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A Splendid Resource on Greek Epigraphy

August 23, 2013

In the course of preparing a paper for a symposium in Oslo in late September (my paper on references to Christian symbols in 2nd/3rd century Christian writers), I’ve come across a book that is a valuable resource on a body of historical data too often overlooked:  Greek inscriptions.  The book = An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Late Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the Great down to the Reign of Constantine (323 B.C. – A.D. 337), by Bradley H. McLean (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2002).

There have been other/earlier introductory works and valuable studies on the subject, but McLean’s is more recent, is designed especially to introduce the subject for those not trained in it, and is focused on the time period of most relevance to NT studies.  At 516pp. it’s chock-full of information and guidance, numerous tables and lists (e.g., commonly used abbreviations, names used, common formulae, and many more), supplementary bibliographies on numerous topics, and many other handy resources.  McLean even explains the mechanics of how inscriptions were produced.

The Roman period was one much given to inscriptions, thousands extant, and many, many more now lost.  But what remain probably give us a representative picture of things:  The occasions and types of inscriptions (public/official ones, dedicatory ones, funeral ones, et al.), so that we can make some accurate judgments about what these data tell us about life, practices, attitudes (e.g., toward death and the gods), and more to do with life in the period.  And this is the period in which earliest Christians such as those who wrote, read, and are reflected in the NT writings lived and the historical environment in which they worked out their faith.

Among the many items discussed, I noted McLean’s appropriate emphasis on inscriptions as artifacts.  He complains about an earlier tendency to treat simply the textual contents of inscriptions with inadequate attention to the physical/visual properties of them.  Curiously, however, his complaint is phrased as treating inscriptions “as if they were two-dimensional texts, analogous to manuscripts” (p. 65).

In my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), however, I’ve tried to make a similar point about manuscripts:  They, too, shouldn’t be treated simply for their textual contents.  Instead, the physical/visual properties of ancient manuscripts should also be noted, for these things (which we may term “para-textual data”) give us additional and valuable hints relevant to numerous historical questions, such as the likely use of the text(s), the social settings in/for which the manuscripts were prepared, i.e., the larger textual/reading “culture” in which these texts were used.

But this small complaint aside, McLean’s book is a veritable trove of information and guidance on how to draw upon epigraphic data in the larger task of trying to capture more of the cultural and historical setting of the Roman period, which is a necessary part of the task of reading/understanding the NT writings and the earliest Christian circles in which they circulated.

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  1. Geoff Hudson permalink

    What do you make of the Latin inscription CHRISTIANOS found under the eruption at Pompeii. Paul Berry wrote:

    “The inscription was found on the attrium wall of of a house located at No 11 on the Street of the Overhanging balcony, more commonly know to archaeologists as Vico Del Balcone Pensile. The lettering , clearly visible at the time, was executed in an upright Latin hand, inscribed with a carbon point on stucco. Of the ten words that finally emerged in the inscription, it is only the plural noun, CHRISTIANOS, that appeared in its entirety; it is the single word in the group that has never introduced a debate regarding the reading.”

    And this was buried before the New Testament was written in Greek.

    • No. Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79CE. The early Christian movement commenced ca. 30CE, and already by the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans (ca. 56-57CE) there were multiple church-groups in Rome. Paul’s letters (the 7 undisputed ones at least) were written ca. 50-60CE. Moreover, per Acts of the Apostles, Jesus-followers were called “Christians” first in Antioch, positing it sometime in the 30s CE. So, by the time of the Vesuvius eruption the young Christian movement was well into its 4th decade.
      I say nothing about the inscription in question, as I’m not an expert on Latin inscriptions. Berry’s larger thesis, that Latin was the primary language of early Christianity, has emphatically no support that I know of among scholarly circles. For an intro to the Pompeii data: Rex E. Wallace, An Introduction to Wall Inscriptions from Pompeii and Herculaneum (Waukonda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2005).

    • Geoff Hudson permalink

      79 CE was set in concrete, literally. And for how long had the inscription been on the wall before 79 CE? You can’t say that about any of the dates that you mention in connection with the New Testament. You know as well as I do that dates of New Testament events are debated. It is an excuse that you do not have an opinion about such an important inscription, the only one of its kind from the period. I believe that the Latin inscription meant something different from its use in Acts 11:27 where we might understand it as ‘followers of Christ or Jesus’. I would suggest that ‘anointed ones’ should be the meaning. These people were filled with Spirit, like prophets.

