The Catacombs



by Tom Wacaster

While in the process of looking up something I had filed away several years ago, I stumbled upon a little tidbit regarding the catacombs that lay beneath the city of Rome. The author noted that the “catacombs are of peculiar interest to us because this is where our brothers and sister from that age rest. The message they left behind serves as a haunting reminder of our responsibility to be ‘faithful unto death.’” That statement intrigued me, so much so that I found myself taking a slight detour from my intended study in order to learn more about these catacombs. Our English word “catacomb” comes from a combination of two Greek words: ‘kata’ meaning ‘down,’ and ‘kymbe’ meaning ‘hollow.” I gleaned the following from Wikipedia:

The first large-scale catacombs in the vicinity of Rome were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. They were carved through tufo, a soft volcanic rock, outside the walls of the city, because Roman law forbade burial places within city limits. The pagan custom was to incinerate corpses, while early Christians and Jews buried the dead. Since most Christians and Jews at that time belonged to the lower classes or were slaves, they usually lacked the resources to buy land for burial purposes. Instead, networks of tunnels were dug in the deep layers of tufo which occurred naturally on the outskirts of Rome. At first, these tunnels were probably not used for regular worship, but simply for burial and, extending pre-existing Roman customs, for memorial services and celebrations of the anniversaries of Christian martyrs (Wikipedia, Catacombs of Rome).

Such catacombs have been discovered in various countries, but the catacombs of Rome are by far the most important. An early theory of the origin of these catacombs was that they were carved out by the Romans and then later appropriated by the Christians for burial, and even later for refuge. That theory has been disproved due to the archaeological work of Marchi and De Rossi. The catacombs were actually dug by the Christians themselves. Prior to the days of severe persecution, some wealthy Christian would start a small catacomb for the members of his family which would later be expanded to accommodate a larger multitude, particularly after the various waves of persecution came upon the church. Over a period of years a confusing maze of galleries running in all directions was excavated. In many cases these galleries were arranged in floors connected by staircases. The massive arteries leading from one area to the next became so vast that it was easy to become disoriented and lost in the maze of tunnels. Once the fierce persecution of the church arose, the Christians started taking refuge in the catacombs. Foster tells us that “burial places had the right of asylum by law, and, when the churches were closed in the city, the Christians met here underground” (Foster, Studies In The Life of Christ, 21). It would not be long, however, before the authorities started entering these tombs, and so the Christians destroyed the old entrances and dug new and secret entrances to the catacombs. It has been estimated that this vast maze of catacombs, if strung together, would stretch more than 600 miles, the full length of Italy. Estimates of the actual number of tombs ranges from 1,750,000 to more than 4 million. You can actually take a tour of some of those catacombs if you happen to visit Rome or Paris.

There are numerous epitaphs and drawings attached to the various tombs, telling an amazing story of the “fiery trial” (1 Pet. 4:13) those early Christians had to endure. Hundreds of thousands of our brethren were martyred for their faith in Christ and their bodies were laid to rest in those dark catacombs. The following is a sampling of what they endured: “The cruelties used in this persecution were such that many of the spectators shuddered with horror at the sight, and were astonished at the intrepidity of the sufferers. Some of the martyrs were obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp shells, etc. upon their points, others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare, and after suffering the most excruciating tortures that could be devised, they were destroyed by the most terrible deaths” (Fox’s Book of Martyrs, page 8). I could fill this week’s article, and dozens of others, with such cases of the horrible treatment that our brothers and sisters in Christ received at the hands of their persecutors.

Now, here is the point that deserves careful consideration. If ever there was a people that might have been bitter toward their enemies, or have deep regret for having ever followed Jesus, those early Christians would fall into that category. They lost everything, for no other reason than the fact that they bore the name “Christian.” In many cases their property was confiscated, leaving them destitute. Families were separated, loved ones often being killed while their family members were forced to look upon the horrible atrocities committed against them. Hundreds of thousands suffered martyrdom at the hands of their enemies. How easy it would have been to avoid such persecution by simply taking the oath of loyalty, pinch the incense and declare “Caesar is Lord.” But they would not! Germanicus, a young man at the time of his death, was delivered to the wild beasts on account of his faith. Yet he behaved with such astonishing courage that several of his pagan persecutors became converts to the very faith that inspired such fortitude. The writings in those catacombs attest to the fact that those early Christians not only suffered horribly at the hands of their enemies, but they seem to have endured it with great patience and hope of eternal life. In spite to the ill treatment at the hands of those who were determined to exterminate Christianity, those early Christians maintained their faith in God. Carved on the tombs beneath the streets of Rome are some of the most amazing statements of that faith. I share with you some of those epitaphs gleaned from various sources: “Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.” Another bears the simple testimony, “Victorious in peace and in Christ.” Again, “Being called away, he went home.” “Peace to thy soul, Oxyxholis.” “Agape, thou salt live forever.” “Severa; mayest thou live in God.”  How could these early Christians bury their loved ones with such calm assurance? What is it that helped them maintain their faith while undergoing such unspeakable oppression? It was, without doubt, the full assurance that there would come a day when they, along with their loved ones, would be raised from the dead and be reunited in heaven.

The very existence of those catacombs, with their writings and ancient art work, attest to the reality of Jesus Christ and the devotion of our brothers and sisters in Christ who gave their lives to advance the Kingdom of our Lord. Perhaps more than anything, like Able, they, “being dead, yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4). And what a message they proclaim! It is a message of faith and hope. While faith looks backward, hope looks forward. While faith appropriates through obedience to God’s will, hope anticipates the fulfillment of the promises of God. Faith is root, hope is the fruit.

“Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free. How sweet would be their children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for thee!” (2nd stanza, Faith of Our Fathers). That, beloved, is the lesson to be learned from the catacombs!