Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.29

James R. Harrison, L. L. Welborn (ed.), The First Urban Churches 1: Methodological Foundations. Writings from the Greco-Roman world Supplement series, 7.   Atlanta:  SBL Press, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 345.  ISBN 9781628371024.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ulrike Roth, The University of Edinburgh (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review is the first in a new series that investigates ‘the expansion of early Christianity as an urban phenomenon from Jerusalem to Rome’ (p. 1). The need for this endeavour, as described by J.R. Harrison in his introduction, arises from ‘two blind spots (that) have traditionally vitiated the scholarly study of the corporate and civic life of the first urban believers in the eastern and western Mediterranean basin’—i.e. the dominance of the literary evidence in scholarly analyses, and a widely shared understanding of the first Christians as belonging to a ‘lower class’. To set the scene, Harrison offers a brief overview of the study of the ancient city (or: polis, as he insists), followed by short summaries of modern knowledge of cities that have played a key role in early Christianity, such as Jerusalem in Palestine, Ephesus in Asia Minor, and Rome in the West, with a particular eye on the range of available evidence for study. Following the Introduction, eight thematic chapters explore different methodological issues that the source material throws up: most do not, however, provide either in-depth or sustained answers to the problems of method.

The first thematic chapter, by A. Cadwallader, deals with ‘the potential of archaeological discoveries for the interpretation of New Testament texts’, taking as a case study a recently found marble fragment from (unexcavated) Colossae showing scenes involving gladiators. Copious description of the small fragment is followed by discussion of gladiatorial games and gladiatorial themes in both a Roman and a Greek setting, complemented by a short section that explores the reception of Paul’s letter to the Colossians in a world familiar with gladiatorial games. Although the fragment has no provenance, Cadwallader concludes that ‘(g)iven that Colossae can now be shown, albeit incompletely, to have an array of festivities and games (including gladiator contests) like many Asian cities, then the assumption is warranted that this is part of the cultural atmosphere of those who live there’ (p. 61). This, he contends, provides the basis for a new reading of Colossians.

M. Choat’s chapter, ‘The City in Roman Egypt: The Evidence of the Papyri’, offers a patchwork of evidence and discussion relating to cities in general—or, rather, to the city as a concept, and to particular undertakings as documented in one or another Egyptian document. Choat works with a ‘strong’ notion of ‘the Roman city’ (pp. 67 and 85), also referred to as ‘the early imperial city’ (p. 68) or ‘a Greco-Roman city’ (p. 69). The question as to whether the Egyptian material can form the basis for generalisation is answered in the affirmative: the discussion of some papyri that mention urban spaces shows, according to Choat, that ‘Egypt was not some “wild west” that followed its own rules, and (that) what we see there will provide us with a good basis for understanding how the cities that feature in this series articulated themselves in their public life’(p. 85).

In ‘Epigraphy and the Study of Polis and Ekklēsia in the Greco-Roman World’, P. Trebilco aims to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the use of epigraphy for the study of early Christianity. A basic introduction is followed by discussion of epigraphic examples that have attracted attention from scholars of early Christianity. The discussion is restricted to brief summaries of modern studies that explore the featured texts. The focus on the polis (again) and ekklēsia is blurred. The chapter ends with a list of topics for future epigraphic analysis of quite diverse types and scope. Later in the volume, J. Ogereau revisits in essence the same question(s) in his ‘Methodological Considerations in Using Epigraphic Evidence to Determine the Socioeconomic Context of the Early Christians’. After a brief introductory summary of the role of epigraphy in the study of early Christianity, including comments on epigraphic corpora and collections, Ogereau seeks to provide an ‘overview of the range and quality of the epigraphic evidence currently available and discuss how we may want to approach it’. In particular, Ogereau aims to highlight ‘(t)he significance of such material in ascertaining the socioeconomic environment of the first Christians’ through a focus on ‘Nero’s revised customs law of Asia, the lex portorii Asiae’ (p. 250), combined with discussion of the nature of Roman imperialism. The concluding remarks ‘return to matters of greater relevance to New Testament and early Christianity scholars’ (p. 264), offering thoughts on how the kind of information gleaned from the lex portorii Asiae may help to understand Ephesians. Ogereau contends that ‘rather than conducting a broad and superficial survey of a wider corpus’, the choice of a single epigraphic example helps to ‘illustrate more precisely how inscriptions might be employed in studies of early Christianity’ (p. 256).

Concerned with the ‘visual turn’ in NT studies, B. Kahl juxtaposes ‘(t)he “imperial imagination”’ in two imperial statues associated with the Miletus Market Gate and ‘the role of Gaia, polis, and ekklēsia in the verbal text-image of Rev 12:16’, i.e. ‘John’s “apocalyptic counterimagination”’ (p. 116). In that story, Gaia saves a woman, understood to represent the ekklēsia and pursued by a serpent, from drowning. Kahl concludes that unlike in the Milesian sculptures, where a lush cornucopia and a captive woman support the representation of Roman power, the helping Earth and the woman unyielding to the serpent’s power in Revelation undermine the Roman claim to eternal power, as a symbol for the symbioses and collaboration between earth and its natural equilibrium on the one hand, and the Christian ekklēsia on the other.

