The Dura Synagogue and Visual Midrash

Jacob Milgrom

Jacob Milgrom, “The Dura Synagogue and Visual Midrash,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 29–60.

An amazing archaeological hoard lay hidden high on a promontory overlooking a bend in the middle of the Euphrates River. This unusual treasure was known as early as 1872, but real interest did not begin to percolate till a British army unit engaging in skirmishes with local Bedouins entrenched itself in a walled fortress and came upon paintings while digging into the earth fill. It was then, in April 1920, that Professor J. H. Breasted of the Oriental Institute, visiting in Baghdad some three hundred miles to the southeast, was called to the site and took notes, measurements, and photographs. [1] And well it was that he took those photographs, albeit without details, because the local Bedouins, educated to iconoclasm, promptly gouged the eyes of the applicants in the sacrifice of Konan on the south wall of the newly uncovered Temple of Bel.

Not long afterwards, in 1922 and 1923, noted Belgian scholar Franz Cumont conducted excavations, followed by Mikhail Rostovtzeff of Yale University, who, in connection with the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, began a series of ten expeditions to clear a major part of the city. In the half century since, a significant bibliography has resulted, much of it revolving around the synagogue uncovered at Dura-Europos whose walls were daringly, brilliantly covered with frescoes of larger-than-life human figures.

Clark Hopkins, who directed four of the ten expeditions at Dura and who was present at all the major finds, was in charge when the synagogue was discovered in the fall of 1932. [2] With awed excitement, he wrote of the unforgettable event:

Still there was no indication, no inkling of the revelation to come. The day of action was fixed upon. There were the enthusiasts and the skeptics, the optimists and the pessimists. There was the wall forty feet long and the cut extending ten to twelve feet beneath the surface, a bare blank wall of dirt, packed down, but easily undercut to fall away without impairing the plaster surface. Overhead the same bright sun that had greeted us so many mornings in the past, shone through the early morning coolness, 45–55 degrees; very little wind, a perfect late fall day.

The signal was given and the best of our pick-men undercut the blanket of dirt concealing the west wall. Like a blanket or a series of blankets, the dirt fell and revealed pictures, paintings, vivid in color, startling; so fresh it seemed they might have been painted a month before. There was a mighty series of paintings, the scenes continuing from the north corner along the whole forty feet of wall.

The work in the other trenches almost stopped! Members of the expedition not already there were hastily summoned. It was a scene like a dream! In the infinite space of clear blue sky and bare gray desert, there was a miracle taking place, an oasis of painting springing up from the dull earth. The size of the room was dwarfed by the limitless horizons, but no one could deny the extraordinary array of figures, the brilliant scenes, the astounding colors. What did it mean? Who was the tall figure leading a host from the fortress walls of a city, and what meant those splotches of red and yellow above the walls in the high corner of the painting?

In Aramaic between the feet of the great leader was written, “Moses leads out of Egypt.” [3] If the paintings were spectacular enough by themselves, the Aramaic inscription fixing the scene was a heaven-sent gift. Who would believe that in this desert fortress, this frontier town, this third century caravan ciy, there should have been and still was preserved a Synagogue, its great walls covered with paintings? [4]

Later that first year they hesitatingly dug to the center of the rear wall and uncovered the central niche, the Torah shrine, with the sacred symbols, the menorah, ethrog, and lulab (the lamp-stand, citron, and palm branch), and the scene of the binding of Isaac. Before the season ended, ceiling tiles of baked brick yielded the names of Jewish leaders and the dedicatory inscription fixing the date for the construction 224–245 B.C.

It was the first major Jewish artistic monument ever unearthed. Mikhail Rostovtzeff called it “the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert.” It contained the earliest known significant continuous cycle of biblical images. Extensive figural decoration of similar complexity does not appear in Christian art until the fifth century C.E.

Understandably, well-established scholarly theories were seriously challenged. Old debates were reopened in art and historical circles. Were, in fact, the origins of Christian art rooted in an antecedent, but now lost, Jewish art? Was rabbinic Judaism of the third century really so rigidly iconoclastic as scholars had assumed? Was rabbinic Judaism normative Judaism? Art historians have asked how the Dura Synagogue paintings are related to early medieval art, for Dura-Europos has preserved “the largest body of ancient wall-paintings from the classical period outside of Italy.” [5] Equally intriguing is the visual hybridization on these walls of the Hellenized Orient on the western edge of Parthia. The vast bibliography mentioned above deals expansively with these questions. This paper will focus on selected panels, the iconography of which has been enriched and expanded by extra-biblical sources. These panels will be examined on a narrative and symbolic plane in an effort to define the underlying motifs that have related the concerns, and therefore the program, of the synagogue.

As a prelude, however, it is appropriate to obtain a brief overview of the history and character of this frontier town to understand the Jewish community’s struggle for self-identity on the fringes of the Roman diaspora.

Ideally situated for growth, Dura was high enough above the mid-Euphrates to control military and commercial traffic and central enough between lower Mesopotamia and western Syria to be a terminus of caravan routes to Palmyra, and from there to the Mediterranean Sea. It is located south of the Syrian city of Deir-ez-Zor, north of ancient Mari, about halfway between Baghdad and Beirut. Deep ravines make the city inaccessible from both north and south; the river bars it from the east, leaving only the western wall as the approach for both friend and foe. The changing fortunes of this settlement were actually a mirror of the larger changes that took place in the Near East between the death of Alexander the Great and the systematic aggression of the Sassanian Persians to reestablish the glory of the Achaemenid dynasty some six hundred years later.

Dura was founded in about 300 B.C.E. by a colony of Greeks and Macedonians in the wake of Alexander’s exploration into India. These Hellenists left behind a square open agora of eight blocks, remnants of fine Greek red and black pottery, typical ashlar masonry, no theater, no scenes from Greek mythology, but one notable Hellenistic statue of Aphrodite standing before the temple of Artemis, too mobile and dynamic to be of local Durene making. [6] A few written documents of Hellenistic date indicate that the form of civil government was basically Greek.

The Parthian Empire forming east of the Caspian Sea spread as far west as the Euphrates, incorporating Dura without a struggle. Coins indicate the likely date, 113 B.C.E., of the establishment of Parthian control of its westernmost outpost. Thus began an interesting symbiosis of Greeks and Parthians with the tribes of the Syrian desert and the languages and deities of both Arabs and Jews. Palmy ran caravan trade prospered the city, and Palmyra gave its Aramaic dialect to the people. Hellenistic building materials and plans ceased, as did the red and black Greek pottery, to be replaced by the popular green-glazed Parthian style whose manufacture continued until the end of the city’s life. The agora took on an oriental quality, with merchants living where they worked and buildings crowded together along narrow winding alleys. The agora became, in fact, the sukh of the Near East.

Epigraphic materials identify officers and appointees of the Jewish community at Dura, some of whose titles are familiar from the organization of the Greek city-states. Thus we get a clear picture at Dura of how the Jews found models for their community organization among the civic and religious communes of their environment and adapted them to their own needs.

