One of the most stunning archaeological finds of the last century was the accidental discovery in 1920 of the ruins of Dura Europos,“a frontier town of very mixed population and traditions” located on a cliff ninety meters above the Euphrates River in what is now Syria. This Hellenistic city had been abandoned following a Sassanian siege in AD 256–57 and was eventually buried by the shifting sands. Among the structures uncovered by excavation was a small Jewish synagogue with elaborately painted walls, preserved only because the building had been filled with earth as a fortification during the siege.
The purpose of this article is to draw greater attention to the Ezekiel cycle, depicted in an important mural found in the synagogue. In particular, this article agrees with Yale religion scholar Erwin R. Goodenough that early Jewish mysticism plays a central role in the program of decoration for this synagogue. If such an interpretation is sustained, the art of the Dura synagogue constitutes the most convincing physical evidence available that the Jewish mysteries described in ancient sources may have had a tangible expression in ritual.
Following a brief account of the discovery of the synagogue and the general significance of its artwork, I will review some of the Dura paintings that attracted the attention of Goodenough and also Hugh Nibley. Both of these scholars interpreted the artwork surrounding the Torah shrine in the Dura murals as revealing heavenly ascent as a central theme in the program of these synagogue decorations, especially in light of the writings of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, a Jewish scholar of the first century. I will then discuss the main features of the Ezekiel paintings, using Goodenough’s detailed descriptions of each panel complemented with findings from more recent research and my own analysis. The analysis will highlight significant themes in the Ezekiel mural relevant to resurrection and heavenly ascent. Throughout this discussion, themes relating to Latter-day Saint temple worship will become apparent. I will conclude with a brief review of recent research in which I will argue that Goodenough’s overall interpretive framework for the paintings at Dura, while generally rejected at the time it was advanced, can now be seen as having anticipated recent trends in scholarship on the liturgical practices of relevant strands of Judaism, especially those focused on the temple and its priesthood.
The Dura Europos Synagogue
Originally built as a private house in a residential neighborhood, the synagogue’s exterior was modest and unimpressive. However, the elaborate and well-preserved nature of many of its inner wall decorations was both astonishing and unprecedented. As described by Rachel Hachlili, “The four walls . . . were covered with remarkable wall paintings to a height of almost [seven meters]. . . . The paintings that survived include about 58 narrative episodes in 28 separate panels, 60% of the original.”After excavation in 1932–33, the painted walls and roof of baked-brick tiles were moved to Damascus, where they were reassembled and became the principal exhibit of the National Museum.
Clark Hopkins vividly describes the moment the walls were revealed to view:
I clearly remember when the foot of fill dirt still covering the back wall was undercut and fell away, exposing the most amazing succession of paintings! Whole scenes, figures, and objects burst into view, brilliant in color, magnificent in the sunshine. . . .
. . . All I can remember is the sudden shock and then the astonishment, the disbelief, as painting after painting came into view. The west wall faced the morning sun which had risen triumphantly behind us, revealing a strange phenomenon: in spite of having been encased in dry dust for centuries, the murals retained a vivid brightness that was little short of the miraculous. . . .
A casual passerby witnessing the paintings suddenly emerging from the earth would have been astonished. If he had been a Classical archaeologist, with the knowledge of how few paintings had survived from Classical times, he would have been that much more amazed. But if he were a biblical scholar or a student of ancient art and were told that the building was a synagogue and the paintings were scenes from the Old Testament, he simply would not have believed it. It could not be; there was absolutely no precedent, nor could there be any. The stern injunction in the Ten Commandments against the making of graven images would be sufficient to prove him right.
While scholars have debated the question of what meaning, if any, lay behind the selection and depiction of the scenes in the paintings,there is no disagreement as to the importance of the find. Jo Milgrom called the Dura synagogue the “first major Jewish artistic monument ever unearthed” and noted that “extensive figural decoration of similar complexity does not appear in Christian art until the fifth century.” Mikhail Rostovtzeff said it was “the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert.” Goodenough observed that “before the discovery of the Dura synagogue in 1932 anyone would have been thought mad who suggested that Jews could have made such a place of worship.” Nevertheless, subsequent discoveries of Jewish art throughout the Mediterranean world, and especially in Israel, have confirmed that the art of the Dura synagogue was not an isolated phenomenon.
To Goodenough, the art and layout of the synagogue suggested a group with a “mystical” orientation to worship, specifically involving the liturgical experience of heavenly ascent.Eminent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner sees such a development at Dura as no surprise, given that in this region around AD 220–50 other significant religious movements with strong mystical components were also taking form. It should be remembered, however, that detailed descriptions of corresponding ideas relating to “Jewish mysteries” were already to be found centuries earlier in the writings of Philo—writings whose core elements may go back to the First Temple period and arguably relate to its distinctive rites and theology.
