Contested Spaces is a collection of essays prompted by seminar presentations at a conference celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 2009. The editors intended to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines (Archaeology, Art History, Architecture, Ancient History, and Theology) and a variety of nationalities (Italian, Austrian, English, German, and American). Their hope was that this international and interdisciplinary group of scholars would generate dialogue and insights around the intersecting issues of Archaeology, the social dynamics of spaces, and Theology, with a special focus on the New Testament (p. vi). While the book has a number of helpful and interesting essays (alongside some that are not as effective), as a whole the collection does not promote conversation among the contributors and articles and thus does not achieve its laudable goals.
The essays in the book are divided across three main sections: Interpretive Issues, Contested Domestic Spaces, and Contested Sacred Spaces. The book indexes ancient sources, modern authors, and architectural structures and their decorations. One of the best features of the collection is the inclusion of a user-friendly CD which contains images of the archaeology, art, and figures referred to in the various essays. The images are organized and accessible. They complement the text very well since the reader can have the text and a screen with the images open simultaneously to follow along with the author’s discussion. The high quality images are valuable for further research, a value increased by the expert commentary contained throughout the book. In what follows, I describe the essays in each of the main sections focusing on the best pieces with brief comments on the less successful offerings. Finally, I close with a summary of the impact of the collection as a whole.
The first section, “Interpretive Issues,” is the most loosely organized of the three. The six essays in this section have more theoretical reflection than the other parts of the book. These essays tend to concentrate on issues of art and decoration rather than the architectural material that dominates the other two sections. The first two essays focus on the social and ideological impact of images: “Representations of Worship at Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia in the Imperial Period” and “The Cult of Isis and Ancient Egyptomania in Campania.” The first considers (among other items) a depiction of a procession honoring Cybele found on a shop front in a main street in Pompeii and how it would have affected a variety of viewers from elite men who scorned its foreign deities to female devotees who studied it closely (pp. 11-14). The second concludes that depictions of the cult of Isis probably had little religious function but functioned as a cultural “other” to aid in the self-identification of the Roman elite (pp. 27-31). The next essay (“The Properties and Social Role of Pompeiian Feminae Nobiles in Italy during the Early Imperial Age”) has a wide ranging survey of archaeological remains dealing with elite women in Pompeii, but it reaches the mild conclusion that “these women played an important part in promoting the new regime of the Principiate” (p. 57). What follows is one of the flagship essays of the collection written by one of the co-editors Annette Weissenrieder, “Contested Spaces in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 and 14:30.” The piece begins with theoretical reflections about the production of space and delves into details regarding the measurements of klinēs and triclinia, the depiction of seated customers eating in frescoes found in tabernae and popinae, the social and political implications of sitting, and selected texts from 1 Corinthians. She convincingly concludes that Paul depicts the Christian ekklēsía in ways reminiscent of city assemblies through the construction of the space of meals and worship (p. 105). The final essay in this section (“Rhetorical Inventio and the Expectations of Roman Continuous Narrative Painting”) takes the reader on a visual journey through representations associated with texts such as Philostratus’ Imagines and Ovid’s Metamorphoses alongside painted images to probe the subjectivity and emotion of the ancient description of art, known rhetorically as ekphrasis.
The second section examines domestic spaces, specifically domus, villae, and insulae. The first two essays in this section focus almost exclusively on archaeological descriptions of the House of Menander and the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii. The meticulous descriptions bear out limited social and historical conclusions. Curiously, the next essay by the other co-editor, David Balch, deals with the same posture of sitting for the celebration of the Lord’s supper but with a slightly wider selection of New Testament texts. He covers some of the same ground as Weissenrieder’s earlier article, focusing a bit more on the details of eating furniture. He concludes that the posture of sitting probably reflects non-elite status (p. 229) but that the Pauline communities used seated celebrations as a way to transform the confines of houses and gardens into spaces for larger church gatherings (p. 232). “Art and Architecture in Terrace House 2 in Ephesos” is one of two essays on ancient Ephesos. It engages in a careful archaeological review of the house, its decorations, and transformations. This house, as many others in Ephesos, is a peristyle-type structure with a few Roman elements, possibly reflecting architecturally the continuation of Greek identity with some Roman influence in this ancient city. The villae get limited treatment. The first essay is merely four pages long. The next essay, “Beryllos, the Jews and the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis,” describes a villa in the region of Campania but only tangentially mentions Beryllos and the Jews. The final essay in the subsection is entitled “Space and Interaction” and focuses on the Herodium theater complex and Herodian palaces in Judea. This is another excellent article that brings together an analysis of political power and discourse in the early Principate, texts from Josephus, and selected archaeological evidence. The essay effectively demonstrates how Herod tried to use building projects like the Herodium to increase his socio-political status (p. 288). One can see architectural extravagance and ingenuity likewise in the Herodian palace complexes, but in this competing mix of cultural values (Roman, Hellenistic, Jewish), even Herod’s monumental and well-designed palace complexes could not domesticate the internal forces that ultimately undermined his rule (pp. 305-309). The first of the two articles on insulae describes the House of the Telephus Relief, the domus of a prominent aristocrat in Herculaneum. The second piece, “Housing Roman Ostia,” provides a bit of a counterpoint to the Campanian evidence and explores how a range of housing units persisted in Ostia from the late Republic to the fifth century C.E.
