Finding Church (Part Four):Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
In 1920 in eastern Syria, British soldiers discovered the garrison town of Dura-Europos which had been destroyed after a siege in AD 256. Archaeological excavations continued over the course of the next two decades with the discovery of numerous buildings, including one of the oldest Jewish synagogues yet found and, in 1932, the remains of perhaps the earliest Christian church yet discovered.
The church at Dura-Europos is often referred to as a “house church” but this designation can be misleading. More properly, it is a house that has been repurposed as a church. Let me explain. During the apostolic age, we read of local churches meeting in the homes of individual believers. Owing to the requirement of the space needed for such assemblies, it usually fell to the more affluent members of the congregation to offer their homes for such a purpose. Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, tensions often arose between the wealthier members of the church and those who were less well off. As we move to the post-apostolic age of the Didache, Ignatius, Hippolytus and Justin Martyr we are told nothing of where they met, but, owing to the numbers that might assemble for baptisms, or instruction or the Eucharist, it seems clear that some provision must have been made. The house church of Dura-Europos, renovated in about the year AD 230, that is within 80 years of the writings of Justin Martyr, gives us our first glimpse of Christians embracing the idea of sacred space. Moreover, that space informs us that their worship and church order appears to have been consistent with what was taking place a century before.
What we see in the diagram above is a typical Roman house of the period that has been renovated and repurposed. The house itself may have been purchased by the Christian community in Dura-Europos or, more likely, it was given as a gift (or a legacy in a will) by a more affluent member of the congregation. Archaeologists have determined that before its renovation, the building conformed to the normative plan of a central courtyard (1) surrounded by a series of smaller domestic rooms. In renovating the structure numerous interior dividing walls were removed. This provided an assembly room (2) in which it is estimated that 75 or 80 people could have assembled for the Eucharist with the courtyard providing an overflow space for an equal number. A smaller room, directly off the courtyard, is thought to have provided a place for teaching and could have accommodated 20 or 25 people. Finally, there was a dedicated place for baptisms (3) with a baptismal font (a reconstruction pictured with this article) that appears to have been large enough for the full immersion of an adult, typical of early baptistries which have been discovered.
Baptism, teaching, Eucharist… what we find in the Didache and Justin Martyr we also find in the archaeology of Dura-Europos and this early church. In fact, fragments of the Didache were found on the site. Moreover, we find the earliest examples of Christian art, for the walls are filled with frescoes. There are depictions of David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, the Good Shepherd, the Healing of the Paralytic, Christ and Peter walking on the water and a procession of women (either those at Christ’s tomb or the foolish and wise virgins). While remarkable as early Christian art, the paintings also reveal the body of knowledge that Christians had acquired by this time and the normative place of the stories from the Gospels. Elsewhere in the city a clay jar for oil was found with the inscription “Isseos the Neophyte” which is now believed to have contained the oil for his anointing at baptism, at which time he would have become a full member of the community of faith.
While unique in many ways owing to its early date, echoes of what was found at Dura-Europos have also been discovered at Megiddo, Aqaba and elsewhere. What is truly remarkable, however, is the manner in which the archaeological discoveries correspond to the literature and descriptions of the post-apostolic writers. While one might wish to argue about what the Church should be today, it is not difficult to “Find Church” in the first generations.