The message of Jesus of Nazareth reached Syria within the first generation of Christians, soon after his violent death. Damascus and Antioch, the capital of the Roman province, loom large in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters. The appeal of the movement is explained by the strong Jewish presence in these cities. When Paul traveled to Damascus to persecute Jesus’s followers, a group of his disciples already lived here. It was in Antioch that Peter and Paul clashed over the question of pagan converts (Acts 15:1–21, Gal 2:1–21) and that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26), in all likelihood by outsiders. Antioch was a major center for planning and organizing missionary activities (Acts 13:1–3, 14:21–28, 15:22–41, 18:22–23), among other things, to the remainder of the province. Unfortunately, the progress of Christian groups in the province cannot be traced. It is certain, however, that the faith appealed to many. Around 200 C.E. Jesus’s followers had settled as far east as Edessa.

Despite the fact that the Christian movement was an instant success in Syria and rapidly spread over the province, the first material evidence is dated almost two centuries later. Around 240 C.E. the Christian community in Dura-Europos, a provincial town on the left bank of the Euphrates, converted a domestic building into an elaborate ritual center. Not only is this the oldest identifiable Christian place of worship; it also enables the study of Christian material remains in their cultural and social context. Here was a Christian community in a predominantly pagan environment with a synagogue within a stone’s throw, a situation similar to the setting of the Christian movement in Antioch two centuries earlier. Notwithstanding the richness and unique character of this find, the Christian remains from Dura have their own problems of interpretation. Of course, the situation of a Christian community in a provincial town at the border of the Roman Empire around the middle of the third century C.E. does not necessarily pertain to Christian groups in the remainder of the province during the two preceding centuries. The situation in Dura is, however, illustrative of the marginal position of the Christians in Syrian towns and of how Christians and non-Christians lived in proximity to each other. This cultural and social environment is bound to have influenced the young movement.

Although material remains that testify to the presence of Christians during the first two centuries of the movement are missing, it is possible to reconstruct the cultural and religious environment in which the new faith developed. Here, archaeology offers great insights. Information on polytheistic cults in Syria during this period consists almost entirely of material remains. In the New Testament the cities Antioch and Damascus are of overriding importance, but the present discussion does not focus on these cities. Firstly, archaeological finds from both Antioch and Damascus are incomplete and do not suffice to reconstruct the environment in which the early Christians lived. This holds true in particular for Antioch. In spite of the fact that this was the third city in the Roman Empire with almost half a million inhabitants, most finds consist of floor mosaics from a domestic context. For this reason, the life of Antioch’s private elite is more clearly revealed than its public and religious life. Secondly, it is clear that the movement was not confined to Antioch and Damascus but soon reached other Syrian cities. Paul writes that he preached in Arabia for three years after his conversion in Damascus (Gal 1:17), and Luke notes that Paul traveled with Silas through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41). Hence, one may rightfully ask how Christianity was received throughout the province.

Syrian Christianity and Roman Culture.

Around 200 C.E. Christianity in Syria was a widespread and utterly diverse religious movement. Adherents of Christ had spread as far east as Edessa, where Jews or Christians translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Syriac and the philosopher and theologian Bardaisan worked at the royal court. It falls beyond the scope of this article to describe the bewildering variety of Christian groups in Syria during this period since none can be identified with certainty in the archaeological record. It is, however, important to stress that orthodox Christianity did not yet exist and that, next to a Greek-speaking Christianity along the Mediterranean coast and Antioch, a range of Syriac Christian communities developed east of Antioch from the second century onward. Although Greek was the main language of the Christian communities along the coast and Syriac dominated the hinterland, it is important to realize that the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were essentially bilingual and that Greek Christianities influenced Syriac schools and vice versa. This bilingualism applies not only to language but also to most cultural aspects in Syria during this period.

In order to do justice to the complicated development of the reception of the Bible and the Christian movement in Syria during the first two centuries of the Common Era, it is necessary to discuss archaeological material from the whole Roman province. Syria is an ill-defined geographical notion though, since the territory of the province grew substantially from the Roman annexation in 64 B.C.E. until about 200 C.E. Following the Roman–Jewish wars Syria was merged with Judea in 135 C.E., creating the larger province of Syria-Palaestina. By that time the region was larger than the modern Syrian Arab Republic and comprised modern Lebanon as well as parts of Jordan and eastern Turkey. In this vast and varied geographical region, many cultures and ethnic groups coexisted.

