Sacred Connections Scotland

The Romano-Christian British connection
Barry Dunford

If, as tradition and legend suggests, there was possibly an apostolic founding of the Church of Christ in the British Isles during the 1st century A. D, then why are there apparently no contemporaneous Roman antiquities extant (with Latin inscriptions) in support of this? Inscribed Roman artefacts, dating from this period, have been found in Britain (though the vast majority date from the 2nd to the 4th centuries) and one would have thought that, at the very least, a few would have survived indicating the presence of an early Christian community in Britain, if such were the case.

In light of the aforementioned British legendary tradition, how might this apparent historical and archeological anomaly be explained? There would appear to be at least two possible answers to this query.

Firstly, the early Christian apostolic missionaries, and their followers, coming from the Middle East, would not necessarily have been identified as being “Christian” in the generally accepted sense. This probably Essene brotherhood would have been proselytising what in effect would have been a Christian gnosis based on a Middle Eastern mystery school tradition which, no doubt, would have appealed to the British Druid magi whose tenets were closely akin to the Pythagorean mystery ethos, as were the Essenes.

In the Roman world, Christians, so called, were first identified at Antioch by the Latin appellation “Christiani”. The possibly Essene/Druid movement in Britain which, as we have seen, subsequently became known as the Culdee monastic community, with its primary tenets centred around the mystery teaching of St. John, might not necessarily have been viewed by the Romans in 1st century A. D. Britain in the same light as the “Christiani” which formed the basis of the Petrine church at Antioch.

The theosophical scholar, G. R. S. Mead, notes: “It is very certain that the name ‘Christiani’ was not a title given by the early followers of Jesus to themselves.. we find it still unused by a series of Christian writers of the first half of the second century at a time when it was employed.. These Christian writers were content to designate the early communities of their co-believers by such expressions as: ‘brethren,’ ‘saints,’ ‘elect,’ ‘called,’ ‘they that believed,’ ‘faithful,’ ‘disciples,’ ‘they that are in Christ,’ ‘they that are in the Lord,’ and ‘of the way’.” Mead further adds: “It has always been an unfailing source of astonishment to the historical investigator of Christian beginnings, that there is not one single word from the pen of any Pagan writer of the first century of our era, which can in any fashion be referred to the marvellous story recounted by the Gospel writers. The very existence of Jesus seems unknown.” [1] However, perhaps they were aware of the mystery teachings of Isa/Essa as are to be found in some depth in the gnostic gospels and memorials.

Secondly, bearing in mind the apparent censorship by the later Roman monks of any early British writings relating to the founding of an apostolic church of Christ in Britain during the 1st century A. D. (with the possible exception of the reference of the 6th century Glastonbury monk, St. Gildas, mentioned earlier); then it is equally likely that any Roman monuments with pertinent inscriptions relating to this matter might also have been destroyed or possibly removed to the Vatican secret archives. There would be no point in removing any early British literary references and yet leaving contemporaneous Roman archeological evidence, since the continued existence of the latter would defeat the object of the former.

It may be of interest to note the experience of the Victorian artist, Thomas Heaphy, who says: “I know not from what cause it may proceed, but there exists in Rome a singular disinclination on the part of the officials connected with the museums to show to their full extent the collections committed to their charge. This is the case even with those parts to which free access is permitted. After having visited a place again and again for months, it is no uncommon thing to find that you are still a stranger to the greater, and perhaps the more important, part of the museum.. The permission for the Vatican was of infinitely more importance than the others. Stored up in certain rooms there were precious, inestinably precious, relics, that threw a new and unexpected light on the question I was engaged upon; – a series of pictures of our Saviour and the Apostles, enamelled in gold on glass cups and pateræ of the first and second centuries, beyond description unique, and which had never yet been given to the world.” (The Likeness of Christ, 1888)

