Skip to content

Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art & Archaeology

After much anticipation (and a somewhat complicated shipping effort), I’ve taken delivery on my copy of The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology, Paul Corby Finney, General Editor.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)

I noted the forthcoming appearance of the work in an earlier posting (here).  In hand, it’s an impressive (even imposing) publication.  The two main volumes comprise 1,532 pages, in which over 1,400 entries appear, written by some 400 contributors.  In addition, the slimmer accompanying volume 3 has 164 full-color photos of various objects referred to in the main volumes, plus 22 full-page-size maps displaying the 740 place-names mentioned in the entries, followed by an index of these place-names.  In weight alone, it’s impressive, about 17 pounds, in part because of the heavy art-volume quality of the paper used.

Aside from there being no comparable work in any language, the scope of the work is commendable.  The editors made an effort to reach beyond the Mediterranean sites usually dealt with in books on early Christian art.  Illustrative of this, the multi-part entry on “Epigraphy” (1.475-505) includes discussions of evidence from the Balkans, Coptic Christianity, England, Italy, Montanist data (Phrygia), North Africa, Roman Pannonia, Syria, and Turkey.  Nestled into this muli-part entry, I noted also William Tabernee’s incisive analysis of what some have posited as “clandestine and crypto-Christian” inscriptions and symbols, in which he concludes (rightly in my view) that “‘crypto-Christian inscriptions’ is inaccurate and misleading in that it implies a clandestine intentionality that is not supported by the data” (1.481).

More recent finds are included, such as the “Megiddo mosaic” announced in 2006 (but the entry is “Kefar ‘Othnay,” the name of the Israeli village where the mosaic was discovered).  I’ve spotted bibliographical items dating to 2014.  And the entries I’ve been able to judge seem up to date in the issues and opinions offered.

Entries are typically written by scholars who have published on the relevant topic, such as Spier’s entry on “Gemstones: Engraved (Early Christian)”.  With so many entries, it would take at least several weeks to read everything.  But a few initial spot checks of selected items leave me impressed.

The $495 price for the work makes it mainly an acquisition for libraries, and any library serving scholarly study of early Christianity should include this work in its acquisitions.  But, actually, given the size, physical quality, and contents, it’s a bargain, and I could imagine what the price might have been with certain other publishers.

Finney (General Editor) has been at work on this project for well over twenty years, and it surely affords a great deal of satisfaction to see it published.  Moreover, as my spot-checking shows, the quality of the final product must make it doubly satisfying.  Kudos to Finney and all those whose efforts produced this milestone in scholarship on early Christian art and archaeology.

Summer Biblical Study in Cambridge 2017

The programme for the 2017 Summer Biblical Study in Cambridge is now available here.  The programme is operated by the Vacation Term for Biblical Study (VTBS), offering lectures on biblical studies topics by established scholars, language classes in NT Greek and biblical Hebrew (from introductory to advanced), and extra lectures (this year, on Luther and on Wagner and Theology).  Plus, there’s Cambridge:  Kings College chapel, punting on the Cam, visiting the White Horse Inn, the fabulous Fitzwilliam Museum, and much more.

The classes are aimed at people who simply want to learn something:  “lay” people as well as ministers seeking some academic refreshment/updating.  You can enroll for either of the two weeks or for both.  There’s no assessment, so you can simply absorb what is provided.

Booking is now open and you can see fees and instructions for booking here.  Places are limited, and there are already a significant number of advanced bookings made.  It’s a great excuse to visit Cambridge.  And the currently low value of the UK Pound against other currencies makes it a particular bargain for overseas visitors.

God and the Faithfulness of Paul: Now Affordable!

The multi-author critical engagement with N.T. Wright’s massive work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is forthcoming in a much more affordable edition from Fortress Press (early March 2017, the publisher’s catalog entry here).  I posted about the work earlier here.  It contains 29 responses to various parts of Wright’s extensive discussion of Paul’s theology, including my own critique of his claims about the “return of YHWH” theme as the “catalyst” of earliest christology, which I posted about earlier here.

