The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians

Part two of a two-part series

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


 
bowl-via-appia

This earthenware bowl was found in a Roman catacomb on the Via Appia. On the exterior (left) is the sign of “Christ,” the “Messiah.” On the inside (right) are the apostles Peter and Paul. The bowl dates to the mid-fourth century, the period when Christians began to mark cups, bowls and dinnerware with Christian signs. Prior to then, even fancy dishes from wealthier Christian homes—like the silver used in Clement of Alexandria’s day—lacked explicit Christian signs or symbols. Images: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Open Access, inventory number 52.25.1.

The quest continues. Expert historians and armchair archaeologists are abuzz with news of a first-century A.D. copy of Mark’s gospel. If true (and let’s be blunt, no one has laid eyes on this mythical creature yet), it will give many believers the joy of beholding some of the first words ever written down in Christian Scripture.

It also might confirm an inconvenient truth which many historians have been preaching about for decades: Jesus’ followers were much more educated and far wealthier than we’ve been taught to believe.

That’s a part of history which usually gets swept back into the dirt during these archaeological treasure hunts. But wealth and influence can’t be left out of the story of the early church. They may even shed new light on the struggle by which Christians won their rights in Rome.

In part one of this series, I debunked the idea that the Christian fear of making objects or images grew out of the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible. In this post, I challenge the idea that Christians left so few archaeological traces behind because they couldn’t afford to make them. While the church’s mission to the poor and disenfranchised may be one of Christianity’s most ethically admirable stances today, in antiquity, not all of Jesus’ followers were part of a shiftless underclass.

Paul, a prolific pen pal to people around the Aegean Sea and the earliest person to provide us any information from inside the group, supplies crucial evidence on this point.

Reading, writing and the gear that went with it (ink, stylus, scrolls, tablet) were an expensive part of Roman life. These skills opened doors; they also placed people in the top ten percent of society, our best estimate for the extent of ancient literacy. By the end of the first century A.D.—the time when Mark’s gospel was composed; its earliest surviving copy dates at least a century later—one couple in Pompeii was justly proud of their ability to communicate with people around them. They put a portrait in their home showing themselves with a pen, scroll and writing pad.

Paul’s correspondents were from these same cultured circles. We know from the letters he wrote to them, which follow standard letter-writing conventions and suggest a familiarity with elite social practices. Striking the right tone was important, too. His contact Chloe in Corinth hosted meetings in her home (1 Corinthians 1:11). So did Phoebe at Corinth’s harbor town (Romans 16:1), as well as Prisca and her husband, Aquilla (Romans 16:3–4).
 


 
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.
 

 
We don’t need to assume these men and women were among the top one-percent of their day to own property of their own. A cautious estimate would place them in the top quarter of the socio-economic ladder. We also don’t need precise census data to see that, when they met, economic divisions among Jesus’ followers could be fierce.

After Paul left Corinth, he heard that many group members were treating the Lord’s Supper like a luxurious dinner party. The privileged few wined and dined, going home drunk, while members of the lower-class went home hungry (1 Corinthians 11: 20–22). Certainly not an egalitarian community!

These economic divisions wouldn’t be resolved with the passage of time. A century later, wealthy Christians in Alexandria were celebrating the Lord’s Supper “with fatty meat and fine sauces,” Clement, the Bishop of Alexandria, said at the end of the second or beginning of the third century A.D (The Teacher 2.1). Exquisitely crafted plates of gold and silver were being used at Jesus’ fellowship meal (see images above), yet these people dared to call it agape, the Lord’s Supper, Clement said in exasperation.

dura-europos-bapistry

This fresco from the baptistry at Dura-Europos depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s a motif drawn from Hebrew Scripture, one which the Gospel of John also evokes. What few realize is that the image of a shepherd caring for his sheep was the classical personification of good will toward all. In their first attempt at Christian art, Christians had depicted an idea which non-Christians valued, too. Image: Yale University Art Gallery, Public Domain, inventory number 1932.1200.

The bishop wasn’t happy, but many Christians had their own ideas about how to follow Jesus—and it involved making connections with people in town. By the middle of the third century A.D., on the Euphrates River in Syria, one community had actually convinced a local resident to knock down walls in his own home. The result was a new open floor plan for Christian meetings. The owner even installed a baptistry (see image right).

