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In a Strange Land: How Judaism Adapted and Survived in Dura Europos, Syria

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A few months ago I attended a lecture by Rodrigo Silva at the Horn Lectureship Series at Andrews University and was asked to write the following Newsletter article based on that lecture. This is what follows:

In a Strange Land

One question that needs an answer in biblical studies today is simply how did Judaism adapt and survive in the diaspora? To answer this question, Rodrigo Silva uses Dura Europos as a case study. Important to Dura Europos as a case study for this research is first a multi-fasciated culture, including the subcultures of Syrians, Greeks, Persians, Roman soldiers, conscript barbarians, Jews, and Christians. Additionally, Dura Europos contains one of the oldest and best preserved synagogues that has been found. Due to its remarkable preservation, Dura Europos has sometimes been referred to as the Pompeii of the Syrian desert, and can be used to identify just how this Jewish community survived in a pagan world.

Two Theories

Silva lists two theorists at the foundation of his work with Dura Europos: Chris Gosden and Homi Bhabha. Gosden, in his book Archaeology and Colonialism, discusses what happens within a diverse colony, namely a destabilizing of older values leading to the changing of concepts. Bhabha, a professor of literature, emphasizes the ongoing effects of hybridization. With these concepts, Silva was able to piece together both the adaptation and yet survival of specifically Jewish concepts within the Jewish community at Dura Europos.

Looking at Bhabha's work, it is understood that survival within a colony works in stages. First, there is a sense of both isolation and imitation; isolation often occurs within the first generation—an attempt to hold the traditions of the past—while imitation often occurs within the next generation, as can be seen in modern diverse colonies today. The next stage is that of a mixture—finding middle ground—where truth and authenticity move aside for ambiguity. As the younger generations attempt to live outside of the isolation of pure tradition, and as they begin to imitate in very small ways the language and actions of the unknown culture, a natural merger occurs, even if only in the use of local material lending to a blending of material culture. The third step is that of hybridity; this is what actually challenges colonialism and permits the survival of the original culture. In hybridity nonnegotiables are maintained while negotiables are relaxed—thus forming a completely different culture. This, then,is the final step—the emergence of a new culture where all has been changed. This can be understood in referencing Helenized Jews. They are not pure Helenists but Jews who have adapted certain doctrines and practices while attempting to maintain the core of their own system.

Turning to Dura Europos, at the time of its destruction, very many pagan temples, and even a Christian site, have been discovered around the Jewish synagogue. This meant that the Jewish community faced two options: either hybridization (change but holding to the nonnegotiable tenets) or amalgamation (allowing an adaption of pagan thought). It is clear that the pagans themselves allowed for an amalgamation as evidenced from a statue of Zeus in Roman attire with an inscription attributing the title of Ba'al to the deity, but in order for the Jewish community to survive and maintain their beliefs, this was not an option. And, indeed, as evidenced by the remains of the synagogue as will be seen shortly, the Jewish community at Dura Europos chose hybridization over amalgamation.

Fight and Archaeological Salvation

During the siege of the city, the soldiers began to strengthen the walls by filling areas along the walls with soil and debris. In the process, and because of the close proximity of the synagogue to the wall, the frescos on the inside walls of the synagogue were covered and remained safe through the destruction. It was only during the excavation of the city that these frescos were uncovered, revealing twenty-four images of biblical events. These images, ranging from Moses and the burning bush to the valley of dry bones, show a stunning difference from the biblical text—each of the images had been updated for style and dress. So, Moses appears in Roman attire and the army of Egypt at the Red Sea now has become a Persian military with Greek shields. Others, such as Aaron, appear in Persian dress, but the core of theology has stayed the same, as evidenced by one fresco featuring the Torah in front of the Temple and the destruction of idols.

How did this Jewish community survive? By allowing change. It is one thing to hold to one's traditions, but it is another to understand what is actually important within those traditions and what can be allowed to move by the way side. The Jewish community at Dura Europos appears to have understood that concept—at least, their version of it.


Based on a lecture by Rodrigo Silva at the Horn Lectureship Series at Andrews University, Nov 17, 2014

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