The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

The Church in the House in Dura-Europos


Right by the famous Euphrates river in western Syria, by the Syrian city of Salhiye and near Turkey is the city of Dura, or as we know it, Dura-Europos, the home of the first Europeans (for the name comes from that city ultimately).  The archaeological dig at this city is doubly important to those interested in Jewish and Christian history, for not only has an early and excellent example of a synagogue building been found at this site, but so also a clear example of a church constructed within the confines of a house, has been found as well.   What makes these finds all the more important is that the city was abandoned after its conquest in about 257 A.D., and so we have here clear, excavated evidence of pre-Constininian Christian practice as well as Jewish practice of these religions. The results are both remarkable and telling in various ways.



While we could focus on the general size and shape of this city and on its walls and citadels (see above),  our interest must be more narrow in this post.  In his recent important monograph Ramsay MacMullen analyzes in some depth early Christian church buildings and the early literary evidence about them as well (The Second Church. Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400, SBL 2009).  We will be following his lead, and pursuing some of the important aspects of his study as it applies to the Dura Church.



Here is a marvelous shot of the room in the church part of this house in Dura where baptisms were undertaken.  You can see the font in the top left of this picture, and as MacMullen rightly points out,  there could have been no immersing of persons here– unless we are talking infants!  Only sprinkling or pouring took place here. This conclusion is reached not only because the font or tub is much too shallow for dunking, but also there is no evidence of there ever being pipes in or out of this tub.  As the picture above indicates, they water would have been brought in in amphorae or jars. Note that this church is right next to the Euphrates so if the congregants or ministers had wanted to do baptism by immersion, all they had to do was go outside!  


That they built a purpose built structure in a home for baptism tells us a lot about the third century church, and perhaps the second century church as well, because the practice here comports with what we read in the Didache– a first or second century document which tells us about using running water and sprinkling or pouring water on the baptizands.  Not for them the practice of John the Baptizer.  Christian baptism seems to have distinguished itself from those practices depicted in the Gospels in various ways, not the least of which was the sacred name used in the act of baptism.

The second thing you notice at once from this picture above is of course the frescoes. We have murals of Adam and Eve, and also of Christ the Good Shepherd, a familiar image, and probably the very first painted image of Jesus in the history of Christian art.   But this house is hardly just a place where baptisms were privately done.



Here you see a schematic of the Christian house with church inside. An even better one can be see in MacMullen’s book (pp. 2 and 5).   There was a purpose-built room for the worship service to the left of the entrance and central courtyard. It is a long rectangular space on the left side of the house, and the baptistry is in the upper right hand corner of the back of the house. The two are connected by a small room, presumably a place where the new catechumens could gather in preparation for baptism or other religious practices. In the drawing above 2 is the meeting room and 3 is the baptistry.


What went on in these meetings?  The archaelogical results indicate a space where perhaps 70 or so Christians could gather for worship or instruction at once. It is interesting that the baptistry is not part of the meeting hall itself.   As MacMullen compares this structure to others like it from a slightly later period we can envision at the back of the meeting space a slightly raised area where the leaders of the worship would be seated facing people sitting on benches.  The benches would be like those in the synagogue, with a central aisle and probably with the women sitting on one side and the men on the other. The catechumens in the later examples sat on benches up against the right and left walls of the nave.  Clement of Alexandria takes us even further back, indicating there were
purpose built churches already by the end of the second century A.D.


What we notice as well from the close archaeological analysis of the space is that it was not a room for eating.  That was done elsewhere in the house apparently, or possibly in the courtyard where the impluvium (rain catcher hole in the roof) would have been. MacMullen analyzes all the data closely and concludes the service would have been similar to those going on in the synagogue, it would have lasted about two hours,  and it would have involved singing, prayers, Scripture reading, teaching, and preaching among other things.  There would definitely have been leaders, and followers, and catechumens— three distinguishable groups. And as for the music itself, a priest from a church in Alexandria right at the turn of the 3rd century says this “if you want to sing and praise God to the music of the cithara or the lyre, no blame attaches to it” recalling the example of David (see MacMullen, p. 8).  There was not requirement of pure acapella music.  


