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The Ezekiel Mural at Dura Europos and
the Mysteries of Aaron, Moses, and Melchizedek

[Note: This video is from the talk “The Ezekiel Mural at Dura Europos and the Mysteries of Aaron, Moses, and Melchizedek” given at the BYU Studies 50th Anniversary Symposium (Brigham Young University, Provo, UT) by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David J. Larsen on March 13, 2010.]

One of the most stunning archaeological finds of the last century was the accidental discovery in 1920 of the ruins of Dura Europos, “a frontier town of very mixed population and traditions’ located near the Euphrates River in what is now Syria. This Hellenistic city had been abandoned following a Sassanian siege in ad 256–57 and was eventually buried by the shifting sands. Among the structures uncovered by excavation was a small Jewish synagogue with elaborately painted walls, preserved only because the building had been filled with earth as a fortification during the siege.

The purpose of this video is to draw greater attention to the Ezekiel cycle, depicted in an important mural found in the synagogue. In particular, we agree with Yale religious scholar Erwin R. Goodenough that early Jewish mysticism should be taken as the central theme in the program of decoration for this synagogue. If such an interpretation is sustained, the art of the Dura synagogue constitutes the most convincing physical evidence available that the Jewish mysteries described in ancient sources may have had a tangible expression in ritual.

Following a brief account of the discovery of the synagogue and the general significance of its artwork, I will review some of the Dura paintings that attracted the attention of Goodenough and also Hugh Nibley. Both of these scholars interpreted the artwork surrounding the Torah shrine in the Dura murals as revealing heavenly ascent as a central theme in the program of these synagogue decorations, especially in light of the writings of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, a Jewish scholar of the first century. I will then discuss the main features of the Ezekiel paintings, using Goodenough’s detailed descriptions of each panel complemented with findings from more recent research and my own analysis. The analysis will highlight significant themes in the Ezekiel mural relevant to resurrection and heavenly ascent. Throughout this discussion, themes relating to Latter-day Saint temple worship will become apparent. I will conclude with a brief review of recent research in which I will argue that Goodenough’s overall interpretive framework for the paintings at Dura, while generally rejected at the time it was advanced, can now be seen as having anticipated recent trends in scholarship on the liturgical practices of relevant strands of Judaism, especially those focused on the temple and its priesthood.

Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

The presentation is based on the article: Bradshaw, Jeffrey M. “The Ezekiel Mural at Dura Europos: A tangible witness of Philo’s Jewish mysteries?” BYU Studies 49, no. 1 (2010): 4-49.

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