The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians

Part one of a two-part examination

This is the first of two posts written by Dr. Douglas Boin on new archaeological and historical research in the study of early Christianity, drawn from his book Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (Bloomsbury Press, 2015). Click here to read part two.


 
maresha-paintings

A melange of animals—some real, others exotic—populate the upper registers of a tomb at the Hellenistic city of Maresha. The paintings on site are restored versions of the originals, which dated to the third and second centuries B.C. Photo: Douglas Boin.

The race for the next spectacular artifact is on. Ancient bone boxes, lost manuscripts encoded with secret messages about Jesus, even fragments of crumbled papyrus—some no bigger than the receipts we stuff in our pockets—promise hope of a brave new world in Biblical studies. The assumption seems to be that if we just look a little harder, if we just dig a little bit deeper, one day we’ll find the one piece of evidence that will take us back to the earliest age of Jesus and his followers. To many, it’s an urgent archaeological mission with profound implications for the history of faith.

Just don’t hold your breath. For almost two hundred years after the crucifixion, Roman cities are entirely devoid of any trace of early Christians; to date, no one has ever found any object that’s been plausibly connected to them. As an archaeologist and a historian, I think it’s time we start taking this silence seriously and stop trying to fill it with any more sensational “discoveries.” Many of Jesus’ followers—men and women who lived in the first, second and even third century Roman Mediterranean—simply didn’t want to be found.

That’s not exactly the first thing that usually comes to mind when we think about early Christians, but the evidence is insurmountable at this point. For almost four hundred years, there were no manger scenes anywhere in the Roman world. There were no crucifixes displayed in homes or schools. There weren’t even any bound Bibles tucked into church pews. In fact, we actually don’t even know what “churches” looked like, at least, not until the middle of the third century. For a community that would later come to remember its earliest history as a time of vicious persecution, answered with outspoken acts of martyrdom, this archaeological silence poses a slight problem. Where are these people?

There are two assumptions people usually rely upon to explain the silence. The first is that Scripture, which is to say, the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible, prohibited Jesus’ followers from dabbling in anything artistic. The second is that early Christians were too poor and disenfranchised to leave anything noticeable behind. New archaeological and historical research suggests that neither of these traditional explanations are adequate. This post is the first in a two-part series that will explore each of these issues, charting some new directions in the study of early Christianity.
 


 
New from BAS: Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two. Never before has this multi-faceted process been documented so engagingly and so authoritatively by so many eminent scholars. Read more >>
 

 
So let’s tackle the first question. Did the Mosaic commandment forbidding the creation of graven images (Deuteronomy 5:8) really prohibit Jesus’ earliest followers from pursuing their own artistic talents? Recent work on Jewish material culture during the late Second Temple period has shed new light on this topic. At the center of this picture is a twenty-year-old boy, Alexander the Great, and the legacy he left behind in the eastern Mediterranean in the third, second and first centuries B.C.

By the time of Alexander’s successors—the Seleucid family in Asia Minor and the northern Levant, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the southern Levant—sounds of Hellenistic art and craftsmanship were beginning to echo on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. A visit to two cities makes that clear. At the city of Hellenistic Marisa (today known as Maresha, a site near Bethlehem), archaeologists found tomb chambers with paintings of animals and landscapes that are stylistically similar to those seen at sites like Vergina, Greece, an important site for the Macedonian kings. The animals depicted at Maresha may even have been inspired by a famous Hellenistic zoo, organized by the Ptolemies at Alexandria. The paintings at Maresha have been dated to the third and second centuries B.C. (see image above).

jerusalem-tombs

Doric and Ionic columns, friezes, even an Egyptian pyramid shape provided the architectural vocabulary for these two tombs in Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period. These are located east of the Temple Platform, in the Kidron Valley of Jerusalem. Photo: Douglas Boin.

