Review of Justin Hardin, Galatians and Imperial Cult

As I prepare for my PhD comprehensive exams and a paper presentation this November at ASOR on the abuse of archaeological materials in the interpretation of Paul, this first post will be one in a long series of reviews of books about the subject:

Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult (WUNT 2/237; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)

Synopsis: Within this work, H. attempts to parse out the obscure reference to Paul’s opponents located at the conclusion of Galatians (6:12-13). In the process, H. proposes the following reconstruction: (1) Paul exposes the real reason why his opponents wish for the Gentile Galatian converts to be circumcised in Gal 6:12, i.e., Galatian Jewish Christ Confessors’ own social standing within their communities (εὐπροσωπῆσαι); (2) the locus of the desire emanates from the hope to avoid persecution for the lack of participation in imperial cultic activities that H. claims even Jews practiced; and thus (3) this was the real reason Paul’s opponents wanted to circumcise Gentile converts, i.e., so that they might be able to claim allegiance to the emperor through the temple tax, sacrifice offered on behalf of the emperor, and the honors accorded emperors within Jewish synagogues, which H. interprets as the ways in which Jews participated in emperor worship.

Chapter 1: Galatians in Its Social and Religious Context

Within this chapter, H. provides a précis of the history of scholarship on Galatians and Gal 6:12-13. In the process, H. notes the recent turn in more “recipient-oriented” studies, which includes reading the letter in its imperial context (12-19). H. acknowledges two previous studies in this area. The first one is from 1994 in which Bruce Winter posited that the motive of Paul’s opponents in Gal 6:12 was to “make a good showing” (εὐπροσωπῆσαι) of the Galatians. This notion is best understood in an imperial context in which Paul’s opponents, Jewish Christians, were persecuted for their failure to participate in “the imperial cult.” Because Galatian officials were pressuring Christians to sacrifice to the emperor, the Jewish Christian opponents of Paul wanted the Gentiles circumcised so that these Roman officials would consider them and the rest of the nascent Galatian Christian group as part of a cult the Romans acknowledged, Judaism. Second, in 2000, Thomas Witulski postulated that Gal 4:8-20 was a later interpolation and that the reference to days, months, years, and seasons refers to the imperial cultic calendar. Consequently, the reference to “they” in Gal 4:17 is to imperial high priests and not Jewish opponents. The purpose of Gal 4:8-20, therefore, is to dissuade the Galatians from the worship of the emperor.

In the final sections, H. and sets forth his own methods for parsing out the imperial context of Galatians and deciphering the enigmatic verses in question (Gal 6:12-13).

Chapter 2: Imperial Cult in the Roman Empire and in Galatia

Within this chapter, H. sets forth his understanding of emperor worship. In the process, he notes the change in its interpretation and importance in the study of the Roman world since Simon Price’s influential book in 1984 (24), especially among NT students (25). H. provides a short summary of the beginnings of what he calls “the imperial cult” (26-39), employing an impressive array of inscriptions, numismatic evidence, archaeological evidence, and literary sources.

Important to his reconstruction is the idea that all the inhabitants of a city participate in emperor worship via the festivals (38, 44). H. concludes that: (1) “the cult and its ideology” pervaded all aspects of life; (2) “the cult” was different than Hellenistic ruler cults; (3) “the cult provided, encouraged, and sometimes even compelled all classes to participate at some level;” and (4) “the cult did not fizzle out after Augustus, but even gathered pace throughout the Julio-Claudian period” (47).

Chapter 3: Imperial Cult and Ideology in Galatia

H. argues that “imperial ideology could be observed almost at every turn in travelling from one Galatian city to the next” (50). He observes correctly that Augustus founded the cities of Ancyra, Tavium, and Pessinus in the northern part of the province as well as the colony of Germa. In the southern part, the first emperor founded the colonies of Pisidian Antioch, Comama, Cremna, Olbasa, and Parlais” (52). H. spends a good deal of time discussing Pisidian Antioch and describing its Romanness (58-62). As a result, he posits, “Although we cannot confirm that other cities and colonies in Galatia would similarly have received imperial ideology, we should not be overly cautious on this point. The finds in Pisidian Antioch are likely more the result of digs and discovery than they are the uniqueness of the colony in comparison with the other cities of Galatia” (63).

In sum, H. argues that: (1) the Julio-Claudian emperors “brought about major changes in central Anatolia.” (2) Participation in “the emperor’s cult” is “beyond doubt,” which included festivities and game like those of the koinon of Asia (66-67, 79).

Chapter 4: Avoiding Persecution and the Imperial Cult (Gal 6.12-13)

H. notes that Betz first argued that unlocking the secret of Galatians is found in Gal 6:12-13. Looking at this passage, he determines the key is Gal 6:12 and the verb εὐπροσωπῆσαι (90-91). H. proposes that it is likely that the “agitators” are from Galatia (94) and Paul’s criticism about them is not a caricature but it reflects the situation accurately (95-98). Moreover, in light of the use of persecution language in Galatians 1, he determines that the persecution in Galatia is real and probably caused by a failure to observe imperial cultic activities (101-102).

