This study explores a previously overlooked aspect of the Mesopotamian context of the synagogue at Dura-Europos. It considers the function of the Jewish murals together with that of the contemporaneous pictorial art of the Manichaeans and thus brings a fundamentally new perspective to the most famous and commented-upon aspect of the synagogue. While the archeological records of the painted synagogue are silent, various characteristics of the mid-third-century Manichaean paintings are documented in literary records, including what they portrayed and the pedagogical reasons for how and why they were used. As evidenced by Iranian, Coptic, and Syriac textual sources from between the mid 3rd and the late 4th/early 5th centuries, the founding prophet of Manichaeism, Mani (active from 240 to 274 or 277 C. E.), wrote down his teachings and commissioned visual representations of them on a solely pictorial scroll – the Book of Pictures – used for oral instructions while missionizing across greater West Asia and the East Mediterranean region. When accessed together, the available evidence demonstrates that correlations between the religious function of Durene Jewish and Sasanian Manichaean art go beyond surface similarities: they both displayed a visual library of doctrinal subjects, that is, they capture in the pictorial form a large sample of core tenets, which were also recorded in the sacred texts of their respective religions; and they both fulfilled a primarily instructional role since their scenes were sermonized about and discussed in light of living interpretations.
Previous scholarship has demonstrated that a significant part of Christian themes in early Manichaean text and art deal with the life of Christ. This study centers on one example in the form of a sermon, purportedly given by Mani and preserved in Coptic translation from the late 4th or early 5th century in the first chapter of the Berlin Kephalaia (Kephalaion 1, 12.21–13.11). The 22-line passage under consideration is a brief summary of Jesus’ life narrated in sixteen events from Incarnation to Ascension. By focusing on the question of the sourcing of these sixteen events, this study maps their correlation to the canonical gospels and to Tatian’s Diatessaron. It demonstrates that these sixteen events do not accord with any one particular gospel, nor with a straightforward combination of the four gospels collectively. Instead, they follow a chronology unique to the Diatessaron—the earliest known gospel harmony dating from the late 2nd century and attributed to Tatian—that was used in the place of the four gospels until the end of the 5th century across Syro-Mesopotamia. This comparative assessment thus suggests that the ultimate source behind Mani’s sermon was most likely the Diatessaron, which in turn leads to a dual conclusion: (1) Mani and the early Manichaeans in 3rd-century southern Mesopotamia learned about the life of Christ from Tatian’s gospel harmony; and (2) this passage of the Berlin Kephalaia constitutes a Late Antique, Coptic Manichaean witness to the Diatessaron.