Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shedding light on the NT with other documents

I am the first to affirm that the Bible is a sufficient guide for followers of Jesus in all matters of faith and practice. If a person has access to the scriptures alone, I believe they will find a suitable guide for faith when combined with the filling of the Holy Spirit.

That said, I believe there is much to be gleaned for understanding the scriptures from other sources, particularly written documents from the ancient world. One such source of outside information is Greek documentary papyri, which is, in effect, the papers and documents left in the rubbish heaps of the ancient world. These ancient documents number in the hundreds of thousands and include a variety of things: receipts, census records, marriage records, contracts, apprentice agreements, personal letters, arrest warrants, and much more.

In the following post, I provide an example of the benefit such documents can bring to the study of the New Testament. The papyri I address comes from the Tebtunis papyri collection, which was discovered in the winter of 1899/1900 at the site of ancient Tebtunis, Egypt. The expedition was led by the British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. The Tebtunis papyri form the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. The collection has never been counted and inventoried completely, but the number of fragments contained in it exceeds 30,000. Each papyri is named and numbered and the papyri under consideration today is called P. (or "papyri") Tebt (Tebtunis) II 322.

The Acts of the Apostles contains numerous conversion accounts detailing the way in which certain notable members of the early church made their way into the faith community. Three of these accounts are distinctive (Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus: Acts 16:13-15, 34; 18:7-8) because they reference not individual acts of conversion, but conversion en masse, involving the entire “household” (Gk. oikos). In every situation, the initiative of the household head leads to the entire household’s reception of the gospel message and subsequent baptism.

In the modern Western context, in most cases a “household” consists of one or two parents and children and, in recent years, perhaps an aged relative (usually a grandparent). Yet, one cannot and should not assume that the “household” referenced in Acts had a parallel composition. So, who exactly was included in the Greco-Roman household? It is in this matter that Greek documentary papyri provide some valuable socio-historical insight.

In the many years since Greek documentary papyri became a subject of serious study, census documents have made up a large and very important portion of the investigation. Of the countless census documents found in cities of ancient Egypt, P. Tebt II 322 is a suitable example. Dated August 27, 189 CE, it constitutes a census return of Achilleus son of Apollonius, sent to the strategos and basilikos grammateus responsible for taxes in the region.

In the account of the occupants in his home, Achilleus catalogs the following seven persons: Pasigenes, son of Theon, son of Eutyches (61 years old); Eutychos, son of Pasigenes by Apollonous (30); the wife of Pasigenes, Herakleia, daughter of Kronion, (40); Thasis, the daughter of Pasigenes and Herakleia (5); Herakleia’s children, Sabinus son of Sabinus (18) and Sarapias (22); and the wife of Eutyches, Tapesouris, daughter of Isidora (18). All of these persons reside with Achilleus in “a part of a house, an area, a courtyard, and a hall.”

Although we cannot determine with certainty the size of the living area entailed by this description, it indicates at the very least that no less than eight people lived within very close quarters. As shown above, these persons range in age from sixty to five years old and make up an extended family with partial or full blood relations. Most interesting, however, is that the information available suggests that none of these persons are blood relatives of Archilleus. It appears that Archilleus has a household composed of seven people who are unrelated to him.

Although the census’ repetitive list of names and numbers do not make for the most engrossing reading, census documents like P. Tebt II 322, of which there are a vast number, offer insight into how one should understand that use of “household” in the NT text. Although all of the evidence cannot be considered here, the majority of papyrological evidence suggests that, much more than the modern “nuclear family,” Greco-Roman households often were composed of numerous persons who were not directly related to the household head. These house-members may have included slaves, manumitted slaves, and the children of manumitted slaves, as well as boarders and, perhaps, billeted soldiers.

As a result, when Luke-Acts refers to mass conversions in the “households” of Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus, it cannot be assumed that such households indicate simply the person’s spouse and any children (although this possibility is not entirely ruled out either). Indeed, there is evidence that such households may have included a number of miscellaneous persons who, for reasons undisclosed in the NT, adopt the way of Jesus in like manner to the household head.

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