Thursday, January 21, 2021

Christian Networks and the Circulation of Christian Books


Sailing ship, 1st cen. AD (Pompeian tomb of Naevoleia Tyche Museo Della Civiltà Romana)

I recently learned of a fascinating account of Christians responding in various ways to Roman Imperial persecution in an excellent chapter by Jakob Engberg in a recent work.

"Caring for African Confessors in Exile: the Ministry of Numeria and Candida during the Decian Persecution (Cyprian, Epistulae 21-22)," pages 267-293 in Carmen Angela Cvetković and Peter Gemeinhardt, eds, Episcopal Networks in Late Antiquity: Connection and Communication Across Bounderies (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte vol. 137. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019)

After a military coup, Decius became the new Caesar of the Roman Empire in 249 CE. During this time, there were a series of revolts across the Empire and the Goths invaded Moesia and Thrace. In response to the unrest Decius issued an edict requiring all those in the Empire (not to include the Jewish people) to make sacrifices to the Gods in order to bring their favor on the troubled Empire (Engberg, 267). Decius set up an entire bureaucratic infrastructure to oversee this requirement and would issue certificates of compliance to those who would render the honor to the Gods. There are several of these certificates, or libelli, extant on papyrus (see here). Christians responded in different ways as Cyprian informs us in his treatise "On the Lapsed "(he was bishop of Carthage at the time); from actually performing the sacrifices, to bribery, having a certificate forged, or having another person perform the sacrifices in the Christian's place.

The pressures that Christians endured during this time must have been intense. Cyprian preserves a series of letters (Ep 20 and 21) that give a contemporary account of three African siblings caught up in this difficulty. They concern a man named Celerinus, who has two sisters that, at that time (ca. 250 CE), were living in Rome. In Cyprian's epistle 20 is preserved a letter from Celerinus to a Christian named Lucian who had been imprisoned after confessing himself a Christian and refusing to sacrifice to the Gods.

"Celerinus to Lucian, greeting. In writing this letter to you, my lord and brother, I have been rejoicing and sorrowful — rejoicing in that I had heard that you had been tried on behalf of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, and had confessed His name in the presence of the magistrates of the world; but sorrowful, in that from the time when I was in your company I have never been able to receive your letters."

Celerinus entreats Lucian to pray for God's forgiveness on behalf of his two sisters currently living in Rome; Numeria who gave in and sacrificed to the God's but had since repented; and Candida who bribed her way out of the sacrifice (or possibly payed to have a libelli forged). In order to give proof of his sister's repentance, Celerinus informs Lucian of their recent service to a group of persecuted Christians.

"For this, my lord and brother, you ought to know, that it is not I alone who ask this on their behalf, but also Statius and Severianus, and all the confessors who have come thence hither from you; to whom these very sisters went down to the harbour and took them up into the city, and they have ministered to sixty-five, and even to this day have tended them in all things, For all are with them. But I ought not to burden that sacred heart of yours any more, since I know that you will labour with a ready will."

Apparently, there was a group of 65 Christians who were likely Africans themselves, some of them Lucian knew, that had travelled by ship to Rome in order to escape persecution, or because they were formally exiled (Engberg, 271).

The letter from Lucian to Celerius in response is preserved in Cyprian's epistle 21. Lucian agreed to grant this request.

"And therefore, beloved brother, greet Numeria and Candida, who (shall have peace ) according to the precept of Paulus, and the rest of the martyrs whose names I subjoin."
Lucian also mentions some of the tortures that he and his other fellow Christian prisoners endured.
"[B]y the command of the emperor we were ordered to be put to death by hunger and thirst, and were shut up in two cells, that so they might weaken us by hunger and thirst. Moreover, the fire from the effect of our torture was so intolerable that nobody could bear it. But now we have attained the brightness itself. . . . Bassus in the dungeon of the perjured, Mappalicus at the torture, Fortunio in prison, Paulus after torture, Fortunata, Victorinus, Victor, Herennius, Julia, Martial, and Aristo, who by God's will were put to death in the prison by hunger, of whom in a few days you will hear of me as a companion. For now there are eight days, from the day in which I was shut up again, to the day in which I wrote my letter to you. For before these eight days, for five intervening days, I received a morsel of bread and water by measure."
Lucian's letter is ended by a long list of names to whom Celerinus was to greet on Lucian's behalf. This reveals that there was a large network of Christians in North Africa and in Rome that know each other and communicate regularly through letters. Celerinus mentions his letters several times,
". . . and I took notice of them in my letters . . . before my letters find you in this world . . ."
Celerinus also mentions that he has written letters to other mutual Christian brethren.
"Your brethren Calphurnius and Maria, and all the holy brethren, salute you. For you ought to know this too, that I have written also to my lords your brethren letters. which I request that you will deign to read to them."
These letters he must have appended to the letter he wrote to Lucian and he expected Lucian to read these out to them.

Lucian makes mention of letters that he and his fellow Christian prisoners wrote and sent out to the community in order encourage fellow believers.
"Moreover, all of us whom the Lord has condescended in such tribulation to call away, by our letters, by mutual agreement, have given peace to all."
These social networks that spanned the Mediterranean and two major Roman city centers (Rome and Carthage) were in constant communication with each other through the exchange of letters, word of mouth, and through acts of service and hospitality. These networks could very easily be avenues by which copies of the Christian scriptures were distributed and disseminated readily and broadly throughout the Roman Empire as Christians fled persecution, were exiled, and visited each other. Not only would this ensure the continued spread and dissemination of the New Testament writings, but it would also provide a check against the "macro-level" alteration of the text of these documents as I argued in my recent article.

"Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament Writings during the Greco-Roman Era" Journal for the Study of the New Testament 43.2 (2020): 266-298

1 comment:

  1. With as much traveling as took place in the RE, it is no surprise that Christian communities were able to keep in close personal touch. Not only were there extensive medical travelers and sports enthusiasts on the road, but there were many tourists out as well. Souvenirs of some of the ancient wonders have been discovered even in the Parthian Empire. Merchants, soldiers, slaves, were also traveling in great numbers. Seasonal workers followed the jobs. Government officials, often with their families, were traveling back and forth. It is no wonder that we see such extensive communications kept up between Paul and Philippi, for example. Christians had many opportunities to stay in touch with other Believers throughout much, if not all, of the Empire.