Image: Journey of the Magi with their Retinue, August von Wörndle [Public domain under CC BY-SA 4.0]
“Most tourists visit the Catacombs simply from curiosity, or to see one of the sights of Rome. A hurried run through the crumbling galleries, with a glance at the faded and ruined frescoes and paintings by the dim light of little tapers, naturally does not impress one at all. It is only when we study their origin and learn their great importance as illustrating primitive Christianity that we can appreciate them.” (John Harvey Treat, Catacombs of Rome, p. 9)
Messages from the grave
Around 150 AD Christians began building catacombs outside Rome. They first built tomb chambers, which were then turned into catacombs as more and more Christians came to celebrate Mass with the martyrs and also wanted to be buried near them. While Christians did not habitually worship in the catacombs, they did gather to commemorate the dead. Therefore the art in Christian catacombs was meant to be seen by the living on the numerous occasions of their visits there.
The pagan Romans decorated their tombs with symbols and illustrations taken from their many stories and myths. The Christians built their tradition of tomb decoration upon this same model, pulling scenes from Sacred Scripture and the life of faith, as well including portraits of dead. These frescoes found in the catacombs of Rome capture the beliefs, thoughts, and understandings of the early Christians. They document not only the Christians’ honor for their dead, but also how the Gentile Christians perceived both the Scriptures and themselves.
One common image adorning the catacomb walls shows a man pointing to a star. This image refers to Balaam’s prophecy of the star in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17).
The Testimonia, a Jewish collection of Old Testament verses about the Messiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, mentions Numbers 24:17 in conjunction with the Messiah. And in the Catacombs of Priscilla and the Catacombs of Domitialla this image is next to a picture of the Virgin and Child, connecting Balaam’s prophecy with its fulfillment in Christ.
St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, makes the connection even more explicitly in his Against Heresies:
“Therefore there is one and the same God… whose star also Balaam thus prophesied: ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a leader shall rise in Israel’ (Num 24:17)… Matthew says, that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, ‘For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him;’ (Matt 2:2) and that having been led by the star into the house of Jacob…” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 422-423).
Irenaeus saw the star the Magi followed as a fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy.
Light to the nations
For the early Christians in Rome, the simple picture of a man pointing to a star would have been a powerful reminder that God can take an evil and bring good from it. Numbers 22–24 tells how King Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites, but God would only permit Balaam to speak words of blessing and prophecy. Part of that prophecy concerned the coming of the Christ, including the foretelling of the star quoted above.
This image would also call to mind the adoration of Christ by the Magi, since it was a star that led them to the nativity. In fact, many Church Fathers wrote that Balaam belonged to the race and profession of the Magi, who would have known to look for the star because of Balaam’s prophecy. Thus the Magi knew of the birth of Christ from a curse turned into a prophecy.
Also of great importance to the Christians in Rome: these Magi were Gentiles. As St. Augustine states: “The Magi, the first fruits of the Gentiles, came to see and adore Christ; and they not only merited their own personal salvation, but they also symbolize the salvation of all nations,” (quoted in Ludwig Hertling’s The Roman Catacombs and Their Martyrs, p. 190). The adoration of the Magi foreshadowed the inclusion of Gentiles into the Jewish covenant with God.
Thus to the early Christians in Rome this image of Balaam pointing to a star would represent both the adoration of the Magi and their own salvation, since many Roman Christians were Gentiles. The image was a reminder that God had a place for the Gentile nations among his people—that while the public ministry of Christ was directed primarily towards the lost sheep of Israel, (see Matthew 15:21–28), he also intended from the very beginning to claim the Gentiles as his own.
The Magi had the honor of being the first Gentiles to worship Christ. They demonstrated great courage, enduring a long journey and risking the wrath of King Herod, and great faith, following a star and unquestioningly heeding a dream. The Roman Christians followed the example of their older spiritual brothers. They courageously worshiped the one, true God, often at the cost of their own lives. And they trusted that God would deliver them—if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come. These men and women can be powerful role models for us in our modern environments that are increasingly pagan, teaching us to have the courage to put God first in all things and the faith to see that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.