from jesus to christ - the first christians

Recovering the Material World of the Early Christians

Bonz is managing editor of Harvard Theological Review. She received a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School, with a dissertation on Luke-Acts as a literary challenge to the propaganda of imperial Rome. She has published several articles on the status of Jews in the Greek province of the Empire and on the developing religious message of the Roman emperors.

A number of archaeological discoveries have cast new light on the writings of the New Testament, expanding our knowledge of the world from which they emerged; a world with which they were also in conversation.

For example, here's a famous inscription from the ancient city of Priene (modern Turkey) commemorating the Emperor Augustus and his introduction of the new Roman calendar. It is from the period just before the birth of Jesus.

Providence. . .[has sent] us and our descendants a savior, who has put an end to war and established all things. . . .And since the Caesar through his appearance has exceeded the hopes of all former glad tidings, surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future would surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his glad tidings. . . .

Augustus - who had brought peace and prosperity to a war-weary world - wanted his reign to be viewed as the beginning of a new age. Thus, the celebration of this message became the "glad tidings" or "gospel" of the empire he ruled. As Helmut Koester has noted, it is very likely that the early Christian missionaries were influenced by the imperial propaganda and its use of this word, since the Christian usage of this same term "gospel" for its saving message begins only a few decades after the time of Augustus.

Out of Ashes, Rock, and Soil:
The Recovery of Ancient Manuscripts

One of the most basic aspects of recovering the material world of the early Christians is the continuing search for the manuscripts themselves. In the ancient world, these manuscripts came in a variety of forms. Generally produced in the format of a scroll, they were made either from papyrus (a plant) or parchment (animal skins). A scroll was made by gluing or (in the case of parchment) stitching together separate sheets to form a long strip and then winding the strip around a stick.

But scrolls were not very convenient to use, and by the early second century of the common era the codex began to replace the scroll, especially in the production of the writings of the early church. At first these codices were made by folding sheets of papyrus in the middle and sewing them together to form booklets. Gradually, however, the advantages of parchment, such as its durability and the fact that it can be written on both sides, led to its total replacement of papyrus. In fact, leather-bound books made of refined parchment became the state of the publishing art from sometime in the fourth century until the advent of paper in the late Middle Ages.

Over the course of many years, a number of important manuscripts, both scrolls and codices, have been recovered by scholars and antiquarians. Their recovery is important for New Testament research for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways. For one thing, these discoveries help scholars to determine what were the earliest versions of a given work and what elements may have been added at a later time.

For example, one of several papyrus codices acquired by the English antiquarian Chester Beatty in the 1930s contained ten letters attributed to the apostle Paul. Conspicuously absent from this particular early manuscript, which was dated to about 200 CE, was any of the so-called Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). Accordingly, the discovery of this manuscript helped to confirm what many scholars had already been arguing, namely, that the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul himself and that their attribution to the apostle was a somewhat later development within the church.

An even more important discovery was made by accident in 1934. While sorting through the collection of unpublished papyri belonging to the John Rylands library in Manchester, an Oxford scholar recognized a fragment containing a few lines from the Gospel of John. Paleographers have dated this fragment to the first half of the second century. And since the fragment was found in a small town along the Nile River in Egypt, far away from where the gospel is believed to have been composed originally, it provides strong evidence that the Gospel of John was completed by the beginning of the second century at the latest.

Codex Sinaiticus

Not all manuscript discoveries or acquisitions have been as simple as those described above, however. Dr. Constantin von Tischendorf's discovery of one of the most important manuscript witnesses to the complete text of the New Testament is a case in point.

In 1844 Tischendorf, while a scholar at the University of Leipzig, embarked on a search for biblical manuscripts. His journey took him to the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. During his stay, he noticed a stack of parchment ready for use as kindling in the monastery's oven. After leafing through these discarded leaves of parchment, Tischendorf realized that the monks were about to burn a rare Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Although he could not convince the monks to give him the manuscript, before returning home he was able to convince them that they should find other materials with which to stoke their fires.

Tischendorf returned to the monastery in 1853 in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the surviving portions of the manuscript he had saved from the fire nearly ten years before. But it was not until 1859, when Tischendorf returned for a third visit, this time under the patronage of Czar Alexander II of Russia, that Tischendorf's efforts began to meet with success.

