Dura Europos

Doing It Better

Neil Stephenson’s new work Anathem
is coming out next week and I can’t wait.

Here’s the brief description:

Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or tenner (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions—engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next—are summoned to save the world.

Not only does it look like an incredible piece of fiction, but Stephenson appears to be on the verge of putting our increasingly trivialized notions of “contributions,” “knowledge,” and “conversations” to the test as he reflects back on a wired and contemporary 21st century America.

Having been involved in the online marketing/web2.0 scene for the last few years, I’ve gotten to the point in my own personal life where I’ve recently realized that glancing blows in blog posts or Tweets about subjects and companies I know little to nothing about is not the sort of contribution I want to make.

Merlin Mann wrote the post that crystallizes my own feelings, and this is the post I wish I would have written.

kung fu grippe – Better: “What worries me are the consequences of a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness, makebelieve insight, and unedited first drafts of everything. I think it’s making us small. I know that whenever I become aware of it, I realize how small it can make me. So, I’ve come to despise it.

With this diet metaphor in mind, I want to, if you like, start eating better. But, I also want to start growing a tastier tomato — regardless of how easy it is to pick, package, ship, or vend. The tomato is the story, my friend.”

So, I’ve been cutting back on all the cacophonous noise and focusing on what I really have passion for and long term ideas, theories, notions or principles for which I want to make a contribution (like doing my PhD work on Dura Europos).

That doesn’t mean I’m going to trade in my Identi.ca and Twitter accounts or stop reading RSS feeds from TechCrunch. What it does mean is that I’m putting the things I really care about first. If I have time for the latest and greatest new iPod Touch app, I’ll download it. But first, I want to finish a few pages of this dissertation and let everyone know how important Dura Europos is to the past, present and future of the world.

So, if I start caring a little less about the latest and greatest in web2.0, please bear with me.

Research Day

Going back to school does have its benefits… you can completely geek out and surround yourself with out of print books and arcane ideas all in the name of pursuing knowledge:

Today, I’m writing a paper on Dura Europos and its overlooked place in the (I argue non-historical) Parting of the Ways model that describes early Christianity and Judaism.


I’ll post it when it’s polished.

Oh, and I’m going to be applying to PhD programs this coming week in anticipation of starting on that work full time next Fall. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

Research Day on TwitPic


Today is my last day of being a 20-something year old.

It’s one of those big days that we in the cultures of the West like to put great emphasis upon. You spend your 20’s figuring out who you are, exploring ideas, being idealistic. Then, you transition into a real adult focused on career, family, mortgages, etc in your 30’s.

I’m not sure if that’s supposed to happen in one day or over the course of the 30th year, but I’m working on it. Having a child is a big wake up call in terms of personhood, the awareness of mortality and the need for responsibility (etc).

However, turning 30 still scares the hell out of me because I don’t want to loose my idealism which is tied so close to my own identity.

When I was 10 or 12 (maybe 11?), my best friend and I would make out these “life plans” that detailed our futures, careers, wives, etc. Mine went something along the line of going to Clemson then playing catcher for the Chicago Cubs for a while, retiring around 42, becoming mayor of Chicago then Senator and eventually running for President. It was a good plan until I blew out my knees playing catcher in high school and had to take up golf. Plus, I never made that move to Chicago.

When I was 26, I was convinced I would spend the rest of my life as an 8th grade science teacher. I was so happy with that.

Somewhere along junior or senior year of high school I realized I was going to suck as a business person and needed to find a career where I could be paid to think or do something harmless like teach. I’m still working on that plan now that I’m back at Gardner-Webb finishing up my Masters of Divinity and hopefully heading to PhD work soon enough.

When I was 24, I used a map on a trip for the first time. Don’t get me wrong… I traveled a great deal by road (and by myself) before that, but I had always just felt my way around since I have a pretty keen sense of geography. I would just sail into a big city and figure out where a concert hall or ballpark was located without much thought. But on this trip, something changed. I lost a little bit of myself on that trip.