H. then presents evidence to claim that Jews did in fact participate in “the imperial cult” and that offering a sacrifice on behalf of the emperor and honoring emperors within their synagogues were how Jews participated in “the imperial cult” (102-10): “Jews in the Roman world did not have exemption or even special privileges from participating in the imperial cult. Apparently, they did not need it” (109).

Therefore, H. postulates: “the agitators were unwilling to undergo persecution. Winter’s proposal, then, helpfully sheds light on the social dimension of the Galatian crisis. Far from being merely a theological concern, the agitators were reflecting upon quite significant social and political concerns for themselves as associates within the Galatian churches . . . Winter correctly argues that the agitators’ true intention in having these Gentile Jesus-believers circumcised (i.e. to avoid persecution) were purposely concealed from the Galatian churches. Instead of revealing their real motives to Paul’s readers, the agitators employed theological concerns to underpin their claim that they needed to be circumcised. This understanding not only explains why Paul felt it necessary to show through complex theological arguments why his readers must not be circumcised, but also reveals the sheer magnitude of Paul’s statements in the postscript. . . The real reason for their compulsion was that they themselves might avoid persecution” (111). “Assuming they had broken away from the local Jewish community/synagogue, these fledgling churches found themselves in ‘no man’s land’, between the synagogue communities on the one hand and the dominant Gentile population on the other, both of which (in their own ways) observed the imperial cult. In an attempt to negotiate their ambiguous status in society regarding their civic obligations to participate in the imperial cult, the agitators were seeking to have the Galatian Gentile Jesus-believers circumcised. This way, all the Jesus-believers, comprised of Jews and (former) Gentiles, could claim full membership in the Jewish communities and thus regulate their status as a group that participated (via the Jewish community) in the public veneration of the emperor” (112).

Chapter 5: ‘Days, Months, Seasons, Years’ and the Imperial Cult

He concludes that Paul thought the emperors among the gods of Gal 4:8 (126) and part of the elementary spirits of the world (138). As a result, Galatians 4 directly reflects the problems Paul’s converts had with emperor worship (146): “Soon after Paul left Galatia, the Galatian Jesus-believers began to feel the pressure to conform to the society in which they lived, a society in which there was no room for new religious movements that would claim political hegemony over both the local gods and the imperial gods of Rome. It was during this difficulty that the agitators began to compel Paul’s readers to be circumcised” (144).

Chapter 6: Conclusions

H. summarizes his arguments and provides some reflections (148-55). The most novel is that if “the imperial cult” is the background of Gal 4:1-10 then “this construction would also have been heard in direct conflict with the age of the emperors, who were considered to be the Lord of all things” (155).


While this book is well researched and the arguments clear, it is fraught with problems in its use of material culture and thus interpretation. Concerning his use of material culture, one of the biggest difficulties with H.’s work is nomenclature. What we call things makes a difference, for it affects the way in which we think. It is clear that H. shies away from the use of the term Christian (preferring Jesus believers), yet he neither provides a discussion nor a defense of his use of the terms “the imperial cult,” “imperial ideology,” and similar terms. Since Simon Price, on whose work H. depends heavily, classicists have pointed out that there was no such thing as “the imperial cult.” To the contrary, there were numerous cults of various emperors all with their own Sitze im Leben. Just because Tiberius was treated one way by the citizens of Athens does not mean that the Ephesians treated him the same.

Due to his nomenclature, H. continuously falls into the trap of making emperor worship monolithic, e.g.: “It was the imperial cult, not Christianity, which was the fastest-growing religion of the first century” (23); “Our focus will be on selected aspects of the imperial cult and ideology that will help us to understand the nature of imperial rule during the Julio-Claudian period . . .;” “The cult and its ideology were a (sic) integrated system involving religion and shared values within society;” (65) etc. This influences his interpretations, for H. does not differentiate between an officially deified emperor, a divus, and a living emperor. This was standard practice in Rome and in Roman colonies (e.g., Corinth) and sacrifices were commonly offered to divi and to the genius of the living emperor. Moreover, he treats cults of emperors as if they were something emperors commanded and obfuscates the grassroots nature of emperor worship, which is evident in the very sources he uses (27-39)! For example, in one place he notes, “although a city’s participation in the imperial cult was voluntary, there was certain pressure placed upon her to ensure that the cult thrived” (43).

Second, H. seems to contradict himself several times. (1) On the one hand, he notes, “It is clear that often the public worship of the emperor, rather than supplanting the local pagan religions in the Greek East, was simply amalgamated with it” (40). On the other hand, H. says, “The imperial cult was significant in that it most commonly superseded traditional religious worship with a uniform system of religious devotion” (41). (2) Although he acknowledges that Roma was partnered with Augustus in Caesarea Maritima (30), he fails to discuss the common pairing of Augustus with other deities that characterized the institution of cults of living emperors in Roman Asia.[1] (3) H. concludes of sacrifice in “the imperial cult,” “Most sacrifices that were part of the public worship of the emperor were made to the gods on behalf of the emperor” (40). Yet, on the next page he posits that the emperor Claudius was given “priority” over Artemis in Ephesus (41). How is an emperor to whom sacrifice is not directly offered given “priority” over a deity to whom sacrifice is offered? This is never explained.