Another 19th century observer, Charles Maitland, M. D., records: “The chief sources of information regarding the catacombs lie in the various collections of remains in and near Rome. A few interesting Christian epitaphs are to be found on the walls of the Capitoline Museum, in the entrance to the catacombs of St. Sebastian, and in some private houses, basilicas, and villas. But all these collections are insignificant, when compared with the treasures of the Vatican.. First, there is the Christian Museum, properly so called, containing a number of sarcophagi, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, and medals, mostly published in the works of Roman antiquarians.. Besides this, at the entrance to the Vatican Museum is a long corridor, the sides of which are completely lined with inscriptions plastered into the wall. On the right hand are arranged the epitaphs of Pagans, votive tablets, dedications of altars, fragments of edicts and public documents, collected from the neighbourhood of the city; and opposite to them, classed under the heads of Greek, Latin, and Consular monuments, appear the inscriptions of the ancient Christians. These are taken from the catacombs round Rome, and have hitherto remained unpublished. To this gallery, from the circumstance of its containing little more than sepulchral stones, the name of Lapidarian, or delle Lapidi, has been given. The inscriptions, amounting to more than three thousand, were arranged in their present order by Gaetano Marini..

“In the year 1841, the writer applied for permission ‘to copy some of the inscriptions contained in the Lapidarian Gallery,’ and a licence ‘to make some memoranda in drawing, in that part of the Museum’ was granted. About that time, a misunderstanding is reported to have arisen between the Jesuits and the officers of the Vatican; in consequence of which the former were refused permission to copy the inscriptions in question for their forthcoming work on the Christian Arts. An application was also made by them to the Custode of the Gallery, in order to prevent the use of its contents by a foreigner, perhaps a Protestant. On the last day of the month for which the author’s licence was available, he was officially informed that his permission did not extend to the inscriptions, but only to a few blocks of sculpture scattered up and down the gallery. This communication was accompanied by a demand that the copies already made should be given up, with which the author refused to comply; and with the understanding that no more inscriptions should be copied, and that they should not be published in Rome, the matter was allowed to drop.” (The Church in the Catacombs, 1847)

This secretive state of affairs appears to have continued up to the present day. It is extraordinary that an ecclesiastical body, whose alleged founder proclaimed that the truth should be shouted from the housetops, and that knowing the truth was a prerequisite to being free, should be so intent over many centuries to keep information relating to the truth of its alleged origins withheld within a corpus labelled the Vatican Secret Archives. As ever, “By their fruits ye shall know them”. As far as this writer is aware, men still do not gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles.

Returning to the British connection, the big question is: if the statement of Gildas which alludes to the presence of Jesus himself promoting the Christ teaching in Britain has survived the Roman monkish censorship, then could any contemporaneous Roman antiquities still be extant which might have some bearing on the matter? In this respect there is a curious, possibly Romano-Christian inscription, probably dating from the 1st or 2nd century A. D, which was found at Cirencester, in England, during the 20th century. This ancient artefact has become known as the “Cirencester acrostic” and it bears what appears to be an encrypted Cabalastic code with possible overtones of a Christian gnosis. Such acrostics are known to date from before the time of Christ.

This particular acrostic text reads: rotas opera tenet arepo sator, ‘Arepo the sower holds the wheels with care’. Roger J. A. Wilson, Professor of Archeology at Nottingham University, comments on this enigma saying: “The words are set out one above the other, so that, most ingeniously, the line reads the same from left to right, right to left, bottom to top and top to bottom. The first words of the Lord’s Prayer, Pater Noster, are contained twice over in the formula (with two As and Os, alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, left to spare; cf. Jesus’ saying, ‘I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end’: Revelations 1.8). This is surely too extraordinary to be coincidental, and it seems likely, therefore, that the graffito attests to the presence of Christians in corinivm [Cirencester]. The date of the Cirencester plaster is not known, but the first three words of another example, found in Manchester in 1978, were scratched on a broken amphora datable c. A. D 175/85, claimed as the earliest archaeological evidence for Christianity in Britain.” [2] Interestingly, other 1st and 2nd century examples have been found at Pompeii in Italy and Budapest in Hungary.