A New Greek-English Lexicon

Serious students of early Christian texts will want to become acquainted with a new Greek-English lexicon:  GE: The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 2016), edited by Madeleine Goh & Chad Schroeder, under the auspices of the Center for Hellenic Studies. (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)

This is the English translation from the 3rd edition (2013) of the massive Italian work by Franco Montanari.  At 2431 pages, and with nearly 133,000 “headwords,” and entries that take account of ancient Greek literature, papyri, inscriptions and other sources, and covering evidence down to the 6th century AD, this work now effectively supersedes the older Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) lexicon.  The latter didn’t really take adequate account of evidence much later than the 2nd century AD, and in particular there was little citation of Christian “patristic” texts.  Montanari’s work, however, rectifies this, making it now the “go to” resource of its type.

The editors emphasize that this is not simply a translation of the definitions given in the Italian original, but instead the English definitions have been prepared with some independent judgement.  As well, this English edition includes “a not insignificant number of new lemmata” (new entries), as well as a number of corrections of errors in the Italian edition discovered in the course of translating and editing the English edition.  So, this English edition is now superior to the Italian edition from which it derives.

For words with any semantic complexity there are, of necessity, longer and more complicated entries.  In comparison with LSJ, I judge these to be much easier to navigate.  The varying meanings of a given word are listed, with illustrative references, and the simple graphic display is very helpful.  As well, the principal parts of some 15,000 words are given.

At 99 Euros, or $125 (USD), it’s not cheap, but, given the amount of material and its quality, the price is surprisingly realistic.  It will be, of course, a purchase only for those with a need for such a wide-ranging lexicon (or with cash to spare!).  But any library serving the needs of readers of ancient Greek texts must now acquire this work.  Hearty congratulations and thanks to Montanari for the basic work, to those colleagues in the Center for Hellenic Studies who carried out this English edition, and to Brill for publishing the work.

Jesus, the Cross, the Women, and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark

I’ve just read an interesting essay by Jeffrey W. Aernie, “Cruciform Discipleship: The Narrative Function of the Women in Mark 15–16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.4 (2016):  779-97.

It’s doubly interesting to me, for he draws appreciatively on an essay of mine published several years ago in which I argued that the women mentioned (three times) in Mark 15–16 function positively as witnesses to Jesus death, burial and bodily resurrection:  Larry W. Hurtado, “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark,” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seàn Freyne, edited by Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 427-50.  (The pre-publication version of that essay is available among the essays listed under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog-site.)

Part of my argument was that Mark 16:8 does not depict the women as disobeying and failing to do what they were told to do–to go to Peter and the Twelve with news of Jesus’ resurrection.  Instead, “they said nothing to anyone” should be read as meaning that they said nothing to anyone else.  This is a view of 16:8 that has gained endorsement over recent years, but it may still be a minority opinion.  So, it’s encouraging to have Aernie’s endorsement in his newly published article.

Aernie’s focus, however, is on a conspicuous similarity between Mark and Paul in emphasizing that the life of believers is to be shaped by Jesus’ crucifixion.  That is, in Paul believers are “crucified with Christ,” living out a death-to-sin, and empowered anew to live unto God.  In Mark, Jesus is the true model for his followers, the Twelve deployed in contrast as fallible followers.

My only quibble is over his reference to my “sidelining” of the women.  I don’t “sideline” them, but contend that they surface suddenly as important characters in 15:40-41, appearing again at crucial points in 15:47 and 16:1-8.  Indeed, I propose that 16:1-8 is the climactic scene in Mark, where Jesus’ resurrection is announced, and the women are on site and able to verify an empty tomb, which means a bodily resurrection.

I suppose, however, that Aernie means that I don’t feature the women as exemplars of discipleship.  True.  Because I read Mark as presenting Jesus as the only full and valid model of discipleship.  As I read the references to the women, they are crucial witnesses to the bodily nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.  But I don’t quite see that they function as models of discipleship for readers.  But others will have to judge for themselves, taking account now of Aernie’s clear and well-researched article.

Nero & the Christians: Jones contra Shaw

Christopher Jones has a new article just out refuting Brent Shaw on Nero’s pogrom against Christians in Rome in AD 64:  “The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution:  A Response to Brent Shaw,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 146-52.  (See my earlier posting on Shaw’s article here.)