Third, H.’s conclusions about Pisidian Antioch and that the temple was dedicated to Augustus is incorrect (58, 73-75). Due to the discovery of a new inscription, Benjamin Rubin has convincingly argued that the temple is dedicated to “Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Augustus, and the Genius of the Colony.”[2] The letters that spell the name Jupiter Optimus Maximus are significantly larger than Augustus’s and the Genius of the Colony.[3] Thus Rubin concludes, “In accordance with local epigraphic practice, the gods are listed in descending order of importance with the city’s patron god, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, receiving top billing.”[4] This new identification better accords with the evidence from Roman Asia, for “Out of twelve imperial cult temples known to have had tripartite dedications, seven (c. 58%) are located in Pisidia and western Caria.”[5]

Finally, H.’s entire reconstruction of rests on the viability of Price’s argument that sacrifice is directed to the gods on behalf of the emperors: “S.R.F. Price has discussed at length the language and rituals of imperial sacrifices, and he has masterfully shown that in spite of the divine framework in which the imperial cult festivals and processions were often set, it was quite typical for the Greeks and Romans to offer sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the emperor” (106). H. does not acknowledge that Price’s conclusion has been challenged and ample evidence attests to suggests that sacrifice was offered to emperors (see Friesen, Twice Neokoros).

Concerning the interpretative difficulties, Paul comes from a tradition that knows how to critique a form of ruler worship (Revelation 13, 17-18; Wis 14:16-21; Third Sibyl). Yet, his rhetoric in Galatians never approaches any of the before-mentioned texts. Since H.’s notion that Jews participated in imperial cult is untenable given that Price’s theory has been set aside and it is clear that Paul himself knows how to deal with Christians who are participating in pagan cults (1 Corinthians 8-10), H.’s reconstruction of Galatians is untenable.

[1]. See Cassius Dio, Rom. Hist. 51.20.6-9 and Steven Friesen, Twice Neokoros; Simon Price, Rituals and Power.

[2]. Benjamin Rubin, “(Re)presenting Empire,” 32-33.

[3]. Rubin, (Re)presenting,” 63,



[vacat] EVEI

“To Jupiter Optimus Maximus Augustus and the Genius of the Colony [ ] the son of Eueius.”

Rubin, “(Re)presenting, 61, “Based on the architectural and epigraphic evidence, there is little reason to doubt that the imperial temple at Antioch was dedicated to the emperor Augustus prior to his death in AD 14. It is unlikely, however, that the temple was dedicated exclusively to Augustus given that the vast majority of Augustea in Asia Minor featured bi- or multi- partite dedications. As Dio Cassius records (51.20.6-9), the tradition of honoring multiple dedicatees at imperial cult temples can be traced back to Augustus ’proclamation of 29 BC, in which he expressly forbid the cities of Asia and Bithynia from worshiping him or his adoptive father, the Divus Julius, without the accompaniment of the goddess Roma.”

[4]. Rubin, (Re)presenting,” 67.

[5]. Rubin, (Re)presenting,”65.

Paul’s Eschatology in Philippians

The main question vis-à-vis eschatology in Philippians is when did Paul expect the resurrection of believers, the completion of salvation, and Christians’ presence with Christ? Evidence seems to indicate Paul thought the completion of salvation and the resurrection of believers would not occur until the Day of the Lord/Christ (Phil 1:6, 10, 28; 2:10-11, 16; 3:20-21; 4:5). Evidence also seems to indicate Paul thought that upon death he would immediately be with Christ (Phil 1:21-23), which seems to contradict Paul’s presentation of his eschatology in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. What did Paul believe at the time he wrote Philippians?

Scholarship has answered this query in numerous ways. First, some have explained Phil 1:21-23 as Paul’s attempt to deal with the delay of parousia (i.e., from his belief of the imminence of the Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians to what he thought when he wrote Philippians).[1]

Second, others hold Paul’s eschatology developed and that Paul believed in a resurrection immediately after his death, but his understanding of the imminence of the parousia did not falter:

Udo Schnelle posits: “The singular formulation ‘if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead’ (3:11), with its double use of ἐκ. . ., likewise points to an early resurrection immediately after death. . . By now it has probably become clear that in central areas of Paul’s eschatology, we can speak of transformations, that is, of progressive steps in the apostle’s thought that correspond to the changing historical situations with which he was dealing.”[2]

Third, others purport Paul’s statements in Philippians indicate he believed Christians went to an “intermediate state” between death and resurrection, and then returned to some form of their resurrected bodies at the parousia: N.T. Wright notes of Phil 1:23 and its relationship with Phil 3:20-21: “What we have here, therefore, is a reinforcement of what we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4: between death and resurrection, Christians are ‘with the Messiah’.”[3] Thus for Wright, Paul always believed in an intermediate state where Christians are with Christ until his return.[4]

Fourth, others note the problem of Paul’s eschatology in Philippians but suggest Paul lived with the tension, for Jews in the Second Temple Period did. Andrew Lincoln suggests:

