Catacomb Find Boosts Early Christian-Jewish Ties, Study Says

July 20, 2005

For millions of pilgrims and tourists, the ancient catacombs of Rome represent the rise of Christianity. Yet a new study suggests that these vast underground burial complexes may owe their origins to Jews—and that Judaism may have influenced Christianity for longer than previously thought.

Carved over several centuries from soft rock on the outskirts of the imperial capital, the catacombs are the resting places of hundreds of thousands of Christians.

But along with the 60 early-Christian complexes, two Jewish catacombs survive in Rome. They are distinguished by Judaic motifs, such as the seven-branched candelabras, or menorahs, that appear on many grave stones.

Dutch-based researchers now report that at least one of the Jewish catacombs, Villa Torlonia, predates its Christian counterparts.

Using radiocarbon dating techniques, the team found that charcoal fragments embedded in lime powder used in the construction of Villa Torlonia dated from 50 B.C. to A.D. 400. The discovery suggests that the Jewish catacomb came into use a century before the earliest Christian sites.

The researcers describe their findings in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

The discovery also suggests that the Jewish roots of early Christianity run far deeper than previously thought, according to the study's lead author, Leonard V. Rutgers, professor of late antiquity at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

"Scholars have frequently argued that Christianity came into its own fairly early on in the first century, and from then on there was no Jewish influence," he said. "The period of separation probably took a lot longer and was much more gradual than we thought."

The catacombs were built just outside Rome's boundaries because, at the time, Roman law forbade burial places in the city itself. It's thought that early Christians also used the sites for worship and to celebrate the anniversaries of their martyrs.

Earliest Evidence

"These catacombs are the earliest archaeological evidence we have for Christianity," Rutgers said. As such, they remain potent Christian symbols.

Visiting the catacombs, the recently deceased Pope John Paul II asked, "How can we fail to be moved by the humble but eloquent traces of these first witnesses to the faith?"

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