The Bible and Archaeology: Archaeology and the Epistles

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Archaeology and the Epistles

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In the previous three installments of this series we covered events described in the book of Acts. We now turn our attention to the apostolic writings, better known as the epistles, addressed to specific individuals or congregations or larger groups of people.

The apostolic letters

One of the first questions that comes to mind when examining the epistles is how they compare with the style and composition of other writings of the same era.

In the 20th century archaeologists discovered many private letters dating from the apostles' time that show the prevailing style of writing and correspondence. Written on papyrus, they corroborate that the apostles' letters are written in the style common in those days.

Scholar William Barclay notes about Paul's writings: "It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written ... The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for their preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last for ever so long as moisture does not get at it.

"As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern" (Daily Study Bible, Bible Explorer software, notes on Romans 1:1 Romans 1:1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God,
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, emphasis added throughout).

So far some 15,000 papyrus documents have been documented that date from 2700 B.C. to New Testament times and well beyond.

From the biblical point of view the most important papyrus scrolls include:

  • The 87 papyri containing parts of the Greek New Testament.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered some 50 years ago, which include books and commentaries about the Old Testament.
  • The Septuagint version of the Old Testament (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was in common use in the time of the apostles).

The New Testament papyrus scrolls date from the late first to the seventh century and vary in size from scraps containing a few words to almost complete books of a Gospel, Acts or the Pauline epistles.

Grant Jeffrey compares the number of biblical writings discovered to other works found: "Modern scholars now possess more than five thousand manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in the Greek language. In addition, there are an additional fifteen thousand manuscripts in other languages from the first few centuries of this era. No other important text, whether historical or religious, has more than a few dozen copies that have survived until our generation" (The Signature of God, 1996, p. 88).

From the private letters of the apostles' time we find their introduction typically included the identity of the author, the name of the recipient, a prayer for the recipient and a greeting. The conclusion of such letters reflects the apostles' similar style of identifying the recipients, offering thanks and ending with a blessing. "The power of the Epistles," says The Bible Through the Ages, "especially those of Paul, lay partly in their adherence to a structure recognized by educated people throughout the Greek-speaking world" (1996, p. 148).

Let's see a few specific examples of how these letters fit into the context of those days.

Paul's letter to the Romans

Throughout his letter to the Romans we see Paul urging gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome to reconcile their differences. What historical event could have led to disunity that would prompt this kind of admonition?

Paul mentions in this letter that he would send it from one of the ports of Corinth, called Cenchrea, by way of a member named Phoebe (Romans 16:1 Romans 16:1I commend to you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:
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In his first visit to Corinth a few years earlier, Paul had met the married couple Priscilla and Aquila, converted Jews who had been among those expelled from Rome. We read in Acts 18:2 Acts 18:2And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came to them.
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that the Jews at Rome had been exiled by Emperor Claudius around 49 B.C.

After Claudius died, Priscilla and Aquila returned to Rome (Romans 16:3 Romans 16:3Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus:
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The content of the epistle to the Romans reflects the new situation of the return of the Jewish Christians to the Roman church and the need for the gentile Christians again to accept their leadership.

Another indication of the authenticity of the epistle is the mention by Paul of 26 people in Romans 16. Scholars note these names were quite common during that period. Surprisingly, 13 of them have been found in inscriptions or documents connected with the emperor's palace in Rome.

William Barclay notes that, "although many are common names, this fact [their relationship with Caesar's palace] is nonetheless suggestive. In Philippians 4:22 Philippians 4:22All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar's household.
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, Paul speaks of the saints of Caesar's household. It may be that they were for the most part slaves, but it is still important that Christianity seems to have penetrated early into the imperial palace" (Daily Study Bible, comments on Romans 16:5-11 Romans 16:5-11 [5] Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my well-beloved Epaenetus, who is the first fruits of Achaia to Christ. [6] Greet Mary, who bestowed much labor on us. [7] Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. [8] Greet Amplias my beloved in the Lord. [9] Salute Urbane, our helper in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. [10] Salute Apelles approved in Christ. Salute them which are of Aristobulus' household. [11] Salute Herodion my kinsman. Greet them that be of the household of Narcissus, which are in the Lord.
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, Bible Explorer software).

