BEN: Bruce you’ve now written two books The Cross before Constantine (Fortress, 2015) and The Crosses of Pompeii (Fortress, 2016) about the early Christian use of the cross symbol. What prompted your extensive interest in this particular subject?
Having written a book on “Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World” (the subtitle of my book Remember the Poor from 2010), the historian in me wanted to press further into the first-century world in order to expand my reach regarding the character of early Christianity in its Greco-Roman context. In that regard, first-century towns preserved in volcanic ash offered context-specific clarity that outstripped any other archaeological site from the first-century world. So before too long, I was reading everything on Pompeii and Herculaneum that I could get my hands on. It became infectious, and fun!
There was one thing I noticed early on, however. A consensus had emerged that maintained that certain artifacts from Pompeii were not Christian artifacts, even if they may look to our eyes like Christian crosses. That made complete sense as a conclusion, but the arguments that were usually used to support the conclusion were extremely fragile. Assumptions that made sense in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century are no longer valid today, but the conclusion that certain artifacts couldn’t be Christian artifacts were ultimately based on precisely those fragile assumptions.
So to answer your question, it took me two books in order to expose those threadbare assumptions and to present the alternative case. First, it took a whole book to expose one of the main pillars in the consensus about Pompeii – that is, the assumption (actually, another consensus) that the cross was never embedded in material realia prior to the Constantinian revolution in the early fourth century. Busting that myth was the role of The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol.
Second, it took a whole book to expose the illegitimate assumptions that supported the consensus regarding the lack of evidence of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii. Busting that myth was the role of The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town.
BEN: In order to write a book like The Crosses of Pompeii, you have to be one part detective, one part linguist (including knowing some Italian and lots of Latin, not to mention Greek), one part epigrapher, one part social historian, one part exegete and theologian, to mention only some of the competencies required to do a study like this. I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming from various of your previous books. When did you find time to so diversify your portfolio of skills, so to speak?
Researching The Crosses of Pompeii was a really exhilarating experience, precisely for this reason. Virtually every dimension of my training throughout the years was called upon at one time or another in the process, and each was required to work together with the others if the product was to be successful. I simply couldn’t have written this book earlier in my career. Some of the things that were required for researching previous books (especially Remember the Poor, but also The Triumph of Abraham’s God, or The Lost Letters of Pergamum, or Eschatology and the Covenant) came into play here. But there’s no doubt that this project put those resources on steroids. That was part of the stimulation of the project – it took me beyond places I had been before. And it took me beyond where other historians have ever been – what a rush!
When did I find the time? Well, I read up on Pompeii and Herculaneum in any spare moment. I offered courses on the relevance of those towns for the study of early Christianity. And I visited the towns five times in three years. It was a really fertile research period.