“For Paul the relationship of union with Christ cannot be broken by death but will continue in an even more intimate way where Christ now is, that is, in heaven.”[5] And, “It is clear from a comparison of Philippians 1:23 with 3:20, 21 that the state into which Paul will enter at death is far better, bringing with it a greater closeness of communion with Christ, and yet that it is still a state of expectation, less than the fullness of redemption described in 3:20f.”[6]

Lincoln finds commonalities between Paul’s eschatology in Philippians and Jewish apocalyptic eschatology: “In Jewish apocalyptic writings also one can find a combination of a concept of an intermediate state in heaven with the expectation of the resurrection of the dead.”[7]

Similarly, Paul Hoffmann posits:

“For the assessment of the history of religions parallels, the result is methodologically fundamental that with Paul the saying of immediately being with Christ at death remains connected with the eschatological expectation of salvation.”[8] And, “Both expectations are not exclusive with Paul. Rather, they stand side by side. He did not sense a problem.”[9]

Hoffmann notes Paul’s eschatology must be understood from a Jewish history of religions’ school perspective: “Hope of the Resurrection and heavenly bliss stand side by side,”[10] and, “Between the two conceptions, no balance is attempted.”[11]

Fifth, some hold there is no contradiction in Paul’s eschatology. The statements about the future eschaton and resurrection apply to all believers, and Phil 1:21-23 applies only to Paul. Albert Schweitzer purported: “Thus it is not Paul’s general doctrine of death and resurrection which changes. It is only that he expects, on the ground of his own self-consciousness, that in case of his dying a martyr-death a special kind of resurrection will be vouchsafed to him.”[12] More recently, Jerry Sumney advocates:

“The approach to this dilemma that best suits Paul’s theological outlook and apostolic consciousness makes a distinction between what Paul expects for himself and a select company, and what he expects for other believers. He draws this distinction not on the basis of arrogance, but from Jewish martyrdom traditions present within the church from its earliest days. Within this tradition, the fate of martyrs differs from that of others. While others ‘sleep’ (i.e., remain unconscious), martyrs are already in heaven with God. In 4 Macc 17:17-18, martyrs are before the throne of God immediately following death. Martyrs are granted this place because their service to God, their testimony, requires exceptional treatment. Thus, their post-mortem, but pre-eschaton, state differs significantly from the state of others, even others who are faithful to the covenant but do not suffer martyrdom.”[13]

There are major problems with the first view, for, according to Philippians, Paul continued to believe in the imminence of the parousia (Phil 4:5).[14] Taking Phil 4:5 seriously, we can re-read Philippians and Paul’s comments about the Day of Christ Jesus and vengeance upon those who oppose the Philippians as imminent: Phil 1:6, 10, 28; 2:10-11; 3:20-21.[15] According to Paul, the following events would occur on that Day:

(1) The presentation of the Philippians as blameless and pure (Phil 1:10), which is the end result of God’s work among them (Phil 1:6), and something about which Paul desired to boast (Phil 2:16); (2) the bowing of every knee and the confessing of every tongue that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11); (3) the destruction of those who opposed the Philippians (Phil 1:28); and (4) Christ Jesus’s transformation of the Philippians’ humble bodies into bodies like his (Phil 3:20-21). Presumably, because the heavenly politeuma currently exists in heaven as Paul wrote the letter (note the present tense of ὑπάρχω) and the Philippians are awaiting their savior from it (ἐξ οὗ), Christ Jesus would return to earth, which would occur soon (Phil 4:5).

There are major problems with the second, third, and fourth interpretations in that those who hold those views assume that in Phil 1:21-23 Paul is referring to all Christians and not only to himself. It is important to note how Phil 1:21-23 begins. Paul starts the discussion of his possible execution with an ethical dative or a dative of feeling: Ἐμοὶ.[16] It seems that it was not Paul’s intention to include all individuals in his thought process about his future, i.e., whether he would live or die. Paul’s comments in Phil 1:21-23 are very contextual and only apply to Paul, i.e., “if I remain in the flesh, this is fruitful work for me. And what I will choose, I do not know. I am pressed hard between two choices. I have the desire to depart and to be with Christ.” While it is a very pastoral thought and one can see the desire to opt for an interpretation that applies Phil 1:21-23 to all believers, the Greek and Paul’s rhetoric suggests we think about this passage only in terms of Paul. It appears, therefore, that Paul did hold to some form of a martyr eschatology.

[1]. Eve Marie Becker, “Die Person des Paulus,” in Paulus: Leben, Umwelt, Werk, Briefe (ed. Oda Wischmeyer; Tübingen: Franke Verlag, 2012), 140; H.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle Paul in Light of Jewish Religious History (trans. Harold Knight; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 101.

[2]. Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. Eugene Boring; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 586.

[3]. N.T. Wright, Resurrection and the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 226. Cf. also F.F. Bruce, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 235; Paul Christoph Böttger, “Die eschatologische Existenz der Christen,” ZNW 60 (1963): 244-63.

[4]. Wright, Resurrection, 227. Wright also incorreclty conjectures that Paul’s eschatological discourse was influenced by emperor worship.

[5]. Andrew Lincoln, Paradise and Not Yet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 104.

[6]. Lincoln, Paradise, 106.

[7]. Lincoln, Paradise, 105.

