Ante Pacem

Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine

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Graydon F. Snyder
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , October
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, author Graydon Snyder’s goal is to collect and annotate the extant evidence of the growth of the Christian Church in the centuries before Constantine. Snyder’s monograph, while not exhaustive, presents material evidence for the Church in the 2nd,  3rd, and early 4th centuries. Snyder writes that he has been highly selective in choosing material, which illustrates the important hermeneutical space between a scholar of religion and a practitioner.

In recent years, the study of religion has embraced the contribution of the scholar/practitioner, whose religious practice can inform and enrich the scholarly gaze. The practitioner must face the challenge to maintain scholarly objectivity and not to assume that one’s religious views are shared. Ante Pacem is certainly a scholarly text, but in his material choices for inclusion and his commentary, Snyder often privileges his denominational beliefs. Certainly, one cannot write a text without making choices about what to include. As a reader, I was left wondering was the excluded evidence might have revealed. Further, Snyder makes several definitive claims without any documentation or reference to back them up. It is possible that these undocumented claims result from a more confessional, rather than scholarly, mindset.

Chapter 1 provides a brief introduction to the development of scholarly work in pre-Constantinian Christianity. Snyder examines the tension between written and material sources, including when an artifact exists in both spheres. The author clearly lays out his methodology of drawing upon literary sources only to provide context for an artifact.

In chapter 2, Snyder considers extant Christian symbols found mostly on sarcophagi and burial catacomb walls. His presentation of this material evidence is informative and helpful. His interpretation, however, is arbitrary and more complicated than necessary. He groups the symbols into broad categories: symbols of conflict, deliverance, community, satisfaction, the deliverer, supremacy, and defeat. In his consideration of the individual symbols, Snyder does a good job providing history, frequency of occurrence, and connection to biblical sources for these symbols. He does little, however, to demonstrate how the figure of the orans (person with hands uplifted in prayer) is a symbol of deliverance or the palm tree is a symbol of community. If other scholars have grouped these symbols into Snyder’s categories, it would have been helpful to have the archaeological, art historical or literary references.

Chapter 3 features the categories of pictorial representations by medium: frescoes, mosaics, sarcophagi, and statues found in ancient churches and catacombs. There are several helpful aspects to this chapter. The author enumerates the combined groupings of figures in the various media. He provides a list of occurrences of each figure that reveals that representations of the prophet Jonah occur most frequently.

Chapter 4 provides solid and useful pictorial interpretations, drawing upon cultural and spiritual contexts to elucidate the Christian symbols presented in earlier chapters. While this is one of the best documented chapters in the book, with good scholarly references, nevertheless Snyder draws several arbitrary conclusions. Drawing upon his earlier unsubstantiated groupings to establish meaning, the author posits that one cannot draw a  Christological interpretation of the fish symbol and a pneumatological meaning for the dove character prior to the reign of Constantine. He sees the fish and the dove both as symbols of peace and asserts that 3rd c. Christians would have agreed. Tuomas Rasimus, in his article, “Revisiting the Ichthys: A Suggestion Concerning the Origins of Christological Fish Symbolism,” affirms that the fish was an established symbol for Christ, and perhaps even for the Eucharistic Christ, by the end of the 2nd c. Rasimus includes pictures of extant archaeological evidence, makes reference to Christian fish artifacts found in the ruins of Pompeii and cites various other scholars for reference. Given the abundance of scholarship to the contrary, it is difficult to understand why Snyder would make such definitive claims without supporting evidence.

Chapter 5, the longest chapter, considers buildings. This chapter is very well-documented with solid illustrations and diagrams. Snyder is more careful to draw definitive conclusions about the material evidence in this part of the text. For example, when Snyder writes about the possible discovery of the bones of St. Peter, he relies upon the historical accounts, archaeological evidence and extant inscriptions. He maintains a scholarly skepticism about whether the bones enshrined in Rome can be verified.

In Chapter 6, Snyder capably presents inscriptions and graffiti. He provides a transcription of the original text, English translation and, when possible, pictures of the original or a map of the location.

In general, Ante Pacem would be a useful introduction in materiality for Evangelical Christian seminarians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Rose is an Adjunct Professor of Patristics at Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Graydon F. Snyder (1930-2016) was Dean and Professor of New Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary.


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