Luca and Anca spent the day with me visiting the ruins of Pompeii near Naples. Then the next day Luca and I visited the Naples archealogical museum where most of the artifacts of Pompeii’s destruction from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius are on display.
I was surprised by my response to the experience. Let me come back to that below.
First let me introduce Luca. He’s a Neapolitan—born and raised in Naples—who attended a Bible college in the UK; and then in 2013 he moved to Wiltshire to join our “God’s Heart” ministry for five months. I loved his focus and contribution. And he’s still all about Jesus as he now leads a Naples church plant. I was in Turin—in northern Italy—for a month, so the four-day trip to the south to visit Naples offered a chance to swap some mutual encouragement.
During the time in Naples Luca also took me to see Puteoli (now known as Pozzuoli). It’s a suburb on the opposite side of Naples from Pompeii—about ten or twelve miles away; and it’s where the Apostle Paul’s boat landed, probably in AD 59. Paul was on his way to Rome as a loosely guarded prisoner for his trial before Nero. His arrival was a likely step on his way to eventual death as a Christian martyr.
Here’s Luke’s eyewitness report of the landing from Acts 28:13-14—“And from there [Syracuse] we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome.”
What struck me in our two-days of visiting Pompeii, the Naples museum, and the port of Pozzuoli, was the conjunction of locations, times, and circumstances. And the absence of any Christian signs or symbols in the ruins of Pompeii and nearby Heracleum.
Let me explain. Paul arrived in Puteoli almost two decades before the massive eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. And there were already Christians in the region to host Paul, Luke, and their small party of travelers. So I had them in mind as Luca and I stood on the modern dock of Pozzuoli and looked across the Bay of Naples at the still-active Mount Vesuvius. It’s much closer than the also-deadly Mount Saint Helens I see from my home front porch in Washington State.
Another surprise is how much signage and graffiti can still be seen on the Pompeii walls among the ruins. The brick walls have a light plaster coating that still displays all sorts of political and commercial writings offered in a monochromatic red. And there are also lots of scratched messages—“Antonio loves Porcia” sort of romantic notes. Scholars have documented every item, but as far as I know no references to Christ or to Christianity have been found.
Let’s put these bits of information together. Paul could somehow find other Christians in a major commercial hub. And the bustling Pompeii, with roughly 20,000 residents, was just twelve miles away. Like Pompeii, Puteoli had a major sports amphitheater close by—Luca and I visited both—and each seated thousands.
We can presume, then, lots of interactions among the Neapolitan citizens of that era. So let me add one more bit of museum information about the ancient Pompeii neighborhood. In our tour Luca pointed to a sign, only offered in Italian, that warns visitors of the X-rated ancient wall paintings. So we skipped this well known part of the Pompeii-Heracleum exhibitions. The many explicit and robustly pornographic wall paintings from the walls of the local villas have plenty of notoriety!
It dawned on me that the preoccupations of those days were all too similar to today’s world. As I looked at the still-stirring Mount Vesuvius I reflected on the American volcanoes—Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, among others—it struck me that the residents of Pompeii had no clue that a day of terrible death was coming, and their homes would become exhibitions of life values.
There were certainly some Christians who met with Paul in Puteoli who watched the angry clouds of the Vesuvius eruption twenty years later. They probably knew some of the victims. But the city of Pompeii seems to have been unresponsive to the eternal life these Christians were ready to offer them.
So I was surprised to find myself thinking of my own city and the world I share with so many bright, lively, yet spiritually disaffected neighbors all around me. Oh Lord, please have mercy.
You mentioned no symbols or signage of Christianity at this locale, though it had Christians living there. Though there were marks such as Antonio loves Portia. Christians wouldn’t vandalize then either, so were you hoping to see something that would indicate a building or house might be a place for Christians to congregate?
Good question. The wall painting/signs were prolific and disordered, so it was apparently an accepted practice to write promotional notices on buildings in the day. We also know that in Rome the “chi-rho” (an X and R overlaid) was used as a Christian signifier at some point in the first/second centuries; as was the fish symbol (with the letters of the word “fish” offering an acronym for the first letters of “Jesus, Son of God, Savior”). They were, I believe, found mainly in the catacombs. Yet it pointed to a certain activism by Christians. But nothing was posted or mentioned in the Naples Museum of Archaeology … and that stirred my comment.