How do inscriptions help us read the New Testament?

Dr Clint Burnett is Lecturer of New Testament at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee USA, and has just published Studying the NT Through Inscriptions: An Introduction (Hendrickson, 2020), and I had previously heard him present some of his research at the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference. I asked him about his research, and why inscriptions provide important practical information in reading the New Testament.

IP: What drew your interest to the subject of ancient inscriptions? Are the inscriptions you work with mostly catalogued, or did you have to visit many of them yourself?

CB: My interest in ancient inscriptions began while I was in the Master of Divinity program at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee USA. There, I was introduced to Greek inscriptions by a professor, Dr. Richard E. Oster, and immediately I was drawn to them because of their vast number—there are close to half a million surviving Greek and Latin inscriptions from antiquity and that is just a fraction of what existed—and the variety among them. What is more, I saw that there are surviving inscriptions from the cities in which Paul established churches and I realized the interpretive potential of these inscriptions for nuanced readings of Paul’s letters.

As a historian and not an epigrapher, the inscriptions that I work with have been catalogued and published. Most are in printed collections called corpora (corpus in the singular) and associated with a particular site such as Philippi, Corinth, and so on. Inscriptions yet to be published in corpora can be found in academic journals. I try to visit as many inscriptions as I can in person—usually in museums or at archaeological sites—or to examine a quality photograph of them.

IP: I think most people would be surprised to learn how many inscriptions we actually have from the Roman period. Why do you think they are so important in teaching us about everyday life then?

CB: Inscriptions are important because many of them are windows into the lives of those who are not elite men. Almost all surviving Greek and Latin literature are either by elite men or those who were patronized by them, although we do possess a small fraction of literature by elite women. What is more, this literature has been passed down through the copying and editing of scribes until the invention and widespread use of the printing press. Such is not the case with inscriptions. Ancient men and women from non-elite circles, that is, artisans, groups of people who assembled for specific purposes, i.e., associations, and even slaves set up inscriptions.

The types of inscriptions that these individuals as well as elite men erected are diverse. Most surviving inscriptions are epitaphs or funerary inscriptions. These provide important information about the age of the deceased, how they died, what their profession was while they were alive, and sometimes messages for those who passed by and read these funerary inscriptions. There are votive inscriptions, messages engraved on objects offered to the gods, which provide information about the gods worshiped in particular places, who venerated these deities, and sometimes even what today we would call miracles that these gods performed for those who set up these inscriptions. There are inscriptions on domestic wares such as plates, cups, walls, and even on mosaics. Provided that such inscriptions were found in controlled archaeological excavations, they can often tell us who lived in a particular house.

Some inscriptions contain important financial documents such as the manumission of slaves, from which we can glean information like the cost of slaves at a particular time and what the manumission process looked like. There are inscriptions inscribed on lead sheets called curse tablets, which have been found all over the Roman world. Curse tablets contain what today we would call “magical” spells asking the gods to curse an enemy or to cast a spell of some kind on a love interest, not allowing anyone else to have him or her. Some inscriptions are messages scratched or carved on walls in the form of graffiti.

Most of these inscriptions that I have just described are known as private inscriptions because they were erected by private individuals. However, there are what is known as public inscriptions too, which consist of those that political bodies across the Greco-Roman world either set up or approved to be set up. Like private inscriptions, these are diverse. Public inscriptions consist of decrees, diplomatic letters, inventories of temples, law codes, and messages honoring rulers, benefactors, and the gods.

IP: Who wrote the inscriptions you explore, and why? What do they tell us about ordinary aspects of life, including the question of literacy?

CB: Inscriptions are not exclusive to one particular type of person in the Greco-Roman world, save for the extremely destitute. So, anyone who could afford to set up an inscription could and often did erect one. Scholars disagree about the reason(s) that people erected inscriptions, but one convincing reason is that there was a sense of audience for inscriptions. That is, the people who set them up were confident that their world would continue and they desired to leave messages for posterity. One of my favorite inscriptions is from southeastern Turkey and it was erected by the king of a client kingdom of Rome, Antiochus I of Commagene. In this inscription, he provides his reason for setting it up, as well as the monument on which it was engraved. He says that he wishes his message to last ‘for all time’.

Inscriptions provide us windows into the lives of more ordinary people in the Greco–Roman world, as I noted above. One interesting aspect of it is that some inhabitants may have been what I call ‘epigraphically literate’, which is a limited form of literacy that refers to the ability to read some, not all, inscriptions. Given that inscriptions were everywhere, that they were filled with formulaic phrases, that the erection of some of them was preceded by public proclamations about the inscriptions in question, and that people who could not read inscriptions probably asked those who could to decipher them, there was probably a percentage of the population world that could read inscriptions (whose capital letters differed markedly from everyday cursive writing). Putting a number on this percentage is impossible, but I believe that it is higher than some of the low numbers of literacy that some scholars toss around like twenty or ten per cent.

