Pagan and Jew in the Ancient World1
For the history of Judaism the synagogue at Dura-Europos is easily the most significant building in the world. As a source for new information and new insights it ranks with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and indeed analogous issues are involved in the interpretation of both. But we have greater need of expert guidance in approaching the frescoes of the synagogue than in understanding the words of the Scrolls. The frescoes are highly stylized and often cryptic, and have no such grandeur and immediacy as those of the Sistine Chapel, where direct inspection can be more effective than volumes of exegesis and portfolios of reproductions. If, therefore, a choice had to be made between visiting the synagogue (which has been reconstructed as a wing of the National Museum at Damascus) and reading a competent and well-illustrated account of it, there can be no question that the book would yield a higher profit than the visit. All who speak of or for Judaism must inform themselves about the synagogue at Dura, and this meticulous and sumptuous volume by Professor Kraeling—published through the generosity of the late Louis M. Rabinowitz—affords an efficient and agreeable method for doing so.
Dura was a completely undistinguished frontier town in Mesopotamia, and its undistinguished Jewish population lived by providing supplies to the Roman garrison posted there against the threat of Sassanian invasion from Persia. The design and decoration of their synagogue buildings and the inscriptions in Greek, Aramaic, and Iranian show that the Jews of Dura had connections both with the East and the West. About 245 C.E. they enlarged and refurbished their old synagogue. In its new form the synagogue complex, which occupied part of a residential block, included a pillared fore-court, where various communal activities (education among them), were carried on, a dwelling house to serve as hostel for transients (Dura was on the caravan route to Palmyra), and the synagogue proper. This was a box-like structure measuring 15.47 m. by 9.76 m. and almost 7 m. high.2 (The synagogues of Palestine were of the Roman imperial basilica type, with an outside stairway leading to the women’s gallery.)
At the center of the solid long wall on the west (and therefore toward Jerusalem) was an elaborate apsidal niche to contain the Torah ark. (In Palestine a movable ark was brought in as needed.) In the long wall on the east were two doors, an imposing one near the center, and a smaller one, for women, near the short wall on the south. Around the interior, and interrupted only by the two doors and the niche, ran a masonry bench with a foot-rest; at the southern end, where women sat, the foot-rest was omitted for reasons of modesty. The floor near the benches was well worn; its center and the benches (as shown by droppings of paint from the frescoes) were covered with mats. Holes in the floor in front of the niche show where a small bimah was removed; holes at the top of the niche supported the curtain before the ark.
The flat ceiling consisted of large decorated or inscribed tiles, and the walls were covered with frescoes, in five horizontal bands. The band next the ceiling, which is lost, was probably simulated architectural detail; above the bench was a conventional decorative band (a dado) with panels showing animals, masks of New Comedy types, and simulated marble incrustation; the three middle bands represent fifty-eight Biblical episodes in twenty-eight panels. The room was among the most spacious and elegantly decorated in Dura; its paintings constitute the richest collection that has come down from the period of the Roman Empire.
The west wall of the synagogue was separated from the city wall by only a narrow street, and on the occasion of an impending Sassanian attack this street was packed with mud to back up the city wall, and to support the strain the interior of the synagogue was also packed with an earthen ramp, rising from the floor on the east to the full height of the synagogue on the west. When the danger grew more critical the ramp was extended eastward, so that the whole synagogue was filled with earth. The city fell nevertheless, in 256, and was abandoned, but the packed earth protected the frescoes from sun and rain, much as the ashes and lava of Vesuvius protected Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 C.E., until they were uncovered by the archaeologists of Yale and the French Academy in 1932.
The initial shock of finding a synagogue of the Tannaitic period decorated with paintings of human figures was very great. Previously an artifact bearing a human likeness, even if found in a Jewish context, was straightway labeled “Christian”; the regular explanation for pagan decorations on Jewish sarcophagi was that they had been hurriedly and inadvertently bought ready-made. But here were Biblical figures hatless and beardless and in pagan dress (Moses, however, wears tsitsit)—to say nothing of a nude Pharaoh’s daughter wading in the Nile—on the very walls of the synagogue. But Dura is not unique in this respect. Synagogues in Galilee which, significantly, had also come to a catastrophic end and been abandoned, showed outright pagan symbols in their floor decorations. Clearly the authorities who commissioned the paintings were following an established practice, and the artisans who carried them out a traditional repertoire which was doubtless repeated, and with higher artistic skill, in other synagogues.
As in the Pompeian analogue, it is clear that two or more originally separate designs have frequently been combined in a single panel. Because the paintings follow specific books of the Bible, starting with the first chapter and continuing episode by episode, it has been suggested that the patterns derive from manuscript illustrations, not, indeed, of the Hebrew Bible, nor yet from the Aramaic Targum, with which, as we shall see, the pictures have distinct affinities, but probably of the Greek. Though the general movement of the pictures is from right to left, the individual panels are oriented from left to right. It is quite possible that the models went back to the Maccabean era. The same models doubtless influenced Christian illustrations also, for these are almost wholly of the Old Testament.
