Christian Inscriptions

Understanding of the NT and early church has been revolutionized by the many written documents recovered from the past. The term “inscription” may be used in several senses: to describe any written document, including those written upon stone, clay, papyrus, or other material; to include all inscribed artifacts, except the parchment and papyri; or, more commonly, to refer to the larger monuments only. The excessively large number of artifacts makes study very complicated—e.g., more than 11,000 Christian inscriptions earlier than the seventh century have been found in Rome alone. Archaeologists usually limit the texts of significant value to the first seven centuries of the Christian era.

An inscription is said to be “Christian” if it bears evidence of the Christian faith. Many inscriptions were no doubt the work of the Christian community, yet bear no specific reference to the faith. Some Christian inscriptions are composed with correctness and some even with elegance, both in form and content; others, however, are written in barbarous style. Christian inscriptions often give few, if any, personal details: epitaphs, for example, usually give only name, age, and date of death. On the other hand, the total number of Christian inscriptions gives valid evidence about the nature and essence of a community of believers, and helps in an analysis of the expansion of the Christian faith. Occasionally an inscription has been found which records the building of a specific church or perhaps the death of an early Christian martyr. More rarely, archaeologists have unearthed inscriptions which relate to doctrine, but these are generally of little value when compared with the many more or less fully preserved literary sources.

Second-century inscriptions are fairly common, especially in the famous Roman catacombs. By the middle fourth century inscriptions were common in Rome, North Africa, and Asia Minor, although some of these are from heretical groups such as the Montanists or the Donatists. Most of these inscriptions are in either Latin or Greek, and most are original, although the texts of others survive only in copies. Dating the inscriptions is complicated, since many of the dates which the original inscriptions bear refer to consular years. Often the archaeologist must infer the date of the inscription from either the site where it was found, or from some kind of internal evidence such as content or style of writing.

See A. Parrot, Le Musée du Louvre et la Bible (1957), pp. 142-44; D.J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology (1958).