The inscription has been reconstructed from three different sources which appear to be based upon it: the fourth-century Life of St. Abercius, another tombstone inscription dating to 215/216 CE to a certain Alexander, found in Phrygia, and which contained the first and last verses of the inscription quoted in the Life of St. Abercius, and finally two stone fragments which were found in the wall of a bathhouse on the site of Hierapolis, Phrygia, which contained the middle of the inscription missing from the epitaph of Alexander.
Joseph Barber Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers: Part II, Volume I (London: Macmillan, 1889), p. 496; R. Merkelbach, “Grabepigramm und Vita des Bischofs Aberkios von Hierapolis,” Epigraphia Anatolica 28 (1995), p. 125-139; W. Wischmeyer, “Die Aberkiosinschrift als Grabepigramm,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 23 (1980), p. 22-47; William Ramsay, “The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 4 (1883), p. 424-428.
The inscription of Abercius is one of the most well-known of all early Christian inscriptions, and as Peter Thonemann states, one of the few which we have from the late second century/turn of the third century CE. It provides us with a detailed and expressive confession of Christian faith, and is a valuable source for the character of Christianity in Phrygia during this period, and the language and symbolism that it employed. Abercius himself can be identified with Avircius Marcellus, to whom an anonymous anti-Montanist tractate is dedicated in around 193 CE (see “Abercius of Hierapolis,” p. 257; for the arguments for and against the identification with Avircius Marcellus, see W. Wischmeyer, “Die Aberkiosinschrift,” p. 26-27, and Margherita Guarducci, “L’inscrizione,” p. 181 respectively). The Latin Avircius is rendered into Anatolian Greek as Abercius, which is the generally accepted form in modern scholarship. The inscription’s history is rather complex, with the text itself actually being known already due to its inclusion in the fourth-century Life of St. Abercius, which is the work of an anonymous author from Hierapolis. In 1881 William Ramsay discovered a funeral inscription of a man named Alexander, son of Antonius, at Kalendres, Phrygia. This Alexander was a native of Hierapolis, and his funerary inscription is dated to 215/216 CE. The inscription quoted word for word the first three and last three verses of the Abercius epitaph cited in the Life of St. Abercius (see Ramsay, “Les trois villes,” p. 518-520). Two years later, Ramsay returned to the area and found two large tombstone fragments that had been built into the walls of a bathhouse on the site of ancient Hierapolis (these are published in Ramsay, “The Cities,” p. 424-428), which are now held at the Vatican Museum. These have since been combined with both the text from the Life of St. Abercius and the epitaph of Alexander to reconstruct the entire funerary inscription (see Thonemann, “Abercius of Hierapolis,” p. 258-259, for a more recent reconstruction and translation of the inscription, which differs very slightly on occasion from that given above).
It is worth noting that Hierapolis is close to where the Montanist “sect” were centred, a group which from quite early on took quite significantly to epigraphic commemoration. It may be that this is why the construction of a Christian monument like that of Abercius was possible in Hierapolis, despite similar examples not being found in other regions of Asia Minor and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean (on this issue, see Stephen Mitchell, “An epigraphic probe,” and “Epigraphic Display and the Emergence of Christian Identity”).
The language of the inscription is symbolic and mysterious, and has led to theories over the years that the Christian nature of the inscription is less certain than one might think. Some older scholars, such as Albrecht Dieterich (Die Grabschrift), argued that Abercius was not a Christian, but a worshipper of the Phrygian goddess Cybele. Adolf von Harnack preferred to understand him as a syncretist (“Zur Abercius-Inschrift”). However, the majority of scholars, including the modern commentators, have tended towards seeing him firmly as a Christian, suggesting that the specific material and language used in the inscription is undeniably Christian. One exception is Allen Brent, who is more sympathetic to the notion of syncretism (see below for a fuller discussion of his arguments). It seems reasonable to conclude that the “queen with golden robe and golden shoes” (line 8) is a metaphor for the Christian church. However, the Life of St. Abercius speaks in chapter 46 of the queen in a more literal sense, identifying her with the emperor’s wife. The author of this text goes on to narrate a fantastical tale of Abercius going to Marcus Aurelius’s court, performing an exorcism on the emperor’s daughter, and then subsequently being rewarded by the empress Faustina.