This time the monks granted him permission to examine a large manuscript they kept hidden in a closet. To Tischendorf's amazement and delight, this early fourth-century manuscript, which was in excellent condition, contained not just most of the Old Testament but also all of the New Testament, plus two additional early Christian writings. One of these, the Shepherd of Hermas, had only been known to scholars by its title.

Even with the patronage of the Czar of Russia, however, the monks were still only willing to allow Tischendorf to make a handwritten copy of the manuscript. It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that a photographic facsimile of the entire manuscript was finally published.

Nevertheless, the years of discovery and negotiation were worth the effort. Today this manuscript, known as codex Sinaiticus, is one of the key textual witnesses on which the current standardized version of the New Testament is based.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Although the recovery of early manuscripts of New Testament writings is clearly important, we would be severely limited in our understanding of these texts if we knew nothing of the religious climate out of which they had sprung. Prior to the 1940s, scholars had to construct that religious world primarily on the basis of the biblical books themselves, supplemented by a variety of anonymous Jewish works, frequently written under biblical pseudonyms, and, in the main, composed several centuries before Christ.

But because of a chance discovery in 1947, our knowledge of the Jewish world in which Christianity began has increased dramatically. The important discovery was made by a local shepherd, who was looking for a lost goat among the rocky cliffs rising above the western shores of the Dead Sea, a few miles south of modern Jericho.

As the young man rested beneath the shade of a hollow in the rock, he threw small stones at the cliff face before him. One of the stones made a sharp noise as it hit a piece of pottery. The man crawled through the rocks to see what the stone had hit, and his search revealed a stack of potsherds, hidden within a cave. The next day, returning to the cave with his cousin, he found among the potsherds six large jars still in tact. One of these jars contained three scrolls of leather parchment, wrapped in linen. When word of this find spread among the man's Bedouin neighbors, others searched and found more scrolls in the caves nearby.

Although these initial finds quickly made their way into the hands of private art dealers and had later to be recovered, the major task of systematic excavation of the caves was begun shortly thereafter. The project was a truly international effort, headed by Jordan's Department of Antiquities and the French École Biblique in Arab West Jerusalem, with the occasional support of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. The result of this joint effort was the recovery of some five hundred scrolls hidden in eleven caves above Wadi Qumran.

Some of the scrolls were found in good condition and were edited and published quickly. But unfortunately this was not the case for many of them. In cave four, for example, of the five hundred scrolls once stashed there for safekeeping, all that remained was a very large pile of literary scraps. Before the contents of any of these scrolls could be published, scholars faced the daunting task of piecing together a gigantic but very fragile jigsaw puzzle. The work is continuing even today, but because of the incredible difficulty of this task, many of the manuscripts being pieced together still remain unpublished.

Nevertheless, enough is now known regarding the total collection called the Dead Sea Scrolls that their contents can be divided into three basic categories. First, there are biblical texts. The recovery of copies of the Bible (Old Testament) was a tremendous find, because prior to this discovery, the oldest surviving copy of the Bible in Hebrew was dated only to the tenth century. The biblical manuscripts from Qumran are a thousand years older.

A second group of writings found in the Qumran caves was an assortment of Jewish authors, either writing anonymously or writing under the pseudonym of legendary biblical characters like Enoch and Noah. Although most of these works were already known to us from other sources, their discovery at Qumran suggests that such works were more widely circulated than scholars had previously assumed.

The third and perhaps most interesting group of writings are those that pertain to the Qumran community itself. When these writings are combined with what archaeologists have also learned by excavating the site nearby where the community actually lived, an interesting story emerges.

The story begins about mid-way through the second century BCE. The Maccabean Revolt (168-164 BCE) had recently ended in a miraculous victory for traditional Jewish religious values. But once in power, the Maccabean leaders themselves had succumbed to the corrupting influence of Greek culture. To make matters worse, in the minds of some Jews, even the Temple cult was being corrupted, and the divinely ordained selection process of its high priesthood was being violated for the sake of crass issues of power politics.

