Some Unusual Central Heating

Now THIS was interesting (to an ancient history buff).  We take modern climate control technologies very much for granted:

“I built a hut with a tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud and stone walls. This has been my most ambitious primitive project yet and was motivated by the scarcity of permanent roofing materials…” Source: Building a hut with a kiln-fired tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud pile walls.

I recently added this site to my list after seeing the video of the construction  process.  Do go there and have a look.

The author’s use of fired clay is impressive enough but the heated floor is what really caught my attention.  It works the same way as the Roman hypocaust and Korean ondol.  I was some way though viewing that portion of the build before it dawned on me what I was looking at.

The Roman designs heated large surface areas and large masses of masonry, leading to the need for a lot of labor to feed the furnace.  Although this was probably not a big deal from the Roman point of view because of the prodigious use of slaves.  But the author’s use of large stones in the floor covering a heating channel should provide a source of radiant warmth for the entire living space long after the fire went out.  And would require less labor for the resultant heat.



on another site before reading the author’s post.

A Faith of Trust, Allegiance, and Loyalty

Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.

We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.

The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.[1]

I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors.  But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.

Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill,[2] when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.

But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.

The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.

This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.

Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.

It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world.  He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).

What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe”[3] in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:

You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.

A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.

In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.

And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”[4]

As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.

But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.

Commodus denarius – Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.”  Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity.[5]  It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.

It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:

Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.

Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.


[1]  Kate Cooper.  Review: Teresa Morgan, ROMAN FAITH, CHRISTIAN FAITH.  I’ve added the book to my list to acquire and read.  It’s quite expensive which suggests it is directed at an academic audience.  Also at:

[2] Acts 17:16 ff.

[3] James 2:14-18, faith: πιστιν – pistin, πιστις – pistis, Strong’s G4102.  James 2:19, believe: πιστευεις – pisteueis, πιστευουσιν – pisteuousin, Strong’s G4100.

[4] Mary Beard. SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015. p78


A Little Less Greek

On a recent foray into a used book store I stumbled over an excellent flyover of Roman history.  During my reading I was intrigued by the settlement of a political conflict in the Roman republic of the fourth and fifth centuries BC.  During that period a power struggle ensued between the hereditary aristocracy and the commoners.  Compromises during the period ended the contest in the early third century with a relatively stable power-sharing arrangement.  The aristocracy of birth was diluted with an aristocracy of political office and wealth, and the political offices were divvied up between the classes.

The author, Donald Dudley, highlights the results in Rome by contrasting them with the conflicts in Greek city-states:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Roman sources stress that the entire contest over some five generations was carried out with no bloodshed and with the minimum of violence. It is common to pay tribute to the political good sense of a society in which this could be done. Credit where it is due must not be withheld. But once again the factor of enlightened self-interest can be invoked. Rome lived in a world of enemies, and each of the parties in this internal political dispute needed the other. The patricians needed the numbers and courage of the common people to defend the state in war, the plebs needed the leadership and experience of the patricians. It is true that, in the insensate fury of the class struggle, Greek city-states were only too apt to forget an enemy at the gates. But in the Roman Republic, as yet, there was a readiness for compromise and common sense. Furthermore, where the Greeks were fatally apt to conduct their political disputes in terms of principles (and in the spirit which later made martyrs and heresiarchs), at Rome political disputes arose over practical issues.**”

There might be something in this for the modern world.

The current polarization in US politics produces entertaining media theater.  Unfortunately the stage show seems to favor shouted one-dimensional answers and celebrities with out-sized personalities.  There appears to be little appreciation for the practical and difficult discussions of complex issues appear completely frozen out.  If ideas cannot be reduced to sound bites and Twitter posts they are knocked flat in the gale of personal invective, cynical populist rhetoric, and simplistic expressions of principle.  Demagogues and ideologues.  The whole thing seems very Greek.

On the other hand the founding document for the US political environment seems very Roman.  The US Constitution appears to be a very practical exercise in spreading power. It encodes a recognition of what happens when too much of it is concentrated in one place and requires broad consensus to get anything significant done.

Unfortunately the framers appear to have not recognized the limits of their practical problem solving.  The three-fifths compromise in Article One was morally bankrupt and baked in the mechanisms of its own dissolution.  This attempt to reconcile political power arrangements with the treatment of people as property was eventually paid for with 600,000 casualties in the American Civil War.

There is a balance to be found somewhere in between the practical thinking of the US founding fathers and the very loud chaos of the current media circus.  But at the moment the balance could a bit more Roman and a little less Greek.


**Donald R Dudley.  The Romans: 850 B.C.-A.D. 337.  Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 1-56619-456-3.  P40

Abusing Tacitus

Lots of people throw around quotations attributed to ancient authors.  Last year I read the Annals and Histories by Tacitus.  Since then I’ve found writers who seem to have reason to beat up on him.  But not everyone who refers to ancient authors actually reads the works they use and abuse.  The early Christian writer Tertullian may be a case in point.

Alexamenos Graffito
Wikimedia Commons

In Apology 16 and Ad Nationes 1.11 he attacks a pagan derision against Christians having to do with the worship of a donkey’s head.  He takes Tacitus to task as the originator of the insult, a possible example of which is visible in an ancient scrawl known as the Alexamenos Graffito. This was found inside the excavation of a former Roman boarding school for imperial page boys. It appears to depict a victim of crucifixion with a donkey’s head, as well as an inscription that could be read as “Alexamenos worships his god.”  According to Tertullian, Tacitus was the first to convey the insult.

Modern writers have been attacking Tacitus as well, particularly the veracity of a  section in Annals 15 having to do the Great Fire of Rome in the summer of 64 CE.  Tacitus describes the fire and an unconfirmed rumor that the emperor Nero was responsible, and also describes Nero’s brutal scapegoating of Christians in an attempt to dispel the rumor.  Tacitus also had uncomplimentary things to say about the scapegoats themselves, describing them as “…hated for their abominations…(Annals 15.44).”

An example of an attack on this section may be found in an academic paper by Raphael Lataster, published in the Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.  It is incorporated into a broader attack on the historicity of Jesus Christ.  He writes:

“It is the phrase referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage and its context) could also be a later Christian interpolation. While some scholars could argue that this passage must be genuine because it does not portray Christians and Christ in a totally positive manner, there are reasons to have doubts over the authenticity or legitimacy of this passage. It is interesting that the name Jesus is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only reference to Jesus. It is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ. Given that Jesus is not specified, there may also be a small possibility that this could refer to another Christ or messiah-figure. Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14 CE to 66 CE, no other mention is made of Jesus Christ.(78) This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quote Tacitus in the 3rd century.(79)”[1]

This is speculation entangled in arguments from silence.

It is hardly surprising that there is no mention of Jesus or his execution in the extant portions of the Annals.  Why would the execution of yet another obscure Jew in Palestine be noticed in Rome?  Roman governors recorded what they did and sent reports home.  But as Pliny’s letters to Trajan suggest, the reporting was likely to contain a fair bit of self-promotion and flattery.  If Pilate’s messaging to Rome said anything at all about Jesus it would have been a very brief bit that cast any relevant events in the best possible light.  And it would vanish into a hand-curated archive along with all the other provincial reporting.

Rome is the center of the universe for Tacitus.  Jesus wouldn’t even be a blip on the first century Roman radar except for Nero’s pogrom. Which means information about Jesus possibly filtered into Roman thinking via the Christians themselves, including whatever names they used.  But Tacitus did not appear to view the report of the execution by Pilate as controversial as it is not accompanied by qualifiers that appear elsewhere in his writings.

And what other “messiah-figure” could the passage possibly be talking about?  One of the Vestal Virgins?  This claim makes no sense in the context of Roman history.  And the flow of the passage referencing the fire appears consistent with the rest of Tacitus’ writing.  The bar for tagging this section as a forgery seems quite high.

