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The Jewish Community at Dura-Europos: Portrait of a People
Mary Stephanos

Something extraordinary emerged from the sands of Syria in 1932, an ancient synagogue unlike any other that had yet been discovered. Its walls were filled with bright frescoes of Biblical scenes, which have thrilled and puzzled art historians and religious scholars ever since. What sort of Jewish community would decorate its place of worship in this manner? And what can this decoration tell us about the community's theological doctrine, its self-conception, and its relations with the non-Jewish population of the wider city of Dura-Europos? These are questions which have been debated since excavations first began. It seems overly presumptuous to expect that the material evidence this group left behind should give us its members' full story. Indeed, it does not, to such degree that scholars have reached completely conflicting conclusions based on the same physical remains! But our concern is not with these controversies just yet. First, we must try to rebuild on paper, from the nearly 70 years of scholarship that has been published on this site, the flesh and blood community which lived and worshiped and died at Dura-Europos. Only then will we be able to approach a coherent evaluation of the validity of the issues which surround the study of this historical people.

The city of Europos was founded on the Euphrates River in Syria at the end of the 4th century B.C.E. (c. 312 B.C.E.) by the Seleucids, a Macedonian family of Hellenistic rulers, as just one of probably many trading centers and garrison towns on the major commercial and communication route connecting India and the Mediterranean.1 Its function was like that of any other Seleucid frontier town: to ensure the entrenchment of Hellenic power in the region and to act as a vehicle for the dissemination of Hellenistic culture among its inhabitants.2 Europos' population under the Seleucids consisted of two major groups: wealthy land-owning Greek colonists who were to maintain the city's security and act as representatives of the Hellenistic way of life, and indigenous Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia.3 Additionally, small sectors of the population were consistently in flux, with a stream of merchants, soldiers and other officials, as well as civilians, all using the city as a stop in their travels.4 Because of its geography and the very nature of its inhabitants, then, Europos enjoyed a polyglot, urban, and religiously complex culture. Indeed, evidence suggests that the citizens of Europos mixed freely together.


1 Gates, 166; Matheson, 1, 3; Moon, 589; Pollard, 212; Rostovtzeff (1932), 92-94.
2 Matheson, 1.
3 Pollard, 216; Rostovtzeff (1932), 94.
4 Kraabel (1981), 86;Matheson, 7; Moon, 589; Rostovtzeff (1932), 94.


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