To the extent that private homes were preserved, they too came largely from this period. While the Parthian Durenes decorated their homes with bands of color, no figure paintings are known from the homes of this period. Of the sixteen temples of Dura, the larger number were built during this period. They were dedicated to Atargatis, Bel, Adonis, Aphlad, Zeus Theos, and Azzanathkona, among others—an international pantheon which was, as everything in Dura, eclectic and syncretic. It is noteworthy that all elements of the population, regardless of religious affiliation, used the same basic temple design as the Parthians. Differing greatly from the Greek design, each temple was hidden in an enclosed area rather than standing in the open; the sanctuary unit was small in relation to the area in which it stood; it had no colonnade; it was wide rather than long, with the entrance on the long side rather than at the end. [7] This structure will be relevant in the full discussion of the Dura Synagogue. In summary, the Parthian period in Dura was characterized by a turning away from Greek forms and a turning toward old traditions of Mesopotamia, not forcibly imposed, but affecting all groups: the Greco-Macedonian aristocracy, Semitic bourgeoisie, and Iranian and Palmyrene residents.

With the advent of the large Roman garrison which occupied the northern sector of the city by 165 C.E., Dura underwent yet another face-lifting. Streets became colonnaded and the luxuriant Roman bath brought its arches, domes, and sophisticated plumbing and heating, not to mention the Roman foot, the standard of all measurement. New temples were added to Mithras and Jupiter, this time differing from the old Durene style by having open courts with chapels and other rooms around three sides. The synagogue was built during the early Roman occupation, and was enlarged and redecorated during the last twelve years of the city’s life. It was during the later period that the Christian chapel was also erected. There was no particular sacred precinct in Dura: temples mingled with private homes; the “best” neighborhood was in the southeast corner of the city, which had the advantages of being close to the river and the defensible ravine, far from the most vulnerable western wall.

The eclectic-syncretic religious art of Dura during this period can best be illustrated by a worship scene in the Temple of Bel: a Roman tribune named Julius Terentius “is depicted in the hieratic frontality ubiquitous in Durene art, performing a sacrifice over a fire-altar of a type best known from Iran to a trio of military gods similar to those of Palmyra, while the Fortunes of Dura and Palmyra in Hellenistic form are shown in a subsidiary position.” [8]

Wall paintings were found in most of the religious buildings, in a few of the more pretentious homes, and in two of the four baths. Portable paintings are almost unknown. There is neither splendid Roman architectural painting nor the “carpet style” known from the Golden House of Nero. The familiar designs of Roman art abound, however, in the decorative dado of the synagogue and on its ceiling tiles, palmettes and flowers, dentils and meanders, Dionysian motifs, masks and satyr heads, drinking vessels, centaurs, peacocks, and erotes. Provincial art, at least in Dura and in the third century C.E., seems to be a border of remembered themes sliced away from the larger integrity, which was too big to carry so far from home.

The articulation of the human figure, both in painting and sculpture, indeed affirms how far from home! No “body” exists beneath the garments. There is no visual verism, neither foreshortening nor perspective. Three-dimensional space is rarely indicated. Figures are usually frontal, stiff, motionless, and emotionless, depictions either of deities or of worshipers participating in cultic acts. Glimmerings of a narrative art that appear in the hunting scene of the Mithraeum and in the baptistry of the Christian chapel come to full bloom only in Dura Synagogue.

Incredulous before the magnificent state of preservation of the synagogue, one asks how this miracle came about. Its location, along with “Wall Street,” is responsible. It will be recalled that Dura, shaped like a trapezium, was vulnerable only from the western side, which was walled and faced onto a plateau. The remaining three sides bordered on ravines and the river. The Sassanians came from the west, laid siege to the city, and employed mine and ramp techniques. It was common policy for a city so besieged to strengthen its walls from the inside by filling the streets that ran parallel to the wall with dirt. In dire extremity, inhabitants would pull roofs off the buildings in those streets and fill the buildings themselves with dirt to further deepen and strengthen the wall. The Dura Synagogue was one of those Wall Street buildings; its roof was torn off and its interior was dirt-filled, which preserved it till its dramatic discovery in 1932.

Judging from the number of stone ballista hurled by the defenders, the ramp technique was unsuccessful. Mines were then dug from the outside beneath the walls by the attackers and from the inside by the defenders. Hand-to-hand combat ensued where they met, ending in the collapse of the mine and the burial of the soldiers. Excavators found them lying in full armor, their last pay on them, coins enabling us to date the end of Dura at 256 C.E. A third technique of attack was insertion of beams beneath the city walls which were then ignited, resulting in a fire that ultimately collapsed the defenses.

Of course, the great paradox which confronts the visitor some seventeen hundred years after the battle, once he has digested his first view of that great synagogue interior, is the so-called image prohibition of Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The hypotactic style of this legislation, without grammatical causative, leads us to the next verse, where the reason is finally stated: “Thou shalt not bow down to them or serve them.” Thus the prohibition is not the making of images but the worship of them. The second commandment thus clarified the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God. . . . You shall have no other gods beside me.” (Exodus 20:2–3; Deuteronomy 5:6–7.) The proscription of images thus grew out of the fear of idolatry at a time in Israel’s history when this newly formed people, coming to the consciousness of being chosen at Sinai and enjoined to be holy and separate from all the nations, still retained in its conscious memory the seductive images of the gods of the two giant visual cultures from which it had emerged, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The revelation at Sinai concludes with a postscript about the unmediated experience of God and the real danger of the worshiped image. “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens. With me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver . . . or gold. Make for me an altar of the earth.” (Exodus 20:22–24.) Or, in other words: “Since you have experienced me directly, you do not need any intermediaries—no gods of silver and gold—in my cult (or with me). I am immediately accessible through the most elementary material form, an earthen altar.” Ibn Ezra, medieval exegete (c. 1140), paraphrases it very well: “Since I have spoken to you face to face, not by a messenger, you have no need to make gods of silver and gold with me; for many idolators believe to this day that the statue will intercede for me and help me with the God.” [9] Ibn Ezra understood the psychological basis for the statue of the god: The physical material acts as a “magnet.” Once dedicated to the god, the statue seems to embody some of the god’s power or spirit. When the worshiper relates to the image in a caring and adoring manner, he thereby hopes to influence the god. This is the biblical understanding of magic. It is the supradivine level. If the worshiper knows the right words—the formula—he can control the god. Thus, he continues, two notions, which are actually only one, stood behind the revulsion toward the image: by materializing God, man thought he could circumscribe, and therefore manipulate, the infinite. This is the ultimate idolatry, for man thus becomes God.

