“My new and exciting theological journey began last week when we went to our first site visit to San Clemente.” Jenna Zolla
One of the things we are learning in our New Testament in the Eternal City course 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 called The Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology.
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 Scripture course 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 labor 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.
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:
As we begin to study the New Testament against a Roman backdrop, I have already come to a better understanding of the New Testament as a whole. The site visit to the Church of San Clemente allowed the class not only to learn, but also to see.” Abby Shelley
“At San Clemente Church, we were able to see a few of these fresco paintings. The thing that stood out to me most was while that they were very beautiful as a painting from hundreds of years ago, it was clear that this was not simply a work for worship, rather for teaching.” Taylor Klopatek
“I think that it is necessary to learn as much as possible about the ancient Mediterranean world. Understanding the time period and what that world was like will transform our understanding of God’s message.” Brittany Aylmer
“The importance of studying the New Testament within the context of also directly experiencing historical and religious sights is going to greatly influence how we understand the New Testament.” Victoria Strain
“The ideas represented in the New Testament along with the layers of history revealed upon excavation of the basilica of San Clemente allow a better understanding of Christianity and God’s revelation.” Jacqueline Gray