But I digress.  The asserted quotations by Origen and Tertullian are the focus of my interest.  It would have been helpful to have references.  I am unable to locate anything in Origen’s writing naming Tacitus which likely reflects my ignorance of his work. But Tertullian does specifically name him, and refers to the Histories.  Time to read what Tacitus actually wrote.

In Histories 5 he includes an ethnographic survey of the Jews in the context of the their revolt from Roman rule starting in 66 CE.  Tacitus notes his reference to other writers and relates variant accounts of the origins of the Jews. In referencing what is presumably the Exodus, Tacitus states that the Jews followed a herd of wild asses to water and later, “…in their holy place…consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance…(Histories 5.3).”   This is presumably the focus of Tertullian’s ire.  But later in the section Tacitus relates the following:

“…the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”

In this context a characterization of the Jews as worshiping an animal might be more than what Tacitus intended to say (this would need to be confirmed by someone with a command of Latin).  But what is extremely odd is that Tertullian did not cite this additional bit. In both Apology and Ad Nationes Tacitus is accused of self-contradictory falsehood, by elsewhere describing Pompeii’s failure to find an image when he entered the temple after capturing Jerusalem.  Tertullian also does not mention Tacitus’ explicit dependence on other writers.  Contrary to what Tertullian states, Tacitus is not the origin of the story about the donkeys.

Tertullian’s actual references are of more significance. Ad Nationes incorrectly attributes Tacitus’ comment to Book 4 of the Histories and contradicts the correct reference to Book 5 in Apology. The obvious question is how does Tertullian make a mistake like this if he is working directly from source material? It’s not like ancient writers could be overwhelmed with the results of too many citations.  Contrary to what Lastaster presents, it appears that in this instance Tertullian does not appear to “…actually quote Tacitus…”

There is a very good possibility that Tertullian was not working directly from a primary source.  It is possible he may have been working from fragmentary copies, or possibly his memory of having read the texts at some point.  But given the high  divergence from the actual writings, it is far more likely he is using material transmitted by way of an intermediary — someone else’s oral or written references to to Tacitus’ works.  Tertullian demonstrates at least some familiarity. Tertullian refers to Tacitus in Ad Nationes 2.12, in what appears to be a sweeping but somewhat offhand reference in the context of an argument about the human origins of pagan divinities.  But that is not the same as actually reading from complete copies of the Histories and Annals.  One could just as easily argue that a social media posting referencing Sun Tzu demonstrates a direct reading of The Art of War.

Any argument that depends on the direct access of one ancient writer to another is potentially problematic in the media context of the ancient world. It encapsulates gratuitous assumptions about the diffusion of documents over time and distance.  This was an era of manuscripts laboriously copied by hand[2], as well as arduous travel powered by animals, sail, and human feet.  Diffusion over time is possibly not at issue, as Tertullian was born roughly a century later than Tacitus, but he lived across the Mediterranean in North Africa.  It’s not like he could walk into a local bookseller and order a scroll.

Absent actual evidence of quotation there would seem to be a need to demonstrate a reasonable availability of the primary source material.  Without this any errors or omissions by Tertullian become no more than probable artifacts of manuscript transmission in the ancient world.

Ancient writers are not wholly silent on the events treated by Tacitus. Paulus Orosius refers to the fire and a Neronian persecution. The History against the Pagans 7.7 on Nero summarizes the events but does not link them.  Sulpitius Severus, however, is explicit about Nero’s attempt to scapegoat Christians for the fire in Sacred History 2.29.  The material is unattributed, and backstopped with an interpretation of The Apocalypse of John. It is possible that Severus is using an independent source, but the language appears very similar to that of Tacitus, minus the pejorative characterization of Christians.  Unlike Tertullian, Severus appears to have been working directly from what Tacitus wrote, and not been forced to rely on memory or someone else’s references.