Jones shows (cogently to my mind) the flaws in Shaw’s argument.  For example, Shaw contended that it was unlikely that “Christian(s)” as a self-designation as early as the 60s.  As Jones argues, however, the term likely arose and was used initially, not as an in-group designation, but as a label coined and used by outsiders.  So, the absence of the term from Paul’s letters, for example, tells us nothing about whether it was used by outsiders.

Jones also shows the flaw in Shaw’s contention that there couldn’t have been a sufficient number of Christians in Rome in AD64 for Nero to blame them for the fire.  As Jones notes, Paul’s letter to Roman ekklesias, written several years earlier asserts of the Roman believers that “your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (1:8).  Allowing for exaggeration, this still suggests a sufficient body of believers in Rome by the date of the letter for them to be known, at least among other ekklesias elsewhere.

Finally, Jones notes the error in Shaw’s linking of the Neronian pogrom and the executions of Paul and Peter as one event that stands or falls together.  The martyrdoms of these two figures have to be assessed historically separately from the pogrom, and the lack of direct evidence of the martyrdoms can’t count against the pogrom as a historical event.

Jones gives a concise and closely argued case.  Looks to me that we can continue to take the Neronian pogrom as the first major action by Roman imperial authorities against people they called “Christians”.

When Christians Were Atheists

Early Christians were atheists! At least, that’s how some people of the time viewed them in the earliest centuries, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most importantly, they refused to worship the traditional gods. But also, judged by Roman-era criteria, they didn’t even seem to practice a recognizable form of religion. In the crucial first couple of centuries at least, they had no shrines or temples, no altars or images, and no sacrificial rites or priesthood.[1]

Granted, early Christians were accused of various things. There were the wild claims that Christians engaged in cannibalism and sexual orgies, claims that circulated mainly among the rabble. More sophisticated critics, however, portrayed them as deeply subversive of the social, religious, and political structures of the Roman world. One of the other labels hurled against Christianity was that it was a superstitio, a Latin term that designated bad religion, the kind deemed stupid, even dangerous. But “atheist” was probably the accusation that most directly reflected the sharply distinctive, even troublesome, nature of Christianity in the earliest centuries.

Unlike the emphasis today, however, in the Roman world atheism wasn’t primarily a matter of belief or unbelief. Instead, what counted then as “piety” or being religious was mainly participation in worshiping the gods. In that setting, to refuse to do so was atheism. Ancient philosophers speculated about the gods, where they came from, what they really were, and even whether they really existed, but that wasn’t so much a problem. What mattered was taking part in the traditional rites devoted to the gods. And the philosophers who speculated about the gods didn’t particularly try to discourage participation in the traditional rites, or even withdraw (at least publicly) from taking part themselves. But Christians (who by the second century were mainly converted pagans) were supposed to desist from worship of the gods . . . all of them. Also, Christian teachings ridiculed the gods as unworthy beings, and what most people thought of as “piety”—participation in the traditional rites to the gods—was designated in Christian teaching as “idolatry.”

To appreciate what this rejection of the traditional gods meant, we also have to understand that gods and reverencing them were woven through every aspect of life. Families had household deities. Cities had their guardian gods. The Roman Empire at large rested upon the gods, such as the goddess Roma. Practically any social occasion, such as a dinner, included an expression of reverence for a given deity. Meetings of guilds, such as fishers, bakers, or others, all included acknowledging their appropriate god.

So, to refuse to join in worshiping any of these deities in a thorough-going manner was a very radical move, and a risky one too, with wide-ranging social costs. People understandably took offense, and Christians could be in for a good deal of anger and hostility that might include verbal and physical abuse. In some cases, the Christian rejection of the gods led to arraignment before Roman magistrates, resulting in punishments, even executions. By the third century, there were occasional spasms of imperial persecution against Christians that could include confiscation of possessions and death sentences. And from at least the late second century, there were full-scale literary attacks on Christianity, the one most well-known today by the pagan writer Celsus.

