Sunday, 23 October 2011

Our oldest Christian artefact?

I once asked a devout gathering of Christians if they could name the oldest artefact believed to bear witness to British Christianity. You probably won’t have heard of it, no matter how devout you are. But it tells quite a story.

A lady in the crowd nearly threw me completely by answering at once: “The thorn tree at Glastonbury.” She was right - in a way. This tree supposedly sprung to life from the staff carried by St Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Christ. Medieval legend claimed that Joseph visited Glastonbury after Christ’s death, bearing the Holy Grail and his miracle-working staff. You can still see an offshoot of this holy thorn tree in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, pictured above. If the legends are correct, it was created by miracle soon after Christ’s death, so it is nearly 2,000 years old.

But a thorn tree is not technically an artefact, a manufactured object. So my tale can continue.
Rather than the enigmatic hill of Glastonbury, the actual location of our earliest evidence for Christian activity is a museum in Manchester.

There in a display case sits a fragment of pottery discovered during an archaeological dig in the city centre, on Deansgate in 1976. It is said to date from around the year 182, and has scratched on its surface part an enigmatic riddle, thought by many to be a secret Christian code. The BBC has a picture of it here.

This code is known as the Sator Square, and it looks like this:


The words read the same in all four directions, an amazing piece of wordplay that is almost impossible to arrange in any language. The five Latin words do make sense up to a point, since they translate as: ‘Arepo the sower guides the wheels with care’. But hidden within them are the words ‘Pater Noster’ with the two additional letters A and O, or Alpha and Omega.

You can read much more about the meaning, history and claimed Christian associations of the enigmatic Sator Square on the internet, starting with Wikipedia.

At the simplest level, however, it serves as a reminder that the earliest Christians in the 2nd century were forced to celebrate their faith in near total secrecy, often in the face of persecution and death. Quite how Christianity survived – let alone prospered – in such adverse conditions gives pause for thought.

Now it is a common lament to hear that Christianity is being marginalised from society, that it is losing its public voice, its influence and its respect. I know many religious, church-going people who claim to have little interest in church history and traditions, but we can take comfort by knowing our past.

An ingenious cryptogram scratched on shard of ancient pottery is a reminder that we have coped with worse.