Today this trip concludes and we return to the States. We endure two security checks in Istanbul and then four more in Frankfurt before we land at Newark to go through U.S. Customs and Immigration. The Customs officials will screen our bags and ask us the same questions we have answered three or four times already today. If we bought anything of value while abroad, they will require us to pay a tariff. Then we’ll find our way to the plane for Cleveland and pass through one more security checkpoint in order to board the final flight home. My first reaction to all this was boredom and mild frustration—in the three hours between flights in Frankfurt, it took fully two hours to run the gauntlet from one plane to the other—and I found myself thinking that Paul would never have had to endure anything like this. Then I started to wonder if that was really true.

A contemporary Turkish pleasure yacht, about the size of an ancient fishing vessel

What was it like to get off one of those trading vessels at the harbor in Ephesus, Miletus, or Cenchrea? Merchants or tradespersons who were bringing goods to the market were interrogated and their goods inspected. They certainly had to pay a tariff, perhaps more than one. The Empire charged taxes, and the cities very likely did as well. Just for comparative purposes, think about the figures for today. In foreign countries like those of the European Union, on the other hand, the “Value Added Tax” (VAT) charged on goods and services runs at 18–20%. (“Value Added Tax,” eh? Really? One cynically wonders what kind of value a tax could add to anything….) At first glance one can see that the VAT is over twice our rate, at least 10% higher. However, the real differential between our tax and the VAT higher still: in Ohio, groceries, prescription drugs, and some other essential goods are exempt from the sales tax; the tax rate for services traditionally is about 2.5%, a third of the tax on goods; and the “usage tax” rate for Internet purchases is 5%. So Ohioans have sales taxes of 0­–8%, depending upon what you purchase, by what means, and in which county. My impression is that the tax rates in Paul’s day looked a lot more like the VAT than our sales tax. Imagine bringing your goods to market, and then standing there watching while some tax collector skimmed off a fifth of their value before you ever had a chance to sell a single item. No wonder the tax collector bore the status of persona non grata in the first-century Roman Empire.

borrowed from http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/plebians.html

A Plebian-class family in the first-century Roman world

Imagine further that you are one of the typical members of the Plebian class who earned a subsistence wage. One denarius was the average wage of a day laborer in Jesus’ time (hence the extravagance of the 300-denarii jar of oil with which the woman prophet anointed him; see Mark 14 & //). One denarius made the difference between survival and indigence (in contemporary terms, becoming a bag lady). One day’s wage minus this estimated tax rate is only 8/10 of a denarius; a prolonged pattern of such a shortfall means life on the streets (beggary or brigandage) or debt slavery. Alternately, a daily income of 1.2 denarii means surplus, the possibility of ever-so-gradually saving for the proverbial “rainy day,” thereby gaining financial and personal/familial/communal stability. Even better, as your income grows and you build your “nest egg,” this “regressive” tax on goods and services takes proportionally less of your income; it’s sting begins to fade from view.

Poverty tears the fabric of society, destabilizing families, neighborhoods, villages, and larger socio-economic structures; this can be seen in any age, including our own. Poorer neighborhoods have higher crime rates, poorer health, and lower educational achievement than do middle-class or wealthier ones. D’you ever wonder why Jesus ended up healing a lot of folks, especially poor ones? One of them was a woman “who had spent all of her resources on doctors” to no avail (Luke 8:43; note the footnote for this verse if your Bible does not include this phrase in the body of the text). Jesus is quoted as saying “the poor you will always have with you…” (Mark 14:7a). Some people read that as fatalism: there’s no point in doing anything about the economic disparities we see; but does it really make sense to think Jesus sent out his disciples to continue his healing ministry (Mark 6:7-13 & //; Luke 10:1-11) because he wanted his followers to do nothing about the poor? Perhaps instead he was commenting on the imbalanced socio-economic structures that, if left unchanged, will continue to create and intensify the disparities between the rich and the poor.

We know that the Roman Empire was marked by enormous economic disparities, with 10% of the population controlling 90% of the wealth, and the most affluent acquiring hundreds of times the annual income of the poorest persons. We don’t always recognize that the same statistics apply to the USA today, and the economic disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest have been growing wider and wider over the last several decades. Part of Jesus’ “economic recovery policy” was to heal those who were sick (the overwhelming majority of whom were of the Plebian class) and to feed those who were hungry (many of whom did not have the resources to buy their daily bread; viz. Mark 8:1-8). This has been part of the mission of Jesus’ disciples ever since. Another part of that mission, to a greater or lesser degree at different points in history, has been to work to change those socio-economic imbalances that cause and perpetuate poverty.

