The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History

Article excerpt

The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History. By William H. C. Frend. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. xiv + 412 pp. $39.00 (cloth).

I remember standing not long ago on top of the walls, now entirely covered by sand, of the ancient monastery of Saint John the Little in Egypt and looking out at the desert expanse of the Wadi Natrun. Scattered around the monastery were about a hundred kams or slight mounds of darker-colored sand, each the site of an ancient monastic habitation, now buried by the desert. What historical treasures lay under all that sand? What could those mounds, properly excavated, tell us about the history of early monasticism?

W.H.C. Frend, the eminent historian of the early Church, has been exploring such mounds for almost sixty years; now, in this fascinating book, drawing on his experience and expertise both as a historian and as an archeologist, Frend sets out to write, for the first time in English, the history of Christian archeology, from its "curious beginnings in 326" with Saint Helena's search for the true cross "to the avalanche of discoveries" today (p. 384). He records the slow evolution of archeology from its captivity to antiquarianism, "pious fraud," and "genteel pillage" (p. 25) to its status as an international, ecumenical, and interdisciplinary science. Along the way he shows how archeology (and scholarship in general) has been the child of its times, conditioned by social, religious, political, and intellectual movements, often "the handmaid of colonial foreign policy" (p. 110).

The most interesting parts of The Archaeology of Early Christianity are the many chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries. Frend is particularly adept at interweaving stories of discovery with accounts of how those discoveries have affected our understanding of early Christianity. The story of the first discoveries at the famous site of Dura-Europos reads like something out of Indiana Jones. Prior to the late 19th century, histories of early Christianity relied almost exclusively on literary evidence; the great achievement of modern archeology has been to show "how archaeological evidence and literary evidence were [both] needed to provide a convincing picture of early-Christian life and the crosscurrents of its thought" (p. …