Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Letter Of Commendation

Temple of Apollo, Corinth (Wikimedia)
I have been working on the AS350 Helicopter now for over six years. In this time I have had the opportunity to work on most of the systems and components in the most detailed of inspections and repairs. Though, if I were to seek employment at another facility working on AS350s, they would require that I have references from those who worked with me validating my professional knowledge, and recommending my services to them. Everyone does this when looking for a new job, it is an essential part of a resume. But in ancient times, knowing somebody was almost as important as actually knowing a trade or a skill. In antiquity, someone of note would write a letter of commendation, affixing his or her seal to it, so that the person to be recommended would hand it over to a potential employer or another person of note as a way of introduction and an assurance of their value. Some examples of these letters of commendation are preserved on papyrus. Here is a letter of commendation which dates from ca. 25 AD.

Theon to his most esteemed Tyrannus, heartiest greetings. Heraclides, the bearer of this letter to you, is my brother. Therefore I beg you with all my power to hold him as one recommended [συνίστημι] to you. I have also asked Hermias my brother in writing to communicate with you regarding this. You will do me the greatest favour if he [Heraclides] gains your notice. But above all I pray that you may be in health unharmed by the evil eye and faring prosperously. Goodbye. (Milligan, 37-38)

Paul references this ancient practice of letters of commendation in his second letter to the Corinthians. The Greek verb for commendation in this papyrus, and which is used by Paul in 2 Corinthians is συνίστημι. Paul used this verb a total of nine times in his second letter to the Corinthians. Showing that this was an important central theme to the letter. He also revealed his dislike of this ancient custom, showing the foolishness of Christians who practice it,
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending [συνίστημι] themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. (2 Corinthians 10:12, ESV).
Paul was “commending” himself to them because other Apostles were bringing these letters of commendation to the Church, bringing false teaching and undermining his authority as an apostle. They were probably being recognized by powerful and famous Christians. Paul was attempting to make a point by telling them; “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation [συνίστημι], written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2, ESV). Paul was stressing the importance that “it is not the one who commends [συνίστημι] himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends [συνίστημι]” (2 Corinthians 10:18, ESV). The Corinthian Church should have been the ones to “commend” Paul in his ministry, to recognize his authority as an apostle and to recommend him to other Churches. Yet, 2 Corinthians is filled with Paul “commending” himself, reminding the church of his labors bringing them the truth of the gospel. He disliked this very much but knew that this was the only way to connect with them, through this ancient practice; “I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended [συνίστημι] by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11, ESV).
This ancient practice of commendation, and Paul's interaction with it in 2 Corinthians has encouraged me to live and serve in such a way that the changed lives of people will actually be my letter of commendation to the world. I am working through seminary right now and will earn an MDiv in time. The seminary education is important, and has helped me in my Christian walk. But it is not the "commendation" which the degree gives that enables me to be approved of men to serve the Lord. What is truly important is that I am commended by the God.

Milligan, George. Selections from the Greek Papyri. Cambridge: University Press, 1912.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Bustle of an Ancient City

The city which I call home is small when compared to New York or Los Angeles, but at 1,000,000 it is one of the largest cities I have lived in during my short life. I grew up in very small towns of a few hundred and a few thousand. As an adult I love having the convenience of the city, the stores, the public services, the events and festivities close at hand. But there are days when I long to be rid of the city and its bustle of activity.
A model of Pliny's Villa at Laurentum
Much has not changed in hundreds of years, the city has always been a center of activity and events. The Roman statesman known today as The Younger Pliny (61 AD – ca. 112 AD) revealed his own desire to be rid of the city and embrace the quiet of his country villa. In a letter to a friend in Rome, Minucius Fundanus, Pliny wrote;
It is astonishing how good an account can be given, or seem to be given, of each separate day spent in Rome, yet that this is not the case with regard to a number of days taken in conjunction. If you ask anyone, "What have you been doing today?" he would reply, "I have attended at the ceremony of a youth's coming of age. I have helped to celebrate a betrothal or a wedding. One has invited me to the signing of his will, another to attend a trial on his behalf, another to a consultation." These things seem indispensable at the time when they are done, but when you come to reflect that you have been doing them day after day, they strike you as mere frivolities; and much more is this the case when one has retired into the country. For, then, the recollection steals over you, "How many days have I wasted, and in what dreary pursuits!" This is what happens to me as soon as I am in my house at Laurentum, and am reading or writing, or even merely looking after my bodily health, that stay on which the mind reposes. I hear nothing, I say nothing, which one need be ashamed of hearing or saying. No one about me gossips ill-naturedly of anyone else, and I for my part censure no one, except myself, however, when my writings are not up to mark. I am troubled by no hopes and no fears, disquieted by no rumours: I converse with myself only and with my books. What a true and genuine life, what a sweet and honest repose, one might almost say, more attractive than occupation of any kind. Oh, sea and shore, veritable secret haunt of the Muses, how many thoughts do you suggest to the imagination and dictate to the pen! In the same way do you too, my friend, at first opportunity, turn your back upon all that bustle, and idle hurry-scurry, and utterly inane drudgery, and give yourself up to study or even to repose. It is better--as friend Atillius says, with as much wisdom as wit--to have nothing to do than to do nothing. (Pliny, Letters, 1.9, translation from Lewis, 12-13)