[8]. Für die Bewertung der religionsgeschichtlichen Parallelen ist die Erkenntnis methodisch grundlegen, daß bei Paulus die Aussage des unmittelbar im Tode einsetzenden Mit-Christus-seins mit der eschatologischen Heilserwartung verbunden bleibt. Paul Hoffmann, Die Toten in Christus: eine religionsgeschichtliche und exegetische Untersuchung zur paulinischen Eschatologie (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1966), 315.

[9]. Beide Erwartungen schließen sich bei Paulus nicht aus; sie stehen vielmehr nebeneinander, onhe daß er das als ein empfände. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 315-16.

[10]. Auferstehungshoffnung und himmlische Seligkeit stehen nebeneinander. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 315-16.

[11]. Zwischen den beiden Vorstellungen wird kein Ausgleich versucht. Hoffmann, Die Toten, 316.

[12]. Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (trans. William Montgomery; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1953 [Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus]), 136.

[13]. Jerry Sumney, “Post Mortem Existence and Resurrection of the Body in Paul,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 31 (2009): 24. Sumney, however, fails to mention Schweitzer in his article.

[14]. So Schnelle, Paul, 586; Schweitzer, Mysticism, 135. Contra Becker, “Die Person,” 140; Schoeps, Paul, 101. Interestingly, on the same page Schoeps contradicts himself. He provides Phil 4:5 as evidence for the imminence of the parousia in Paul, but then Phil 1:23 as evidence for Paul’s development of immediate resurrection after death because of the delay of the parousia.

Cf. Paul’s other comments about the Second Coming: 1 Cor 1:7-8; 4:5; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Col 3:3-4; Rom 1:9-10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23; 2 Thess 1:5-10; 2:1-2, 8; 1 Tim 6:13-16; 2 Tim 4:1; Tit 2:11-14; etc.

[15]. Phil 1:6, 10; 2:10-11 = Rom 2:5, 16; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2.

Phil 1:28 = Rom 2:6, 16; 3:6; 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Thess 5:9-10; 2 Thess 1:5-10.

Phil 4:5 = Rom 13:12.

[16]. See BDB § 192; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 146, “The dative substantive indicates the person whose feelings or viewpoint are intimately tied to the action (or state) or the verb.”

Emperor Worship, NT Scholarship, and Parallelomania

For numerous reasons that cannot be explored in a blog post, it has become fashionable among NT scholars to read “empire” and the variegated phenomena of emperor worship into our NT documents, especially Paul. To choose one example out of the plethora of choices, J.R. Harrison (“Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki,” JSNT 25 (2002): 71) attempted to demonstrate that “in romanized Thessaloniki, the presence of an aggressive imperial eschatology and the widespread circulation of Augustan apotheosis traditions competed with early Christian proclamation of the rise and returning heavenly κύριος. In response, Paul injected heavily loaded political terms into his presentation of Christ, transformed their ideological content to his theological and social advantage, and thereby overturned the absolutist claims of the imperial cult.”

I decided to put Harrison’s comments to the test. This past week I examined numerous inscriptions related to “voluntary associations” in the Roman province of Macedonia where Thessalonikē is located from the 100 BCE-300 CE (I am indebted to John Kloppenborg and Richard Ascough, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), abbreviated GRA). I chose to examine voluntary associations because these groups were formed voluntarily by individuals from the Roman world around various trades, deities, and the promise of a decent burial. As a result, this information presents the gods and values that were important for the denizens of Macedonia of their own volition. Here are my results:

The majority of associations were associated with a manifestation of a “traditional” Roman/Greek deity:

1. Zeus Hypsistos = Edessa (GRA §65) (51 CE); Pydna (GRA §72) (250 CE)

2. Silvanus = Philippi (GRA §68a-d) (2d c. CE)

3. Souregethēs = Philippi (GRA §69) (2d-3d c. CE)

4. Nemesis = Philippi (GRA §70) (2d-3d c. CE)

5. Liber, Libera, and Hercules = Philippi (GRA §70) (1t-2d c CE)

6. Aphrodite = Thessalonikē (GRA §75) (90-91 CE)

7. Zeus Dionysos Gongylos = Thessalonikē (GRA §76) (1t CE)

8. Sarapis and Isis = Thessalonikē (GRA §77) (1t-2d CE)

9. Dionysus = Thessalonikē (GRA §80) (209-10 CE); Berorea (GRA §63) (7 BCE)

Now let’s examine how many associations revolved around Augustus and emperor worship:

1. Caesar Augustus = Macedonia (GRA §62) (27 BCE-14 CE)

One. One association was associated with Augustus. According to our evidence, one group of individuals of their own volition decided to honor the emperor. That does not sound like “an aggressive imperial eschatology” that was “widespread” and competed with the nascent Christian proclamation of an enthroned Lord.

It must be admitted that our evidence is incomplete from the Roman world. What we have is only a fraction of what actually existed. However, when we compare the number of associations that were dedicated to the gods versus the emperors we can see the associations devoted to the gods far outnumber those connected to the emperors. Therefore, the evidence does not support Harrison’s hypothesis. This is a clear case of someone emphasizing a small piece of the pie to the detriment of the entirety of it.

