BEN: Let’s talk about apotropaic symbols, symbols meant to either ward off evil spirits and bad luck, or to encourage good luck to happen at a particular venue, or for particular people. Christians will immediately think of the blood on the lintel in the Exodus, or even the hex signs on barns in Amish country, when they think of warding off bad things. To what degree do you think devout Christians continued to carry forward such practices as they became more and more socialized into the new faith, and to what degree do you think they began to see this as superstition? Think for example about the discussion in Corinth about what would formerly have been seen as actual daemons, but now some were saying— ‘are no gods’. Would you say that Jewish believers were less likely than Gentile ones to continue to practice such superstitions when they became followers of Jesus…. Or do we have little basis for judging such a matter?
There may have been an array of attitudes toward the use of protective devises among Christians. But one thing is pretty certain: as ancient artifacts and literary evidence testify, it was not uncommon for Christians throughout the pre-modern eras to make use of Christian symbols as apotropaic devices that enhanced their protection against evil spirits.
For instance, I own a Christian ring from the fourth or fifth century that displays the shape of the cross through the use of the ubiquitous “eye” that repels the evil eye (with the evil eye being understood as tapping into the power of evil spirits to disadvantage someone for the benefit of someone else). Was the owner of that protective ring an exception to the norm of Christian attitudes toward apotropaia? I don’t know if we can be sure of the percentages one way or another, but I doubt it.
Notice, though, that we cannot gauge the exclusivity of someone’s Christian devotion simply on the basis of whether he or she made use of Christian symbols as apotropaic devices against evil. It might be that a person of that kind was syncretistic, adding Jesus-devotion to a long list of commitments to various deities.
On the other hand, maybe not. That person might have been exclusively devoted to Jesus Christ and might have foresworn all other deities, while still making use of protective apotropaia.
In this regard, ancient forms of Judeo-Christian monotheism did not entail the denial of the existence of all superhuman forces except for the one God. Ancient Judeo-Christian “monotheism” was not the affirmation that only one suprahuman being exists (as we moderns frequently imagine); instead, ancient Judeo-Christian monotheism was primarily the practice of mono-devotion – that is, devotion to only one deity, even if there were thought to be other suprahuman entities.
Take the apostle Paul, for instance. When discussing idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul commented that “there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth, as in fact there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor 8:5), and later he states that he does not want the Corinthians to be “partners with demons” (1 Cor 10:20). The suprahuman world was alive and well for Paul. But he also insisted that “for us there is one God” (8:6). His practice of mono-devotion did not rule out the existence of other suprahuman entities. Of course, I don’t imagine that Paul himself clung to apotropaic devices for protection from those suprahuman entities; but it would not be hard to imagine that newly converted Christians, who had been immersed in pagan ways all their days, may have connected the dots differently than Paul did.
We can’t rule that out even for Jews of the Greco-Roman world who placed their belief in Jesus Christ. Jews often made use of apotropaic symbols along with their pagan neighbors, so again we see that monotheism itself doesn’t rule out the use of apotropaia. An ancient Christian, whether Jewish or gentile, might well have been exclusive in his or her devotion to Jesus Christ and still have seen the need to use Christian symbols to ward off evil.
BEN: On p. 194 you discuss the little white stones between the main paving stones in the streets at Pompeii. My guides have always said these stone reflected the light at night that a traveler would be carrying so they would not stumble and fall, rather like reflective materials on our highways. You don’t mention this theory. What do you think of it?
Well, I’m a bit dubious about that. Those quarter-sized white marble inserts spaced between paving stones had no real reflective quality to speak of, and probably couldn’t act like little mirrors, which wouldn’t really have augmented the light from lanterns anyway. And the inserts appear only in a very specific location of the town, on a very small stretch of road between the entrance to the temple of Venus and the entrance to the temple of Apollo. If they were precursors to the street light, we would expect white marble inserts to have been placed in the streets throughout the town. But we don’t. So I don’t think the “light reflectors” interpretation has merit. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.
And of course, it should be pointed out to your readers that this issue has really no bearing on the main argument of the book – in case they were wondering how this little issue pertains to the issue of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii.