Testimony of the Catacombs
TRUE Christian faith has nothing to fear from the unearthing of records of the past. Archaeology does not weaken faith, but rather testifies in confirmation of the Bible record. History conveys a picture of the beliefs of true worshipers that matches true faith in this day. And at the same time it records the growth of apostasy and its fusion of watered-down beliefs of pseudo-Christians with the pagan rites of the old world, which likewise finds its counterpart today.
Particularly during the past few centuries a treasure house of information has been unearthed in the catacombs outside the city of Rome. It is true that there are similar underground burial places in other regions, such as Egypt, Persia, Syria, Malta, Greece, etc., but those in the vicinity of Rome are of particular interest because of their use by early Christians.
According to early Roman law it was not permissible to bury the dead within the city. So within a radius of several miles from Rome numerous burial places were established. In the case of the Romans, little space was required in view of their practice of cremation. However, the large Jewish population there did not cremate, but buried the body of the deceased. Since it had long been common to inter the body in a cave or other space hewn out of a hillside, it is not strange that the Jews should have used subterranean areas for burial. (Mark 15:46) As Burgon states, “the motive of burying in a catacomb was in the first instance neither heathen nor Christian, but Jewish.” This mode of burial was adopted by the Christian community, many of whom had themselves been Jews.
At first their places of burial were relatively small and privately owned. In some instances those who became Christians opened their property to the use of others of the Christian faith. The names that these catacombs now bear in many instances indicate the property owner. Others were named after the one who was appointed overseer of the place or after a prominent martyr buried there, or the name may have indicated its location. In some places it appears that they took over formerly pagan burial places.
Descent into the catacombs through an entranceway at the surface leads one into a maze of narrow corridors that have been dug out of the porous rock and that may spread out over many acres and cross at so many different angles that a person unacquainted with them would easily become lost. Contrary to the former opinion that all the catacombs were in some way connected together, there are at least thirty-five different ones near Rome. The corridors are usually between three and five feet in width and perhaps seven or eight feet high. Along the walls are the shelflike spaces (loculi) that were used as graves, most of them large enough for just one body wrapped in plaster-covered cloths to be placed, although some did contain more. Then the perpendicular opening was sealed off with tile or a marble slab and mortar.
As the space was filled more room was needed, so the fossores, or diggers, dug out the firm but easily excavated floor, thus providing more wall space, until in some sections there are as many as twelve tiers of burial niches on each side of the corridor. Nor were all the passageways on the same level. There were often three or four galleries; in the catacomb of Calixtus there are seven different levels.
Some of the more well-to-do individuals had an arch carved in the wall and under it a sarcophagus or a coffinlike excavation that could be sealed off with a horizontal slab of marble. These were called arcosolia. Family groups often had an entire room (cubiculum) off the main corridor, and in the walls of these vaults the individual burial spaces were arranged. Such rooms also provided a place where a group could meet together for worship.
It would be a formidable task to measure actually the extent of the corridors in the catacombs, but they have been estimated at perhaps five hundred or more miles, which would be equivalent to an underground tunnel extending from Napoli up the Italian peninsula and nearly to Zurich, Switzerland.
PLACES OF REFUGE
During times of severe persecution the endless dark corridors of the catacombs provided places of refuge from the Romans. Because of the Roman feeling of veneration for their dead, places of burial were relatively safe from invasion, even by irate persecutors, and were even protected by law. While the catacombs were not constructed for refuge, but rather for burial, they served both purposes. Even congregational assemblies could be held there with a measure of security. Family chambers or crypts were not particularly large, but a moderate-sized group could easily assemble in one for worship, and the air shaft that ran to the surface kept the place from being unnecessarily damp and stuffy.
From this it should not be concluded that the cemeteries were an unmolested sanctuary. At times they were invaded, and those found there were murdered. In fact, Eusebius records that in the third century, during the rule of Valerian, assemblies in the catacombs and even entry there were specifically banned, and again during the reign of Diocletian they were invaded, in an endeavor to stamp out Christianity.
REFLECTION OF CHRISTIAN BELIEF
The term “catacomb” is customarily used in reference to these underground labyrinths of burial, but that was not the original practice. Catacumbas referred to a valley on the Via Appia that was used for burial. The name is quite apt; it means “by the hollow.” The Christians, however, called them “sleeping places,” coemeteria, from which our English word cemetery is drawn. There is no thought of soul immortality in that term, but instead an expression of hope in the resurrection.
A quotation from Hemans, in the Contemporary Review, found in McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, further testifies to the Christian belief in soul death: “While the ‘Vixit in pace,’ very rare in Roman inscriptions, appears commonly among those of Africa and of several French cities, otherwise that distinctive phrase of the Pagan epitaph, ‘Vixit’ (as if even in the records of the grave to present life rather than death to the mental eye), does not pertain to Christian terminology.” No, there was no belief in an immortal soul, nor in its companion doctrines of hell-fire, purgatory and the saying of masses for the dead.—Ezek. 18:4; Acts 24:15.
