Every so often, when historians find incongruities in an ancient text, they err by throwing the baby out with the bathwater: They dismiss the entire document as unhistorical. This is what happened with one of the most important documents from early Christianity, an undeservedly obscure poem commissioned by Avercius, an early bishop of the church, and inscribed on his tombstone. This second-century C.E. poem, written in Greek, is the oldest existing, datable and identifiable Christian inscription. It contains one of the earliest extant extrabiblical references to the apostle Paul. It is the earliest Christian text outside the Bible to mention in one place several of the most potent and lasting Christian symbols: a shepherd, a fish and a virgin. Further, the beautiful yet enigmatic poem offers a unique glimpse of Christianity in this transitional period, as the church quietly, at times tentatively, began to establish itself in the public sphere.
Despite its importance, hardly anyone today knows this poem—or remembers Bishop Avercius.