World's Earliest Christian Engraving Shows Surprising Pagan Elements

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Published October 03, 2011

| LiveScience

Researchers have identified what is believed to be the world's earliest surviving Christian inscription, shedding light on an ancient sect that followed the teachings of a second-century philosopher named Valentinus.

Officially called NCE 156, the inscription is written in Greek and is dated to the latter half of the second century, a time when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power.

An inscription is an artifact containing writing that is carved on stone. The only other written Christian remains that survive from that time period are fragments of papyri that quote part of the gospels and are written in ink. Stone inscriptions are more durable than papyri and are easier to display. NCE 156 also doesn't quote the gospels directly, instead its inscription alludes to Christian beliefs.  

"If it is in fact a second-century inscription, as I think it probably is, it is about the earliest Christian material object that we possess," study researcher Gregory Snyder, of Davidson College in North Carolina, told LiveScience. [See Images of Early Christian Inscriptions and Artifacts]

Snyder, who detailed the finding in the most recent issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, believes it to be a funeral epigram, incorporating both Christian and pagan elements. His work caps 50 years of research done by multiple scholars, much of it in Italian. The inscription is in the collection of the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

"Assuming that Professor Snyder is right, it's clearly the earliest identifiable Christian inscription," said Paul McKechnie, a professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Australia, who has also studied the inscription.

As translated by Snyder, the inscription reads:

To my bath, the brothers of the bridal chamber carry the torches,
[here] in our halls, they hunger for the [true] banquets,
even while praising the Father and glorifying the Son.
There [with the Father and the Son] is the only spring and source of truth.

Details on the provenance of the inscription are sketchy. It was first published in 1953 by Luigi Moretti in the "Bullettino della commissione archeologica comunale di Roma," an Italian archaeological journal published annually.

The only reference to where it was found is a note scribbled on a squeeze (a paper impression) of the inscription, Snyder said. According to that note, it was found in the suburbs of Rome near Tor Fiscale, a medieval tower. In ancient times, the location of the tower would have been near mile four of a roadway called the Via Latina.

How was it dated?

Margherita Guarducci, a well-known Italian epigrapher who passed away in 1999, proposed a second-century date for the inscription more than four decades ago. She argued that the way it was written, with a classical style of Greek letters, was only used in Rome during the first and second centuries.

After that, the letters change; for instance, the letter omega, Ω, changes into something closer to the letter w. The letter Sigma, Σ, changes into a symbol that resembles the letter c.

Snyder essentially added more evidence to Guarducci's theory. He analyzed a 1968 catalog of more than 1,700 inscriptions from Rome called "Inscriptiones graecae urbis Romae." He found 53 cases of Greek inscriptions with classical letterforms.

"Not one case is to be found in which, in the judgment of the [catalog]editors, an inscription with the classical letter forms found in NCE 156can be securely placed in the mid-third or fourth century," Snyder wrote in his paper.

In addition, Snyder analyzed an inventory of inscriptions from nearby Naples, published in a series of two volumes in the 1990s called "Iscrizioni greche d'Italia." He found only two examples that might date into the third century. "In sum, Guarducci's case for a second-century date for NCE 156 is stronger than ever," he wrote.

McKechnie said that, after reviewing Snyder's work, he agrees with the date. "The first time I read his article I was far from sure, but the second time I read it I was convinced by his argument about the letter shape."

Valentinus

The author of the inscription likely followed the teachings of a man named Valentinus, an early Christian teacher who would eventually be declared a heretic, Snyder said. The presence of the inscription suggests that a community of his followers may have lived on the Via Latina during the second century.

"We know that Valentinus was a famous Gnostic teacher in the second century (who) lived in Rome for something like 20 years, and was a very sophisticated ... poetic, talented, thinker, speaker, writer."

