How can the study of archaeology help us to understand the New Testament? This is the question we asked during our recent site visit to the Basilica of San Clemente. Our course on the New Testament in the Eternal City includes not only classroom lectures, but also on site visits to particular places in Rome that are significant for Christian history, theology, and spirituality.
By tradition, St. Clement (92-101 AD) was a bishop in Rome who gave his life as a martyr for Christ. Fourth-century accounts speak of his forced labour in the mines during exile to the Crimea in the reign of the emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and his missionary work there which prompted the Romans to bind him to an anchor and throw him into the Black Sea. His relics were recovered and are under the main altar of the church.
The church of San Clemente is like a “layered cake” of archaeological wonder. The present basilica is from the 12th century, but underneath is a 5th century basilica and below that is a first century house, warehouse, and Mithraic temple. These sites were excavated beginning in the 19th century under the guidance of an Irish Dominican priest, Fr. Mullooly, who was prior of San Clemente. Indeed, the Irish Dominicans have been the custodians of San Clemente since the 17th century. In this way, Providence College has a kind of “connection” with San Clemente since they are both Dominican institutions.
What we are learning is that archaeology is imperative for the study of the New Testament. There is no chance of understanding Jesus, Peter, Paul, Mary, or the early Christians without understanding their world. And there is no way to reconstruct their world without archaeology. In fact, archaeology is so important in Rome, that the Vatican has an office devoted solely to its study. The Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology coordinates both the Roman Pontifical Academy of Archaeology and the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology.
Archaeological artifacts can profoundly affect our understanding of the New Testament’s message. And visiting some of the most important archaeological sites in Rome this semester will teach us much about the lives and beliefs of the early Christians.
Here are a few quotes from the papers the students wrote after our site visit:
“From the art displayed within the twelfth century Basilica, to the underground archeological sites of an old Christian Church and Mithraic temple, the overall structure is a three-dimensional history lesson about theology and the expansion of Christianity throughout ten centuries.” - Caroline Lockyer.
“By following the evidence in and underneath the church, one can obtain an understanding of the people and life of early Rome—mainly in this circumstance, what their beliefs were. The basilica is a self-contained history book following Roman society’s beliefs tracing from 1st century till the 12th century C.E.” - Beau Frank
“The Basilica of San Clemente consists of three layers: the upper church, which was restored in the 18th century, the lower church from the 4th century, and the first-century buildings where a Mithraic temple exists. Ascending from the 1st century buildings through the 4th century lower church, and finally to the upper church Jesus slowly reveals himself to us.” Camille Dottore
“What they found in the deepest layer of the basilica was a pagan temple, also known as mithraeum.The discovery of this temple shows the triumph of Christianity following Constantine. Churches from then on would then be built upon these pagan temples and other holy sites.” Emileigh Gaeta
“Revelation… presents itself through the recovered artifacts discovered by archeologists and strengthens the faith of individuals by linking the truths of the New Testament.” - Brynne Murphy
“Through the excavation of San Clemente, one can conclude that the discoveries and excavations of archaeologists have revolutionized and confirmed our understanding of God’s revelation in the New Testament.” Sarah Davis