Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.60

Laura Salah Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2019.  Pp. xvii, 310.  ISBN 9780199699674.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Bruce W. Longenecker, Baylor University (


If this book is about Paul’s letters, its author states upfront that it is “even more” about “the social, political, economic, and religious lives of those to whom and with whom Paul wrote,” aiming to “[enter] into their local contexts and [reconstruct] something of the possibilities of their lives” (1). Laura Nasrallah’s explicit concern (acknowledged as rooted in feminist hermeneutics) is to capture something of the voices otherwise stifled by the texts of the ancient elite and in mainstream studies of the early Jesus-movement. Her book tells “six stories which emerge from local contexts” (2), placing those stories in conversation with New Testament texts that were addressed to those same urban centers—not to learn more about those texts necessarily, but to imagine how those texts might have been received by ancient audiences marginalized in current discussions of the early Jesus-movement. The ultimate goal is to reset the interpretive agenda—challenging the reign of theological interpretations, at least to the extent that they have neglected the agendas of the ordinary people on the ground in the ancient Roman world. In this regard, Nasrallah joins others who have made similar emphases in recent years, as part of the “material turn” in the study of the early Jesus-movement to explore what has been called “the people’s history” or “history from below.”

This book does not have a grand overarching thesis that develops incrementally from start to finish. Nasrallah’s six case studies make their own self-contained contributions, which collectively reinforce the central concern noted above. Before setting out her “six stories,” Nasrallah reflects on the role of archaeological study in relation to studies of Paul (“On Method: Archaeology and the Letters of Paul”). Overviewing the checkered past of Christian apologetics hijacking archaeology, Nasrallah sees the study of material culture as now being the arena for “reconstruct[ing] a fuller range of early Christian life than we gain by analysis of written texts alone” (30). Since the intricacies of Nasrallah’s ambitious book cannot be adequately condensed in a review of this kind, I will offer short overviews of five of her six independent case studies before commenting briefly on her work.

Nasrallah’s second chapter, “On Slaves and Other Things: Ephesos (and Corinth),” initially foregrounds Paul’s letter to Philemon, which was prompted when Philemon’s slave Onesimus crossed paths with Paul in a Roman prison cell in Ephesos. Nasrallah considers how that short letter permits first-century audiences to construct new forms of status for slaves, precisely because slavery and kinship language is thrown together in a jumbled mix. Nasrallah then asks about the effect of a theological metaphor that Paul uses twice in another letter written from Ephesos: “you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). What would such a metaphor mean for free, freed, and slaves within the Corinthian community? Because Corinth was seen by some as a city “of good-for-nothing slaves” (cf. Crinagoras, Anthologia Graeca 9.284), and because of Corinth’s recent history as a city founded by ex-slaves rather than veterans, Nasrallah proposes that the metaphor may have been particularly live at Corinth, perhaps “send[ing] a chill down the spines of slave and master alike” (257), relativizing the polarization of free and slave status, and thereby promoting the possibility of novel forms of relationality.

In “On Travel and Hospitality: The Letter to the Galatians” (chapter 3), Nasrallah foregrounds the fact that Paul’s letter to the Galatians recounts three instances of travelers embedding themselves within indigenous communities—the Antioch incident (2:11-14), Paul’s own arrival in Galatia (4:13–14), and those whom Paul deems to be disrupting the Galatian communities (4:17). Although interpreters have delved deeply into the theology of Galatians for centuries, the same letter “can be used…to reconstruct something of the situations of those who hosted such journeyers” (91). In this regard, an inscription from Galatian Sagalassos (SEG 26:1392) notably “seeks to protect locals against abuses [of hospitality]” (94) by those embedded in the Roman imperial system (e.g., soldiers and imperial post deliverers). Nasrallah comments: “Demands upon locals were not a mere inconvenience for those who lived at or near subsistence level… [Locals] might [in fact] have to leave their ancestral lands” to accommodate the expectations of hospitality (99). Nasrallah proposes that resentment against travelers who impose on the indigenous is conjured in Paul’s charge against Cephas and “certain people from James” (Gal 2:11-14) and his charge against those who are currently disrupting the Galatian communities (4:14). Even though Paul “admits that even he was an imposition to those whom he addresses” (100), his “rhetorical point is that [he] seeks to act differently from other imposing travelers” (101).

Nasrallah’s fourth chapter, “On Poverty and Abundance: Philippi and the Letter to the Philippians,” focuses on the economics of Jesus-devotion in Philippi, where koinônia (a theme in the Philippian letter) is “partnership concretized through financial exchange and investment” (107). In their support of Paul, Philippian Jesus-devotees were giving “out of their poverty” but “were therefore associated with [divine] abundance”—indicating a rescripting “of conventional understandings of success” (128), with Paul’s letter “deny[ing] participation in a benefaction system” and “translat[ing] meaning” so that “money becomes sacrifice” (138). This “translation” of meaning is set against a backdrop of inscriptions in the sanctuary of the deity Silvanus at Philippi (second century CE) and other local inscriptions, which illustrate precisely how relatively insignificant the Philippians’ economic support would have been in comparison to most forms of abundant and named civic benefaction. The Philippians’ small economic initiatives in support of Paul both drew upon and inverted the general social script of their day.

