Focusing on the area between the Tigris and the Mediterranean from 100 BCE to 250 CE, the exhibit The World between Empires, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paints a picture of happy coexistence among Jews, Christians, and pagans during a time when Rome and Persia vied for control of the region. Menachem Wecker writes in his review:
The show teases out a potential historical interpretation of Jews, Christians, and polytheists living in “peaceful pluralism” in certain locales, like Dura-Europos in present-day Syria. That theory, however, is offset by [numerous examples of] religions attacking each other through propagandist artwork in their sacred spaces, not to mention trying to convert one another.
One of the sites which the exhibit explores in the most depth is Dura-Europos, the town that the Parthians controlled in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE, but which the Roman military seized around the year 165 CE. . . . Excavations have unearthed nineteen religious buildings at Dura-Europos, as well as more than 100 homes, and other kinds of buildings, which collectively “provide a remarkable glimpse of how polytheism and monotheism coexisted during the middle of the 3rd century,” notes the catalog. A house-turned-Christian building at Dura-Europos, dated around the year 232, is thought to be the oldest surviving church [in the world], and a synagogue, also 3rd century, is nearly unprecedented for its elaborate and figurative aesthetic program. Biblical-themed wall paintings in the synagogue even include a depiction of the divine hand, which is an exceedingly rare if not unprecedented motif in an ancient synagogue, or even a modern one.
[The church] contains a large assembly space, thought to be where the Eucharist was celebrated, with illustrations of cavalrymen, and a David-and-Goliath painting decorates its baptistery. In addition to these two military-themed elements is a graffito of a mounted soldier in armor carrying a lance and riding a horse, which dates to around the year 232. . . . It’s possible that those receiving the Eucharist, if they took stock of their artistic surroundings, were thinking of anything but peace and turning the other cheek. . . .
Then there are the elaborate synagogue paintings. At a time when the archaeological evidence shows that Jews and Christians were living alongside those who worshipped Mithras, Atargatis, Hadad, and various Palmyrene gods in a 3rd-century Roman border town, paintings on the synagogue walls showed, in part, temples with smashed idol parts strewn across the floor. Was this meant to provoke polytheists and to contrast the two communities, scholars wonder—cautioning that it’s hard to know how much, if any, access the adherents of one faith tradition had to sacred spaces of other traditions.