Tertullian could be excused for working with what he had.  Modern writers have no such out.


[1]Raphael Lataster, “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 6, no. 1 (2015) PP 84-85.

The footnotes in the quotation refer to the following works:
(78) Bart D Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. p. 54.
(79) Earl Doherty. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2009. pp. 596-600.  The proprietor of the publisher appears to be the author.  Self-publication is common (like this blog) however the book is not identified as such in the paper’s bibliography.  This seems rather odd for a peer-reviewed journal.

[2] Update April 11, 2014: the bar to manuscript diffusion was even a bit higher than I thought.  There is the matter of the very high cost of the physical media which would definitely slow transmission over time and distance.  See a very interesting discussion of the cost here:


(Mis)reading the New Testament (and other ancient texts)

Protestants have been dividing from one another pretty much continuously since Luther’s excommunication.  Before your next disagreement with another Christian I would like to suggest trying an experiment:

  1. Pick an issue over which Christians divide. It doesn’t matter which one.
  2. Pick a book of the New Testament that contains verses addressing your view of the controversy.
  3. Find a public domain version of the Bible online and copy the book into a word processor, or better yet a plain text editor.
  4. Use “find and replace” to remove all the punctuation, numbers (chapter and verse marks), and all the spaces between the words.
  5. For good measure remove the paragraphs.
  6. Now try to read it.
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9

This is an approximation of scriptio continua, the normal mode of writing used in classical Greek and late classical Roman texts[1]. It is also found in early manuscripts of the New Testament.

The original form of these texts may have implication for how we read them today.  Some time ago I was introduced to the idea that our communications media affects the physical structure of how our brains work.  There is a very good chance that our brains function a bit differently from the writers and readers of ancient texts.

We are awash in print. Books emails, text messages, tweets, news pages, magazines, captions – we see it everywhere but we really don’t see it. Reading happens below our level of conscious thought.   This flood of text that started with the printing press has completely saturated us with the advent of electronic media.

It wasn’t always so.  The mechanics and logistics of reading and writing in the ancient world presented a far different environment.  There was far less of it.  The composition format in the ancient world would make writing laborious and persistent media (parchment and papyrus) was labor-intensive and costly[6] to produce.

And the process reading/writing was hard work. If you doubt that just try the experiment I described above. Or follow this link.

If you were literate, which wasn’t likely, you probably didn’t do that much reading and writing unless your occupation demanded it.  And you probably read aloud.  Silent reading is extremely difficult without spaces between words.  And if you had sufficient means, there is a good chance that a literate slave did a fair bit of your reading for you. After all, slaves did most of your other menial stuff.

Occupational literacy did demand some personal reading and writing and utilitarian texts appear predominate in archeological finds.  Literary texts comprise only about 10% of the papyri excavated from the ancient garbage dumps at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, following their discovery at the end of the 19th century.  The rest are government and private records and correspondence. They include “…codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters.[2]”

Reading and writing seems to have been tools of practical communication in a primarily oral culture, rather than mechanisms of the information saturation we experience in the present day.  What was spoken seems dominate what was what was written.

This orality appears also to extend to those who would be considered literate in a modern sense. Pliny the Younger described (his uncle) Pliny the Elder’s study habits as including the use of a reader.  His uncle would listen while taking notes (Letters 3.5).  The passage describes the reading as out loud, so presumably some silent reading was known.  But that was clearly not his uncle’s preferred way of interacting with the text.

Some years ago in an attempt to step outside of my own thinking on the matter of origins I read (most of) The Literal Meaning of Genesis, by Augustine of Hippo. It took weeks to read – the struggle was something of a surprise, having read much longer books by 19th century authors. I also started but never finished City of God – I mostly just nibbled around the edges and never really digested the book.