The decorations on the dado, as doubtless on the upper band also, are plainly conventional designs with no particular significance, such as might be applied to any elegant room. The same would apply to the ceiling tiles, though here Professor Enwin R. Goodenough has detected subtle mystic significances. The three middle bands are distinctly religious in content; they include, among others, such themes as the infancy of Moses, the Exodus, the loss of the ark at Ebenezer and its recovery, Elijah at Carmel, David and Saul, Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, Ezra, Mordechai and Esther. The stories are told in the “continuous” style, like a comic strip: a woman in mourning dress carries a limp child; Elijah on a couch handles the child; a woman in a bright dress holds a living child in her arms. The pictures are two-dimensional, without perspective or foreshortening, and the poses tend to be rigidly hieratic. There are Hellenistic types and clichés—the magnificent Ezra reading the Law is a Greek orator; David playing the harp an Orpheus—but the general effect, especially of the animals, is Oriental.
The interpretation of Scripture too follows Targum and Midrash rather than the Greek Septuagint. At the Exodus a file of the Israelites is armed, because the enigmatic chamushim of the Hebrew is translated “armed men” in the Targum; the Septuagint has “in the fifth generation,” and the Hellenistic Jewish authors stress the unarmed helplessness of the Israelites. Again in the Carmel scene (I Kings 18) a little man is hiding in an aperture of the altar while the priests of Baal are waiting for fire to descend, and a serpent is approaching. According to the Midrash the little man was to light the fire from below, but a serpent was providentially dispatched and killed him first.
Interesting as the paintings are individually, their grouping and organization are more interesting. Most scholars agree that the organization reflects some unified ideological scheme, but the scheme has been variously identified. Theories so far propounded are: (a) The paintings represent successive stages in the fulfilment of the covenant between God and Israel (A. Grabar); (b) They represent the three “crowns” of Law, Priesthood, and Kingdom (I. Sonne); (c) They are all focused upon the Messianic theme (Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein); (d) They are phases of the soul’s mystic ascent to true being (E. R. Goodenough). Professor Kraeling is inclined to reject such subtleties, and suggests that the choice of themes is dictated by their usefulness for inculcating various historical or liturgical or moral lessons and their location by exigencies of space. Like the Bible itself the pictures which illustrate it may lend themselves to various combinations and interpretations to enforce one or another homiletical theme; but the intention is only to represent the text, and according to its generally accepted sense.
Professor Kraeling is doubtless right, but the spectator is left with a sense of bafflement nevertheless; surely something more is involved than a discontinuous series of rather crude representations of Bible stories. The root of the bafflement, I believe, and the high value the frescoes have for the history of ideas, both lie in the undigested amalgam of two disparate modes of thought and two alphabets for expressing that thought—the external explicitness of the Greek and the concentrated inwardness of the Hebrew, the invitation to expansion implicit in Hebrew parataxis and the closed self-sufficiency of the elaborate Greek syntaxis, the Greek “aoristic” indifferences to distinctions of time and the close attention to relative chronology characteristic of the Hebrew. Erich Auerbach’s comparison of Odyssey and Genesis in the opening chapter of his Mimesis shows the inconcinnity in modes of narrative, and Thorleif Boman’s Das hebräische Denken im Vergleich mit dem Griechischen the disparity reflected in their respective syntax.
To illustrate from a specific instance in the frescoes: at the top of some of the panels a large hand appears; this is the hand of God and indicates that a miracle is involved. Surely the congregation of Dura was sophisticated enough to understand the shorthand and not to imagine that the picture was a representation of an actual hand; and yet the spectator bred to the legacy of Greece is puzzled if not repelled—as he is repelled by the seven arms on an otherwise charming picture of the Sita of the Ramayana. We are ready to assume, as doubtless we should, that the same kind of shorthand is involved in other pictures also, but then those in the Greek mode seem explicit enough (if not so rich as they might be) without allusive ramifications. The contemporary Ethiopian Romance of Heliodorus presents an analogy in literature. By classical norms, which the reader is apparently invited to apply, the book seems superficial; but it leaves a baffling sense that there are layers of meaning perceptible only by a different key. These layers are doubtless present, though the enucleation offered by such scholars as Kerenyi may be unacceptable; and similar layers are doubtless present in the frescoes though no scholar may have yet identified them correctly.
If, as the Savoyards sing, every boy and every gal born into this world alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative; if, as Coleridge says, men are either Platonists or Aristotelians; then an equally basic and immutable dichotomy separates the Church of England temperament and the evangelical, the misnagged and the Hasid. The Hasidic temper (not actual Hasidim) may embrace Professor Goodenough’s thesis in his Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period despite logical misgivings, and the misnagged reject it though he find the evidence impressive. On the last page of his sixth volume, Professor Goodenough prints a drawing, by Lionel S. Reiss, of a Jewish paterfamilias with beard and shtreimel and haunted, blazing eyes saying the kiddush. One hand holds the wine, the other touches the bread, and a woman is bringing the fish. “I close this volume,” Professor Goodenough writes, “with a drawing of the kiddush made without the slightest knowledge of my theory. In it I feel I can rest my case.” Mr. Goodenough’s theory is that by the use of fish, bread, and wine the man is consciously attempting to achieve mystic union with true being; all a misnagged can see is a much harried man seeking strength by carrying out an inherited ritual and praying that the week ahead may not be as terrifying as he fears.