The Synagogue Murals
Whatever limited awareness most LDS readers may have of the Dura Europos synagogue paintings is probably due to the writings of Hugh Nibley. Nibley concurred with Goodenough’s reaction to the discovery, further remarking:
In these impressive murals we see such unexpected things as the bread and wine of the Messianic meal [figs. 6 and 7], reminding us of the sacrament; we see the wandering of Israel in the desert with the waters of life flowing in twelve miraculous streams, with “the head thereof a little way off” (1 Nephi 8:14) to each of the tribal tents [fig. 2].
Due to the number and complexity of the synagogue’s wall decorations, it will be impossible to describe most of them in any detail here. However, I will briefly introduce two example murals (figs. 2 and 3) that depict story details not found in the Bible. Both of these murals attracted Hugh Nibley’s interest. Then I will discuss the perspectives of Goodenough and Nibley on the important Torah shrine and tree of life paintings in order to set the context for a more extensive description of the Ezekiel mural below. The mural titles used in the captions are Goodenough’s designations.
Two example murals. In the first mural (fig. 2), Goodenough observed that the garment Moses wears, which matches the lining of Aaron’s priestly robe, “seems to be saying that Moses is here functioning on the Aaronic level.”John Lundquist has discussed this image in connection with the idea of the Law as a source of living waters.
In the second example (fig. 3), Nibley found it significant that this mural contained “the oldest authentic example” of a depiction of the Ark of the Covenant, showing it as a “‘small tent’ mounted on a wagon drawn by oxen.”In another work, he pointed out the three men in “robes standing behind the departing wagon [who] direct the oxen with their fingers. Goodenough . . . cautiously identifies the three men as those who appeared to Abraham and therefore represent God himself.”
The Torah shrine and the reredos. In the center of the west wall of the synagogue was a feature designated as the Torah shrine (fig. 4). “It contained a niche into which a scroll of the Pentateuch was placed”and was topped by a large scallop shell, a symbol that marked the sanctity of the Torah contained beneath it. Immediately above the niche was a mural filled with symbols of Jewish worship (fig. 5): the menorah (left), a representation of the Temple in Jerusalem (center), and the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (right).
In front of the altar, a ram is caught in the thicket, and behind it is what appears, at first glance, to be someone in a tent. Although the figure is often identified as Sarah,it is difficult to see why she would have been included in this scene. Moreover, were the figure intended to represent a female, one would expect a head covering and colored clothing, as with other Jewish women shown in the Dura murals. Intriguingly, Margaret Barker interprets this detail of the painting of Abraham’s sacrifice as “a figure going up behind a curtain held open by a disembodied hand—the symbol of the LORD. Since the temple curtain represented access to the presence of God, this seems to depict Isaac going to heaven.” In support of her conclusion, Barker cites Jewish and early Christian texts suggesting that, in the Akedah, Isaac literally died, ascended to heaven, and was resurrected. Of course, the themes of “death” and “resurrection” could just as easily fit a ritual context. Goldstein observed that the Torah shrine was replete with “symbols of immortality or resurrection.”
As interesting as the other panels were, however, Nibley concluded, like Goodenough, that “the most important representation of all is the central composition that crowns the Torah shrine, the ritual center of the synagogue.”This mural, which Goodenough called the reredos (an ornamental wall behind an altar), had been “repainted several times, until it finally pleased whoever was designing it.” The “successive alterations show that great attention was paid to the problem of what should be represented in it.”
Directly above the shrine, as if springing directly from the Law itself, is depicted a splendid tree [fig. 6] beneath whose sinuous and spreading boughs the twelve sons of Israel stand around their father Jacob; while sheltered by the branches on the other side [he]is seen conferring his blessing upon Ephraim and Manasseh [fig. 8]. . . . “Out of the Torah shrine . . . grew the tree of life and salvation which led to the supernal throne.”
Nibley cited Goodenough’s observation that the figure represents both a tree and a vine, imagery that is paralleled in the Book of Mormon.“The olive tree that stands for Israel in the Book of Mormon imagery is also a vine; it grows in a vineyard, is planted, cultivated, and owned ‘by the lord of the vineyard.’” Nibley saw the same “free-and-easy identifications” in the Dura art as in the Book of Mormon.
Making an unprecedented appearance in Jewish synagogue art was the figure of Orpheus, the sweet singer of Greek mythology:
At Dura we see high in the branches of the tree the familiar figure of Orpheus as he sits playing his lyre to a lion and a lamb [figs. 7 and 8]. The earliest Christian art is fond of the figure of Orpheus, . . . [who] usually sings to a lion and a lamb, as in the Dura synagogue.
Goodenough suggested that this Orpheus figure at Dura “was probably called David,” through whose “heavenly, saving . . . music . . . Israel could be glorified.”In this picture, Goodenough maintained, the artist was trying to show “the glorification of Israel through the mystic tree-vine, whose power could also be represented as a divine love which the soul-purifying music of an Orpheus figure best symbolized.” Nibley connected this Orpheus figure in a tree with the tree representing “the love of God” that Lehi and Nephi saw in vision (1 Ne. 11:21–22), with Alma’s “song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26), and with the “new song” sung by the hundred and forty-four thousand redeemed before the throne of God (Rev. 14:3).