According to Alan Millard, Lecturer in Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool: “Scattered across the Roman Empire, from Dura Europos on the Euphrates, at the eastern fringe, to Manchester in Britain, near the northern frontier, archaeologists have found examples of an ingenious Latin word-square. It reads the same in every direction, horizontally and vertically.. the letters can be rearranged in a cross to spell the opening letters of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. The two extra As and Os can be put at the ends of the arms as the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega. In the book of the Revelation these letters symbolize Christ’s eternal existence. If this is right, the square is apparently a sort of secret sign. Only Christians would be likely to understand it at once. The two oldest examples come from the town of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.”[3] Moreover, S. R. Gibbs, in his essay The Fish as a Symbol of Christianity (1933) remarks: “The practice of making acrostics was very common in the early Church. [An] acrostic is quoted by Eusebius and St. Augustine from the Sybilline verse which was written about 180 A. D.”[4]

A Research Fellow of the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University, David Howlett, provides the following pertinent information: “There are two Romano-British examples of a widely known palindromic word-square. One is complete, a fragment of red wall plaster 160 x 190 millimetres, found in 1868 at Victoria Road, now in Corinium Museum. The other is incomplete, ROTAS OPERA TENE on a shard of an amphora, found in 1978 in a late second-century rubbish-pit in the vicus of the fort at Mamucium, now in Manchester Museum.. The editors of The Roman Inscriptions of Britain have written of this: ‘the square has been widely accepted as a Christian cryptogram. This interpretation can no longer fit all examples, for the word-square has been found in an early second-century context at Budapest.. and in a late second-century context at Manchester..(both too early for a credible Christian association locally),’ a remarkable example of special pleading. Being read or carried or copied anywhere on the planet by a non-Christian has no bearing whatever on the plain fact that the text Pater noster is quoted from the undoubtedly Christian Gospel according to Mathew vi 9, flanked at the extremities by A and O, an allusion to the undoubtedly Christian Apocalypse 1:8, the whole arranged in a Christian cross, at the crux of which is the only unique letter. Regardless of where one begins to count in the word-square or where one begins to count in the cross, at the upper and left ends or at the lower and right ends, the crucial N is the thirteenth letter, as it is in the twenty-three-letter Latin alphabet.

“The oldest extant version of the Passio Albani ascribes the persecution of the first known British martyr, Saint Alban of Verulamium, to the reign of Septimius Seuerus. The description of Saint Alban’s judge as Caesar may refer to Geta Caesar, who served as governor of Britain while his father, Septimius Seuerus, and his brother, Caracalla, were campaigning against the Picts in 208-209. About the same time the first great Christian Latin author, Tertullian, wrote of Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca Xpisto uero subdita, implying perhaps that Christianity had spread even among the unromanized Picts. In such a context a time late in the second century hardly seems ‘too early for a credible Christian association locally’.”

David Howlett further notes: “Everywhere we see signs of continuity from the Romano-British to the Cambro-Latin tradition, in the repeated use of the Brittonic name Carausius, in the continued use of Roman scripts, in the continued use of Roman titles like protector and magistratus, the literary allusions both to Classical Latin authors like Plautus, Ovid, and Lucan, and to the Latin Bible, the surviving ability to compose competent verse both in traditional quantitative metres and in newly devised rhythmic forms, the repeated use of devices, like the scinderatio phonorum of the ROTAS – SATOR word-square and the scrambled hexameter of the Carausius inscription, the infixed signatures at intervals of seven letters from the time of AVITVS to the time of VIOLA. The cumulative effect suggests that in these inscriptions lies hard evidence for a flourishing intellectual life that retained its vigour among the Britons through what was elsewhere a Dark Age.”[5]

A 19th century academic researcher, Thomas Wright, remarks: “The origin of Christianity in Cornwall and Wales is a very obscure question.. It has been already intimated that we find no traces of Christianity among the innumerable Roman remains found in this country.. It cannot but excite our astonishment that among such an immense number of altars and inscriptions of temples, and with so many hundreds of Roman sepulchres and graves as have been opened in this country, we find not a single trace of the religion of the Gospel.. We seem driven by these circumstances to the unavoidable conclusion that Christianity was not established in Roman Britain, although it is a conclusion totally at variance with the preconceived notions into which we have been led by the ecclesiastical historians.. I have stated that not a trace of Christianity is found among the innumerable religious and sepulchral monuments of the Roman period found in Britain. One solitary memorial of the religion of Christ has, however, been found, and that under very remarkable circumstances. On the principal tesselated pavement in the Roman villa at Frampton in Dorsetshire, the Christian monogram (the X and P) is found in the midst of figures and emblems, all of which are purely Pagan.”[6]