However, purged by the prophets and scourged by the destruction of the first temple and the Babylonian exile, Judaism by the third century B.C.E. was free from idolatrous fascination with images. E. E. Urbach cites as evidence the book of Judith: “For there has not arisen in our generations nor is there today, a tribe, a family, a clan, or a city that worships idols made by human hands, as there was once in olden times” (Judith 8:18). [10]

What then was the reason for the consistently ambivalent and equivocal attitude of Judaism (yes, no, maybe) toward images throughout its history? The image prohibition became a metaphor for contact with civilizations contiguous to Israel throughout its history. The prohibition worked like a barometer: When foreign values threatened, Israel closed in on itself and interpreted the image prohibition tightly, because the visual image conveyed the styles and values of the seductive culture. Conversely, when Israel felt secure and expansive, that prohibition faded into the background. The real challenge was, of course, not how to hide like an ostrich, but how to extract the vitality of foreign styles and still retain Jewish content.

Interestingly enough, the paradox of the prohibition and the existence of representational art appears long before Dura. Shortly after the revelation at Sinai, Moses received instructions to construct the desert sanctuary and its furniture (see Exodus 25:1–27; 26), including the cherubim, and an artist is commissioned to carry out the project. His name is Bezalel, meaning he who stands in the shadow of God (Bezel-el). There is thus divine authorization for the making of legitimate images. Art is early placed at the service of religion. Midrash makes high drama out of Moses’ inability to follow the instructions until, exasperated, God at last appoints an artist:

The Holy One said to Moses (Exodus 25:31), make a menorah of pure gold. He answered, How shall I make it? The menorah shall be made of hammered work, said the Holy One. Still Moses found it difficult. Three times Moses went up and the Holy One told him, hammered work. Three times Moses came down, found it difficult, forgot, and went up again for instructions. Follow the pattern which you are being shown on the mountain (v. 40), said the Holy One, showing him a menorah of fire. Finally he told him to go to Bezalel who stood in the shadow of God while He showed him how to do it. [11]

The midrash points up the difficulty of transmitting revelation. Aaron, Moses’ tongue, attempts to translate the revelation and fails in heresy. Bezalel is Moses’ hand. Thus, the paradox of God both commanding and prohibiting the making of images is built into the dialectic of the Torah—built into the dramatic contradiction which is Moses, who directed Israel to dwell in the stern wilderness of the Spirit, in the presence of the One and Inconceivable God. But voices cried out for an image, for something the eye and the hand could rest on in worship. The Bible itself supplies both Aaron and Bezalel to translate vision into word and image. But the tension is larger than language, whose relentless tangle of syntax and ambiguity thwarts the vision beyond. It is the nature of man himself. Some years ago Sarah Caldwell, with great psychological penetration, produced the Schonberg opera Moses and Aaron, itself a restatement of the tragic gap between the apprehended and the conceived (i.e., given an appropriate form). People still “recall seeing the two central figures standing back to back, slowly revolving on a small circular platform to suggest that they are complementary aspects of the human personality.” [12]

The Jewish confrontation with Hellenism was a period of tension and image restriction, resulting in an anti-iconic interval which characterized the Maccabean and post-Maccabean periods. These periods were followed by the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent loss of homeland, which created a permanent diaspora (some would say exile) and with it a permanent hunger for restoration.

As Israel metamorphosed from a state to a church, the imagery, well-remembered and yearned for, of the temple, of conciliation and return to the sacred center, burgeoned into the visualization of Jewish symbols. Thus, for example, although it was once forbidden to reproduce the form of the seven-branched temple menorah, the first example modestly appeared on coins struck by Antigonus, prior to Herod, during the first century B.C.E., and by the third century flourished riotously. A ubiquitous symbol of the need for spiritual light after the destruction, it turned up on sarcophagi, coins, lamps, gold, glass, mosaics, paintings, and later on manuscripts. This Tree of Light was the Tree of Life; it became a metaphor for Torah.

Rabbinic views on image-making continued to swing like a pendulum. R. Menahem ben Simai of the second century was so pious that he would not so much as look at the image on a zuz (tiny coin). [13] Then there was Rabban Gamaliel II, who kept lunar diagrams in his upstairs study and used them for obtaining precise testimony on the phases of the moon, despite criticism from his neighbors. [14] The same Gamaliel used to frequent a bathhouse at Acoho in which there was a statue of Aphrodite. Said he, “I didn’t go into her domain; she came into mine.” [15]

Not much later, at about the time the Dura Synagogue came into being, the Palestinian Talmud records the grudging recognition of Jewish art (Abodah Zarah 48d): “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan, men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them, and in the days of Rabbi Abun, men began to make designs of mosaics and he did not hinder them.” [16] To the above passages, we add still another, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Leviticus 26:1. This Aramaic translation first paraphrases the prohibition against making idols and graven images and such figures in stone as men bow down to. Then the text makes an exception: “But a stone column carved with images and likeness you may make upon the premises of your sanctuaries, but not to worship them.” [17] At last we hear the correct application of the second commandment.

Now we are ready to take a good look at the Jewish community of Dura-Europos and its synagogue, remembering that it is not so much the shock of the second commandment that confronts us in assessing synagogue art of late antiquity as our failure to understand the broad range of interpretation given the so-called image prohibition.

A Jewish presence in Parthian Dura is attested by coins of the Maccabean king John Hyrcanus (c. 130 B.C.E.) who was known to have led an expedition assisting Antiochus III against the Parthians. The coin yield persists and increases until the period of the Jewish revolt (66–71 C.E.), when the Jewish dispersion achieved great strength and numbers and when the Jewish communities of Palestine and Babylonia resumed relations. That introfaith exchange is relevant to the literary sources that influenced the synagogue frescoes. There is actually evidence of a Jewish community called Tel-abib nearby, near the river Chebar, which dated from the time of Ezekiel before the destruction of the first temple, inhabited by the first exiles taken to Babylon along with King Jeho-iakim in the spring of 597 B.C.E. (see Ezekiel 1:1–3; 3:15, 23; Jeremiah 29:4–23).

The Dura Synagogue in its smaller and more modest form probably was also founded during the late Parthian period when Roman influence in Syria had a beneficial effect on the city’s life, quickening the tempo of the economy all along the trade routes into the interior. During this period, Dura began to erect new temples, to rebuild some and redecorate others, and to increase the number of its private homes, allowing all classes of residents to benefit from the largesse of an expanding economy, which preceded the arrival of the Roman garrisons in 165 B.C.E., and the subsequent transformation of the city into a fortress awaiting its final confrontation with the Sassanian enemy.

Despite the change in regime, the Jewish community in Dura continued to flourish. There were strong commercial relations with their countrymen in northern Mesopotamian cities such as Nisibis and Edessa, which helped to supply the expanding needs of the Roman army. In addition, the Jewish population may have been augmented by refugees from southern Mesopotamian cities who found the Roman diaspora more congenial than the rising Sassanian powers.

This growth in numbers and wealth was reflected in the way this diaspora community met Dura’s challenge to its identity. Its monotheism, purged and purified by yet a second exile, was more than ever in need of appropriate forms of religious expression. No longer on their own land, naked of their former glory—the Jerusalem Temple—the Durene Jews who settled into this frontier town found fifteen temples ready to cater to their religious needs. But none of them was Jewish. How should they build their own? How should they make their statement?