Now I may know why.  In the seventh century Irish scribes started inserting spaces between words and also started adding punctuation. Latin was a foreign language and this made it easier to read[3].  Our ability to speak is innate. Reading and writing, however, are learned.  The idea I was introduced to last fall is that the learning process creates new neural pathways in the brain.  Which means that a brain that does not read will have not have the same pathways as one that has learned the skill.  It is different.  And spaces between words make that skill easier to master.

By making reading easier, spaces and punctuation made reading more efficient and possible to do far more of.  More reading, more neural pathways.  Spaces between words facilitated the development of a brain that is saturated in text, the way mine is.  It has different neural pathways from one that is not.

To be clear I am not equating this difference with intelligence.  I doubt very many of us could master extemporaneous oral composition in the way that was expected in ancient Greece and Rome.  Ancient orators did not have teleprompters.  What I am suggesting is that maybe the thinking processes of those ancient orators was a bit different from ours.

There is a frequently cited passage in Confessions where Augustine describes silent reading by Ambrose of Milan in ways that make it clear it was highly unusual (Confessions 6.3). Augustine probably read out loud – which means there is a good chance his primary mode of thinking and composition was oral, and his writing  consequently anchored in an oral mode of thought.  This orality might help to explain why I struggled to track with his writing. If this is true it also ought to affect the conclusions I draw from what he was communicating.

I have been working my way through quite a number of ancient texts since that point – some have been easier to read than others. I thoroughly enjoyed Xenophon’s Anabasis – his account of a mercenary army’s misadventures in Persia and subsequent escape. It was probably more readable because it is very linear, something which is imposed by the sequence of events. But other ancient writing seems somehow disjointed compared to writing of later millennia. It seems far less linear.

Which brings me back to the subjects of our disagreements.

Ancient writing is just different enough that we ought to have some caution about the conclusions we draw from what we read. If strong and incompatible arguments can be made for several very different interpretations of the same ancient text, it is entirely possible that none of them were ever in the mind of the author. In ignoring the inherent orality of the original writing risk reading our own ways of thinking back into an ancient text.  First-century Palestine was an oral culture. Nobody had a leather-bound Torah resting on a coffee table in their house.

Modern  scholarship is  beginning to engage this inherent orality.  Richard Bauckham notes that the way Mark structures “…his narrative are mostly characteristic of oral composition.[4]”  Other books of the New Testament have identifiable oral underpinnings as well. Transmission of Paul’s letters may have involved more of an oral performance[5] than the sterile textual “reading” to which we are accustomed.

I’m not suggesting we return to the reading aloud of continuous text with no punctuation. But given the oral underpinnings of ancient writing, in order to engage with biblical texts on a personal level (and on their own terms) we might be better off hearing more of it than just simply reading it.

I have been attempting to do exactly that. I am currently playing the New Testament on CD in my truck on the way to work in the mornings. It’s not a perfect approach. The particular version to which I am listening has soothing music in the background – this does nothing to contribute to my engagement with the performance. But I am hearing (and engaging) things I used to gloss over while simply reading.


[1] Scriptio continua. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from

[2] Oxyrhynchus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from

[3] Modern English, Punctuation, and Word Separation. (2010, October 30). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from

[4] Bauckham, R. (2006). Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony (p. 232). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[5] For an example see: McKnight, S. (2015, June 11). Performing a Pauline Letter. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from

[6] Update April 11, 2016: writing media was more costly than I had any idea, especially parchment.  It appears that the cost of a complete book could be one hundred times (or more) the daily wage of an unskilled laborer.  In view of this books seem unlikely to have been plentiful.  At least not in the way we experience them.  Casual reading would be a pastime for the literate wealthy (or perhaps for the literate with wealthy patrons).



Calling in the Romans

In the middle third century a Church council assembled at Antioch and deposed the local bishop, Paul of Samosata. Paul appears to have taught that Christ was a mere man infused with the divine, a view at odds with the dominant consensus about Jesus’ pre-existence. Unfortunately for the council Paul held a government position and also had the backing of the queen of Palmyra. The other bishops were consequently unable to actually dislodge him until after the Roman emperor Aurelian defeated the queen and reasserted control over the eastern empire. The bishops applied to Aurelian to pry Paul loose and the emperor deferred to the bishops of Italy and Rome.