The discovery of the Mildenhall treasure in Britain around 1944 reveals the close association between so-called Pagan symbolism and early Christian iconography. Professor Roger Wilson remarks about one of the pieces of silver tableware, a great circular dish, which ” .. shows the central mask of oceanus surrounded by nereids and tritons; the outer circle shows scenes of Bacchic revelry, with Bacchus himself, Pan, Silenus, Hercules, and maenads and satyrs. The dish is a product of a Mediterranean workshop in the 4th century AD; yet despite the pagan mythology which it and other items in the treasure so emphatically display, it was found along with silver spoons bearing the chi-rho Christian monogram. This juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is not as surprising as it may seem. Early Christians, especially before a new Christian iconography had firmly established itself to replace the old imagery, drew freely on pagan myths, especially those that could be construed as having some relevance to Christianity. Dionysiac (Bacchic) religion, a ‘mystery’ cult like Christianity also believing in an after-life, need not, therefore, have been anathema to the dish’s Christian owner.”[7]

In their Ancient Mysteries of Britain (1986) the authors, Janet and Colin Bord, also observe: “As time went on, some of the native gods and goddesses were absorbed into the Roman pantheon, so that there came a time when the Romans did not see anything strange in the worship of deities with Celtic origins. A fertility cult centred on the mother goddesses was popular and widespread, for example, and at Benwell, on Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman altar was erected to a local Celtic deity.. It follows that from the Roman period we have a strange mixture of religious sites – temples devoted to the worship of eastern deities such as Mithras, a Persian god, temples where Celtic practices were followed, usually located at sites considered sacred to the old religion, such as hillforts.. and early Christian churches.”

In his historical tome Roman Britain (1981) the author, Peter Salway, writes: “A much more important piece of evidence to be examined is the hoard of Christian plate found in 1975 within the walls of the small town at Chesterton (Water Newton).. This hoard is certainly Christian and does contain pieces for which arguments can be produced suggesting a third century date.. Many of the pieces bear Christian symbols or inscriptions, and one mentions the word altare, almost certainly ‘sanctuary’ rather than ‘altar’. This latter, taken with the plaques which had, like the strikingly similar pagan plaques we considered earlier, been attached to some structure, make it clear that the whole group represents fittings and furnishings deliberately removed from a Christian shrine and carefully buried. The importance of this find is threefold. It is the earliest Church plate from the whole [Roman] empire. Secondly, it clearly came from an actual shrine, however small, and was not the travelling equipment of a priest. Finally, the votive plaques show the Christian worshippers adopting one of the commonest forms of religious practice in the ancient world.. Water Newton, exceptional as it seems to be in Britain, is a reasonable setting for a third-century Christian community.. There is stronger evidence of third-century Christianity in the story of the martyrdom of St. Alban.. St. Alban’s judge is described as ‘Caesar’, which makes it highly likely that this trial took place when Geta was left in charge of affairs during Septimius Severus’ Scottish war of 208-9. He is also reported as ordering the cessation of persecution because it was strengthening rather than weakening the Christians.”

This dating agrees with the old Scottish Chronicles which claim that the Scots King, Donaldus Primus (Donald I), embraced Christianity circa 200 A. D,[8] after many centuries of hereditary Pagan Druid influence. So it would seem likely there would have been, at the very least, some kind of Christian based missionary work being carried out in the British Isles as early as the 2nd century A. D, if not earlier still, according to the Joseph of Arimathea legends and the British apostolic mythos.

The feasibility of early Christian activity in Britain, together with a possible Roman association, is discussed by professor emeritus John T. McNeill, who says: “We are justified in assuming that in Britain as elsewhere there was much early Christian activity that remains undocumented.. The statement of Gildas that the Christian religion entered Britain in the reign of Tiberius (who died in A. D. 37) is not verifiable, but when we realize the busy traffic on Roman roads and western seas, we can hardly think it certainly false.. The apostles Peter and Paul were both taken to Britain by the legend makers, and Cesare Baronius in his celebrated Ecclesiastical Annals (1601) under date of A. D. 58 affirms on the authority of Symeon Metaphrastes (ca. 950) that while the Gospel was being carried by others through eastern provinces Peter enlightened the West, and in proclaiming the Faith went ‘as far as to the Britons [usque ad Britannos].. Glastonbury, from very ancient times an active seaport on the Severn estuary, was well situated to be the entrance point for a new religion into western Britain. It was most likely ‘trade-borne’.. and may have come as early as the second or even the first century.”[9]