Plan of Pliny's Laurentum Villa ( Radice, 305)
I find myself agreeing very much with this wisdom of Pliny. During the course of a busy day at work, I spend many hours perusing maintenance manuals, fixing problems on helicopters, signing my name and filling out the endless stream of paperwork which flows from aircraft maintenance.  But sitting down, reading this letter, pondering the days work, I find myself thinking similar things as Pliny did 1,900 years ago; "How many days have I wasted, and in what dreary pursuits!" Pliny wrote this while he was at his villa in Laurentum, an area between the coastal city of Ostia and Rome. In another famous letter to a friend named Gallus, Pliny described in lengthy detail his villa from which he wrote the above letter to his friend in Rome. His description is so detailed that plans and models have been made using the information he provided (see pictures). I can relate very much with Pliny in his love of pen and book, but unfortunately I cannot relate with the vast comforts of his Laurentine accommodations! One of my favorite areas of the house; "Round the corner is a room built round in an apse to let in the sun as it moves round and shines in each window in turn, and with one wall fitted with shelves like a library to hold the books which I read again and again" (this is area "H" on the map at left) (Pliny, Letters, 2.17, translation from Radice, 76). Reading these thoughts from Pliny reminds me to not waste the valuable time which has been given me on this earth. I may not have a lush country villa like Pliny, or have the luxury of doing nothing but reading and writing (which I love), but I cannot get lost in the bustle of life and let "life" pass me by. I think now upon the admonition of Paul, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" ( Ephesians 5:15-16, ESV)!

Lewis, John Delaware, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Troubner, & Co. LTD, 1890.

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Penguin Books, 1969.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Antoninus and Isaac the Good Samaritans

Though not a picture of the papyrus letter from Isidorus, this picture is representative of the thousands of papyrus documents preserved from antiquity (Wikimedia Commons). For a picture of the actual papyrus see (http://www.papyri.info/hgv/10525)
Here is an interesting papyrus document dating to June 6, 324 AD. Papyrus P.Col. 7 171
To Dioskoros Caeso, praepositus of the 5th pagus, from Isidoros son of Ptolemaios, from the village of Karanis in your pagus. The cattle of Pamounis and Harpalos damaged the planting which I have and, what is more, [their cow] grazed in the same place so thoroughly that my husbandry has become useless. I caught the cow and was leading it up to the village when they met me in the fields with a big club, threw me to the ground, rained blows upon me and took away the cow--as indeed the (marks of) the blows all over me show--and if I had not chanced to obtain help from the deacon Antoninus and the monk Isaac, who happened by, they would probably have finished me off completely. Therefore I submit this document, asking that they be brought before you to preserve my claim (to be heard) in the prefectural court both in the matter of the planting and in the matter of the assault. In the year of the consuls-to-be for the fourth time, Pauni 12.1
There are several interesting items of note here. First, the mention of Antoninus holding the church office of deacon, and the explicit mention of Isaac being a monk. The second item of interest is that, according to the last sentence, this was not to the first time Isidoros complained of this incident. He wrote at the bottom, "In the year of the consuls-to-be for the fourth time." The judicial processes must have been agonizingly slow in this time period. Most likely due to a complicated bureaucratic process. And lastly, it appears that the authorities would be familiar with the ecclesiastical terms deacon and monk, so much so that their titles could be supplied without explanation.2 This familiarity may be due to the recent ascension of Constantine the Great as Roman Emperor, and his edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians which had happened only a few years earlier. I think it also interesting that the council of Nicaea was to take place the following year (325). The research team at Macquarie University note that this is the earliest mention of a monk in the papyri.3
This is a very interesting document for me because I think (perhaps speculatively) that these Christians, probably from some local monastery, look as if they were held in high esteem by the community. Isidorus was quick to mention them by name, perhaps because the Roman official would recognize them by name? (probably not though) Most likely they would be asked to testify and their witness would be highly regarded. I find it also fascinating that these churchmen were quick to administer aid to Isidoros in a way striking similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. I can almost picture these two men, maybe clad in monkish robes (?), happening upon Isidoros' in the process of being beaten by the ruffians. (Now for the imagination to run wild) I am sure the parable of the Good Samaritan and the words of Jesus quickly flashed through their minds as they sprang to Isidoros' aid! Little did they know that their names, and their heroic actions, would be preserved 1,700 years later! It brings into focus the reality of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15,
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (ESV)

It is my belief that all of our deeds will be brought to account before God. Perhaps not miraculously preserved on fragile papyrus as Antoninus and Isaac's deed was, but forever in heaven until they are to be judged! Wow, this encourages me to think more seriously on my actions here on this earth, who knows how long they will be preserved for posterity, and they will ultimately be brought before God!


1.  Emphasis mine, translation text taken from (http://www.papyri.info/hgv/10525)
2. "II Civil Documents Using Ecclesiastical Terms." Papyri from the Rise of Christianity in Egypt. Macquarie University, 2005 (http://www.acrc.mq.edu.au/PCE/Conspectus.html).

3. Ibid.