Goodenough did not see the paintings at Dura but viewed them in their later, restored form at the museum. The reredos, however, presented unique difficulties. It was one of the first paintings uncovered, “and the archeologists had briefly a very clear view of the overpainting. In the excitement of the moment they made no immediate attempt to photograph it. In two hours, to their consternation, the exposure to the glaring sun began to make the underpainting show through the overpainting.”The various layers of paint became so blurred together that Goodenough called the resulting image “hopelessly confused.” Thus, his interpretation of the reredos relied heavily upon the sketches and descriptions of Comte Robert du Mesnil, Herbert Gute, and Henry Pearson, who saw them in their earlier condition. Though the state of the reredos makes it impossible to reconstruct the course of its development definitively, there were arguably three stages of composition:
Earliest rendition. Figure 6 is a sketch made by Pearson, who removed the murals from Dura and restored them before they went on exhibit in Damascus. This sketch shows his conception of the earliest version of the reredos, with the tree growing directly out of the Torah shrine.
First repainting. Figure 7 shows Gute’s conception of an intermediate design in which the tree seems to have originally grown out of a large wine bowl rather than the small vase shown in figure 6. When the table and the feline figures were added to the left and right of the tree, the vase seems to have been painted over and a heavier trunk added. Goodenough saw ritual significance in the addition of the flanking figures, taking the objects on the table at left to represent ceremonial bread, and the serpent-topped felines as decorations for a wine bowl. A figure of King David, depicted as Orpheus and accompanied by animals,was then painted among the branches, and a throne scene appeared at the top.
Second repainting. Figure 8 shows Gute’s reconstruction of the reredos as it appeared when he was making his copies, during the second year of the excavation. In this final modified version, the scene was divided into an upper and lower part by an awkward horizontal band separating the top and bottom parts of the tree. At the lower left, Jacob is shown lying on his bed giving his last blessing to his twelve sons and, at lower right, his blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh.Kurt Schubert, stressing the messianic-eschatological aspects of the painting, saw the Lion as a symbol of the King Messiah figure seated on the throne (Genesis 49:9–10) and the depiction of the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh as a probable reference to the “second messianic figure, . . . the Messiah from the house of Joseph-Ephraim who was destined to suffer and die.” In the top scene, Goodenough saw the thirteen who had been blessed by Jacob—the sons of Israel with Ephraim and Manasseh representing Joseph in double measure—exalted in the presence of God and his two divine throne attendants.
Eliciting parallels to Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 1, Nibley saw significance in the Dura throne scene (fig. 8) as follows:
Above “the tree of life and salvation which led to the supernal throne” was depicted the throne itself, in a scene in which God is shown enthroned in heaven, Persian fashion, surrounded by his heavenly hosts. Goodenough finds the idea both surprising and compelling: “The enthroned king surrounded by the tribes in such a place reminds us much more of the Christ enthroned with the saints in heaven . . . than of any other figure in the history of art.” . . . As this is the high point in the Dura murals, so was it also in Lehi’s vision.
Four portraits. While the throne scene emphasizes the divine reward of Israel as a people, the theme of individual exaltation appears also. Goodenough saw it in four portraits that surround the reredos (fig. 9).The prominent position of these paintings and the fact that they are the only individual portraits found anywhere in the synagogue suggest their importance. In each case, Goodenough identified Moses as the subject, as he is shown in what seem to be the progressive sacred experiences of (1) the burning bush, (2) the receipt of the Tablets of the Law, and (3) the reading of the Law —“exactly the incidents most stressed in the mystic account of Moses by Philo.” The final portrait (4) shows a figure standing on the earth with the sun, moon, and seven stars (planets) above his head (fig. 10). The representation of the sun is unique in its depiction of laddered rays, recalling the well-known symbolism of the “divine ladder that connects man to God.” Goodenough concluded that the subject is again Moses, “now in old age and ascending to heaven,” a theme that is much more at home in the mystical Judaism of the priestly temple-oriented groups than in the more rabbinically oriented traditions.
In his description of the great and final song of Moses, Philo, in fact, gave the most plausible extant account of a scene matching this portrait, a description that would have powerfully evoked for Dura synagogue worshipers the Orpheus theme in the adjacent tree of life mural:
Having discoursed . . . to his subjects and the heir of his headship, [Moses] proceeded to hymn God in a song in which he rendered the final thanksgiving of his bodily life for the rare and extraordinary gifts with which he had been blest from his birth to his old age. He convoked a divine assemblage of the elements of all existence and the chiefest parts of the universe, earth and heaven. . . . With these around him he sang his canticles with every kind of harmony and sweet music in the ears of both mankind and ministering angels: of men that as disciples they should learn from him . . . : of angels as watchers, observing . . . and scarce able to credit that any man imprisoned in a corruptible body could like the sun and moon and the most sacred choir of the other stars attune his soul to harmony with God’s instrument, the heaven and the whole universe.