As nearly as scholars can tell, it was this situation that prompted a small group of conservative priests and laymen (women played almost no part in this community) to leave Jerusalem and what they considered to be its corrupt environment. After an extended period of wandering, they eventually established a small community near the Dead Sea. Early documents refer to the community's founder as a priest, known as the Teacher of Righteousness. Judging from the excavated remains, the community occupied this site more or less continuously for about two hundred years, until they finally succumbed to the Romans in 70 CE.

Needless to say, the Dead Sea Scrolls are enormously important to historians of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Based on its own writings, it is evident that the community saw itself as the true Israel of God, and it swore lasting enmity to all those who allied themselves with the current Jerusalem religious establishment. Purity of heart, blamelessness of conduct, and scrupulous obedience to the Law, these were the high moral standards by which they sought to make themselves worthy of the salvation that they assumed would be exclusively theirs.

In contrast to these exhortations to pious conduct, however, their writings are also characterized by exhortations to "hate" their enemies. And in the strongly sectarian mentality of the Qumran faithful, these enemies included other Jews, presumably all those who supported Jerusalem's Temple and its present priesthood.

In addition to providing a comparative historical context for some of the harsh rhetoric in the New Testament gospels regarding the Jerusalem Temple and the city's religious authorities, the documents of Qumran also illustrate the diversity within the Judaism of this period. As Hershel Shanks wrote in 1990:

We find not only a dedication to law but to messianism, apocalypticism, the end of days, mysticism, a whole range of beliefs. . . . The picture that is emerging is that after the destruction of 70 CE by the Romans, both rabbinic Judaism and messianic Christianity emerged with their roots in different pre-70 strains of Judaism. In that sense, they are sister religions.

Nag Hammadi Library

If the spectacular discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls enabled historians to completely rethink the religious context out of which the earliest Christian traditions emerged, these same historians were doubly enriched when the Nag Hammadi collection finally came to light. And although the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal a surprising variety in early Jewish piety, the Nag Hammadi writings illustrate an even greater diversity in the religious speculation and communal piety of early Christian groups.

As was the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery of the literary treasures of Nag Hammadi was largely accidental. Several hundred miles south of Cairo, where the Nile River bends sharply east, beyond the ancient monastery of Pachomius at Chenoboskion, a group of local farmers were digging up the rich soil surrounding the river bed to use as fertilizer for their crops. One of these farmers, Mohammed Ali, happened upon a large storage jar. Hoping that it might contain gold or an equally precious coin hoard, he broke open the jar. Out tumbled twelve large, leather-bound codices. The year was 1945, two years before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Mohammed gave one of the books to his brother-in-law Raghib, who eventually sold it to a Cairo museum. Of the remaining eleven books, one was partially burned by Mohammed's wife, and the rest fell into the hands of local merchants. It took over thirty years for the Nag Hammadi codices to be recovered, collected, and edited for the public. They were finally published in English translation in 1978, thanks to the tireless efforts of James M. Robinson of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California.

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the history of the group who gathered together this particular collection of writings. We know only what we have been able to learn from the writings themselves. The twelve original codices each contained a number of shorter compositions or tractates, fifty-two in all. They are Coptic copies of writings that were originally composed in Greek. (Coptic is a version of the ancient Egyptian language adapted to the Greek alphabet that was in use in Egypt during the early Christian period.) These writings cover a wide variety of subjects, and they seem to have been composed originally by a number of different authors, at different times, and in a variety of locations.

The collection, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, is of great importance for the understanding of the development of early Christian communities because it presents the social and religious perspectives of groups of Christians who did not prevail in the battles that eventually resulted in the formation of a single, unified church. Their differences with more orthodox Christians covered a wide range of issues, including whether Jesus' death on the cross was either real or relevant, and whether women were among Jesus' true disciples and, therefore, had the authority to teach and to baptize.

Before the emergence of the Nag Hammadi texts, the views expressed in such early Christian writings as the Gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon (secret teaching) of John, and the Dialogue of the Savior were known only from the distorted descriptions found in the writings of their opponents. Since these opponents were famous church leaders such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, it is not surprising that their writings were not preserved by the church. Because of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, modern Christians have a much more complete picture of their spiritual family tree.

