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 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 one.


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.


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.


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, 2015), 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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  • Felix says

    Your last paragraph is ideologically biaised, since you assume personal epistemological views wich are more than subjective (to not speak about your personal faith, which I ignore). It is odd to put quotation marks on a theological issue (conversion – metanoia), while dispensing the most basic principles of theology and faith. Yes, allies and economic factors may have actuated as second instrumental causes of the turnaround in Christianity during the IV century. Nevertheless, the first absolute cause was the Holy Spirit leading and inspiring the Church in the ways of Providence to make the History of Salvation.

  • Joe says

    While they may have been some converts to Christianity during the first couple of centuries that were nearer to the top of the socio-economic scale; it was still considered a crime to meet and worship. Since most house churches were small gatherings (50 people or less)–probably most of their worship ‘props’ were stored away between meetings and not carved into walls as permanent objects. Persecution in certain regions during the first three centuries among a small percentage of the population, also limits the chance of finding more tangible objects as to relating to the earliest Christians.

  • 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.

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