An early Roman presence at Glastonbury is commented on by the Rev. Richard Warner who states: “There cannot be a doubt of the presence of the Romans at Glastonbury, during their earliest transactions in Britain; and of their occupation of it as long as they continued in our country. It lay in the direct line of their march, while pursuing their military operations in South Britain, from the time of Claudius downwards; and in that of their trade in metals, from Cornwall and Devonshire, to the more south-eastern ports, as long as they worked the mines of the West of England. Various traces of Roman roads, also, may be detected in different places, all pointing to the spot; and many Roman coins have been turned up, either on the Abbey enclosure, or at the foot of the Tor Hill.” (An History of The Abbey of Glaston, 1826). Again, one should bear in mind the Romanised title given to Joseph of Arimathea by St. Jerome as “nobilus decurio”, possibly implying an overseer of Roman mining operations, together with the old Cornish tradition of Joseph’s involvement with the tin trade in Cornwall.

Returning to Professor McNeill: “We cannot dismiss as fanciful the famous boast of Tertullian: ‘In all parts of Spain, among the diverse nations of the Gauls, in regions of the Britons beyond Roman sway but subjected to Christ.. the name of Christ now reigns.’ This is part of a paragraph listing about twenty-five areas or peoples, with the addition, ‘and many islands unknown to us,’ into which Christianity had penetrated. The treatise was written between the years 200 and 208. Allowing for the exuberance of Tertullian, we must also remember that he was one of the best-informed persons of his time. His ‘Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca’ is a studied phrase. It may well represent a report he had heard from a Christian traveler, conceivably one who had been himself displaced from somewhere in the Scottish lowlands where the Romans had then recently lost a wide territory to the Picts. In A. D. 196 Pictish forces drove far southward into the province past the Wall of Hadrian and into what later became northern England. The territory overrun had been ‘Britannorum loca’ under Roman rule for two generations, during which the spread of Christianity in the Empire was a feature of the times. It is highly credible that Christian groups had arisen in the environs of Roman settlements there, that these survived the defeat and departure of the legions, and that Tertullian was making a brief allusion to ascertained facts. Since the Pictish campaign of 196, the ‘places’ were ‘inaccessa’ not necessarily in the literal sense of ‘unreached’ but, as often translated, ‘inaccessible’ to Roman armies. In affirming the existence of Christianity on the frontier of the province, Tertullian undoubtedly assumed its existence within the province itself. This impression is supported by a rhetorical question in a homily of Origen which implies that in Britain Christianity had become a unifying force: ‘When before the coming of Christ did the land of Britain agree on the worship of one God?’ This is vague enough, but at least he had, and assumed in his readers, a settled impression that a considerable community of Christians had arisen in the province. Eusebius in a little-known work, Evangelical Demonstrations, states that ‘some apostles passed over the ocean to what are called the British isles’ but this reads like a mere echo of some fragment of early legend.”[10]

The Rev. John Pryce, a former Vicar of Bangor in Wales, says: “One leading idea seems to underlie them all alike, that the Gospel was preached in Britain at an early date, but that this was effected by different and independent agencies, at different times, from different places, and at different points in the Island. This conclusion will appear still more probable, when we consider the many mysterious influences at work for the spreading of the Gospel during the first two centuries. No feature is more eminently characteristic of the sub-Apostolic age than the surprising ductility with which Christianity crept through the various pores of the world that were open to it. Soldiers coming to Britain from other parts of the Roman Empire, for what Tertullian says of his time is equally applicable to a much earlier period-that Christians filled every place-cities, fortresses, towns, market-places, and the very camp; the great commercial activity which in the first century sprang up between Britain and the outer world.. any or all of these influences, apart from any organised mission, might, and necessarily would, convey in a short time to Britain the Gospel from the lodgment it had effected along the shores of the Mediterranean.. That the heresy of Basilides [2nd century A. D], for instance, had found its way to Britain, possibly as early as the second century, appears from a gold Basilidian talisman found at Carnarvon [North Wales], near the site of the old Roman Segontium; it is a thin plate of gold, with an inscription in astral or magical characters, and with the following words in Greek letters, AAQNAI, EAQAI, EAAIQN, IAQ.” (The Ancient British Church, 1878)

