Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The World of Paul Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Neil Asher Silberman

[image]Early Christian sarcophagus fragment shows Paul at the helm of a ship bearing the name Thecla, possibly that of the deceased. (Giovanni Lattanzi) [LARGER IMAGE, 40K]

Paul's epistles, written in the mid-first century A.D., bristle with complex, passionate arguments that offer insights into the heart and mind of a remarkable person and his times. For centuries, theologians and biblical scholars relied on scripture and church tradition to assess Paul's career and missionary achievements. Now archaeology is offering intriguing data about the lands where Paul preached and organized his churches and about the broader social context behind the spread of Christianity.

Some evidence is drawn from large-scale excavations of temples, forums, and private houses in Roman provincial cities. Other clues come from salvage excavations beneath the streets of modern Mediterranean cities. Perhaps the most important sources of new information are regional survey projects, which are documenting the changing settlement patterns and economic life of areas under Roman rule.

Reassessment of Augustan art, architecture, and literature shows how Roman authorities promoted universal allegiance to the empire. Paul and the early apostles traveled through this world of imperial power, yet they gave voice to an alternative vision, one in which scattered, self-supporting communities looked forward to the imminent end of earthly status, privilege, and violence in a new kind of "kingdom" ruled by God.

Surveys throughout the territories of the Roman Empire have shown that the coming of imperial rule brought about a general pattern of economic reorganization. Literary sources tell of widespread confiscation and redistribution of land to Roman veterans and officials, the growing burden of taxation and debt on formerly independent peasant farmers, and the occasionally crippling levies of tribute imposed on conquered lands.

It is in this specific historical milieu that the roots of Christianity lay. The movement that began 2,000 years ago in Galilee and spread across the Roman Empire through the efforts of Paul and the other apostles can be seen as a unique event in Western religious history and as a tangible historical process. Their wide-ranging quest for the Kingdom of God may well have been both a spiritual journey and an evolving social response to the changes wrought by Roman rule.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America