Evidence in Jerusalem reveals similar examples of cultural exchange during this time. Representations of ships and anchors appear in many Jerusalem tombs during the late Second Temple period. Some monumental tombs built in the Kidron Valley, in the shadow of the Second Temple, incorporate architectural styles that were also widely popular. Both the tomb of the sons of Hezir, dated to the second century B.C, and the so-called Tomb of Absalom, dated to the first century A.D., draw upon Greek columns, capitals, friezes—even Egyptian pyramid forms (see image right).

Jewish individuals and groups during the late Second Temple period may have been waging fierce debates amongst themselves about the role of Hellenistic customs in the formation of their Jewish identity—debates we pick up in our textual sources, like 2 Maccabees—but the archaeological evidence is clear: The Second Commandment given to Moses did not prevent Jews from making images. It prevented them from making idols. Appreciating this nuance in the history of Jewish art and archaeology is an important first step to seeing early Christian archaeology in a new light, too.

In sum, how have we ever come to believe that Christians harbored an innate artistic hostility of their own, taught to them in the Second Commandment, when Jews who read their own Scripture came to entirely opposite ideas? To understand why we haven’t been able to find Jesus’ earliest followers means setting aside long-held assumptions like these. In my second post, I’ll tackle another one: Were early Christians so poor that they were never able to afford nice things? The answer to that question, too, is not the one we may think we know.
 


 
douglas-boin

Photo by Jerod Quinn

Douglas Boin is assistant professor of ancient and Late Antique Mediterranean history at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire, which will be released by Bloomsbury Press in March 2015. This post has been adapted from it. Follow him on Twitter @douglasboin and on his blog Religious Dirt.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins

The Origin of Christianity

When Did Christianity Begin to Spread?
 


 
In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.
 

 

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  1. colette says

    It wasn’t because they were poor. Actually they gathered many things from land to possessions to food. They also contributed talents such as helping figure out taxes and doctor visits and general abilities. If you read the Acts of the Apostles you will see an example of a couple holding back what they promised. They had much yet claimed nothing. They said to never parade their deeds just as Christ told many to say nothing about his miracles. They were not liked. As is it now those who have do not like when others pay the bills of the poor. They wanted everything the poor had from land to possessions. As it was for the Christ many who received miracles rejoiced and told many. That is how it spread. Word of mouth like we do now if you find a great restaurant. The Christ and the apostles tried very hard to keep it spirit knowing that temples, churches and books had a chance of becoming chains, which they have. Personal teaching was most important. Spirit on spirit. It was never meant to replace good education, but to add to it. He is The Lord of the Spirit.

  2. Joshua says

    Or possibly they were virtually indistinguishable from “Jews” because there were “Jews” doing Jewish things in a Jewish land, living Jewish lives….I use quotes, because I feel we can’t paint everybody of Israelitish origin as Jews simply because it brings in all our pre-conceived notions that we hold. The book of Acts seems to show this. Y’shua called his followers to follow Torah, so they lived what we see as “Jewish” lives. It is only in later years as the numbers of Gentiles increased as followers of the Way combined with Roman persecution and the Fiscus Judaiacus that we begin to see the distancing of what would become the “church” from what was simply a Jewish Assembly that recognized Y’shua as the promised Messiah. If so, would it not be possible that the Archaeological evidence would not be able to distinguish Y’shua’s followers from other sects?

    Thank you for your article, it is very thought provoking.

  3. Frank R says

    The archaeological silence at the beginnings of Christianity seems to me to reinforce the thesis that Christianity began as an astral mystery cult fusing Hellenistic-Jewish with other (pagan) traditions. The Pauline Epistles, the parables in the Gospels, and the recently vindicated Secret Gospel of Mark all point to an esoteric beginnning for Christianity. It seems likely that it was some time in the second century CE that the cult abandoned its esoteric secrecy and the documents explicating it, went public, and published the exoteric documents we now know as the New Testament and NT apocrypha. Archaeologically, one would expect to find little remaining from such a mystery cult that could be clearly identified as Christian.

  4. Ana says

    Very thought provoking comment Joshua.