Unless you read Jesus’ remark as fatalistic, the New Testament as whole is consistent in teaching that the disciples of Jesus are to alleviate the causes and results of poverty. The last century of developments in the social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, political science) has given us new language to talk about the dynamics of poverty and a different set of tools to analyze the structures that cause and perpetuate it. Is a 20% sales tax the way to go? Do we put caps on interest rates for loans? Do we raise capital gains or estate tax rates, or do we eliminate them? Do we raise the minimum wage, or lower it for certain types of companies (e.g., start-up ventures)? Whatever we do, Christians have to remember that these questions require that economic considerations be evaluated within the context of the commitment to live as disciples of Jesus.

For millennia the poor mostly have gone without us. Instead, Jesus and the NT authors challenge us to live and stand with the poor.

Advertisements

Money Changers, Then & Now

3 February 2010

Today I spent two hours getting money changed from one currency to another. Only one bank had the facilities to make this particular exchange (the Central Bank of Turkey, sort of like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank), so the travel to and from the bank is what took the lion’s share of the time; the actual exchange took maybe seven minutes. Did Paul and the other early missionaries have to do this kind of thing? And would the ancient equivalent of the cabby try to “take them for a ride” and make money off the “tourists”? Probably “yes” is the correct answer to both these questions.

Excavations at Ephesus thus far have unearthed more than one agora (a “marketplace” or business district). Each of them is at least the size of JCU campus west of Belvoir. One appears to include a synagogue, so the best guess is that it was a Jewish market. There were public buildings in the government area, and various temples on the street that ran alongside it. Traditionally, temples served many of the purposes of modern banks. The wealthy could deposit funds or valuable objects there for safekeeping (sort of an ancient equivalent of our “safety deposit box”). Lenders deposited their debt instruments in the temples; one of the duties of the temple staff was to keep written records of who owed what to whom. Did the synagogues do the same? We don’t know (yet). The Temple in Jerusalem did, of course—which is why the first act of the revolutionaries in A.D. 66 was to wrest control of the Temple from the senior priests and destroy the debt records­—but it is difficult to imagine Diaspora Jews using the Temple for this purpose: it certainly would necessitate a long and arduous journey just to retrieve grandma’s jewels or silver for a dinner party.

As for exchanging money, Roman coinage probably was negotiable throughout the Empire, but many cities and regional governments also minted their own coinage. (The tetrarch, Herod Antipas is one example; follow this link to see an example of his coinage). Observant Jews, however, probably avoided using Roman money (e.g., viz. Jesus’ absence of money in Mark 12:15, and Seer John’s claims [Rev 13:17 &c.] that those who carry or use Roman coinage wear “the mark of the Beast”). Roman coinage bore images of the emperor, empress, and other “divinities,” as well as inscriptions proclaiming the divine status of the reigning emperor (e.g., Octavian is “Augustus/Sebaste” [“worthy of worship”], “Dominus et Deus “ [“Lord and God”], and “Divi Filius” [“Son of God”—i.e., son of the divinized Julius Caesar]. Claims such as these might be fine for polytheists, but they would not be acceptable to Jews. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem minted shekels with images of flora, but they abjured images of fauna or humans—and they certainly never claimed divine honors for a human being. Whatever the shopkeepers in Jerusalem took for negotiable currency, contributions to the Jewish Temple and purchases of sacrificial animals had to be made in shekels, not Roman (or Syrian, or Egyptian) coinage. Hence the importance of the “money changers” who are chastised in what Paula Fredericksen has labeled Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” (e.g., John 2:13-16; cf. Mark 11:15-17 & //). For Jews like Jesus, money posed a problem, not only because of its inequitable distribution, but even its very existence.

For Jesus’ early disciples, choosing which currency to use could be a matter of religious as well as economic importance. It is highly unlikely that shopkeepers in Ephesus or Antioch would take Jewish shekels. What’s a Jewish tentmaker to do? Seer John implies that the answer is to barter goods and avoid money altogether. Paul himself never explicitly answers this question, but his attitude toward foods sacrificed to pagan deities (e.g., 1 Cor 8) suggests that he would not have been troubled about using Roman money. Hence, Seer John would have no money to exchange, whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Paul, however, would most likely have had to make that exchange—for example, when he and the emissaries from the Gentile congregations brought their contributions to the community of disciples in Jerusalem (viz., e.g., 2 Cor 8).