When I was 15, I gave my first real sermon at my small country church in Mullins, SC on Youth Sunday. My topic was about the silence of the Gospels in respect to Jesus’ youth. There are the birth and infancy stories of Jesus and then we skip to Jesus as an adult with very little in-between.

As a kid with too much righteous indignation and not enough temperance, I was often frustrated with the church in terms of how the “youths” were handled and took that to the pulpit that Sunday with pictures of people we teens were turning to (at the time it was Kurt Cobain for me) and how the church was missing the (fishing) boat. I hope I never forget that sermon wherever my career path carves.

I discovered Dura Europos when I was 22. My life hasn’t been the same since.

Jesus re-emerges as an adult at age 30 after evidently spending his youth and 20’s “finding himself” and working. Even with years of Biblical scholarship, it still puzzles me as to what exactly Jesus was doing in his 20’s. Was he conflicted? Scared? Waiting for 30 to get into the game? Why did he wait? Why not give sermons on the mounts when he was 21 or 25? I always found great solace in the fact that the Gospels tell us Jesus waited until he was 30 to start taking “this stuff” more seriously.

Problem is, I’ve only got a few more hours before that solace evaporates and I have to go to Canaa.

Jewish and Early Christian Art

One of my main passions offline is research into Dura Europos. I had the privilege to catalogue, photograph and work with much of what remains of Dura Europos’ artwork while a grad student at Yale (Yale led the Dura Europos excavations in the 1930’s and brought thousands and thousands of pieces back to the Yale Art Gallery where much of it resides in the basement of the Gallery now).

I’ve always been intrigued by the Synagogue at Dura Europos. It’s an amazing and even puzzling place for westerners who like to assume that Jewish communities have always followed the non-graven images rule strictly in their worship spaces since Sinai. However, the Dura Europos Synagogue is filled with artwork, both biblical and pagan in nature, and shows a complex artistic tradition that extended beyond the Syrian desert where Dura Europos is located.

Here’s a well thought out (and researched) post expanding that idea entitled “The Protestant Revision of History” from the Turretin Debate Blog (Turretin was a Reformed theologian who was especially influential in Calvinist and Puritan circles… evidently this blog should be read through those lens):

Neither were later Jews against images and veneration. The ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos, which was destroyed in the mid 200s AD is filled with icons and imagery. And ancient house churches from the same period were also found containing icons. As the Christians inherited Jewish worship practices, they must have been guided in interpretation of Exodus 20:4 by the Jewish practices, which clearly were not iconoclastic. No wonder Orthodox churches are covered in images, since the Jewish synagogues were the same. And yet there is no condemnation of the Jews by Christians over this issue…Protestants think to themselves that the early church must have been
primitive and basic, with no relationship to the ornate and colourful
world of Orthodoxy with its churches and vestments. But the facts and
archeology say differently. Ancient Jewish and Christian worship is
characterised by the ornate, by images, icons and symbolism. The
ancient Christian catacombs contain icons, including those of Mary
holding the Christ child as would be familiar to any Orthodox
Christian. (Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Vol 1, Crestwood,
NY (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), c1978, pp. 74-75).

Fun stuff to ponder on a beautiful Monday afternoon!

Imagining Jesus

I came across this almost startling image of Jesus on the Roman Army Talk forum…

What is so fascinating about this image is Jesus’ representation in full Roman soldier garb.  I haven’t come across many of these types of representations of full Jesus as soldier in my studies.

However, this isn’t an ancient phenomenon.  We have always imagined Jesus in our own image:

Visiting Dura Europos

I look forward to visiting Dura Europos myself one day.  Here’s a fun travel-logue by a traveler: 

Dura Europos was certainly the most attractive archaeological site I visited in Syria. A ruined citadel sits atop a ridge overlooking the river and a large city wall that is still defined in several places bounds the entire site. Numerous temple remains dot the site but virtually nothing remains of any of them, with the notable exception of the Christian church, which I was able to find. This is rather exciting because it is the oldest church of certain date in the world. Overall, the site is really quite impressive, and aesthetically, it was my favourite ancient site in Syria.

nathanaels: The Desert, the Euphrates, and Mesopotamia