Reviews of

Archaeology of the Letters of Paul

In Archaeology, Jason Borges, Laura Salah Nasrallah, Oxford University Press, Paul on July 3, 2020 at 3:00 pm

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2020.07.11 | Laura Salah Nasrallah. Archaeology of the Letters of Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780199699674.

Review by Jason Borges, Durham University.

In Archaeology of the Letters of Paul, Laura Salah Nasrallah of Yale Divinity School examines archaeological materials from the Roman world to reexamine the social, historical, and political contexts of early Christ-followers in Pauline assemblies. This book focuses not upon the heroic apostles but on the everyday lives of the many, especially the unmentioned and marginalized brothers and sisters.

Nasrallah advocates for, and models, a particular methodology for using material evidence in New Testament studies. The opening chapter “On Method,” illustrates how this methodology, informed by feminist and post-colonial critiques, breaks from prior apologetic approaches to archaeology that sought monumental or “proof-text” evidence. For Nasrallah, archaeological artifacts establish the broader framework in which Pauline texts functioned. As she reiterates, place matters. So, we must take seriously the physical and social contexts of early Pauline audiences in order to construct their initial reception to Paul’s letters.

The middle six chapters model the archaeological approach with case studies focused on specific issues in particular contexts in the Roman empire. Rather than arguing a singular thesis, the wide-ranging and well-documented chapters function as stand-alone essays. Therefore, I review each case study, then offer three broader reflections on Nasrallah’s approach.

“On Slaves and Other Things: Ephesos (and Corinth) and the Letter to Philemon” (Ch. 2) examines a slave’s value/price in antiquity, based on material evidence from Corinth and Delphi. She then considers the initial reception of Paul’s letter to Philemon and his statement “you are bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).

“On Travel and Hospitality: The Letter to the Galatians and an Inscription from Galatia” (Ch. 3) surveys a bilingual inscription in Sagalassos (SEG 26:1392) and other material evidence from the Tiberian period that resists the imposing demands of ancient travels. Nasrallah argues how early Christian itinerants, such as Paul and Peter, disrupted and imposed upon local communities.

“On Poverty and Abundance: Philippi and the Letter to the Philippians” (Ch. 4) assesses the social function of inscriptions recording small donations to the sanctuary of Silvanus in Philippi. These were not touting beneficence but, rather, were publicly enshrining one’s participation in the cultic social network. This contextualizes Paul’s financial language of “lack/need” and “abundance” in Philippians as a form of resistance to normative economic patterns.

“On Grief: Roman Corinth and 1 Corinthians” (Ch. 5) charts the biographical trope of Corinth as a city of grief with the archaeological evidence of higher migration and mortality rates. This was the context in which the Corinthians received Paul’s instructions about “baptism on behalf of the dead” (1 Cor 15:29)—a subversive ritual for memorializing one’s connection to those grieved.

“On Time, Race, and Obelisks: Rome and the Letter to the Obelisks” (Ch. 6) offers a historical tour through the racialized tensions between Romans, Jews, and Egyptians, and how the subsequent monumental architecture of Augustus (and then Mussolini) embodied Roman imperial notions of race and time. This frames Paul’s messianic time of “now” and invites reflection on how the “monumental” text of Romans has become an imposing obelisk throughout Christian theology.

“On History and Love: Thessalonikē, the Thessalonian Correspondence, and the Afterlife of the Apostle Paul” (Ch 7) discusses ancient approaches to historiography, such as narrative epistles that imagined historical possibilities as an expression of love or devotion to the alleged author. As acts of civic pride, pseudepigraphical texts immortalize locations potentially associated with the apostle. For example, early Christian literature from Thessalonica echoes Paul’s canonical epistle to articulate their shared identity as imperial resisters.

The epilogue acknowledges the tentative nature of all historiography and invites fellow scholars to further analyze the relationship between the material and literary evidence. The author proposes that we proceed by attending to the small things and giving voice to the historically non-elite.

Overall, Nasrallah’s study is informative and engaging. As New Testament and Christian Origin studies take a material turn, scholars grapple with how exactly the material evidence could and should inform our interpretation of literary remains. What is the nature of the connection between artifacts and our textual interpretations? Throughout the book, Nasrallah responsibly appropriates the indirect value of archaeology for providing a contextual framework for texts. However, at some points, the post-colonial approach overinterprets. For example, in Chapter 3, about hospitality in Galatia, the Sagalassos inscription regarding demanding Roman officials became a lens through which to view apostolic travel also as “controlling” and “imposing.” But the text of Galatians suggests the opposite: Cephas’ offence in Antioch was not in demanding hospitality, but in withdrawing from hospitality (Gal 2:12), and the Galatians hosted Paul with great honors (Gal 3:14). Hospitality, as per ancient cultural scripts, was not resented but, rather, extended as a display of the hosts’ own agency and status.

Nasrallah creatively brings into dialogue archaeological inscriptions, biblical texts, and philosophical works. This approach bears interpretive insights, or at least raises new questions and sympathies for the ancient communities of Christ-believers. Yet, at times, the eclectic discourse does not lead in a clear direction. For example, Chapter 6 investigates Egyptian obelisks, Augustus’ cityscape architecture, Mussolini’s “archaeology,” and historic Jewish supersessionism to frame questions of time and race in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The illustrative background material impresses but provides minimal interpretative payoff of Paul’s epistle itself.

The author’s voice is poetic and reflective, making this work delightfully more than a typical “archaeology book.” Among the litany of ancient inscriptions and texts, we read statements such as, “Like Chrysostom, I found theological value in the minutiae” (p. 6), and “What is a thing and what is a being?” (p. 40). Nasrallah humanizes, and even moralizes, the task of archaeology and history. After examining the role of love in ancient historiography and pseudepigraphy, the author concludes chapter 7 by saying, “These ancient loves are compelling and dangerous forces, helping the historian to think about what she writes out of love, and to whom that love is directed” (p. 255). Such a reflective tone invites us readers to assess our responsibilities as interpreters of the material evidence and to progress beyond the traditional, text-based theological interpretations of early Christian origins.

In addition to Nasrallah’s erudite presentation of archaeological data, her methodology makes Archaeology of the Letters of Paul recommended and essential reading for people interested in the material and social history of early Christ-believers.

Jason Borges
Durham University
jasangborges [at] gmail.com

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