The World's Oldest Church


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Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria

Michael Peppard

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Michael Peppard provides a historical and theological reassessment of the oldest Christian building ever discovered, the third-century house-church at Dura-Europos. Contrary to commonly held assumptions about Christian initiation, Peppard contends that rituals here did not primarily embody notions of death and resurrection. Rather, he portrays the motifs of the church’s wall paintings as those of empowerment, healing, marriage, and incarnation, while boldly reidentifying the figure of a woman formerly believed to be a repentant sinner as the Virgin Mary. This richly illustrated volume is a breakthrough work that enhances our understanding of early Christianity at the nexus of Bible, art, and ritual.

Michael Peppard is associate professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. His first book, The Son of God in the Roman World, won the Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise. He is the author of numerous articles and essays, one of which received the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America. He lives in New York.

“In this compelling analysis, Peppard astutely considers iconography and inscriptions in their actual liturgical and cultural contexts. Not only is it a methodological milestone and a good read, it unravels a few mysteries and undermines some long-standing assumptions about the ‘world’s oldest church.’"—Robin M. Jensen, University of Notre Dame

“Michael Peppard brings new life to the tantalizing wall paintings of the pre-Constantinian church at Dura-Europos. Using a careful process of historical imagination, he draws meaning from the paintings through an illuminating marriage of images with texts, Greek and Syriac, that are inevitably later in date.”—Sebastian P. Brock, University of Oxford

“Skillfully weaving his analyses of art  and ritual with texts popular among ancient Syrian Christians, Michael Peppard invites us to enter an interpretive world distinctively different from that which we encounter in the Christianity of the Greek East and the Latin West. An innovative and engaging exploration of a famous early Christian site.”—Elizabeth A. Clark, Duke University

“Michael Peppard offers not only revelatory interpretations of the Dura-Europos murals but also a rich reconstruction of the baptismal spirituality of one early Christian community.  A landmark in the study of early Christian art and ritual.”—David Brakke, The Ohio State University

“Peppard provides a wonderful interdisciplinary study of this ancient Syrian Church, attending not only to its architecture and art, but especially to the liturgical context of its murals within the unique Syrian rites of Christian initiation, focused on pre-baptismal anointing as the ritual high point. This book will be of value not only to historians in general, but to art historians, students of ancient Middle Eastern culture, and, not least, to liturgical historians and theologians.”—Maxwell E. Johnson, author of The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, second revised edition

“This is . . . a topic that has long needed a scholarly, yet accessible treatment. . . . [World’s Oldest Church] is a worthwhile achievement.”—Matthew R. Crawford, Theological Studies

"Peppard offers, in his own words, 'a fresh, rigorous, and plausible—albeit sometimes imaginative—historical reconstruction of the Christian community at dura-europos.' The book’s chapters revisit the famous paintings of the baptistery in turn."—Ted Kaizer, Catholic Historical Review

ISBN: 9780300213997
Publication Date: January 26, 2016
336 pages, 6-1/8 x 9-1/4
9 color + 46 b/w illus.
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