In December, the Israel Antiquities Authority announcement the underwater discovery of a gold ring from Roman times bearing the image of a young shepherd. The gold and blue-green gemstone ring was one of the few artifacts found in 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 has been used by Christians to symbolize Jesus. But did the ring belong to a Christian? And if so, what does that mean?
The IAA says the ring was part of a cache of treasures strewn on the seabed near the hulls of the two wrecked ships. Although their remains were discovered close to each other, the two wrecks were approximately a thousand years apart. The construction of a breakwater at Caesarea in the first century CE created short-term gains, but engineering shortcomings caused the harbor to silt up and cause many shipwrecks in later centuries. Jacob Sharvit, of the IAA’s Marine Archeology Unit, noted the “Ships were probably anchored nearby [to the port of Caesarea] and were destroyed by a storm. Among the wrecks, archaeologists also discovered hundreds of bronze and silver coins from the 3rd century, Roman figurines, bronze bells, another ring containing a carved red gemstone and a large horde of coins. of the fourteenth century.
The most publicized object of the discovery, however, was the “Good Shepherd” ring named because in the New Testament Jesus describes himself as such (John 10:11-18). For the AAI, proximity to Caesarea is essential; Sharvit noted that Caesarea was home to an early community of followers of Jesus and was the place where Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius. “From Here”, Sharvit noted“the Christian religion began to spread throughout the world”.
The carved image shows a young boy carrying a sheep (or possibly a ram) on his shoulders. The IAA states that the image “is one of the earliest and oldest images used in Christianity to symbolize Jesus; it depicts Jesus as the compassionate shepherd of mankind, extending his benevolence to his flock of believers and to all mankind.
To some extent, the IAA is absolutely correct. The idea of Jesus as a good shepherd was iconographically important to early Christians. Images of the Good Shepherd can be found painted on the walls of the 3rd-century St. Caliste Cemetery, the 3rd/4th-century Catacomb of Priscilla, and the Catacomb of Domatilla. The example of the Catacomb of Domitilla has been dated by some to the 2nd century.
It is important to note, however, that the Christian use of the Good Shepherd was one of many iconographic images adapted from Greek and Roman art and, therefore, was not unique to Christianity. As art historian Robin Jensen wrote in The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, “the figure of a shepherd carrying a ram on his shoulders has an ancient pre-Christian precedent in a representation of Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the guardian guide of the underworld.” Others have pointed to similarities between the clean-shaven good shepherd boy and ancient depictions of Orpheus, the tragic lyre-playing son of Apollo who traveled to the underworld in an attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice. In addition to being visually similarly depicted in ancient artwork, the mythology of the three figures somehow ties them to the afterlife: Jesus descended into hell after his death; Orpheus traveled to Hades; and Hermes was a guide to the underworld. The similarities between them doesn’t mean they were all the same person (Jesus isn’t just a Christian Hermes), but they certainly traveled the same route.
The similarities between the bucolic images and the fact that the shepherd was a pagan motif meant that the interpretation of the ring was very much in the eye of the beholder. One person might look at it and see the Jesus of the Gospels, another might see Hermes. It is a flexible and versatile image. What this means of course is that we cannot be sure that the owner of the ring was a Christian, we can only be sure that they were wealthy enough to buy such an expensive luxury item.
Engraved gemstones and personal seals have a long history in Roman society. Not only were they displays of wealth and social status, but they could also nod to religious affiliations. Most important, however, was their role as guarantors of identity. Like others involved in commerce and politics, Christians had to use seals to provide proof of their identity, but they also feared using the sexually suggestive or idolatrous symbols found on some signet rings. At the turn of the third century, the Christian teacher and philosopher Clement of Alexandria advised that Christian seals should contain “either a dove, or a fish, or a ship sailing with a favorable wind, or a lyre” (it should be noted that the second red stone ring discovered in the shipwreck featured a lyre).
There are, however, good reasons to believe that the ring belonged to a Christian. Apart from the fish and the anchor, writing Curator Getty Jeffrey Spire, the most popular image on seals of the third and fourth centuries was the Good Shepherd. Often these seals were accompanied by other important religious details like a fish, an anchor, the chi-rho symbol popularized after Constantine, or the name of Jesus or Christ. This ring has none but it is not unreasonable to assume that the owner was a Christian. Similarly, Dr Jeremiah Coogan, a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told me that 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 craftsman or that others recognized it as such. The symbol was as legible to pagans as it was to Christians. Unlike rings that bore the name of Jesus, the owner could have “passed” into Roman society without anyone batting an eyelid at the crypto-theological jewelry. While Christians were not constantly persecuted in the 3rd century, they were socially marginalized and sometimes clashed with authorities and even official legislation. The use of images that were Christian, but viewed favorably by others, allowed Christians to participate in commerce and trade without frowning or heckling.
As for the owner’s ties to Caesarea, it is incorrect to say that Caesarea is the place from which Christianity spread. But, by the middle of the 3rd century, Caesarea was a bustling center of intellectual activity for Jews and Christians. It was a home for Origen, one of Christianity’s most prolific and important thinkers who refers to intellectual engagement with the city’s rabbis. Like Dawn LaValle Norman did to put her, Caesarea was one of the “new intellectual centers” of the ancient Mediterranean. Coogan told me that “outside of Rome and, perhaps, Ephesus, we have more archaeological evidence of religious diversity in late antiquity at Caesarea than 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 living in a time when people did not wear crosses could use ambiguous religious symbols to navigate the rich but precarious landscape of ancient religiosity. The Good Shepherd ring – or Lyre ring for that matter – was based on religious images that held meaning for Jews, Christians and pagans. The wearer could be assured that he was a faithful Christian, while forging and maintaining social ties with non-Christians.