Ezra (or Jeremiah?) reads the Law, wall painting from Dura Europos by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Ezra (or Jeremiah?) reads the Law, wall painting from Dura Europos, 245 CE, Wall painting, National Museum of Damascus, Photo: www.BibleLandPictures.com / Alamy Stock Photo

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The Teaching Scribe

Commentary by

In this wall painting—one of many uncovered from the western wall of the Dura Europos synagogue—the viewer is faced with a single, full-frontal figure. Thought to be Ezra, he is dressed in chiton and himation, and reads from an unfurled Torah scroll. The unusually large scroll—depicted occupying the full width of the picture plane—gives it particular prominence in the composition, subordinating the figure and emphasizing the scroll’s importance and sacred nature.

The work is located to the upper right of a small Torah shrine cut into the wall to house the synagogue’s Torah scroll. Appropriately, we find the Torah ark-chest depicted at the bottom left of the mural, adjacent to the shrine, covered with a rust-coloured cloth.

The work highlights two critical aspects of sacred scrolls in the days of Ezra. First, they were publicly read; second, they were carefully preserved, both in scroll boxes, as seen here, and in written reproduction.

Ezra 7:6 describes Ezra as ‘a scribe, skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given’. Scribes were skilled at reading and writing texts of various kinds and were generally responsible for writing legal documents during the fifth century BCE. What distinguishes Ezra, however, is his ‘skill in the law of Moses’. Ezra, undoubtedly, bore responsibility for writing, copying, preserving and transmitting Israel’s sacred scrolls (like the one depicted here), and later Jewish traditions ascribe the very rewriting of the Old Testament to Ezra (4 Ezra 14).

Additionally, however, being a scribe generated a high social standing, both in the eyes of the Persian court and among the remnant of Israel. This high standing, together with knowledge of the Law, enabled him to serve as an effective teacher of that Law. Emphasizing his role as a teacher, Ezra 7:10 states that ‘Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel’.

 

References

Charlesworth, J. 1983. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1, Peabody: Hendrickson, pp. 553–55

Kraeling, C. 1979. The Synagogue [The Excavations at Dura-Europos Conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters: Final Report VIII, Part I], New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 232–39

Lee Levine, L. 2012. Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 144

Saldarini, A. 2008. ‘Scribes’, in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. by D. Freedman, New York: Doubleday, pp. 1012–16