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The Earliest Christian Graffito?

April 2, 2012

In my previous posting I briefly described Roger Bagnall’s new book, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, and I mentioned his lead chapter on a body of graffiti from ancient Smyrna. Among the items he discusses in this chapter, I was particularly (predictably!) intrigued with one that Bagnall confidently claims must be Christian (pp. 22-23).  Here are the basic data:

  • The graffiti in question are on plastered surfaces in the basement of a city structure, and there are multiple layers of plaster laid on across time.
  • One graffito includes a date, which Bagnall correlates to 125/126 CE.
  • The layer of plaster beneath the layer on which this dated graffito is written is partially exposed, and on this exposed plaster is “a most remarkable graffito, incised into the plaster rather than written with ink or charcoal.”   This graffito reads:


κυριος  ω

πιστις  ω

  • The first word, ισοψηφα, means “of equal value/number”, indicating that the graffito is an example of “isopsephy”, the ancient practice of comparing words of equal numerical value (by adding up the value of their letters).  The letters of each of the two words, κυριος (“Lord”) and πιστις (“faith”), = 800, which is expressed by the omega after each one (the omega = 800).
  • The distinguishing centrality of these two Greek words in early Christian vocabulary (as well as the interest in 8 and multiples of 8) combine to prompt Bagnall’s judgment that the graffito “can only indicate a Christian character” (22).
  • As this graffito is on a layer of plaster just beneath the layer with the dated graffito, it must be dated earlier than 125 CE, perhaps some years earlier.  This would make this certainly the earliest identifiable Christian graffito, and perhaps also likely the earliest artifact of Christian writing.

Perhaps because Bagnall doesn’t have a TV production company behind him, we haven’t seen this item in the daily news.  But, while we wait to see what scholars make of the Talpiot tombs, and whether in fact we have a fragment of a 1st-century copy of the Gospel of Mark, here we have a published artifact that has strong claims for anyone interested in the origins of Christianity.

Bagnall also notes a few other graffiti from Smyrna that he judges “possible references to Christianity” (23).  These include a fragmentary graffito that can be restored as “the one who has given the spirit”.  Another partially-preserved graffito “even more tantalizingly” has the letters ΚΑΡΠΟΣ, which Bagnall wonders might have been the name of Polycarp (Greek:  Πολυκαρπος), a leader in the church in Smyrna in the period of the graffito.

Isopsephy was taken up by ancient Jews, and the Jewish practice is called “gematria” (from the Greek word “geometria“), and it is interesting that among our earliest literary examples are instances in NT writings that likely stem from Jewish-Christian authors:  the best-known one Revelation 13:18 and also (more subtly) Matthew 1:17 (alluding to the numerical value of “David” in Hebrew characters).  Roughly contemporary are instances in 3 Baruch and Sibylline Oracles 5, lines 12-51.  The second-century Christian text, Epistle of Barnabas, uses the technique in expounding the meaning of the 318 servants of Abraham (Gen 14:14) as the cross of Jesus (318 written as the Greek letters TIH, the T = cross/crucifixion, and the IH the first two letters of Jesus’ name).  For a helpful introduction, see the entry on “Gematria” by Gideon Bohak in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, eds. J. J. Collins & D. C. Harlow (Grand Rapds:  Eerdmans, 2010), 661.

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  1. John Moles permalink

    This is all very delightful and illuminating, but could I please have an answer to my original question? One assumes that Richard Bauckham maintains his position on the numerical encoding of ‘Peter’ and ‘John’ at the end of ‘John’: what do YOU think? What should the rest of us think?

    As for the ‘Alexamenos’ graffito, I have pointed out before (a) that one of the manners of execution of the Christians in Rome in 64 implies public awareness of Jesus’ crucifixion and (b) that Nero’s court had knowledge of the Passion narrative (as of course they would have when Paul defended himself before Nero and when they punsihed Christians horribly in 64).

    • Not offended. You just seemed to come on rather aggressively. But we’re square now, and I hope I’ve been clear enough for you.

  2. I’m no expert on these things, but I have the impression that isopsephisms were supposed to demonstrate something. The verse about Nero that circulated (‘Neopsephon [a new calculation]: Nero killed his own mother’) was meant to get you to realise that ‘Nero’ and ‘killed his own mother’ have the same numerical value (1005) – and so to show that the rumour to this effect must be true. So WHY does this graffito point out that kyrios and pistis have the same value? Is it ‘evangelistic’ – implying ‘the Kyrios is the one you should put your faith in’?

    • Aha! Something in which, Richard, you’re not an expert! Seriously, I have to make a note of this! But you pose a really good question. In gematria, one can use the numerical similarity of two words to cross-interpret. It’s one of the “middoth” (hermeneutical rules) listed in rabbinical texts. So, in this case, I’d guess (NB!) that the graffito reflects a relation in the mind of the writer between the Kyrios in whom one places faith and the faith that one places in the Kyrios.

      • But I wonder whether the rabbinic rules for interpreting Scripture would be the right sort of key to a graffito like this, rather than secular usage? That’s why I cited the one about Nero. The only other one I happen to know is the graffito from Pompeii – ‘I love the girl whose number is’ [I forget the number]. Here the point is a secret communication with the girl, since she would know what her name added up to, but it would not be easy for anyone else to work out the name from the number. Is our graffito a code intended for other Christians to read (in which case the equivalence with XC could be relevant) or is it meant to say something to any reader?

      • Another good question. My answer: Dunno.

  3. is there a photo of the graffito? this seems fascinating. thanx for blogging it!