Christians felt so comfortable in their neighborhood, they had finally decided to make some noise. So they renovated a home. It’s the earliest example of Christian architecture that we have. It also comes from a period when most people think Christians were being “persecuted” throughout the empire. Yet the Dura house predates the legalization of Christianity by a half-century. This gradual, rising profile in the archaeological record should change the way we think about Christian history.

Christianity may not have been legally recognized, but Christians themselves were hardly hiding. In effect, Christianity’s political triumph may not have been rooted in its superior “spiritual” message. It may have been the product of something much more mundane: a few well-placed allies and the right financial support. Now might be the perfect time to go back and rethink what it means when we say that the Roman Empire “converted” to Christianity.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 4, 2015.
 

 
douglas-boin

Photo by Jerod Quinn

Douglas Boin is the author of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (Bloomsbury Press), published this month, from which this post is adapted. He is an assistant professor of history at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @douglasboin and on his blog Religious Dirt.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Is the Earliest Image of the Virgin Mary in the Dura-Europos Church?

The Origin of Christianity

When Did Christianity Begin to Spread?

The Split of Early Christianity and Judaism

Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians by Mark Wilson
 


 

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  • Craig says

    While the persecution of Christians by the Romans may have been inconsistent, it was made a capital crime by Trajan, and remained as such until Constantine, The local authorities, moved by compassion for friends and neighbors, or often by greed, often disregarded the decree.Even the attempts by Decius or Severus to press its enforcement were limited. But with the mushrooming of imperial authority with Diocletian and his successors, Christians fled the cities to dwell in the wilderness. Many Church leaders were imprisoned or killed, and laity brought to destitution when their properties and livelihoods were confiscated.

  • Joseph says

    All the money in the world would not have had the effect that Jesus message has had to this point in time. It’s sounds more like wishful thinking from one who does not want to give God His proper credit for communicating to His creation thru this wonderful ability He has given us called language. Sincerely: Joe

  • Christine says

    persecution was intermittent. One emperor would ignore them, one question and view them as harmless and another launch a persecution. The two main reasons were that not following Jewish law the earliest Christians weren’t Jewish enough to be under the exclusion from the requirement to worship Roman gods as well as your own, and there were emperors upset at the idea of anyone being held more important than them. a third reason was false accusations, probably due to the actions of some gnostic cults that claimed to be Christian and did some gross things.

    And persecution wasn’t pursued evenly throughout the empire in all cases. So evident of living fearlessly is not evidence of not being persecuted.

  • Christopher says

    I’m very interested in the growing feeling that early Christians were not of such low social status. One of my assessed essays for the New Testament component of my B.Th, many years ago argued that Paul used the higher social standing of some of his supporters in Corinth to overcome opposition to him within the Church there. I remember noting that Erastus who is referred to in Romans by a Greek term that could be a translation of praetor,apparently turns up in a Corinthian inscription naming him as aedile, suggesting that he continued the Corinthian Cursus Honorum despite his membership ofthe Church. Arguably the richer members of the congregation felt they were doing the poorer members a favour by letting them attend an agape meal in a subordinate role, i.e. treating them as favoured clientela (with all the implications of protection and patronage that carried) rather than excluding them altogether.Christians may be new creations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can escape from all our previous assumptions about society – either then or now.

  • John says

    “Ryan, your assertion is clearly untrue. The symbol is clearly the chi rho, which was used beginning in the fourth century as a symbol for the name of Christ. I have never seen this image used in relation to the Pontifex Maximus or the Roman Army, and I have twenty years’ experience in the field.”

    I am not formally trained, but I think I can shed some light on this. The Chi-Rho was indeed used as an abbreviation for Christ (i.e. the Chi-Rho vision in the sky), both by Constantine/Eusebius, and the Sinaitic. However, in pre-Christian times, it was used as a sign by Roman scribes for something exceptionally good; i.e. Chi-Rho was short for the root word of the name Chrestus, which meant “good”. Hence, I would be surprised if it was not used in relation to sayings or deeds of the Roman Pontifex Maximus; which would have been the high priest of Jupiter. In some of the earliest Christian documents, His name is not spelt “Christos”, but “Chrestus”; meaning “the good one.” It was common for Roman scribes to write in Greek, as well as Latin.

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