Photo by A. Bracchetti, Vatican Museums

The earliest extant extrabiblical reference to Paul, the New Testament letter writer, appears in the Greek poem engraved on this battered block of marble. Dating to about 200 C.E. and now in the collection of the Vatican, the inscribed stone once marked the grave of Avercius, an early Christian bishop from the town of Hierapolis of the Pentapolis, in west-central Turkey.

Though only a portion of the inscription has survived, the full poem is known from medieval accounts of the bishop’s life. The elegant yet often cryptic verses shed light on a transitional stage in the establishment of the early Christian church.

Familiar with the poem from an account of Avercius’s life, the 19th-century Scottish classicist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (see portrait by Sir George Reid) set out to discover the actual funerary inscription in Turkey. With some clever historical detective work, he succeeded in 1883.