Who knows whether or not Paul & Co. got a fair exchange rate from the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus’ chastisement have any long-term effect? Did it resonate in the memories of those who continued to provide that financial service? We’ll probably never know. However, if Acts is correct, Paul and his companions did get taken for a ride—although not from a cabby. The Jerusalem church “laundered” the money from the Gentile communities by applying it to the cost of the redemption sacrifice for some men who were concluding the period of their Nazirite vow (Acts 21:17-26; cf. Num 6:1-21). Instead of using the contribution as an opportunity to recognize the legitimacy of Paul’s gospel that the Gentile disciples should be accepted as full members of the Jesus-believing community, rather than as second-class citizens in a Jewish church, the funds were used to reinforce the continuing validity of the Mosaic law for all of the disciples of Messiah Jesus, not only those who were born and raised as Jews.

Today we visited Ephesus, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire during the New Testament period, surpassed in size only by Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt. The most extensive archaeological site in Turkey, excavation of the city began in 1895 and, barring interruptions due to the two world wars, has continued on a regular basis through today. Current work at Ephesus is headed by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in collaboration with the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna’s University of Technology, and (of course) the Turkish government.

Historically, there were four cities on or near this spot, which archaeologists denote simply Ephesus 1, 2, 3, and 4. The first two foundations predated the Hellenistic period, while the last derives from the Byzantine era; “Ephesus 3” was founded in the Hellenistic period and remained inhabited until perhaps the 11th century. This third Ephesus is the one under excavation. It is the city where Paul of Tarsus lived for 2½ years of while he was evangelizing this region, then called “Asia Minor.” Other evangelists and teachers of the early churches in that area included Prisca (a.k.a. Priscilla), Aquila, and Apollos, during Paul’s lifetime, as well as Seer John (the author of Revelation), Papias, and Polycarp during the next generation.

Ephesus is such an extensive site; I will focus on only a few highlights, including the Odeon, the Theater, and the hill houses. If you want to see pictures of many of the structures along the main street, see my slide show of First Century C.E. Ephesus at http://www.jcu.edu/Bible/BibleIntroReadings/PPTs/Ephesus.ppt.

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Picture this: as you walk into the city from west to east, the road slopes down toward the ancient harbor. This main road, called the Street of the Curetes, is about 50’ wide—somewhat wider than Miramar Avenue. Rather than an asphalt roadbed, however, this street is paved entirely in while marble. In the Roman period, this street was lined with decorative pillars on either side, forming a “colonnade.” Overhead was either a vaulted wooden roof or an awning of the type made by “tentmakers” like Paul of Tarsus. Whether on a cool rainy winter’s day or a hot summer one, this covered colonnade allowed travelers to traverse the city while protected from the sun and elements, creating an experience similar to that of a covered bazaar or a modern shopping mall. Today there are few columns and no awning; on a sunny day in July, the hot sun beating down on one’s head and reflecting upwards from the marble pavement makes one wish for a parasol, a cool bath, or a lovely Roman colonnade.

the Ephesian Odeon

The Ephesian Odeon

One of the first major structures you see on the right side of the road is the Roman bath, and nearby is the Odeon or music house. This one sparkles in the sun; not only the façade, but even the rows of seats are faced with white marble. The town council may have held its meetings here, debating issues of concern to the city and hearing high-profile legal cases. When the space was not being used for such business, several hundred townspeople could relax under its cool awning with while listening to musical performances, entertaining speeches, philosophical disquisitions, and even roving preachers spreading the word about a new foreign cult—like Paul or Apollos teaching about Messiah Jesus. On the left side of the road is the imperial “agora” or government center. Further down the road on the right-hand side, you come to a Temple in honor of the city’s patron deity, Artemis of the Ephesians. A series of upscale apartments on the left-hand side boast courtyards with colorful mosaic floors. Continuing down the hill, you find the public toilets, and eventually you come to a monumental gate that divides the upper city, with its temples and government offices, from the lower city, with its commercial agora (marketplace), shops and fountains and, by the second century A.D., the immense Library of Celsus, the third-largest library in the world at that time (behind those of Alexandria [in Egypt] and the neighboring Anatolian city of Pergamon).

Archway to Ephesian Temple

[to be continued…]

A Roman Spa

29 January 2010

Paul’s last stop in Asia Minor on his way to Jerusalem with the contributions he had collected from the Gentile churches (ca. A.D. 58; cf. Acts 20) was the ancient city of Miletus, founded in the fifth century B.C. In Paul’s time, this was a harbor town on a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea, but today it is about 6 miles inland. Silting from the Meander River gradually built up the area between two modest mountain ranges so that it created a plain where the harbor used to be. This area has received a lot of precipitation lately (some snow but mostly rain), so today the plain is pock-marked with numerous pools of standing water and one easily can envision this lowland covered by the sea—as it was 2000 years ago.