“Vexilloid of the Roman Empire” by Ssolbergj

Discussion of this incident seems to focus on the theology as well as accusations of abuse of position and self-enrichment recorded by Eusebius [1]. But the ties to civil government clearly made the problem more difficult for the early church to address — they provided Paul with resources to resist the other bishops. An underlying issue is summed up in a comment in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. The behavior of Paul “offers significant evidence that urban churches were seeking men of power and culture for their bishops.”[2]  This points to a similarity in functional usage between the activity of civil government and the office of bishop.  The latter had become compatible with the exercise of autocratic authority.

The office of bishop seems to have originally been anchored in a plurality of leadership and by this time it was clearly losing that character. One cause put forth as an impetus was a need for strong leadership in the second-century theological controversies. Other contributors have been suggested. I recently found an argument by Joanna Dewey that posits writing and literacy as a mechanism of control which facilitated “…the shift to manuscript-based authority and to the hegemony and control of Christian churches by a small, educated male elite.”[3]

I am fairly new to academic writings on the early church but so far most of what I’ve read seems to look right past issues of process and structure.  For example Dewey has some very interesting things to say about orality in the first-century church but also appears to overstate the usefulness of writing in the exercise of control. In the context of ancient Rome she writes that the “…administrative letter was the essential tool for regulating the empire’s business…”[4]

Which appears to simply ignore practical realities of time and distance  communications in the ancient world.[5]  I would suggest instead that the essential tool for regulating the business of empire was loyal and reasonably competent local administration. Given this there is a better candidate driving the development of monoepiscopacy and its subsequent dysfunctional compatibility with autocratic Roman power. These are rooted in general observations on organization that seems to apply to the church as well.

Once any group of people expands beyond a certain point in numbers and scope of activity some degree of organization becomes necessary. It allows for specialization and cooperation, increasing the reach of the group beyond what individuals are capable of.  This can grow up organically at small scales as individuals are found to have aptitudes for particular roles.  Such organic development seems to characterize the apostles’ call to recruit people to administrate the distribution of support to widows. But in the centuries following this nascent bit of organizing something clearly went off the rails.

The activities of large numbers of people are not well administrated by informal methods. Whatever the actual initial impetus for monoepiscopacy, the efficiency of the expedient would rapidly lead to consolidation of function as an organizational form. It’s not difficult to see where this would come from. Monarchy was a familiar form in the ancient world. And administration of Roman provinces was carried out by governors who combined supreme civil and military authority.

In all fairness the early church didn’t have much in the way of alternative examples. But an inherent conflict exists between the tendencies of autocratic forms and what Jesus had in mind when he called leaders to be servants. Autocratic leadership forms (and styles) work best when the leader is both highly directive and able to cultivate initiative on the part of subordinates who are both loyal and competent. This is an organizational thought process which does not seem inherently conducive to either pastoral ministry or the cultivation of community. With the right leaders it might be theoretically possible to navigate.

But salt in the inevitable bits of sloth, hubris, and avarice, along with assorted other vices and things come apart. Sloth is perhaps the most insidious as it is common, easy to camouflage, and locks other problems in place. As all organizations grow and roles differentiate, individuals and groups with specialized tasks rapidly become used to doing things in particular ways. There are a limited number of things anyone can attend to and sloth provides a powerful incentive to attend to as few things as possible. Which means most people and groups will cease to look beyond their specialized roles and become highly resistant to changing those roles.

When change inevitably becomes necessary this puts specialized roles in the larger group out of sync with each other, spawning conflict.  This in turn, creates an incentive for competition within an organization as individuals and groups seek to reinforce their specialized roles. In hierarchical structures some will seek to improve their position within the hierarchy at the expense of others — the more energetic and adaptable among them will be the most successful at this. This competition puts individuals and groups at cross-purposes with each other, and with whatever the original goals of the larger group may have been.

