The Desire for Accurate Records in the Graeco-Roman World

Over the years, I have had many conversations with Christians and non-Christians about the milieu in which the NT was composed, the Graeco-Roman world. One thing at which people are startled is the rather advanced culture the Greeks and the Romans possessed. For example, the Greeks and the Romans did not believe the world was flat. On the contrary, numerous Graeco-Roman authors discussed the sphericity of the earth (Strabo, Geography I.1.20; Ptolemy, Geography I. XX; etc.). However, for the purposes of this blog post, we shall focus on the importance of the denizens of the Graeco-Roman world keeping accurate records. Note the following decree from the governor of Lycia (a province in Asia Minor, see map below), which is dated c. 44 CE during the reign of Claudius who is mentioned in Acts 18.2:
“Decree of Quintus Veranius, propraetorian legate of Tiberius CLAUDIUS Caesar Augustus. Trypho, a public slave of the city of Tlos, having failed to learn from my edicts and threats—and not even from the punishment of public slaves guilty of similar faults—that he must not accept [for the archives] transactional documents having interpolations or erasures, I have led him to recognize my displeasure at the likes of him by having him thrashed with whips, and I demonstrated to him with such proof that if he is again unmindful of the edict regarding documents [to record], I will, by subjecting him not only to blows but to the supreme penalty, compel the rest of the public slaves to forget [about continuing] their past indifference . . . 
And, so that persons transacting business—on account of whom my diligence has ordered the investigation regarding these matters—may cease acting contrary to their own security, I [now] make known that every transaction of every kind will be invalid from today’s day on if it is written in palimpsest or has interpolations or erasures, whether it be a contract or a bond or an agreement or an order or a notice-and-account-contract or an offer or a deposition for a trial or dowry details or a decision of arbiters or judges . . .” (AE, 673; Translation taken from Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 2.280-81)
It is clear from this inscription that Quintus Veranius believed that accurate records were indispensible. As a result, he wanted to ensure that accurate records were kept in “. . . contract or a bond or an agreement or an order or a notice-and-account-contract or an offer or a deposition for a trial or dowry details or a decision of arbiters or judges . . .”, which covers the gamut of the quotidian activities of the people of his province (and the Roman Empire for that matter). If the public slave Trypho continued to ignore the wishes of Quintus Veranius, he would face death, i.e., the supreme penalty.
Moreover, according to this inscription, this is not the first edict of its kind. Quintus Veranius notes that Trypho “. . . having failed to learn from my edicts and threats—and not even from the punishment of public slaves guilty of similar faults . . .” It appears that accurate records, or rather inaccurate records were a problem in the province of Lycia.
The reason for the harsh treatment of the Trypho is that proper or improper archives or records would have affected people of every social class in the province of Lycia. No matter how much money one made or one’s social standing, a dowry was of the upmost importance for securing the financial future of a young woman and the family of the young woman. Dowries in the Graeco-Roman world ensured that husbands would care for their wives and their wives’ children. Dowries even ensured that the woman would receive her dowry back if the husband divorced her.
With regard to the NT, I suggest that this attitude of attempting to keep accurate records is probably what lay behind the composition of the gospels (some of which are no longer extant, Luke 1.1), for Luke himself notes: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1.3-4).” It seems that Luke’s purpose in writing his Gospel and Acts was to present what he though was the accurate portrait of Jesus for Theophilus.  
Also, the desire to have accurate facts may have been behind Paul’s trip to Jerusalem to talk with Peter and James three years after his conversion and commission by God to preach God and his Son among the Gentiles (Gal 1.18-19). It seems only likely that Paul would have gathered as much information about Jesus from those who actually spent time with him.

  

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