What is interesting about the church in Dura is that clearly it had a sponsor who was wealthy, in a town of only 6-8,000 souls. Equally clearly the meeting involve more than just a handful of people.  The space set aside could seat between 50-70 depending on the size of benches and amount of space allotted to each person.   Had there been a grand departure from NT practice already in the pre-Constantinian era?  Was there a big difference already in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when it comes to worship and baptism and the like?  

This is unlikely on several grounds.  Firstly,  Christianity was still an illicit religion when the church in Dura was built.  This is why it is not a stand alone structure, but rather within a wealthy person’s house.  Secondly, the obvious similarities in structure and murals and ablution pool in both the synagogue and the church here in Dura show that the church was still modeling itself to a significant degree on synagogue practice. It had elders or priests leading worship, just as in the synagogue. Indeed, there were bishops throughout this period supervising things,  bishops who not merely could trace their links back to the turn of the first century figures like Ignatius, but to the leaders of earliest Christianity— the apostles and eyewitnesses, and prophets, and elders, and teachers of that period.  Christianity had never known a period where its leadership structure was not hierarchial to some degree.   The notion that it ever was is a modern myth perpetrated by low church Protestants fed up with badly run and clergy dominated hierarchial structures in our own day. 


But there is more. The art in the murals and mosaics in Dura make clear that 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 art could be used in worship and honor God.  We could have concluded the same from the many drawings in the catacomb churches in Rome as well. 

I am fully in agreement with MacMullen when he stresses that the archaeological and inscriptional evidence is just as important as the literary evidence about early Christianity. As Jesus once said “the very stones cry out”, and in this case they cry out against incorrect interpretations about household meetings and house churches in the first century A.D. in Philippi or Corinth or elsewhere.


It can be no accident that Paul, approaching the end of his life, makes a point to address separately the leaders of the church in Philippi, calling them bishops or overseers and deacons, who can be distinguished from ‘God’s holy people in Christ at Philippi’ (Phil. 1.1).  This is because there had always been and always would be such a distinction in the church of Christ.  There were called and appointed leaders, and there were followers always.  This of course did not mean that there was some rigid clergy/laity distinction.  In one sense all were the laity, since it just means the people,  and all were the clergy in the sense of the priesthood of all believers.  This however in no way decided the more specific leadership structures of the early church– there were still leaders and followers, apostles and their co-workers.   And there was still worship which bore some resemblance to synagogue worship with sermons, even though there was also the new element of the expression of Spiritual gifts.

Think on these things.

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Steve S

posted January 18, 2010 at 5:22 pm

In what sense, and to what degree, should the earliest Christian praxis be normative?
How much of what they practiced are we expected to emulate? How much are we expected to grow beyond? Is there any aspect of it that we are allowed to critique and call ‘wrong?’

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Luke C

posted January 18, 2010 at 6:15 pm

The book title referenced in the article is incorrect. The actual title is “The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400″

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Ben Witherington

posted January 18, 2010 at 8:04 pm

You are right Luke… my bad. Steve I would say it is fine to critique the practice of the earlier church, unless of course the apostles saw some aspect of it as normal, normative and crucial. And in this case I think they did. Not the shape of the buildings but the need not only for leadership but furthermore the need for order, organization in worship, and maybe most importantly the need for good preaching as an essential part of worship.

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posted January 18, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Dr. Witherington,
You said: “And as for the music itself, a priest from a church in Alexandria right at the turn of the 3rd century says this “if you want to sing and praise God to the music of the cithara or the lyre, no blame attaches to it” recalling the example of David (see MacMullen, p. 8). There was not requirement of pure acapella music.”
You (following MacMullen, I believe) refer to Clement of Alexandria’s passage in *The Instructor* 2.4. Earlier in that section, Clement allegorizes the musical instruments in the Psalms to refer to the mouth of believers, etc. When Clemens says, “if you want to sing and praise God to the music of the cithara or the lyre, no blame attaches to it,” is it likely that he is still using the musical instruments allegorically? Or is he speaking of the actual musical instruments?
I grew up in, and still attend, a denomination with the tradition of acapella music. This passage from Clement of Alexandria has often been used to show that the early church condemned instrumental music.
(For what it’s worth, I do not agree with my denomination’s views on instrumental music.)

