Herculaneum Christian House
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37. Herculaneum Christian House

Prayer Desk

The theory that this Herculaneum Christian house is strengthened by another interesting piece of carbonized house furniture which the room held. It is a small wooden cupboard, thirty-six inches or so high and half as wide converted from organic wood into carbon by heating or burning. It sits directly beneath a cross impression on the wall. The cupboard or prayer desk looked as if it was used for worship. Indeed, it bore a striking resemblance to the wooden chests common in Pompeii and Herculaneum, in which small household gods are housed. This prayer desk is probably directly developed from the pagan wooden chest and furnishings. The first floor had been turned into two apartments. In one room, which could have belonged to either apartment, a small chapel had been set up. A patch of white plaster had been let into the wall at some time after the construction of the room. Marked clearly in the center of this plaster was a sizeable cross. It is yet another example of pagan customs, cult objects, words and symbols being "baptized" and taken over by the growing Christian movement in this Herculaneum community.

Christian Home

Herculaneum interiorDr. Michael Green (1930-present) in his book "Evangelism in the Early Church" writes, "If this reconstruction is anywhere near the truth, it gives concrete attestation of the process which we know must have been going on at the time, the gradual infiltration of the middle and upper classes of Roman society by Christianity through the lives and words of slaves and freedmen. This is how that unique institution, the home, began to make an impression on surrounding paganism." Byzantine house renovations were carried out so that space could be better used for community worship. Byzantine House Renovations without altering the exterior, were carried out on a house with eight ground floor rooms, a staircase to the roof, and a central courtyard. They were converted before the middle of the third century AD into a building better suited for group worship and activities. The new room after the renovations was sixteen by thirty-seven feet and could have accommodated perhaps sixty-five to seventy-five people. Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" note, "A built-in baptistery with a canopy supported by columns was also added in yet another room." When the Byzantine house renovations were carried out by the Christians, several major changes were introduced according to Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development."

Domus Ecclesiae

Domus Ecclesiae

Basilica DrawingThis type of "Domus Ecclesiae" developed from an ordinary house around 250 AD and was used for worship by Christian communities until dedicated buildings were built. Among the reasons for the church's transition from ordinary homes to domus ecclesiae which were literally "house churches" were the size of the community and the diversity of activities being undertaken. By 250 AD, believers in Rome numbered approximately thirty thousand people. Growth such as this necessitated the remodeling of existing structures for Christian meetings.

Formal Seating

Agape Love SignChristian churches needed also to accommodate a diversity of activities and this left its special impact on architectural features. In the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development" edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, the Agape Feast is by this time separated from the Eucharist, called the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion. The Agape feast was formerly the meal that preceded the service which meant that dining arrangements and culinary facilities in the domus ecclesiae were no longer needed.

Dias and Throne

Domus EcclesiaeInstead of an informal household arrangement, formal seating was then implemented including a throne, with the orientation toward the dais or the raised platform for the bishop or leading elder. A distinction was made between catechumens and full members, and particular features, such as a baptismal font, were added. In this way, the transition was made from meetings in homes to "house churches."

Ornate Frescoes

Ostia MosaicA house in Ostia at the center of the Roman Empire portrays in its floor mosaics an obvious Christian praying figure. Mosaics in the expansive brick buildings of Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome, show the Christianizing process at a reasonably advanced stage in the second and third centuries. In Ostia, which was at the time the seaport for Roman goods, ornate tile floor mosaics detail Eucharistic loaves, a chalice, and fish motifs. There is moreover a fascinating complex of three houses on the Caelian Hill which is one of the seven hills in Rome. The use of "opus reticulatum" which is a diamond pattern brickwork, together with herringbone tiling in the construction points to the first century as the probable date of the building of the house.

Christian Praying Figure

Hands of a Child and AdultOrnate frescoes found in the Caelian houses in Rome are very similar in design and execution to the style of those at Pompeii dating to 79 AD. Before the mid-second century, one house was modified to take over an adjoining house. That building contained in its dining area a remarkable mosaic of a Christian praying figure, called an "Orante," from the Latin meaning "one who is praying or pleading." This figure has arms outstretched above the head in prayer. Such a figure confirms the Christian ownership of the house but in a very subtle way. These were very similar to those found in the Catacombs meaning "among the tombs." In the passageways cut in the rock, there were burial places, grave niches as well as many wall paintings and also indications of religious practices mainly by Christians.

