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Blumell, Lincoln H.
Lettered Christians. Christians, Letters, and Late Antique Oxyrhynchus.
Leiden u. a.: Brill 2012. XXVI, 428 S. m. 11 Abb. = New Testament Tools, Studies and Documents, 39. Geb. EUR 143,00. ISBN 978-90-04-18095-6.
Christina M. Kreinecker
With his new book entitled »Lettered Christians. Christians, Letters, and Late Antique Oxyrhynchus« Lincoln H. Blumell presents a revision of his dissertation, written under the supervision of John S. Kloppenborg. Thematically, this book is placed at the interface of Early Christianity, papyrology, biblical studies, ancient history and sociology. It is a fascinating collection of conclusions drawn from documentary sources occasionally combined with literary ones. In his search for more socio-historical facts about Christians in Egypt B. focuses on papyrological evidence from Oxyrhynchus from the beginning of Christian presence in the city until the 7 th century.
In his introductory first chapter B. distinguishes his work by focusing on the papyrological evidence and the letters written by Christians in Oxyrhynchus. His purpose is firstly to identify such letters (Chapter Two) and secondly to deal with specific socio-historical questions (Chapter Three to Five) concerning travel, epistolary networking, Christian literacy and onomastic trends in Oxyrhynchus (and sometimes beyond). Apart from the fact that all further chapters are built on the second one, there is little connection between them, though they all contribute to a better understanding of (everyday) Christianity in its first centuries.
The second chapter identifies papyrological letters written by Christians by the presence of a nomen Christianum and self-identification (I), crosses and monograms (II), isopsephisms and acrostics (III), nomina sacra (IV), monotheistic terminology and phra-seology (V), familial language with the use of agapetos (VI) or other miscellaneous markers (VII) such as ecclesiastical titles, references to churches or festivals etc. B. identifies 191 letters out of 782 that show a high degree of certainty of having been written in a Christian milieu, plus another 40 letters for which Christian authorship is possible (although I count 190 and 41 in the lists on p. 301–310). This chapter is a piece of art in itself and could easily be taken se-parately as an introduction (not only for students) to the possibilities and limits of identifying papyrus letters with a Christian background. It is clear, straight forward, cautious and very attractive with a »minimalistic« approach, not wanting to sell more than we can be almost certain of being written by Christians.
The third chapter marks the beginning of B.’s socio-historical studies. General information about travel in antiquity (including means of transportation, average travel speed and distances, mail services both public and private) is offered, before the focus is set on the actual letters from Oxyrhynchus. Most travel, according to the pattern identified, takes place over short distances within the same nome. Particularly interesting is the list of places provided in the appendix (338–343). The motives for travel detected in the letters are mostly work related (agricultural production and transport, taxa tion, guard and soldier duties), but some – usually those of later centuries – also show some religious motivation. This evidence draws a slightly different picture than literary evidence, where proselytism, pilgrimages and the performance of religious duties seem to be the primary reasons for Christians’ travelling. In fact, the 191 letters written by Christians show the typical picture of everyday concerns and travel habits that can be taken from other letters.
The fourth chapter searches for (religious) texts, both canonical and non-canonical, that were in circulation in Oxyrhynchus. Again, the contrast between documentary and literary evidence is striking. Within the 191 letters B. identifies citations only of Eph 5:16, Job 36:19, Sir 12:12, Gen 48:16 and Job 1:21b. In addition he points out a couple of possible reminiscences and echoes, but has reservations about the certainty of these identifications. The author traces the reason for this rather small direct evidence of scripture back to the fact that the primary concerns of the documentary letters are everyday matters. B. concisely includes general information on literacy in antiquity, but for good reasons he remains sceptical about the idea that Christians were more literate than their non-Christian contemporaries.
Chapter Five examines if there is direct evidence that Christians began employing distinct names indicative of their faith. B. identifies biblical names (some from the New but more from the Old Testament), names of martyrs and saints (from the 5th century onwards) and names carrying Christian connotations. Yet, there are also a high number of pagan names in the letters written by Christians. Although B. himself is reluctant to draw any major conclusions from these onomastic observations, he is still able »often« to see a direct correlation between the popularity of names and the evidence for the cult of a saint or martyr at Oxyrhynchus. Yet, one has to share the author’s methodological reluctance and keep asking questions (why are Old Testament names rather indicating a Christian than a Jewish milieu from the 4 th century on? Why would »Mohammed« today rather point towards an Islamic family background though many non-Jewish parents call their daughters »Judith«?). By looking into letters, can we really be sure about the motives for naming children: for example that »in increasing numbers Christian parents felt the need to name their children accordingly« (278)? The list of names appearing in the 191 letters on p. 343–365 (including Coptic names) is, however, highly fascinating and a rich source for further investigations.
Chapter Six, followed by an epilogue, functions as a summary. The 191 letters from Oxyrhynchus rarely raise specifically Christian concerns. There are no theological confrontations or debates mentioned, let alone clear indications of Gnosticism, orthodoxy etc., which are attested in literary sources. By dealing with everyday matters they mostly correspond to other documentary letters.
Opening B.’s book is a pleasure in itself. For already formally it shows the signs of a good book: a clear structure, a consistent way of abbreviating papyri, informative footnotes (though occasionally close to over-extensive), few typos or errors, a convenient set of appendices and indices and coloured papyrus tablets. Another strength of the book is B.’s awareness of »caveats« throughout his work (e. g. 16–26.159–161.239–240), such as the observation that there is no such thing as a »Christian letter« but only letters written by Christians. Noteworthy is B.’s goal to »let the evidence speak for itself […] even if a particular interpretation is preferred« (18). Naturally, B. asks more questions than can be answered. Particularly towards the end, one gets the impression that the author had hoped for »more« or maybe simply »more unambiguous« evidence or results. In those cases it is impressive that he stays with facts, al-though suggesting preferred possibilities beyond them.
In the end B.’s book is like a basket full of ready-to-eat fruits: not everyone will be interested in everything but there will definitely be something for everyone: New Testament scholars, papyrologists, (ancient) historians, sociologists and many more.