Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

 
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Title:
Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri
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Cambridge
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Harvard Theological Studies, Harvard Divinity School
Year:
2008
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Harvard theological studies -- 60
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English
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2008046584
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9780674025950
Last Updated:
September 19th, 2012
Abstract

"Investigates private letters and official documents found at the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus pertaining to Christians in the pre-Constantinian era, taking the reader to the marketplace, church, and court room. Analyzes scribal habits, discovers the city's first known bishop and examines his work, and finds evidence of Christian resistance during times of persecution" (information fournie par l'éditeur).

BOOK REVIEWS

Reviewed work(s): Luijendijk, AnneMarie. Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Harvard Theological Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. xix+294 pp. $25.00 (paper).
The Journal of Religion , Vol. 91, No. 1, The Augustinian Moment (January 2011), pp. 83-85
 

Michael J. Kruger

Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC.

When it comes to the extensive Christian literary papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus over the last century (biblical or extrabiblical), detailed scholarly studies have not been lacking. We have numerous treatments of these extant manuscripts and their relevance for understanding the development of early Christianity in Egypt and beyond. What has been lacking, however, is any extensive analysis of the documentary papyri at Oxyrhynchus—letters, bills of sale, legal documents, and so forth—and how they might also illumine aspects of the early Christian religion during this critical time period. That is, of course, until now. AnneMarie Luijendijk's Greetings in the Lord has offered an intriguing and insightful study of Oxyrhynchus Christianity in the third and fourth centuries from the “underside” (234), allowing the documentary papyri to give ancient Christians a fresh voice they would not otherwise have had.

In chapter 1, Luijendijk begins with a broad overview of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus from a literary, archaeological, cultural, and religious perspective. In particular, she focuses on the fact that the ancient city was a veritable religious “marketplace” that included various Egyptian and Greco-Roman religions, Judaism, Manichaeans, and, of course, Christians. Due to the rich papyrological deposits left by these Christian communities (under excavation since the late nineteenth-century work of Grenfell and Hunt), we have ample resources to discover what life was like for Christians during this time period.

In chapters 2 and 3, Luijendijk tackles a complex question distinctive to the study of documentary papyri: how letters can be identified as distinctively “Christian.” This is no easy task given the brevity and limited subject matter of most documentary papyri. Beginning with a “Letter to Apollo” (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 14.1680), she demonstrates that use of terms like θϵός or ἀγαπητός are inadequate to identify a text as Christian. Although she is no doubt correct about this, she overlooks another possible clue of Christian provenance in this letter, namely, that the son expresses concern for his father's well-being on his journey and hopes nothing happens to his father “lest … we do not find your body” (33, emphasis mine). Given the distinctive theological concern of some ancient Christians for the physical body (as opposed to, say, Gnostics), this seems to be a clue worth further investigation. Combined with the use of θϵός or ἀγαπητός , it may tip the scales in favor of this letter having a Christian origin.

In addition, Luijendijk examines the use of the specific term “Christian” and also particular Christian nomenclature (such as names) as further clues to the identity of a letter. However, given that none of these are definitive in and of themselves, Luijendijk rightly focuses on the nomina sacra as the more certain indicator of a Christian document. Here she provides a helpful inventory of all the letters from Oxyrhynchus which contain the nomina sacra and date to the pre-Constantinian period (a helpful resource to have in a single place). This inventory allows her to make a compelling case that the use of the nomina sacra in documentary papyri demonstrates that they “formed part of the curriculum of (at least some) Christian educational settings” (69). Christians would have been exposed to these distinctive abbreviations while doing school exercises (which often included passages of scripture) or while reading manuscripts in the context of the catechumenate.

