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In December, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the subaquatic discovery of a Roman-era gold ring bearing the image of a shepherd boy. The gold and blue-green gemstone ring was one of a few artifacts found in the excavations of two shipwrecks off the coast of Israel near the ancient port of Caesarea. The ring is significant, the IAA says, because the image was used by Christians to symbolize Jesus. But did the ring belong to a Christian at all? And if it did, what does that mean?
The IAA states that the ring was part of a cache of treasures scattered on the seabed near the hulls of the two shipwrecked vessels. Though their remains were discovered close to one another, the two wrecks were separated by roughly a thousand years. The construction of a breakwater at Caesarea in the first century A.D. created short-terms gains but the deficiencies in the engineering led to the harbor silting up and caused numerous shipwrecks over the ensuing centuries. Jacob Sharvit, of the IAA’s marine archeology unit, said the “The ships were probably anchored nearby [to the port of Caesarea] and were wrecked by a storm.” Among the wreckage archeologists also uncovered hundreds of bronze and silver coins from the third century, Roman figurines, bronze bells, another ring containing a carved red gemstone, and a large horde of 14th century coins.
The most widely publicized item in the find, however, was the “Good Shepherd” ring named because in the New Testament Jesus describes himself in this way (John 10:11-18). To the IAA, the proximity to Caesarea is key; Sharvit noted that Caesarea was home to an early community of Jesus followers and was the location where Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius. “From here,” Sharvit said, “the Christian religion began to be disseminated across the world.”
The carved image shows a young boy carrying a sheep (or possibly a ram) across his shoulders. The IAA states, that the image “is one of the earliest and oldest images used in Christianity for symbolizing Jesus; it represents Jesus as humanity’s compassionate shepherd, extending his benevolence to his flock of believers and all mankind.”
To an extent the IAA is absolutely correct. The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was iconographically important for early Christians. Images of the Good Shepherd can be found painted on the walls of the third century St. Callisto cemetery, the third/fourth century Catacomb of Priscilla, and the Catacomb of Domatilla. The example in Domitilla’s catacomb has been dated by some to the second century.
It’s important to note, however, that Christian use of the Good Shepherd was one of many iconographic images that was adapted from Greek and Roman art and, thus, was not unique to Christianity. As art historian Robin Jensen has written in The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, “the figure of a shepherd carrying a ram over his shoulders has an ancient pre-Christian precedent in a depiction of Hermes, the gods’ messenger and caretaking guide to the underworld.” Others have pointed out the similarities between the youthful clean shaven good shepherd and ancient depictions of Orpheus, the tragic lyre-playing son of Apollo who journeyed to the underworld to try and rescue his beloved Eurydice. In addition to being depicted in visually similar ways in ancient artwork, the mythology of all three figures ties them in some way to the afterlife: Jesus descended to hell after his death; Orpheus travelled to Hades; and Hermes was an underworld guide. The similarities between them don’t mean that they were all the same person (Jesus isn’t just a Christian Hermes), but they certainly took the same commute.
The similarities between the bucolic images and the fact that the shepherd was a pagan motif meant that the ring’s interpretation was very much in the eye of the beholder. One person could look at it and see the Jesus of the Gospels, another might see Hermes. It’s a flexible and multivalent image. What this means of course, is that we cannot be certain that the ring’s owner was Christian we can only be sure that they were wealthy enough to purchase such an expensive luxury item.
Engraved gemstones and personal seals had a lengthy history in Roman society. Not only were they displays of wealth and social status, but they could also gesture to religious affiliations. Most important of all, however, was their role as guarantors of identity. Like others involved in commerce and politics, Christians needed to use seals to supply proof of their identity, but they also worried about using the sexually suggestive or idolatrous symbols found on some signet rings. The turn of the third century Christian teacher and philosopher Clement of Alexandria advises that Christian seals should contain “either a dove, a fish, or a ship running with fair wind, or a lyre” (it’s worth noting that the second red stoned ring discovered in the shipwreck featured a lyre).
There are some good reasons, however, to think that the ring was owned by a Christian. Aside from the fish and anchor, writes Getty curator Jeffrey Spier, the most popular image on seals from the third and fourth centuries was the Good Shepherd. Often these seals were accompanied by other religiously significant details like a fish, an anchor, the chi-rho symbol popularized after Constantine, or the name Jesus or Christ. This ring doesn’t have those but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the owner was Christian. In the same way, Dr. Jeremiah Coogan, a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University told me, the lyre ring could be Christian, but it could also have been Orphic.
Even if the owner was a Christian, this does not necessarily mean that the ring was made by a Christian artisan or that others recognized it at such. The symbol was as legible to pagans as it was Christians. Unlike rings that bore the name of Jesus, the owner would have been able to “pass” in Roman society without anyone batting an eyelid at the crypto-theological jewelry. While Christians were not constantly persecuted in the third century, they were socially marginalized and occasionally fell afoul of the authorities and even official legislation. The utilization of imagery that was Christian, yet looked upon favorably by others, allowed Christians to participate in commerce and trade without raising eyebrows or heckles.
As for the owner’s ties to Caesarea, it is inaccurate to say that Caesarea is the place from which Christianity spread. But, by the mid-third century, Caesarea was a bustling center of intellectual activity for both Jews and Christians. It was a home-away-from-home for Origen, one of Christianity’s most prolific and important thinkers who refers to intellectual engagement with Rabbis in the city. As Dawn LaValle Norman has put it, Caesarea was one of the “new intellectual centers” of the ancient Mediterranean. Coogan told me that “apart from Rome and, perhaps, Ephesus, we have more archeological evidence for religious diversity in late ancient Caesarea than we do for anywhere else. We know that in the third century there were Christians, Samaritans, Rabbis, Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking cults, an active Mithras shrine, and an imperial cult.”
What all of this means is that a third century Christian who lived in the era before people wore crosses could use religiously ambiguous symbols to navigate the rich but precarious landscape of ancient religiosity. The Good Shepherd ring—or Lyre ring for that matter—drew on religious images that had significance for Jews, Christians, and pagans. The wearer could rest assured that he was a faithful Christian, while also forging and maintain social ties with non-Christians.