The Archaeology of Early Christianity

By Cecire, Robert | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Early Christianity


Cecire, Robert, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Archaeology of Early Christianity. By William H. C. Frend. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, xix + 412 pp., $34.00.

W. H. C. Frend has contributed a number of significant volumes on early Christianity over the years, perhaps most notably The Rise of Christianity. Here is another worthy contribution from Frend, a volume that covers the history of Christian archaeology from the Renaissance to the present. In his introduction Frend writes, "I have attempted to outline the growth in Christian archaeology from the Renaissance onwards, describing briefly excavations in the main areas of discovery, and placing these discoveries within the framework of cultural and religious movement of the day" (pp. xv-xvi), and Frend has succeeded admirably in this purpose.

Christian archaeology, like archaeology in general, was a "child of the Renaissance" (p. 11). It first achieved prominence in 1578 with the discovery of the catacombs in Italy (an earlier discovery of catacombs in 1475 had no ongoing significance). These discoveries were valued by the Church primarily for apologetic purposes rather than for any light they might have cast on early Christianity. After the Peace of Westphalia (1648) the catacombs were used to recover relics and provide primitive evidence for Catholic doctrine, e.g. the Eucharist and the cult of the Virgin Mary.

In the 19th century nationalist interests became a major force in Christian archaeology. After France gained control of Tunisia and Algeria, archaeological efforts were undertaken for the purpose of spreading French culture and reclaiming North Africa for the Catholic church. Prior to World War I various European governments (e.g. France, Austria-Hungary and Germany) sponsored archaeological expeditions in the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa and Europe that were designed to bring prestige to the states and governments involved and demonstrate European cultural superiority (which would abet Europe's already established political and economic hegemony). However, impartial study of the discoveries themselves was gaining ground and higher standards of scholarship made an impact during the later l9th century. The finds themselves proved to be of enormous importance and during the early 20th century began to have a significant impact on Christian historiography. This impact increased due to the discoveries that followed World War II.

Within the framework of his historical survey, Frend briefly discusses the major finds and their importance. These include discoveries bearing on such issues as the importance of Donatism, the character and importance of Gnosticism and other dissenting movements, the gradual decline of Christianity in North Africa about the time of and subsequent to the Arab conquests, and the vicissitudes of Christianity in Britain. …

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