In the context of this interpretation, the fourth portrait of Moses in the Dura synagogue constitutes not only a witness to his own exaltation, but also an implicit invitation to all those in the congregation to follow him. In his discussion of late Second Temple Jewish mysticism, Goodenough summarized Philo’s descriptions of “two successive initiations within a single Mystery,” constituting “a ‘Lesser’ Mystery in contrast with a ‘Greater,’” as follows:
For general convenience we may distinguish them as the Mystery of Aaron and the Mystery of Moses. The Mystery of Aaron got its symbolism from the great Jerusalem cultus. . . . The Mystery of Moses . . . led the worshipper above all material association; he died to the flesh, and in becoming reclothed in a spiritual body moved progressively upwards . . . and at last ideally to God Himself. . . . The objective symbolism of the Higher Mystery was the holy of holies with the ark, a level of spiritual experience which was no normal part of even the high-priesthood. Only once a year could the high-priest enter there, and then only . . . when so blinded by incense that he could see nothing of the sacred objects within. The Mystery of Aaron was restricted to the symbolism of the Aaronic high-priest. . . . In a striking passage Philo contrasts this type of priest with Moses, who . . . became the true initiate . . . , hierophant of the rites . . . , and teacher of divine things.
Philo taught that the experience of Moses was not meant to be unique; rather, he exemplified a pattern that previously had been followed by Abraham and would continue afterward for all who belonged to true Israel.In his role as “teacher of divine rites,” wrote Philo, “[Moses] will impart to those whose ears are purified. He [the one who receives these rites] then has ever the divine spirit at his side, taking the lead in every journey of righteousness” or, in the translation of Goodenough, “to lead one along the ‘whole Road,’ the entire way to perfection.”
According to Philo, . . . in Moses the “hierophant” the gulf between mortal and immortal, the cosmic and the human, has been bridged. In the presence of the sun, moon, and stars a man has sung the perfect song while yet in the body, and the faith of the angels themselves has been strengthened. Yet this great person, even as he was in the height of his grandeur, could not forget his loving-kindness to the people, and while he rebuked them for their sins, he gave them such instructions and advice that the future became full of hopes which must be fulfilled. . . . The question before us, however, is not how Philo thought but how the worshipers in the synagogue thought, or at least the elders who paid to have these extraordinary paintings on its walls.. . . The central reredos painting seems to tell us that the leading Jews of Dura had a burning desire to leave the savagery of bestial desires and follow the leadership of the great hierophants—Jacob at the bottom, David-Orpheus on the way, to the supreme Three at the top of the tree of life. The greatest priest-hierophant of all, for this sort of Judaism, was Moses himself, and that he should be presented in the four crucial aspects of his career was entirely fitting. Philo had himself been “initiated under Moses” and it seems to me quite likely that the Elder Samuel [who built the synagogue] may have been so “initiated” also.
Hinting at the possibility of such ritual in the Dura synagogue, Goodenough noted: “In [a] side room were benches and decorations that mark the room as probably one of cult, perhaps an inner room, where special rites were celebrated by a select company. . . . So far as structure goes, it might have been the room for people especially ‘initiated’ in some way.”
Goodenough’s controversial speculations about initiation rites at the Dura synagogue receive support from Crispin Fletcher-Louis’s subsequent findings on what he calls the “angelomorphic priesthood” of the Qumran community. At Qumran, Fletcher-Louis envisages the possibility of
a liturgical or cultic context for the apotheosis [that] could, in theory, be entirely compatible with . . . a real mystical or visionary experience. . . . It is . . . likely, given the cosmological significance attached to the cult, that the regular, even routinized, worship of a Jewish community which considers itself not heterodox but orthodox, would foster the belief in personal experiences of mystical transcendence and apotheosis.
. . . Before his fall Adam was ontologically coterminous with God’s own Glory. His originally divine humanity is recovered when (the true) Israel worships her god in a pure cult—a restored cosmos in miniature. And, so, by the same token she, especially her priesthood, recovers the previously lost Glory of God in the same context. In worship the boundary between heaven and earth is dissolved and the Qumran community are taken up into the life of that which they worship.
Convinced that this perspective, first attested by evidence at Qumran, applies more generally to the wider study of Jewish mysticism over the centuries, Fletcher-Louis notes that in current research “the role of the temple and the priesthood has slowly come to the fore,” seeing the “religious experiences attested in the apocalypses” as expressions “of the divine encounter believed to take place in and through Israel’s temple worship, especially priestly offices.”Elliot Wolfson specifically describes this kind of experience as a “visionary ascent to the heavenly throne and the participation in the angelic liturgy [that] would have been a preoccupation of a priestly group who, in the absence of an earthly temple, turned their attention to its celestial counterpart.” Jewish “magical” texts give related evidence of ritual, with “an emphasis on the name of God, . . . the presence of angelic intermediaries, and . . . the invocation of divine names and use of ritual practices for the needs of specific individuals.” While it goes beyond the scope of the present article, Goodenough’s identification of a possible ritual for these synagogue paintings is also consistent with a growing body of literature discussing ritual initiations in Hellenistic mystery religions and early Christian traditions.
