BMCR 2021.08.08

Studying the New Testament through inscriptions: an introduction

, Studying the New Testament through inscriptions: an introduction. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781683071372 $39.95.

In the preface to this slim volume, D. Clint Burnett, lecturer at Johnson University, explains that this work “is an attempt to introduce mainly Greek but also Latin and Semitic inscriptions from the Hellenistic and Roman periods to graduate students, seminarians, and pastors for the purpose of using these sources to interpret the documents of the [New Testament] and to reconstruct the history of early Christianity” (xv). A typical graduate student or seminarian may (if fortunate) be exposed to the material culture of biblical manuscripts, but an introduction to epigraphy is generally lacking.[1] Burnett’s design for this book is in two parts: the first chapter briefly introduces the practice of epigraphy and the remaining chapters serve as five case studies applying the approach to historical and philological New Testament questions.

Chapter one begins by defining inscriptions (epigraphs) and explaining their importance to biblical studies: they are direct evidence from the past (they have not passed through the hands of scribes), they speak to social history, they are ubiquitous in the Hellenistic world (with a multitude still extant), and they reflect a variety of sources (not just elite males). Burnett opts for a simplified list of categories for inscriptions, providing examples of each and discussing the formulaic elements of structure and content. He identifies three types of public inscriptions (official documents, honorific inscriptions, and sacred inscriptions) and seven types of private inscriptions (epitaphs, honorific inscriptions, sacred inscriptions, domestic inscriptions, financial documents, graffiti, and curse tablets). Through examples from these categories the student is introduced to different writing surfaces (e.g., bronze tablets for Latin decrees) and black-and-white images of sample inscriptions. Varied quality makes discerning the image scripts challenging in some cases; the agricultural calendar of Figure 1.15 is clear enough to read whereas the graffito of Figure 1.21 is quite difficult. Surprisingly, there is no discussion of letter forms to help the student begin independently reading from images. Perhaps the student is expected to use the published transcriptions of others, though Burnett’s reminder that epigraphs were meant to be read on an object (56–57) should be motivation for students to engage the written words on material objects if even through images. Near the end of this chapter, Burnett raises the important question of who could read inscriptions. While the issue of ancient literacy is contentious, he makes a reasonable case for levels of epigraphic literacy (49), which required less investment than true literacy. Next, the four means of dating of epigraphs are briefly explained (using a supplied date, content with a secure date, the date of its archaeological stratum, or palaeography). Finally, the sigla used in published editions of epigraphs are described so that the student can immediately begin making use of transcription data. The five case studies that follow are intended to solidify the concepts introduced in this chapter.

In the first of the case studies (chapter 2), Burnett considers the theological impact of inscriptional evidence on early Christian understanding of Jesus as κύριος. Because Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew were spoken in first-century Judea and Galilee, he considers the wide semantic ranges of the various words for “lord” (κύριος, mr’, and adon) while acknowledging that early Jewish Christian use of the term was uniquely referring to “the unquestionable and only Lord of the cosmos” (59). Burnett posits that Jesus’ followers in the earliest canonical gospel (Mark, dating it to 69 CE) rarely addressed Jesus as κύριος, and when they did, they meant “sir” and not “Lord of the cosmos.” Additionally, he identifies the earliest written Christian documents as the undisputed letters of Paul, in which Jesus’ lordship is central. Burnett argues that inscriptional evidence from the southern Levant uses κύριος for sovereigns in a way that resembles that of early application of κύριος to Jesus, thus indicating “the provenance for the development of Jesus’ kyrios-ship in Palestine and the idea that Jesus’ lordship is royal, messianic, and not exclusively divine” (76). Burnett’s analysis of the inscriptional data is engaging but should acknowledge a significant vulnerability in its broader conclusion: the study of a single word is not equivalent to studying a concept or topic; understanding the kyrios-ship of Jesus requires understanding the narrative in which it is presented, not simply the use of a single word.[2] Burnett cites Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ to identify the challenge to understanding how kyrios is applied to Christ (61), but does not engage with the Christological material that would contravene his own.[3] Regardless, the reader will benefit from a demonstration of supplementing the semantic range of a word with inscriptional data.

For the second case study (chapter 3), Burnett evaluates the inscriptional evidence used to solve the philological problem of defining προλαμβάνω in 1 Corinthians 11:21. In this passage, Paul addressed a problem with the Corinthian church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper, where προλαμβάνω is key to determining the issue. Biblical scholarship has been divided on reading this use as “devour/eat” or “go ahead with” (“For each προλαμβάνει their own banquet. Some go hungry and others become drunk”). To answer the question, Burnett re-analyzes the epigraphic uses of προλαμβάνω, demonstrates the Roman nature of first-century Corinth, and then considers the use of προλαμβάνω with respect to the layout of the Roman triclinium. In a well-reasoned argument he concludes that the temporal reading is most justified, suggesting that a handful of wealthier Christians were arriving early to partake the Lord’s Supper in the dining room of the church’s host, consuming most of the food and leaving the other guests to dine elsewhere in the house.