  5. CLAUDIA says

    I quite agree with Joshua. Too many amateurs or those on a quest to disprove even the existence of Yeshua point to a lack of “evidence” yet Jews remained true to Judaism where they believed in the Messiah or not and evidence would remain Jewish. This has been my conclusion for some time.

  6. Eugene says

    Interesting article! When will archaeology produce early day copies of the New Testament writings, like copies of Paul’s letters? We have writings like the Qumran Scrolls: why not findings of portions of the letter to the Romans, or some of the other letters? Let’s keep digging!!

  7. AF says

    “Roman cities are entirely devoid of any trace of early Christians… no one has ever found any object that’s been plausibly connected to them… I think it’s time we start taking this silence seriously and stop trying to fill it with any more sensational ‘discoveries’.”

    I like the comment about filling historical gaps with sensational discoveries, even though whether we like it or not there are occasions where the material reality and the sensational overlap (the Dead Sea Scrolls being an example). The idea that the two are always and necessarily exclusive is misleading.

    But Indiana Jones notwithstanding, even if you rigorously filter for the sensational, there is still generally way too much material of archeological significance associated with formative Christianity that would make the broader suggestion that archeology can provide little that’s “plausibly connected” to it sound like quite an overreach.

    Not too mention that we have written sources that are anything but silent and can tell us much that would explain why most early followers of Jesus in the Roman world kept a low profile. But minus an archeological object of some kind to validate that, the written sources are often considered too unreliable and otherwise meaningless to the conversation. Consequently, despite the fact that some of the “sensational” phenomenon is fed by popular appetite, it would almost seem that it’s also unwittingly created by some of the academics themselves.

  8. Barbara says

    When Pilate said to the Jews, ‘here is your king’, ‘away with him, ‘ they yelled, ‘we have no King but Caesar, crucify him.’

    The Jews had their chance, so when they told Pilate (away with him, away with him, crucify him) the mantle was handed down to Paul.

    Paul then went to the Gentiles and they received what the Jews refused, the all powerful, wonderful love of Jesus Christ.

  9. Ron says

    Nothing has been found? Seriously? How about the graffiti found at Pompeii I believe, in the first century. Or the hundreds found in the catacombs of Rome some dating early 2nd century? It is not difficult to understand why in the first few centuries very little is found…because they were being persecuted! Keeping a very low profile would definitely be needed to extend ones life.

  10. Pete says

    Great article and comments above, but I wonder if, as Ron commented above, that persecution of the earliest Christians was a major factor here as Prof. Boin also suggested.

    Early Messianic Jews (ethnically-Jewish Christians) and Gentiles (ethnically non-Jewish Christians) shared something in common: they were both rejected by the dominant religious establishment of their respective cultures, Jewish and Roman.

    But how can this be proven archaeologically? I think it is difficult, but the challenge of archaeology of this period. Interesting discussion for sure.

    Peter Hagyo-Kovacs
    Dayton, OH

  11. Nina says

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos_church
    What do you do wuth dura europos? Surely this house church was not unique?