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posted January 18, 2010 at 9:30 pm

what do these painting of early Christian women say about groups who insist on strict dress standards? It appears they are wearing sleeveless tunics. Also, if i recall correctly, the catacombs paintings in Rome show early Christian women adorned in jewelry? Any support liberal/conservative in recent findings?

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Ben Witherington

posted January 19, 2010 at 7:38 am

These are excellent points and questions. Firstly to Micah, I think it is likely that Clement is referring to instrumental accompaniment which he is o.k. with. He thinks there is Biblical precedent in the psalms. Secondly, despite the fulminations of some Church Fathers, women, including perhaps especially high status women, continued to dress in the ways they thought appropriate, which is to say, they sometimes violated this or that priest’s view of the dress code AND if they were the patrons who helped construct the church in the house, they got to decide what was in the murals!!
Ben W.

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Pat Lynch

posted January 19, 2010 at 10:02 am

What about the Lord’s Supper? What inferences are we to draw on that?

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José Solano

posted January 19, 2010 at 1:06 pm

In looking at the baptismal tub my first thought was that they were immersing people rather pouring or sprinkling water. If there were persecutions going on they may not have wanted to make public displays of baptisms. No tub is really needed for pouring or sprinkling. At my Mennonite church we commonly pour water over the head of the person being baptized right on the alter area. There is just a towel around the person’s neck. I doubt that in the third century anyone was concerned about getting wet. Nor is it a significant problem getting the water out of a tub that has no drain pipes. If they were just pouring water it must have been a huge quantity to need such a tub or they were baptizing a lot of people at one time. This could be, at least on occasions.
Of course, there is no need to assume that this is a prototype of Christian house churches of the time. It may be just one rich family’s anomaly in a city that had apparently quite a variety of religions, from synagogues to Mithraic temples. The general house churches may have been much simpler, without murals or mosaics. Only the richer ones would leave recognizable architectural and mural traces.
Speaking of “dress codes” I was rather amazed by the fresco at the Dura Europa synagogue showing a nude Bithya with the baby Moses at the Nile River.
Another anomaly may be the recently discovered Megiddo church ( with its fascinating fish mosaic and its interesting dedication, “For the God Jesus Christ.” It’s presumed by some to be pre-Constantine but by others perhaps Byzantine. I am curious about your thoughts on this church.
Thank you.

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Ben Witherington

posted January 19, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Hi Jose:
Always good to hear your thoughtful take on things. In fact, as MacMullen says, this church is no anomaly. He cites other good examples from the period. As for the Megiddo church, surely it is a Byzantine one.
As for the question about the Lord’s Supper, it would have transpired in the trinclinium and peristyle of the house.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Wow…great post, in fact you don’t find to many blogs out there that contain this info. These kinds of posts (the bishop in the persecuted church in turkey etc…) are one of many reasons I’ve begun following you…keep up the good work!
I would concur with those that have pointed out these findings are descriptive-oriented and not prescriptive for Christian practice. However, it sure blows wide open the emergents “pie-in-the sky” view that Constantine “tainted” the “pure church” of the Acts house church model. This discovery at a minimum affirms early church practice of baptism, fellowship, meeting place, authority and leadership structures were both apparently diverse and dependent on local/cultural settings.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Thank you very much for this post – it is a marvelous discovery and beautifully presented.
I have a few questions, though:
How can we be sure just from an archeological finding, what kind of leadership there was. Ie.: where they were sitting, whom they were facing … how good their sermons were :).
And most importantly – how fixed the leadership roles were. Can we be really sure that there was (a small) part of congregation who was “doing” the service and another (greater) who was simply participating? For me, the crucial texts for a “decentralized” worship are 1 Cor 14.26ff, combined with 1 Cor 12.7; Eph 4.7 and the like. (This of course doesn’t mean that some roles are not more prominent and some persons more senior and therefore more respected and reliable).
If we make a parallel with the Synagogue – yes, there is leadership, but more for oversight and not really for “running the show”. In principle, everyone present can read and exegete the Torah (please correct me if this does not apply to that age).
And I really find it difficult to discern the centrality of sermon (a typical protestant idea) from this discovery. Aren’t we simply “reading” our own preferences back there? I think in those early times simple (and long!) Scripture readings were normally the focus …