Do the catacombs with their religious art shed light on other Christian beliefs? Yes, indeed, and they witness that much of the present-day dogma of Christendom was not adhered to by early Christians. For example, there were no venerated crucifixes. Even the cross is rarely found. The Encyclopedia Americana observes: “While idols were on all sides, the faithful seem to have held aloof from this branch of art.” (1 Cor. 10:14) And would we expect it otherwise when the Christians abhorred the idolatrous practices of their pagan neighbors? In fact, this total lack of idols and relics among the Christians is what gave rise to the charge of atheism lodged against them by the Roman world.
Killen, in The Ancient Church, points to the testimony of the catacombs on yet another subject when he says: “These witnesses to the faith of the early Church of Rome altogether repudiate the worship of the Virgin Mary, for the inscriptions of the Lapidarian Gallery, all arranged under the papal supervision, contain no addresses to the mother of our Lord. . . . They point only to Jesus as the great Mediator, Redeemer, and Friend.” And Hurst’s History of the Christian Church adds: “The worship of the Virgin Mary is not sustained by the testimony of the catacombs. Only in the later symbolism, when the Church was passing into its long midnight of superstition, do we find traces of divine honor paid to her.”—Rev. 22:9.
Such inscriptions as “To Basilus, the Presbyter, and Felicitas, His Wife” show that those early Christians still held to the Scriptural rule that it is right for an overseer to be the “husband of one wife.” (1 Tim. 3:2) There was no requirement of celibacy. In fact, McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia makes the sweeping statement that “no specifically Romanist doctrine finds any support in inscriptions dating before the fourth century.” It was not until the fifth century that the veneration of saints appeared, and late in that century or early in the sixth century evidence of the belief that Peter had special authority from Christ first began to be in evidence, although even then Peter does not appear with the keys as in later symbolism.
Prominent among both early and later paintings in the catacombs are the repeated portrayals of scenes from all parts of the Bible. “One cannot look upon these expressive memorials of the earliest Christian art without being convinced that the Church of the first three centuries was not only thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures, and that it completed its collection of the canon at a very early date, but that its mind was imbued with an intense love of the Bible and a perception of an acquaintance with every part as a necessity for every class of believers. . . . The very catacomb rises as a witness against the intentional and continued hiding of the word of God from the people.”—History of the Christian Church, by Hurst.
While the catacombs bear witness to the preservation of true worship among faithful Christians, they also tell of the rise of apostasy. The apostle Paul had foretold it when he said: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) “And so now you know the thing [personal presence of the apostles] that acts as a restraint with a view to his being revealed in his own due time. Then, indeed, the lawless one will be revealed.”—2 Thess. 2:6, 8.
The outstanding unity of first-century Christian thought began to fade from view after the death of the apostles, and many began to “turn their ears away from the truth.” (2 Tim. 4:4) Gradually the arrangement for Christian overseers who were servants in the congregation turned into one of clergy rule. Greek philosophy and other pagan practices were mixed into accepted doctrine. By A.D. 321 many had accepted the day of pagan sun worship, and from the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, Emperor Constantine’s fusion of the pagan religion of Rome with the apostate Christian congregations moved ahead at an even more rapid pace. Those who were willing thus to become a part of the world were also willing to embrace its appendages of demon worship, in order to continue in favor with the world.—Jas. 1:27; 4:4.
In 378 (A.D.) Emperor Gratian granted Damasus, bishop of Rome, to bear the title Pontifex Maximus. During his rule of the church much was done to embellish the tombs of the martyrs. The formerly healthy Christian respect for the example of integrity set by those who were martyred was now contaminated with the corrupt hero worship of Rome and turned into the saint worship of the following century.
With the catacombs cleaned up and adorned with more extensive inscriptions and artwork, they became shrines to which the people flocked, and the martyrs became the objects of worship. When Diocletian’s reign of terror was replaced by an era of toleration toward the Christians and things moved on to approval of the state toward the new fusion religion, the now-apostate Christians embraced both pagan thoughts and symbols. The simple clay lamps used in the catacombs no longer were unadorned, but bore the pagan symbol of the fish (the letters of the word for which in Greek were found to correspond with the initial letters of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior”), the Constantine monogram, etc.
And so it is that such symbols of pagan origin as the fish, peacock, anchor and dove, whether said to bear a new significance in the church or not, came to be a part of so-called Christian art in the catacombs, even as they had long been used by the pagans and are found in their places of burial. Some books dwell at length on the significance of these symbols and paintings, but The Catholic Encyclopedia frankly admits that “writers have at times found a richer dogmatic content in the pictures of the catacombs than a strict examination is able to prove.”—Vol. 3, page 423.
Although it has been noted that the catacombs provided places of refuge and assembly during times of persecution, it is now apparent that they did not fall into disuse when the persecution let up. There was a return to the catacombs as places of worship when the persecution ended, but this time for a worship quite different from that practiced by the earlier Christians.
What partnership do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?—2 Cor. 6:14.