Combining Roman and Mesopotamian features, the first synagogue was built wide and shallow with colonnades, its entrance cut into the long wall. The house of assembly, the chief worship room, filled the entire western side of the building and a Torah niche was set, facing Jerusalem, into the wall opposite the entrance. The decorating scheme was very conservative: overall marbling in the lower zone, and ceiling floral and fruit designs of western Roman painting. [18] The conservative tone of the decor would not have offended the most zealous diehard of the anti-iconic revolution in Jerusalem in the years just preceding the destruction of the second temple. [19] But by the time the new synagogue was enlarged and redecorated in 244–245 C.E., an entirely new and daring policy prevailed. The new house of assembly was covered from ceiling to floor with figural paintings; even the ceiling tiles, which once bore innocuous flowers and fruit, now included female heads, astrological symbols, and even two evil eyes! These Roman symbols, along with the Dionysian masks and felines that adorned the dado, seemed to live in comfortable, harmonious proximity with the menorah, the ethrog, and lulab, the tree of life, and the art of the law. We have no reason to think that the Judaism of the Dura Synagogue was in any way diluted by the free reuse of pagan art models. Quite the contrary. The liberal use of midrash and the Targumic tradition in the frescoes impresses us with the level of Jewish learning of the community. [20]

It is interesting to conjecture how the Jewish community thought through its own decorative scheme in the light of the programs of the neighboring temples. The Temple of Bel contained a massive painting of the god Zeus-Bel in Parthian costume, accompanied by horse and chariot and surrounded by his worshipers: a striking focus for the devout. The Temple of Zeus Theos, optimistically reconstructed, also contained monumental paintings of the god accompanied by his chariot and hovered over by a pair of Victories. The Mithraeum too, in somewhat better repair, had its divine scene of Mithras the hunter, mounted, with cloak flying out behind him, drawing his bow, in close pursuit of prey with his horse and companion serpent. Thus did the pagans present their gorgeous gods in magnitude, power, and victory. How then should the Jews depict theirs in triumph and grandeur, their God who had no likeness and who required worship through no medium? Their ingenious solution was to present the word of God, for through his word they had perceived his presence in their individual lives and in their group history and destiny. Thus, the visual art of the biblical narrative came into being in Dura-Europos, nourished by antecedent narrative traditions of Egypt, Assyria, India, modeled on the heroes of Greek mythology, dressed in the Parthian tunic and the Greek himation, and visualizing the symbols of the Jerusalem sanctuary, the outstretched arm of Israel’s saving God, and the dreams of personal and national restoration. Let us imagine ourselves now, in situ on that significant autumn day in 1932.

When the dirt fell away from the western wall and the sun glanced off those pastels for the first time since the year 256 C.E., the astonished archaeologists watched as, before they could even photograph them, the dull red reredos began to fade before their eyes. And as the outer surface receded, underlayers of the “palimpsest” wall rose into view. So there had been more than one plan, one design, one painting of the reredos! The focal wall of the sanctuary, which in other temples was resplendent with the figures of the gods, was here obviously the focus of extensive controversy. How was the imageless God to be imaged on this focal wall? Four different elements sprawled over the reredos in extreme confusion: people, objects, animals, and vegetation, with a dullish red cover coat overlying most of it.

At least two stages can be identified. The first stage includes the freestanding design of a tree, below which on either side are two objects—on the left what appears to be a throne with cushion and perhaps crown, and on the right, a tabletop supported by a pair of confronting lions. Merging with these two objects (apparently the second stage) are two narrative scenes from the deathbed of Jacob. Thus, on the right, the table has become Jacob’s couch (though the lions peer through) [21] from which the patriarch is blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh while their father, Joseph, looks on. To the left, behind the throne, is a central patriarchal figure surrounded by twelve men. This, again, would seem to be Jacob delivering his parting blessings to his sons.

Caught in the foliage of this central tree above the preceding scene is a large centrally placed lion facing a musician with lyre. In this central area above the tree in the continuing later stage appears the seated figure of a king flanked by eleven royal figures, before whom stand two courtiers dressed not as royalty but as elders.

The family groupings and the central position of the lion point to Genesis 49:9–10, the blessing of Jacob:

Judah is a lion’s whelp:

From the prey, my son, you have gone up:

He stooped down, he crouched like a lion,

And like a lion, who dares stir him up?

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah

Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.

The fact that Jacob is surrounded by thirteen figures, his eleven sons and the two sons of Joseph, requires us to look beyond the biblical text for explanation, which is forthcoming from the Tar-gumic tradition. Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 49:10 reads: “Kings and rulers shall not cease . . . nor scribes (saphrin), teachers of the law, from among his descendants. . . , [22] “I conclude with Kraeling that the two men wearing the himation are the scribes. [23] “Until Shilo comes” (Genesis 49:10) is rendered by Pseudo- Jonathan, “until the king, Messiah, comes.” The messianic thrust of these verses is surely in keeping with the lower section of this panel where the throne and crown appear in the initial stage.

Though the tree motif may have been introduced earlier, separate from the narrative portions, it is no coincidence that it conveys in its symbolic form the same concepts of Israel’s eternal continuity. “The transitory nature of existence is confronted symbolically by giving artistic [literary forms included] permanence to plant forms.” [24]

The arborescent motif is fundamental in man’s archetypal image of himself as ever fruitful and endlessly regenerative, deeply rooted, and nourished from roots as well as from the light above. The structuring of our experience and imagination is analogous to a tree. We too are rooted in the threefold structure of the cosmos: heaven, earth, and the underworld. Our imagination links us to the luminous world of consciousness, as well as to the dark underworld of the unconscious. We draw nourishment from the heavenly, immaterial realm of ideas, and we are based in the material world of sense perception. We are subject to periodic regeneration—and here is where the connection with the divine comes—the life force of the tree is enduring, embodying the life principle, therefore automatically associated with the beneficence of God. In the Semitic world, for example, sanctity of place is frequently marked by the presence of a living tree, the archetypal expression of which is the tree of life and the tree of knowledge in the garden at the world’s center. Since the tree was associated with such life power, the tree is the place where the worshiper would likely seek the presence of God. Eliade finds that the sacred tree is one of the variants of the symbolism of the sacred center, along with the pillar and the mountain. Thus, all sacred trees, whether natural or artificial, whole or partial, are identified with the cosmic tree at the navel of the world. [25]

Unlike the tree, we know we are mortal. But the yearning for continuity never ceases. We say that in one way our children are our immortality. In religious imagery we have transferred to the image of the tree of life other eternal values. Thus, the Torah has become the tree of life. “It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18).

This is the insight of the artist who expressed the arborescent theme in the reredos, clearly growing out of the Torah niche and ascending directly into the messianic figures, terminating at the feet of the messianic king and his teachers and scribes. Thus, both roots and crown of the tree terminate in association with Torah.

