The World’s Oldest Church
Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria

Michael Peppard
Yale University Press, $50, 336 pp.

The city of Dura was a Roman outpost overrun by the Parthians in 250 AD and preserved under desert sands until French and Yale University archaeologists excavated it in the 1930s. In terms of its historical significance, the Dura discovery is on a par with the unearthing of Qumran and the scrolls of the Dead Sea sectarians. The artistic renderings in the Dura synagogue, for example, completely overturned regnant assumptions about the aniconic character of ancient Judaism. And the evidence for a Christian house church just down the street from that synagogue, a building also replete with wall paintings, provided both material evidence for the “world’s oldest church,” and a set of interpretive puzzles for those seeking to understand what worship in that space might have meant.

Michael Peppard teaches New Testament at Fordham University. In his doctoral work at Yale, he had the chance to study the material remains of the Christian baptistry in the Yale University Art Gallery, and to ponder some features of the paintings that the magisterial reports of Dura’s first examiners did not, in his view, adequately interpret, above all the striking representation of some women carrying torches approaching what appears to be a white structure. Given its location in a place where baptism occurred, and given the (presumably standard) early Christian interpretation of baptism within the Pauline framework of death and resurrection, the position was initially advanced that these were the women coming to Christ’s tomb on Easter Sunday.

Peppard respects and fully lays out the arguments of his predecessors. But he notes that there is scant evidence in second- and third-century literature for Paul’s interpretation of baptism, and that, in contrast, there is abundant evidence for alternative interpretations of baptism, above all in Syrian Christianity. He therefore undertakes a fresh examination of all the available evidence—textual, material, and ritual—to offer a new way of reading the Dura paintings and of imagining how ancient worshipers in that space might have imagined what they were doing. In an approach that is thoroughly interdisciplinary, Peppard examines closely the political and military realities suggested by the remains of this military outpost, Greco-Roman artistic traditions, and the abundant literary resources from Syrian Christianity (ranging from the Odes of Solomon to The Gospel of Philip) that were ignored by earlier interpreters.

By leading the reader on an imaginary procession through the baptistry, and interpreting each image as a stage in the progression toward baptism itself (using the ancient rhetorical technique of ekphrasis), Peppard proposes multiple and complementary understandings of baptism that could have animated ancient worshipers: being sealed as soldiers of Christ, being healed by the one who walked on the waters, and, being given in spiritual marriage. The women carrying torches, he suggests, fit within this last understanding: they are the wise virgins going out to seek the bridegroom in Matthew 25:1–13.

His argument concerning the portrayal of the torch-bearing women is successful, but not all of his reinterpretations are as convincing; I remain unpersuaded, for example, by his position concerning the picture of the woman at the well. But especially for a generation that has little awareness of Dura and its importance, Peppard’s sophisticated examination of the artistic fragments in the world’s oldest church are both informative and enlightening.


The Good Book of Human Nature
An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible

Carel Van Schaik and Kai Michel
Basic Books, $29.99, 452 pp.

With the insouciant self-assurance that marks those supremely confident that their new approach to a subject offers a simple solution to problems that they think no one else has solved (or even spotted), Swiss-based evolutionary biologist Van Schaik and science journalist Kai Michel explain the Old and New Testaments from the perspective of cultural evolution. The Bible is not the Word of God, it is “the good book of human nature”; it does not tell us who God is or what God wants of humans, it tells us what humans are and how they adapt to new circumstances. The authors assure us that such an approach is both unprecedented and portentous. 

Their framework owes a great deal to Jared Diamond’s thesis (as in Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fate of Human Societies) that mankind’s worst mistake was becoming sedentary: the robust and relatively disease-free life of hunter-gatherers was replaced by the germs and disease (and crime) that arose from living together in one place with livestock. Such disastrous circumstances required of humans not only laws (as for hygiene and property) but also symbolic representations (as of evil spirits) to control and account for crime and disease.

If humanity’s “original sin” was becoming civilized, then, the happy hunter-gatherers must represent humanity before the fall. Although they protest that they do not seek to romanticize this more primitive condition, the authors’ sketch of the “first nature” of humans is almost entirely positive. In contrast, the “second nature” of humans, expressed through cultural institutions and symbols, is—to echo Freud’s title—a recital of civilization’s discontents. They don’t put it quite this way, but the authors seem to suggest that what they term a “third human nature” requires a prudential upholding of cultural norms while cultivating those primal instincts that enable at least a partial return to the garden. 

They do not propose that everything in the Bible comes directly from this move to a more sedentary way of life, but they think they can “reverse engineer the problems people struggled with for thousands of years,” the answers to which now appear in the pages of the Bible. Once the Bible is freed from religion, it can reveal actual “historical realities” and aspects of human cultural evolution.

Well, it’s a nice thought, and if the actual logic of the approach is not pushed too far, some suggestions are intriguing, if not as new as the authors suppose. That the ritual laws of Torah involve social control and hygiene, for example, is clear enough, and has been recognized many times before (see, e.g., Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966). Likewise, while it is pleasant to think that Jesus’ perennial appeal even to those without faith lies in his evoking their inner hunter-gatherer, the authors seem unaware that quite some time ago the biblical scholar Gerd Theissen had proposed that Jesus could be thought of in terms of a cultural mutation (Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Perspective).