His teachings are believed to be preserved, to some degree, in the Gospel of Philip, a third-century anthology that was discovered in 1945 in the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. That gospel is a collection of gnostic beliefs, some of which were probably composed in the second century, that are written in a cryptic manner. However, like the inscription, it also refers prominently to a "bridal chamber."

One example, near the end of the gospel, reads in part:

The mysteries of truth are revealed, though in type and image. The bridal chamber, however, remains hidden. It is the Holy in the Holy. The veil at first concealed how God controlled the creation, but when the veil is rent and the things inside are revealed, this house will be left desolate, or rather will be destroyed. And the whole (inferior) godhead will flee from here, but not into the holies of the holies, for it will not be able to mix with the unmixed light and the flawless fullness, but will be under the wings of the cross and under its arms...

 (Translation by Wesley Isenberg)

"It's not quite clear what it [the bridal chamber] is, it's explained to some degree, but explained in cryptic terms in the Gospel of Philip, it's a ritual involving freedom and purification and union with the deity," McKechnie said.

Perhaps rather than an actual ritual, the bridal chamber is a metaphor.

"It may be a metaphor for something that happens in death — maybe it's a kind of ritual that happens when people are still alive. That you achieve a new kind of existence or spiritual status based on this kind of wedding with your spiritual ideal counterpart," Snyder said.

"Some groups may have celebrated it as a concrete ritual, others perhaps sawit in metaphorical terms. I like the idea that it is connected with the death of the believer, who has cast off the mortal coil and enjoys a new life in the spirit," he added in a follow-up email.

But there were some important differences between Valentinians and other early Christians. "Valentinians in particular, and gnostics more generally, most of them wouldn't, for example, get martyred," McKechnie said. "They wouldn't think it was wrong or unlawful to do the things that Christian martyrs refused to do, like take an oath in the name of Caesar or offer incense to a statue or that kind of thing."

The reason for their lack of bias has to do with the Valentinians' beliefs about all things physical. "They believed that not only matter and the physical world was evil, but also that matter and the physical world was unimportant," McKechnie said. "Therefore, it was unimportant what you or what your body did in the physical world."

"It's mostly about the world of the mind."

Valentinians were also likely influenced by earlier Greek philosophers such as Plato, Snyder has found, though he doesn't think they would have interpreted the story of the resurrection of Jesus in a literal way.  

"It's certainly not the case that they would have considered that to be a physical resurrection," he said. "Christians of this particular variety (who incorporated Plato's philosophy) generally speaking saw the material body as something not so desirable, not so good."

Christian and pagan

When analyzing the inscription, Snyder also noticed some similarities with funeral epigrams composed for non-Christians. In those inscriptions, the wedding imagery is used in a tragic way. 

One example, written about 2,100 years ago, reads in part:

I am Theophila, short-lived daughter of Hecateus. The ghosts of the unmarried dead were courting me, a young maiden, for marriage, Hades outstripped the others and seized me, for he desired me, looking upon me as a Persephone more desirable than Persephone. And when he carved the letters on her tombstone, he wept for the girl Theophila from Sinope, her father Hecateus, who composed the wedding torches not for marriage but for Hades...

(Translation by Gregory Snyder)

"Typically, that wedding imagery is tragic," said Snyder. "Here's the promising young person entering into the prime of life, suddenly snatched away, and betrothed, married to Hades."

What the second-century Christian inscription does is turn this convention on its head. "They're playing with that... it's not decline, it's looking forward to a new life."

Snyder said that the mix of Christian and pagan traditions in the inscription is striking. He told LiveScience that he's studied early Christian paintings on the Via Latina that mix biblical themes, such as the story of Samson or the raising of Lazarus, along with figures from classical mythology, like that of Hercules.

"Those kinds of things I find particularly interesting, because they seem to suggest a period of time in which a Christian identity is flexible," Snyder said. "Is it just a simple either/or between pagan and Christian?" he asked. "Or is there really something rather like a spectrum? Or are you really sort of both in certain respects?"

 

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