Two more literary associations need to be made to complete the arborescent imagery. Not only does the person see himself as a tree, and the Jew see Torah as a tree, but Israel and the Messiah are also imaged as trees. Thus, the Song of the Sea addresses God about Israel: “Bring them and plant them in your mountain possession” (Exodus 15:17). In the Joseph Psalm is this striking passage stressing Israel’s rightful place and hope for restoration:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;

You drove out the nations and planted it.

You cleared the ground for it;

It took deep root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered with its shade;

The mighty cedars with its branches;

It sent out its branches to the sea

and its shoots to the river.

(Psalm 80:8–11.)

The prophets abound in arborescent images conveying the idea of restoration: “I will plant them upon their land and they shall never again be plucked up out of their land which I have given them” (Amos 9:15; see also Jeremiah 24:6; Hosea 14:6–8; Isaiah 37:31; 2 Kings 19:30.) And finally, the Messiah is seen as a tree, as a corollary to the regrowth of Israel, in the restoration of the Davidic throne, also cut off, but not dead: “And there shall come forth a shoot from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall flourish from his root; on him the wisdom of the Lord rests” (Isaiah 11:1–2). Thus, the “double exposure” reredos of the Dura Synagogue has succeeded ingeniously in imaging the imageless God by superimposing the narrative of eschatological continuity upon the symbolic arborescent form of eternity: the tree of life as Israel, the Torah, and the Messiah.

I would like to focus briefly on the historical background of the style of the Dura frescoes and conclude with a discussion of the visual midrash and the method of the midrash as seen in the Elijah-Baal episodes painted on the lowest register and southwest corner of the south wall. [26]

Clark Hopkins, the discoverer of Dura, was deeply affected by the power of those visual narratives. A year after the discovery of the Christian building of Dura, Hopkins wrote concerning the synagogue in the Illustrated London News of July 29, 1933, comparing stylistic elements found in the pagan temples with those found in the church and synagogue:

I remarked that all the elements of style and composition were common in the pagan paintings at Dura except the essentially Christian feature; the direct presentation of the action of the story, often at the expense of artistic display. It is this feature, the entire concentration on the expression of the story that is the outstanding element in the synagogue. We may suggest that from the Jews the Christians borrowed this method, and in the East rather than in Rome rose the characteristic Christian style. Dura shows us that we must look to Syria and Antioch, as well as to Alexandria and Egypt for the great growth of Christian art which so influenced Roman conceptions in the early centuries. [27]

Hopkins’s grasp of the narrative’s central function made visual is crucial to our understanding of how the paradox of Judaism and visual arts is to be resolved. Jews understood early in their history that their God could not be represented in an image or become manifest in any form because Being cannot be contained in appearance. Yet Jewish aesthetic intuitions needed to find a way to express the will of God in motion, both in time and space. [28] Perhaps the continuous narrative was a viable solution to that dilemma. Such an art sought to avoid sacred immobility with its hieratic poses that produce idols; it emphasizes continued action, the reality of God acting in history.

The reader may say, “Surely the Dura Synagogue was not the beginning of narrative art in late antiquity.” Carl Kraeling cites the underground basilica at Porta Maggiore, the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, and the many Mithraea as examples of programmatic painting of religious character antecedent to Dura. [29] M. Rostovtzeff, great interpreter of the civilizations of the Near East in the early Christian centuries, ventures further into the past to find the sources of the continuous narrative in India, claiming that the artists of India were the first in whose works one finds examples of this method of continuous narrative; these artists employed the technique to illustrate episodes of the life of Buddha and of his successive incarnations. Later, ancient Christian art and Byzantine art resorted to it, not in order to interpret the will of a God who transcends all things, but only to describe incidents of the life of Jesus and the theme of redemption, seen in the light of Christian dogma, much as the Hindus had already described various aspects of the mediations of the Buddha. [30]

Michael Avi-Yonah cites other prior uses of narrative art. In his incisive analysis of the Jewish presence within the Roman Empire, he shows how Jewish art anticipated several characteristics of Byzantine art and also revived certain elements derived from the ancient art of the Orient. Byzantine tendencies, he explains, appeared in art much earlier than the beginning of the Byzantine period (fourth to sixth century) in the Roman Empire:

Here again Jewish art is in a special position. Since the Jews alone, of all the nations composing the Roman Empire, retained their religious identity in the Middle Ages, they might have been expected to maintain the traditions of antiquity longer than the nations which underwent a transformation on the ethnic or religious plane. The contrary is the case. Because of the closer contact of the Jews with the Oriental nations and cultures and their resistant attitude toward Greco-Roman culture, the typical transition to a medieval setting occurred earlier in Jewish art than in the art of the other peoples of antiquity. Evidence of this is furnished by the frescoes of the Synagogue of Dura-Europos. [31]

The Byzantine character is expressed in the strictly linear drawing in isocephalism (heads brought to the same horizontal level), and a consistent frontality that seems to detach each of the actors from the scene in which he appears.

It is the strip narrative, however, that revives elements of an older art. Strip narrative was prominent in Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs and occurs again in Roman art of the second century; for example, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. In the strip narrative, figures are placed against a uniform background with only a bare hint at whatever landscape features are essential to the story. When necessary, a narrow strip is laid in the foreground, providing a kind of stage-space (e.g., Moses being laid in the basket in the Nile). And finally, space is organized with oriental nonperspective. Thus, closer figures are down front, more distant ones are higher up, and the most important person is exaggerated in size.

Perhaps the unique contribution of the Jewish community to the art of the Bible was the visual incorporation of the midrash, the oral accretion to the canon of the religious imagination that became a Bible rewritten.

Midrash appears in Dura in the extraneous elements that seem to intrude on the biblical narrative, which cannot be accounted for in the biblical text, and which appear as mystifying iconographic details. For example, one panel on the south wall shows a little man in the altar of the Elijah-Baal sequence, and another on the west wall shows peculiar octopus-like tentacles leading to the tents of Israel. How do we account for the growth of this mid-rashic material?

