Mourners or Bridesmaids?


Detail, wall painting from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, Dura-Europos, ca. 239 CE, © 2011 Yale University Art Gallery

In 1931, a team of archaeologists discovered the earliest clearly dateable Christian church: a third-century “house church” in Syria. Situated on what was once the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in the cosmopolitan military town of Dura-Europos, the Christian building was in use for several decades of the third century before being buried by the Romans to build a rampart against the invading Persians.

This house church became widely celebrated soon after its discovery. Some called Dura-Europos the “Pompeii of the desert.” The surviving wall paintings from the church’s baptistery, which are among the earliest Christian art found anywhere, were installed in the Yale University Art Gallery. Fifty years later it was decided that the paintings were materially unfit for further display, and they were removed from the gallery.

From September 23 to January 8, 2012, some of the antiquities from Dura-Europos are on display in an exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The exhibition, titled “Edge of Empires:...

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About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.