Thus this mention of Roman, Greek and Hebrew names common in those days and the historical evidence of a Christian presence even in Caesar's household give credence to what Paul writes in Romans.

The letters to the Corinthians

Paul's two epistles to the Corinthians also fit well with archaeologists' discoveries about Corinth and what we learn from classical Greek literature.

Unlike Paul's letters to people in other areas, in both of the letters to Corinth he refers to sins involving sexual immorality.

Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 [1] It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. [2] And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
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that the brethren were openly tolerating a member involved in a sexual relationship with his stepmother. Paul instructs the members there to put that person out of the church until he repents and then warns them not to become corrupted by this bad example or allow themselves to return to their former sins.

He admonishes: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you" (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 [9] Know you not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, [10] Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortionists, shall inherit the kingdom of God. [11] And such were some of you: but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
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Of all the Greek cities, Corinth was the one most known for sexual immorality. "The ancient city had a reputation for vulgar materialism," notes The Bible Knowledge Commentary. "In the earliest Greek literature it was linked with wealth and immorality. When Plato referred to a prostitute, he used the expression 'Corinthian girl.' According to Strabo, the Greek geographer, much of the wealth and vice in Corinth centered around the temple of Aphrodite and its thousand temple prostitutes. For this reason a proverb warned, 'Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth!'" (Logos Library System software, 1985, introduction to 1 Corinthians).

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and other temples dedicated to fertility cults that contributed to the city's rampant immorality. They have also found ruins of the marketplace that indicate that wine was a popular product. "Around the market were a good many shops, numbers of which had individual wells, suggesting that much wine was made and drunk in the city. [Paul warned] in 1 Cor[inthians] 6:10 that drunkards will not 'inherit' the kingdom of God" (Harold Mare, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1979, p. 177).

The incident of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church appears to have a positive ending. After the members there repented of their moral laxity, they obeyed Paul and put the guilty party out of the congregation. But in 2 Corinthians 2:3-11 2 Corinthians 2:3-11 [3] And I wrote this same to you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all. [4] For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have more abundantly to you. [5] But if any have caused grief, he has not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. [6] Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. [7] So that contrariwise you ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. [8] Why I beseech you that you would confirm your love toward him. [9] For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether you be obedient in all things. [10] To whom you forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; [11] Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.
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Paul tells them he heard of the sinner's repentance and urged them to forgive and restore him as a member.

Paul's other epistles and those the other apostles wrote all reflect the aspects of everyday life in the Greco-Roman world of that age. Although critical scholars have focussed intensely on the apostolic epistles to try to find any discrepancy or anachronism, none has been forthcoming.

The epistle of James

Of all the epistles, James' is the most practical and picturesque. The Bible Knowledge Commentary calls it "a literary masterpiece ... that combines the rhythmic beauty of Greek with the stern intensity of Hebrew" and says that, "in fact, the Book of James probably has more figures of speech, analogies, and imagery from nature than all Paul's epistles together" (Logos Library System software, 1985, introduction to James).

How could Jesus' half brother (Matthew 13:55 Matthew 13:55Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brothers, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
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) have developed such a polished literary style? One commentary says about him: "The author had been from fifteen to twenty years a member, and for a number of years, the official head, of the Jerusalem Church, which very early in its history had more Hellenists than Hebrews in its membership. In daily contact with such Hellenists, James could, in the course of the years, have attained to considerable proficiency the use of the Greek tongue" (The New International Commentary of the New Testament: James, 1974, p. 19).