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posted January 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Re: “You can see the font in the top left of this picture, and as MacMullen rightly points out, there could have been no immersing of persons here– unless we are talking infants! Only sprinkling or pouring took place here. This conclusion is reached not only because the font or tub is much too shallow for dunking…”
Incorrect. There is plenty of room for immersion there. Contemporary Orthodox Churches in America and elsewhere make use of many baptisteries of similar dimensions (or from converted watering troughs or stock tanks for instance) for the immersion of adults who are baptized from a kneeling and arms crossed position.
Also, see:‘Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries’, by Everett Ferguson, p.441
The Baptistery of Dura Europus
“The question is sometimes asked if the font was large enough for an immersion, but a negative answer presupposes laying the body out horizontally (even that position is possible on a diagonal of the font for a person of average height at the time). If the baptized was seated on the interior ledge, was in a kneeling or squatting position, or leaned forward from the waist there was ample space for an immersion. The depth of the pool compares favorably with the many larger pools from a later period seemingly designed for adult immersion. The alternative question to be asked is why the font was as large as it was if only pouring or sprinkling was performed.”

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White Man

posted January 21, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Thanks, Joe, for the information on baptism. You can learn a lot about early church baptism by studying the Orthodox church practice. Since there are several different Orthodox patriarchates that were cut off from each other for centuries, their common practices bespeak an ancient origin. For example, Orthodox baptism is by immersion, even of infants. Secondly, it is performed on unclothed candidates (although in the case of adults, underwear is typically worn for modesty). Given that those being baptized weren’t wearing any clothes, it is understandable that the baptistry would not be at center stage in the auditorium, as it is in modern churches where candidates are baptized in way more clothing than they would wear at the beach.

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Ken Hinton

posted January 23, 2010 at 7:07 am

Thank you so very much for your excellent article on the Christian sanctuary in Dura Europos. You over so many thoughtful insights. I did have to chuckle to read about the shallow baptistry not being deep enough for immersion. I attend a small but vibrant Anglican church plant in a large Southeast Asian city. Southeast Asian Anglicans usually immerse adult converts, so I was curious at what would happen in our little “store front” facility. That Sunday there to the side of the pulpit was a plastic, inflated children’s wadding pool with water not more than 18 inches deep. The white robed lady to be baptized stepped into the pool and sat down as demurely as she could manage. Our young minister then held her back guiding her as she lay down into the water, completely immersed! Hurrah for creativity!

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Timmy W in Shanghai

posted January 23, 2010 at 7:34 am

On this dura europos church, have you conversed with Howard Snyder, Snyder Graydon, or Ramsay MacMullen himself?
What would they think of your conclusions in this blog post?

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posted January 23, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I see the two images of adam and eve but I can’t make out the one about the good Shepard or jesus… anyone?

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Dave O'Brien

posted January 25, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Fascinating stuff. Most eclectic blog around. I would like to have seen a meter stick on the tub. I’ve know people who were baptised in bathtubs, but not knowing the size of the tub at Dura doesn’t allow me to reach any conclusions.

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What of Christian Education? Did synagogue practices continue in Christian churches?

posted May 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

I am curious if anything can be deduced about any possible carryover to purpose-built Christian meeting places concerning the Jewish synagogue architecture of attached religious schools for children.
Another way of asking this question? Did the church feel as obligated as their Jewish cousins to educate their children in the faith?

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Fabian Swartz

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:23 am

If only I had a quarter for each time I came to Great read!

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Roberto Pacheco

posted April 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Dr. Witherington,

I very much enjoyed reading this piece.

I was especially struck by your candid observation about the low-church Protestant myth about the nature of leadership in the early church. As someone who attends a Plymouth Brethren (PB) assembly, I hear all the time how the PB get it right by having no leadership hierarchy, just like the early saints had none.