Another possible 1st century A. D. Romano-Christian British connection revolves around the suggestion that a Roman Centurion, Longinus, associated with Pontius Pilate, came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea. Bearing in mind the tradition of the Royal Scots Regiment that their origins derived from the personal bodyguard of Pilate, it seems likely that Longinus may also have been a Celt. As a curious aside, high up on the north wall of the famed Rosslyn Chapel, in Scotland, is to be seen a 19th century stained glass window portraying St. Longinus. Moreover, according to an old Irish legend, Christianity was first brought to Ireland by an Irish centurian, named Altus, who also may have had a celtic background. The root of this name, i. e. Alt, is gaelic and can mean stream, which in this instance has been romanised with the Latin suffix us.

To continue our enquiries, Sheppard Frere, Professor of Archeology of the Roman Empire at the University of Oxford, observes: “There is little evidence to suggest that Christianity became widespread in Britain before the closing years of the fourth century. It was introduced, however, perhaps as early as the second, for Tertullian, writing in the early years of the third, asserted that ‘parts of the island inaccessible to Rome have been subjected to Christ’; and his evidence is supported a few decades later by Origen. If Christianity, as is likely in Britain at this period, was a minority religion very largely confined to eastern traders, and if Tertullian may be taken literally, it is possible that merchants had made converts on voyages to Ireland or up the Scottish coasts. That the faith had reached Britain before the time of Severus is suggested by the probability that it was in 208-9 that St. Alban became the first British martyr.. Christianity, however, was likely to spread fastest in the cosmopolitan society of large ports and cities, and Britain was not at first a favourable environment. One day London may perhaps produce pre-fourth-century evidence; at the present time Cirencester is the only town to have done so, for there the famous word-square, now known to be a Christian cryptogram, is incised on wall-plaster which, to judge by its technical quality, is of second – or third – century date: moreover, such a cryptogram would lose much of its significance after the Freedom of the Church. We can only say that by 314, when the Council of Arles assembled, the urban episcopate of Britain was well established. Three British bishops and a priest and a deacon attended the council; and Dr J. C. Mann has shown that these represented the metropolitical churches of the four British provinces of the day. Even fourth-century relics of urban Christianity, however, are curiously rare.”[11] It may be significant to note that Professor Frere considers the lack of early Christian relics in Britain curiously rare, perhaps suggesting that in the normal course of things this should not have been the case.

In his work Treasures from Bible Times, Alan Millard, a lecturer at Liverpool University, makes the remarkable statement: “For some events archaeology gives no evidence. The beginning of Christianity is one of them. The earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity is from the second century A. D.[12] Nothing belonging to the first century has been dug up which is clearly Christian. This is true in Palestine, in Rome, and elsewhere; there is no trace of Christianity.. There are two areas of human activity which do reveal something about religious beliefs. They are forms of worship and types of burial. Even here, no Christian examples, churches or tombs, have come to light which date much before AD 200. The most that can be said is that some Christian churches and cemetaries known from the third century probably had their origins in the late second century.”

This is further supported by historian and archaeologist, Guy de la Bédoyère, who says: “Tracking Christianity in Britain is extremely difficult because there is very little documentary information to work from. Portable artefacts are exceptionally scarce, and none have ever been found in Romano-British buildings that could otherwise be passed off as churches. Indeed, an absence of artefacts is almost a definition of Christian features, graves in particular. There is not a single monumental inscription from Britain that helps us either, yet it is precisely this class of artefact that provides most of our evidence for all the other cult activity.”[13]

What appears to be extraordinary is that mainstream archaeologists and academics openly admit to the fact that (ostensibly) no archaeological evidence exists from the 1st century A. D. to confirm the existence of the origins of the Christian faith and thus the presence of an early Christian community of this period. All archaeological and literary Christian remains extant today apparently date from around the middle of the 2nd century A. D. Although historical remains relating to the pre-Christian era of the 1st century B. C. and earlier from the Middle East and elsewhere are available to scholars and researchers today, curiously there appears to be a gap and complete absence of hard evidence relating to the crucial period of the 1st century A. D, and thus some knowledge of the real origins, rather than conjectural, of “Christianity” and its alleged founder “Jesus”.

