Tod und Ritual in den christlichen Gemeinden der Antike, SVigChr 65, Leiden etc. 2002. 


This study aims to shed light on the development of Early Christian rituals in connection with death and burial. It concentrates on the (pre)conditions and (pre)suppositions for death rituals other than those directly concerned with eschatology and ideas about the afterlife which have been sufficiently explored elsewhere.

The material examined clearly shows that we cannot achieve a complete historic reconstruction of what the rituals looked like and which rites were used in funerals and commemorative rituals in the Christian communities. In fact, we are faced with a picture of ritual plurality which is also strongly supported by the evidence from pagan sources. Hence, we would need a large number of detailed sources - liturgies, reports, descriptions - larger even than that available from modern times. Given the scarce research done on the topic so far - this study represents the first monographic work on the topic for more than half a century - , it seems at least desirable to describe and analyse the picture presented by the surviving sources as precisely as possible. In the light of the complex nature of the subject, recent research in science and the humanities have also been utilised in order to be able to understand and interpret the sources.

1. The starting point for this study is the ritual environment of the Mediterranean world in which Early Christianity developed. An examination of the pagan and Jewish sources from Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Rome shows anything but an homogenous ritual world. The cultural exchange within the Roman Empire lead to a confrontation of very different ritual traditions such as those found in old Egyptian cults and rabbinic Judaism or various distinct local Graeco-Roman customs. Jesus, St. Paul, and the other Apostles failed to equip the young religion with ritual orders and prescriptions. Consequent­ly, within this dynamic situation Christianity found itself lacking a distinc­tive ritual tradition. At first, the Christian families - almost everywhere death rituals were a matter of the families - followed the local customs, be they Jewish, Greek, or Roman.  Gradually and at a relatively early stage, how­­ever, we see the emergence of distinctively Christian modifications of these­ inherited traditions.  This, in turn, inevitably gave rise to disputes and conflicts in ritual matters.

2. One area where this becomes apparent concerns ritual purity and impurity. The holy texts inherited from the Israelite religion contained explicit purity laws, rules and definitions, and thus forced the Christians to develop a clear position. In fact, some New Testament writings and various later authors took a firm view on this issue (which does not mean that all Christian communities agreed): The Jewishì purity laws were regarded as invalid for Christians, as were the laws regarding death and burial. As for the role of purity for Christian worship,  the issues were more ambivalent. The fact that the dead were no longer regarded as impure, however, certainly opened up the opportunity for connecting Christian worship with rites such as funerals and commemorative rituals. Thus, the young religion undocked itself from the ritual traditions of its geographic origin, Palestine. This observation is also supported by the fact that secondary burials which developed widely in Palestine at the time were on the whole not practised by Christians. By doing this, however, the Christian communities showed a behaviour not too different from that of Jewish communities of the Diaspora after 70 CE which also had to find to new ritual forms in many fields.

            The relatively clear Christian disposition toward the Jewish traditions did not, however, immediately lead to a definitive set of Christian rituals: The question of purity arose again during Constantines reign when functions formerly fulfilled by pagan cults - where purity was of the utmost impor­tance - were suddenly taken over by Christian rituals. Consequently, it gave rise to conflicts which are portrayed in this study. Perhaps Christian worship now did take over elements of the old pagan cultic purity: a hypothesis which would be worthwhile investigating in more detail in the course of a separate liturgic study. A sufficient number of sources seems to be available. Such a hypothesis could in fact explain the conflict surrounding the question of  the purity of relics placed in churches which only really emerged in the second half of the forth century. This conflict was not resolved in favour of churches being impure or ritually neutral, but the Christian authorities denied human remains their impure status, a status that once was at the core of both the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman concept of impurity. First, the Christian authors brought about a shift in their understanding of the different levels of impurity without abandoning the language of (im)purity altogether, partly by employing concepts inherited from the Graeco-Roman literary traditions (such as stressing the ajrethv of the deceased, thereby diminishing the importance of the question of impurity). Secondly, some authors argue against the validity of the Jewish rules and laws with specific arguments. Thirdly, a distinct theology of relics and the resurrection developed. In this context, relics could play a purifying role, as it was denied that the deceased were dead,  etc. Again, the exact structure and contents of this theology would be a rewarding topic of a separate study.