Autocratic structures are inherently dependent on capable and energetic top leadership to counter sloth and reign in competition in order to stay on mission. This dependency increases as the structure grows in size and in the scope of activity. The dependency also builds in a high vulnerability to the avarice of such leadership, as well as a high vulnerability to the avarice of energetic subordinates, if such a leader is lacking.  The vulnerability can be mitigated by reliance on rigid codes of behavior, such as in military organizations, but this brings problems of its own.  Autocratic systems can rapidly come to be all about giving and following directives, and competition over who is giving directives to whom.

The only remedy for the misbehavior of an entrenched autocrat such as Paul of Samosata is the application of raw power. The bishops were obliged to find a more powerful autocrat and they called in the Romans.

The foregoing ought to be a cautionary tale for modern churches and para-church ministries, particularly large ones. We have had a couple of millennia to come up with better ways to do administration but we’re really no different. All modern administrative structures have at least some autocratic aspects. And all have the tendency noted above to reinforce specialized roles at the expense of the overall group. This causes an organization to drift toward stagnation and this drift increases with size.

Large organizations are likely impossible to run any other way. And attempts to counter this in modern corporations, such as by using oversight by an independent board, bring additional baggage. Most churches in the US likely borrow such corporate forms from the culture without giving them a second thought.

Churches call their governance various things (such as elder or deacon boards) but most of them are likely a functional and legal board of directors of a state-charted non-profit corporation. This governing board is bound to legal and ethical obligations that are independent of the organization’s defined structure. And some of these obligations encompass further imperatives that can potentially operate at cross purposes with a church’s ministry.

One example (among others) might illustrate this. Board members have ethical obligations to donors which drives a duty to investigate allegations of mishandling of the funds and assets of the corporation. Board members consequently have an obligation to hear the allegations of good faith whistle-blowers and protect them. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios where this might conflict with what Paul the apostle says about handling accusations against elders.

Most churches probably just muddle on through issues of organization and do just fine at small scales. But a failure to engage the inherent characteristics of organizational forms at larger scales is apt to result in one of two dysfunctional outcomes.

In the first, the church (or para-church ministry) becomes “an institution” and solidifies in harmful ways. Modern practices have mitigated the nastier effects of competition for control and position once characteristic of autocratic administration. But individual and group tendencies to settle into the familiar can freeze specialized roles in place like a glacier in an alpine valley.  Those roles might still be in motion.  But don’t wait around for them to produce anything.

In the second, actual requirements of the forms are ignored and chaos ensues. In the US this might involve blurring of the obligations inherent in a non-profit entity. Corners get cut, particularly when conflicts of interests are involved. Sometimes liberties are taken. If enough of this happens some injured party files a lawsuit, which is a modern US version of calling in the Romans. After all, the government created the tax-exempt entity in the first place, along with the obligations that go with it.

These outcomes are not mutually exclusive and a crisis precipitated by the first can initiate the second. Neither of them are conducive to building community.

I am not suggesting we can dispense with organization.  But unfortunately organization aggregates human frailty, and different organizational forms aggregate frailty in different ways. What I am suggesting is caution about the baggage that comes with organizational forms, and asking questions about the limitations in our approaches to issues of numerical growth and growth in the scale of our activities.

So someone doesn’t have to call in the Romans.


[1] The Church History of Eusebius.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers).  Editor Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2009 Kindle Edition.
(Kindle Locations 21771-21790).

[2] Frederick W. Norris. Paul of Samosata.  Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Editor Everett Ferguson.  New York: Taylor & Francis, 1999. Print. Kindle Edition 2013 (Kindle Locations 34343-34344).

[3] Joanna Dewey. Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Eugene: Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2013. Kindle Edition, p. 4.

[4] Dewey, (p. 6.).