Pagan Praying Figure

NaplesThe National Museum at Naples has two good examples of praying figures of pagan origin, dating from before 79 AD, which was found at Pompeii. For all the similarities between these and Christian praying figures, there is a striking difference between the pagan praying figure and the Christian one in that the posture of the praying Christians, which they are modeled on is quite different.

Arms Outstretched

Smyrna Praying FigureThe pagan figure keeps the upper arms to the side of the body while extending the forearms forward in supplication. The Christian praying figure stretches out the arms above the head in supplication like Christ with arms outstretched on the Cross. A praying Christian painting in the plaster on a wall at a Dura-Europos house church also indicates a Christian home. Dr. Michael Green (1930-present) the author and evangelist in "Evangelism in the Early Church" argues that the similarity of the pagan type of praying pagan figure to the praying Christian figure in a wall painting would allow it to go unchallenged by most visitors to the home. But a Christian would immediately recognize the praying Christian and the pagan acquaintance interested enough to inquire about its peculiarities would provide his host with an ideal opportunity to explain the Christian faith to him. At Dura-Europos, a Roman frontier fortress town in the Syrian desert, one house church building has survived and may be visited today. Archaeologists discovered it under the sand in 1934. The house was probably built before 100 AD but we do not know when Christians first used it as their meeting place, but in about 232 AD the building was altered and made more suitable for services.

Paintings in the Baptistery

Woman at WellAfter the alterations to the Dura-Europos church, there were paintings made in the plaster on the baptistery walls including a praying Christian figure, and enough paint remains for us to recognize the subjects, and see what prayer and baptism meant to those Christians eighteen centuries ago. The central picture shows the scene from John 10.14-16 of the Good Shepherd bringing a sheep to the flock when Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." On the side walls, are paintings of the healed paralytic both on his bed and carrying it recorded in Mark 2.5., "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'" Jesus is also shown leading Peter from walking on the water into the boat from Matthew 14.31 "Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'" The woman with her water pot at Jacob's well is also illustrated with Jesus saying about the living water in John 4.10, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." Then we see the three women at the empty tomb. "As Christ was raised, we too walk in newness of life" and from Romans 6.4 "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." We need to remember that most people were illiterate in the early days and that paintings and later stained glass windows were one very effective way of visually telling the stories of Jesus.

Herculaneum House

HerculaneumWhen this Herculaneum Christian house was discovered in 1938 and fifty-five feet of volcanic mud from A.D. 79 was removed a small chapel and the remains of a Christian cross appeared. A beautifully preserved Christian house was found under the mud in a place called Herculaneum not far from Pompeii in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, in Southern Italy. Herculaneum is only five miles east of Naples and a short distance from the Mediterranean. Mount Vesuvius has a large cone and steep sides from a previous eruption. Volcanic mud from Vesuvius flowed down the volcano sides in 79 AD upon the houses and people living in Herculaneum. That eruption also ejected rocks, fumes, and ash to a height of over 20 miles and molten rock at the rate of something like 1.5 million tons per second! The thermal energy involved was estimated at a hundred thousand times that of the Hiroshima atom bomb! Approximately 16,000 people died according to the only eyewitness report narrated by the magistrate Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) to the historian Tacitus (56-117 AD). Upon excavation, archaeologists found that one particular house, which was once splendid in design and decor, had fallen upon hard times before the eruption.

Christian Cross

James OssuaryThe Anglican theologian and evangelist Dr. Michael Green in his excellent book, "Evangelism in the Early Church", explains that though it is not certain, this likely affords proof of Christian ownership. Some experts have doubted that the cross became a Christian symbol so early, but other recent discoveries of clearly inscribed, beautiful and ornate Christian inscriptions including crosses on bone boxes or ossuaries from the first and second centuries in Jerusalem seem to point to the acceptance of the cross as a Christian symbol much earlier than thought. Among the embellishments on one ossuary is the sign of the cross, a fish, Jonah emerging from the whale and the anchor, which were all well known early Christian symbols. The stone ossuaries are rectangular boxes for bones about two feet long from the Judeo-Christian community in Jerusalem. They present the clear probability that the cross is used as a Christian symbol in the first century AD as well as at the beginning of the second century, much earlier than is previously thought.

Christian Symbol

Pompeii FigureMoreover, a wooden cross is also found in another Herculaneum Christian house buried in volcanic mud at the same time. There are one or two probable other examples at Pompeii, along the coast from Herculaneum notably in the House of Pansa which occupies an entire city block and has an approximate floor area of 20,000 square feet. There is, therefore, every reason to believe that this indenture in the wall at the Herculaneum residence is a Christian emblem from 79 AD or before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

"Herculaneum Christian House"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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