Israel’s unmediated experience of God’s revelation gradually distanced itself in time, first by generations, then by centuries. Eventually Israel was confronted with a sacred text whose language it no longer spoke. While the text continued to be read in the synagogue service in Hebrew, it had to be translated for the congregation, first into Greek, then Aramaic, and ultimately into a host of diaspora languages. But translation is treachery. We do not need rabbinic literature to verify that “he who translates literally falsifies, and he who adds, blasphemes.” [32] Meanings are often hopelessly lost in altered social conditions. Archaeology and comparative linguistics continually ladle up the old context, attempting to retrieve primary meanings. Midrash does the same. It is sacred word play, holy linguistics. The people, Israel, and scripture, removed experientially from revelation, removed further from the language of revelation, were now threatened with alienation from its whole theological framework because the text was becoming obsolete. How could the sages prevent this obsolescence? Scripture was, after all, God’s word. Canon meant that it could in no way be altered. Happily, the scriptural style itself contained the antidote. Deliberately ambiguous and often painfully laconic, scripture only skeletally shaped a story containing the nucleus of ideas and events. The rabbis of succeeding generations, perceiving that these cognitive elements were insufficient, fleshed out the narratives with the affective apparatus: the gestures, postures, doubts, promises, regrets, fears, loves, and hates that lurk behind all the archetypal human biblical experiences. This upholstering of the text, this rewriting of the Bible, is both a method and a genre called midrash. [33] Hardly a onetime operation, it had been going on since before the Bible became canon, producing hundreds of collections. The literature has in turn given birth to other art forms—for example, the dramatic mystery cycles of medieval Europe—continuing to our own day. But before drama, at least as far as we now know, midrash was translated into the visual arts, into the biblical cycles of illuminated Septuagints which probably lie behind the Dura paintings. [34]

We will now analyze the visual midrash of Elijah-Baal episodes (lowest register, southwest corner) which include both a discussion of the panels and the method of the midrash. These panels champion Yahweh and Elijah, his prophet, deflating Baal and his prophets (see 1 Kings 18). But at the same time, this episode makes a contemporary statement about Judaism in Dura holding forth against Dura’s pagan gods. It reveals the uncompromising loyalty of the Jewish community to the one God and to the Torah, and also validates their ebullient self-confidence, undiminished by their minority status in a diaspora town far removed from the support of the great centers of Jewish population and learning in the south.

It is both humbling and exhilarating to see and study these walls. What incredible mystery must still lie buried in the Syrian and Mesopotamian regions if this is just the tip of the iceberg? Dura was not unique in its own time as it is in ours—the first and only major historical find of Jewish art to date.

At the time of Elijah (c. 850 B.C.E.), the one, the inconceivable, the imageless God was still almost brand-new in the Jewish experience. Not only did Israel see him in every noteworthy act but also in physical phenomena—the bush, the sea, the mountain, and other natural features still very vivid in the personal and national memories.

In Canaan, however, Israel was confronted with an aspect of God the locals felt was God himself. Israelite monotheism was new, weak, and just barely freed from the god images of Mesopotamia and Egypt when lo! came the seduction of the Canaanite images. The maddening thing was that it almost made sense—it was the central sphere in the life of the primitive peasant, “the secret of the fertility of the ground, the astonishing phenomenon, from the discovery of which the invention of agriculture springs. A marvel fills the hearts of those . . . confronted by the blessings of plant increase, an increase not to be understood as cattle procreation is from the well-known event of pairing: apparently it is in the depth of the ground that the cause of this increase lies hid. For there, they say, male and female powers, Baal and Baalath, ‘lord’ and lady,’ copulate.” Their copulation is acknowledged in the pouring of rain, in the bubbling of underground springs. Their powers hurl the thunderbolts, open “ ‘the sluices of the clouds.’ “ The masculine Baal power assumes “the shape of a bull, and ‘loves’ a goddess in the shape of a cow on the pasture land, [and] engenders a bull calf.” Fresh from the desert, Israel bursts onto Canaan, bursts upon the “reality” of the Baalim, “sees” them making love “ ‘under every luxuriant tree’ “ like the “owners [baalim] of this soil, which men woo by ploughing.” [35]

This began the struggle early in the period of the Israelite kingdom—the protest against the worship of Baal. The rallying cry was sounded—Yahweh versus Baal. It was necessary to abolish the idea that the fertility mystery had a sexual basis hidden in the meeting of water and earth, that natural irrigation was not the work of a streaming-in male element and a receiving female component, but the gift of God.

This is what is really behind all those narratives of difficult conceptions and barren mothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah. Surely men and women are the vessels, but the gift—“the blessings of the breasts and of the womb”—are God’s (Genesis 49:25).

The zealous Yah wist said there could be no compromise: the situation is either-or. But the average man on the farm was a syncretist who said, in effect, Yahweh is great, a wonderful warrior; he made us free and gave us Torah, but he is far away, out there. When it comes to the Monday-through-Friday religion, we need an on-the-spot-deity, for those private, intimate, small; nameless powers that swarm everywhere without special forms.

This is where Elijah comes in, one hundred years after David and one hundred years before Hosea, the earliest of the writing prophets who rallied against Israel’s theological prostitution. David’s father, Solomon, had set up a temple for the Sidonian Astarte of his Sidonian wife (see 1 Kings 11:1, 5, 8). So did Ahab for his Tyrian wife, the difference being that Ahab went to the temple with his wife (see 1 Kings 16:31), and that is where our story begins. The language is almost that of a legend, but the content is religious history. Its concern is to show that the Baalim have no authority over the waters of the firmament or over the fertility of the earth.

No sooner is Ahab’s reign announced (see 1 Kings 16:29), than each succeeding verse says something odious about him: verse 30, “He did what was evil in the eyes of God”; verse 31, “Being that he was an easy sinner like Jeroboam ben Nebat [ha-nakel lechto . . . ], he married Jezebel, daughter of Etbaal and proceeded to worship Baal.” In verse 32, “he set up an altar to Baal in the house of Baal in Samaria.” In verse 33, “he further provoked God by making an asherah [a grove in which trees were worshiped].” Verse 34, the final note, before Elijah comes on the scene, says that during Ahab’s reign, “Hiel rebuilt the city of Jericho with his two sons, Abiram and Segub.”

It seems that we are led to the end of the chapter by a crescendo of anger at Ahab’s deeds. But the crescendo leads us to a puzzling climax concerning Hiel. Who is Hiel, and why was his building of Jericho the last and worst in the series of Ahab’s evils, and what could it mean that he built Jericho “b” with Abiram and “b” with Segub? “With Abiram his firstborn he laid the foundation and with his youngest son, Segub he set up the gates, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Joshua the son of Nun” (1 Kings 16:34). The reader should note also the exaggerated repetition of Baal—four times in three verses—hammering at the name of Ahab’s evil to overprepare us, so there is no way we can miss the point when the curtain rises on the real Baal show.

What follows on the southwest corner of the south wall is a twin billing, featuring the two heavyweights: the prophets of Baal on the left and Elijah, prophet of the Lord, on the right. Elijah summons his wishy-washy people to a challenge. “How long will you waver between the two? If for the Lord, then follow Him. If for Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21.) The scene is set for the remaining two panels on the south wall. Those for Baal were to choose a bullock, prepare it for the sacrifice, lay it and the wood upon the altar without a fire, then call upon their god to ignite it. They called him all morning. Then Elijah begins to mock. Perhaps he has gone for a walk or taken a nap. By midday the vain calling becomes a frenzied orgiastic dance. Then Elijah calls the people to him. It is now his turn. (See 1 Kings 18:22–30.) The painting on the left represents the prophets of Baal and the lack of response. The artist has chosen not to represent them in their frenzy, but in a hieratic posture crowded around the altar. Only the first and last men are seen in full, to convey the notion of the crowding of 450 prophets! [36] Thus only the right side of each prophet is seen. So far the artist approximates the text except for the humped bullock, which is not shown cut into pieces. In fact, the animal waits patiently on the altar, garlands adorning his neck and body. But the artist has clearly decided to improve on 1 Kings 18.—Who is that little man inside the altar? What about the snake, swiftly wriggling its length across the entire right section of the scene? These features are not in the biblical narrative. The midrash has stepped in to embroider the original fabric of 1 Kings 18. The midrash account also explains how the prophets of Baal expected Baal to ignite the sacrifice—by subterfuge.