    • There isn’t a photo in Bagnall’s book, only his transcription, which I repeated in my posting.

  4. Rafael permalink

    Bauckham work’s is the chapter 13, “The 153 fish and the Unity of Fourth Gospel”, in “The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple”; the book is a collection of issues and one most important recent book about John

  5. I think the decisive piece of reasoning about the graffito and the nominum sacrum XC is that the graffito-writer gives the value (800) of the nominative forms ‘pistis’ (‘faith’) and ‘kyrios’ (‘Lord’), even though the form of these nouns would have differed in non-nominative contexts. This gives us warrant to believe that had the graffito-writer considered the nomina sacra for ‘Christ’, the value of the nominative form (800) would have been uppermost in his/her mind. I believe it was.

    • Your suggestion is well taken, but it is important to note that the number 8 had a special significance in early Christianity, and also multiplications of 8 such as 800. The number represented for them Jesus’ resurrection (on the 8th day/1st day), and more widely then eschatological salvation.
      So, e.g., we have early Christian refs to Iesous as the perfect name because it = 888.

      • Well said, but you may also note that Luke changed the length of time prior to the Transfig scene from six to eight days. Now you asked in an earlier response why there’s no reference to XC(XS) in the graffito. Three possibilities occur to me: (1) that it was there originally, but was effaced, (2) that it was never there, because the name of Jesus was considered too holy to be publicly displayed, or (3) that it was never there, because the graffito constituted a kind of in-joke or secret ad for Christianity (“Guess which other word has the same value?”) I realize that this is just speculation, but the alternative – viz., that the graffito-writer was unaware of XS or its value – strikes me as quite implausible. May I add, by the way, that I am a great fan of yours, having read and in my possession both your IH-article and your book ECA.

      • Correction: “title of ‘Christ'” considered too holy, not “name of Jesus”.

  6. John Moles permalink

    It’s in his ‘eyewitnesses’ book, where he’s discussing the ending and the parallels and contrasts between Peter and the beloved disciple. He argues their names, in their Hebrew forms, are encoded numerically.

  7. Prof. Hurtado, I am thankful that you would be willing to share this nice tidbit along with your comments. It is fascinating. Would you say isopsephy is a uniquely Jewish exercise or was it common among the Greeks or Romans as well? Also, as archaeology is something I am interested in but have yet to study, assuming this is in fact Christian, what is the earliest inscription or graffito to your knowledge besides this one?

    • Because the rabbinic/Jewish term for isopsephy, “gematria” is derived from a Greek word, “geometria”, it seems that the practice emerged in Greek and was then adopted by Jews. Interesting that the earliest Christian examples (which are also the earliest Jewish ones) are in texts thought to have been written by Jewish Christians (Gospel of Matthew, Revelation).
      For further study of early Christian inscriptions, a standard starting point = Orazio Marucchi, Christian Epigraphy: An Elementary Treatise, with a Collection of Ancient Christian Inscriptions, Mainly of Roman Origin, trans. J. A. Willis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911; reprint, Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1974). More recent studies include: Gary J. Johnson, Early Christian Epitaphs From Anatolia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995); Denis Feissel, Recueil des inscriptions chrètiennes de Macèdoine du IIIe au VIe siecle, Bulletin de correspondence hellènique, supplèment, no. 8 (Paris: Dèpositaire, Deffusion de Boccard, 1983). For a long time the Abercius inscription was thought to be the earliest, “the Queen of Christian inscriptions”. I’m not myself sure where things stand now.

  8. Surely it’s no accident that 800 is also the value of XC?

    • It’s all in the eye of the beholder! But, more significantly, the numerical value of the “nomina sacra” forms is not fixed, for the final letter depends on the case of the noun in any given instance. The only form that remains fixed is the “IH” form (the first two letters) of “Iesous”, which = 18. I’ve written on this in an article published some time ago: Larry W. Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117, no. 4 (1998): 655-73.

      • With all due respect, Professor, I’m disappointed with your response. The value of XC was 800, and the value of XY was 1000. The beholder’s eye doesn’t change that. And since the nominative form of a noun would surely be the form brought to mind if one was just thinking of the noun outside of a context, it seems reasonable to assume that the value of the nominative form would be the value most likely to be associated with a noun. Thus, the clear implication of the graffito (as far as I’m concerned) is that the two inscribed words are associated with ‘Christ’ by virtue of having the same value.

      • Hmm. Possible. But why then didn’t the graffito include ref to XC? So you’re entitled to think what you wish, but it is quite normal for scholars to demand more than an assertion. No offence.

  9. John Moles permalink

    What do you think of Richard Bauckham’s claim that the end of the Gospel acording to John encodes, by ‘gamatria’, the names of both Peter and John? Innumerate as I am, I thought it both interesting and plausible.

  10. It would be awesome if there was enough graffiti in the area to get a sort of “Graffiti Gospel of Smryna.” I find Graffiti to be a really interesting way to tap into a particular worldview because it doesn’t have the same community control that a circulated letter does.

    • Bagnall suggests a maximum of three or so Christian graffiti in the remains of ancient Smyrna. It’s also interesting to note graffiti about Christians/Christianity but not by Christians. The most well known is the Palatine graffito about a certain “Alexamenos”. Interesting, in that it shows (contra some claims to the contrary) that already in the date of the graffito (early 3rd century?) and in “grass roots” levels, the Christian focus on the crucified Jesus was well known, even among detractors of Christianity. For those who don’t know the item, the Wikipedia entry is actually not a bad introduction:

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