The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Source: Douglas Boin
Elite Canaanite Burial Discovered in the Jezreel Valley

Elite Canaanite Burial Discovered in the Jezreel Valley

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced the discovery of a 3,300-year-old Egyptianizing coffin near Tel Shadud in the Jezreel Valley. The excavation was led by IAA archaeologists Dr. Edwin van den Brink, Dan Kirzner and Dr. Ron Be’eri.

The find dates to a time when Egypt ruled Canaan. As explained by Carolyn R. Higginbotham in “The Egyptianizing of Canaan”in the May/June 1998 issue of BAR, from the Late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age, Egypt had a profound influence on the material culture of Canaan:

Since the discovery of the Amarna letters, archaeologists have also unearthed mounds of artifacts in Egypt and Canaan, dating to the late second millennium B.C.E., which make it clear that life in Ramesside Canaan was markedly different from that in the preceding Amarna age. In short, during the Ramesside period, the material culture of the Canaanite lowlands began to show conspicuous Egyptian influence. True, during the Amarna age, Egyptian artifacts were present in the archaeological record of Canaan. But by the 13th century B.C.E. (Late Bronze Age IIB, which corresponds roughly to the XIXth Dynasty of Egypt), the amount of Egyptian-style objects had increased significantly at Canaanite sites. Egyptian-style artifacts are similarly prevalent at Iron Age IA (between about 1200 and 1150 B.C.E.) sites; thereafter, these kinds of objects decline in frequency. 


The third edition of the Biblical Archaeology Society’s widely-acclaimed Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Destruction of the Temple serves as an authoritative history of ancient Israel. Written by the world’s foremost Biblical scholars and archaeologists, each chapter has been updated and expanded to incorporate more than a decade’s worth of outstanding new discoveries and fresh scholarly perspectives.


LBA coffin Jezreel detail

Detail of the Egyptianizing coffin after cleaning. Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The excavation at Tel Shadud revealed a 13th-century B.C.E. cylindrical clay coffin with an anthropoid lid buried alongside a number of storage vessels.

“As was the custom, it seems these [pots] were used as offerings for the gods, and were also meant to provide the dead with sustenance in the afterlife,” said the Tel Shadud archaeologists in an IAA press release.

The excavators believe that the burial belonged to an elite Canaanite individual who served the Egyptian government or imitated Egyptian burial customs. Among the rare finds discovered with the skeleton of an adult in the coffin was a gold signet ring bearing an Egyptian scarab seal. Inscribed on the seal is the name of Pharaoh Seti I, who was the father of Ramesses II. Other grave goods include a bronze dagger, bronze bowl and hammered pieces of bronze.

Discovered near the coffin were the graves of two men and two women who may have been family members.

Read the press release from the IA

1,300-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Had Biblical Tattoo

1,300-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Had Biblical Tattoo

A mummy of an Egyptian woman dating back to 700 A.D. has been scanned and stripped to reveal a tattoo on her thigh that displays the name of the biblical archangel Michael.

The discovery, announced by researchers at the British Museum over the weekend, was made during a research project that used advanced medical scans, including Computed Tomography (CT) images, to examine Egyptian mummies at a number of hospitals in the United Kingdom last year.

The woman’s body was wrapped in a woolen and linen cloth before burial, and her remains were mummified in the desert heat. As deciphered by curators, the tattoo on her thigh, written in ancient Greek, reads Μιχαήλ, transliterated as M-I-X-A-H-A, or Michael.

Curators at the museum speculate that the tattoo was a symbol worn for religious and spiritual protection, though they declined to offer additional details.

“Like Greeks and Romans across the Mediterranean, the portion of the population that was literate was fascinated by the shapes of letters and delighted in making designs with letters in names. Hence, we have the odd shape of the tattoo composed of the letters.”

Placing the name of a powerful heavenly protector on one’s body by a tattoo or amulet was very common in antiquity, Tilley told Foxnews.com. “Christian women who were pregnant often placed amulets with divine or angelic names on bands on their abdomens to insure a safe delivery of their child,” she said.

“Placing the name on the inner thigh, as with this mummy, may have had some meaning for the hopes of childbirth or protection against sexual violation, as in ‘This body is claimed and protected.’ Michael is an obvious identity for a tattoo, as this is the most powerful of angels.”

Christian Gnostics, religious cultists in that era, were especially interested in the names and functions of intermediary beings between humans and the divine, Tilley noted.

“The Gospel of Truth and the Book of Enoch were both popular among them and have much about an angel whose story sounds very much like that of Archangel Michael in many Christian stories, the angel who led the heavenly army against Satan and the Fallen Angels.”

She added that Christians were not the only ones to use the names of angelic powers in ancient days. “Jews of antiquity were fascinated by the identity and nature of angels,” she said.

Villanova University biology professor Michael Zimmerman, who also has used advanced technologies to study Egyptian mummies, said this kind of find has been sought for years.

“I did participate in an expedition to the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt’s western desert several years ago,” he told FoxNews.com. “This was an early Christian site (around 200 AD), and the deceased were still being mummified, by simply being dried in the very hot climate.

“We did not see any tattoos on those mummies, so the British Museum find is remarkable.”

The museum, which is located in London, will reveal what it has learned about this and seven other mummies in “Ancient Lives: New Discoveries,” an exhibition scheduled to run from May 22 to Nov. 30.

John Taylor, lead curator of the ancient Egypt and Sudan department at the museum, told a local newspaper over the weekend that the exhibition will tell the story of the lives of eight people from antiquity, portraying them as full human beings, rather than as archeological objects.

Using sophisticated medical imaging usually reserved to study strokes and heart attacks, the research team discovered that these eight ancient individuals, whose remains have been held in the museum for some time, had many of the same traits that modern man does, including dental problems, high cholesterol levels and tattoos.

The exhibition portrays one mummy that dates back to 3,500 B.C., as well as the tattooed female, aged between 20 and 35, who lived and died about 1,300 years ago. Researchers pointed out that regular Egyptians — not only the royals — were mummified.

The tattooed mummy, the remains of which were found less than a decade ago, was so well preserved that archaeologists could nearly discern the tattoo on the inner thigh of her right leg with the naked eye. But medical infrared technology helped them see it clearly.

The Vatican’s school of science, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, did not return multiple requests for comments made by FoxNews.com.

Source: Gene Koprowski, Foxnews.com
Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt and the Coptic Church: Two D.C.-Area Lectures

Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt and the Coptic Church: Two D.C.-Area Lectures

The Washington, D.C.-area Biblical Archaeology Forum (BAF) and Biblical Archaeology Society of Northern Virginia (BASONOVA) will be hosting the lectures “Visualizing the Afterlife: Monumental Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt” (March 12) and “A History of the Coptic Church” (March 16) next week. Not in the D.C. area? BAS offers a wide range of travel/study programs in the United States and across the globe.

tomb-painting1 On Wednesday, March 12 at 8:00, University of Maryland professor Marjorie Venit will deliver the lecture “Visualizing the Afterlife: Monumental Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt.” The Greek conquest of Egypt in 331 BCE and subsequent Roman hegemony resulted in intellectual interaction far beyond that permitted by former Egyptian-Greek relationships. Greeks brought their own ideas of death and afterlife, but they recognized the authority of Egypt. Concurrently, Egyptians had lost some of their earlier eschatological self-confidence after suffering centuries of foreign rule. The confluence of these cultures resulted in the development of new and enriched visualizations of death and afterlife.

Source: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/