The common thread that unites the disparate writings of the Nag Hammadi collection is an emphasis on secret, saving knowledge (gnosis), as well as an other worldly estrangement from human society in general and a desire to withdraw from the corruption of the material world. James Robinson likens the spirit of these writings to the counter-culture movements begun in the 1960s:

disinterest in the goods of a consumer society, withdrawal into communes of the like-minded. . . sharing an in-group's knowledge, both of the disaster-course of the [mainstream] culture and of an ideal, radical alternative. . . .This is the real challenge rooted in such materials as the Nag Hammadi library.

Other Messages Carved in Marble, Painted on Rock, or Forged in Metal

In antiquity, inscriptions carved in marble or stone were the most effective means that government documents could be publicized to a wide public audience. In fact, inscriptions served as the recording device for nearly every phase of civic life. Anything and everything from imperial decrees, to the recording of holders of local public office, to the public recognition of generous civic benefactors, to the honoring of athletes was made known through the display of professionally carved inscriptions in prominent public places.

Because of the virtually indestructible nature of inscriptions, many of them have survived the intervening centuries. Already by the late nineteenth century many of these inscriptions had been found and recorded by scholars and interested travelers, particularly those journeying through modern Greece, Turkey, and Syria. Either directly or indirectly, many of these inscriptions have shed new light on our understanding of the world in which the New Testament was written, and they have sometimes helped to answer questions posed by the writings themselves.

Gallio Inscription

In 1905, a doctoral student in Paris was sorting through a mass of inscriptions that had been recorded and collected from the Greek city of Delphi. He happened to notice that four separate fragments, if joined together, formed the nucleus of an imperial letter. The letter turned out to be a rescript from the emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) to a man by the name of Gallio, the proconsul of the province of Achaea in south central Greece. Since this inscription fixes Gallio's tenure in office to the year 52, and since the Book of Acts mentions the proconsul by name in connection with Paul's stay in Corinth, many New Testament scholars now use this inscription to date an important phase of Paul's missionary journey.

The Existence of Godfearers

But inscriptions need not refer to actual incidents in the New Testament in order to provide valuable information for historians of the New Testament world. In fact, inscriptions that shed light on unfamiliar terms or social structures mentioned only in passing by New Testament writers can be of far more value to the historian.

For example, in speaking of Paul's missionary visits to local synagogues in the provincial cities, Acts repeatedly implies the existence of a group of pious gentiles who regularly attended the synagogue services and were known as "Godfearers" (Acts 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). Until fairly recently, these references had remained something of a puzzle, because even though the term "Godfearer" had appeared in a number of inscriptions referring to a particular individual, there was no firm evidence of groups of "Godfearers."

All that changed dramatically with a chance discovery in 1976. When a team of archaeologists from New York University was excavating an outlying area of the ancient city of Aphrodisias in south central Turkey, they uncovered two very interesting Jewish donor inscriptions. One of these inscriptions, dated to the early third century, lists a group of donors, all with Jewish names, to which was added the phrase, "and all those who are Godfearers." Following this phrase is another long list of donors, all of whom have gentile names.

Unfortunately, the top of the inscription is broken off, so that we do not know exactly for what sort of benefaction these people were being honored. Nevertheless, scholars now have evidence that large numbers of gentiles were strongly attracted to and did participate in the worship and community life of the synagogues, even though they did not fully convert to Judaism. Furthermore, Acts is probably correct in suggesting that such groups might have been especially receptive to the message brought by early Christian missionaries.

Imperial Art: The Medium and the Message

Not all of the relevant information of the ancient world was recorded in inscriptions. In fact, because the literacy rate was so low, visual imagery was a much more effective means of popular communication. One important example of Roman imperial art specifically created for conveying political messages to the citizens of Rome and the inhabitants of the empire was the erection and decoration of massive triumphal arches. These arches were erected at government expense at various locations throughout the empire, but especially in Rome itself.

Still standing today in the city of Rome is the magnificently carved marble arch that was erected to commemorate the emperor Titus's victory over the Jews in 70 CE. The monument, which was completed shortly after Titus's death in 81, illustrates and celebrates the victory of Rome over Jerusalem, and, by implication, the favor bestowed on the Roman leader by the goddess Victoria.