When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling,

He exalted himself in Israel: but when

he became guilty through Baal, he died (Hosea 13:1).

There was a great and rich man, N’hiel (or Yehiei 1, Hiel), whose father came from the tribe of Ephraim. When he saw the deeds of Ahab instigated by his wife, Jezebel, daughter of Jerubaal, he (too) committed heresy against the Holy One and the Law of Moses and built (Jericho) and devoted himself to idol worship as performed by Jezebel on Mt. Carmel, in order to anger Elijah who would pray to God there.

Now when Elijah came before Ahab to test the prophets of the Baal and the priests of the Bamot, the prophets of the Baal knew that Baal did not have the power to fire the altar by itself. What did Hiel do? He stood before the prophets of the Baal and said to them: “Be strong and stand up to Elijah! I will make it look as though Baal sent the fire.” What did he do? He took two stones and hatcheled flax and entered into the hollow belly of the Baal, struck the stones together to ignite the flax.

All at once Elijah sensed this through the Holy Spirit and said, “O Holy One, I have a huge favor to ask of you. As you returned the spirit of the widow’s child, now I ask you to slay that evil one in the belly of the Baal.” God at once ordered the serpent, who bit his heel, killing him.

So it is written (Amos 9:3)

Though they hide themselves in the top of Carmel I will search and take them out thence; though they be hid from My sight in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent and he shall bite them.

Gradually the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. After Joshua shouted down the city of Jericho, saving only Rahab and her family, he charged the people with an oath, saying, “Cursed be the man before the Lord that rises up and builds this city, Jericho; with the loss of his firstborn shall he lay the foundation thereof, and with the loss of his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it” (Joshua 6:26). These are precisely the words with which 1 Kings 16 ends, identifying that cursed man as Hiel, upon whom the curtain now descends. The curse of Joshua 6 is fulfilled in 1 Kings 16. But the midrash felt it was not proper that his sons alone should pay for his crime, that the Bible let Hiel off too easily. In its own uniquely imaginative way, midrash writes the epilogue, meting out justice to the scoundrel himself in the recesses of Baal’s belly—with God’s help, of course. It should be noted, though, that Baal is depicted in our panel simply as an altar. After all, it would hardly be appropriate for Baal himself to appear in a synagogue!

Finally, we observe that our midrash is framed by two passages from Amos 9:3 and Hosea 13:1, apparently unrelated to each other and seemingly unrelated to Hiel and Elijah. But the midrash recognizes a conceptual nucleus in common and weaves them into the fabric like bobbins carrying different colored threads for a single garment. The fact that the prophet Hosea is speaking of the northern tribe of Ephraim is the pretext for our midrash. Hiel is a Bethelite. Beth-El is a border town between Benjamin and Ephraim. Close enough. He becomes the rich Ephraimite who dies because of his involvement with the Baal. The Amos passage affirms how fruitless it is to hide even in the top of Carmel or in the depths of the sea, “from whence I will command the serpent to bite.” [37]

Now let me draw together this midrashic network: (1) The problem began in Joshua 6 with that odd curse (v. 24) on the rebuilder of Jericho. (2) The problem is partially solved in 1 Kings 16:34 where the sons pay for their father’s sin. (3) Between the lines the midrash is grumbling that a man is supposed to pay for his own sins. Thus, the Hiel-in-the-altar-affair comes into being. (4) Amos 9:3 and Hosea 13:1 originally serve another context, but they take on added meaning when they work for this midrash. (5) This whole chain got started by association with Exodus 12:12, where not logic but psycho-logic began to spin associatively on how God deals with his enemies.

The biblical text has been treated synchronously. Its chapters and verses first make sense vertically as historical narratives that were chronologically structured, edited, and canonized. But they also work horizontally; that is, you may pick and choose, and make other mosaics of meaning, applying twelfth-century, or ninth-century, B.C.E. pieces to a third-century C.E. situation. This is the rewriting, the midrashic technique of renewal, of not allowing the Bible to fall into neglected obsolescence. In Dura, the Hiel incident, its graphic simplicity notwithstanding, makes a sophisticated statement concerning multiple gods of nature, affirming the statement made twelve hundred years earlier in 1 Kings 18: “The mystery of the soil is wrested from Baal’s grasp and the people acknowledge the sovereignty of their true Lord, . . . who is become an agricultural deity while remaining what He was before; . . . In acknowledging the sole lordship of YHVH [the people] thereby acknowledge that the power of sexual magic is broken.” [38] That the statement was made in the social-religious context of Dura-Europos only meant that this small diaspora community was not intimidated by the gods of the fifteen pagan temples, and that, far from its land and former glory, it still believed in the character and terms of the covenant with YHVH.

Two concluding iconographic details remain to be dealt with. We noted earlier in the lineup of the priests of Baal that the artist found it essential to show their right arms—weak, impotent right arms—drooping downward, in dramatic contrast to the parallel painting, in which the right arms of Elijah and his compatriots are raised in victorious praise, for the altar is ablaze despite the fact that water is being repeatedly poured upon it, all to make God’s victory the more dramatic. The altar has been rebuilt by Elijah, concentric squares in the structure clearly marking out the twelve stones of its design symbolizing the reunification of the tribes. (See 1 Kings 18:31–32.)

The last detail is the two garlanded bullocks atop the altars, squatting so benignly and waiting so patiently to be slaughtered to Baal and to Yahweh. Clearly these beasts do not correspond to instructions given and executed (see 1 Kings 18:23, 25–26, 33) for them to be cut up and their parts laid upon the wood of the altar. Goodenough describes each bull in detail: He is “an eastern animal, with its humped back, . . . three of his legs folded under him, but with the fore off leg extended; his tail goes down between his hind legs, . . . and extending out back behind the hocks. He is wrapped in two wreaths, one round his neck, the other round his body.” Goodenough feels he is the same beast as the one he calls the “cosmic bull” on the doors of the “Closed Temple.” [39] The artist, he feels, was using a pagan model, which reflected the common notion that an animal must give itself willingly and without resistance to the sacrifice. This iconographic detail is also verified in the midrash in the charming tale of the twin bullocks:

The first wonder occurred in connection with the choice of the bullocks. According to Elijah’s arrangement with Ahab, one was to be sacrificed to God, and then one to Baal. A pair of twins, raised together, were brought before the contestants, and it was decided by lot which belonged to God and which to Baal. Elijah had no difficulty with his offering; quickly he led it to his altar. But all the priests of Baal, eight hundred and fifty in number, could not make their victim stir a foot. When Elijah began to speak persuasively to the bullock of Baal, urging it to follow the idolatrous priests, it opened its mouth and said: “We two, yonder bullock and myself, came forth from the same womb, we took our food from the same manger, and now he has been destined for God, as an instrument for the glorification of the Divine Name while I am to be used for Baal, as an instrument to enrage my Creator.” Elijah urged: “Do thou but follow the priests of Baal that they may have no excuse, and then thou wilt have a share in that glorification of God for which my bullock will be used.” The bullock: “So dost thou advise, but I swear I will not move from the spot, unless thou with thine own hands wilt deliver me up.” Elijah thereupon led the bullock to the priests of Baal. [40]

This midrash broadcasts the idea that not only do men recognize and do the will of God, but in fact all of nature cooperates, for all nature was silenced: “The powers of the upper and of the nether regions were dumb, the universe seemed deserted and desolate, as if without a living creature,” [41] lest any sound be interpreted by the desperate idolators as the voice of Baal.