Broadly speaking, one can distinguish three classes of culture and religion in Syria during the Roman period: Semitic, Roman, and Greek. It is rare to find one of these components unmixed. Their distribution over the area and the way they interacted with each other differed according to region, period, and the social status and milieu of the worshippers. In the scope of the present article it is impossible to do justice to the local variety that characterizes Syrian towns and regions. Instead, the focus is on the general characteristics of Syrian culture and religion that may have had an impact on the development of the Christian movement.

Greek and Roman influences are most prominent in the western part of Syria, the cities on the Phoenician coast, the north Syrian tetrapolis (Antioch, Apamea, and the harbors Laodicea and Seleucia ad Piera), and the Decapolis cities in the region east of the Jordan Valley. Many of these cities are Seleucid foundations, but their remains largely date to the period of Roman domination. In addition, there were several Roman colonies, notably along the coast (Berytus and nearby Heliopolis), that were initially founded to house veteran soldiers. Here, Latin was used as a public language, in contrast to Greek, which was common in the other cities in the west. In cities in regions in the east, such as Palmyra and Dura-Europos, Semitic influences came to the fore more prominently. Here, Aramaic was the first spoken language, in addition to Greek, which was used next to the local dialects in public monuments. As a result of their location in or at the edge of the Syrian–Mesopotamian desert, inhabitants of these cities interacted with nomads and seminomads who roamed the surrounding desert. The result is a culture that is a unique mixture of Greco–Roman and indigenous elements.

Christianity in Syria was first and foremost an urban phenomenon. Most of the cities in which the movement took hold were Seleucid foundations. The cities were the political, cultural, and religious foci of the rural hinterland that formed their territories. In antiquity these rural areas were more densely populated and fertile than the present-day situation suggests. Well-known examples are the multitude of small villages in the limestone massif north of Antioch and the region around Palmyra, the so-called Palmyrene. Seleucid cities were strategically located on trade and military routes. Such was the case with Antioch, the capital of the empire, which was deliberately set on the crossroads between the Euphrates to the east and the ports of the Mediterranean to the west, Ephesus to the north, and Jerusalem to the south. During the Roman period the communication network between the different cities in the province was greatly enhanced. Although the reason for the government to build these roads was primarily strategic, they made civilian journeys comparatively easy and facilitated the travel of both people and ideas. As such, the Roman road system certainly contributed to the rapid spread of the Christian movement in the province.

In the period that Christianity first spread, between the first and third centuries C.E., most Syrian cities acquired public Roman features such as fortified walls, colonnaded streets, agoras, aqueducts, baths, hippodromes, theaters, and temples. As a result, cities throughout the province, from Apamea in the west to Palmyra in the east, looked fairly homogenous. Several cities (such as Dura-Europos) deviated from this picture, but they were the exceptions to the rule. Hence, most cities in Syria resembled not only each other but also most Roman cities outside Syria. For the most part the monumental buildings were the initiative not of Rome but of the local elites, who therewith asserted their affinity with Roman rule. Concomitantly, it was an instrument through which these elites expressed their status and importance in their local communities. Numerous inscriptions boast of their accomplishments, and statues erected in their honor adorned public spaces. The custom of placing these statues on the stone brackets of columns in the colonnaded streets was typical of most cities of Roman Syria.

The predilection of the Syrian elites for classical culture can also be seen in the domestic sphere. Their houses and the way they shaped domestic space for social ritual display were strongly influenced by Roman custom. As elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the private houses of the elites were largely public spaces and, as such, displayed classical learning. One of the most important rooms in the house was the triclinium, the room used for communal dining (with a couch that surrounded three sides of the table) in which the master of the house received his guests for the symposium (gathering with drinking and conversation). Best known are the floor mosaics from residences in Antioch and villas in nearby Daphne. Subjects from Greek mythology were particularly popular in these mosaics, especially the god Dionysus and his domain of wine drinking and merrymaking. This preference had nothing to do with the religious inclinations of the people of Antioch but reflected the function of the rooms in which these mosaics were found. Classical taste was by no means confined to Antioch and cities in the west of Syria; even in Palmyra, a city renowned for its indigenous culture, the elites displayed their taste for classical culture in their homes with mosaics and stucco decoration. Wall paintings from a private triclinium in Dura-Europos depict a drinking party of several men and a hunting scene, activities that were popular among the elites throughout the empire.

