The cities of the Roman Empire were filled with gods and the citizens who honored them with festivals, processions, buildings, and benefactions. The followers of Jesus—later called Christians—lived and moved in these cities, navigating avenues lined with statues honoring various deities, structuring their days and months around the feast days that organized civic calendars, and wandering past the many temples and shrines that populated the busy urban landscape. The early followers of Jesus made sense of their new identity “in Christ” through the stories of Jesus and writings of his followers that were eventually collected into what we know as the Christian New Testament while they continued to live in their respective urban, material, and gods-filled contexts.
It is easy for us, both scholars and other interested readers, to focus our attention on literary texts when we are trying to understand ancient peoples and their worlds. The focus on literature goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to minimize the importance of material context for understanding ancient literary remains. This is especially true of the classical world, the world of the Greeks and Romans. Masterpieces of the Western literature from authors like Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius have shaped the minds of generations of Western-world students. They have introduced readers to worlds that are both strangely foreign and hauntingly familiar. The ideas from these and countless other authors have informed revolutions and inspired revivals. They have shaped the world as we know it. The influence of ancient literature on the Western world can hardly be overstated, especially when we turn our attention to ancient religious texts like the Jewish Bible and the Christian Scriptures. And yet, we often read these texts as if they exist independent of the material world from which they arose. This “masking of the material” can have the effect of divorcing texts from a fuller spectrum of their religious, ethnic, and civic contexts. Religious activities were performed in material space, rituals and rites were transmitted from generation to generation in sacred realms and during sacred times, and the physical characteristics and topographical layout of cities informed how people imagined their relation to one another and to the gods. In short the material context of ancient authors not only provides background for understanding their works but also shapes how we read them in the first place. Material evidence thus gives us a glimpse into the ancient world through another lens that, when combined with the more familiar lens of literary evidence, helps us see more clearly.
At the beginning of the second century C.E., Caius Vibius Salutaris, an Italian transplant to the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor, established a new set of traditions for the city. We learn from an inscription found in the famous theater that Salutaris dedicated a collection of statues, gave out money to various groups of Ephesians citizens, and organized religious processions from the temple of the goddess Artemis through the city. Guy Rogers, who has written extensively on the inscription, has persuasively argued that the traditions instituted by Salutaris and approved by the city council provided Ephesians with a way to deal with an identity crisis caused by the increasing Romanization of the prominent Greek city at the beginning of the second century. Salutaris does this by honoring the history and traditions of Ephesus while at the same time incorporating Rome into the city’s past. Statues of Artemis, the city’s patron goddess, dominate the processions. Yet, she has statues of Roman emperors and the Roman Senate as travelling companions. In the processions the Ephesians’ past traditions and their present reality comingled on the city streets, in the marketplaces, and at the theater every time the statues made their way through the city. In the end the inscription makes the claim that even Romans like Salutaris could claim to be true Ephesians.
A similar logic of identity is found in the Acts of the Apostles, an ancient Christian text written a decade or two before the Salutaris inscription. Acts, well know from the Christian New Testament, tells of the spread of the message about Jesus of Nazareth from Judea to Rome. The author of Acts faced a similar identity crisis that Salutaris and other Ephesians did. While the Ephesians faced the increasing Romanization of Ephesus, the Jesus followers, a Jewish sectarian movement, faced an increasing number of non-Jews who were joining in the worship of the Jewish God and veneration of Jesus. Like Salutaris, the author of Acts turns to the heavens and to the past to make sense of his present situation. He points to ways that the spirit of the Jewish God was active among Jews and non-Jews alike, thus legitimating both of their places in this Jewish Jesus community, and he highlights the ways that the sacred Jewish texts written in ancient times foretold their current situation. In the end, I would contend, Acts of the Apostles makes the claim that even those non-Jews who venerated Jesus could claim to be Jewish.
Christopher Stroup is currently the director of strategic initiatives and growth at the Joy to the World Foundation and a part-time faculty member at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College.