In chapters 4 and 5, Luijendijk introduces the reader to a new character appearing in numerous letters from Oxyrhynchus, a bishop named Sotas. Here she provides a fascinating look at the everyday life of an ancient Christian leader, not from the perspective of theological treatises and polemical tracts, but from the remnants of his ordinary activities. We learn of the role of “letters of recommendation,” the sending and receiving of catechumens, and the nature of a bishop's fundraising. Most insightful here is Luijendijk's argument that the parchment writing material of two of Sotas's letters (PSI 3.208, 9.1041) indicates that Sotas “and his circle were involved in manufacturing manuscripts and composed these letters on the leftovers” (149). She bases this claim on the fact that parchment was rarely used for letters in Egypt during this time and that the shape of the parchment was long and narrow (which one would expect from scraps). This is fine historical detective work from Luijendijk and good confirmation that Oxyrhynchus likely contained a vibrant Christian scriptorium during this time period (something originally suggested by Turner and Roberts).

The final chapters of the book deal with the appearance of Christians in official government papers. Luijendijk covers three main stages of persecution: ( a) First, she covers the Decian edict (ca. 250) in which the emperor required all subjects in the empire to perform a pagan sacrifice. Here Luijendijk examines the remains of four libelli which confirm that certain individuals had indeed performed the sacrifice. However, she concedes that there is no clear indication that any of these individuals are Christians, making the reader wonder why they are included in the chapter “Searching for Christians in Official Papers.” Nevertheless, such letters still provide a broad background for what life was possibly like for Christians in third-century Oxyrhynchus. ( b) Luijendijk also addressed the confiscation of property from Christians under the edict of Valerian circa 258. Two letters are examined that detail the arrest of a certain clergyman “Petosorapis, son of Horus, Christian” (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 42:3035), and some sort of judicial proceeding against Christian property (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 43:3119). Unfortunately, both letters are quite vague about the specific details of each situation and thus offer little illumination about daily life for Christians in ancient Egypt. As a result, we gain few new insights beyond Cyprian's original description of the Valerian edict (Letter 80.2). ( c) Finally, Luijendijk covers the “Great Persecution” of Diocletian (ca. 303–11), which proves to be the most fascinating portion of the book. She examines documents about an official “reader” of a church who had his church inspected, the martyrdom of a person named “Paul,” and a businessman who avoided having to sacrifice to the gods in the public courts by giving his (supposedly non-Christian) brother power of attorney.

In the end, Luijendijk's volume proves to be a worthwhile and impressive contribution to our knowledge of Oxyrhynchus and to Egyptian Christianity in general. She is to be commended for viewing history through the fresh lens of the documentary papyri rather than just the literary papyri. For this reason, her book ought to be read by all scholars of ancient Christianity.

 

Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. By AnneMarie Luijendijk. Harvard Theological Studies 60. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. xix + 294 pp. $25.00 paper.

Church History 79:4 (December 2010), 887-985.

Paul B. Duff

George Washington University

While most extant early Christian writings draw sharp distinctions between Christians and their pagan neighbors on the one hand and orthodox and heterodox Christians on the other, AnneMarie Luijendijk employs evidence from non-literary documents to show that Christianity "on the ground" looked quite different. The third- and fourth-century Christians encountered in this book lived their lives very much like their neighbors, untroubled by the kind of theological concerns that worried church fathers, focused instead on day-to-day existence.

Excluding the introductory and concluding chapters, Luijendijk's book falls into three parts. In part 1, she investigates the complex problem of identifying Christians in ancient non-literary documents. The best indicators, she suggests, are specifically Christian names such as Peter or Paul and nomina sacra, the Christian scribal practice of abbreviating sacred names.

The second part of the book, chapters 4 and 5, deal with "Papa Sotas," an important Christian in Oxyrhynchus who wrote, received, or is mentioned in five (and possibly six) documents, two of them written on parchment rather than the more commonly used papyrus (PSI 3.208 and PSI 9.1041). The first part of chapter 4 examines a letter that Liujendijk insists has been misunderstood by scholars (P.Oxy. 36.2785). Previously, it was thought to be a letter addressed to Sotas, a presbyter of Heracleopolis, but Luijendijk contends that it is a letter from the presbyters of Heracleopolis to Sotas, the bishop of Oxyrhynchus (the term for presbyter is abbreviated and so neither its case nor number can be known). Based upon Luijendijk's reading, she notes that the presbyters address Sotas as "papa," a term of respect reserved for a superior. She concludes from this that Sotas was a bishop, in fact, the first known bishop of Oxyrhynchus. Luijendijk then turns her attention to the three letters of recommendation in the group (PSI 9.1041, PSI 3.208, and P.Alex. 29). Luijendijk paints a portrait of Christians and catechumens travelling with letters from their bishop that ask foreign communities to receive the travelers, provide hospitality, and allow them to participate in worship.

