fortification, and hence fortuitously preserved. Here for the first time a major Jewish artistic monument had come to light — an entire synagogue complex of a small Jewish community. This synagogue complex, dated to 244/45 A.D., consisted of a precinct surrounded by chambers facing the street, through which it was approached, a pillared forecourt, and the synagogue proper. The synagogue had two entrances on the eastern wall. Its inside walls were completely covered with five horizontal bands of paintings running around the four sides of the room. The lowest band above the two-tiered benches and the band next to the ceiling were decorative dados with panels depicting animals, masks and simulated marble incrustation. Roughly sixty percent of the original decoration of the three middle bands has been preserved. They portray about fifty-eight biblical episodes in about twenty-eight intact panels. All the horizontal bands converge on and are interrupted by the Torah niche on the western wall, above which are two large panels flanked by two narrow vertical wing panels on each side. The Torah niche was oriented towards Jerusalem and had a special seat placed next to it for the elder of the synagogue. Greek, Aramaic and Iranian inscriptions were found on the walls. A flat ceiling was originally covered with large decorative and inscribed tiles, which have since been installed in the reconstructed synagogue in the National Museum in Damascus, Syria.
Although the synagogue of Dura is not as well-known and has not been so widely publicized as the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has revolutionary implications. It has challenged long-held and treasured theories on the Jewish attitude towards images and the origins of Christian art. The assumed literal adherence to the « Second Commandment » (« You shall have no graven images . . . ») has been a particularly troublesome problem for theologians and scholars since the discovery of Dura. Some scholars, such as Erwin R. Goodenough, argue that Pharisaic- Rabbinic Judaism, in view of the assumed restrictions imposed on it by the pentateuchal Second Commandment, could never have tolerated the Dura paintings. They must, therefore, be the product of a more liberal and assimilated Judaism, namely Hellenistic Judaism. Goodenough and his followers who argue that a Hellenistic Judaism served as the transmitter of Jewish art to Christian art overlook the fact that the penetration of Hellenism into the Ancient Near East proved disruptive not only to Jews living outside of Palestine but to those living in Palestine herself. In major Hellenistic centers such as Alexandria, the Pentateuch was transmuted from an Ancient Near Eastern text into a Greek Text, capable of coping with the needs of the polis-living Jews by endowing the simple and austere pentateuchal narratives, cultic rites and laws with profound allegorical, symbolic and philosophical meanings.
In Palestine, a new class of scholars, the Pharisees, arose to solve the problems posed by Hellenism. Not satisfied with merely transmitting an Ancient Near Eastern text, they set about constructing a new and radical form of Judaism. By positing a divinely revealed twofold Law, the Written and the Oral, they preserved the Pentateuch, the Written Law, while proceeding through the Oral Law to introduce major changes capable of mastering a Hellenistic way of life. These revolutionary changes substituted an individual, synagogue/scholar/ prayer-oriented Judaism for a people-land, Temple/priest/sacrifice-centered Judaism. Central to this new form of Judaism was the internalization of the Pharisaic laws (halakhot), laws which required among other obligations mandatory prayers in an unmediated relationship with God in order to insure for the individual his salvation and resurrection in the world to come.
As we would expect, the Jewish artistic remains of Dura and other synagogues of the early Christian period spell out the new salvationary message of Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism and not that of a mystic Judaism, as some scholars have it.
The attitude of Rabbinic Judaism towards art also changed. Rabbi Johanan, of third-century Palestine, had no reason to censure his contemporaries when they began decorating the walls of their conventicles with paintings. Nor did Rabbi Abun offer objections a century later when Jews began placing figural mosaic decoration on the floors of their synagogues. Contemporary Christian thinkers, it should be noted, vehemently rejected images. The Church Father Tertullian condemned art as the work of the devil, and a Synod of Elvira in early fourth-century Spain decreed that « there ought to be no pictures in a church . . . » It has been rightly claimed that were it not for the artistic evidence, we would never suspect (from the surviving literature) the existence of Christian images prior to the year 300.
Did the specific paintings of the Dura synagogue or their immediate models exert an influence on later Christian art, as some scholars maintain? If we compare the Sacrifice of Isaac in Dura with that in later Byzantine depictions, we find in both that the ram is not entangled in a thicket but tied or standing next to a tree, and that the hand of God, and not an angel, intervenes to stop the deed. In the same way, the Anointing of David at Dura and the depictions in later Byzantine art differ from the biblical account by showing only six brothers present instead of seven. While these iconographic parallels, and others, based on rabbinic interpretations of the biblical accounts, do exist between Dura and later Christian art, they are insufficient to warrant any far-reaching conclusions.
Many Christian works of art are assumed by scholars to be based on lost earlier Jewish models, since they incorporate Jewish legendary material (aggadah). Examples include depictions of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a camel-like creature with four legs; the raven sent forth by Noah seen feeding upon a carcass; Joseph encountering the winged angel Gabriel, while on his way to find his brethren; and Benjamin sitting to the right of his brother Joseph at themeal they shared together in Egypt. These non-biblical Jewish legendary accounts do not furnish conclusive evidence to establish the existence of lost, ancient Jewish illustrated manuscript cycles, as the same Jewish legends frequently appear in patristic writings.
Whether the origins of Christian art were dependent on a pre-existing Jewish art must, for the time being, remain an open question. There can be little doubt, however, that the beginnings of Christian art and its distinct Christian salvationary message cannot be properly understood without the revolutionary changes introduced earlier by Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. *
Dr. Gutmann is professor of art history at Wayne State University, Oak Park, Michigan.