A Splendid Resource on Greek Epigraphy
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.