But is that true? In fact I see a distinction between apostles and table servants in Acts 6. It seems clear to me that the apostles were to be the teachers and preachers while the table servers were to take care of the more mundane (but no doubt important) daily matters of the church. Plus, there’s certainly a hierarchical distinction between elders and deacons made in Scripture. Is it also any coincidence that Paul’s gifts of the Spirit seem to coincide with the hierarchy of church leadership, wherein the gifts of teaching and preaching are more esteemed than the others?

I agree with you that it’s a myth that the early church was some “democratic” commune. Even among the PB, moreover, it’s clear that some elders have more authority than others even within the same local gathering. I can envision a historical scenario in the early church whereby the most esteemed of the overseers, perhaps because of their venerable age and connection to the apostles and their successors, became the “bishops” of the early church by the end of the 1st or start of the second c. AD. That would certainly seem to be the case with figures such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Ignatius of Antioch. There were no doubt other “bishops” (elders) in other local assemblies, but these men would have been the main overseers of the church in their respective regions, the “angelos” or messengers of those gatherings to the wider catholic (and increasingly Catholic) church (cf., perhaps these are the so-called angels or messengers of the seven churches of the East in Revelation 1-3).

On a different matter, Dr. Witherington, I recently came across a response by Dr. Jon Zens to your review of Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s 2007 “Pagan Christianity?” (“PC”). I found Zens’ retort completely over-board.

I, for one, was singularly unimpressed with Viola and Barna’s book. As you know, Dr. Witherington, just because something is similar to something else doesn’t make the two things the same. This is a classic logical fallacy. This is the same problem evident in the thinking of those who would, for example, argue that Jesus Christ was actually Horus or some other pagan deity that Christians smuggled into their faith. See Tom Harpur’s “The Pagan Christ” (2004) for the identical kind of reasoning about Christ that Viola and Barna use to explain the “pagan” origins of His Church. By the reasoning of Harpur, Viola, and Barna, a “pagan” Christ gave way to a “pagan” Church, just because these authors seem to perceive some (weak) parallels between pagan gods and Christ and pagan cults and His Church. This nonsense is based on poor logic, selective use of sources, and special pleading (e.g., leave the institutional Church and come to Frank Viola to learn how to start your own!).

By the logic of Viola and Barna in “PC” the Bible itself is “pagan.” After all, pagans invented writing; the Bible is written; therefore, the Bible must be a “pagan” document. Again, just because two things are similar doesn’t make them the same. Pagan myths may have included stories of virgin births of deities. This doesn’t mean that Christ is a Horus want-to-be. That’s just poor reasoning, which is characteristic of “PC”, I’m sad to say. Who needs Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” when you have Frank Viola and George Barna’s “PC” basically telling us the same thing?! With friends like that, who needs enemies?

What’s more, Dr. Witherington, if the Church is “organic” (to use Viola and Barna’s favorite phrase), then we should expect it to grow, develop, evolve. You know, do what living things do. Why would I expect the Church at the end of the 1st c. to look like the Church while Jesus was alive? Why would I expect the Church of the 4th c., which in the West witnessed the collapse of a millennial empire, with all that entailed, to look like the Church of the 1st c.? Why would I expect the Church in the 21st-c. US to look and act like the Church in 1st c.-Rome under Nero? Perhaps we should bring back the crucifixion of Christians or the feeding of them to lions, too. If you want to use the metaphor of a living organism for the Church, well, living things grow, change, develop, even mutate. You can’t have your metaphor and eat it! (BTW: This is my critique of all the so-called “Restorationists,” whether Campbellites or Darbyites.)

Finally, while I respect Dr. Zens’ credentials and his right to stand up for this work, I can’t help but feel that his objectivity is compromised by his involvement with this project. (He was among several academics who endorsed the publication of “PC”.) I seriously doubt that Viola and Barna’s ideas would get passed a blind, peer-review process.

Thank you for your time.

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posted March 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm

I thought it was named ‘Europos’ after the city in Macedonia in which its founder, Seleucus I Nicator, was born. And the number of religious establishments in Dura points to the typical toleration of many faiths found traditionally in the East, in comparison with the intolerant West (burning of heretics by Catholics, and by Calvin of Servetus). The West had to wait either for individuals like Roger Williams, or intellectual movements like the Enlightenment, before it became tolerant of other faiths.

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