The logic of the approach, however, does need contesting. Whenever a rigid interpretive grid is imposed on literature, two equally unfortunate results are predictable. The first is that many texts simply don’t fit the grid and receive scant attention: here, the prophets, the Wisdom writings, and the entire New Testament apart from the gospels and a slice of Revelation, are skimped. The second consequence is that, even for texts that are considered, the rigid grid reduces complex levels of meaning to a single, and often dull, point: while there is some validity in regarding God as the enforcer of civilization’s codes, missing the vibrant, vivid, puzzling, and powerful presence of the character “God” in the Bible is to miss the Bible altogether. Readers of this book can learn a lot about the present preoccupations of evolutionary theory as applied to culture, but they will not learn much about the texts that have done so much to shape our late great culture.  

God Is Watching You
How the Fear of God Makes Us Human

Dominic Johnson
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 304 pp.

In this (much smaller) book, the perspective of evolutionary biology is again applied to religion, in this case, the specific religious phenomenon called “the fear of God.” Is the sense that we stand under the gaze of God, and that our thoughts and deeds will be punished or rewarded, a superstitious remnant or a positive, even irreplaceable dimension of our humanity? The question is clearly both large and important. Johnson, who is a professor of International Relations at Oxford, offers a slender but data-filled study that does not answer it fully, but provides an analysis—using a variety of empirical evidence—that goes a long way toward rescuing this ancient and widespread conviction from the easy dismissal by the “new atheists” operating within the evolutionary paradigm.

Johnson seeks to show, first, that the conviction concerning supernatural sanctions is not peculiar to Western, or Christian, culture. It is, he shows, “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” that spans the globe, the centuries, and embraces even those calling themselves atheists. Literary and experimental data are offered in support. The second goal of his study—and the part requiring most extensive argument—is to show that the phenomenon is not accidental but rather an “evolutionary adaptation” that enabled humans to suppress selfishness in favor of societal cooperation, as well as, paradoxically, “an individual’s evolutionary success.” The conviction that “we are seen” serves as a powerful deterrent to anti-social behavior; the notion that we are seen even when no one else is around is supremely effective. 

The appeal to supernatural sanctions arises, in evolutionary terms, as a concomitant of a theory of mind and the development of complex communication skills. But whatever its source, Johnson argues that belief in a supernatural order of punishment and reward is “hard-wired” in humans. Indeed, he states that “atheism has to be learned, but supernatural beliefs are part of human nature.” But what future do such beliefs have in an increasingly secular world? Johnson acknowledges the growth of secularism in certain parts of the world, but calls into question the claim that religion is dying. He recognizes the expansion of governmental methods of monitoring and punishing societal deviance, but he doubts they are as effective as religious convictions, or that they convincingly substitute for such convictions.

As helpful as Johnson’s study is in showing how the fear of God serves to stabilize societies, its evolutionary and sociological perspective makes it fall short of a full appreciation of “how the fear of God makes us human.” He does not consider at all, for example, the ways in which an acute awareness of God enabled individual humans to resist the norms of the dominant culture. Whether we think of Socrates obeying his daimon rather than common opinion, or of the Stoic philosopher scorning the judgment of the crowd because of obedience to his “governing principle,” or of the prophet who spoke against king and temple in the name of the Lord, or of Jesus casting fire upon the earth, the “fear of God” that Proverbs 1:7 calls “the beginning of wisdom” has destabilized society as much as it has stabilized it.  


Neighboring Faiths
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today

David Nirenberg
University of Chicago Press, $27, 352 pp.

David Nirenberg’s 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: the Western Tradition, is a stunning history of ideas that shows how the concept of Judaism functioned variously across time as a point of opposition for the expression of ideologies ranging from earliest Christianity to Marxism. The present volume by this impressively erudite University of Chicago professor is at once more focused and more expansive. More focused, because it concentrates on relations among Jews and Christians—Muslims appear much less frequently—between the years 1391 and 1492 in the Iberian kingdoms. More expansive, because it considers not only ideas, but also how ideas (and imaginations!) were articulated, not only in literary polemics, but also in sexual interactions, property rights, political privilege, and social status.

The introduction and fourth chapter are new, while the other chapters appeared as essays in learned journals; each piece is tightly argued and based on the close examination of a truly staggering number of primary sources. Overall, Nirenberg wants to oppose a “static state” view of the relations among the three religions in favor of an approach that recognizes constantly shifting and mutual adaptations. Historical events make a difference in how identities come to be negotiated; Nirenberg’s interest is in dissecting just how history and identity construction intersect.

The essay “Love between Muslim and Jew” stands out as the only study that engages those two minority populations within a Christian realm, but two other chapters, “Christendom and Islam” and “Islam and the West: Two Dialectical Fantasies,” are noteworthy for their acknowledgement that present realities inescapably affect our readings of the past, just as our readings of the past affect our understanding of present tensions. He devotes a few devastating pages, for example, to Pope Benedict XVI’s unhappy comments on Islam in 2006.

Most of the specific studies, however, concern Christians and Jews between 1391, the date of the massacre of Jews in Valencia that spurred mass conversions, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Nirenberg shows how the presence of forcibly converted Jews (the conversos) created severe problems of self-definition among Christian preachers (like St. Vincent Ferrer), and stimulated efforts to segregate populations, to mark the Jewish “other” even more explicitly, and even to develop notions of genealogy that could now be considered, cautiously, as racial in character.  

A rewarding book for those not content with simplistic renderings, and who are attracted to complex issues meticulously examined, this is still not an easy read; the 211 pages of text are followed by 72 pages of notes—many of them engaging subsidiary issues—and 31 pages of bibliography. It demands of the reader as well a high tolerance for postmodern academic discourse. Together with his magisterial Anti-Judaism, however, this collection of essays confirms Nirenberg’s place as a particularly incisive and trustworthy historian of religion.

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.