Allen Brent reads more into the symbolic language of the inscription than many other modern commentators have done, and while he too agrees that the Christian character cannot be denied, posits that a syncretistic attitude to the religious environment that surrounded the inscription is hugely evident. Brent highlights the fact that the text was reused on more than one funerary monument, which he believes suggests there may even have been others utilising the same text as well. This remains purely speculative, however (Cyprian and Roman Carthage, p. 233). For Brent, the presence of this mysterious language on more than one tomb indicates that the local community shared this imagery, and that it might have been quite standard to them, witnessing “one form of popular religion.” Of course, the language of the inscription is clearly reminiscent of the New Testament, in addition to other early Christian authors, with Christ seemingly being described as the “chaste shepherd,” and the Christians of Rome described as having the “splendid seal” on account of their baptism (see Romans 4:11; see also Pseudo-Clement, Second Epistle to the Corinthians VIII.6). We also see the church personified as a lady in the Shepherd of Hermas I.2.2 and Justin Martyr, Dialogues 63. If there was any uncertainty about the Christian nature of the inscription, then as Brent rightly points out, the mention of Paul in line 12 seems to make this rather clear (Cyprian and Roman Carthage, p. 235). However, Brent argues that the type of Christianity which is represented seems to be one which was very happy to be influenced by the religious themes and language of their surrounding culture. For instance, the shepherd Christ is reminiscent of the iconography of the Attis cult, and the idea of the Roman church as the bride of Christ could be seen to reflect the imagery of Elagabalus and the Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa, whose marital union was seen to depict a divine marriage, their children representing both combined divinity and Sol Invictus (see Brent, Cyprian and Roman Carthage, p. 236; see also Dieterich, Die Grabschrift, p. 33-37). However, this seems to be stretching the imagery in the inscription further than necessary. The conception of the church as the bride of Christ should rather be interpreted in light of biblical imagery such as that in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Song of Songs; Isaiah 54:5; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:14; 3:20) where Israel is described (or in the case of Song of Songs, allegorically imagined) as God’s bride. Granted, there may be some interplay between pagan and Christian imagery in the present inscription, but it is clear that it wishes to make unmistakably clear that Abercius is a Christian, a “disciple of the chaste shepherd.”
Rather than following the convention of what was quite typical on many pagan epitaphs, where a curse is pronounced on anyone who dares to desecrate the tomb, it is interesting that Abercius states instead that should anyone build on top of his tomb, a fine should be paid both to the treasury in Rome and his home city of Hierapolis: “he shall pay to the treasury of the Romans two thousand pieces of gold, and to my beloved fatherland Hieropolis, one thousand pieces of gold” (lines 20-22). It is notable that not only has a curse been replaced with two fines, but also that Abercius insists that the Romans should receive twice the amount that his fatherland should. The payment of fines both to the relevant city and the Roman fiscus became normal practice for protecting tombs in the second and third centuries CE, and ordinarily, the Roman fiscus received the larger amount. This statement ought not to be understood as expressing any special loyalty to Rome on Abercius’s part, therefore.
We learn at the start of the inscription that he is a citizen of an “eminent/chosen (ἐκλεκτός, eklektos) city.” This is likely a reference to his fatherland of Hierapolis (which during this period began to refer to itself in such language). Whether or not Abercius also held the Roman citizenship is uncertain, but it could be argued that since the term ἐκλεκτός, eklektos is in fact used in the LXX (Isaiah 43:20) and Mark’s Gospel (13:20) to denote something elect, chosen specifically by God, and given that Abercius describes a few lines later the gloriousness of the city of Rome, it is entirely possible that he wishes to evoke both Hierapolis and Rome in the opening of the inscription. Indeed, the church in Rome is highly praised in line 9 as “bearing the splendid seal.”
Also noteworthy is Abercius’s description of his travels, in which he mentions Syria and Nisibis (today a city in south-eastern Turkey), in addition to the river Euphrates. The Euphrates was re-established by the emperor Hadrian in 118 CE as the eastern limit of the Roman empire’s control, with the decision made not to attempt to re-capture the Parthian territories (although, during the Antonine period Rome did in fact pursue a new campaign across the Euphrates; see Benjamin Isaac, The Limits of Empire). Abercius himself, however, claims to have crossed over the Euphrates on his journey east from Rome (this contrasts with Paul, whom Abercius refers to as his constant companion in spirit, and whose journey took him from the east to the city of Rome, where he eventually met his death). The concept of imperial space is notable here, and it seems that Abercius wishes to emphasise that since Christianity’s most famous travelling ambassador, the church’s unity has greatly flourished, with Christian faith being strong in the East and the West. Indeed, Abercius claims that “everywhere I had associates” (line 11), who would share the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine (line 16). That Abercius’s journey begins in the city of Rome, then, is significant, as we are given the impression of the imperial capital as the centre of Christianity.
An image of the two stone fragments can be seen in Henry Preston Vaughan, Christian Inscriptions (London: SPCK, 1920), p. 25.
The book is in the public domain.