As is well known, the first generation of Christians assembled and worshipped in private buildings, such as houses. In domestic buildings these gatherings probably took place in the triclinium. Whether or not some of these meetings took place in dwellings similar to the ones described here is bound to remain unknown since no material remains of Christian assemblies have been identified with dates prior to the middle of the third century. Apparently, Christians made no material changes to their meeting places. Since it is generally assumed that most Christians did not belong to the elite, it is perhaps not very likely that Christian meetings took place in their houses. Little is known about the houses in which people other than the elites lived. In Pompeii and Herculaneum the houses of the rich and the poor stood in the same neighborhood. Whether this was also the case in Syrian cities such as Antioch is not known.

At the time that the cities of Syria received their characteristic form of Roman provincial cities, the character of funerary monuments changed considerably as well. Whereas these monuments had been fairly insignificant in the previous period, they became highly visible structures located alongside the main roads just outside the cities. The placement of tombs next to roads is visible all over the Roman Empire and linked to the spread of standardized civic Roman architecture. In Syria, the architecture and decoration of these monuments were, however, outspokenly local and varied throughout the province. The funerary towers outside Palmyra and Dura-Europos are illustrative examples of this mix of Roman and local influences. Neither of these monuments testifies to a Christian presence, which suggests that the first Christian communities buried their dead according to local customs. Ramsay MacMullen (2009) suggested that the Christians used burial grounds to celebrate the Eucharist. There is, however, no material evidence whatsoever to substantiate this conjecture.

Syrian Christianity and Polytheistic Religions.

Non-Christian religions must have been of primary importance for the formation of the new creed. Not only did the early Christians recruit converts from Jewish and polytheistic groups, but they also lived in an environment that was largely determined by Roman religion. Literary sources indicate that the extensive Jewish community of Antioch lived near the southern end of the main colonnaded street, close to the amphitheater. Three synagogues are mentioned in the sources, and historians estimate that in total there were 20 to 30 synagogues in the city. In spite of their numbers, however, material remains that testify to the presence of Jews in Roman Antioch or Syria during the first two centuries of the Common Era are missing, leaving only literary sources.

In contrast to the Christian and Jewish communities, information on polytheistic cults is primarily based on archaeological remains. With few notable exceptions contemporary literary sources that describe the character of Syrian deities and the festivals and rituals that were celebrated in their honor are missing. For this reason, any attempt to reconstruct the theological system of Syrian cities or the region as a whole is extremely hazardous. Notwithstanding the limitations of the sources, however, some scholars have formed the notion that the whole religious environment was converging to monotheism, a development finally made manifest in the victory of Christianity over polytheistic cults. They suppose that the supreme deities of local pantheons became increasingly transcendent beings who needed messengers to communicate with their worshippers. Solar deities frequently fulfilled this function, which in turn explains why Jesus Christ was later identified with the unconquerable sun.

The archaeological data do not substantiate an inclination toward monotheism in Roman Syria. Pagan intellectuals indeed tried to create some order in the bewildering chaos of Syrian cults, but in all likelihood this was in reaction to the success of Christianity. The material remains testify to a bewildering variety of deities and cults and stress their unique character. Whereas the archaeological material does not allow one to establish who these gods really were, it does provide insight into the role these cults played in the formation of various social groups. The following overview of polytheistic cults in Roman Syria takes this sociological approach and relates their social function to the Christian movement.