In these circumstances, it should not be surprising that Christians often made various compromises, negotiating their existence to avoid conflict where they could do so. But the pagan critiques about Christians suggest that they were known more often for refusing to honor the gods rather than bending to social pressures to do so.

Ironically, however, this early Christian atheism had a profoundly religious basis. It was a radical critique of traditional religion that was driven by powerful theological convictions. Christians who forsook the traditional gods turned to a different kind of deity. Their deity could not be represented in an image. This one deity was creator and ruler of all things and all peoples, and was alone worthy of worship. But Christians characterized this one all-powerful deity, perhaps above all, as motivated by an almighty love for the world and its inhabitants. This was an unprecedented claim in the pagan religious environment of the time. Moreover, the proper worship of this Christian deity was mainly verbal, in prayers and songs; and the piety that this deity demanded was particularly shown in love, for fellow Christians to be sure, but also, remarkably, even for enemies.

Of course, there was obvious indebtedness to the Jewish tradition in which earliest Christianity first emerged. Judaism, however, was always closely tied to its own ethnicity. To be a full convert to the God of Judaism meant changing your ethnic identity too. But early Christianity quickly emerged as a trans-ethnic movement, aggressively proclaiming its message and recruiting former pagans to its peculiar message on a scale that made it a threat in a way that was never true of Judaism. In religion, as in some other matters, early Christianity helped to destroy one world and create another. And the effects of this early Christian “atheism” linger to this day. Modern atheism as we know it is shaped by the Christian faith against which it reacts. For even modern atheists assume that there’s only one god to doubt!

Larry W. Hurtado, author of Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

[1] Granted, early Christian texts liken the Eucharistic meal to the altars of pagan deities (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:21) and to the altar of the Jerusalem temple (Hebrews 13:10). But there were no actual altars or actual sacrificial rites.  By the third century there were church structures used for regular worship, the most well-known being the excavated church in Dura Europos (Syria).

Early Christian Roots of Religious Freedom

The first person to claim freedom of religion as a right was Tertullian, a Christian teacher in Carthage, in a Latin treatise in defence of Christianity addressed to Scapula, the Roman proconsul, written ca. AD 211. Here’s the crucial opening statement:

“It is a human law [humani iuris] and a natural right [naturalis potestatis] that one should worship whatever he intends; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another.”

In another treatise, Tertullian’s Apology, he uses for the first time in history the phrase “religious freedom.” Earlier, of course, Roman imperial authorities had granted toleration or privileges in matters of religion to certain groups, such as Jews. But granting a privilege is one thing, and claiming something as a natural right is quite another. It appears that the latter idea arose first among early Christian apologists.[1]

Scholars have sometimes ascribed the notion of religious freedom to the so-called “Enlightenment,” often citing John Locke’s Letter on Toleration (1689) as the charter text and Locke as the initial champion of the idea. But in a small volume that arose from his 2014 Père Marquette Lecture, Robert Louis Wilken shows convincingly that “the roots of religious freedom in the west are to be found centuries earlier in the writings of Christian apologists who, in the face of persecution wrote to defend their right to practice the religion they wished without coercion”: The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom (Marquette University Press, 2014), 11-12.

Wilken tracks this emphasis forward from Tertullian through other early Christian figures, including Lactantius (a Christian apologist and contemporary of Constantine), who insisted that “Religion must spring from a free act” and cannot be coerced. Similarly, Alcuin, an advisor to Charlemagne, wrote forcefully to Charlemagne opposing his efforts to Christianize the Saxons by force.

Wilken then briefly explores likely biblical notions that influenced these writers, such as Paul’s statements about “conscience,” portrayed as an inner voice that urges action, even against the views of others (e.g., 1 Cor 10:23, 29).

Wilken takes us on a brief tour through key figures and developments of the middle ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the proliferation of varied religious groups and movements of the 16th and17th centuries. As he notes, the road wasn’t a straight one, and through this whole period, especially in various European nations, the notion persisted among many that political solidarity and loyalty required religious conformity, which was often coerced, recalcitrants often executed. But, amidst all this, the development and spread of ideas of religious freedom and liberty of conscience were fuelled in, and by, the emergence of dissenting religious groups, especially in the 16th century.