Ritual Ascent in the Ezekiel Mural
We are now prepared to examine the mural of the prophet Ezekiel, which offers further clues about the way in which the elements of heavenly ascent—and perhaps an accompanying ritual of ascent—may have been conceived by the designers of the Dura synagogue.
The Dura Europos depiction of its Ezekiel story-cycle runs the entire twenty-five-foot length of the north wall (fig. 11). Goodenough noted that this mural is the “largest single painting in the synagogue. . . . To have been given so much space it must have had great importance in the mind of the person who designed the decoration.”Kraeling also considered the work “the greatest and most important composition” among all the murals. A figure of Ezekiel appears eight times here.
Tripartite structure. Goodenough saw the painting as a structure of three main panels, with stages of ascent and descent being indicated by differences in the background color:
The total design . . . emphasizes most conspicuously that the first three figures of Ezekiel and the broken mountain have a light background, as does the final scene of his arrest and execution, but that between these a central section stands sharply set off by its dark background. The contrast seems to tell us that the ordinary Ezekiel existed in the realm of death at each end, a realm sharply different from that of heaven-given life where figures in the white dress of sanctity can and do come into their full exaltation.
Three changes of attire. Ezekiel is shown wearing three types of clothing as these scenes unfold. His changes in clothing can be interpreted as a progression representing three different degrees of existence, just as initiates following in his footsteps would be “identified at each stage with the spiritual existence of that stage.”The three types of clothing also recall the tripartite structure of the Jerusalem temple as interpreted in apocalyptic and Gnostic Christian writings, and the changing of the high priest from colored to white garb before entering the holy of holies in Jewish practice. According to Philo, the greater initiation allowed Moses, “when stripped of his distinguishing [multicolored] robes, clad in simple white,” to abide in God’s presence “while he learns the secrets of the most holy mysteries,” and to be “changed into the divine, so that such men become kin to God and truly divine.”
Christopher Morray-Jones notes that the threefold structure of the temple in 1 Enoch 14 “reflects a cosmology of three heavens,” which was only later “displaced by a more complex model of seven heavens.”Significantly, he also points out similar ideas in Philo. George MacRae highlights a passage in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, II, 3, that associates the three parts of the temple with three different sacraments:
It builds on the concept that one moves toward the divine presence as one moves successively through the outer courts of the temple toward the inner Holy of Holies, to which only the priest has access. Consequently the order in which the courts are identified with sacraments becomes very important. The initiatory rite of baptism is the outermost one. The rite of redemption, whatever that may have consisted of, is the second one. And it is the bridal chamber, the rite of which was the supreme rite for the Valentinean Gnostic, which is the approach into the presence of God himself.
Despite significant differences, initiation rites in Greco-Roman mystery religions also shared the idea of “three stages of purification, illumination, and mystical unification.”In their portrayals of these stages, an upward physical movement often paralleled a ritual heavenly ascent from darkness to increasingly greater light.
Right hands. A prominent feature of the first two panels of the painting (fig. 11) is a series of five divine right hands, “the first clenched in the hair of the prophet,”and the remaining four open and extended toward him. These hands, which may have ritual significance, recall the Lord saving Israel “with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm” (Deut. 26:8), a motif frequently exemplified in other murals of Dura. Sometimes, in Jewish and early Christian art, the hand of God served as a visual representation of the divine voice speaking from the heavens. Here, however, and in at least one other Dura panel, the “hand from heaven” is specifically associated with the “revivication of the dead,” a theme not unknown in the Psalms. In a formula repeated throughout the rabbinical literature, the “key of the revival of the dead” is mentioned as one that “the Holy One . . . has retained in His own hands” —though this mural clearly shows that it can be delegated to others. As in Ezekiel accounts found elsewhere, the hand is extended to him “as if to give a command” and also “to give strength to perform his task” —here evidently to bring the dead to a full measure of eternal life.
Reversal of the hands. Goodenough observes that two of the extended hands in the first panel are portrayed with “palms forward. In contrast over the scenes at the right the [two] divine hands are turned, still right hands, but with the nails of each finger carefully indicated to make them certainly right hands, though their position is reversed. I cannot believe that this had no significance to the artist who so carefully showed the detail.”This reversal may suggest a change in the relationship of Ezekiel to God as he moves from the earthly to the heavenly realms, corresponding to the “well-known shifting of garments from left to right in initiation ceremonies (e.g., of the tassel on the mortarboard at graduations)” or the Jewish prayer shawl or robe that “is draped over one shoulder and then over the other.” The imagery also recalls Philo’s description of two successive initiations discussed above.
Such changes may be seen as either prefiguring or actually bringing about a kind of resurrection, rising from one state of existence to another. About this aspect of the Ezekiel mural, Margaret Barker has remarked:
The idea of resurrection is certainly present; we do not know how resurrection was understood in the first temple, but resurrection was an expectation of the priests; i.e., that they were resurrected when they came into the presence of God at their consecration, and then returned to the world. This would explain Ezekiel returning to the world to face martyrdom [in the final panel of the mural].
In any event, Goodenough concluded that something like what he calls Philo’s “higher mystery” “played a highly important part in the Judaism of Dura.”
Events in the Ezekiel Mural
We turn now to a discussion of the specific sequence of events depicted in the mural.
Divine commissioning. The Ezekiel story-cycle begins in the leftmost panel with a picture of an olive treebearing prominent fruit and three drawings of Ezekiel wearing typical Persian or worldly clothing (fig. 12). As Goodenough describes, “The heavenly hand lifts the first figure of Ezekiel by the hair of his head into this place of human fragments,” sending the prophet forth, with authority, from a garden of life to preach to those who are physically or spiritually dead.
The second figure of Ezekiel is shown fulfilling God’s command to prophesy to the bones (Ezek. 37:2–7)—and implicitly also, of course, initiating a demonstration of divine resurrection for the benefit of his living audience.“In the painting, the prophet’s right hand is open in a gesture of exposition toward the bones.” His left hand points forward while the hand of God is extended above him.
In the third depiction of Ezekiel, he “turns to the right, pointing across his body with his right hand to a third hand of God above him. With his open left hand the prophet seems to call attention to a strange mountain beside him.”“The mountain is split down the middle, and a small tree with exaggerated fruit grows at the top of each half.” This image of separation and judgment may recall the prophesied destruction of groves used for idol worship (Ezek. 6:13; 20:28, 47) or perhaps represents two of the trees of Eden (Ezek. 31:8–9, 16, 18). Goodenough explained:
A castellated citadel topples upside down from the crest of the hill at the right, a building with two openings, apparently a door and a window. . . . The artist seems to be showing the [body] pieces going through the first half of the mountain, crossing the chasm, and in the second half being miraculously reassembled as whole corpses, for three such corpses lie on their backs within it. . . . Ezekiel stands at the right of the mountain, his left hand out as though he were preaching, or saying “Lo,” his right hand again lifted up toward the hand of God. He still wears the Persian costume, but his elaborately embroidered red smock has become a relatively plain one in light pink.
Calling forth the dead. In the middle of the mural, the second main panel takes the viewer into the realm of resurrection in the valley of life. Ezekiel is shown wearing a much simpler garment than before, its color changed from red to a light pink that may symbolically represent a stage of increasing purity “from the blood and sins of this generation,” as Isaiah describes it (Isa. 1:16; compare D&C 88:75). Next, Ezekiel stands in a white robe with his right arm raised, as a heavenly host comes down to touch the heads of the deceased (fig. 13). According to the description of Goodenough, in this scene “the three assembled corpses again lie one above another, and the Greek figure of Psyche with butterfly wings stands at their heads, her hands out as though just about to grasp the head of the corpse at the top. Three other Psyche figures fly down from above. Scholars generally agree in identifying these figures with the four winds, which in the story breathe upon the corpses and give them the breath of life, so that they live.”
Continuing with his interpretation, Goodenough described the fifth figure of Ezekiel as “supervising this miracle . . . , his right hand pointing with two fingers extended toward the descending Psyches. . . . That the prophet has taken on a new status at this stage seems obvious from his change of robes. Just as important is the peculiar two-finger gesture, which appears only here in the Dura paintings.”We know, wrote Goodenough, “that it was not only used for the hand of the god, but was probably a cultic gesture in his mysteries. . . . The gesture would seem to indicate that Ezekiel is working a comparable miracle by bringing life to the corpses.” One may compare the gesture of Ezekiel in his fifth appearance (in figs. 13 and 15) with a Byzantine ivory plaque in the British Museum that shows Christ raising the dead using a nearly identical gesture (fig. 14).
Worship of the heavenly assembly. Between the fifth and sixth figures of Ezekiel “stand ten much smaller figures, all in the same [Romanized] Greek dress, who presumably represent the bones now fully restored to life. They raise their hands, palms forward at shoulder height” (fig. 15).Some interpreters have advanced the idea that the ten individuals represent the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel. However, as Goodenough pointed out, “it is hard to think that Judah and Benjamin should still be the unassembled ‘bones’ beside them.” Instead—relating the ten columns of the heavenly temple to the symbolism of ancient prayer circles, angelic liturgy in the heavenly ascent (hekhalot) literature, and the Jewish prayer quorum (minyan)—Kurt Schubert reminds us that ten, a symbol of perfection, was the “full number for a liturgical congregation.” Schubert explained the nearby body parts that have not been rejoined as symbolizing “those groups of sinners, which according to Rabbinic understanding, have no part in the resurrection.” On the other hand, wrote Goodenough, the “ten who come into glory are the true Israel, . . . the mystic Jews. . . . The point of the ‘true Israel’ is that it consists of people who ‘see God.’ They are ones who have become ‘unwritten laws.’”
Goodenough noted the special markings of “clavi” and “gams”on the “Greek robe of chiton [belted tunic] and himation [cloak]” worn by the ten (see also the gammadia on the garment of Moses in figure 2). From his observations, Goodenough concluded, “Only those who appeared to be heavenly beings or the greatest saints of Judaism, mystic saviors, wear this clothing.”
