Saturday, March 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Harvard Theological Studies 60. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Divinity School, 2008. Pp. xix, 294. ISBN 9780674025950. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Roberta Mazza, University of Manchester

The city of Oxyrhynchus has attracted the attention of scholars in early Christian studies since the first archaeological season of Grenfell and Hunt on the site (1896-1897), which, amongst others, brought into light the Greek original of what came to be known about fifty years later as the Gospel of Thomas (P. Oxy. I, 1). From that moment onwards the ancient rubbish heaps of the city have given to us a wide range not only of Christian literature, but also of documents -- such as letters, lists and contracts -- relating to the everyday life of Christians and Christian institutions in that city and its neighbourhood.

AnneMarie Luijendijk's "Greetings in the Lord" is an updated and well-structured presentation of the papyrological material relating to early Christianity from the site. The book, mainly addressed to students and scholars in early Christian studies, is divided into three parts ("Meeting Christians at the Marketplace"; "Papa Sotas, Bishop of Oxyrhynchus"; "Legal matters and Government Dealings"), preceded by a general introduction ("Destination Oxyrhynchus: Historical Detective Work in the Footsteps of Monks and Papyrologists") and ended by a concluding chapter ("Early Christians in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri: New Voices in Ancient History").

Chapter one ("Destination Oxyrhynchus: Historical Detective Work in the Footsteps of Monks and Papyrologists") consists of a short but comprehensive introduction to Oxyrhynchus and its papyri, with a focus on the religious panorama of the city. Luijendijk specifies that her investigation concentrates on the pre-Constantine material, that is to say on papyri potentially dating from the first to the beginning of the fourth century CE. This is of course a hard task since, as the author admits, it is not easy to separate Christians from other groups, especially the Jews, in this period. The following pages demonstrate that the bulk of the available material in fact dates to the third century, except for a number of literary pieces.

Part one ("Meeting Christians at the Marketplace") focuses on the "markers of identity" (see p. 30 for a definition) for distinguishing Christians from other groups. Luijendijk rightly stresses that there were no clear external indicators, such as garments or physical characteristics, to identify Christians in their everyday activities. They eventually had to declare openly their belonging, otherwise they were just inhabitants of the empire who shared rights, ethnicities, and other attributes with other people. Despite this premise, Luijendijk does think, following a well-established tradition, that manuscripts help us to find tracks of the first Oxyrhynchite Christians. As a consequence, she concentrates first on three specific markers: the mention of god in the singular, the use of the word Christian, and personal names (the author uses the term 'nomenclature'), and then she dedicates an entire chapter to the nomina sacra, i.e. the scribal habit of abridging holy names in a peculiar, patterned way.

As for the first potential identity marker, god in the singular, the author rightly concludes that it does not automatically imply a Christian, since monotheistic/henotheistic tendencies were shared also by other religious groups. On the basis of the available papyri, Luijendijk shows that the adjective Christian is attested in the span of time she is considering only as an "external marker", that is to say as a label used by outsiders to identify Christians. Onomastics is highly debated as a marker of identity because of the overlapping of many Jewish and Christian names and the well-attested use of pagan theophoric names also among Jews and Christians. Luijendijk gives a comprehensive and clear summary of the status quaestionis, and rightly concludes that before Constantine it is hard to identify Christians solely on the basis of names. She then gives a number of examples that demonstrate the haphazardness of these attempts: a variety of situations are attested, such as families with a mixed nomenclature or people openly designated as Christian and bearing polytheistic theophoric names.

Chapter 3 is entirely devoted to the nomina sacra. There is a huge bibliography on the topic, which also reflects a lively debate on the origin of the practice and its relationship to Jewish palaeographical habits. Luijendijk gives an extensive overview on the debate and then chooses her own perspective to grapple with the theme. Instead of trying to solve the intricate origins problem, she analyses the nomina sacra as attested in private letters in order to prove that writers who used them in their ordinary writings were members of the clergy who often owned literary manuscripts and were involved in teaching activities. The perspective is very interesting, and the examples presented show how multifaceted early Christianity at Oxyrhynchus (and more widely in Egypt) was. However, Luijendijk seems convinced of some traditional positions, such as the possibility of drawing a clear divide between Jewish and Christian copies of the Septuagint about which I personally have more doubts.

In comparison with part one, part two ("Papa Sotas, bishop of Oxyrhynchus") is more original and creative. Luijendijk collects a dossier (to accord with papyrological definitions, I would have preferred this to the term 'archive' used by the author) of five letters, plus an uncertain sixth, all mentioning a Sotas and then presents a fascinating, although not totally convincing, reconstruction of their background.

Since no other chronological data are given in the texts, the letters have been dated on a palaeographical basis within a span of time ranging from the third to the early fourth century CE. Luijendijk circumscribes the date to the third quarter of the third century, which seems to me a reasonable possibility only on the basis of her main argument, that is to say that Sotas is one and the same man, and this in my opinion is possible but not unquestionably proved. For the sake of clarity, I add the texts list (pp. 81-82):

1) Sotas to Paul (PSI IX 1041), a letter of recommendation written by Sotas

2) Sotas to Peter (PSI III 208), a letter of recommendation written by Sotas

3) The presbyters of Heracleopolis to Sotas (P. Oxy. XXXVI 2785), a letter of recommendation written to Sotas

4) Sotas to Demetrianus (P. Oxy. XII 1492), a letter soliciting the donation of a plot of land written by Sotas

5) Sarapammon to his mother and Didyme (SB XII 10772)

A sixth letter addressed to Maximus (P. Alex. 29) may be another letter of recommendation written by Sotas, but the sender's name is not fully preserved and the author prefers to exclude it from the group.