Professor Goodenough’s earlier four volumes did make it very clear that Jews in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods made much freer use of pagan symbols than one would guess from Rabbinic literature and the codifications of normative Judaism.3 In the present volumes (V and VI) he undertakes a detailed examination of the archaeological and literary evidence for the mystic significance that fish and bread and wine (which includes such other liquids as water, milk, and seminal fluid) had in various pagan manifestations, and argues, again from archaeological and literary evidence, that the Jews consciously accepted and promulgated the pagan (Professor Goodenough would say “universal”) significances along with the symbols. In Rabbinic literature the literary precipitate of these beliefs is consciously blurred, but they come to the fore in Philo and in the Zohar; Philo himself is the product, by no means the originator, of these beliefs.
The evidence is necessarily scattered and equivocal; if it were not so there would be no need for Mr. Goodenough’s pioneer zeal. Occasionally the reader demurs. Grape vines and clusters do after all make decorative borders; an 18th-century havdalah spice-box in the shape of a fish may be an ingenious toy; the absence of turkeys from American tombstones does not prove that the presence of fish on Hebrew ones had eschatological significance, and so on. “Why did the Jews suddenly want to put symbols of fish, bread, and especially wine on their graves and synagogues,” Professor Goodenough asks, “and what did they tell themselves and one another when they did so?” In the synagogue at Dura, the fish along with a few other zodiacal signs are a mere handful of the five hundred tiles which decorate the ceiling; and what Mr. Goodenough elaborates on as a vine might more probably be a tree, and is so described by Kraeling. One shudders to think what a future archaeologist may make of the In hoc signo vinces on a Pall Mall cigarette pack, or even of the Veni vidi vici on a Marlboro, or of the colossal sugar-bowls open to heaven on the campus of Columbia University. Nor is it clear that the symbols mean what Professor Goodenough says they mean even in paganism—bread is the staff of life, and fish makes a festive meal, and wine is the best of beverages, and sexual organs the plainest token of fertility—much less to the Jews who adopted them. Professing Jews do not think of the Lord’s Day when they attend special Temple services on Sunday or of the Nativity when they dress a tree at the Christmas season.
Nevertheless the cumulative effect of Professor Goodenough’s massive marshaling of evidence is impressive, and he does not venture absolute conclusions from the materials he has so painstakingly assembled and ingeniously interpreted. “The picture of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world that finally will emerge from this study,” he writes, “is still fluid in my own mind, and I shall attempt to formulate it only when I have completed a study of the material and its implications.”
This is disarming enough, but from what we are here given it is clear that Professor Goodenough believes the mystic complex of ideas he deals with formed an integral and considerable element in Judaism over a period of centuries; and it is this belief that the rationalist tenor of scholarship inherited from the 19th century finds it difficult to accept. In late paganism the ideas in question are indubitably present, but they forced their way up from lower strata which normative Greek thought tended to despise; and if they prevailed in paganism then undoubtedly like other elements in the dominant culture they influenced some sections of the Jewish population. The question is, what Jews, when, and for how long. It is hard for a more conventional scholar to believe these ideas ever attained the centrality Professor Goodenough would attribute to them, or if they did that they retained it among a considerable proportion of Jews over a considerable span of time.
Nevertheless Professor Goodenough’s contribution must not be minimized. He has added a new dimension to our understanding of religious development and has buttressed his new insights with far-ranging erudition. But something more than erudition has gone into Professor Goodenough’s single-minded labors. He has something of the ascetic zeal he sees in Mr. Reiss’s drawing. In his conclusion he writes: “Important as the differences will always be for the understanding of religions, religion itself is a matter of the depths. If we are ever to find the ‘true’ religion it will be not by establishing differences but by grasping end accepting the common foundation.”
1 A review of The Synagogue, by Carl H. Kraeling, with contributions by C. C. Torrey, C. B. Welles, and B. Geiger (The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, Part I), Yale University Press, 402 pp. (illustrated), $15.00; and Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period: Fish, Bread, and Wine, by Ernest R. Goodenough, Pantheon (Bollingen Series, XXXVII), Vol. 5, 197 pp. (illustrated); Vol. 6, 256 pp. (illustrated), $15.00 the set.
2 A meter is the equivalent of 39.37 inches.
3 See Theodor H. Gaster’s “Pagan Ideas and the Jewish Mind,” Commentary, February 1954, and Professor Goodenough’s article, “Pagan Symbols in Jewish Antiquity,” January 1957.