The reunited mountain and tree of life. Goodenough continued: “At the right of this [sixth] figure of Ezekiel . . . towers another mountain with a tree on it; this time the mountain stands intact, not riven like the first one. The contrast will seem possibly to have meaning.”On the face of it, the idea expressed in the Ezekiel mural seems to be that the mountain is first split to release the dead (fig. 12), and then it is brought back together again and made whole (fig. 15). The image of the primordial mound being split in two to allow men “to spring forth like vegetation” is found in Near Eastern art and temple architecture. All this imagery seems quite compatible with Jewish conceptions of resurrection as rebirth, “the earth being as a womb which shall give birth to them that are in their graves.” Goldstein concludes that the “unriven mountain is a restored mountain in the [future] Age of Restoration.”
Additionally, one might argue that this panel represents the idea that the two trees on the split mountain, one or perhaps both of them olive trees,have been brought back together into one. The resulting single tree seems to be vigorously sprouting new branches or fruit. In the Zohar, the foundation text for later Jewish kabbalah mysticism, the originally unified tree of life and tree of knowledge is split by the transgression of Adam and Eve, though a promise is given that these trees would one day be made one again. Alternatively, in the context of Ezekiel 37, one might be tempted to regard these two trees as an allusion to the two “sticks” or trees of Ezekiel 37:15–20 being reunited in token of the restoration of the House of Israel. Note that the Hebrew word for “stick,” etz, is the same word for “tree.” This interpretation is consistent with the overall theme of the final design of the Dura tree of life mural (fig. 8), with the separate blessings of the two divisions of Israel at the bottom of the tree and their joint exaltation around the throne at the top.
On pain of death. The final panel of the Ezekiel mural (fig. 16) presents a problem because it was painted twice, but, as Goodenough observed, “much of the original has come through the second coat of paint, so that we have a very good idea of what both looked like.”In both renditions, two figures representing Ezekiel are shown—the seventh and eighth depictions of the prophet in the mural—but only the final Ezekiel figure was repainted. The seventh Ezekiel figure “kneels and clings to the side of a large yellow altar. . . . An armed soldier wearing a helmet grasps [him] from behind.” The eighth Ezekiel figure is then shown bending over, “his scabbard hanging down between his legs, while a standing figure in the same costume grasps his hair with the left hand and raises a sword, obviously in the act of beheading him.” The tradition that Ezekiel was beheaded “does not appear in either the Old Testament or the rabbinical writings, but does in Christian documents,” including Hebrews 11:37, which speaks of prophets who were “stoned,” “sawn asunder,” and “slain with the sword.” This verse may “summarize a current Jewish tradition of the deaths of the three major prophets, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel,” as depicted in the Roda Bible, with Jeremiah being stoned, Isaiah being sawn asunder, and Ezekiel being slain with a sword (figs. 17–19). This final story scene seems to illustrate the requirement that those who would attain the glory of the way of life must prove their faithfulness “at all hazards,” including, if required, the sacrifice of their own lives.
Summing up the content of the Ezekiel mural and its relationship to the mystic’s goal of ascent to the merkavah, or heavenly chariot-throne, Goodenough wrote:
Merkabah mysticism . . . primarily centers in an ascent into a heavenly region, and then a descent or return to the sorry world of earthly reality, and when we have this conception in mind we see that here is what the painting really has told us. The heavenly hand comes upon the prophet to take him into the world of death and desolation. Here he preaches until the bones of human decay come together and pass through a great barrier to another realm—the realm where Psyches give men a new life, and where their new life means that they, like the now triumphant prophet, wear the great robe of sanctity. Ezekiel cannot stay there, however, but must go back to the other side of the mountain again, there in his earthly garb to meet his earthly and mortal fate, meet it from the very Jewish leaders whose apostasy he had bitterly upbraided.
Scholarly Assessment of Goodenough’s Studies
Goodenough’s studies of Philo and of Jewish mysticism, undertaken over a period of thirty years, were controversial when they were published and have been largely neglected in the years since his passing in 1965. Yet more than two decades after his death, in reviewing the arguments of Goodenough’s critics, Jacob Neusner could still speak of him as the “greatest historian of religion America has ever produced” and the “one towering figure” in the study of Judaism through art.
If not concurring with Goodenough’s specific conclusions about the beliefs and practices of the Jewish group who built the synagogue, a majority of scholars at least agree on the more general idea that “most of the scenes at Dura have some connection to messianic redemption and resurrection.”However, apart from disagreements on specific details of interpretation, scholars have debated issues such as the following regarding Goodenough’s overarching perspective:
- Was “mystical Judaism” a distinct departure from rabbinic tradition? Some scholars have argued that the differences between these groups should have been represented by Goodenough more as a “confused gradation” than as a dichotomy. Ithamar Gruenwald also observed that Jewish mystical literature is associated “with the ‘heart of Judaism’ of the period and not with marginal, heterodox groups.” Though such opinions, if sustained, might weaken Goodenough’s arguments for a polarization between the beliefs and practices of rabbinic and mystical Judaism, they also would provide evidence, as do studies of synagogue art throughout the region, that mysticism was more pervasive than once had been thought, thus strengthening the plausibility of Goodenough’s interpretations for the Dura murals.