Miletus was a sizable town in the Roman period, although not a major metropolis. The excavations thus far have unearthed several public works that convey a sense of the size and significance of the town in Paul’s day. These include a theater that seated as many as 20,000 people—about the size of Cleveland’s “Q” arena; the beginning of the ten-mile-long processional way or via sacra leading to the Apollo Temple at Didyma (the second-most important site for the cult of Apollo in the ancient world, behind only Delphi in Greece); a huge nymphaion (fountain) and other buildings relating to the harbor; and a public bath complex that was constructed about 100 years after Paul’s time by Faustina, wife of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and daughter of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius. (Follow this link for a site diagram, or this one for a color version of the city plan.) The stadium, gymnasium, and many other important sites have yet to be excavated; in fact, probably about 90% of the city remains underground.

The Baths of Faustina represent one of the finer examples of this “genre” of public buildings. Similar to the contemporary American “fitness center,” Roman baths included facilities for various types of physical training and relaxation as well as opportunities to “network” with the kinds of people who might provide advantageous business connections. The center included six main areas: gymnasium, palaestra (which here is a nymphaeum), apoditarium, caldarium, tepidarium, and refrigerium. These last three areas were laid out in a U pattern.

  1. The gymnasium or athletic field—where one would receive training and compete in sports such as wrestling, boxing, vaulting, discus, and other track-and-field events—ran along one whole side of the building.
  2. The palaestra, an atrium or entrance area typically lined with statuary representing various local and imperial deities as well as city benefactors and native athletic stars, served as a lecture hall and space for discussion of philosophical and literary works.
  3. Passing through this palaestra, one next came to the apoditarium, the ancient version of a “locker room” lined with individual cubicles for undressing before entering the bath proper and then dressing again before leaving the baths. In Hollywood films that depict scenes in Roman baths, one always sees the customers swathed in bath sheets, but the literature of the period indicates that nudity was the norm in these interior parts of the baths. This room is probably where one could avail oneself of spa services such as massage and exfoliation before entering the sauna area or swimming pool. Whereas it is likely that the massage tables were stationary, for the most part it seems that one had to bring along the body servant to provide these services.
  4. The sauna or caldarium included a pool of hot water that served both as a hot tub and also helped create steam. The walls of the caldarium were hollow, forming a series of hypocausts or stone ductwork that conducted hot air from a wood furnace located either below the caldarium or in a small furnace room next door. Thus, the temperature of the sauna was controlled by a hot-air heating system similar to the gas forced-air heating systems that one finds in many homes today.
  5. Next to the caldarium was the tepidarium, the “lukewarm room.” The pool in this room was the proper temperature for customers who might want to swim, rather than simply to soak. Even if other parts of the baths were not highly decorated, the tepidarium often was filled with floor and wall mosaics and frescoes of various mythological scenes, images of water nymphs and deities, and other religious imagery. In this room, one could take advantage of the bath concessions to purchase food and drinks to be eaten while enjoying a relaxing conversation with one’s associates. The excavators of Faustina’s baths even found a menu listing the prices for various à la carte food and drink items, as well as an entire meal sold prix fixé.
  6. The last of the series of pools was located in the refrigerium, the “cold room,” so called because the water in this pool was cool rather than lukewarm or hot. Although the water was too cool for most swimmers, bathers would at least enter this pool briefly in order to close the pores opened by the hot steam in the caldarium and the other spa services. Especially in warm climes like Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean world, utilizing this pool last before leaving the baths helped one stay cool after dressing again in street clothes.

Among the rather unusual features of the Baths of Faustina are three that relate more to herself than to the building complex. First among these is the simple fact that she sponsored its construction, which means she had personal, discretionary control of substantial financial resources. Second is the fact that she alone is honored with the dedicatory inscription memorializing her largess; the gift is not connected with any of her male relatives. Thirdly, the accuracy of the dedication remains undisputed. While it is not nearly so common to find public works donated by women as by men, it is even less common to find scholars accepting those attributions rather than generating some alternative “explanation” that minimizes the woman’s contribution. Perhaps because Faustina was an empress, or perhaps because she is given no official titles relating to civic offices, her honor is upheld.

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

%d bloggers like this: