Researchers have recently identified the world’s oldest surviving Christian inscription. The carved stone, officially named “NCE 156,” is written in Greek and dates all the way back to the second century, at the height of the Roman Empire. The only other examples of Christian writing from this time exist as ink on papyri, a much less durable material that is harder to display.
This find is especially interesting because it sheds light on the origins of Christianity. More importantly, the engraving shows surprising elements of paganism. Experts believe the stone contains a funeral epigram that alludes to both Christian and pagan beliefs.
The translated inscription reads:
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.
The stone was found outside of Rome, on the ancient roadway called Via Latina. The classical style of Greek letters used in writing the inscription helped researchers to date the object. NCE 156 is part of the collection of the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy.
It is likely that the author of the inscription followed the teachings of the philosopher Valentinus, a famous Gnostic teacher who lived in Rome during the second century. There are many similarities (like the reference to the bridal chamber) between the inscription and other Gnostic writings.
The early Christians would later declare Valentinus a heretic. Gnostics, and in particular Valentinians, believed that “not only matter and the physical world was evil, but also that matter and the physical world was unimportant…it was unimportant what you or what your body did in the physical world.” Followers of this ancient sect, therefore, did not interpret the resurrection of Jesus literally.
There are also notable comparisons between NCE 156 and funeral epigrams for non-Christians. Gregory Snyder, who has been instrumental in detailing the finding, thinks “that the mix of Christian and pagan traditions in the inscriptions is striking.” And in a contemporary world where religious beliefs are quite often dogmatic and rigid, this inscription recalls a time when the Christian identity was much more malleable.