Earliest painting of a biblical scene found at Pompeii

When the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city was frozen in time by the devastation. Overwhelmed by volcanic ash, the people of Pompeii were trapped in a shroud of debris as they went about their daily activities. Centuries later, the perfectly preserved forms of the bodies of adults, children and animals, as well as food, jewellery and other everyday items were discovered by excavators.

Because the destruction was so swift, Pompeii holds a wealth of material for study by scholars of the ancient world. Since its accidental discovery in the eighteenth century, archaeologists have excavated the majority of the site and uncovered many of its secrets.

Amongst the discoveries are a number of wall paintings that decorate the interiors of houses and other buildings. Most of these paintings reflect themes from Roman society and culture, but surprisingly one wall painting which was found in the building known as the House of the Physician is based on a biblical subject. Now at the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the painting shows King Solomon giving judgment in the dispute between the two women claiming to be the mother of the same baby (1 Kings 3:16–28).

Scholar Theodore Feder believes this to be the “earliest depiction of a Biblical scene” discovered[1]. “[I]t is clear that the work reflects the influence of the Hebrew Bible”, writes Feder, but he thinks it unlikely that the painting was commissioned by a Jew. “Although the owner of the House of the Physician could in theory have been either a Jew, a so-called God-fearer, an early Christian or a Roman Gentile, he was most likely a Gentile, based simply on demographic grounds. In short, Gentiles were more numerous, more likely to attain wealth, and under no prohibition with regard to depicting the human form.”

Feder further suggests that two onlookers also in the painting are the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle, and he bases his conclusion on the physical appearance and other characteristics of the figures. “[T]heir presence in the composition attests to the respect Greek philosophy could accord to Hebrew wisdom”, he writes. “Such a juxtaposition in art of wise men from the two civilizations was unprecedented, has rarely been done since, and is of great cultural and historical significance.”

For us, however, the significance of this wall painting is that the Old Testament appears to have been familiar to people living in Pompeii in the first century AD. It is uncertain whether this was because of Jewish or Christian influence, but it does suggest that knowledge of the Scriptures or of the stories at least, was widespread among the general population of the Roman Empire. Paul’s statement in Philippians that the gospel had been accepted by some of “Caesar’s household” (4:22 and cf 1:13) adds weight to this view. This general familiarity would have assisted the growth and spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire that led eventually to its victory over paganism by the fourth century (2 Thess 2:7; Rev 6:2).

Section of Jerusalem’s ancient aqueduct discovered

Part of Jerusalem’s ancient aqueduct has been discovered during work on the city’s modern water infrastructure. Excavations carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered “a spectacular arched bridge … that was part of the very old aqueduct that conveyed water to the Temple Mount”[2].

Yehiel Zelinger, director of the excavation says, “The bridge was built in 1320 CE (in the Mamluke period) by Sultan Nasser al-Din Muhammed Ibn Qalawun, as evidenced by the dedicatory inscription set in it; however, it was apparently constructed to replace an earlier bridge dating to the time of the Second Temple period that was part of the original aqueduct.”

The bridge forms part of Jerusalem’s ancient water supply system that commenced at Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem and ended at the Temple Mount. The aqueduct supplemented the water sources from the spring Gihon and the well at En Rogel in the time of Christ and even today modern Jerusalem’s water consumption continues to exceed the local supply.

Vast topographical changes, however, will take place in the region subsequent to Christ’s return that will result in “living waters” flowing out of Jerusalem (Zech 14:4,8). Water will flow from the Temple to be built at Jerusalem and will extend its cleansing and healing influence throughout the land of Israel (Ezek 47:1–2,8–10). Moreover, at that time all nations will benefit from the healing and refreshing influence of Christ’s rule from Jerusalem resulting in a world transformed.

References

[1] Theodore Feder, ‘Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle : in earliest Biblical painting, Greek philosophers admire king’s wisdom’ http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/ solomon-socrates-and-aristotle.asp#

[2] 2 , 0 0 0 y e a r s o f w a t e r i n J e r u s a l e m ’h t t p : / / w w w. m f a . g o v. i l /MFA /Israel+beyond+politics/2000_years_water_Jerusalem_10-May-2010.htm