In Book 7 of the Jewish War , the Jewish historian Josephus describes in great detail the enormous victory parade held in Rome immediately after the war. A close comparison of the scenes carved on the arch and Josephus's literary description reveals that a significant part of the relief decoration carved on the arch of Titus is a visual narration of that victory parade. For example, one panel features part of a procession in which spoils from the Jerusalem Temple are conveyed on a float. The objects displayed are cult objects, such as the shewbread table. Also carved in intricate detail is a magnificent reproduction of a seven-armed candelabrum or menorah.

As one would perhaps expect, other panels focus on Titus himself. One scene depicts his role in the triumphal procession. He is pictured in a magnificently decorated chariot, drawn by four horses. Above his head the goddess Victoria herself holds a golden crown. But the scene that is accorded the greatest prominence records an event that took place eleven years later. The dead emperor is portrayed as being carried off to heaven on the wings of an eagle. Viewed as a unified visual message, therefore, the arch celebrates Titus as the hero of the Jewish war, who eventually becomes a god because of his extraordinary service in maintaining the peace of the empire.

The fortunate survival of the arch of Titus adds an important dimension to our understanding of the outcome of the Jewish war and what it meant to the various participants. The event that was seen by Palestinian Jews as an unbelievable tragedy, and by some early Christians as God's judgment against a sinful people, was viewed by many pagans as further proof of Rome's divine mandate to rule the world on behalf of the gods.

Generally speaking, Roman emperors had extensive funds by which they could promote the political and religious messages of their reigns through monumental art. But they also had the rather simple but extremely effective medium of imperial coinage. By this means, they could reach as great a proportion of people in their everyday lives as can be reached today through the modern medium of television advertising.

"Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," says Jesus as reported in the gospels (Mark 12:17; Matt 22:21; Luke 20:25). These words are prompted when one of the Pharisees produces a coin with a depiction of the emperor's head on one of its faces. The point of Jesus' remark is that no matter how powerful the emperor may be in the political realm, his influence does not extend to the spiritual realm.

In this and other narrative scenes, the New Testament gospels reflect a keen awareness that the message of the good news regarding Jesus must compete in a world where other, very different messages easily circulate through every level of daily life. Imperial coins not only portrayed the emperor's face but quite often they advertised his accomplishments. Two of the most common messages that Roman coins emphasized regarding the emperors were their accomplishments in battle that maintained the peace of the empire and their generous benefactions that enhanced the material well being of its subjects.

Popular Religious Art: Loyalties Etched in Stone

Another way in which material remains can increase our understanding of the world in which the early Christian message was spread is by giving voice to other messages of hope and salvation that seem to have held appeal to the ordinary inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world. The situation in the provincial city of Philippi is a case in point.

According to the Book of Acts, Paul began his major missionary journey in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). Furthermore, we have his letter to the Philippians in which he indicates a special affection for the Christian community there. Yet, if we had to depend only on the details of these and later Christian writings, we would know very little about what aspects of the Christian message may have appealed most to the pious pagans of this small agricultural city. But thanks to the survival of some rather unusual material evidence, we do know something about the piety of ordinary people in this particular part of the world, at this particular time.

Located in northeastern Greece, Philippi was a Roman colony nestled along the Via Egnatia, the principal highway leading from Rome to the Aegean coast. Even today, visitors to the site can see the remains of its forum, with its once-splendid fountains, its well-appointed library and civic offices, and its monumental temples honoring the patron goddess of the city and the imperial family.

Beyond the forum to the south was a thriving commercial center and beyond that, the fertile fields of the Datos plain. But on the northern side of the great Roman highway looms a steep outcropping of rocks that leads to the higher elevations of the Pangaion Mountain. Scattered over this lonely stretch of rock is an incredibly rich profusion of rather crudely carved religious representations, graphic and poignant witness to the simple piety of ordinary people.

These rock carvings are the products of local artists of minimal skill, doubtless commissioned by people with limited financial resources. The majority of them seem to have been commissioned as an act of piety and gratitude for some gift of protection, healing, or rescue that the god or goddess is credited with having performed on the suppliant's behalf.