This involved also a separation between political loyalty and religion. Dissenters of that time insisted that they could be loyal to the ruler, even if they did not share his/her specific religion. Influential figures of those centuries included Roger Williams and William Penn. John Locke was a contemporary of Penn, and had met him in Holland. Locke’s Letter on Toleration appeared in Latin in 1689, some two decades after Penn’s Great Case for Liberty of Conscience (which was published in English). Moreover, Locke drew on the Bible in defending his views. Wilken concludes: “Though the idiom of Locke’s thought is different from that of Penn and Williams, his work is saturated with Christian assumptions drawn from the Scriptures and Christian tradition. His thinking cannot be understood without reference to Christianity” (38-39).

It will be particularly interesting to Americans, living now in a time of anxiety about religious differences that is being milked for cynical purposes at the highest political levels, to follow Wilken’s brief discussion of how early figures such as Madison and Jefferson as well show the influence of these ideas that emerged first in Christian writers of the early centuries.

But here’s Wilken’s final point made by others as well:  Liberty of conscience was initially asserted and held dear in “an age of strong beliefs.” Religious freedom arose first among people who fervently believed that beliefs mattered greatly. “Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of scepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith” (46).

[1] Peter Garnsey, “Religious Toleration in Classical Antiquity,” in Persecution and Toleration: Papers Read At the Twenty-Second Summer Meeting and the Twenty-Third Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, edited by W. J. Shiels (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 1-27.

My own most recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

New essay on NT Papyrus “P45”

Today’s post brought the published version of my essay, “P45 as an Early Christian Artefact:  What it Reflects about Early Christianity,” which has just appeared in the Norwegian journal, Teologisk Tidsskrift 4(2016), 291-307.  I presented the essay originally as part of a symposium held in August this year, celebrating the 65th birthday of Professor Reidar Hvalvik, a senior NT scholar in the Norwegian School of Theology (which I posted on earlier here).

I discuss P45 (commonly dated to the mid-third century) as our earliest clear manuscript witness to the “fourfold Gospel” that subsequently became part of the familiar NT.  But P45 also provides our earliest substantial portion of the text of Acts of the Apostles.  It is interesting that Acts is included with the four Gospels in one codex, an unusual combination.  In ancient manuscripts, Acts is more often linked with the “General Epistles.”

P45 also reflects the early Christian preference for the codex, a preference exercised particularly (it seems) with respect to writings treated as scripture.  Accommodating the large body of text represented in the four Gospels and Acts in one codex (originally 56 papyrus sheets folded to form 112 leaves) required some forethought.  Christians appear to have been in the vanguard of experimentation with the codex as a bookform for such large bodies of text.  P45 has a larger number of lines per page than most other early NT manuscripts, and a large number of letters per line.  But it also has generous interline spacing, clearly written letters, and occasional use of punctuation to mark sense-units.  So, the book was prepared to facilitate usage by readers.

As typical of early Christian manuscripts, P45 exhibits the early Christian scribal practice known nowadays as the “nomina sacra,” the writing of certain words in a unique abbreviated form with a horizontal stroke placed above the form.  As well, P45 also has another early Christian copyist device referred to as the “staurogram,” involving an abbreviated form of the Greek words for “cross/crucify,” the letters tau and rho combined to form what looks like a pictographic representation of the crucified Jesus.

Of course, P45 is most often consulted and cited as a witness to the early text of the writings it contains.  There are no indications of major deletions or insertions, or any pattern of variants that suggests any theological programme.  Instead, we have a fairly good level of textual stability reflected in P45, with a good deal of “microlevel fluidity” (e.g., small variants in word-order, verb tense, etc.) but “macrolevel stability.”

This issue of the journal also contains a survey of Hvalvik’s varied contributions to scholarship in NT, other early Christian writings, the visual arts, and Jewish studies.  As well, there are the other symposium contributions, some in English and others in Norwegian.


“Destroyer of the gods” Interview: Books at a Glance

Another interview on my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, has appeared on the “Books at a Glance” site here.


%d bloggers like this: