The earliest known painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given new clues to the sacrament of baptism. Six wall paintings on display at the Yale University Art Gallery once decorated the baptistery of the earliest known church, a house-church discovered in the ancient city of Dura-Europos in Syria. The paintings, which date to about 240 CE, include some of the earliest known depictions of Jesus, and they might also include the earliest known depiction of his mother.
One of the paintings shows a woman drawing water from a well. There is no inscription on the painting identifying her. According to the gallery’s description, the painting depicts a scene recorded in The Gospel of John in which Jesus converses with a woman from Samaria, but Michael Peppard, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that the woman at the well is not the Samaritan woman, but rather that of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Peppard argues that the wall painting depicts the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel announced that Mary would conceive and give birth to Jesus. If Peppard is correct, then the wall painting is the oldest reliably datable image of Mary.
In his 2016 book, The World’s Oldest Church, a rich reconstruction of the baptismal spirituality of one early Christian community, Peppard examines the iconography from the walls that adorned the earliest surviving Christian church from Dura-Europos in Syria located above the Euphrates River in what is now ISIS territory. Founded around 300 BCE, Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan city at the crossroads of the Greek, Persian, and Roman worlds. Residents of the city spoke many languages, represented many ethnicities — including Greek, Roman, and Palmyrene — and practiced many religions. The city included the Christian house-church, a large and elaborate synagogue, and pagan temples to Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern gods. The church was originally the home of a wealthy third century Christian that had been converted into a “house church”: a building containing an assembly room and a baptistery.
The walls of the baptistery were adorned with biblically inspired artwork, including a depiction of a woman drawing water from a well. Traditionally, scholars have thought that the woman is meant to be the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in conversation at a well in John 4:7-30.
But in his analysis of the artwork, Peppard, following and expanding on the work of theologian Dominic Serra, Associate Professor of Liturgy/Sacramental Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., whose recent research projects have been in the area of Christian Initiation and is currently writing a book on early Roman baptismal practice and theology. Peppard argues that scholars have misread the scene. He suggests that the woman is actually Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only would this be the earliest, albeit somewhat blurry, portrait of the Virgin Mary, but Peppard argues, her presence at the scene changes our understanding of what is taking place at baptism. Peppard calls the art gallery’s interpretation “certainly plausible,” but he notes that the Samaritan woman is usually shown in conversation with Jesus, not alone as she is depicted in the wall painting.
Peppard cites a description of the Annunciation in a second-century biography of Mary’s early life in which Gabriel interrupts Mary as she is drawing water with a pitcher. He argues that Byzantine images of the scene closely resemble the image from Dura-Europos.
So what does any of this have to do with baptism? Just this. Peppard believes that Mary and the other biblical figures present at the baptistery evoke a kind of wedding scene. As a neophyte (a Christian initiate) would pass through the space, he or she would see the paintings and understand the baptismal ritual in marital terms. What this means is that baptism has not always been seen as the washing away of sins or of death and rebirth; for newly minted Christians at Dura-Europos, baptism was a kind of marriage to Jesus the Christ. This is not just a more upbeat take on the purpose of baptism; it also suggests a different kind of intimacy with Jesus. Peppard’s hypothesis certainly changes how we think about baptism. Lisa Brody, the gallery’s associate curator of ancient art, said that Peppard’s argument is solid. “I’m interested to hear what other scholars of early Christian iconography will say, but his argument is convincing,” she said. “It’s certainly plausible, and I don’t have any quarrel with it.”
Almost from the beginning of Christianity, baptism has been viewed as being “delivered” from sin or being “cleansed” from sin. So, why is Christian liturgy so obsessed with sin? What is the source of this idea that human life – including new-born human life – is in and of itself evil? I do not find this note in the gospels. So where did it originate?
My research has led me to the conclusion that the idea is nothing more than a hangover from the fourth century – to the time when the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were formed. In the fourth century, we find in the early Church Fathers, such as Ambrose; Gregory the Great; and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, an obsession with evil. These “fathers” of the church, especially Augustine, treated the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were the literal words of God. In this regard, they were the original fundamentalists. The first chapter of Genesis describes a divine creation, in which all that God made was pronounced to be good. According to Genesis 1, human beings bore the image of God (Imago Dei). The second chapter of Genesis then describes how this perfect creation became broken and how the Imago Dei in us was destroyed. According to Genesis 2, it is through human disobedience that humankind became “fallen” creatures incapable of saving themselves. With that as an understanding of human life, Christians proceeded to tell the Christ story as God’s rescue operation, designed to save human life afflicted with something that was called “Original Sin,” seen as a universal, inescapable, and all-pervading aspect of all humanity. That is why our favorite titles for Jesus historically have been “savior,” “rescuer” and “redeemer.” Jesus saves us from our sins, rescues us from the fall, and redeems us by restoring our lost value.
The concept of “Original Sin” assumes that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church even today. This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering. It turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology not only is repulsive, but also is simply wrong. Are people ever helped by being told how bad they are? I do not believe so.
So instead of seeing ourselves as fallen sinners who need to be saved, a place to begin is with baptism and to think of ourselves as incomplete human beings who need to be made whole. When we begin to think like this, then Jesus can become not the savior of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost, but the presence of the One who empowers us to become all that we can be. I admit that would be a dramatically new approach to Christianity, but it would be in line with all that we now know about our origins. It would also be in line with the Johannine Christ who came, he said, that we might have life “more abundantly.”
Peppard’s research and hypothesis suggests that baptism gives us a different kind of intimacy with Jesus rather than being a vehicle to wash away the stain of “Original Sin.” Baptism is the intimate entrance rite that places a person overtly and self-consciously into a community of people (the Church) who are committed to love that person, and in which that person’s life can be nurtured into a new fullness. In my own church, the Episcopal Church, the 1979 baptismal liturgy has clearly begun to move in that direction, but it is still bogged down in the “sin” definitions of yesterday. But there are hints of movement. For every newly-baptized person, we now pray: “Open his/her heart to your grace and truth. Fill him/her with your holy and life-giving spirit. Teach him/her to love others. Bring him/her to the fullness of your glory. Give him/her an enquiring and discerning heart, the courage to preserve and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” The Episcopal Church is beginning to move from “Original Sin” into “original blessing,” as well as abandoning what is called “Atonement Theology.” As far as I am concerned, such developments are clearly moving in the right direction.
A new understanding of baptism introduces us to a Christian life that frees us to live fully, empowers us to love wastefully, and gives us the courage to be all that we are meant to be, as John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark is inclined to say. Michael Peppard’s research of the paintings at Dura-Europos helps us do that. If this perspective ever becomes the Christian message, then the church may spring back into life, drawing a hurting world to itself. Then we can promise to give to each other what we pledge to give to all persons at their baptism – a full life, abundant love, and the joy of following the One who gives us the power to become all that we can be. Now, to my mind, those are things worthy of obsession.
Such ideas may seem confusing, even radical; after all, they go against two thousand years of church teaching and practice. Unlike the Eucharist, there is no biblical moment when Jesus tells his disciples why or how to baptize other people. With so many different ideas about how and why to baptize, chances are we have been doing baptisms at least partly wrong and with the wrong understanding. Perhaps it is time to look anew at baptism and utilize the insights gained from Michael Peppard’s findings.