Christian Inscription in Rome Identified as World's Earliest

A carved stone, part of the collection of the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy, has been identified as the world’s earliest surviving Christian inscription, which concerns an ancient sect that followed the teachings of a second-century Gnostic theologian, Valentinus.

“If it is in fact a second-century inscription, as I think it probably is, it is about the earliest Christian material object that we possess,” LiveScience quoted study researcher Gregory Snyder from Davidson College in North Carolina as saying Friday.

Officially called “NCE 156,” the inscription in Greek alludes to Christian beliefs. According to Snyder, it could be a funeral epigram, incorporating both Christian and pagan elements.

Snyder, who looked into 50 years of research done by multiple scholars, translated the inscription as, “To my bath, the brothers of the bridal chamber carry the torches, [here] in our halls, they hunger for the [true] banquets, even while praising the Father and glorifying the Son. There [with the Father and the Son] is the only spring and source of truth.”

Paul McKechnie, an ancient history professor at Australia’s Macquarie University who has also studied the inscription, said if Snyder was right, “it’s clearly the earliest identifiable Christian inscription.”

The only other written Christian remains from that time period are fragments of papyri written in ink, quoting part of the gospels.

NCE 156 was originally found in the suburbs of Rome near the medieval tower of Tor Fiscale, the modern day mile four of the Via Latina roadway. It suggests that a community of Valentinus’ followers may have lived there during the second century, Snyder said.

“We know that Valentinus was a famous Gnostic teacher in the second century [who] lived in Rome for something like 20 years, and was a very sophisticated ... poetic, talented, thinker, speaker, writer,” the professor was quoted as saying.

According to Tertullian, the first author of Latin Christian literature, Valentinus was a candidate for bishop but after he was not chosen he started his own group. Some of his teachings are believed to be found in the Gospel of Philip, a collection of Gnostic beliefs.

Snyder, who found some similarities between the inscription and ancient funeral epigrams composed for non-Christians, said the Christian identity at the time was perhaps flexible. That, he said, raised questions in his mind. “Is it just a simple either/or between pagan and Christian? Or is there really something rather like a spectrum? Or are you really sort of both in certain respects?”

Valentinus was declared a heretic. He taught his followers that there were three kinds of people. Those of a spiritual nature had the “gnosis” or knowledge to attain salvation whereas those of a psychic nature – ordinary Christians – could attain only a lesser form of salvation. And those of a material nature – pagans and Jews – were doomed to perish, he believed.