Roman Jerusalem as a Setting of Earliest Christianity: Archaeology, Literary Invention, and Modern Fascination

The recent debates about inscribed names on a few Early Roman period ossuaries have drawn new attention to the composition of a group of early Christians in pre-70 CE Jerusalem. Many recent ideas about the setting of first century Jerusalem are overly reliant on the uncritical use of literary texts. For example, several scholars have attempted to explain the presence of Jesus" family and other “Christians” in Jerusalem by appealing primarily to the canonical Acts of the Apostles. The story in Acts is hard to compete with, but as scholars we do ourselves a great disservice if we simply allow “Luke's” narrative to establish the questions and parameters of our research. A careful combination of texts and artifacts, with additional research into ancient group formation, will lead to new and better constructions of the past that free us from our complete dependence on the ancient stories. Archaeology can help us replace the picture of pre-70 Jerusalem that we find in early Christian literature with more plausible reconstructions of life in this ancient Roman environment. When we think about Early Roman Jerusalem as a setting of earliest “Christianity,” what appears clear is that any group in this city would have faced very similar pressures to those that were encountered by typical associations in most other Roman urban settings. Members of this “Christian” group were living in a city where the political, military, and religious authorities had traditionally shown very little leniency on critics of the temple institution and its related economic and commercial functions. In this paper, I examine the archaeological material that helps us better understand daily life in first century CE Jerusalem, with a focus on how we can more responsibly reconstruct the early “Christian” group that lived in the city.