To date one hundred and eighty-seven reliefs have been identified, forming a kind of extended open-air sanctuary. The goddess Diana (the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Artemis), in her role as huntress is featured most prominently. In fact, there are over ninety separate representations of her in various hunting poses. This is perhaps not surprising in an area so predominantly rural in character. This evidence of popular concern for the risks and rewards of the hunter is further emphasized by the presence among these same rocks of a roughly carved sanctuary to Sylvanus, a Roman god of the woodlands.

Although these deities of the woods and the hunt predominate the rocky landscape above the city of Philippi, a variety of other deities are also represented, including the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele and the Egyptian goddess Isis. Although Egyptian in origin, Isis became extremely popular in the Roman empire as a compassionate goddess who could heal, protect, and possibly grant her worshippers a better life in the next world.

Higher up the mountain, Isis had her own temple and small sanctuary complex. But she is also honored among the rock carvings. In one of the few inscriptions accompanying a relief, Isis is honored as the Queen of Heaven, a frequently repeated title for this goddess. Other votive offerings found nearby attest to her mercy and her healing powers.

What all of these deities who are honored in this desolate rocky outcropping have in common is that they extend concern and protection to ordinary people and to the occupations and preoccupations of their everyday lives. Paul appears to have understood this need of ordinary Philippians. And in his letter, he sought to address their longings by encouraging prayer and redirecting their supplications to the one God of Christian faith: "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God" (Phil 4:6).

Scenes from the Catacombs: Early Christian Popular Art

The extensive and almost continuous exploration of early Christian catacombs has revealed a rich, albeit largely hidden world of early Christian art and imagery. As Margaret Miles wisely remarked, one must go to the catacombs for detailed information about the images that early Christians associated with their faith.

Although for some Christians they have been the object of religious pilgrimage since their very creation, it was not until the fifteenth century that scholars began visiting the Roman catacombs in the spirit of historical investigation. In 1475 the founder of the Roman Academy writes of discovering walls covered with paintings of biblical scenes on a visit to the San Callisto catacomb, located on the Appian Way. In the late sixteenth century, excavation of an area on the northern outskirts of the city led to another major underground grave site. Before the end of that century, the first of several Jewish catacombs had also been discovered in Rome. And the discovery of more catacombs has continued almost to the present time.

How did the popular piety of the Christians of the third and fourth centuries express itself in the wall paintings surrounding these Christian graves? First, human figures, generally representations of the deceased, are depicted in a highly stylized manner. Typically, they stand with arms raised and large eyes also raised upward in a stereotypical attitude of early Christian prayer. In addition to these pious depictions of the deceased, early Christian tombs are also frequently decorated with religious symbols such as crosses and fish.

A third subject typically portrayed in early Christian tomb art are a rich variety of scenes from biblical stories. Here a certain progression or development can be seen in the type of biblical subjects depicted in fourth-century art as compared with the subjects most often portrayed at third-century grave sites.

In the third century, the biblical scenes are invariably taken from the stories of the Old Testament. Probably because of the persecutions that began in the middle of the third century and in which a number of Christians died, the artists of the third century especially favor stories of divine deliverance, such as Lot's escape from Sodom, Samson's slaying of the lion, and the many inspiring stories featuring Moses.

Why the apparent reticence of third-century Christian artists regarding specifically New Testament themes? Some interpreters have suggested that it was because even in the third century New Testament writings had not achieved the full status of scripture, and the collected books of the Greek version of the Old Testament still remained the official Bible of the Christian churches. Others suggest a more practical answer: third-century Christians may have feared the desecration of the graves of their loved ones, if they should be marked as Christian in so conspicuous a manner.

Whatever the reason, with the arrival of the Peace of the Church in the early fourth century, catacomb art became enriched by the addition of a number of specifically Christian biblical scenes, including illustrations of the healing miracles narrated in the gospels and depictions of the Last Supper.

But by far the most commonly portrayed subject was Christ himself in the role of the Good Shepherd. And this phenomenon provides dramatic evidence that in the popular mind Christ had come to assume the role of divine protector, nurturer, and savior--just as the pagan predecessors of these fourth-century Christians had worshipped such protecting, healing, and saving deities as Herakles, Asclepius, Artemis, Mithras, and especially Isis. In the end, the virtues of the many had been found to reside in the One.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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