Is it really unfortunate ‘bad luck’ that apparently no archaeological or literary remains have survived from the crucial 1st century A. D. to enlighten us as to the true origins of the worldwide Christian movement. On the face of it there is a greater probability that some supportive evidence from the 1st century A. D. should have survived to the present time, rather than not, so might it be realistically conjectured that there may have been some kind of cover up around this extremely important period. Considering the queries raised by the theosophical scholar, G. R. S. Mead, there do appear to be grounds for questioning the “official” history surrounding “Jesus” and the beginnings of “Christianity”.

A particularly remarkable tombstone was found at Hadrian’s Roman wall, near South Shields in northern England, which may have some important significance. Professor Roger Wilson notes: “The Roman name of South Shields was arbeia, possibly deriving from the Aramaic word for ‘Arabs’ (Arbaya) used in Mesopotamia.”[14] This tombstone, which is believed to date from the 2nd century A. D., commemorates a certain Regina (Latin for Queen), who was clearly of royal descent and who belonged to the British Catuvellaunie tribe. An inscribed dedication, given both in Latin and, remarkably, also in Aramaic, was done at the request of her husband, Barates, who came from Palmyra in Syria. He appears to have been a Syrian merchant who was trading in northern Britain. Another modern academic, professor H. H. Scullard, writing about Middle Eastern merchants in Roman Britain, says: “Two Oriental merchants are represented: a certain Salmanes,[15] who died at Auchendavy [Scotland] on the Antonine Wall, and whose Semitic name suggests he was a Syrian trader; and Barates from Palmyra [in Syria], who set up an elaborate tomb to his wife at South Shields.. the inscription tells us that she had been a Catuvellaunian whom Barates had freed and named Regina. The richness of the tombstone suggests that he must have been a prosperous merchant. We know of a certain Barates, buried at Corbridge.”[16] Furthermore, Thomas Wright, in his work The Celt, the Roman and the Saxon remarks: “Several of the Syrian and Oriental deities shared with those of Rome the devotion of the inhabitants of Britain. At Corbridge (Corstopitum), where there appears to have been a Græco-Syriac population, an altar has been found dedicated to the Phoenician Astarte, the Ashtaroth of Scripture, with an inscription which forms a line in Greek hexameter verse.”

Barates Regina tombstone

Barates Regina tombstone

Writing about this intriguing tombstone, inscribed with both Latin and Aramaic inscriptions, David Howlett remarks: “The stone affords clear evidence of a time in which it was natural and perhaps unremarkable to erect in Valentia or Britannia Secunda a monument bearing an inscription in Palmyrene Aramaic. The commissioner of the stone was manifestly an immigrant to Britain, influenced by the Greek and Aramaic epigraphic traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. His wife was explicitly a native Briton. Her memorial is the oldest extant monument that exhibits the interaction of Romano-British Latin and Semitic traditions.”[17] It may be pertinent to note that there is a stone in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, found in a Cornish Tin Mine, which has the word ‘Jesus’ carved on it in Aramaic.[18]

According to A Dictionary of British History, a Chief of the Catuvellaunie tribe during the 1st century A. D. was none other than King Caractacus,[19] whose family appear to have been largely involved with a Christian mission in Britain, particularly during the 1st and 2nd centuries A. D. The implication, therefore, is that Regina may have been a member of the Christian British Royal household and, further, she was clearly married to a Syrian merchant from the Middle East. As mentioned earlier, the old name for Syria was Aram, hence the native people living there were essentially Arameans who spoke Aramaic. This leads us to the speculation as to the true origins of the wealthy merchant, Joseph of Arimathea (Aramathea), a prominent member of the Holy Family of Jesus who spoke Aramaic. Could it be that Barates was a descendant of the Aramathean Davidic Royal family of Joseph; with Barates’ wife, Regina, perhaps being a descendant of the British Royal family of King Caractacus? The implications of this intriguing speculation may be far reaching indeed. Moreover, the Scottish scholar, G. A. Frank Knight, comments: “A standard-bearer named Barathres [Barates], from Palmyra, was the husband of a British woman named Regina, whose tombstone at South Shields is still extant. What more likely than that in this way the tenets of the Christian faith, which were spreading like wildfire over Europe, would be introduced into Britain, and would gradually extend beyond Hadrian’s Wall into Alban [Scotland]?”[20]

