The third-century C.E. Dura-Europos church was discovered in excavations conducted before World War II. Only recently, however, has a new light been shone on the portrait of the woman at the well, which is located in the small baptistery of the church. Leith reviews scholar Michael Peppard’s argument that the portrait depicts not the Samaritan woman but the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear the Son of God, Jesus:
As Peppard explains, the third-century Dura Annunciation is based not on the Biblical Annunciation in Luke 1:26–38 but on the Gospel of James (a.k.a. the Protevangelium of James), a second-century apocryphal (i.e., not considered authoritative) gospel that narrates the life of Mary up to and including the birth of Jesus. According to the Gospel of James, Mary “took the pitcher and went forth to fill it with water and lo! a voice saying, ‘Hail thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.’ And she looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.”
If Peppard’s interpretation is correct, this would make the portrait at the Dura-Europos church the earliest image of the Virgin Mary.
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According to Leith, other early images of the Virgin Mary can shed light on Christian beliefs in the first centuries of the Common Era.
“Among the puzzles is how Christians viewed Jesus’ mother Mary in the earliest centuries of Christianity,” writes Leith. “Mary’s status in Christianity only became official in 431 when the Council of Ephesus awarded her the title Theotokos, ‘the one who gives birth to God.’ Information about Mary’s significance before then, whether visual or textual, is surprisingly sparse, but archaeology has supplied some helpful clues.”
Get an in-depth look at the portrait of the woman at the well from the Dura-Europos church and explore other early images of the Virgin Mary by reading the full article “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” by Mary Joan Winn Leith in the March/April 2017 issue of BAR.
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” by Mary Joan Winn Leith in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Related reading in Bible History Daily:
The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith
The Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad by Mary Joan Winn Leith
Were Mary and Joseph Married or Engaged at Jesus’ Birth? by Mark Wilson