[5 ] Round-trip messaging durations in ancient Rome were measured in weeks and months.  This  constrains the practical utility of letters to narrow uses such as broad policy guidance, or to address specific and non-urgent problems raised about the scope or authority of specific local officials.   The broader use of an administrative letter, particularly in the case of the emperor and a distant governor, is as an a not too subtle reminder of who is actually in control.  The obsequious tone in some of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is highly suggestive.

Granted, written material is more reliable than oral messages and probably did facilitate  the sprawl of the Roman power. But writing itself is not inherently necessary to run an empire. The Inca may have got on just fine without it. They used knotted and colored string Quipus for administrative recording. These may have also served as a form of writing media but the mechanical nature would be very limiting, and probably not that useful beyond administrative record-keeping.

Jewish Names in the Gospel Accounts, and Roman Historical Context

Anyone thrashing about over the origins of New Testament texts and how we read them ought to pick up a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. The book provides an analysis of oral tradition, first century personal names, and literary evidence relevant to the Gospel accounts. The analysis is used to support an argument that the accounts are directly anchored in the eyewitness testimony of close associates of Jesus.

The argument is a counter to the view that they are wholly the product of oral community traditions, and as such, changing over time to conform to how the community views itself. Proponents of this seem to want to decouple early Christianity from any connection to actual participants in historical events. I am part way through the book and am finding it very helpful in framing how I think about the Gospel texts.

Early in the book Bauckham cites a study of Palestinian Jewish names to support his thesis. The study is based on the work of Israeli scholar Tal Ilan. Ilan compiled Jewish names used in Palestine between 330 BCE and 200 CE. A large amount of the data comes from the first century and the beginning of the second century CE (to 135) reflecting the relative abundance of sources in this period compared to the full span of five centuries. The sources include the New Testament, as well as others such as ossuaries, inscriptions, the works of Josephus, and other Judean texts.

Bauckham describes a correspondence in the study between the relative frequencies of personal names in the Gospels and the relative frequencies of these names in the total study. For example, Simon and Joseph are identified as the two most popular male names and comprise similar percentages of the names counted in the Gospels and Acts, as compared to the rest of the data.

Bauckham argues that this is unlikely to have arisen from the later addition of names in oral traditions. Bauckham observes that, “… that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora was not at all the same as in Palestine…the fact that the practices of naming were very different…”[1] He further comments that the name correspondence, “…would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine.”[2]

But what Bauckham says would seem to rest within a broader point. The name correspondence provides an independent anchor in time for possible dates of authorship of the written Gospel accounts, as well as an anchor in geography for possible sources.

Bauckham notes, “…that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period.”[3] But he doesn’t flesh out the significance of the identified date.

135 CE was the year Roman legions suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. After the revolt the Romans depopulated Judean Jewish communities and Jews became a minority in Palestine. The Romans also suppressed Jewish religious expression; this eased only with the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138. The center of the religion subsequently shifted east to the Babylonian Jewish community.

The incidence of Palestinian Jewish names is lower after 135 because the Romans had removed (most of) the Palestinian Jews. What this means is that the writers of the Gospel accounts either 1) lived in Jewish Palestine before the revolt or 2) were relaying material directly from pre-revolt residents.  The combination of Roman military activity and the subsequent deportations likely eliminated any further avenue for oral transmission from Palestinian Jewish communities.

Which means the name correspondence firmly anchors the Gospel accounts within the living memories of pre-revolt residents of Jewish Palestine.  This does not definitively say when, where, and by whom the Gospel accounts were written — but the Bar Kokhba revolt imposes absolute bounds on the range of possible answers. These bounds backstop existing scholarship answering those questions, and apply whether or not Bauckham’s thesis is correct.


[1] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, ISBN: 0802863906. 2013 Kindle Edition p. 73.
[2] Baukham, p. 84.
[3] Bauckham, p. 68.

Writing Without Spaces

I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.

The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:

“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”

But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.

Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.

The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.

*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.