Image: Museum and inscriptions
Scholars have identified what appears to be the world's earliest Christian inscription, dating to the second century. It is in the collection of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Also shown, examples of other early Christian inscriptions, copied in 1880.
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updated 10/3/2011 1:07:14 PM ET 2011-10-03T17:07:14

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.

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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. [Inscription on Roman Gladiator's Gravestone Reveals Fatal Foul]

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 156 can 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."

Who was 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. [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]

"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. [ After Death: 8 Burial Alternatives Going Mainstream ]

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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Explainer: The archaeology of Christianity

  • Ahmed Ali  /  EPA

    An estimated 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While those believers take the stories of Jesus as told in the New Testament on faith, archaeologists have scoured the Holy Land and beyond in search of clues about the real life of Jesus and his followers. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about eight of their finds.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • First reference to Christ?

    Courtesy of Namrata Anand

    Does the world's first known reference to Christ refer to him as a magician? An inscription on a bowl uncovered from the underwater ruins of Alexandria in Egypt reads "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which archaeologists translate to mean either "by Christ the magician" or "the magician by Christ." The bowl dates to between the late second century B.C. and the early first century.

    If the word "Christ" does indeed refer to the biblical Jesus Christ, then it would be the first known written reference to Christ and might provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. The archaeologists who discovered the bowl think that a magus could have practiced fortune telling rituals with the bowl and used the name Jesus to legitimize his supernatural powers. At the time, the people of Alexandria were likely aware of stories about Jesus' miracles, such as turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread.

  • Turning water to wine

    Jesus' first and perhaps best-known miracle, as recorded in the Gospel of John, was turning water into wine at a Jewish wedding in Cana that had run short of the celebratory drink. Archaeologists at a salvage dig in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one shown here, that date to the time of Jesus and appear to be the same type of jar mentioned in the water-to-wine story.

    A similar find at a rival dig several miles to the north of this site, however, is leading some archaeologists to yearn for further excavations before the issue is settled. One crucial question was where exactly the biblical Cana was located.

  • Nailed to the cross

    National Geographic Magazine

    Ancient literature suggests that crucifixions — central to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection — were common in Roman times, but there is scant archaeological evidence for the practice. Some scholars argue that since there was likely little concern for people who were crucified, their remains were simply scattered. A rare exception came in 1968 when a first-century funerary box was discovered with the remains of a man who had apparently suffered the grisly form of execution.

    Analysis of the remains revealed that the feet of the crucifixion victim really were nailed to the cross — one of the foot bones, in the center of this image, has a nail driven through it from the side. The nail is bent, which is perhaps why it was left intact instead of being removed, according to archaeologists. The hand bones, however, showed no signs of being nailed to the cross, suggesting this practice often depicted in crucifixion artwork may not have always occurred.

  • Wrapped in a cloth

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Antonio Calanni  /  AP

    A long piece of cloth, or a shroud, kept under close guard at a cathedral in Turin, Italy, is believed by many to be the burial cloth that was wrapped around the crucified Jesus. Scientific interest in the shroud began in earnest when negatives from a 1898 photograph revealed the image of man who appears to have suffered a crucifixion. Since then, biblical scholars, archaeologists and the faithful have hotly debated the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin.

    Vatican-approved carbon-dating tests on fibers taken from the cloth in 1988 indicated that the shroud dated to medieval times — ranging from 1260 to 1390. Scientists concluded that the claims about Jesus' image were an elaborate hoax. Other studies have since argued that the dated fibers were from a repaired section of the cloth and that the carbon dates were therefore invalid.

    Other evidence supporting the authenticity of shroud includes pollen residues on the cloth that are unique to Israel and Turkey, indicating it must have spent time in those countries. In support of the skeptics, a second burial shroud that dates to the time of Jesus is of a completely different style than the Turin shroud.

  • Laid to rest

    Courtesy of David Liu

    For many Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of Jerusalem is where the crucified Jesus was laid to rest, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Archaeologists, naturally, have attempted to verify the site's history. While proof remains elusive, the scientific sleuthing has pieced together a trail of evidence to support the claim.

    For example, excavations indicate the site was a limestone quarry in the seventh or eighth century B.C. that was filled in the first century B.C. with stone and soil and turned into a garden and cemetery. According to the Gospels, Jesus was buried in a garden near the city. Though the church today is inside the city walls, the site was outside city walls until Jerusalem was expanded in A.D. 41 — a few years after the traditional time frame for the crucifixion.

    Of course, other theories abound, including one widely publicized in a controversial TV documentary by the director James Cameron and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici. In that program, some experts suggested that 10 ossuaries found in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the remains of Jesus and his family — including a son. The burial boxes are inscribed with names that match those of Jesus and his family — Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judah, the purported son of Jesus, among other relatives. The team said statistics argue against another family having that combination of names. Other archaeologists, however, have dismissed the claim.

  • The baptism cave

    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    Did John the Baptist perform the spiritual cleansing ritual at a cave near the village where he was born, Ein Kerem? That's one theory mulled by archaeologists who discovered thousands of presumably ritually broken pottery shards, a stone used for foot cleansings and drawings related to John the Baptist on the cave walls. Scholars say the evidence that John actually performed baptisms there is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that some sort of ritual water purification rites took place in the first century.

    The history of the cave goes even deeper: It was apparently carved by Israelites in the Iron Age between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C. and perhaps used then as a ritual immersion pool. More recent excavations have revealed corridors leading to what appears to be a second cave. A secular theory on the cave's purpose suggests it was used as a clay production facility.

  • The bones of St. Paul

    Max Rossi  /  Reuters

    For centuries, the faithful have believed the bones of St. Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith after the death of Christ, were in a tomb under the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome. Though the belief has seldom been questioned, Vatican archaeologists recently carbon-dated the remains for the first time and found that they date from the first or second century.

    "This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of Apostle Paul," Pope Benedict XVI said as he announced the findings. In addition to the bone fragments, archaeologists found grains of incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and a blue fabric with linen filaments.

  • Early worship in Israel

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    An Israeli prisoner tasked with clearing rubble prior to construction of a new prison ward uncovered the edge of an elaborate mosaic on the floor of what may be the oldest church in the Holy Land. Archaeologists have dated the church to the third century, decades before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century.

    The mosaic includes drawings of fish, which was an ancient Christian symbol that predated the widespread use of the cross, and three inscriptions. One tells the story of a Roman officer who contributed towards paving the floor, the second is dedicated to the memory of four women, and the third mentions a woman who contributed a table, or altar, to God Jesus Christ, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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