I have previously mentioned a couple of inscriptions that were desecrated by early Christians. A recent article in Journal of Early Christian Studies by Jason Moralee now presents some further examples from Gerasa (modern Jerash in Jordan – where a Danish-Jordanian project has been excavating an early mosque for a couple of years), especifically the church of St. Theodore, built in 464-466 CE. We don’t know if this particular church was built on top of a pagan sanctuary, although many others were. However, an inscription over the central doorway to the atrium tells us what a horrid place it was before the church’s construction. Note here how the church building itself talks in the first person (quoted from Moralee 2006: 192f):
…formerly so many four-footed toiling beasts fell down here that a stomach-turning stench arose. And often someone nearby pinched his nose and gave up the desire of breathing to avoid the bad smell. But now those passing over the fragrant ground carry [their] right hand to their brow, making the sign of the honorable cross. And if you wish to learn in order that you might know [it] well, Aineias gave this desirable beauty to me, the all-wise priest practiced in piety.
This inscription is a good example of Christian triumphalism. The construction of the church marked the Christian victory over the old pagan topography and its sacrifices (this is perhaps what ‘stench’ and ‘beasts’ refer to in the inscription). In the eyes of the church builders, it was, as Moralee points out, a transition from ‘impurity’ to ‘purity’.
Moralee interprets the mutilated inscriptions in the Gerasa churches as a similar form of Christian triumphalism over the pagan past. The mutilated inscriptions were re-used just as other spolia in occasionally very prominent places in the churches. An inscription, set up a priest of Dionysos asks for the salvation of the emperors, had been defaced and re-used in the Shrine of Holy Mary. Another had been cut into oblong pieces and re-used as paving, so that the church-goers were literally walking on their past.
Parts of another inscription had been re-carved to form a cross. The Christian cross was often used to nullify what was to perceived to be the demonic powers of pagan objects. Moralee quotes a very interesting inscription from Ephesus that points to the power of the Cross in this respect. The inscription commemorates the destruction of a statue of Artemis by a certain Demeas. It is placed on the base of the very statue he had destroyed (quoted from Moralee 2006: 206).
Having put down [the] deceitful form of [the] demon Artemis, Demeas raised this sign of truth, honoring God, who drives away idols, [that is], the cross, the victory-bearing, immortal symbol of Christ.
The Christian triumphalism embedded in the mutilation of inscriptions and their re-use as spolia at Gerasa is a rather late phenomenon, characteristic of the fifth century CE. It is interesting from an archaeological perspective because it tells us how pagan ‘relics’ could function in Christian contexts in spite of the fierce anti-pagan rhetorics of e.g. the Theodosian Code and writers such as Theodoret.
Jason Moralee. 2006. “The Stones of St. Theodore: Disfiguring the Pagan Past in Christian Gerasa”, Journal of Early Christian Studies 14.2: 183-215. Online via Project MUSE.
Thanks to Lea for pointing me towards this new article.
So many people believe that Christians mixed their religion with that of the pagans. Ever met any of them, or read, ghastly as they are, the hundreds of books that propose that Christians couldn’t tell the difference between the mother of God and Venus? So I enjoyed these inscriptions as clear proof of early Christian attitudes.
Early Christianity did certainly not exist in a vacuum. In ritual and iconogaphy, it was influenced by traditional Roman religion, i.e. “paganism”. An interesting case is the Projecta Casket, part of the Esquiline treasure found in Rome. It’s covered with pagan images, e.g. Venus and the Nereids. However, we know it belonged to a Christian because that is what its inscription states.
One aspect of the Christian triumphalism in Gerasa that I didn’t touch on here is that it was wishful thinking. Traditional cults were going strong in many parts of especially the Levant throughout the fifth and sixth centuries CE.
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