In short, Luijendijk thinks that the writings bear traces of the otherwise unknown first bishop of Oxyrhynchus. The hypothesis is very well presented, but in my opinion the status of the sources does not exclude other possible interpretations of the documents, as I shall explain. As is clear from the above list, three of the five letters are written by a Sotas, one is directed to him and the fifth just mentions one Sotas 'the Christian'. Two of the three epistles penned by Sotas -- or more precisely by scribes for him, since the hands are different -- are letters of recommendation, the third is a letter concerning fund-raising. The first two (PSI IX 1041 and PSI III 208) are very interesting, and Luijendijk does excellent work in presenting and analysing not only their content, but also their physical shape. Both the texts, in fact, are written on parchment. People recommended in PSI IX 1041 are described as catechumens, one of them more precisely at the beginning of his education in the gospel. These two data, and other elements such as the style of the writings, bring Luijendijk to infer that our Sotas was involved in catechumenal activities and book production. Now, a fundamental problem is: if Sotas was living in Oxyrhynchus, as were the people he recommended, how can it be that the letters were found in the same city? The author proposes that often people used to bring back home their letter of introduction, but not always. In fact the same Sotas dossier presents a counter-case: P. Oxy. XXXVI 2785. This, according to Luijendijk's interpretation following a correction proposed by Treu, is a recommendation letter sent to Sotas for one Anos, who came to study at Oxyrhynchus. This last papyrus introduces another central point for Luijendijk's identification of Sotas as a bishop: here the addressee is called 'papa', a title that is often but not exclusively attributed to bishops. The contents of the documents relating to Sotas are rather elusive, but it appears that the man addresses a Demetrianus on a possible donation of one aroura to a pious institution (to topos). As Luijendijk emphasizes, 'papa' was also attributed to teachers, such as Clement of Alexandria for instance, and abbots. Now, on the basis of Sotas's involvement in teaching activities and possibly book production, it is not clear to me why the author did not choose to present the other options to the readers as well, and preferred to focus only on the bishopric model. Also, since as Luijendijk states, topos might indicate either church or monastery, I wonder why she at the end decides to make Sotas a bishop instead of the head of a monastery. Of course a monastery in the third quarter of the third century is quite implausible; however, as stated above, the date attributed to the dossier relies on quite weak arguments.

I found all the chapters on Sotas extremely lively and interesting; however I had the overall impression that what is presented by the author is a plausible but not unquestionably proved hypothesis of identification among others. In his recent Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton and Oxford 2009), Roger Bagnall called attention to the trend in New Testament studies to analyse Christian evidence with a strong wish to find proofs of theological and scriptural beliefs, or the ancient roots of later institutions. I am wondering if this is also the case of Luijendijk's choice in making Sotas the first bishop of Oxyrhynchus, discarding the other above-mentioned possible hypotheses.

Part three is a useful and well-balanced presentation of the documents relating to the Decian and subsequent persecutions at Oxyrhynchus. After a general introduction to the topic, the author gives a detailed analysis of the four libelli coming from the city, then moves on to analyse other documents related to Valerian's confiscations. The papyrological evidence is always put into conversation with literary sources and the result is a lively bottom-up account of what may have happened. Chapter 7 of this last part of the book seemed to me particularly interesting. The author considers a number of papyri relating to the so-called Great Persecution, giving insights into the strategies of subversion and resistance (and alignment) put in place by the Christians. The evidence collected, although scanty, is very well analysed and the author demonstrates her ability to underline the interaction between the bureaucratic process at work and the reaction of the individuals. She presents the case of a reader who does not subscribe a declaration of church properties in the village of Chysis with the improbable excuse he was illiterate, probably with the real aim of avoiding the oath to the fortune of the emperor; then she suggests identifying Paul, a man from the Oxyrhynchite placed under sentence by the praeses of the Thebaid, as a martyr of the Great Persecution, and finally she highlights another kind of Christian, Aurelius Anasthasius, the procurator rei privatae who appears in the same papyrus of Paul, possibly a man who was born as a Christian and when Diocletian issued his edicts aligned with the imperial policy (at least officially).

As I stated at the beginning, the book is predominantly intended for students and scholars in early Christian studies. However I do think that it will provide interesting reading also for papyrologists and, more broadly, scholars in classics and ancient history, because Luijendijk is able to give a wide panorama of the sources, combining papyri with literary sources, mostly Christian, which classicists tend often to consider as 'alien' material. Moreover, she often proposes new and thoughtful interpretations of the evidence. Luijendijk is one among many scholars in religious studies who are becoming more and more interested in papyri. This is very welcome since these sources are still giving us new insights on ancient lives, as Luijendijk's book brilliantly demonstrates.

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