Slaves, Prisons, Paul, Philemon, and Papyri

I. Introduction

Paul’s letter to Philemon seems to suggest Onesimus is imprisoned with Paul. One question that has preoccupied my time lately has been how common was it for a slave, i.e., a piece of property and a living tool in the ancient world, to be thrown into a prison? What do our ancient sources say? Surprisingly, both the ancient literary and non-literary records on slaves and prisons are scare. Like the subject of crucifixion for which our canonical gospels are the most detailed discussion of crucifixion in the Roman world, it seems ancient, educated people did not desire to talk about such grim topics. Even the archaeological record does not help us in our quest. According to Laura Nasrallah from Harvard Divinity School, no public prisons from the Roman world have been excavated.


II. Slave Prisons

The commonest manner in which slaves were confined was the “slave prison” (ergastulum), which was located on the grounds of the large estates of the wealthy. An ergastulum was “a room in which tied-up slaves had to spend the night.”[1] These were typically underground and had high windows from which slaves could not escape.[2]

According to the Stoic Seneca, these prisons were the proper place for a rebellious slave: “We do a fine thing, indeed, when we send a wretched slave to the ergastulum. Why are we in such a hurry to flog him at once, to break his legs straightway?” (Seneca, On Anger 3:32; LCL). Suetonius records Tiberius had to investigate the contents of the slave prisons because non-slaves were occasionally imprisoned in them: “In the meantime [Tiberius] undertook two public charges: that of the grain supply, which, as it happened, was deficient; and the investigation of the slave-prisons throughout Italy, the owners of which had gained a bad reputation; for they were charged with holding in durance not only travellers, but also those whom dread of military service had driven to such places of concealment” (Suetonius, Tib. 8; LCL).[4]

While this information is well and good, it is clear from the NT Paul is not a literal slave, though he is a slave of Christ, and thus there is no way he could have met Onesimus in one of these prisons.

III. Slaves and “Public” Prisons

Both our literary and non-literary sources on the imprisonment of slaves in some form of a “public” prison are difficult to interpret. When incarceration or arrest is discussed, the sources are vague and it is unclear where the slave is imprisoned. Moreover, the majority of our sources are later than the first century CE and it is unclear if the matters discussed were pertinent for life in the first century CE.

First, according to the church father Cyprian of Carthage, if a slave does not serve a master well, he should be imprisoned: “If you are not served [by your slave] at your whim, if he does not yield subserviently to your will, as the dictatorial and excessive enforcer of his status as a slave, you scourge him, you whip him, you afflict him frequently with hunger, with thirst, with nakedness, and with the sword and with prison” (ferro etiam frequenter et carcere affligis et crucias) (To Demetrius 8) (translation from Brent, On the Church: Select Treaties: St. Cyprian of Carthage (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006). Into what prison should the slave be confined? Cyprian does not use the Latin term ergastulum, slave prison. Rather, his use of the word carcer suggests Cyprian has a public prison in mind.[7] It is unclear for how long the slave was imprisoned.

Second, the fourth century CE rhetorician Libanius berated the deplorable conditions of prisons in his day. In the process, he noted some people were left in “chains” for their entire lives: “Others besides who get there by other ways, live their lives in chains (ζῶσι τὸν ἐν δεσμοῖς βίον) (Or. 45.7; LCL). Libanius also indicates slaves were confined with free people: “And among them slave and free die alike (ἀποθνήσκουσι δὲ ἐν τούτοις δοῦλοί τε ἐν ἴσῳ καὶ ἐλεύθεροι), some guilty of no offense at all, others of offenses that do not deserve death” (Or. 45.11; LCL). These references are likely to a “public” prison of some sort. At least in the fourth century CE, slaves were imprisoned with free peoples in public prisons. However, the fact remains Libanius is depicting the inhumane treatment of prisoners and it is possible that these occurrences were rare for the Roman world.

Third, an inscription from Dephi notes: “Eisias is to remain with Kleomantis for the rest of his life and do everything that she is ordered as if she were a slave (ὡς δούλα). And if Eisias does not remain or does not do what she is ordered, Kleomantis is to have the right to punish her in whatever way he wishes—by beating her or imprisoning her or selling her (ψο]φέων καὶ διδέ[ων] καὶ πωλέων)” (Fouilles de Delphes, 3, 3, No. 329, lines 4–7; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (1989)). Although Eisias is not a slave, for all practical purposes she was treated like one. One of the ways this occurred was the punishment Kleomantis could mete out. Among the various things mentioned, Eisias could be imprisoned. This seems to suggest that in Delphi slave imprisonment was as common as being beaten or sold.

Fourth, according to the following papyrus dated c. 150 CE, slaves who were put in chains were ineligible for bequests: “Bequests made to one who as a slave was put in chains and was afterward freed or who was freed when not yet thirty years old are confiscated” (Sel. Papyri 2.206=BGU 5.1210; translation from LCL). It is unclear what being put “in chains” means. Was it in an ergastulum? Or, was it in a “public” prison? Either are possible.

