Thursday, February 13, 2020


Sabine R. Huebner, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xv, 192. ISBN 9781108455701. $24.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Brent Nongbri, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society (

Version at BMCR home site


I can still recall the thrill I felt as an undergraduate the first time I encountered a dusty copy of Adolf Deissmann's Light from the Ancient East.1 Here were the texts of actual ancient papyri and inscriptions put into conversation with early Christian literature, illuminating not only the vocabulary of the texts but also the social world in which ancient Christians lived. And it had so many great pictures of papyri, ostraca, inscriptions, and more! But as I returned to the book over the years, my enthusiasm waned a bit. Deissmann's romanticism and orientalism did not age well, the peculiar theological axes he was grinding became more prominent with repeated readings, and at 467 pages of text (never mind indices), the book was cumbersome. But what if there was a streamlined, up-to-date, and methodologically sophisticated effort to bring the papyrological record to bear on the understanding of the social world of early Christians? And what if it was written by a trained historian instead of a theologian? And what if, on top of all that, it was just as well illustrated as Deissmann's book?

Enter Sabine Huebner's Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. This engaging book offers a series of case studies showing what can be gained when a specialist in the field of ancient history, particularly in papyrology, turns to texts and questions that are typically examined within the framework of New Testament studies. Huebner sets out to study "common people … individuals of lower social classes" in the hopes of shedding new light on the world of the New Testament, a world that New Testament scholars "fail to properly set into context" because they are, according to Huebner, "generally unaware of the latest research on the periods and social strata with which they are concerned" (2-3).

An opening chapter introduces the main body of evidence Huebner employs, the papyri of Roman Egypt. An efficient overview of the rise of Christianity in Egypt is followed by a short but convincing argument that the documentary remains that have survived from Roman Egypt generally reflect the social reality of the Roman world more widely. That is to say, the Egyptian evidence can illuminate other areas of the Roman world where written evidence of everyday life is less plentiful, particularly Galilee and Judea.

Having laid that groundwork, chapter 2 turns to an analysis of P.Bas. 2.43, a papyrus letter recently identified by Huebner as the earliest surviving Christian document. The letter is obviously Christian, as it closes with a distinctively Christian formula—"I pray that you fare well in the Lord," the last word of which (κυρίῳ) is abbreviated in the typical Christian fashion (κω, a so-called nomen sacrum). In a forthcoming edition of the papyrus, Huebner will argue on prosopographical grounds that the letter came from Theadelphia in the Fayum and was written in the 230s, decades before the next earliest surviving Christian documents.2 The contents of the letter thus give us a tantalizing glimpse of some Egyptian Christians outside Alexandria at a relatively early period. We find that this particular group of Christians ran in fairly elite circles, as the letter is concerned with the gymnasiarchy and the city council.

The third and densest chapter proposes an ingenious new solution to the old problem of the Augustan census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2. Huebner sets the narrative in Luke in the context of what we can know about different kinds of censuses taken in the early imperial period. By charitably assuming that the author of the gospel was not ignorant of basic historical facts, Huebner proposes that what was being described in Luke 2:1 was not the provincial census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 CE (which is mentioned by Josephus as the cause of an uprising). Instead, Huebner begins by pointing to two passing comments of early Christian authors. First, Justin Martyr states that the birth of Jesus took place when Quirinius was a procurator (ἐπίτροπος, Apol. 1.34). Second, Tertullian states that Jesus was born just after the census of Sentius Saturninus, who, according to Josephus, was the governor (ἐπιμελητής, ἡγεμών) of Syria from 9-6 BCE (Tert. Adv. Marc. 4.19; Jos. Ant. 16.10.8, 17.1.1). Huebner thus suggests that Luke must be referring to an otherwise unattested "client state census" under Herod that took place at the same time as the Roman imperial census of 8 BCE, when Gaius Sentius Saturninus was the governor of Syria. In this scenario, Quirinius would be the lower official that actually carried out the census, the prefect (that is to say, the office typically designated in papyri by substantive participial forms of the Greek term ἡγεμονεύω).3 The solution resolves the tension with our other source for the birth of Jesus, namely the Gospel according to Matthew, which places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great. It also places the census in a period when both Nazareth and Bethlehem would have fallen under a single jurisdiction (which was not the case in 6 CE). With regard to the problem of Joseph travelling to Bethlehem "because he was descended from the house and lineage of David," Huebner again turns to an early Christian commentator, this time John Chrysostom, who argued that Joseph (and Mary) must have been "citizens" (πολῖται) of Bethlehem and only temporarily resident in Nazareth (In diem natalem PG 49 col. 351). Huebner finds such a scenario reasonable in light of the movements of people mentioned in surviving papyrus census returns from Egypt: "Luke's description seems thoroughly realistic if one accepts that his intent was to leave his readers with the impression that Joseph's family was originally from Bethlehem and owned some property there" (42).4 Huebner's reading is both plausible and intriguing even if this class of census (the "client state census") is not terribly well attested.

Chapter 4 turns briefly to three literary papyri, the surviving copies of the Gospel according to Mary, a text that depicts Mary as the one in possession of secret knowledge who teaches the other disciples. This functions as an entrée into an exploration of the status of women in Christian communities in Egypt. Although women played important roles in monastic settings, there is no evidence for female clergy in Egypt despite a wealth of papyrological documentation for clerics. This differs from the situation outside Egypt, where evidence exists for a female presence in church hierarchies. Huebner posits two possible explanations for this phenomenon: the relatively late spread of Christianity in the Egyptian countryside and the influence of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria from 189 to 232, whose proto-orthodox views likely left little space for women in positions of power within the church. Yet, Huebner points out the well documented circulation in Egypt of certain Christian literary texts that depicted women in positions of power shows at least an interest in alternative views among some Egyptian Christians.

The fifth chapter gathers the evidence for what we can know about carpenters in the Roman world. Census returns suggest carpenters typically had a small household (unlike farmers, who required extended families to help with agricultural labor). Papyri and ostraca also give the impression that carpenters were mobile, following construction work where it led. They could have periods of apprenticeship that lasted up to six years. Because Jesus is depicted in the gospels as being able to read, Huebner notes that ancient readers of the gospels would have assumed he had a decent education, further implying that Joseph must have been reasonably financially successful. Huebner places carpenters generally in the class of "craftsmen," not especially highly regarded in Roman society but considerably better off than unskilled day laborers.

Chapter 6 again takes its starting point from the opening of the Gospel according to Luke, specifically Mary's trip from Nazareth to Judea (1:39), which prompts Huebner to ask what we can know about ancient travel. The main motivation for travel was trade and state-sponsored movement of goods, but other occasions for travel noted in the papyri include festivals, birthdays, sicknesses or deaths in the family, and court hearings. Huebner also notes evidence for women in particular travelling in connection with births, often to assist a friend or relative. Travel by foot was common. For those with means, donkeys, wagons, and boats offered greater speed and comfort, but the weather and bandits were an ever-present threat to travelers. For travel lasting more than a day, the best option was staying with networks of friends, but commercial inns were also available.

In the final full chapter, Huebner returns to shepherds, asking what we can know about this profession. She points out that while scholars have studied the image of the shepherd in ancient mythology and literature, the lives of actual shepherds have remained obscure. Despite limited space for pastures in Egypt, the papyri do record the presence and activities of shepherds in the Roman era. Declarations of sheep and goats show that owners of herds would either hire shepherds individually or pool resources to share a shepherd. The hired shepherd (νομεύς) was distinct from the rather rarer case of an owner of a herd acting as a shepherd (ποιμήν). To judge from declarations of livestock, the typical herd in Roman Egypt was about 80 to 100 animals, consisting of mostly sheep with a few goats. The work of the shepherd included leading animals to grazing areas, making sure they were secure at night, and handling the birth of new animals. According to surviving account books, shepherds were quite poorly paid. Shepherds also appear with some frequency in petitions, often being accused of grazing herds on someone else's fields.

In a short "Afterword," Huebner reiterates the need for students of the New Testament to pay greater attention to the quotidian history of the lower classes, among whom were the earliest followers of Jesus. On the other hand, she also admonishes ancient historians to make better use of early Christian sources.

Huebner brings an impressive array of sources together to recontextualize several figures and passages from the gospels from different angles. Yet, the book remains very readable. The 27 color images and 8 well-labelled maps nicely enhance the text. Despite the title of the book, Huebner for the most part limits her discussion to the gospels (the book might more accurately be called Papyri and the Social World of Jesus), and this leaves the door open for future studies taking a similar approach to the more urban settings of other New Testament texts, like the Pauline letters. Given the fruitful results of Huebner's work on display here, I hope such future studies appear sooner rather than later.


1.   Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (rev. ed.; trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan; New York and London: Harper & Row, 1927).
2.   Sabine R. Huebner, "P.Bas. II.43 R," in Sabine R. Huebner and W. Graham Claytor, Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, and Matthias Müller (eds.), Papyri of the University Library of Basel (P.Bas. II) (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming).
3.   Huebner may overstate her case here in claiming that "Luke certainly does not call Quirinius a governor" (46). Both the noun ἡγεμών and the verb ἡγεμονεύω seem to translate a variety of Latin words indicating positions of authority ranging all the way from princeps down to praefectus, and including legatus and praeses provinciae. See the sources gathered in Hugh J. Mason, Greek Terms for Roman Institutions: A Lexicon and Analysis (Toronto: Hakkert, 1974), 51-52.
4.   This point about Bethlehem as Joseph's hometown finds further strong support in Stephen C. Carlson, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7," New Testament Studies 56 (2010), 326-342.

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