Monday, July 10, 2017

Christian Graffiti in Smyrna – not as early as once thought

Back in 2012 I posted a brief note about some Christian graffiti in Smyrna that was dated by Roger Bagnall to before AD 125 (and mentioned in R. Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, 2012 pb), 22f., see here). I suggested that if the date was secure “this would be the earliest securely dated archaeological evidence for Christianity anywhere in the ancient world”.


kurioj   w
pistij   w

This could be translated as: ‘equal in value: lord: 800, faith: 800’. It works on the basis of isopsephy:
  • kurioj  when one counts the letters equals 20+400+100+10+70+200=800 (i.e. omega)
  • pistij  when one counts the letters equals 80+10+200+300+10+200=800 (i.e. omega)
Anyway, recently I came across the publication of these texts on the new book shelves in the Sackler library: Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna (eds R.S. Bagnall, R. Casagrande-Kim, A. Ersoy, C. Tanriver; New York: New York University Press, 2016)

In this analysis the dating is shifted back to ‘the last part of the second century and the first part of the third’ (p. 40). Other evidence for Christian presence is also noted (pp. 45-47). It is a full discussion with photos of a range of graffiti texts.


  1. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Did they say why the dates were shifted? Best reason for this? Thanks for posting.

    1. There is a date amidst the graffiti (T16.1: the numbers refer to different bays in the structure): 'in year 210'. Initially this was taken to refer to the era of Sulla (from the Roman conquest of Asia Minor in 85 BC hence AD 125/6). But there are complications to this view and some evidence that dates could also be assigned relative to the battle of Actium (31 BC hence AD 179/80). But in fact there are fewe inscriptions showing what dating system was used in Smyrna, and it is unknown how popular and idiosyncratic graffiti dates would be.
      T13.1 refers (in the plural) to 'emperors' which suggests a date after AD 161 - the joint rule of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Further there was a bad earthquake in AD 178 and the general feel of this book seems to be that the re-plastering on which the graffiti was written post-dates that earthquake. Not completely secure, but broadly seems a plausible type of argument.

    2. Hi,
      Yes, the reference to a joint-rule, the ambiguity surrounding the era used and the apperant rebuilding of the structure after the earthquake in 177 led to the changing of the dating. And yes, not very secure evidence but we feel this date works much better with the general feel of the building/graffiti.
      I should have been more clear with the construction phases of the building; phase 3 (a major reconstruction phase) of the building (page 19) corresponds with the walls supporting the plaster the graffiti is on and I date phase 3 to a date right after the earthquake in 177.

  3. Is the opinion that this would be the earliest securely dated archaeological evidence for Christianity based on rejecting evidence in Pompeii as not clearly enough related to Christianity?

    1. Yes - because it would have been undeniably Christian evidence with secure dating; whereas Pompeii has secure dating and the evidence is open to divergent interpretations (NB I haven't read Bruce Longenecker's book on the crosses in Pompeii).
      Interestingly, there is apparently a SATOR square in Pompeii (part of the ambiguous evidence for Christian presence), and they found a different square in Smyrna (p. 52):

    2. There's also a graffito at Pompeii that uses the word Christianos.

  4. The SATOR square is hard enough to translate; what's your best attempt translating the MHLON square?

  5. Review of this book: