Archaeology Brings Us Closer to John’s Context

It has been assumed for years by leading NT scholars that the oldest archaeological artifacts that can be traced back to early Christians were produced after AD 180 [Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, rev. ed. 2003].  Therefore, many do not know that it is time to abandon that earlier assumption in light of relatively recent discoveries in Asia Minor.  Now there is earlier evidence, earlier by two generations than was previously thought, and this new material culture pertains to one of the seven congregations to whom John wrote.  Equally significant, this archaeological material reflects some of the facets of the Johannine practice of numerology.  Any one of these three aspects about this new artifact, its date, its location, or its numerology, would justify posting this evidence, but the combination of all three of these relating to the book of Revelation is extremely noteworthy.

The evidence comes from the area of graffiti excavated by archaeologists working in early Roman Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), and the evidence is dated no later than AD 125.  Prof. Roger Bagnall, former professor of classics and history at Columbia University and now Director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University, reported these findings recently in his important work Everyday Writing in the Græco-Roman East [Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press; Reprint edition 2012].

Bagnall reports that there are graffiti found in layers of plaster in the Roman basilica in Smyrna, and one of these layers of plaster can be dated precisely to AD 125, using a Roman era date contained in the plaster.  The layer dated AD 125 is the “uppermost layer of plaster” and it “follows that the earlier layer or layers of plaster, and the inscriptions on them, must date before 125.”

Basilica in Roman Smyrna
Basilica in Roman Smyrna, Ian W. Scott

In the plaster pre-dating AD 125 Bagnall mentions “a most remarkable graffito” which “can only indicate a Christian character.”

Before reproducing the information given by Prof. Bagnall, some might need a brief refresher course in the Graeco-Roman technique of numerology known as isopsephism, since it is impossible to understand this graffito without this.  Even if you are conversant with the details of biblical numerology, you might have slept through the lecture and demonstration about isopsephism in seminary.  The term isopsephism comes from the Greek word ἰσόψηφα [=isopsephism] which means “of equal numerical value.”  The presupposition for isopsephism to work and have meaning is the fact that “each letter of the original Greek alphabet . . . serves also as a numeral,” (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World, 2007, p. 205) thereby making it possible to assign a numerical value to words as also happens in gematria.  Isopsephism is a technique where two words, or a word and a phrase, or a word and a letter of the alphabet had the same numerical value.  Thus, to give one example, the Greek word “Amen” [=ἀμήν] has the numerical value of 99 [ἀ=1; μ=40; ή=8; ν=50].  According, we have early Christian documents which end with the term “Amen” given in its numerical amount, 99.  Now we can appreciate the meaning and significance of this new discovery that brings the modern interpreter of Revelation closer to the world of John and his congregations.

Discovered at Smyrna was the following Greek wording:

ἰσόψηφα                         “Of equal value”

κύριοϲ     ω                       “Lord     800”

πίστιϲ     ω                        “Faith     800”

Putting this in the context of ancient Smyrna and its community of believers, we see an artifact standing chronologically between John’s admonition to the congregation at Smyrna that, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested” (Rev. 2:10) and the brutal martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of the congregation in Smyrna (ca. AD 155).  If the church in Smyrna continued to experience suffering in the time between John and Polycarp, it would be difficult to imagine two other words more important to a suffering congregation than the words “Lord” and “faith.”

The close correlation of these two pregnant theological terms through the technique of isopsephism clearly shows the outlook of the believer who scrawled this isopsephism because of his or her association of them.  Contrary to what many scholars affirm, I have yet to be persuaded that this use of numbers is all about “secret code” coming from a persecuted and marginalized sect.  Rather isopsephism here is a technique for the association of beliefs, ideas, values, etc that stand in an essential relationship to each other and whose fuller meaning is manifested through this association.

In the next post, deo volente, I will give some more historical evidence about modern misconceptions about the use of numbers by those early Christian believers, especially “secret code” interpretations.

4 thoughts on “Archaeology Brings Us Closer to John’s Context

    1. Bruce,

      I hope that will be part of my next post. Till then, they are siblings, so to speak. Sometimes the difference is in emphasis or point of author. Both require alphabet=numbers.

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