In Acts 17:7, charges were brought against Christians in Thessalonica who were “all acting against the decrees of Caesar” (πάντες ἀπέναντι τῶν δογμάτων Καίσαρος πράσσουσιν). The third case study (chapter 4) challenges the scholarly opinion that these decrees referred to imperial loyalty oaths (which were generated by local communities and not the emperor) and instead referred to the imperial decrees that established and reconfirmed Thessalonica’s status as a free city. The Thessalonians may have interpreted preaching a message of another king, Jesus Christ, as a seditious threat to keeping the privileges of a free city. Burnett’s case is clear, historically informative, and compelling.

The fourth case study (chapter 5) utilizes the abundant inscriptions from Philippi to demonstrate the prominence of women in the Philippian church. Citing scholarship that points to two women identified in the Philippian letter, Euodia and Syntyche, as being in some role of leadership in the church (“probably deaconesses and possibly overseers”), Burnett discusses diversity in early church leadership before turning “to examine the social context of Roman Philippi” (126). Burnett argues that the three cultural constituents of the city (Thracian, Macedonian, and Greek) were thoroughly familiar with Roman customs and Latin. The inscriptional evidence he rallies demonstrates that some women in the city had significant finances, served as benefactors, and gained leadership roles in both official and nonofficial cults. While women could not offer sacrifices in official Roman public cults, such restrictions may not have applied in nonofficial cults; a woman might have had the role of antistes (overseer), a term that in later Christian inscriptions became synonymous with ἐπίσκοπος (132–133), the later term for ‘bishop’. Burnett attempts to bridge the gap between the practices of Roman cults and the Christian church thus: “Provided that the church in Philippi patterned its leadership after official and nonofficial cults in the city, there is no reason to doubt that certain wealthy women in the church had leadership positions” (136). He notes that leadership roles for the women in Philippi may not look like later well-defined ecclesiastical structures and that it is unclear if there was a hierarchical difference between deacons and overseers/presbyters. The weak link in this otherwise informative case study is the assumption that the Christians in Philippi patterned their leadership after some segment of Roman cults; the current inscription data cannot establish that connection.

The final case study (chapter 6) involves application of unutilized inscriptional data to the problem of the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18. Burnett demonstrates that encoding names into numerical values followed a common practice, was formulaic in expression (some variation of φιλῶ ἧς ὁ ἀριθμὸς), and was intended to be solvable with insider knowledge. So-called “equal calculations” (ἰσόψηφοι) take the practice further, with a number and a sentence having the same value. While the popular practice was a form of entertainment for disguising the Greek name of one’s lover (whether natively Greek or transliterated), the calculated values can be verified from epigraphic evidence where the target name was revealed. Burnett posits that a “most explicit and detailed description of Roman imperial divine honors” precedes Revelation 13:18, concluding that readers would have known to convert Nero Caesar (Νέρων Καῖσαρ) into Hebrew/Aramaic (nrwn qsr) to make the calculation (n + r + w + n + q +s + r = 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200 = 666). Biblical scholars have long debated this topic, some including recent inscriptional data, and Burnett’s contribution to the debate provides new supporting data regarding numerical calculations in epigraphy.

Three appendices serve as aids to students/pastors new to epigraphy. Resources for gathering epigraphic data are listed in the first (“Important Printed Collections of Inscriptions”) and second (“Online Search Engines and Collections of Inscriptions”) appendices, annotated with introductory information. Because abbreviations are common in inscriptions, the third appendix includes a list of common Roman names, the Greek numbers, and common abbreviations in Latin.

As an introduction to epigraphy for use in studying the New Testament, this book is an easy read that may capture the imagination of students and pastors alike. The reader will not become discouraged with overly specialized terminology, an overabundance of information, or at a loss for where to find resources (as Burnett points out, the older published material may be obtained freely online). The case studies are informative though they require more resourcefulness than a beginning student will be likely to muster. Yet witnessing the potential impact of adding inscriptional data to the study of the New Testament remains inspirational.


[1] Postgraduate students in biblical studies may make use of McLean’s Introduction, though typically when engaged in specialized work: B. H. McLean, An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the Great down to the Reign of Constantine (323 B.C. – A.D. 337) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002).

[2] As part of the intended audience, seminarians will quickly recognize this as a lexical fallacy. See, for example, the discussion of words vs. ideas by Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and their Meaning (rev. and exp. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 27–28.

[3] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 283–316.