Homer’s Odyssey famously begins, “Tell me, O Muse, of that polytropos man”—a man of many travels, many wiles, many modes of being. Odysseus certainly fit the bill, and the heroic ancestor of the biblical witness, David, could be characterized equally well by this term. Consider the multifarious existence of David in the Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, New Testament, and in works from late antiquity. This one man was memorialized as: shepherd, dancer, covenanter; warrior, poet, exorcist; son of God, sexual predator, perfect penitent; plucker of the lyre, Orpheus, prophet; model of virtue, faithful to Torah, and prolific author. Lest we forget, he was also the ideal king and archetypal mashiach, christos, anointed one.
No one historical person could be as polytropos as this—but no matter, because like Odysseus, David is virtually prehistoric. Even the oldest record of him in the Bible was already crafting a received image from what to them was ancient history. David is best understood, then, as a living symbol of the community that remembers him. As a biblical man of many wiles, the figure of David was appropriated and refigured in word and image throughout Jewish and Christian history.
It’s not surprising, then, that the oldest excavated Christian church – the third-century house-church from Dura-Europos, Syria – would have featured an image of David on its walls. The surprising part is which episode of David’s many-wiled life these Christians chose to depict: on the main panel of the southern wall of its baptistery, this community commemorated David by showing him poised to slay the fallen Goliath. (Fig. 1, in poor state of preservation; Fig. 2, archaeological tracing)
Art historian Kurt Weitzmann called this biblical scene “a choice rather unexpected in a Christian baptistery and not easy to explain.” In early Christian artistic programs, one finds the scene only on a few sarcophagi, although it appears later in varied media. We do not have to debate the identities of the figures (like we do with those in other parts of this building), since here their names are inscribed in Greek: ΔΑΟΥΙΔ (David), written along his raised forearm, and ΓΟΛΙΟΔ or ΓΟΛΙΘΑ (Goliath), written above his prostrate body. The scene captures the moment from the famous narrative (1 Samuel 17) in which, following a crippling slingshot strike, David has taken Goliath’s sword and stands poised to decapitate him. But why this particular scene, displayed so prominently in a baptistery?
Out of the broad and deep resources of Davidic tradition, the Christian community that gathered in Dura-Europos imagined David as warrior, a symbolization that also called to mind—surprisingly to our modern ears—the images of (protective) shepherding and (pre-battle) anointing. In my new book, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria, I show how central Christian texts and psalms of David combine to form a militaristic imaginary which resonates with several other aspects of initiation at Dura-Europos and, not least, the military positioning of the garrison city itself.
Recently Stefanie Weisman has also called attention to the militaristic undertones of the paintings from the Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos, a fact which further bolsters the case for both the town’s militaristic visuality and the specific reception histories of biblical figures as warriors in such contexts. Taking a similar approach to the David and Goliath painting in the Christian baptistery, Dieter Korol has examined the militaristic indicators visible in the best photographs of the highly damaged painting. An exacting analysis of the image snapped sometime between January 20-22, 1932 (not published here) shows that the clothing and jewelry of the two warriors help to situate them in their particular time and place. David’s characteristics (tunic, armband, and sling) align him with the Romans, and the scene stands as, in Korol’s words, a “typical product of the frontier between the Roman and Persian empires and thereby distinguishes [this painting] clearly from all other known examples of this iconography.” Moreover, the fallen Goliath in the painting displays features that identify him as a specific kind of enemy, a representative of the Romans’ enemy at that place and time—the Persians across the river.
The depictions of David’s sling in later examples, such as the Davidic cycle of silver plates from Cyprus (Fig. 3), show his sling to resemble that of the Roman auxiliaries (Fig. 4). To these iconographic arguments we might add that the Roman “slingers” in their eastern auxiliary units were frequently of Syrian origin, and though they are attested from Republican times, they were used most of all in the third century of the imperial era. This unique depiction was thus suited specifically for the Christian population at Dura that lived with constant threat of military confrontation with the Persians.
These Christians brought this sense of existential threat with them into their baptistery: as a space of ritual initiation, it conjured liminality, the in-betweenness and transience of living on the edge. Pondering the militaristic imaginary of the city inevitably calls to mind the literal frontier on which this population lived. With a mighty army across the river, they lived on the border between death and life. On the edge of two empires, hanging on a cliff over the Euphrates, the dedicant of this particular painting – Proclus, a Latin name found also in the town’s military records – grasped for a symbol of strength and hope.
On and off for three hundred years, since Crassus’s ill-starred crossing of the Euphrates, Rome had been at war with the Persians. Often they had trouble fending off the Persians’ cataphracts. Yet Roman history also offered occasional glimpses of hope. After Crassus’s initial defeat, in fact, the Romans had successfully stopped an invasion by the Parthian crown prince, Pacorus I. How did they stop the mighty Persian cavalry and retain control of Syria? According to Cassius Dio, the winning tactics that repelled the Persians hinged on—that’s right—the slingers. These were no child-size “sling-shots,” but fearsome ballistics whirled and fired farther than the Persian archers could shoot. In a decisive battle in the history of Roman-Persian conflict, it was the auxiliaries’ slinging of stones that marked a turning point and led to the death of Persia’s royal general.
Thus was David, the slinger and mightiest warrior available in the long memory of the Jewish and Christian traditions, imagined and claimed years later as a symbol of hope against a formidable foe. As a flock looks to their shepherd and an army looks to its hero for protection from enemies, so did the Christians of Dura-Europos craft the memory of David as the anointed victor that they hoped also to be.
Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University. This post was adapted from his new book, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (Yale University Press, 2016).