Luijendijk next focuses on the business of the bishop, including fundraising. In P.Oxy 12.1492, Sotas urges the donation of a plot of land that the letter's recipient had considered giving to the church. Another letter sees Sotas, "the Christian," in Antioch in the company of an athlete, the letter's author. Luijendijk conjectures that Sotas was in Antioch either on business or possibly to participate in the excommunication of that city's bishop, Paul of Samosata. Finally, Luijendijk speculates that the unusual use of parchment in two of Sotas 's letters indicates that he was engaged in manuscript production and the parchment letters were penned on leftover scraps.

The third part of the book examines a number of texts that document the kind of interaction Christians had with government officials. The sixth chapter focuses on six documents: four libelli—documents certifying the holder's compliance with the Decían edict to sacrifice to the pagan deities—(P.Oxy. 4.658, P.Oxy. 12.1464, P.Oxy. 41.2990, and P.Oxy. 58.3929), one official summons (P.Oxy. 42.3025), and one fragmentary text that seems to deal with property confiscation during the Valerian persecution (P.Oxy. 43.3119).

Chapter 7 centers on three documents. In the first (P.Oxy. 33.2673), a certain Aurelius Ammonius, a "reader of the former church," attests that the property of that church had been surrendered in accordance with the imperial edict. Luijendijk identifies two acts of resistance attested by this document. One is Ammonius's unwillingness to sign the declaration (which contains an oath sworn to the genius of the emperors) under the pretext that, "he does not know letters," an unlikely claim given his role as church reader. Second was Ammonius's claim that anything of value had been handed over to officials. What had been turned over was merely some "bronze matter," but Luijendijk suggests that other property of value had probably been hidden. The second document examined in this chapter attests that a certain Paul, who had been sentenced (likely to death) by the governor, had no property. Of particular interest in this document is the name of the official who had ordered the confiscation of Paul's property, Aurelius Athanasius. His name, Luijendijk contends, indicates that this official had probably been a Christian who found himself in a difficult position during the persecution and chose his career over his faith. The final letter examined in this chapter was written by a Christian named Copres to his wife Sarapias. It describes a situation in which Copres, intending to go to court about a property dispute, found out that those who appeared in court were compelled to sacrifice to the gods. In response, he gave power of attorney to a friend (likely a pagan) who went to court in his place.

The documents introduced by Luijendijk, taken together, paint an interesting picture of daily life among Christians in third- and fourth-century Oxyrhynchus. The book's strength lies in the great wealth of detail that the

author is able to extract from the terse, non-literary documents examined. The information in Luijendijk's text is supplemented by numerous, extensive, and informative footnotes. As a result, Luijendijk has produced a unique and valuable work. However, while the book is impressive overall, there are places where Luijendijk's evidence does not support her conclusions or, more accurately, her conclusions represent only one of several possibilities. For example, she concludes that Sotas was a bishop based upon her new reading of P.Oxy. 36.2785. Her reading of this papyrus, however, represents only one possible interpretation. The former reading still remains a viable option. Another example concerns her assumption that Sotas produced books at his house based on his (albeit somewhat unusual) use of parchment for some of his letters. While this is a clever suggestion that certainly falls within the range of possibilities, it represents only one of a number of feasible explanations. Regardless, Luijendijk's book is groundbreaking. It presents a fascinating picture of Christian life in third- and fourth-century Egypt that is otherwise unavailable. It is highly recommended for students of early Christianity and particularly Christianity in Egypt prior to Constantine.


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