everywhere some constants of the Christian movement: instruction in the Lord's 'trustworthy texts' (grammata pista), a eucharistic celebration of common food eaten in the company of 'friends' (philoi), and a common 'faith' (pistis) leading the way (lines 12-16). He declares himself 'a disciple of a holy shepherd (mathetes poimenos hagnou) who feeds flocks of sheep on mountains and plains'.3 At the end of his epitaph, composed while he was still alive, Abercius makes a direct invocation to the passerby who might read his words, whom he invokes as 'the one who understands these things', to pray for him now that he is dead (line 19). Both the cryptic words earlier and this concluding knowing address presume a community of like-minded people who, if not known to the wider world, are recognisable to one another. Their uniting bonds are a holy shepherd and holy virgin, common texts and table, bread, wine and fish.
One significant discrepancy between Abercius and his model and spiritual companion, Paul, is that, whereas in the late 50s Paul was at great pains to visit Jerusalem one last time before heading to the west (Rom 15:23-32), Abercius passes by Jerusalem, and Judaea, without mention. He apparently was as close as 'the plains of Syria' and yet did not feel the need to veer south to see what Helena and others a century later would view as 'the Holy Land'. This oversight demonstrates a significant shift in the centre of gravity of Christian geography -real and symbolic - in the first two centuries. The focal point of Abercius' inscription is, after all, his wonder at the glories he has looked upon when visiting Rome, and seeing the church there like 'a golden-stoled, goldensandalled queen' and 'a people who had a resplendent seal' (lines 7-9). What had happened to the church in Jerusalem in the interval?
One of the most significant facts of Christian history is the movement of the majority of Jesus' followers outside of the Galilaean and Judaean context of his ministry. Evidence of followers of Jesus in Galilee after his death may be found in the message of the young man at the tomb in Mark's gospel,4 to the effect that the risen Jesus 'goes before them into Galilee' (16:7; cf. 14:28), and perhaps in the rural flavour of some of the sayings traditions like Q. The sources also indicate that the very earliest followers of Jesus had a centre in Jerusalem,
3 Lines 3-4. Earlier scholarship on the epitaph included debates over whether it was Christian, 'pagan' (Harnack, ZurAbercius-Inschrift), or syncretistic (Dieterich, Die Grabschrijt des Aberkios). More recent work concludes that the density of symbols and allusions, together with the likely identification of this 'Abercius' with the anti-Montanist figure named by Eusebius as Abercius Marcellus (HE 5.16.2) make it much more likely that it is Christian (Wischmeyer, 'Die Aberkiosinschrift als Grabepigramm'; Merkelbach, 'Grabepigramm'; Snyder, Ante pacem, 247-50).
4 Mark's gospel insists that Jesus engaged in ministry in the Decapolis, which may reflect Christian communities there in his day (5:1, 20; 7:31 (confused!); 8:13, 22, etc.).
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