  12. Kurt says

    Christian Building. Even as the nation of Israel was not noted for architectural splendor or pomp, so too the early Christians of spiritual Israel constructed with modesty. Unger’s Bible Dictionary (1965, pp. 84, 85) comments: “As early as in the 3rd century buildings erected by them existed, but they were neither substantial nor costly.” It was not until the time of Emperor Constantine, when encouragement was given to those so inclined to enter relations with the political state, that nominal Christians began to produce a particular style of architecture, eventually constructing some of the most ornate and pompous edifices known.
    There is no record or existing evidence of artwork among the Christians of the first century C.E. It is only during the second and third centuries C.E. that some paintings and sculptures appear in the catacombs attributed to nominal Christians. After the union of Church and State in the fourth century, however, art began to be given a prominence that in time equaled that of the pagan religions and was often related to or in direct imitation of such religions, in both its symbolisms and its forms. Louis Réau, who held the chair of the History of Art of the Middle Ages at the Sorbonne University of France, demonstrates in his work Iconographie de l’art chrétien (Paris, 1955, Vol. I, p. 10) that such paganism has long been recognized by historians of art and that the responsibility for it is to be placed not merely on the artists but on the policies that were followed by the church itself. He points out (p. 50) that instead of really converting the pagans from their old practices and forms of worship, the church chose to respect “the ancestral customs and continue them under another name.”
    Thus, it is not surprising to find the signs of the zodiac, so prominent in ancient Babylon, displayed on cathedrals such as that of Notre Dame in Paris, where they appear on the left doorway and surround Mary in the huge centrally located rose window. (Compare Isa 47:12-15.) Similarly, a guidebook to the cathedral at Auxerre, also in France, states that in the central entrance to the cathedral, “the sculptor there mixed certain pagan heroes: an Eros [Greek god of love] nude and sleeping . . . a Hercules and a Satyr [one of the Greeks’ semihuman demigods]! The register at the lower right represents the parable of the Prodigal Son.”
    Similarly at the entrance of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome appear not only the figure of Christ and the “Virgin” but also that of Ganymede “carried off by the eagle” to become cupbearer of Zeus, king of the gods, and “Leda [who bore Castor and Pollux] fertilized by the swan” Zeus. Commenting further on such pagan influence, Réau asks: “But what is one to say then of the Final Judgment of the Sistine Chapel, the principal chapel of the Vatican, where one sees the nude Christ of Michelangelo lance the lightning like a thundering Jupiter [the Roman father of the gods] and the Damned cross the Styx [the river over which the Greeks believed the dead were ferried] in Charon’s barque?” As he states: “An example that came from so high [that is, approved by the papacy] could not fail to be followed.”
    As has been seen, art was not given major attention by fleshly Israel and is virtually absent from the record of the early congregation of spiritual Israel of the first century C.E. It is, rather, in the field of literature that they surpassed all other peoples, being used by God to produce a work of superb beauty, not only in form but primarily in content: the Bible. Their inspired writings are “as apples of gold in silver carvings,” with crystal-clear truths of such brilliance as to rival the finest gems, and word pictures that convey visions and scenes of a grandeur and loveliness beyond the ability of human artists to portray.—Pr 25:11; 3:13-15; 4:7-9; 8:9, 10.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200271210

  13. Dean says

    This should not surprise anyone who studies the first century Christians. They didn’t even call themselves Christians. The three times that word appears is twice in Acts, and 1 Peter. King Agrippa referred to them as ‘Christians’ in a more or less derogatory way, and others called them that. The common mis-translation from Greek referring to ‘church’ is another thing. It meant body of believers, not a building or what we today call a church. Early believers called it ‘the Way’, and met in the homes of the followers, similar to home groups of today. They used the fish symbol far more than the cross, although by the second century most of this changed, due to the fall of Jerusalem. As the ‘churches’ became centered in Greece, Syria, and Rome, the customs, symbology, artwork and beliefs changed.from a Jewish sect to a version we are more familiar with today. Alexander the Great promoted this, as did the early Holy Roman Church, and at the Council of Nicaea, our modern Bible was conceived, gentile and pagan friendly. The early believers left little, if anything, behind because they truly followed the Word, and the teachings of Yeshua Messiah, who taught them to lay up their treasures in Heaven.

  14. Joe says

    Professor Boin,
    Some suggestions.
    Persecution of the earliest Jewish Christians is probably far and away the most likely reason for the physical silence.
    If textual witnesseses are set aside for this consideration then I think there still remains a couple of things that come to mind.
    The Erastus Inscription, which is almost certainly the same person referred to in Acts19:22 and Romans 16:23 as an associate of the Apostle Paul, is a very solid attestation. Though this inscription was likely done by a worker charged with the task and not Erastus himself, it’s not unreasonable to assume that it was done at his order according to his authority as a director of public works.
    It qualifies as a powerful objective witness of a first century Christian.
    The other thing that comes to mind, notwithstanding the controversy that has swirled around it, is the James Ossuary.
    I don’t think you can lightly dismiss this as a genuine early Christian artifact.
    After expert analysis confirmed the ancient age of the petina on the words of the inscription that didn’t appear to have been cleaned which include “… brother of Jesus” and after literally years of legal assault failed to prove the inscription was forged or recent, this artifact is now more certain than ever to be genuine.

