“The Jewish Catacombs of Ancient Rome: New Insights and Perspectives” (Dr. Leonard V. Rutgers)

Abstract: "The Jewish catacombs of Rome are among the most important Jewish archaeological remains to have survived since Antiquity. First discovered in the early 17th century, these subterranean sites have attracted the attention of scholars, but the general public seems to have been largely unaware of their existence. In fact, few visitors to Rome know of the existence of these Jewish monuments. Paradoxically, however, even scholars have failed to pay much attention to the Jewish catacombs and little systematic archaeological research has been carried out in them. As a result, many interesting questions concerning these subterranean sites have never been solved. Practically nothing is known about their chronology, their decoration, or, more generally speaking, about the archaeological materials they contain.

From a scholarly point of view, such a state of affairs is both surprising and lamentable for various reasons, not the least because the Christian catacombs look practically identical to the Jewish ones. Thus it seems inevitable to ask what we can learn about the Jewish and early Christian communities of Ancient Rome once we study these catacombs side by side and once we start examining these materials within the larger archaeological, social, and religious context of Late Roman society.

In this paper, I propose to "tour" the Jewish catacombs of ancient Rome with the help of slides. In so doing, I will point out what is specifically Jewish about these sites, and what they have (and have not) in common with early Christian catacombs. These observations will then provide the basis for a more general discussion of the relationship between Jews, pagans, and Christians in the Roman Empire. Such a discussion will be set within the context of earlier research on the catacombs. More specifically, I will point out how commonly held views on the relationship between Jews and Christians in Antiquity continue to shape scholarly discourse today."

- Leonard V. Rutgers (November, 1995)