This is confirmed by the Rev. Alfred Edwards (Bishop of Asaph) who remarks: “It is possible that early British Christianity may have been influenced to some extent by direct communication or even contact with the East. Owing to the Roman military system, under which Roman regiments were not recruited from the districts or countries which they garrisoned, Eastern soldiers were brought in large numbers to Britain, and British soldiers frequently served in the outlying parts of the Roman Empire. For example, the auxiliary cohorts or regiments which guarded Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England were Moors, Thracians, and Syrians; an inscription given by Le Bas and Waddington mentions ‘the commander of the British troop or cohort’ which formed part of the Roman legion stationed in Pamphylia. There were British soldiers also serving in North Africa and Hungary and at Ariminum. An illustration of the trade intercourse between Britain and the East is supplied by an inscription found in 1878 at South Shields, and published in the transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. It runs thus: ‘To the memory of a woman named Regina, of the British tribe of the Catuvellauni, who died at the age of thirty, the freed-woman and wife of Barates of Palmyra.’ Underneath the inscription is a line of Aramaic writing, which has been variously translated as ‘Regina, the freed woman of Barates, alas’; and ‘Regina the freed woman of Barates, may her portion be in the everlasting life.’ Barates was probably a Syrian merchant who traded with the Roman soldiers in North Britain. Professor Hübner ascribes this monument to the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, and this is supported by the Aramaic writing, which is in the cursive Palmyrene character in vogue at Palmyra in the third century of the Christian era. The stone was found at the site of the Roman cemetery at South Shields near the course of the Roman road stretching to St. David’s in Wales, and locally known as the Recken. Professor Haverfield has now discovered at Corbridge (Corstopitum) the tombstone of Barates himself, who died at the age of 65.” (Landmarks in the History of the Welsh Church, 1913)

It would appear from the foregoing that a Romano-Christian presence, possibly dating from the 1st century A. D, may have been a springboard for the introduction of the Christian message into the British Isles, aside from the earlier legendary Arimathean mission.

[1] Mead, G. R. S., Did Jesus Live 100 Years BC?, 1903, pp. 324, 48

[2] Wilson, Roger J. A., A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain, 2002, 4th edtn, p. 182

[3] Millard, Alan, Treasures from Bible Times, 1985, p. 183

[4] Transactions of the Robert Fludd College, S. R. I. A., Vol. II, 1933, p. 79

[5] Howlett, David, Insular Inscriptions, 2005, p. 59

[6] Wright, Thomas, The Celt, the Roman and the Saxon, 1875, pp. 527 & 353-6

[7] Wilson, Roger, J. A., Ibid, pp. 649-51

[8] Monipennie, John, The Scots Chronicles, 1818, Edinburgh, p. 45

[9] McNeill, John T., The Celtic Churches: A History A. D. 200 to 1200, 1974, pp. 16-18

[10] Ibid, pp. 18,19[11] Frere, Sheppard, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, 1978, pp. 371-2[12] Professor Jean-Philippe Fontanille and Sheldon, Lee Gosline also note “The oldest known evidence of Christianity, written or artistic, date only to the second century C. E.” The Coins of Pontius Pilate, 2001, p. 76[13] Bédoyère, Guy de la, Gods with Thunderbolts: Religion in Roman Britain, 2002, p. 183[14] Wilson, Roger J. A., Ibid, p. 448[15] See also An Account of the Roman Stones in the Huntarian Museum (University of Glasgow) by James MacDonald, 1897, pp. 66-7[16] Scullard, H. H., Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire, 1979, pp. 142-3[17] Howlett, David, Insular Inscriptions, 2005, p. 154[18] Harte, Edward, The Story of Place: St. Anthony in Roseland, c. 1975, p. 17[19] Kenyon, J. P., (editor) A Dictionary of British History, 1981, p. 62[20] Knight, G. A. Frank, Archeological Light on the Early Christianizing of Scotland, vol. I, 1933, p. 89

Excerpted from Vision of Albion. The Key to the Holy Grail © copyright 2008 Barry Dunford