In the next chapter, B.J. Bitner draws on ‘the Julio-Claudian colonial coinage of Roman Corinth to illustrate possibilities and problems with regard to the use of provincial numismatics in New Testament exegesis and social history’. Beginning with ‘a selective survey of the uses to which Corinthian scholars have put numismatic evidence’—for which three studies are chosen—the chapter proceeds with generic methodological considerations, before concluding with what Bitner terms ‘a series of case studies […] to exemplify the potential the colonial coinage offers for sharpening our understanding of various aspects of Corinthian identity’ (all on p. 152). The latter section is limited to brief discussion of how to improve on the three studies that featured in Bitner’s first section. Although Bitner states that the final section turns to ‘the application of the [aforementioned] methodological principles’, what he in fact offers is not application but a ‘sketch [of the] potential avenues for further research’ (p. 176).

The focus on the poor in L.L. Welborn’s chapter is located in the broader debate on the socio-economic standing of early Christians. Welborn opens with discussion of the definition and identification of poverty. The core of the chapter provides brief overviews of different bodies of evidence to ascertain their usefulness in the study of poverty. The repeated reference to the polis (!) and the intention to understand better the socio-economic location of the early Christ-groups sits uncomfortably with the focus on Roman contexts, including discussion of mainly Roman evidence—such as Cicero or Martial. A differentiation is made between ‘nonelite writers’ (e.g. Aesop) and elite writers such as the aforementioned two. The short section on epigraphy ranges from an edict from Ephesus issued by Paullus Fabius Persicus in 44 BC to graffiti at Pompeii. The section on archaeology considers osteological evidence, insulae, burial pits, and sculpture. The chapter concludes with a longer overview of modern understanding of the situation amongst the Christians in Corinth gleaned from Paul’s correspondence with them.

In the final chapter, Harrison focuses attention on ‘Urban Portraits of the “Barbarian” on the Fringes of the Roman Empire: The Archaeological, Numismatic, Epigraphic, and Iconographic Evidence’. The reach and impact of Rome on conquered peoples—as articulated on Roman monuments—is explored through a series of case studies: Sebasteion and Res Gestae at Pisidian Antioch, the Triple Arch of Augustus at Rome, La Turbie, the Augustan Arch at Susa, and some inscriptions from Gaul and Spain. Harrison seeks ‘to explore the rendering of barbarians’ (p. 282) on these monuments and inscriptions ‘to see what light they throw on relations between barbarians and Rome’, with a view to understanding better ‘the Augustan propaganda and how this might relate to the apostle’s understanding of his indebtedness to Greek and barbarian (Rom 1:14; cf. Col 3:11)’ (p. 283). No images accompany the discussion, which is torn between rushed description and bold interpretation regarding the meaning of rather difficult passages in Paul’s correspondence. There is thus a distinct gap between the handling of the Roman monumental and inscriptional evidence and the notion that ‘Paul is inverting to some extent the rituals of obligation and indebtedness in the Latin West’ (p. 308).

Exciting as the topic is, this is a messy volume whose target audience is not clear. As the brief overview of the individual contributions suggests, description is key in many of the chapters. Some of the claims that are advanced are not actually demonstrated, including methodological ones. An exception to this is the chapter by Kahl, which takes the reader along the author’s thought process, and explains and justifies with due reference to the sources the proposed argument. There are moreover unexplained overlaps between the chapters, especially regarding the study of epigraphy —most notably affecting the contributions by Trebilco and Ogereau. Some chapters apply uncritically modern, i.e. anachronistic concepts and perspectives on the ancient evidence: Choat’s ideas of what the lack of street names may tell us about ancient cities, for instance, would benefit from confrontation with the reasons for and consequences of the lack of street names in many modern contexts, including in the 21st century and in the western part of the hemisphere. Others lack due engagement with the modern scholarly debate: the study of poverty in Roman social and economic history, for instance, which Welborn cites, goes beyond discussion of authors such as Cicero and Martial, and has produced a vast array of approaches and specialist contributions that are likely to benefit NT studies. And there are missed opportunities for improving our understanding of the NT texts themselves (even if we accept that this is not the primary aim of this volume): could Cadwallader’s claim that the archaeology helps improve our reading of Colossians been demonstrated? If so, that would have constituted an intriguing contribution and a demonstration of methological application. Overall, however, the concentration on methodology has led to an unfocussed assemblage of under-researched chapters. The volume reminds one why methodological considerations and advances are more persuasive in their successful application—by way of thorough and skilful creation of new knowledge on the basis of the available (and relevant) evidence. The proof of the pudding lies, as ever, in the eating. There is scope for improvement in the subsequent volumes.1

Table of Contents

The First Urban Churches: Introduction. James R. Harrison
Assessing the Potential of Archaeological Discoveries for the Interpretation of New Testament Texts: The Case of a Gladiator Fragment from Colossae and the Letter to the Colossians. Alan Cadwallader
The City in Roman Egypt: The Evidence of the Papyri. Malcolm Choat
Epigraphy and the Study of Polis and Ekklēsia in the Greco-Roman World. Paul Trebilco
Gaia, Polis, and Ekklēsia at the Miletus Market Gate: An Ecocritical Reimagination of Revelation 12:16. Brigitte Kahl
Coinage and Colonial Identity: Corinthian Numismatics and the Corinthian Correspondence. Bradley J. Bitner
The Polis and the Poor: Reconstructing Social Relations from Different Genres of Evidence. L. L. Welborn
Methodological Considerations in Using Epigraphic Evidence to Determine the Socioeconomic Context of the Early Christians. Julien M. Ogereau
Urban Portraits of the “Barbarians” on the Fringes of the Roman Empire: The Archaeological, Numismatic, Epigraphic, and Iconographic Evidence. James R. Harrison


1.   The second volume in the series has recently appeared: J.R. Harrison and L.L. Welborn (edd.), The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

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