IP: In your book, you explore the ways in which inscriptions can help us philologically, in understanding some key terms in the New Testament. What insight do they offer in the debates about early Christian worship and practice?

CB: Inscriptions provide snapshots for how particular words in particular places are used and what they mean in that place at that time. Meanings of words can change over time and, as anyone who has traveled internationally knows, meanings of words can change depending on one’s location, even among English speaking peoples.

One example from my book is the definition of the Greek word προλαμβάνω in 1 Cor 11:21. Scholars debate its meaning, which has implications for the problem that Paul addresses with the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11. Many scholars translate προλαμβάνω as ‘go ahead with’ and thus conclude that the problem that Paul discusses is that the wealthier Corinthian Christians are going ahead and taking the Eucharistic meal before some of the poorer Corinthian Christians arrive. Other scholars propose that προλαμβάνω means ‘devour’. They reconstruct the problem with the Eucharist as the wealthier Corinthian Christians consuming all the food and leaving none for the poorer Corinthian Christians.

The evidence for this latter interpretation is a threefold use of προλαμβάνω in one second century AD inscription. In my book, I show through an examination of προλαμβάνω in inscriptions that it most often has a temporal meaning, especially in the first century AD. What is more, it even has a temporal meaning in one of the threefold uses of the second century AD inscription on which scholars rely who translate προλαμβάνω as ‘devour’. Thus, some inscriptions can help us to reconstruct early Christian Eucharistic practices and how some Christians violated them.

IP: You also note the insight that inscriptions offer on questions of social context. What information do we glean about the role of women, and how does that affect the way we read the New Testament?

CB: Given that almost all surviving Greek and Latin literature is composed by elite men whose desire it was to remain in a position of power and authority, inscriptions provide a corrective to an androcentric view of Greco-Roman history. They show that women were out and about, so to speak, not shut up in their houses and veiled so that no man could see them. Inscriptions reveal that women were a vital part of the Roman economy, that many of them controlled their finances, that wealthy women were benefactresses, and that women were public priestesses and leaders of cultic associations, including synagogues.

We see women in these same roles in the New Testament. Priscilla, Aquila’s wife, was a tentmaker (skēnopoios) and Lydia was a seller of purple (Acts 16:14–15). Women were benefactors of Jesus’s (Luke 8:1–3) and Paul’s ministries (Rom 16:1–2). And they had leadership roles in early Christian churches. Women were heralds of the gospel and teachers (Acts 18:24–28; Phil 4:2–3), though one woman evidently was what John the prophet considered a false teacher (Rev 2:20). Women were deacons (Rom 16:1–2; 1 Tim 3:11) and possibly overseers. One of the main reasons that Paul composed Philippians is to address the tension between two leading women in the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche. Given that women had leading roles in coed religious associations in Philippi (see chapter 5 in my book), it is probable that these two women were deacons and possibly even overseers whom Paul greets in Phil 1:1.

In short, inscriptions demonstrate that women in the Greco–Roman world and in the New Testament in particular had a greater, more public, and even leading role in first-century churches than they did later in Church history, even up to our present time in some Christian denominations. There is no need to try and explain away the apparently prominent role that women had in the early Christian communities, since they were similarly prominent in wider culture.

IP: For me, the most fascinating chapter (which was the subject of the SBL paper I heard you give) was on the use of gematria/isopsephism (numerology) in inscriptions. What do these tell us about the writers, and how does that assist us in making sense of the ’number of the beast’ in Rev 13.18?

CB: Inscriptions that use gematria, isopsephism, or name calculation, as I prefer to call it, tell us that this was a widespread cross-cultural practice that began in the early Roman Empire in which the earliest Christians participated. The archaeological contexts of some name calculations, almost always in the form of graffiti, are known, and when this is the case it is clear that name calculation was a practice geared towards a group of individuals who possessed enough information to decipher the riddle. In my book I discuss 23 of the most important, which are the ones I explored in my SBL paper you attended.

One of the most interesting things about name calculations is that Latin speakers participated in the practice. However, given that the letters of the Latin alphabet did not function as numbers but that Latin speakers had Roman numerals, Latin speakers had to express their name calculations in Greek. Thus, Latin speakers who made name calculations in graffiti expected those who read them to calculate the names in question not in Latin but in Greek—there appears to be a wide assumption that these inscriptions will be read and interpreted bilingually.

These observations help us to make sense of the number of the beast in Rev 13:18 because John the prophet provides enough information for his audience to decipher 666 as the name calculation Nero Caesar. His most explicit account of imperial divine honors in the book prefaces his reference to the beast and his number (Rev 13:4, 8, 12, 15). With his reference to one of the heads of the beast with ten diadems and blasphemous names that received a death blow that was healed (Rev 13:3), he alludes to the myth that was circulating in the late first century AD that Nero would return from the dead. Just as Latin speakers expected their audiences to calculate their name calculations in Greek, John expects his audience to transliterate the number from Greek to Hebrew/Aramaic, which means that it would lack vowels—he makes the same assumption that his readers will read and interpret bilingually. Thus, Νέρων Καῖσαρ in Greek letters must become nrwn qsr in Hebrew letters, which calculates to 666: n = 50 + r = 200 + w = 6 + n = 50 + q = 100 + s = 60 + r = 200 = 666.