Major temples in Syrian cities were renewed between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. as part of the monumentalization of public space. Not only were the sanctuaries substantially enlarged, but the new architecture was also heavily influenced by Roman architectural forms (although local characteristics are more persistent here than in other public monuments). A good example is the huge sanctuary of Jupiter Damascenes that stood in the center of Roman Damascus (at the site of the modern Great Mosque), at a short distance from the house of Judas where Paul supposedly stayed and was cured by Ananias (Acts 9:11). The outer temenos (temple enclosure) wall comprised an area of 1,246.7 by 1,017.1 ft (380 by 310 m), which makes this the largest Roman temple from Syria known to date. The major temples in other cities, such as the temple dedicated to the oracular deity Zeus Belos in Apamea and the temple of Bel in Palmyra, were slightly smaller but no less impressive.

In the western part of Syria, deities venerated in important city temples are known by Greek or Latin names, whereas in more eastern cities gods were often called by their indigenous names. The fact that many traditional deities were worshipped under a Greek or Latin name does, however, by no means imply that their identity changed accordingly. After all, outward appearance and interpretation of the cult do not necessarily coincide. Although Greek dominated in the urban areas, indigenous Semitic traditions were certainly not absent in northwest Syria.

Semitic cults figure prominently in the villages and towns farther east and among the nomads who roamed the desert. Here, Greco–Roman influences were far less prominent. In Palmyra, the famous oasis in the Syrian desert, the gods were predominantly Semitic and had an outspoken local character. In all probability, some of the religious festivals that were celebrated in Roman Palmyra maintained elements of Babylonian traditions. Notwithstanding its indigenous character, Palmyrene religion also testifies to Roman influences. The iconography of some of the gods was clearly influenced by Rome, and the great temples in the city were inspired by Greco–Roman architecture. In Dura-Europos on the Euphrates and in the villages in the region to the northwest of Palmyra, these western influences were far less prominent. Here, the gods were worshipped in indigenous sanctuaries that followed Babylonian ground plans.

Inside the Greco–Roman temples, statues were the main focus of the cult. Although most of these precious statues are lost, their images have survived as representations on city coins and votive statuettes and reliefs. Most deities in Roman Syria were represented in human form. In the west, the gods with Greek names frequently took on a Greek form as well, whereas the Semitic gods showed more local influences. Some cult statues became exceedingly famous. The Tyche of Antioch, a bronze statue created by Eutychides around 300 B.C.E. of a goddess with mural crown seated on a rock with the swimming personification of the river Orontes at her feet, served as the model for many representations of local Tyche figures. Other gods were so popular that their cult image spread over a vast region. Such was the case with the representation of the so-called Syrian goddess from Hierapolis (Mabbug) in northern Syria. This famous temple is mainly known through the treatise On the Syria Goddess, attributed to Lucian of Samosata. Lucian’s description of the cult statues in the naos (niche or chamber) of this temple is strikingly similar to their representation on a votive relief from Dura-Europos. Another famous example of a local deity that attained national and international fame was Jupiter Dolichenus, from the north of Syria. The cult of this local Baal, who looked like an indigenous storm god, spread via the Roman military.

Not all images of deities had an anthropomorphic form. In certain regions and cities, such as Nabataea and Emesa, sacred stones were objects of worship. According to some scholars these and similar cults testify to an aversion of representing a deity in figural form that is typical of Semitic and Arabic cults. This is, however, extremely unlikely since iconic and aniconic images were worshipped side by side. The popularity of aniconic images is at least partly explained by the fact that such an image originates from heaven and is not reproducible. The unique character of divine statues looms large in divine iconography of the period, which was one way to stress a god’s local character and significance. The widespread custom of adding a toponym to the name of a deity served the same function.

Most major city temples served a local function, but some are known to have attracted crowds from a much larger region. According to Lucian, the temple of Hierapolis was the object of pilgrimage for people from Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. Sanctuaries at the edge of or in the Mesopotamian desert were also visited by nomadic groups and, as such, served to unite sedentary and nomadic populations.

Both inscriptions and local coin issues show that the major sanctuaries in Syrian towns and villages were places of worship for the entire community. Local elites played a prominent role in the building, maintenance, and supervision of these temples. The deities that were worshipped here provided the inhabitants of these cities with a communal local identity. This is clear from the images of these gods and their temples on coins minted in the city and from religious monuments that their worshippers dedicated to them outside their hometowns.