Fifth, the following papyrus dated c. 298 CE is a deed giving permission for the friend of the owner of a fugitive slave to go to Alexandria, find the slave, and punish him: “Aurelius Sarapammon also called Didymus, . . . to Aurelius . . . and as you are styled, of the said city of Oxyrhynchus, greeting (sic). I appoint you by this instruction as my representative to journey to the most illustrious Alexandria and search for my slave called . . . aged about 35 years, with whom you too are acquainted . . .; and when you find him you are to deliver him up, having the same powers as I should have myself, if present, to . . . ; imprison him (εἴργιν), chastise him, and to make an accusation before the proper authorities against those who harboured him, demand satisfaction. This instruction I have issued to you in a single copy, which is to be valid wherever produced, and in answer to the formal question I gave my consent (translation from P.Oxy 14.1643). Literally, this friend who functions as a bounty hunter is told to “shut up the slave.”[5] It is unclear where the slave is to be confined. Since this slave has escaped from his master’s estate in Oxyrhynchus and journeyed to Alexandria, which is at least several hundred miles apart, he is most likely to have been jailed in some form of a “public” prison and not his master’s ergastulum.

What is interesting about this papyrus is the owner of the slave calls for the punishment for those who harbored the slave. Could this be a possible reason Paul sent a letter to Philemon? That is, Philemon somehow knows Onesimus is with Paul and Paul does not want to be found guilty of harboring a slave?

Finally, another papyrus from Egypt dated c. 325 CE indicates a fugitive slave was to be apprehended for his actions. A certain Flavius Ammonas requested a man named Flavius Dorotheus find his fugitive slave who had also stolen some items: “Flavius Ammonas, officialis on the staff of the praefect of Egypt, to Flavius Dorotheus, officialis, greeting (sic). I order and depute you to arrest (ἐπιτρέπω) my slave called Magnus, who has run away and is staying at Hermopolis and has carried off certain articles belonging to me, and to bring him as a prisoner (δέσμιος) together with the head-man of Sesphtha. This order is valid, and in answer to the formal question I gave my consent. I, Flavius Ammonas, officialis on the staff of the praefect of Egypt, have made this order” (translation from P.Oxy 12.1423).

The word the translators have rendered “arrest” may not be the best translation for ἐπιτρέπω. According to LSJ, the term means, “to transfer or to turn over.”[6] However, context best determines the definition of a word and the translators of P.Oxy have read a lot more papyri and classical sources than I ever will. Notwithstanding, Flavius is invested with power to take the slave into custody. Where would the slave have stayed during the journey from Alexandria to Oxyrhynchus? Most likely in some form of a “public” prison.

This papyrus could explain Onesimus’s situation and how he makes into to the prison in which Paul is staying. Onesimus could have stolen some items from Philemon, i.e., “if he has harmed you in any way or owes you anything” (v. 17), and, because of a letter from Philemon to a local official, Onesimus could have been arrested (cf. v. 15). Coincidentally, Onesimus could have been taken to the same “public” prison in which Paul is staying.

Notwithstanding the above evidence, it seems the majority of the time slaves were beaten, tortured, sold, or sent to the mines: “Slaves should be sentenced according to the rules applying to the punishment of the lower orders. For those crimes for which a free man [of the lower orders] is thrashed with rods, a slave must be sentenced to be whipped and returned to his owner; for those crimes for which a free man is first thrashed and then condemned to hard labor, a slave must be sentenced to be whipped and then to be returned to his owner to be kept in chains for the same period of time. If a slave who has been sentenced to be returned to his owner to be kept in chains is not in fact taken by him, he is to be sold; and if he can find no one who is prepared to buy him, he should be sentenced to hard labor for life” (Digest 48.19.10; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, 30).

IV: Conclusion

Our scant, extant evidence indicates slaves were imprisoned outside of private slave prisons in the Roman world. Save for being a fugitive slave and/or stealing items from one’s master, we have no idea for what other reasons, for how long, etc. slaves were imprisoned. As noted in the introduction, this paucity of evidence is probably due to the fact of the social status of those from antiquity who composed our extant documents. The relative silence of our sources could indicate the imprisonment of slaves in public prisons was axiomatic in the Roman world and ancient authors were not compelled to discuss such a common occurrence. Nevertheless, the little papyrological evidence I was able to marshal, along with the commonest function of prisons in the Roman world, indicates a slave’s imprisonment was short term and only until the owner either came and repossessed his/her slave or the slave was punished.[8]

This could be one of the reasons for the composition of Philemon. Thus from the papyri my reconstruction is as follows: Onesimus stole certain items from his master and either ran way or went AWOL while on a trip for Philemon (“If he has wronged you or owes you anything” (v. 18)). Philemon sent a representative to the city where Onesimus fled to retrieve him. The representative had Onesimus arrested and coincidentally (“Perhaps for this reason he was separated for this moment” (v. 15)) he ends up in the same prison as Paul (stranger things have happened). Paul, therefore, converts Onesimus and writes a letter to Philemon on Onesimus’s behalf. While there are difficulties with this reconstruction, given the papyrological evidence, it seems to me the most plausible.

[1]. Werner Eck, “Ergastulum,” Brill’s New Pauly (Accessed Online). Eck, “Ergastulum,” further notes: “With the acquisition of larger numbers of slaves during the Roman expansion in the 2nd and 1st cents. BC, the Roman slave owners were more frequently confronted with the fact that slaves fled or became violent against their owners. The result was an increased occurrence of slaves being tied up, who also had to do their work in that condition (compediti or vincti).”