I admire Goodenough’s intensive research of Iranian symbolic forms, which may lie behind the form of our altar, but I feel he has totally missed the spirit of this pair of Elijah paintings. Both the active serpent undulating its way into the altar and the passive bullocks awaiting their destiny are vivid and articulate expressions of this community’s faith: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).


[1] See Ann Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 1–9, for a clear and comprehensive introduction.

[2] See Clark Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, ed. Bernard Goldman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), for the latest firsthand look at the international collaboration along the middle Euphrates in the 1920s and 1930s.

[3] Carl Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura-Europos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 269, for the inscription; actual photograph in Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, 135.

[4] Clark Hopkins, “The Excavations of the Dura Synagogue Paintings,” in The Dura-Europos Synagogue: A Re-Evaluation, 1932–1972, ed. Joseph Gutmann (Missoula: University of Montana Printing Department for American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), 15–16; his footnotes omitted.

[5] Richard Brilliant, “Painting at Dura-Europos and Roman Art,” in Gutmann, The Dura-Europos Synagogue, 23.

[6] Perkins, Art of Dura-Europos, 108.

[7] Ibid., 20, note 1, for bibliography on the ancient Mesopotamian origin of the Dura temples, already known in the third dynasty of Ur, 2100–2000 B.C.E.

[8] Ibid., 9; see also 43–45.

[9] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:22–24 (Vienna, 1926; reprint ed., Israel, 1970); Hebrew only. Translations from Hebrew sources are by the author unless otherwise noted.

[10] E. E. Urbach, “The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts,” Israel Exploration Journal 9 (1959): 154.

[11] Numbers Rabbah, 15.10 in Midrash Rabbah, edition and notes by H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, trans. Judah J. Slotki (London: Soncino Press, 1961), 650–51, provides this translation.

[12] Richard Dyer, “Sarah Caldwell—Her Genius Is Her Gimmick,” New York Times, January 11, 1976. I am grateful to Andree Picard of the Cultural Center of the University of Geneva, who led me to George Steiner’s essay, “Schonberg’s Moses and Aaron,” in Language and Silence (New York: Atheneum paperback, 1976), 127–39.

[13] Babylonia Abodah Zarah, 50a; trans, 251.

[14] Ibid., 43b.; trans, 216.

[15] Mishnah Abodah Zarah 3.4. For an English translation, see The Mishnah, trans. Herbert Danby (Oxford: Clarendon House, 1933), 440.

[16] Yarushalmi Abodah Zarah 42b; not as yet translated into English.

[17] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, trans. John Wesley Etheridge (1862–66); Hebrew only.

[18] See Perkins, Art of Dura-Europos, 56.

[19] See Cecil Roth, “An Ordinance Against Images in Jerusalem, A.D. 66,” Harvard Theological Review 49 (1956): 169–77.

[20] See Elias J. Bickerman, “Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue: A Review Article,” Harvard Theological Review 58 (1965): 127–51, for a balanced appraisal of E. R. Goodenough’s mystical interpretation of the Dura Synagogue.

[21] Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), 11:323.

[22] See John Bowker, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature: An Introduction to Jewish Interpretations of Scripture (Cambridge: University Press, 1969), 284, which translates this passage: “Kings and rulers shall not cease from the house of Judah, nor scribes teaching the law from his children’s children, until the time when the King, Messiah, shall come” (italics omitted).

[23] Kraeling, Excavations, 220. See also Midrash Rabbah 98:8 on this verse; Freedman and Simon, Genesis, vol. 2, trans, by Freedman, in Midrash Rabbah, 956, where the scribes (“clerks”) are two in number like those who stand before the Sanhedrin, one on each side.

[24] Carol L. Meyers, The Tabernacle Menorah: A Synthetic Study of a Symbol from the Biblical Cult (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press for The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1976), 133.

[25] See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper & Row, 1959; Harper Torchbook edition, 1961), for a discussion of this subject.

[26] For another study, including the arborescent motif in the panel of Moses and the Miraculous Well, see my “Moses Sweetens the Bitter Water of the Portable Well: An Interpretation of a Panel at Dura- Europos Synagogue,” Journal of Jewish Art 5 (1978): 545–48.

[27] Illustrated London News, July 29, 1933

[28] See Ernest Nameny, The Essence of Jewish Art, trans. Edouard Roditi (London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), 7.

[29] See M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Part VIII (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 401 ff.

[30] See Dura-Europos and Its Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), 122–34.

[31] Encyclopedia of World Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), s.v. “Jewish Art.”

[32] Tos. Meg. 4:41; The Tosefta, ed. S. Lieberman (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962), 364.

[33] See Addison G. Wright, “The Literary Genre of Midrash,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966): 105–38, 417–57; and I. Heineman, Darkei HaAggadah, The Method of Aggadah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1949), for an expansive study of rabbinic “creative philology.”

[34] See Kurt Weitzmann, “The Illustration of the Septuagint,” in No Graven Images: Studies in Art and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Joseph Gutmann (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1971), 201–31.

[35] Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton- Davies (New York: Harper, 1960), 71–72.

[36] Exodus Rabbah, Parashat Bo, 15. Cited in appendix to Deuteronomy Rabbah, Oxford Manuscript, no. 147, cited by Saul Leiber-mann, Midrash Debarim Rabbah, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1964), 132.

[37] Louis Ginzberg, Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvatern (Amsterdam: n.p., 1899), 80–82. Originally known in the tenth century, our midrash, thanks to Dura, must be dated earlier than 244 C.E. See also Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1939), 6:319, n. 15, which indicates that the church fathers knew the midrash. Chrysostom tells of having seen with his own eyes pits under altars where priests lit fires to deceive the credulous; Homilia in Petrum et Heliam, Patriologiae Graecoe I, col. 733. See also Carl Hermann Kraeling, Final Report, 140, n. 501

[38] Buber, Prophetic Faith, p . 79.

[39] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 10:50.

[40] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 4:197–98.

[41] Ibid., 4:198.