  15. J.T. says

    There’s one glitch that stands out to me about early Christians from the POV of the author of this article. It’s a glitch because he should have immediately taken this into account when working on this article. The glitch is that he didn’t take into account two things: First, the earliest Christians were themselves Jewish (though I grant they would have called themselves Wayists), which means that they’d already been just as familiar with the same texts as their fellow Jews; and Second, the earliest symbol of Christianity wasn’t the cross, it was a fish (as in from the Feeding Of The 5000).

    Rather important those details.

  16. Juan says

    You have to remember that there were men like the Apostle Paul, before he took that name, who were persecuting Yeshua’s followers to kill them. So the early Christians had to be subtle in their ministry. I would compare it to the Underground Railroad system/movement used by the slaves of the pre-civil American war. Folks knew about it and spread the word but had to be very cautious in not exposing their fellow brothers and sisters.
    Therefore, you’ll find little evidence of the early true Christian movement and it’s gospel.

  17. Sharon says

    The answer is simple. Since Yeshua was a Jew, and his talmidim and early followers were Jews (and some God-fearers), and they lived as Jews, worshiping in the synagogues and the Temple as Jews, believing that Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah, WHY in the world would you expect to find evidence of Christians in the first century? Christian was the name given to GENTILES who embraced the Jewish God through the Jewish Messiah. In the beginning they were few in number and dependent on the Jewish Messianic leaders for everything regarding the faith for at least the first century. Even so they began to dilute the inherent Jewishness of the faith in the Jewish Messiah through syncretism with their religions and cultures and philosophies. Saul of Tarsus already had to begin teaching these Gentiles Believers against these tendencies but it wasn’t until later, when Christians became the majority and men like Origin, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria etc. preached their brand of syncretism that you see the beginning of the religion called Christianity. By the time Augustine brought about a new theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and emperor Constantine made Christianity official it was a totally new religion, separate from the faith of the Jewish and God-fearing followers of the Jewish Messiah.

  18. Shiva says

    I really wish this went more in-depth with the issue of the Second Commandment. I don’t feel that it adequately deals with whether or not this was an issue for early Christians, and it also doesn’t mention why the Christians who depicted Jesus weren’t concerned with breaking the Second Commandment. I would love to see more about the opinions on imagery, particularly of divinity, from Second Temple Judaism and how that relates to Christianity.

  19. Eric says

    The 2 theoretical assumptions presented in the article are incomplete in my opinion, and to be fair, a 3rd is needed i.e that Christianity was created by the Flavian Dynasty after Josephus completed “The Jewish War,” circa 95 CE, and therefore Jesus would be a literary figure. Which explains why no archaeological evidence exists in the periods you speak of. Furthermore, found in this theory is the Flavian Signature, which is present inside Josephus works. It is a typology the Flavians used as a meta-model to create a new testament religious story to overcome militaristic Messianic Judaism and replace it with a passive “turn-the-other-cheek” Messianic Movement – where people are more apt to be politically controlled to pay tribute to local authorities. People everywhere need to be aware of this compelling evidence! Christianity may very well have been hoodwinked by Ceasar!

  20. Gabriel says

    It is not only in things that you find Jesus in the modern world, Jesus is in the history of the world in the last 2000 years, if you don’t want to see it, archeologize a little more, other people have found traces.

    It is difficult to believe that the huge amount of traces of Christianity was produced by the combined effort of a large amount of people arguing and fighting the whole time, and the great variations of some traces need a logical contortionism to blur them.

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