“The intricate design and archaeology of San Clemente reveals invaluable information and background about the New Testament.” Ashlee Robinson
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.
According to the oldest list of Roman bishops, he was the third successor to St Peter in Rome (after Linus and Cletus). The First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, known as the “Roman Canon”, mentions St. Clement in the list of bishops and saints of Rome through whose merits and prayers the faithful seek help and protection. The church in Rome dedicated to him is said to be built over a first century house which belonged to his family.
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:
“This excavation, along with many in Rome, has helped to give insight into the meaning of aspects of scripture … Therefore, these discoveries are not just for mere curiosity but are important to understanding the Catholic faith in its truest form.” Matt Griffin
“Our first site visit to San Clemente emphasized the points of revelation, historical context, and the importance of the written word that we had discussed in our first class.” Grace King
“Having San Clemente be our first site visit seemed to be very appropriate in understanding the purpose of the New Testament. Its history is more than just an interesting tour—for Christians, it still holds relevance today.” Evan Juliano