Archaeology And The Early Christian Church

Some definition of the period under study in this article is necessary because of the vast field. The Christian Church was born at Pentecost in the days of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26-36). The upper limit of the term “early” is presumably at the start of the medieval period. Discussion here is limited, therefore, to the period between the beginning of the second century and the first half of the seventh century. The archaeological evidence from the first century is normally covered by the archaeology of the NT. In Palestine the year 638 marks the time that Jerusalem fell to the Muslims. The Muslim conquest of the Middle East marked the end of an age, although in the West no such transition is recognized. In the interests of brevity this article shall examine the period c.100-650—i.e., to the later Roman and earlier Byzantine periods.

In the early decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church spread rapidly and by the early second century had taken root in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and even further to the west. During the centuries that followed, significant structures of many varieties were erected throughout these areas—churches, chapels, monasteries. There were also tombs, catacombs, and various memorial structures. The churches contained a vast range of items of furniture used in their services: floor mosaics, painted frescoes, jeweled crosses, manuscripts, etc.

An important aid in the interpretation of the archaeological finds is the writings that have come down to us from these early centuries—church histories like that of Eusebius* (c.265-c.339), accounts of pilgrims like that of the Bordeaux Pilgrim* (c.333), important geographical mosaics like the one from Madaba in Transjordan from the second half of the sixth century, and a wide variety of inscriptions.

We commence with a brief review of the churches of Palestine up to the seventh century. Approximately two hundred of these remain for study although some are in very fragmentary form. The earliest churches were in houses and have disappeared. During the second and third centuries in both East and West, the church adopted the basilica* type of structure for worship. This was an oblong building with interior colonnades. The advent of Constantine the Great as emperor of Rome (312-37) brought a tremendous impetus to church building everywhere in the Roman world. In Palestine there is little evidence of pre-Constantine structures. Constantine remains have now been identified in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Sacred edifices of the post-Constantine period are known both from excavation and from literary sources. Excavation and archaeological survey show that there were three main types of church—the basilica with one, three, or five naves; the circular or octagonal church; and the mixed type which combined these two into a cruciform church.

In Palestine the majority of the larger churches which were built from the fourth to the seventh centuries were basilicas with a nave and two aisles. At the end of the nave stood an apse, and at the end of the aisles a small chamber or an apse. The original Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem had three aisles and a single apse. The later church built by Justinian (527-65) had five aisles and a central apse in the east wall and an apse in each of the north and south walls. Other early Palestinian churches are St. Lazarus at Bethany, the Church of the Probatic Pool in Jerusalem, the Church of the Finding of the Head of John the Baptist at Sebaste (Samaria), and the Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee—all fifth-century churches.

Some basilicas had one protruding external apse. This was common in the West but not in Palestine. In some cases the apse was polygonal. Side apses took the place of side chambers in many churches. In a few churches the apses were arranged in a trefoil as at Bethlehem and in the Church of St. Theodosius near Jerusalem.

A few churches with a central plan, circular, octagonal, or trefoil, are known. The oldest is from the end of the fourth century—the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. The old cathedral of Beisan and the church on Mt. Gerizim (fifth century) are examples. The cruciform plan is rare. Probably there was one such church at Shechem and another at the Tomb of the Virgin in Jerusalem.

Both the contemporary literature and modern excavations provide evidence of a flourishing church in Transjordan in the early Christian centuries. The most important center is Jerash. In the days of Justinian no fewer than seven churches were built, but thirteen are known in the area, mostly closely dated. The cathedral (c.350-75) is pre-Justinian and, probably the earliest; it was a three-aisled basilica with an enclosed apse. The Church of St. Theodore built between 474 and 476 is nearby, and just to the west are three churches side by side. The central one of St. John the Baptist is circular; the two others, that of St. George and that of SS. Cosmas and Damianus, are basilicas, all built between 529 and 533. All these churches are rich in mosaic floors. Several other fine churches existed in Jerash.

Further south at Ras Siyagh on Mt. Nebo stood the fine fifth- century church and adjacent monastery. Other churches including traces of a fourth-century structure have been found in the same area. At Madaba stood the Church of Theotokos going back to the sixth century. The floor of another sixth-century church yielded the famous Madaba map which, though partly destroyed, has preserved valuable geographical information about Palestine and an excellent map of Jerusalem. At Petra there were Christian churches. One tomb has an inscription referring to its conversion into a church in the fifth century. At Umm al-Jimal, northeast of Amman, numerous Christian churches go back to the Byzantine period. The cathedral dates to 557. There are at least nine other churches in the city. Syria too had its quota of ancient churches. According to Eusebius, a magnificent church was built in Antioch. This has disappeared, but two other fine churches are known in the same area. In the village of Kaoussie the Church of St. Babylas was built in 387, according to information preserved in the floor mosaics. Then at Seleucia, the port of Antioch, may be seen the ruins of the Martyrion, a quatrefoil-shaped church with an ambulatory adorned with rich mosaics and a chancel projecting east. It was built originally in the late fifth century.

In the interior of Syria many early churches were lost and rediscovered a century ago. The greatest was Qalat Siman, the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, northeast of Antioch, built at the end of the fifth century. In southern Syria at Bosra (Bostra), once the seat of an archbishop, there stood an impressive cathedral, circular in shape, enclosed in a square with circular apses at the corners and a chancel and apse. There are other old churches in the region. The house church of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates is of particular interest. A room in a private house was transformed into a church in the early third century. Later a wall was removed to include a second room. A baptistery stood in the northwest corner of the house. Wall paintings and graffiti identify the building as a church. Further east at Edessa and Nisibis and also in Persia there are the remains of numerous churches in use long before the Muslim conquest. Anatolia was opened to the Christian gospel following Paul’s work. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 there was a network of bishoprics all over the area. Significant archaeological work has been done this century. Constantinople,* the former Byzantium, was named by Constantine as his new capital in 330. He adorned the city with many structures, among them houses of prayer and memorials to martyrs. At least two churches were founded by him, the Church of the Apostles, which has now disappeared, and the Church of St. Eirene, formerly a Christian sanctuary but considerably enlarged. The original church was damaged by fire in 532, restored, and again damaged by earthquake in 740. Some elements of these older churches remain. Another famous church, Hagia Sophia, has likewise suffered through the ages. It became a mosque but is today a museum of Byzantine art. Ancient mosaics have been excavated.

The city of Rome is of very great importance in the field of Christian archaeology. Here Constantine built the most famous basilicas of the fourth century, chief among them being the Church of St. Peter. Due to many changes over the centuries little remains of the original basilica, but there are traces, and its outlines are clear. The whole area of St. Peter’s has been subject to intense archaeological investigation. The question of Peter’s tomb has been raised many times. The site was formerly a pagan cemetery but later used by Christians also. Constantine built churches at places associated with strong Christian traditions. A tradition about Peter’s burial here must have existed when Constantine built the basilica.

The Liber Pontificalis, a series of biographies of the popes from the seventh century, refers to many churches in Rome, among them the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls, originally built by Constantine. Little of Constantine’s church remains, yet there is a vast task for the archaeologist to unravel the many reconstructions in this church. Numerous other churches in Rome have a long history of destruction, extension, and reconstruction. All of them are of interest to the archaeologist.

Space does not permit discussion of other churches in Greece, Italy, France, Britain, Spain, Egypt, North Africa—all of which have many Christian remains from the early Christian centuries.

Brief mention must now be made of several other aspects of the archaeology of the early Christian Church—mosaics, church furniture and utensils, tombs, catacombs, inscriptions, papyri, Christian symbols, and art.

Following secular practice, the Christian Church in every land made great use of mosaics in the floors of its churches, courtyards, and other structures, Palestinian towns and villages during these centuries paved their churches with mosaics, generally with geometrical designs but sometimes with beautiful compositions of plants, animals, and human figures. Important centers for this craft lay in the regions of Nebo, Jerash, Bethlehem, Et Tabgha, Beit Jibrin, ’Amwas. Sometimes inscriptions woven into the mosaic work preserve valuable geographical and historical information.

The recovery of church furnishings including altars, reliquaries, ciboria, basins, crosses, chalices, pattens, candlesticks, thuribles, and lamps is a feature of early Christian archaeology.

