Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

ANCIENT

The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria. By Michael Peppard. [Synkrisis: Comparative Approaches to Early Christianity in Greco-Roman Culture.] (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016. Pp. xii, 320; [8] pp. of plates. $50.00. ISBN 978-0-300-21399-7.)

Peppard offers, in his own words, "a fresh, rigorous, and plausible-albeit sometimes imaginative-historical reconstruction of the Christian community at Dura-Europos" (p. 43), whose building still counts as our earliest preserved church (in use around the middle of the third century). The book's chapters revisit the famous paintings of the baptistery in turn. Peppard wants his audience "to imagine early Christian initiation at the nexus of Bible, art, and ritual" (p. 211)-the subtitle that is applied heavily throughout (see pp. 30, 32, 37, 45, 84, 91, 108, 111, 202, 212; cf. p. 140). He warns against viewing the paintings as "allegorical treasures unlocked by one hermeneutical key-the right biblical text" (p. 31), appreciating that the term biblical can be seen as problematic since "a stable canon of the New Testament did not yet exist" (p. 31) and that the principal framework to interpret the paintings is their "ritual context": "We are not trying only to read the biblical writing on the walls; even more do we seek the liturgical riting on the walls" (p. 32). Throughout, Peppard puts forward "polysemic interpretations" (e.g., pp. 32, 42, 151, 194, 197).

The first painting to be discussed in chapter 2 is that of David slaying Goliath, often seen as somewhat out of place in the baptistery. Peppard argues that its appearance can not only be clarified but "perhaps even be expected" (p. 62), combining the ritual of anointment with "a militaristic visuality centered on the figure of David" (p. 84). Following an analysis of the shepherd and his flock above the font and of Jesus' miracles in chapter 3, the book's "heart" (p. 111, cf. p. 42) is chapter 4, which criticizes the traditional interpretation of the painting of the processing women as those visiting Jesus' empty tomb. Peppard supports the view postulated by Joseph Pijoan in Art Bulletin, 19 (1937), 592-95, and more recently by Dominic Serra in Ephemerides Liturgicae, 120 (2006), 67-78; cf. …

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