On an escarpment high above the Euphrates River in eastern Syria sit the ruins of Dura-Europos, one of the most important archeological finds of the twentieth century. Founded in 303 BC by the Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great, this ancient caravan city of some 8,000 to 10,000 people was occupied by the Romans from 165 AD until it was destroyed by an invading Persian army in 256 AD. Sadly, in recent years it has been “destroyed” once again, this time by ISIS, which has looted and sold the treasures of Dura-Europos in order to finance its murderous regime.
The site was first uncovered by British soldiers after World War I, and subsequent excavations in the 1930s revealed a remarkable city from late antiquity. Sometimes called the “Pompeii of the Syrian desert,” Dura-Europos has three intact structures that tell us a great deal about religious life in this military outpost at the edge of the Roman Empire. Adjacent to a Jewish synagogue with brilliant wall paintings of biblical scenes was a Mithraeum dedicated to the sun god Mithras, a deity to whom many Roman soldiers were devoted. Close by was the home of a well-to-do person that had been converted into a “house church” for Christian worship, a structure complete with an assembly room where fifty to seventy people could be seated to hear a sermon and share the Eucharist. A separate room had a baptistery in which the central rite of Christian initiation was administered.
Like the synagogue, the baptistry walls showed painted images of biblical scenes and figures, including the procession of the bridesmaids described in Matthew 25, and painted images of David, Peter, and Jesus himself—perhaps the oldest likeness we have of him. Methodist scholar Ben Witherington has made an important point about this artwork:
The art in the murals and mosaics in Dura make clear that the early Christians were not iconoclastic—they were not opposed to artistic representations of their God or their saints, or their biblical heroes or their martyrs. They believed that art could be used in the worship and honor of God.
The fear that such art might be a violation of the biblical injunction against “graven images”—the underlying concern in the struggle over the use of icons in the church—seems not to have bothered either the Jews or the Christians in this ancient city.
One of the figures preserved on a wall fragment of the baptistry is that of a woman bending over a well to draw water. Earlier studies identified this figure with the woman of Samaria, who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well in Sychar (John 4:5). Some early church writers linked the “living water” Jesus offered this woman with baptism, and such a motif would make sense for Christians about to undergo the decisive and transformative act of baptism.
More recently, however, it has been suggested that this painting might represent another New Testament woman—the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. If true, this would likely be the oldest image of Mary we have. (Some of the Marian portraits in the Roman catacombs might be earlier, but their dates are uncertain.) Dominic E. Serra was the first to argue that the Dura woman at the well could be Mary. He cited the Protoevangelium of James (10.1) in which the angel Gabriel first addressed Mary while she was fetching water at the well in Nazareth. The startled gaze of the woman in the baptistry painting seems to fit the situation of Mary surprised by a celestial visitant and deeply affected by the encounter: “then, trembling, she went to her home.”
Michael Peppard, a professor of theology at Fordham University, has developed a more extensive argument about the Marian identification of this painting in his book, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria. His research on Mary at baptism is summarized in his recent New York Times article, “Is This the Oldest Image of the Virgin Mary?” In Christian art, the Samaritan woman of John 4 is usually portrayed in conversation with Jesus, but this woman is alone, perhaps taken aback by the voice of the angel who speaks but cannot be seen. There is also a starburst on her torso, perhaps indicating the moment of the Incarnation when Mary is “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Peppard is rightly reluctant to be dogmatic about identifying the Dura woman with Mary, offering a “polysemic” reading that is open to several biblical motifs. But the image of Mary at the Annunciation makes perfect sense as a baptismal painting. The new Christians about to step into the waters of the baptismal pool are echoing Mary's response to the angel's announcement: “Let it be unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to listen to Beeson Divinity School alum Michaela Odom (M.Div., 2007) sing a version of Mary’s Magnificat at the historically venerated location of the Annunciation in Nazareth.