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Romans in reality

05 January 2010

Henry Wansbrough looks at Paul’s laity


Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s letter at ground level
Peter Oakes
SPCK £14.99 (978-0-281-05931-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

AN EARLIER book by Peter Oakes introduced the reader to the very ordinary Christians of Philippi, the recipients of one of Paul’s letters. Now he introduces us to a rag-tag-and-bobtail house church — or, rather, tenement church — in Rome, via such a group in Pompeii.

After several seasons of work at Pompeii, he uses detailed knowledge of houses and artefacts to construct a variety of non-élite personalities, ranging from the leader of the house church, a cabinet-maker, to two slaves, one a bath-stoker, the other a bar­maid (presumed, like all female slaves, to be sexually ex­ploited). By the end, the reader knows them like friends, and the tensions and worries through which they battle for survival.

The scene transfers to Rome, where higher prices would have made conditions even worse for these non-élite personalities than at Pompeii. Once we have got to know them, the author helps us to read Romans as they would have heard it, stressing how it (and especially Romans 12) undermines one after another of the accepted prejudices and assumptions of such a group: how the barmaid would have seen the constant reference to bodily experience; how the struggling stone-worker would have reacted to the encouragement to endurance; how the cabinet-maker would have read such a preoccupation with Jews — for the normal Gentile attitude to Judaism was at best a vaguely tolerant contempt; and how all of them would have been struck by the hope of justice and of resurrection from their stressful existence to a new life. They were heirs, children of God, free, entitled to some self-respect! Perhaps most striking and exciting of all, against the back­ground of Roman religion, would it have been for them to be addressed as “holy”.

One complicated statistical chapter is devoted to an excessively de­tailed reconstruction of the hypo­thetical community of this tene­ment church. The reading is also skewed by the absence of Jews from this Roman group. But we who nor­mally assume that the audience of Paul’s letters was a comfortable and leisured middle-class group of academics cannot fail to be gripped and enlightened by having our noses rubbed in the smells exper­i­enced by the Christian slaves of Pompeii.

Fr Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pope’s Biblical Commission.

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