King David transformed into Orpheus

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

There could be no better illustration of the merging of Judaism and paganism than the wall paintings in the 3rd century AD synagogue in Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates river.

(The Reredos Over the Torah Shrine) In the important position above the niche of the Torah is a depiction of Orpheus, charming the animals with his lute. Orpheus was a mythical figure credited with giving the world the art of music. With his music he could charm birds, wild beasts, and even trees and rocks. The position of his image means that he was identified with the biblical David, who could soothe madness with his music. "And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him" (1 Samuel 16:23).

According to the Greek myth, Orpheus was the son of a god and goddess who lived in Thrace in the period of Jason and the Argonauts. He was given the lute by Apollo and instructed by the Muses in its use. He married Euridyce, who died from the bite of a serpent, and he followed her down into Hades. Here his music soothed the torments of the damned and won back his wife. But his prayer was only granted on condition that he should not look back on his wife until they had arrived in the upper world. At the last moment before reaching it he looked round, and she was snatched back. His grief for Eurydice led him to despise the Thracian women, who in revenge tore him to pieces during one of their Bacchanalian orgies. The Muses collected the fragments of his body and buried them in Olympus, but his head and the lyre were thrown into the river, where they were carried downstream, the head still singing.

Orpheus became the central figure of one of the Greek religions, as is brought out by W.K.C. Guthrie in his excellent book Orpheus and Greek Religion (Norton, New York, 1966). In common with the mysteries, it taught an ascetic discipline, holding that the source of evil lay in the body with its fleshly passions. The soul is fettered to the body as to a prison. The consequent dualism of soul and body found philosophical expression in Plato.

Initiation gave salvation from the consequences of sin. The term used for initiate was the Greek hosios -incidentally a word used in the New Testament for Christ (Acts 2:27, Revelation 16:5). In Orphic teaching, whoever arrived uninitiated in the underworld would lie forever in sticky mud.

The process of superseding one religion by another through re-interpretation of the rites of one in terms of the other was widespread in the hellenistic world. It continued rampantly in Christian evangelism, which used this means to establish itself in Europe. Its effects are still apparent in the uses of a pagan name for Easter, from Eostra the goddess of spring, and in the Druid tree imagery of Yuletide. But it was long believed that pre-Christian Judaism was isolationist, always resisting any attempt to compromise its pure monotheistic theology. It was established, however, by E.R. Goodenough in his book Jewish Symbols of the Greco-Roman period ( Pantheon Books, 1964 ) that Diaspora Judaism adopted pagan symbols as a way of expressing itself in terms of contemporary culture. The synagogues at Beth Alpha and Ain Duq show the figure of the sun on his chariot, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac and flanked at the corners by the figures of the seasons. A sarcophagus fragment has a typical Roman funerary sculpture depicting the four seasons. In the central medallion, supported by two winged victories, in the place usually occupied by the bust of the deceased, appears the Menorah, the Jewish seven-branched candlestick. A hellenised Jew was being buried in a fashionably decorated coffin.

It was this natural process of merging cultural languages that prepared the way for Christianity. It only took a further step in the direction of Hellenism - itself a refinement of paganism- to persuade hellenised Diaspora Jews to drop their traditional rites and make their way in society using a more contemporary language.

A graphic illustration of the way the Orphic concept of Hades was carried over into Jewish Christianity is supplied by the gruesome descriptions given in the apocryphal Ezra literature, which we'll look at in the next sub-entry. Since similar ideas were found in medieval Christianity and in some places are still held today, it used to be believed that they came in much later than the 1st century from unknown sources. A better understanding of the social context shows, rather, that Jews in the Greek cities picked them up from their pagan neighbours, and they were current even before the 1st century and moved easily into the fusion of ideas that came to be called Christianity.