3. The question of purity and impurity directly affects the extent of the emerging spheres of influence of the Early Church: The new religion was not content simply to answer existential questions as some individuals might have done and as some philosophical schools did. The universal and totalising claim that Christianity exercised on the life of the believers was not compatible with leaving death, burial, and the commemoration of the dead simply to the families and professional undertakers. The holy Christian texts demanded intervention in this sphere - given for example the centrality of the resurrection in the New Testament! Both the functions of the traditional family religion and those of the public cults were taken over by Christianity, at least from the fourth century onwards, despite not having resources and personnel on a medieval scale (which is why religious funerals, and regular masses for the departed became common practice everywhere only later). Already in the time of Constantine, however, we come across liturgical rites in connection with the commemoration of the dead (and in some cases as part of funerals) in which priestly functionaries fulfilled liturgical tasks. This intervention in ritual matters of death and burial led to difficult questions for authorities such as John Chrysostom or Augustine as late as the fourth century. The scale of this undertaking becomes clear when considering the anthropological coordinates examined in the first part of the present study (especially striking when looking at cross cultural comparisons) which are not adjustable at will, such as the necessity of a ritual mourning, or of a commemorational ritus in accordance with individual-psychological mourning phases: Augustines course of action in Hippo demonstrates some of the implications of such an intervention, but also shows his diplomatic skills and understanding of the human condition.

4. Any study of the rituals of death and the dead in antiquity faces the question of defining and distinguishing between Christian and pagan practice. Many of the sources examined suggest some sort of Christian-pagan antagonism which is at times not reflected accordingly by the ritual processes, maybe against the wishes of some of the church fathers who often were in fact the leading protagonists of such an antagonism. Even in cases of con­flicts or cases where we can observe a transformation of the formerly pagan prac­tices into Christian ones, this often happened in some continuity with older pagan traditions: It is not always with an explicit reference to a vetus et melior consuetudo, an older and better custom, as Minucius Felix puts it, but different things such as the Christian appeals against expensive funerals, the critique of the ritual lament, or the aforementioned theme of the ajrethv of the deceased all gave rise to the utilisation of centuries-old traditions. In some respects, Christian developments were parallel to those within Judaism which, as the rabbinic sources suggest, came to terms with the local Graeco-Roman traditions. However, the course of action chosen by the Christians was sometimes more complex: We can observe explicit attempts at border-maintenance against the pagan neighbours when it came to choosing ritual colours, music, naming Christian burial sites coemeteria, and formulating exegetical arguments for certain dates of commemoration. This tendency is also exhibited by the reports of the death of prominent Christians despite the fact that they often followed pre-existing pagan literary models. In many cases, such attempts only had limited consequences, but they did play a pivotal role in developing a Christian identity in the ancient world.

5. Finally, the examined sources suggest that the Christians kept pace with the Zeitgeist (more or less accidentally?): Cremation, going out of fashion from the first century onwards, had never been to the liking of the Christians. The more modest trends in memorial architecture corresponded to a major fea­ture  of Christian  lifestyle  just  as  the  tendency  away  from ostentatious grave goods towards the total abandonment thereof, or towards what this study calls ritual concentration on very personal, emotionally or symbolically im­portant, but materially almost worthless goods. Such practices - no matter why they became popular - could be explicitly supported by aspects of genuine Christian thinking: for example, asceticism, the concept of a particular dignity (timhv) of the human body, creational theology etc.

Christians and Non-Christians shared the experience of dying and death in antiquity. Their open and hidden differences in practice and thinking, the continuities and changes in dealing with this experience are witness to a new interpretation of dying, death, burial, and commemoration of the departed which only slowly became explicit in - and sometimes were advanced by - their rituals.