Noticing this wide-spread assumption of bilingualism overcomes the main objection to interpreting the number of the beast in this way.

IP: Are you planning to do more research on inscriptions—or is your research moving into new areas?

CB: Yes, I am! My second book will be out in November, Christ’s Enthronement at God’s Right Hand and Its Greco-Roman Cultural Context, which uses inscriptions, among other archaeological artifacts, to address the question of why Ps 110:1 and its message of a royal figured enthroned next to God became so widespread in earliest Christianity.

Currently, I am working on three larger book projects. The first is a collection, synthesis, and discussion of Julio-Claudian imperial cults in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth, for which the majority of evidence consists of inscriptions. The second is an anthology of Greek, Latin, and Semitic inscriptions important for interpreting the New Testament and earliest Christianity. And the third uses inscriptions and other archaeological artifacts to reconstruct the history of first century AD Philippi to contextualize better Paul’s letter to the Philippians and Acts 16.

IP: That all sounds very interesting—we look forward to reading more of the fruits of your research. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today!


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13 thoughts on “How do inscriptions help us read the New Testament?”

  1. I particularly like the context of widespread bilingualism, either Latin/Greek or Greek/Aramaic, that Dr Burnett describes. It reminds us that people in the UK or US, where most of us can read and think in only one language, are an exception. The New Testament world will be more easily understood by a 21st-century resident of India, Nigeria or the Netherlands, who has a one-in-three chance of being able to operate in Hindi or English pretty much as well as in his/her mother tongue.

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    • I wish the likes of Bart Ehrman would accept that. He still maintains in the NT world, people generally were only able to speak or read a single language, whether it be Aramaic or Greek, not both.

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      • People who live on borders tend to (because they need to) speak both languages or even make up a hybrid (e.g., Tex-Mex). To maintain that boundary lines function as language walls is simplistic.

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      • The fact that the Letter to the Romans is in Greek but addressed to residents of Rome is an indication of the cosmopolitan character of that city. Presumably most of Paul’s readers there knew some Latin as well, just as settled immigrants in London learn English. The Roman elite, of course, was expected to know Greek.
        The case for a good level of functional bilingualism in the first century has been growing in recent years. How far can this be pushed? For example, did Jesus ever teach in Greek? Peter Williams of Tyndale House has made some interesting comments about Greek word play in the Sermon on the Mount. Original or Matthean?

        Inscriptions are also very important for telling us how a language was actually spoken and pronounced. What we know of Latin pronunciation (e.g. the silent -m at the end of 2nd declension nouns and elision with verbs) is revealed in ‘spelling mistakes’ in popular inscriptions, as well as rules for Latin prosody.

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          • Thanks, I will look up the Wenham piece soon. I think retired Bishop Paul Barnett of Australia has recently argued that Jesus did a lot of his teaching in Greek. He said this in review of a book on that theme.
            Peter Williams’ comment on alliteration in the Beatitudes is in a YouTube lecture on the historicity of the Gospels. If I can locate the link, I’ll post it.
            As for Latin, the final m was already lost in pronunciation in Old Latin and the final vowel was nasalised. The final -um of words was regularly elided in poetry, although still spelled by the better educated. Stonemasons often made spelling mistakes or wrote phonetically. Similarly vowels were elided when two came together, as in French. Inscriptions are among the most important evidence for how Latin was actually pronounced by the common people- rather different from modern school classrooms!

          • Peter J Williams, Twitter thread October 2018, Did Jesus teach often in Greek – examples from Beatitudes and names of disciples etc.

  2. Clint, have you been able to quantify the proportion of benefactors and patrons that were women? Matthew S. Colins writes “By some estimates, they [women] constituted only five percent of the known patrons during the period of the Empire.” (p15). Would you agree with this estimate, or do you have an alternative number? I argued here that about half of the benefactors of the church in the New Testament are women, and that this ratio greatly exceeded that in pagan society. If you agree that women benefactors are over-represented in the NT, compared to pagan society, how can the disparity be best explained?

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  3. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both the article and the interchange of views. Donfried’s ‘Paul, Thessalonica and Early Christianity’ helpfully, cites inscriptions to explain the ‘parousia’ of state visitors and woke me up to such as a source of understanding usages.

    Also, having worked in S.E.Asia for many years it was common to meet folk from any walk of life who were perfectly able to converse in 2 to 3 languages (eg Indonesian, Javanese and Cantonese). I rather think we universalise our Anglo-centric monolingual limitations (come on, nobody actually speaks the academic German of our bibliographies!)

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