The practice of worshipping the living emperor with festivals, prayers, and priesthoods was found all over the empire; and Syria is no exception. As elsewhere, the imperial cult was celebrated on various levels, such as the province and the city. Little is known about the provincial cult of the emperor in Syria, but on the civic level the cult is attested in numerous cities. It is clear that members of the local elites, the same people who dominated the city cults, also controlled this cult. This holds true for all cities in Syria, even the ones that were more indigenous, such as Palmyra. The cult of the Roman emperor provided the inhabitants of the province with a sense of belonging, in this case to the Roman Empire.

Polytheistic cults were not exclusive; and in addition to cults that were shared by all, individual people worshipped a multitude of other deities on a much smaller scale. Here, two types of cult may be distinguished: those that stemmed from the membership of a particular social group and those that had no such basis and were stipulated by individual choice. In the first category fall the so-called domestic cults, gods that were worshipped in a domestic context by the members of a household. More frequent in a Semitic milieu were gods worshipped by an extended family or tribe. Alternatively, such groups may be based on common origin, shared profession, or cohabitation. The second category consists of cults that demanded a certain amount of personal choice on the part of their worshippers and that frequently involved an initiation of some sort. Most of the so-called mystery cults belong to this category. The cult of Mithras is a well-known example.

The majority of these cults were localized outside private homes, in small shrines or chapels that were financed by their worshippers. In Palmyra, inscriptions refer to the sanctuaries of the four tribes, temples that functioned as the religious meeting point of a neighborhood. In Dura, the courts of most temples were lined with small chapels and meeting rooms in which the members of certain groups assembled. It follows from inscriptions that here as well as elsewhere wealthy patrons financed these cults.

An important function of the cults was to provide their worshippers with a communal religious identity, on an imperial, civic, or more personal level. In all cases, these identities were celebrated by shared rituals and festivals. Since literary sources on pagan cults are sparse, hardly anything is known about this. It is clear from the archaeological material, however, that sacrifice was of primary importance in pagan rituals. In the courtyards of many temples stand the remains of large altars and sacrificial figures prominent in religious reliefs and other representations. In cases of animal sacrifice, participants frequently celebrated by eating the meat. Most sanctuaries in Syria had rooms in which cultic associations assembled for these festivities. In Dura-Europos, for example, such rooms surrounded the courtyards of most temples. Inside they had benches on which the visitors reclined to celebrate a meal in the presence of the (image of the) deity. When Paul discarded the eating of meat in the temple of a pagan deity, he had a similar situation in mind (1 Cor 8:10).

Christians could not attend to the rituals and worship of pagan deities. With this denial they rejected not only the gods but also the social constructions connected with them: the empire, the city, the neighborhood, the professional association, and, in case of converts, the family. Only the Jews had the right to practice their own religion without worshipping the gods of the city, including the deified emperors. At the beginning of the Christian movement, the distinction between Jews and followers of Christ was not clear to most outsiders. As time passed and boundaries grew stronger, it became obvious that, like the Jews, Christians declined their association with the surrounding Roman world. Since it was a new religious movement, this attitude was not appreciated. Nevertheless the Christians were very much part of this same world. This is amply illustrated by the situation of the Christian community in Dura-Europos.

The Christian Community of Dura-Europos in Context.

The importance of the Christian building in Dura-Europos for the history of the Christian movement in Syria cannot be overestimated. It was the only instance of a building from the ante pacem period—that is, from before 313 C.E. when the peace of Constantine and Licinius was granted—that was entirely devoted to Christian worship. As such, it is no longer a church in a house but a house of the church, a domus-ecclesiae. This religious building was located in a predominantly pagan environment, very close to a Jewish synagogue. As such, it raises important questions about the cultural and religious interaction of the Christian community with its surroundings. Last but not least, the building and its decoration raise important methodological issues concerning the interpretation of material Christian culture and its relationship with the written sources and religious practice.

Around 240 C.E. the Christian community of Dura-Europos or one of its wealthier members acquired a private house close to the city walls, just south of the main gate of the city. In order to accommodate the building to its new religious function, the triclinium was enlarged into an assembly room that could accommodate about 60 people. A small room around the court was turned into a baptistery. Against its west wall a small aedicula (canopy) was constructed above a baptismal font. Above the font is a painting of the Good Shepherd and his flock. The paintings on the walls illustrate events from the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. The baptistery is the only room in the building that contains decoration, which is illustrative of the importance of this initiation ritual in the community.