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Pliny the Elder notes of Roman farms: “But at the present day these same lands are tilled by slaves whose legs are in chains” (Pliny, NH 18.4).

[4]. Similarly, Augustus had to take actions against the wrong persons being imprisoned: “Many pernicious practices militating against public security had survived as a result of the lawless habits of the civil wars, or had even arisen in time of peace. Gangs of footpads openly went about with swords by their sides, ostensibly to protect themselves, and travellers in the country, freemen and slaves alike, were seized and kept in confinement in the workhouses (ergastula) of the land owners; numerous leagues, too, were formed for the commission of crimes of every kind, assuming the title of some new guild. Therefore to put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes” (Suetonius, Aug. 32).

[5]. LSJ, “ἔργω.”

[6]. LSJ, “ἐπιτρέπω.”

[7]. “Prison,” OCD 1212. Sallust describes the public prison in Rome as follows: “In the prison, when you have gone up a little way towards the left, there is a place called the Tullianum, about twelve feet below the surface of the ground. It is enclosed on all sides by walls, and above it is a chamber with a vaulted roof of stone. Neglect, darkness, and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold” (Cato 55).

[8]. Prisons were meant to be a short-term solution until either a magistrate was bribed or the prisoner was executed. “Prison,” OCD 1212; Walter Eder, “Prison Sentence,” Brill’s New Pauly (accessed online). Digest 48.18.9, “Prison indeed out to be employed for confining men, not for punishing them.” See William Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery: The Condition of the Slave in the Private Law from Augustus to Justinian (Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 1908), 404.

Review of Baden’s The Promise to the Patriarchs

Anyone concerned with Paul’s use of Gen 12:3 (Gal 3:8) and his employment of Abraham as the litmus test for a Gentile mission free from the boundary markers of Jewish/Judean identity for Gentiles should spend some time with Joel Baden’s new work: The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) in order to understand the promise to which Paul refers in its literary context. This concise (it is c. 200 pages) and clear publication is a literary investigation into the promise texts of the Pentateuch from a source-critical perspective. The type of questions with which he wrestles are: (1) what is the promise; (2) what does the promise mean theologically; (3) why was it crafted; and (4) how does it affect the way we read the Pentateuch. Baden concludes that the promise texts naturally fall into the classical sources J, E, and P, each with their own emphases and perspectives. It was this diversity that the compiler of the Pentateuch attempted to maintain as he structured his sources. The promise to the Patriarchs is the glue that holds the Pentateuch together: “The story of the promise is not one among many in the Pentateuch. It is the sole story of the Pentateuch” (p. 158).

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to provide a thorough review of Baden’s book. However, I will point out a few laudable observations. Baden notes that the promise to the Patriarchs is constant throughout the entirety of the Pentateuch appearing in numerous chapters in Genesis (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 26, 28, 32, 35, 46, 48, 50) and at critical moments in the story of Israel, i.e., the call of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the descent to Egypt, the death of Joseph, the call of Moses, the golden calf incident, the condemnation of the exodus generation, and the death of Moses. This promise, therefore, is the “guiding force” for the narratives of the Pentateuch and is always either explicitly or implicitly in the text, and should be interpreted as YHWH’s promise to make Israel a nation, which includes land and progeny.

As Baden delves into the promise texts within J, E, and P, he discusses their versions of the promise texts complete with distinct perspectives, themes, and emphases. For example, P’s promise texts each use ברית; contain the phrase be fruitful and multiply; the patriarchs are called גוי; they contain a connection between family and promise; they note that the fathers’ progeny will be a multitude of nations and kings; and the giving of the promise results in the change of the patriarch’s name (p. 104). J’s are directed to the patriarch alone, are always contextual (p. 119), emphasis is on the land, and there is a concern about the nations that surround Israel (Gen 26:3, 12, 24, 28, 29; 33:1; 34:30; 46:31-34) (p. 114). Finally, E’s promise contains the phrase “fear not” as the introduction to the promise (Gen 15:1; 21:17; 46:3), and is refers to Egypt (Gen 15:13-16; 46:3-4), for the promise texts in E anticipate and predict Israel’s time there (Genesis 15; 46), which functions to give identity to God’s people (Exod 20:23-23:33; 19:5; 22:20; 23:9; 23:15) (pp. 124-25).

Like the author of Hebrews, time would fail me to tell you more about this fantastic work. In sum, it is careful, thorough, concise, well articulated, and Baden’s method is economic, taking into account the most data with the fewest outliers. Most laudable is his close attention to the text of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of the promise that I wish Baden would have addressed. First, what is the socio-historical context for the formation and accentuation of the promise texts? Was their political influence in their formation? What is the relationship, if any, of the promise texts to the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah in the south? Second, how do these promise texts related to other literature within the HB? For example, how does J’s promise text relate to Second Isaiah? How does P’s promise text relate to Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah? Although Baden’s methodology precludes him from addressing these questions, his work is a must read for any one working on the promise texts of the Pentateuch, the narrative of Genesis, and I would say Paul.