from jesus to christ - the first christians

In the Catacombs

Deep below the streets of Rome lie the ancient catacombs where early Christians buried their dead and sustained hope for eternal life.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


About the same time as the persecution of Decius, middle of the third century, is also when we begin to get the Roman catacombs developing. Now, according to tradition, you know, the catacombs are thought of as where all the martyrs are buried, but there's far too many catacomb burials for all of them to have been martyrs; there's over six and a half million burials, it's usually estimated, and they last from the mid third up to the sixth or seventh century. So, clearly all of those aren't martyrs. What are they? We have pagan catacombs, Jewish catacombs, and Christian catacombs.

But one of the things we do see in the middle of the third century is there's a growing [number] of Christian burial societies run by the church. We even hear of whole groups of diggers, these are the people who literally dig out the catacomb burial places, and the Christians are one of the most important mortuary establishments in the city of Rome. They are responding to basic human needs in a variety of ways, and if you ever go down in the catacombs and look at what it's like, I mean, you have to imagine what this would have been. First of all, catacombs are a peculiar phenomenon in the area around Rome; they're always outside the city, as all burials had to be, but it's a peculiar geologic formation. This is in a very soft volcanic rock, and as long as this volcanic layer is covered by dirt or earth, it stays very soft. As soon as you dig into it and it hits air, it hardens and thus becomes very stable to dig into.

And so, these catacombs literally are like colonies of ants going farther and farther down into this soft... rock, and as you go in, what you can do is, you can see up the walls as they dig the burial loculi, or chambers, where they slide the body in place. Those are the cheap burials. And we can't, in some cases, tell whether they're pagan or Jewish or Christian. The more elaborate burials become large rooms carved out in the rock, where they actually look like little chambers or homes, and here we see some elaborate paintings, and the rooms can be entirely decorated in frescos and much more elaborate kind of burial chambers are built within them for the bodies.

In many cases, too, this is where we see some of the most Christian funerary arts starting to develop; whole scenes of the family of Jesus or images from gospel stories or stories from the Hebrew Scriptures or the symbol of the orans and the good shepherd. All of these reflect a burgeoning Christian iconographic tradition just as they're on this cusp of breaking into the mainstream of Roman society. Indeed, the burgeoning Christian art, when it can be seen as distinctively Christian at all, is a sign that they really are making their way into society at large....

The catacombs hold a very interesting place in the romantic tradition about how early Christianity developed. It's often been suggested that these were great hiding places, and the Christians would go down in the catacombs to worship during periods of persecution. But really there weren't that regular kinds of persecution going on, and even when we find larger rooms or chambers in the catacombs, they weren't used for regular worship. Churches didn't go down in there to hold Eucharist and assembly on a regular basis. So, what were these rooms used for? Why did they have benches lining the walls, what looked like places where you could hold eucharistic assembly? The answer is, they're holding meals for the dead. We know, in fact, from a number of sources, Christian and non-Christian alike, that the funerary meal, a kind of picnic with the dead, was something that most families practiced in the city of Rome. So, we have to imagine as part of their daily life, as part of their regular activity, Christians, just like their pagan neighbors, going down into the catacombs to hold memorial meals with dead members of their families.

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


The city of Rome was ringed by burial sites. Since you could not be buried in Rome itself within the city boundaries unless you were somebody like the emperor, you had to be buried around the perimeter of Rome. So, if you were a noble family, you'd have tombs aboveground, mausoleum-like tombs. If you were a slightly lower class, you would be buried below ground because the material below the ground outside Rome is called tufa; it's very, very strong, it's very easy to carve and very strong. You could have two, three, four, and even five layers below ground of burial sites.

This is what they were. They were not hideouts, they were not places where Christians were hiding. They were quite public, where everyone was being buried of this class. So, Christians were being buried in the catacombs. If they were able economically to do more than simply bury their dead, if they could put an image there, for example, a picture, you began to get scenes. First of all, you got symbols like the anchor or the dove; that would be sort of the simplest one. Then you could get scenes like, say, the philosopher or the woman with her hands raised in prayer, the symbol of piety; various scenes, or you could get literally biblical stories.

And what's interesting is what they choose, because what they choose of Jesus is especially the healer. He appears beardless, so he's a new, young god, as it were.... And what's extraordinary, is he'd either have his hand or even a wand on the person he's healing. Now, nothing that I know of in the entire Greek or Roman world ever shows Asclepius with his hand on somebody he's healing.... (Asclepius was the god of healing in the ancient world, one of the great competitors, by the way, of Jesus, as early Christianity began, because he was a beloved God.)

[Jesus] seems to be an ordinary person, therefore a new god -- that's what the beardless means -- who actually comes out and touches the ordinary people. And many of these people that Jesus is healing, by their dress, you can tell are lower class. This is a new healing god, and that's what's on these people's minds.

I think this is one of the great things that helps the spread. Jesus is not shown as a transcendental being, he's down there in the mud of human history with his hand on people's heads and shoulders, and they're not the least bit inhibited of showing him with a wand in his hand in front of the tomb of Lazarus, for example.

Learn more about the Christian catacombs in Rome at their web site.

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published april 1998

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