Christian Graffiti

01 Mar

Ancient Christian Graffiti?

One of the most interesting thoughts concerning early Christian graffiti that I came across has to do with a Latin phrase that is written in block form. It can be read from right to left, left to right, from top to bottom or from bottom to top and the words say the same thing! It is really wonderful what some people can do with words. Consider the image to the right.

S    A    T    O    R

A    R    E    P    O

T    E    N    E    T

O    P    E    R    A

R    O    T    A    S

It says: “Arepo [a person’s name] the sower [sator] holds [tenet] the wheels [rotas] with care [opera].[1] This graffiti has been found upon the remains of a pillar of the west wall of the Herculaneum wrestling school and on the wall of a house in Pompeii, Italy.[2] Although very interesting in itself, this palindrome in word-square form is not by itself Christian. In fact, some scholars have put forth the conjecture that it is not. Originally, perhaps, they are correct, but it is what was done with these same letters that is more interesting and more difficult to conclude that it is not of Christian origin.

By rearranging the same letters, which was done on these same buildings in these two ancient cities, one is able to spell: “Pater Noster” (‘Our Father’ in Latin), which points to the words of Jesus’ model prayer in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Notice


Pater Noster (Our Father) is spelled out in the form of a cross using only the letters found in the block of letters above, the center letter ‘N’ used twice. Left over, we have the ‘A’ (2) and the ‘O’ (2) which are placed next to the ‘T’ (another symbol of the cross), where these same letters in both locations refer to Jesus being the Alpha and the Omega, which is found only in the book of Revelation.

Arguments that might be put forth to show this is not Christian graffiti would be pretty thin, I would expect. This type of thing is much easier explained as Christian. The problem for textual critics who oppose authorship of the NT before the fall of Jerusalem is that someone in Herculaneum and Pompeii had to know of Jesus model prayer the “Our Father” in Matthew and / or Luke. Furthermore, he had to know of Jesus death on the cross and be aware of him as the Alpha and Omega or the Beginning and the End, found only in the book of Revelation.

Herculaneum and Pompeii were destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The very latest the graffiti could have been written was August of that year, but there is no reason not to believe it had been written earlier. Nero was the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians in 64 AD. When an ideology is outlawed, if it is to survive, it learns other ways, often cryptic ways, to witness to what it attests. It was no different for Christianity. When it was suddenly illegal to be a Christian, people used means such as this found on the pillars and walls of places in Herculaneum and Pompeii to encourage brethren and preach the Gospel. However, for this to be so, knowledge of Matthew’s and / or Luke’s Gospels had to have been in circulation and commonly known before 64 AD, and this would also be true of John’s Revelation!

Clement of Alexandria, a church father of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD, recorded that the entire New Testament was written between the reigns of Tiberius and Nero. This witness in cryptic graffiti supports that testimony.


[1] The First Christian Centuries by Paul McKechnie; p.67.

[2] McKechnie refers to W.H.C. Frend, 1996: 131.

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Posted by on March 1, 2011 in Jesus, Religion, Textual Criticism


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