      • Dear Geoff, YOu appear to know more than any of the scholars who have examined the matter! Where have you been all this time? Gee, the rest of us (ancient historians, NT scholars, ancient Judaism, etc.) all have concluded that Paul’s letters were written ca. 50-60 CE, well ahead of the 79CE eruption. It’s not necessary to give the specific year, when the latest possible date is well before 79.
        As for the Pompeii graffito (it isn’t an inscription) in question, we had (it disappeared after 1864) apparently most of what appeared to be the word “christianos” (extant copies vary). As Lampe notes, was it written by a Christian? Was it an insult to Christians? Does it reflect contact with Christians in Pompeii or perhaps elsewhere?
        I appreciate that you “believe” what you do. But scholarship rests on evidence and critical examination thereof. And we come up pretty short on this one.
        The most authoritative study of early Christianity in Rome and vicinity = Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). On this graffito and other putative data from Pompeii, pp. 7-10 (with copious references to other literature).

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        On page 1 of his book, Berry writes (in aproximately 1995):
        “The importance of Kiessling’s find (in 1862) would be difficult to underestimate, it marks the first physical appearance of the word, “Christian”, in Western history. The writing may be dated, then, to a time before AD 79, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Carbon script on stucco, once it has been exposed to the atmosphere, has the gradual tendency to fade, and the words that had been seen in 1862 at House No. 11 can be traced today only with optical devices that were unavailable in the 19 th century.”

        Berry made a slight error, he should have written ‘Christians’. And of course I think he got the meaning completely wrong in the context of where the expression came from. But his research is good. He acknowledges the Historic American Buildings Survey, Washington, DC, in early days, using a microscope and powerful lighting to read the script. He says his monograph could not have been written without the assistance of the Department of Latin Epigraphy at Ohio State University, Columbus. He also acknowledges the extended correspondence and generous help he received from the Office of Archaeology in Pompeii. Although much of his language is flowery, this was not a little book to be dismissed lightly on such a specialised topic.

        Regarding the use of Latin versus Greek in Pompeii, on page 50, Berry writes: “A similar contrast between Greek and Latin is presented by the archaeological collections of Pompeii. The fourth Volume of Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum stands at a current total of over 10,000 inscriptions taken from the walls of the city. Of the total, about a hundred entries are in Greek, the rest are in Latin.” I have no reason to believe things were very different elsewhere in Italy at the time.

      • Geoff: You’ve beaten this nag quite sufficiently here. You’ve a right to your private opinion, but scholarship advances by setting out one’s case in a scholarly venue (e.g., refereed journal) where other scholars can test your case. If you haven’t done this, then your view is your own . . . and nothing more.
        As for Berry’s book, it hasn’t succeeded on its major thesis, largely because it is riven with errors. See, e.g., the review by Carolyn Osiek in CBQ 59 (1997) 570.
        For one thing, Berry lumps together (not taking into account the chronological data) those 10,000 inscriptions, whereas the question is what language is evidenced mainly in both the earliest texts and the earliest identifiable Christian inscriptions, that language being Greek, not Latin.
        As for the Pompeii graffito in question, again, your view of it is idiosyncratic, unless you can establish it in the usual academic manner, not by commenting on this or other blog sites. Be well.

    • Geoff Hudson permalink


      How do I get hold of the review by Carolyn Osiek in CBQ 59 (1997) 570.

      • It’s Catholic Biblical Quarterly, which should be available in most/any good libraries of seminaries, and university depts. of religion, and via most colleges/universities likely available online.

  2. Dr. Hurtado:

    What would you recommend on Latin epigraphy?

    I would love to track down some recent (which is to say, post-19th-century) scholarly commentary on these three once-often-cited forgeries and others like them: E.g. something trustworthy on their ultimate provenance. What do we know about how, when precisely, and under what circumstances they arose? Does any reputable post-19th-century scholar even trouble to take up–in order, of course, to dismiss–the question?

    It would be nice to be able to cite more than the late 19th-century consensus and 20th- and 21st-century silence. E.g. CIL indices to books like Kuhoff’s Diokletian und die Epoche der Tetrarchie (2001), Corcoran’s The empire of the Tetrarchs (1996), Clunia II: la epigrafia de Clunia (1987), and the online database Hispania Epigraphica ( don’t even so much as sniff superciliously. I can understand why, but still, it would be nice to be able to cite a comparatively recent reputable discussion.

    Steve Perisho
    Theology and Philosophy Librarian
    Seattle Pacific University

  3. Thanks for pointing out some valuable information sources. I read with interest your “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” and “How on Earth Did Jesus become a God.” It’s helpful to see that later church teaching had its roots in the early church.

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