The Archaeology of Early Christianity

Yesterday it was the mid-century modern in Grand Forks and today it’s Early Christianity in a colleague’s Bible as Literature class at the University of North Dakota. The class will mostly be a free flowing discussion so there isn’t very much for me to do in terms of preparation, but I also thought that I might introduce some of the basic contours of Early Christian archaeology and situate my own place within the discipline. As per usual, I find it easier to at least work out some ideas here on the ole blog before staring at a Zoom full of students, but I probably won’t read this or even rely too much on notes for the class today.

I think I’d like to try to make a few quick points in my introduction. To start, I’d like to establish that my background is primary as an archaeologist and historian of Late Antique Greece and Cyprus. This situates my work chronologically later than scholars interested in, say, the archaeology of the Christian Bible and also geographically in the Greek East and on the margins of the Levant or Near East. I’ll note that my area of specialty is Early Christian architecture and the role that it played in establishing the authority of the ecclesiastical elite in Greece and Cyprus as well as introducing new forms of public space, ritual, and social organization.

That said, I’ll emphasize that Early Christian archaeology has its roots in a number of long term situations. First and foremost, the archaeology of Early Christianity emerged in lockstep with the development of archaeology as a discipline. This means that the archaeological claims to truth (anchored in disciplinary practices and, increasingly, methodology) allowed it to make arguments independent from those anchored in text. This meant that from the late 19th century on, archaeology represented a way to assess the veracity and, consequently the authority (variously construed) of the Biblical narrative, which as most people know was central to negotiating the political and religious position of Christianity in an increasingly modern world.

(This narrative means setting aside the earliest roots of Christian archaeology in the Renaissance (or even earlier!) and focusing on its development in the 19th century.) 

The emergence of Biblical Archaeology especially in the UK and the US (via institutions like the Palestine Exploration Fund (1865) and the Society of Biblical Archaeology (1870)) reflected the growing interest among Protestant academics and clergy in archaeology as a way to assess and expand the textual accounts offered by the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In many cases, archaeological work expanded the context for a new generation of Biblical critics (for example, Adolf von Harnack or the members of the Tübingen School) who sought to establish the historicity of the Christian Bible as the basis for a purified Protestantism grounded in claims to authentic Early Christian practice. This paralleled the more mundane, but nevertheless significant interest among middle-class tourists to walk in the footstep of St. Paul or Jesus through trips to the Eastern Mediterranean.

At the same time and in a similar spirit, Classical archaeology was developing as a discrete field with an interest, at least at first, in establishing the authority of Classical texts, and, over time, providing the Classical Greek and Roman worlds with a more thorough historical and material context. Coupled to well-established Enlightenment-era predilection toward the putative rationality of the Greeks and Romans, Classical archaeology sought to expand our understanding and knowledge of antiquity and claim its intellectual and cultural capital for the secular West. Archaeological work at sites such as Corinth (as well as Ephesus as two examples) offered the possibility to combine the interest in significant Greco-Roman cities with the parallel interest in the archaeology of Early Christian communities understood through Biblical texts.

Over the past seventy years, the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean has increasingly distanced itself from its earlier preoccupation with texts. This means that it has developed distinct research questions, debates, methods, and knowledge. That said, there remains plenty of overlap between the kind of knowledge that we produce as archaeologists and the interests among scholars of Biblical texts. For example, the last fifty years has seen a sustained interest in the archaeology of the countryside and this has contributed to how we understand the “urban” character of the first Christians by suggesting that our conventional division between urban and rural life might be an unsatisfactory to describe ancient settlement structure. As a result, the absence of rural evidence for Christianity might not reflect evidence for their absence in the countryside as individuals may have moved freely between a range of urban, rural, and sub/ex-urban environments with ritual, religious, and social life across a range of contexts. 

The final major pillar, alongside Biblical and Classical archaeology, that supports the study of Early Christianity is national and colonial archaeology. From its origins in the 19th century, Early Christian archaeology sought to reinforce the Christian foundations of modern nation-states. In Greece, for example, this manifest in an interest in using Early Christian architecture to establish both the antiquity of the church in Greece, but also the distinctive character (and influence) of Greek liturgical practices. On Cyprus, understanding the origins of Christianity on the island reinforce the episcopal claims to its unique autocephalous status (which in turn supports contemporary claims to political sovereignty). The use of Biblical archaeology in Israel to establish territorial and political claims is too well known to require summary here, but the archaeology of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sites remains a key element in the development of historical, religious, and political landscapes.      

It goes without saying that the archaeology of Early Christianity remains aware of its entanglement both with national claims and the legacy of European colonialism in the Eastern Mediterranean. The close tie between Protestant interests in Biblical archaeology and the political influence of European states throughout the Near East is hardly coincidental. The willingness of individuals and museums to acquire looted antiquities (especially from places wracked by war and poverty), for example, and claims that they represented a shared or global patrimony often serve to mask long-standing colonial attitudes that European and American institutions have ever bit as much claim to archaeological artifacts and the cultural sovereignty of a Eastern Mediterranean state as local communities or national governments. While incisive critiques and recent scandals at the Museum of the Bible have drawn attention to this deeply problematic aspect of Biblical and Early Christian archaeology, it remains less clear whether the underlying assumptions that allowed such practices to persist are changing. 

In sum, the archaeology of Early Christianity has traced a trajectory common to any number of disciplines that have come to establish distinctive claims to truth over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The long term commitment to establishing the authority of Christian texts has abated over the last century to be replaced with an interest in establishing a broader of context for the development of Christian (and indeed Late Antique) religious life in the first five centuries. Despite this more expansive mission, the archaeology of Early Christianity continues to demonstrate that It is neither insulated nor isolated from larger geopolitical developments in both Europe and North America as well as within the regions that it studies. 

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