Discovery of world's earliest Christian engravings reveals religion's ties to mysterious pagan sect

Rome, Italy - The discovery of the world's earliest Christian engraving has thrown light on the life of a pagan sect and its relationship with the more orthodox religion.

Researchers at the Capitaline Museums in Rome believe they have finally translated and dated NCE 156, an inscription carved into stone in Greek.

It is now believed the stone, housed at the Capitaline, dates from the latter half of the second century when the Roman Empire was in its pomp but pagan teachings seemingly mingled with the Christian doctrine.

Gregory Snyder, a study researcher based at the Davidson College in North Carolina, revealed details of his work in the latest edition of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

'If it is in fact a second-century inscription, as I think it probably is, it is about the earliest Christian material object that we possess,' Snyder told LiveScience.

Snyder's research caps 50 years of work by a clutch of experts, who between them have sourced, dated and translated the ancient verse, which he believes to be a funeral epigram.

The mysterious inscription was initially published in an Italian archaeological journal in 1953 by Luigi Moretti.

He worked out it had been first uncovered in the suburbs of Rome near a medieval tower called Tor Fiscale which, in ancient times, would have been near a celebrated historical road called the Via Latina.

His work was furthered by the late Italian epigrapher Margherita Guarducci, who first put forward the second century date for the inscription more than 40 years ago. Her argument was based on the shape of the classical-style Greek letters in the inscription.

Snyder's work built on that approach by studying more than 1,700 Roman inscriptions, in which he found just 53 cases of Greek inscriptions with classical letterforms.

Analysis of inscriptions from Naples revealed only two similar examples that might date into the third century, narrowing the possible date field greatly.

The original author of the epigram is thought to be a follower of an early Gnostic teacher and thinker named Valentinus, who lived in Rome for around 20 years but was later declared a heretic by the Christian church.

There are similarities in the inscription's cryptic imagery, namely that of 'the bridal chamber', that recur in Valentinus' Gnostic teachings, many of which were written in the second century.

The location of the initial discovery suggest there was a community of his followers on the Via Latina during the second century.

Snyder also noted that the inscription shared similarities with non-Christian funeral epigrams where wedding imagery - generally a metaphor for death - is used.

Having also studied many paintings on the via Latina, Snyder says there are regularly mixes of belief systems, with religious figures such as Samson twinned with mythic figures such as Hercules.

'Those kinds of things I find particularly interesting, because they seem to suggest a period of time in which a Christian identity is flexible,' said Snyder.

'Is it just a simple either/or between pagan and Christian? Or is there really something rather like a spectrum? Or are you really sort of both in certain respects?'