The House Church at Dura-Europos

 

This site is not, strictly speaking, a New Testament site, since it has been dated to around 240 AD.  However, it illustrates an early Christian meeting place, and it is useful in analyzing the development of such places.  The first Christians participated in Jewish gatherings at synagogues (Acts 13:14-16).  After they were expelled from the synagogues, they started meeting in large private houses that the owner would make available for these meetings (Romans, 15:5), perhaps gathering in the dining room or in the courtyard.  See the larger houses in Bethsaida.  A next logical step would be to dedicate a house to this purpose, with modifications to make it more appropriate.  Such was the house church at Dura-Europos.

 

The settlement at Dura was originally a Babylonian town in the desert of Syria.  It was rebuilt as a military outpost by the Greeks around 300 BC, and given the name Europos after the native city in Macedonia of emperor Seleucus I, the Alexandrian general who began the Seleucid dynasty after the generals of Alexander the Great partitioned his conquered territories among them.  It was annexed by the Romans in 165 AD and maintained as a fortress.  It was conquered and destroyed by the Persians on 256 AD, and partially buried in the sands.
 Figure 1: House Plan
Excavations at the site began in 1922. Parts of the buildings were dismantled from the site and assembled in a Yale Museum in the 1930’s. In addition to the Christian building described here, there was also a contemporary synagogue. There was a graffito on the wall of one the rooms of the Christian building with the date 545 of the Seleucid age (232-233 AD), which is thought to be from a date close to the construction of the building.  This building was originally used as a private house.  The modifications for Christian use were likely made around the 240’s.

The plot of land of the building measures about 57 by 62 feet. The house consisted of eight rooms and a courtyard (See Figure 1). An entrance on the northeast corner led into a vestibule (room 8), which connected to the center courtyard (space 1). The room in the northwest corner (room 6) was significantly modified to serve as a baptistery, and its walls were covered with painted scenes with Christian themes (See Figure 2). The dividing wall between two of the original rooms (4A and 4b), was taken down to make a large assembly room of about 16 by 42 feet, estimated to accommodate about 65 to 75 persons.  At the east end of this room was a podium with an area of about 3 by 5 feet. It is remarkable that this room, in contrast with the baptistery, had no decorations, perhaps so as not to distract those listening to sermons.
 Figure 2: Baptistery
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A baptismal font, consisting of a large rectangular basin was constructed on the west wall the baptistery (room 6). A decorated canopy vault was built over the basin, supported by columns at the ends. On the wall inside the canopy there was an image of the Good Shepherd, perhaps symbolizing the acceptance of the baptized as a member of the flock. Below the shepherd there was a depiction of Adam and Eve. To the left of the canopy, on the south wall, there were images of  the Samaritan Woman at the Well, and of David and Goliath farther to the left at the top. To the right of the canopy, on the north wall, there were paintings at the top of the Healing of the Paralytic (See Figure 3) and of Peter and Jesus walking on water near a boat. Below was an image several women, approaching what appears to be a tomb. There was a plaster-coated rubble bench built along the eastern end of the room.

 

Rubble benches were added in the southwest and northwest sides of the courtyard, perhaps to accommodate overflows or for catechumens.  A bench was also added to the north exterior wall of the house.

 

A parchment fragment of a writing in Greek by Christian Syriac author Tatian on the Gospels, written around 172, was found in the dirt two blocks from the Christian building,

 

References:

Carl H. Kraeling, C. Bradford Welles, editor, The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, Part II, The Christian Building. (New Haven: Dura-Europos Publications, Distributed by J.J. Augustin Publisher, Locust Valley, NY, 1967)

Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine. (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1985)

 Figure 3: The Healing of the Paralytic
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