Another evidence of the authenticity of the letter is the mention of Christians still meeting in synagogues. James writes of different classes of people coming "into your assembly" (James 2:2 James 2:2For if there come to your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
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). The Greek word translated "assembly" here is sunagoge, an assembly of people. It was natural for James, as leader of the church in Jerusalem, to refer to the meeting places where Christians gathered as synagogues, since the term did not have the negative connotation it later took among anti-Jewish groups.

"There is evidence that early Jewish Christians sometimes met in synagogues," says archaeologist John McRay. "The New Testament letter of James refers to Christians (undoubtedly Jewish) meeting in a synagogue (2:2), but bear in mind that at this time Jews probably met most often in homes and rented halls" (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 72).

Peter's epistles

Peter's writing style and the background of his two epistles also conform to the norm for those times. The Expositor's Bible Commentary states, "First Peter is an epistle or letter written in the normal letter form of the [New Testament] world" (Edwin Blum, 1981, p. 213).

But how could Peter, a Galilean fisherman, write in the fine Greek style of these epistles?

"The parallels between this first letter and Peter's sermons recorded in Acts are significant," answers The Bible Knowledge Commentary. "Peter's public ministry spanned more than 30 years ... He lived and preached in a multicultural world.

It is reasonable to believe that after three decades Peter could have mastered the language of the majority of those to whom he ministered. Certainly Peter had the time and talent to become an outstanding communicator of the gospel via the Greek language" (Logos Library System software, introduction to 1 Peter).

Peter ends his first epistle with a reference to his location: "She who is in Babylon, elect together with you, greets you; and so does Mark my son" (1 Peter 5:13 1 Peter 5:13The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, salutes you; and so does Marcus my son.
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Some commentators regard the mention of Babylon as a cryptic way of referring to Rome, but the historical evidence shows that the actual city of Babylon had a thriving Jewish community during those days.

The Scriptures indicate most of Peter's mission dealt not with gentiles but with Jews. Paul mentioned that "the gospel for the uncircumcised [gentiles] had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised [Jews] was to Peter" (Galatians 2:7 Galatians 2:7But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed to me, as the gospel of the circumcision was to Peter;
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"Many have wondered," writes historian William McBirnie, "if this [reference to Babylon] did not mean Rome, which was frequently called 'Babylon' by the early Christians. The actual city of Babylon, however, still was of importance. It was a great center of Jewish colonists and was a powerful center when Peter ministered there for a time. The Eastern churches trace their lineage to Babylon, and hence to Peter, to this day" (The Search for the Twelve Apostles, 1973, p. 57).

John's writings

John's Gospel and epistles have an unusual style and are among the most respected by scholars.

"No two works in the whole range of literature," wrote Sir William Ramsay, "show clearer signs of the genius of one writer, and no other pair of works are so completely in a class by themselves, apart from the work of their own and every other time" (Alexander Ross, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Epistles of James and John, 1974, p. 110).

John penned his epistles toward the end of the New Testament period. They reflect the later struggles of the remaining apostles against gnostic groups and other opponents of God's law (antinomians) who were influencing Church members and seducing many away from the truth. Archaeology has helped us better understand some of the issues that John faced.

"The extensive Gnostic library that was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945," states John McRay, "has provided us with new information regarding heresy in the early church and about the nature of the canon of the New Testament at this time" (p. 18).

Thanks to the discovery of material documenting some of the gnostic beliefs, the issues John mentioned have been confirmed to be historical.


This concludes the brief overview of what archaeology and history tell us about the apostolic epistles.

Grant Jeffrey sums up the historical findings: "The tremendous advances in historical research and biblical archaeology in the last century have convinced most scholars in the last two decades that the Gospels and Epistles were written within thirty-five years or less of the events which they describe ... In an article for Christianity Today, Jan. 18, 1963, W.F. Albright [the so-called dean of modern archaeology] wrote: 'In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and eighties of the first century A.D.'" (pp. 86-87).

In the next installment we will conclude this archaeological survey by covering the last book of the Bible, Revelation. GN

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