The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

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David K. Pettegrew, William R. Caraher, Thomas W. Davis
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     728 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Production of Oxford Handbooks continues speedily into the future. One of the latest is The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, because as the editors point out in the introduction, “there exist no comprehensive handbooks that synthesize archaeological evidence specifically related to early Christianity and survey debates in the field” (2). The chronological scope of this project is approximately the 1st to the 7th centuries CE. The editors are methodologically conscious, being particularly familiar with the history of archeology, “biblical archeology,” and the countless hazards surrounding the assemblance of evidence, nature of dating, conjecture, etc. Like with all Oxford Handbooks, the goal of contributions is to lay out the landscape and identify major points of discovery and debate.

Part 1, “The Archeology of Ancient Christianity,” covers archeological evidence connected with the Gospels and New Testament. Part 2, “Sacred Space and Mortuary Contexts,” looks at catacombs, martyria (martyr-related archeology), burials and remains, church buildings, monastic communities, baptisteries and rites, and baths. Part 3, “Art and Artifacts,” examines the whole gamut of art—in catacombs, reliquaries, icons, spolia (spoils), mosaics, pottery, lamps, statues, and amulets. Part 4, “Christian Archeology in Regional Perspective,” is divided up according to region—Jordan, Syria, Armenia, Illyricum and Cyclades, Cyprus, Balkans, Italy, Gaul, Britain and Ireland, Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and Egypt. Two other chapters cover the Roman and Byzantine period and the eastern church until 8th century.

This handbook includes a number of black and white graphics. While helpful, their placement was not entirely consistent. Readers will sometimes encounter a page or two of highly detailed description of an object or building without a photo, but then elsewhere will find photos without hardly any description. While the overall tone is consistently academic, I place the reading level at graduate, with most articles far beyond any “introductory” level. A simple table of major, early (pre-Constantinian) archeological finds would have been helpful. It may be much for some readers to keep together in their head—especially if the point of the volume is a “survey,” and especially since it seemed the bulk of Christian archeological discussions surround the post-Constantinian era.

Some of the discussions will engage readers differently than others. As a non-archaeologist New Testament scholar, I found several points of interest with regard to how archeology sheds light on the cultural and social condition of the times. For instance, there was debate about the use of baths. Many Christians were opposed to them (199-201) for various reasons, while others were not. Because “lepers were forbidden by law from using baths” and “no baths seem to have been provided specifically for lepers in the early empire,” eventually the state-church came to forge a program for them; it was “an expansion of bathing culture, centered on its understanding within the Roman health care system, and couched in a Christian charitable framework” (201).

More broadly, according to author Glenn Peers, as far as archeology is concerned, the Christians did nearly all the things the Romans did, with important differences. “Given that {Christians] were more than likely a disadvantaged segment of society in the first three centuries of the common era, Christians produced nothing distinctive for the archeological record, and yet as their socioeconomic status rose, so did income available for things . . . that spoke to specific concerns and hopes of this community” (241). Thus, “Christians did not invent icons, but borrowed and refined them for their own purposes” (241), and “in adorning lamps with religious imagery, early Christians were following a well-established Roman tradition” (313). These types of assertions might balance out the arguments of Larry Hurtado in Destroyer of the Gods (Baylor University Press, 2017) and others, where the stark contrast between Christians and the Romans is delineated.

Readers also learn that the church before and after the Constantinian period was like a community center with an incredible array of economic activity. Dallas Deforest writes that “The church would sometimes operate a bath for profit, as the fourth-century endowment of the church of San Lorenzo illustrates” (199). The earliest surviving churches “constitute conglomerations of various ingredients harvested from local sources or imported from elsewhere. Components can be analyzed through material science in order to reconstruct the social dynamics of labor, exchange for goods, expense, and logistics of construction” (143). Churches, in other words, were centers of economic innovation and productivity, perhaps similar to the Jerusalem Temple before it was destroyed.

Eventually, as Charles Anthony Stewart writes in his “Churches” chapter,  Christianity’s social vision disrupted “traditional markets and commodities, such as slavery, interest-banking, pagan festivities, institutional prostitution, theater attendance, athletics (gladiatorial and pan-Hellenic games), and so on” (143). When the authors ventured beyond the established Roman methods, some of the results were surprising. Apparently the emerging church economy cannibalized the pagan infrastructure and established new exchanges.” Clergy and churches constituted a “mercantile system that generated trade and wealth, often encouraging the formation of new settlements, markets (such as fairs and emporia), manufacturing centers (such as monasteries), and the clearing of virgin land for agriculture” (143). Christianity was truly creating a new world within the Roman Empire.

Readers encounter other interesting results emerging from the dirt. The Vermeule panel of three figures, which seems to be a work of propaganda, is a case in point. “The central figure is a Roman consul dressed in traditional garb who is surrounded on each side by the apostles Peter and Paul seated on thrones . . . [which may demonstrate] that religious leaders supported the Roman governmental system, and that Bassus was acting in his political capacity to intervene on religious matters” (309). In other cases, one is shocked to discover the carelessness of previous archeology. For example, “some of the best-known gemstone and bronze amulets have been circulating in collections since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have only a reported region of acquisition” (352). One gets the feeling reading these sections on archeology that so much of it is guessing. And contemporary archeology is also contingent on what has simply survived.

While it is not easy to track down specific items in the book that are “cutting edge” and “new” as a non-archeologist, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archeology remains a tremendous reference for those interested in the field—and also interested in Christian origins and church history. It comes off the press at the same time as the similar Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual and will serve as a benchmark survey for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin Andreas Hübner is a Research Fellow for the Center of Faith and Human Flourishing at LCC International University.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David K. Pettegrew is Professor of History and Archaeology at Messiah College.

William R. Caraher is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota.

Thomas W. Davis is Professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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