Crises reveal much about individuals, groups, and peoples. Certainly the true nature of faith comes to the fore. We venerate ancestors, great men of faith, and national heroes who faced great challenges with strong faith and character. Long after they are gone we draw from their strength.
One of the testimonies left by early Christians of Rome is the catacombs, vast networks of underground burial chambers beneath Rome and some other cities. They are a modern reminder of early Christians' faith and willingness to act upon it, even to their financial hurt and under the threat of persecution. In all likelihood, some of the same Christians who were the first to hear Paul's letter to the Romans read in the church there are among the first buried in these tombs.
The catacombs are not just unusual because they are separate and underground. They stand out as burial places for Roman Christians when the Romans almost universally burned the bodies of their dead according to the Greek practice. The Roman Christians immediately rejected this practice and carried over the Jewish respect shown for the remains of the dead.
The ancient Hebrews and Christians based their faith on God's promise of life beyond this life. Their respectful treatment of the dead reflected their respect for that promise. The early Christians did more than believe in the resurrection of the body; they showed a reverence for the body as itself an heir to the victory over the "last enemy," death (1 Cor. 15:26).
Christian burial was modeled after that of the Savior, which was itself after "the manner of the Jews" (Jn. 19:40). The Hebrews had a traditional ritual treatment of the dead. It involved a washing and a wrapping of the deceased in linen with aloes and myrrh. To economize on these ingredients was considered as dishonoring to the dead. Huge amounts were used for prominent individuals. Eighty pounds of spices were used for Rabbi Gamaliel, yet Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea showed their reverence for Jesus by providing a hundred pounds of such spices (Jn. 19:39-40), and the two Marys and their friends, thinking Jesus was denied this honor, approached the grave on the first day of the week also prepared to anoint the body (Lk. 23:56-24:1). For prominent persons, a large bed of spices was burnt, the body later being laid in the remains (2 Chron. 16:14; Jer. 34:5). Found unworthy, the wicked Jehoram was denied this honor (2 Chron. 21:19).
The body was clothed in either ordinary dress, linen cloth, or a shroud before being placed in a burial chamber. In first century Jerusalem prior to A.D. 70, remains were later transferred to stone boxes, called ossuaries. Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December 2002) made international headlines when it reported the discovery of an ossuary with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The death was accompanied by a customary loud wailing. Such "lamentations" were described in Mark 5:38 as "a tumult." The procession to the burial place involved family and friends in numbers corresponding to the individual's prominence or esteem in the community. Thus, a great number of people accompanied the widow of Nain as her only son was carried to his grave (Lk. 7:12). Likewise, during the next few weeks, family paid frequent visits to the tomb of a loved one. When Jesus went to Bethany after the burial of Lazarus, Mary rose to meet Him, having been told of His approach by her sister. Those around her assumed that she was going to the grave to weep (Jn. 11:31).
The early Christians followed the custom of burying the dead even though this represented a considerable effort and expense and, in the case of the Romans, a rejection of longstanding social practice. Augustine said that "the Holy Spirit has made use, as instruments and vessels, for all good works" of the body of believers. He denied any superstitious belief in the life of the corpse in death, such as those that dominated Egyptian respect for the dead, but attributed Christian burial to the belief that even bodies of believers were under God's providence in anticipation of their resurrection. Cremation was condemned as lacking reverence and a practical denial of the belief in resurrection Christians were to profess. It was not without cruel intent that many martyrs were denied burial by being burnt by their persecutors. It was perhaps thought to deny them, or at least mock, a future hope in which the Christians were known to believe.
By the fourth century it was common for palm or olive branches to be carried in funeral processions as symbols of joy and victory. Leaves of laurel and ivy were placed with the deceased as representations of immortality, and flowers were scattered over the body. The Romans felt seeing a funeral was a bad omen so their ceremonies were held at night. Christians, on the other hand, developed the funeral procession along the lines of a march of triumph. The Lord's Supper was commonly celebrated at the grave, to represent the communion of those living and the dead in the mystical body of Christ. The error of praying for the dead may have begun with prayers at the grave commending the dead to God. The service ended with the Lord's Prayer and a benediction. For a time Roman Christians even abandoned the dress of mourning used by pagan Romans, instead expressing their hope in the victory of eternal life by wearing clothing appropriate to a feast. Gradually the feelings of loved ones caused a return to clothes of mourning. The death of believers was so integrated into the life of the church that gravediggers were not regarded as common laborers, but as servants of the church. The early church treated death and interment as an opportunity to teach a theology of both life and death and to guide the believer's understanding in a difficult time.
Some have suggested the earliest Roman Christians may have first begun using rock quarries into which the Romans sometimes dumped the bodies of slaves or executed criminals, though this has been rejected by other scholars. It is universally recognized that the vast majority, if not all, of the extensive catacombs were dug by Christians for their own use between the first and fifth centuries, corresponding to the times of earliest persecutions and the onslaught of the barbarians.
The original purpose of the catacombs was as burial chambers, where the believing dead were laid in tombs carved into the walls of the passages. Originally, these were closed by slabs of rock or tiles. Some larger tombs apparently served as family vaults. None of the catacombs could have been excavated or existed in secret. Land was purchased and used for these extensive projects, and, complying with Roman law, they were placed outside the limits of the city (as it existed at the time). They were named and well-known for centuries.
The Resurrection of the Dead
Later, the catacombs were used as places of refuge in times of persecution. The extent to which they were used as places of refuge was probably much more limited than we tend to imagine. They did have the advantage of being labyrinths peculiarly familiar to Christians, with countless hiding places in hundreds of miles of passageways. Certainly such a complex would have discouraged pursuit by government officials. The real value of the catacombs, however, lies not as a memorial to persecution, but as a testimony to the early church's faith in eternal life and the resurrection of the dead.
Inscriptions and symbols in the catacombs testify to the thinking of the early Christians. Some are historical, and represent scenes from the Old Testament and the gospels. There are symbolic images, including the lamb, the vine, the rock, the light, the fountain, and the lion. Most frequently seen is the fish. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, the church by a ship (often sailing near a lighthouse), immortality by a peacock, and the resurrection by a phoenix. Trees were symbolic: cypress and pine representing death, the palm, victory; the olive, good works; and the vine, union with Christ.
These symbols and the few remaining inscriptions were also departures from the fatalism of Roman despair at death. The Christians testified to their hope, peace, and sense of life in God. "Alexander," says one inscription, "is not dead, but lives beyond the stars, and his body rests in this tomb." Another says "Aselus sleeps in Christ."
A third use of the catacombs probably grew from their uses as places of funerals and refuge. They became themselves places of worship in times of persecution. They had been places of gatherings for burial, the Lord's Supper, and baptisms. With the living and the dead in close proximity for centuries, it is hard to image how later generations could not have adopted a superstitious veneration for the remains and relics of martyrs. In order to prevent increasing desecration, Pope Paul I removed many of the bones of martyrs and saints and distributed them to churches and monasteries in the eighth century. Other popes did the same. More were removed by Crusaders. Thus, the mere quantity of such relics in the Middle Ages need not cause us to doubt their authenticity. The catacombs did not become secret and lost until the Middle Ages, being rediscovered by clerics in 1490 and in the following century by scholars.
It is easy to dismiss traditions, ceremonies, and symbolism important to another historical era. It is more difficult, yet more edifying, to understand them as an out-working of the very real faith of Christian brethren we will know only in eternity.
Today, the catacombs are empty. Still, they represent the power of the faith of the early church in the resurrection of the dead to eternal life and its reverence for the promises of God. The testimony of these believers remains today for our edification. May our acts and legacy to future generations be so enduring.