Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle
In Earliest Biblical Painting, Greek Philosophers Admire King’s Wisdom
Pleading for her baby’s life, a woman kneels at the feet of King Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16–28. This Roman wall painting from Pompeii is the earliest known depiction of a Biblical scene. Who commissioned this painting: a Jew, a Christian or a gentile? Photo courtesy Scala/Art Resource, NY
Is it possible that the earliest existing picture of a scene from the Bible also includes the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle as onlookers? It is not only possible; I believe that is the case.
The earliest depiction of a Biblical scene comes from a site that is perhaps better known to some for its erotic art than for its religious devotions: Pompeii. The city was buried in volcanic ash in 79 A.D. following the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius. It was a devastating tragedy for Pompeii’s residents but a boon to modern scholars and art historians.
In the building known as the House of the Physician, excavators found a wall painting clearly depicting King Solomon seated on a raised tribunal and flanked by two counselors. As described in the Bible, two women have come to the Israelite monarch, each claiming to be the mother of the same infant. When Solomon orders the baby to be divided in half, the real mother, shown at the foot of the dais, pleads with him to spare the child and announces her willingness to relinquish her claim. The other woman is shown standing by the butcher block on which the infant has been placed. As a soldier raises an axe to do the king’s bidding, she seizes what she believes will be her portion, saying, according to the Biblical text, “Let it be neither mine, nor thine, but divide it.” It is obvious who the real mother is. The child is given to her unharmed as soldiers and observers look on, marveling at Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16–28).
The wall painting has now been removed and is on exhibit at the Museo Nazionale in Naples. While it is therefore well known to scholars, it has not previously been noted that this is the earliest depiction of a full-fledged Biblical scene known to us!
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating stories and insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
Was the painting commissioned by a Jew, an early Christian, a so-called God-fearer (gentiles who adopted many Jewish customs and beliefs, but did not converta) or simply an educated Roman?
There is good evidence that Jews lived in Pompeii. Kosher brands of the locally popular fish sauces were packed there and appropriately labeled Kosher Garum and Kosher Muria (garum castum, muria casta).1 A two-word inscription, Sodoma Gomora, also survives from a house front in Pompeii and may have been written by a Jew or, less likely, by an early Christian, either before the eruption of Vesuvius or by a digger soon afterwards. It is perhaps more affecting to imagine its having been hastily written in the midst of the eruption by someone who analogized the town’s impending fate with that of the two doomed Biblical cities.
In any event, it is clear that the work reflects the influence of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah (the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) was translated into Greek beginning in about 270 B.C., and the rest of the Bible was added in the immediately following centuries. According to one account, King Ptolmey II Philadelphus of Egypt wanted a copy of the Hebrew Bible for his great library in Alexandria.b More likely, it was made by Jews for the Jews of Alexandria who did not know Hebrew. According to a traditional story, 70 scholars were isolated from each other on an island in Alexandria and instructed to prepare a Greek translation. When they were finished, all Greek copies were identical. Hence, this Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is still known as the Septuagint.c The Greek translation became available not only to the many Greek-speaking Hellenized Jews of the Mediterranean world, but to non-Jews as well. This text served as both a literary and iconographic source-book for Jew and gentile alike. 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.
The painting contains all the essential narrative elements in the Biblical story without omissions or adumbrations. What’s more, it appears to have sprung whole from the artist’s imagination, as there is no known precedent in the history of art. As noted above, present are Solomon, the two mothers, the butcher block, the baby, the soldier waiting to divide it, and the onlookers who will attest to Solomon’s wisdom. The story has not received a more telling and cogent depiction in the 2,000 years since the painting’s creation.
The owner of the House of the Physician approved the depiction of this scene and likely proposed the subject matter to the painter. In selecting an episode from the Hebrew Bible, the patron departed from the canon of classical religious subject matter and elevated one from the Scriptures of a people whose influence at the time was spreading throughout the empire and would one day, in its Christian formulation, pervade it.
Socrates has long been considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Museo Pio Clementino at the Vatican. Alinari/Art Resource, NY
Over the years, a bald head, beard and flat nose became iconic features for depicting Socrates. The similarity to the figure in the Pompeian painting is so striking that he must be Socrates. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, NaplesScala/Art Resource, NY