The final section deals with contested sacred spaces. This section begins with an essay exploring the great Porticus in Herculaneum. The discussion displays how this centrally located public building, connected to the headquarters of the Augustales, served the functions of a market, a school, and an imperial cult center across the reign and patronage of several emperors. Following this are the last two pieces dealing extensively with New Testament texts, again by Weissenrieder and Balch. Weissenrieder argues for a new perspective on the temple language in 1 Corinthians, drawing on Vitruvius to describe the ancient analogy between the symmetry of the human body and temple buildings. She builds a web of possible connections linking the emperor to temples, linking Paul to an architect, and linking specific materials in in 1 Cor 3:12 to temple building. However, this piece is an excerpt from a longer monograph and one senses at the end that some points have been omitted (e.g. there is mention but not explanation of the role of idolatry and fire). The discussion suggests a subtle but meaningful shift in understanding the temple language, which is probably addressed more satisfactorily in her monograph.
Balch weaves an engaging tapestry of textual, political, architectural, and mythological elements incorporating the stories of Isis, Leto, and Diana. The archaeological and textual evidence creates a syncretistic cluster of images that was deployed by imperial households in visual propaganda. However, Revelation 12:1-5a subverts this popular storyline by declaring that the Messiah (and not the emperor) is the child that is born and that Rome is the one that is defeated and ruled (pp. 430-31). This piece raises interesting issues regarding the ideology of visual/mythological elements and how these “in the air” stories might be adapted by New Testament authors – a claim that deserves further study and theoretical reflection. Then we come to another of the flagship essays in the volume, Michael White’s article on “The Changing Face of Mithraism at Ostia.” White surveys all of the mithraea of Ostia, tracing the overall chronology using three particular structures as exemplars of larger trends. From this, he claims that the spread of Mithraism in Ostia should be dated to the Antonine period (p. 466). He closes this extensive essay by discussing the flexibility of the structures for sacred ceremonies and the power of their art to reflect imperial patronage and shape the experience of the worshipper.
The best contributions in this volume are truly interdisciplinary. The essays by Weissenrieder and Balch range across art, architecture, social theory, and exegesis to make interesting and often convincing arguments. The same compelling mixture is brought together in Bernett’s investigation of Herod’s building practices. Other essays in the volume do a good job of using art and archaeology to make modest conclusions about the social and historical significance of some of these contested spaces (see Clarke on representations of worship, Pesando on the role of Pompeiian women, Leach on narrative painting, Thür on Terrace House 2, Najbjerg on the great Porticus, and White on the mithraea of Ostia). Most of the remaining articles stay primarily on the level of archaeological description with limited conclusions regarding the function and contested nature of the spaces. The final essay on “The Artemision at Ephesos: Paul, John, and Mary” encapsulates this aspect of the volume well. It is successful in tracing the history of the shrine at Ephesos and the architectural elements of the Artemision. However, this material plays almost no role in the retelling of Acts’s narrative of Paul in Ephesos (ch 19) and is only distantly connected to traditions about John and Mary. In conclusion, the bulk of the essays make little connection between text and artifact, but those that do, do so very well. The collection is permeated by a focus on Campania with over half of the twenty essays dealing primarily with Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Oplontis. To complement this there is a single essay on Herod’s architecture in Judea, two on Ostia, and two on Ephesos. A similarly limited scope affects the selection of New Testament texts. Three of the essays dwell mostly on 1 Corinthians, one addresses Revelation, and the rest of the New Testament receives only passing attention. Therefore, the collection provides some outstanding and some good essays on a limited set of specific topics, but it leaves somewhat unrequited the desire for substantive dialogue among archaeologists and their architecture, art historians and their images, and New Testament scholars and their texts.