The very multifarious fabric of history is epitomized by the impressive ancient site of Dura Europos in Syria, a fortified settlement that served as a strategic border city for the Seleucids, Parthians and the Romans. Rising almost 300 ft on the right bank of river Euphrates, the site is also known for its particular 3rd century house-like structure that is considered as the world’s oldest church, originally discovered by the archaeologists from the Yale University in 1920.
And now the religious significance of this building can increase manifold, by virtue of a distinct image – of a woman leaning over a well. Now while previously it was thought to be the portrayal of an episode where a Samaritan woman speaks with Jesus beside Jacob’s well (John 4:1–42), Biblical scholar Mary Joan Winn Leith has put forth her conjecture (based on scholar Michael Peppard’s argument) that the painting depicts Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, the time when angel Gabriel announces that she will bear the Son of God. As she explains (in the summary provided at the Biblical Archaeology Review) –
As Peppard explains, the third-century Dura Annunciation is based not on the Biblical Annunciation in Luke 1:26–38 but on the Gospel of James (a.k.a. the Protevangelium of James), a second-century apocryphal (i.e., not considered authoritative) gospel that narrates the life of Mary up to and including the birth of Jesus. According to the Gospel of James, Mary “took the pitcher and went forth to fill it with water and lo! a voice saying, ‘Hail thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.’ And she looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.”
Interestingly enough, Peppard himself went to describe (in a New York Times article) how this particular image of the woman in question is possibly more significant than that meets the eye. He wrote –
The woman at Dura-Europos has yet more secrets to reveal. Archival photographs and drawings made by the archaeologists on site show that the supposed absence behind the female figure is not totally silent — it speaks a couple of lines. That is to say, a field sketch of the wall done “to show additional details” depicts two painted lines touching the woman’s back, along with a kind of starburst on the front of her torso, features described as “unexplained” in the archaeological report. But with the new interpretation of the figure, in connection with the Eastern iconography that came later, the lines invite a rather evident meaning. They appear to represent a motion toward the woman’s body and a spark of activity within it, as if something invisible were approaching and entering her — an incarnation.
Coming to the historical side of affairs, there are some who consider the Catacombs of Rome to represent the earliest known images of Biblical Mary. But according to Peppard’s argument, these images are “challenging to date with certainty, and many scholars argue that the proposed examples have insufficiently specific iconographic signifiers.” As for the history of the Dura Europos house church itself, the structure is actually known to have housed the earliest known depictions of Jesus Christ himself, with iconographic examples of the “Good Shepherd” and the “Christ and Peter walking on the water”. To that end, a few scholars have surmised how early Christians were possibly not persecuted so heavily in some parts of the Roman Empire, considering the large pagan Roman garrison stationed at the fortified city during 3rd century AD (who tolerated the presence of such Christian religious motifs).
Finally, as for the current circumstances, while many of the wall paintings of the historically (and religiously) significant Dura Europos house church, including the aforementioned image of Virgin Mary, are safely preserved in a Yale museum, the actual site of Dura Europos falls under the shrinking self-proclaimed Caliphate of the terrorist organization ISIS. In that regard, archaeologists are already concerned about the destruction and looting wrought by the ongoing Syrian Civil War that has taken its baleful toll on the ancient city.
Source: Aleteia / Images Courtesy of the Yale University Museum