Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The fragility of what we know

A fascinating, if brief post by Todd Bolen at his Bible Places blog
(, gave me a little light reading at the tail end of last week in the form of the report of the excavations at Qumran over the past decade. You can find it at

I'm no expert in this area but I reckon the feathers are going to fly over this in the coming months. What the archaeologists suggest in their well-written and beautifully illustrated report is that Qumran was not a religious community but (effectively) a pottery factory and that the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, long thought to be the library of the Qumran community, is in fact a collection of scrolls from many communities - synagogues and the like - deposited in the caves by people fleeing from the Roman advance in 70AD.

I'm not sure what it does to the 50 year-old Dead Sea scroll industry but it must raise some pretty fundamental questions about things that have been taken as 'gospel' in recent scholarship.

I for one will be watching the biblio-bloggers with renewed interest. Maybe I'll learn something!

Of course, one of the things it does remind us of is that our knowledge of the past - especially the ancient past - is very fragile. Huge superstructures are built on thin foundations. I am discovering this afresh as I explore what we know of the domestic circumstances of the early followers of Jesus and what those circumstances might tell us about what those early followers did when they gathered, who led them, who participated, what time of day they met, how often, what their neighbours thought was happening, etc, etc.

Does the archaeological record of places like Pompeii (very fashionable among NT people at the moment) and Rome, as well as cities in Turkey that have been partially or fully excavated, tell us reliable things we can build models on?

In particular, I've been reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, David Horrell, David Balch and Michele George over the past couple of days and finding out that there's still major disagreement on whether the early Christians met in the homes of those with a bit of money and who could therefore afford a domus-style home or in insulae (understood as apartment blocks rather than neighbourhoods) or workshops because they were all poor artisans (I simplify to make the point).

Where the early churches met has considerable implications for the mechanics of what they did. For example, if they met in a domus, did the host provide the meal they shared? If they met in a workshop was the Lord's supper a potluck meal created out of whatever the participants brought to share?

I'm also still wrestling with leadership language in the first christian century (roughly 40-140) and finding that the meaning of the words used depends on the context in which they were uttered. Bishop means one thing when we think of a cathedral and something else again when we think of gathering in a home.

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