The transformation of a domestic building into a building for religious use was by no means confined to the Christian community in Dura. The same building history may be discerned for the Jewish synagogue and several buildings devoted to polytheistic cults in Dura. There is no proof that the Christian building was used for Christian worship prior to its rebuilding. Consequently, there is no ground to stress the domestic origin of the building and to consider the transformation of a house into a church a logical development from Christians meeting in houses. Like their pagan and Jewish neighbors, the Christians of Dura may simply have renovated the building available for use.

Even less certain is the generalizability of the Durene development for Christian architecture in Syria and the remainder of the Roman Empire in the pre-Constantinian period. The Christian building from Dura-Europos is the only material evidence of a house that was turned into a house of the church. Textual sources provide no conclusive proof for a general development either. It is possible that the situation in Dura was determined by the specific local conditions of the Durene Christians. Close to nothing is known about the origins and social composition of this group. If one assumes that most of its members served in the Roman army, this would explain why they could not assemble in a private house, for most military did not possess private residences. Hence, it is safer to conclude that substitutes to the Christian assemblies in houses developed in response to local circumstances. Although the first and only material evidence is dated to the middle of the third century C.E., it is possible that there were precedents in the preceding century.

The painted decoration of the baptistery also testifies to the assimilation of the Christians to the culture of their environment. Local craftspeople who worked in other domestic and religious buildings in Dura-Europos made the paintings. Several motifs and the scheme of decoration also resemble those of other sanctuaries and are adjusted to Christian ideas in subtle ways. The image of the Good Shepherd in the lunette above the font, for example, mirrors the placement of cult images in pagan sanctuaries but deviates from pagan practice in that it pictures the object of devotion in symbolic form. Similar procedures can be discerned in the painted decoration of the synagogue, which dates to the same period. It is probable that Christian communities adapted to the local culture in cities elsewhere in Syria. Christian culture was probably as varied as Syrian culture itself.

Although the Christians of Dura certainly assimilated to the culture of their surroundings, the material remains do not reveal how they interacted with their environment on a religious level. Some scholars opt for religious competition, whereas others go for peaceful coexistence. In view of what is known about the exclusive character of the cult, a clash with other cults is most likely; but the material remains provide no proof in this respect. Even the Old Testament scenes tell little about the relationship of the Christians with their Jewish neighbors. Although it is clear that they were not people who rejected the Jewish religion altogether, like Marcion and his followers, the choice for these scenes may be interpreted both ways. For the interaction between the two faiths, one must go to the literary sources.

The limited knowledge of the beliefs and rituals of the community that used this ritual space hampers the interpretation of the paintings in the baptistery. As such, they illustrate that Christian images never speak for themselves. By far the majority of the scenes can be identified as events that are described in the gospels or the Jewish holy books. But the meaning of these stories is far from self-evident. During the second and third centuries C.E. there was neither a Christian orthodoxy nor a biblical canon in Syria. A great variety of Christian groups used various holy scriptures and interpreted them differently. A fragment of the so-called Diatessaron that was found in the rubble in the street behind the Christian place of assembly provides the best clue for its beliefs. In all likelihood, the Christians of Dura used this gospel harmony instead of the four gospels. The Diatessaron is dated to 170 C.E. and attributed to the Syrian theologian Tatian, who harmonized the four gospels into a single gospel to counter the ideas of Marcion. Many consider Tatian as one of the primary figures in the founding of Syriac Christianity. If his influence in Dura went beyond the Diatessaron, this would imply that the Christians of Dura belonged to his Syriac school of thought and that the paintings ought to be interpreted accordingly.


Culturally and religiously Roman Syria was a miscellaneous region. This at least partly explains the variety of Christian movements in the region during the first centuries of its existence. Unfortunately, Christians can be identified in the archaeological record only from the middle of the third century onward. When they started expressing their faith in material form they used the cultural language of their environment and adapted it to their own needs. Although the Christian building in Dura-Europos is a unique example in the archaeological record, it may be presumed that the same applied to Christian groups elsewhere in the Roman province.



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Lucinda Dirven