The tombs and catacombs of the early Christian Church have contributed greatly to our understanding of the burial practices and the art of the early church. The best known of the Christian catacombs are in Rome. The four oldest are those of Lucina, Callistus, Domitilla, and Priscilla. In 1867 it was estimated that Christian catacombs covered a surface area of 615 acres. The total length of the corridors was 500 miles. Today thirty-five or more Christian catacombs are known around Rome alone. One section of the catacomb of Praetextatus goes back to the second century. Other sections belong to the third and fourth centuries. In the catacomb of Sebastian, among numerous graffiti scratched on the walls in Greek and Latin are more than a hundred short prayers addressed to Peter and Paul. Apart from the catacombs, hundreds of Christian sarcophagi, ossuaries, and burial chambers have been excavated. Many bear inscriptions or graffiti and display a distinctive Christian art.

Not the least exciting of the discoveries from the early Christian centuries are important biblical manuscripts. A fragment of John’s gospel found in Egypt and dated to the first half of the second century attests the presence of Christians there at an early date. The Chester Beatty Papyri* dating from the second to the fourth century, also from Egypt, contain parts of nine OT and fifteen NT books. The Bodmer Papyri from about the second century include the gospels of Luke and John and some of the NT epistles, parts of Genesis, and some apocryphal works.

Finally, in the area of art and Christian symbols there is a wealth of detail to be obtained from church architecture and ornamentation, floor mosaics, frescoes, catacomb and church paintings, church statuary, sarcophagi, and ossuaries.

Clearly the contribution of archaeology to our understanding of the early Christian Church is enormous and demands the attention of specialists for every land and for each significant area of the subject.

See also articles on Architecture and Art.

Bibliography: A.L. Frothingham, The Monuments of Christian Rome (1908); A. Van Millingen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople (1912); H.C. Butler (ed.), Publications of the Princeton Archaeological Expeditions to Syria in 1904-5 and 1909: Architecture, A. Southern Syria (1919), B. Northern Syria (1920); A. Obadiah, Corpus of the Byzantine Churches in the Holy Land (1920); H.C. Butler in Early Churches in Syria, Fourth to Seventh Centuries (ed. E. Baldwin Smith, 1929); C. Hopkins, “The Christian Church,” in The Excavations at Dura-Europos (ed. M.I. Rostovtzeff-preliminary report of 1931-32 season of work); W. Harvey, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Structural Survey, Final Report (1935); W.A. Campbell, “The Martyrion,” in Antioch-on-the-Orontes, III: The Excavations 1937-1939, pp. 35-54; A.M. Schneider, The Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes (ET 1937); J.W. Crowfoot, Churches at Bosra and Samaria-Sebaste (1937); idem, “The Christian Churches,” in Gerasa, City of the Decapolis (ed. C.H. Kraeling, 1938); J. Lassus, “L’Église Cruciforme,” in Antioch-on-the-Orontes, II: The Excavations 1933-1936 (ed. R. Stilwell, 1938), pp. 5-44; J.W. Crowfoot, Early Churches in Palestine (1941); C.R. Morey, Early Christian Art (1942); J. Lassus, Sanctuaires Chrétiens de Syrie (1947); R.T. O’Callaghan, “Recent Excavations underneath the Vatican Crypts,” The Biblical Archaeologist, XII, No. 1 (Feb. 1949), pp. 1-23; J.G. Davies, The Origin and Development of Early Christian Church Architecture (1952); R.T. O’Callaghan, “Vatican Excavations and the Tomb of St. Peter,” The Biblical Archaeologist, XVI, No. 4 (Dec. 1953), pp. 70-87; M. Avi-Yonah, The Madaba Mosaic Map with Introduction and Commentary (1954); J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (2nd ed., 1959); G.L. Harding, The Antiquities of Jordan (1959); F.V. Filson, “The Bodmer Papyrus,” The Biblical Archaeologist, XXII, No. 2 (May 1959), pp. 48-51; idem, “More Bodmer Papyri,” The Biblical Archaeologist, XXV, No. 2 (May 1962), pp. 50-57; E. Kitzinger, Israeli Mosaics in the Byzantine Period (1965); E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, XXX (1968)—see index for references to Christian symbolism; J. Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament, The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church (1969); B. Bagatti, The Church from the Gentiles in Palestine, History and Archaeology (1971).