- How valid were Goodenough’s comparisons of the synagogue paintings to pagan art? Writing soon after Goodenough published his studies, Elias Bickerman criticized his comparisons of the synagogue’s images to Dionysiac imagery in pagan art. Although agreeing with Bickerman that such comparisons are generally “inappropriate,” Jodi Magness has more recently made the important point that a “mystical interpretation of another sort is supported by the Qumran literature and by hekhalot (heavenly ascent) literature, much of which was unavailable at the time Goodenough wrote. In fact, this is the type of Jewish literature that Goodenough supposed must have existed but was not preserved.” As argued above, the theme of heavenly ascent is central to Goodenough’s interpretation of the Ezekiel mural.
- How widespread was the influence of ideas resembling those of Philo? Lee Levine has discounted Goodenough’s reliance on Philo, seeing the interpretations of the latter as “sui generis and not reflective of what was going on in most Jewish circles of antiquity.” However, according to Luke Johnson, what neither supporters nor opponents of Goodenough can now deny is the “pervasive use by Philo of language that takes its origin in the mysteries yet is employed with direct reference to the practice and self-understanding of Judaism,” in essence, “a conceptualization of Judaism as Mystery.” Countering Levine’s claim that Philo was sui generis, an increasing body of evidence reveals important affinities between Philo’s writings and pseudepigraphic writings of the same period, supporting Goodenough’s accounting for similarities to Philo in terms of analogous independent developments.
- Were specific ritual practices associated with mystic Judaism? John Collins failed to see sufficient evidence for distinctive Jewish mystic ritual, but his extensive review of mystic Judaism and its literature largely substantiates and expands upon Goodenough’s arguments regarding Jewish mystic philosophy. More recent studies do, however, provide evidence that Jewish mystic philosophy was sometimes incorporated in ritual practices. For example, based on their analysis of Qumran and other groups, Fletcher-Louis and Morray-Jones argue for cultic practices resembling in important respects those posited by Goodenough for Dura.
- Was the congregation at Dura capable of conceiving a program of decoration reflecting the philosophy of mystic Judaism? Joseph Gutmann is “fairly certain” that such a program “would have been totally incomprehensible to the small congregation of probably unsophisticated and unintellectual Jewish merchants and the other Jewish inhabitants residing at Dura.” Anticipating such arguments, Goodenough posited the existence of an elite subset of the synagogue’s membership who would have initiated the program for the synagogue’s decoration. From her studies of art in this and other Palestinian synagogues, Magness argues for the perpetuation of such an elite in the line of the Zadokite priests, “whose literature had virtually disappeared from Jewish tradition until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Note that ceiling tiles from the Dura synagogue indicate that a priest named Samuel was its builder, and one of the Moses figures surrounding the reredos has an inscription that labels the prophet as “son of Levi,” emphasizing his priestly lineage rather than his father’s name. All this, not to mention the fact that Philo himself is generally assumed to have been a priest, suggests that “Dura reflects a trajectory of priestly tradition.”
Despite the history of controversy, as recently as 2007, Robert Goldenberg noted the continued importance of Goodenough’s views on Dura, observing that “other leaders in the field have roundly disputed his proposals, but Goodenough’s arguments were weighty and his evidence was impressive. The matter remains unresolved.”Goodenough’s assessment of his own work still remains largely true today: “Alternative interpretations have been suggested for details, but none attempted for the evidence as a whole.”
Summary and Conclusions
While not without their faults or their critics, Goodenough’s classic studies of Jewish symbolism in the Dura Europos synagogue and of possible ritual elements in Philo’s thought provide valuable perspectives not found anywhere else in such detail. His studies, containing some important ideas that are being confirmed by new research, bring to light the importance of temple themes in some strains of Judaism that were contemporary with Jesus Christ and early Christianity. While further work is called for in this regard, it may be suggested that such presentations of these ancient themes in these artistic and philosophical forms may have made it very natural for some Jews to accept Christianity when it became known to them.In fact, Goodenough went so far as to argue that “Christianity cannot be explained apart from the preparation within the form of Judaism that Philo reveals.”
Goodenough’s comprehensive studies of the symbolism of the Dura Europos synagogue reveal striking echoes with the ideas of Philo, giving visual evidence of the possibility that similar concepts from others influenced by the same religious currents may have manifested themselves in the actual ritual practice of some Jews of the Diaspora. Barkerand others have since expanded Goodenough’s conclusions to show that Philo’s “essentially Jewish” descriptions may even reflect knowledge drawn from First Temple Judaism. It is hoped that these materials, which cry out for further attention from scholars of Judaism and early Christianity, will themselves, like Ezekiel’s bones, be reassembled from the four corners of the world and “resurrected” for further study and discussion.