Lessons from the Catacombs of Rome

By Wayne Jackson

The term “catacomb” derives from a compound Greek term with the components kata (down) and kymbe (hollow). The word is used of that vast network of tombs beneath the city of Rome (and at other places as well) where ancient Christians buried their dead—and even met for worship during times of severe persecution.

It has been estimated that this maze of corridors and burial vaults, if strung together, would stretch out some 600 miles. Estimates of the number of tombs vary from 1,750,000 to 4,000,000; they represent the burial of Romans from the 2nd to the 5th centuries A.D. (Blaiklock, 159). There are a number of valuable lessons from the catacombs.

Historicity of Christ

The catacombs are filled with art works (ancient graffiti) which testify to the martyrs’ deep faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Epitaph inscriptions like this one are frequent: “Victorina, in peace and in Christ” (Finegan, 389). Common among the inscriptions was the sign of the fish. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, became an acrostic symbol for: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. Surely the ancient martyrs had a better sense of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical character than some modern atheists.

The Scriptures

The fact that much of the art work in the catacombs was taken from various accounts in the Bible—both Old Testament and New Testament—reveals how widely the Scriptures must have been circulated in those early centuries of the church’s history. There are representations of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Moses’ miracle of bringing water from the rock, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah, the visit of the wise men, Jesus as the lamb of God and the good shepherd, etc.

There is another point to be made. Many of the names mentioned in the epistles of Paul are found carved upon the walls of the catacombs. This does not mean, of course, that they represent the actual people in Paul’s correspondence; it does suggest that the biblical record is an accurate reflection of the nomenclature of that day, and thus possesses an aura of authenticity (cf. Lightfoot, 177).

The Miracles of Jesus

The New Testament represents Jesus as a miracle-worker. Some thirty-five individual miracles are ascribed to him, in addition to numerous generic references (e.g., Jn. 20:30-31). Many modern scholars, yielding to the influence of skeptics like David Hume (1711-1776), deny that Jesus performed miracles. Clearly, though, the primitive Christians were convinced of the Lord’s miracle-working powers. Among the art works of the catacombs, there are many representations of the Christ’s miracles. There are depictions of Jesus’ baptism, with the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. There are reproductions of the healing of the paralytic man (Mk. 2), and the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn. 11). There are reflections of the water-to-wine miracle at the wedding in Cana (Jn. 2), as well as the feeding of the great multitude with the loaves and fish (Jn. 6).

The Growth of the Church

A consideration of the material in the book of Acts shows how explosive the growth of the early church was, and the saints in Rome were no small part of this. The faith of the Roman Christians was widely known (Rom. 1:8; 16:19). Blaiklock says: “The most conservative interpretation of the Catacomb burial figures would, therefore, suggest that … one-fifth of Rome’s people in the middle Empire were Christians, and it is possible that the proportion was at times much greater” (161). There is another factor to be considered as well. The tombs of the catacombs represent about ten generations of believers. This would suggest that the early devotees of Christianity passed the gospel along to their offspring. It’s called “vertical evangelism.”

Christianity and Intellectualism

Atheism alleges that the Christian faith is only for the ignorant and those who are void of reason. Gibbon charged that the early church consisted almost exclusively of “the dregs of the populace.” The catacomb evidence has shown, though, that Christianity invaded the ranks of the middle and upper classes, and made an impact even among the intellectuals. Many of the tombs appear to have belonged to families of the aristocracy (cf. Acts 17:4).

Persecution

The Lord had promised that his followers would be persecuted (Mt. 5:10-12). In A.D. 64, Nero launched a vicious reign of terror against the church, as did subsequent Caesars. The Christians went underground (amongst the tombs—where the superstitious Romans would not follow) to worship. Amazingly, though, the catacomb graffiti reveal no images of sorrow or complaining; rather, a vibrant spirit of joy and triumph is everywhere evidenced. What faith those saints possessed!

Apostasy

The record of the catacombs is not entirely positive. Just as Paul predicted that there would be an apostasy from the truth (2 Thes. 2:1ff; 2 Tim. 4:1ff), so the record of the tombs reveals a drifting from the primitive faith. For example, there is graffiti testimony that encourages prayers to and for those who are dead (which later becomes fully-developed in Catholicism). Though the Christians constructed baptistries in the catacombs, there is one picture where “baptism” is being administered by the pouring of water. But there is also a heathen god in the scene—which reveals a woefully compromised faith (Foster, 23). Pristine Christianity was eventually corrupted. Eternal vigilance is the price of truth!

Sources/Footnotes
  • Blaiklock, E. M. 1970. The Archaeology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Finegan, Jack. 1946. Light From the Ancient Past. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
  • Foster, R. C. 1971. Studies in the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Lightfoot, J. B. 1953 Reprint. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.