In her fifth chapter, “On Grief: Roman Corinth and 1 Corinthians,” Nasrallah depicts Corinth as a city whose “biography” is deeply associated with political forms of grief. Grief is deeply embedded within (1) narratives of the city’s destruction by Roman forces in 146 BCE, (2) the city’s repopulation by poor, relocated ex-slaves in 44 BCE, and (3) its higher-than-normal rate of child mortality. Added to this is the mythological narrative (set in Corinth) of Medea killing her own children—with a marble memorial to those infant victims standing prominently in a busy sector of ancient Corinth. In one interpretation of the story, Medea is thought to have enacted a “magical-religious rite” fostering “the immortalization of one’s child” (166)—thereby linking Medea to the cult of Demeter and Kore (through themes of death and rebirth), with a sanctuary to Demeter and Kore located on the Acrocorinth. Against this backdrop of grief in death and the promise of rebirth, Nasrallah highlights how unsurprising it is to find that the Corinthian Jesus-followers were practicing baptism “on behalf of the dead” (15:29). In this, Corinthian Jesus-followers sought to redefine their relational bonds not only between themselves but between themselves and the deceased for whom they grieved.

Entitled “On Time, Race, and Obelisks: Rome and the Letter to the Romans,” Nasrallah’s sixth chapter sets Romans in the context of the ethnic conflict that was often negotiated in the imperial city itself. How might that context inform our understanding of how Paul’s letter (dealing with ethnic identities in Christ) may have been received? Here Nasrallah foregrounds the Egyptian “obelisk of Psamtik II/Augustus” that was erected as a timepiece in the Augustan mausoleum complex, representing the merging of ethnic identity and the structuring of time—just as Paul’s letter recalculates both in relation to Jesus Christ. Nasrallah proposes that the obelisk and Paul’s letter have “a shared discourse…that linked power, cosmos, ethnicity, and time” (211). The final quarter of the chapter adds discussion of the obelisk erected by Mussolini in his own honor in 1932 (in relation to his “representation” of Augustus’s Mausoleum complex in the 1920s and 30s). The axis that runs throughout this temporally elongated collection (text, ancient artifact, and recent monument) is the messianic aura of salvific figures in which time is restructured and discourse emerges that involves consideration (one way or another) of Jewish ethnic identity.

Errors are at a minimum in this impressive volume.1 There may be small points to quibble with in relation to some of the book’s self-contained essays, of course—not least, whether certain issues are deserving of such a localized focus (e.g., slavery in Ephesus; grief in Corinth). A more overarching issue is the effectiveness of Nasrallah’s frequent claim that Paul’s addressees lived “at or below subsistence level” (e.g., 112, 139, 158)—a claim that might benefit from further nuance. While these two “levels” (“at” and “below” subsistence) are closely related in some regards, they are also significantly different in other regards (e.g., strategies for survival). A proposed distinction between the “general poor” from the “utterly destitute” (for instance) might have given further depth and subtlety to Nasrallah’s attempted readings—and that is even before giving consideration to the Jesus-followers in “middling” economic groups (admittedly much fewer in number). Nasrallah does better at capturing the prosopographic spread of early Jesus-followers in her simple observation that Jesus-followers were “less than elite” (140), but the potential of that observation has little effect in relation to her general predilection to locate Jesus-followers along the depressed line of subsistence without much differentiation. Exploring a diverse membership within a more economically elongated community would have introduced fruitful issues pertaining to precisely the thing that Nasrallah is interested in—the everyday lives of ordinary Jesus-followers and the complexity of relationships between them. And once the prosopographic spread is consistently elongated, and when diversity of social locations of various kinds are explored, there is always the chance that other forms of hypothesized interpretations of texts will emerge.

If Nasrallah’s book is, at times, elaborately labyrinthine, it is always eloquent and exquisitely executed. In one sense, the emphasis on “archaeology” in the book’s title is slightly misleading, since there are long stretches of the book where material artifacts are at times absent from her discussion; in fact, in chapter 7, a few gestures to material artifacts carry little discursive force. The title’s appropriateness, however, derives from the fact that the word “archaeology” earths Nasrallah’s primary interest—which is less about making interesting connections between ancient artifacts and texts, and more about subverting the agenda of solely text-based studies of the early Jesus-movement, which inevitably prioritizes theological explorations of “apostolic voices” (my phrase) while partitioning off questions about how those texts might have pertained to the lived realities of people without social profile. There is a sense that “the whole is greater than the parts” in Nasrallah’s work, so that engagement with particular case studies (either to affirm or challenge them, or whatever) would be to miss the real force of her larger project. Overarching the various parts of the book is Nasrallah’s clarion call for scholars of the early Jesus-movement to develop interpretive muscle toward the material world as a way of privileging forms of questioning that are ethically configured, reclaiming the agendas of those lives that were immersed in poverty and powerlessness. She poses the optimistic prospect that doing so will assist in forming the character of interpreters themselves and consequently ensuring that similar forms of questioning will be beneficially enhanced today (see especially the final pages of her Epilogue). This is where Nasrallah’s book makes its most forceful contribution for readers of this interesting, erudite, and distinctive book.


1.   Page 175 refers to “first-century 4 Ezra, a text which at its core seems to be Jewish,” but the specific passage (“4 Ezra 16:40–6”) is part of a third-century Christian text often referred to as 6 Ezra. Page 207 references “Swetnam-Burland” instead of “Swetnam-Burnham.” Page 258 speaks of “the message to Letter to the Romans.” And unless I’m missing something, there seems to be some confusion about the date of Claudius’s death (compare her comments on 195 and 201, with Romans being written in 55–56 but sent during the reign of Claudius).

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