Interview: Bruce W. Longenecker on Pompeii (Gupta)

Interview: Bruce W. Longenecker on Pompeii (Gupta) June 2, 2016

BWLDr. Bruce W. Longenecker is professor of early Christianity and W.W. Melton Chair of Religion at Baylor University. (I am proud to say Longenecker is a fellow grad of Durham!)

Recently Longenecker published the fascinating book, The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (Fortress, 2016). I got the book immediately when it was released and devoured it in a matter of days – it is gripping archaeological and historical research! Longenecker agreed to be interviewed about his book on Pompeii; first, you can read the basic description. If the topic interests you, take my advice and read it. You won’t be disappointed!

Through a twist of fate, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE also preserved a wealth of evidence about the town, buried for centuries in volcanic ash. Since the town’s excavations in the eighteenth century, archaeologists have disputed the evidence that might attest the presence of Christians in Pompeii before the eruption.

Now, Bruce W. Longenecker reviews that evidence, in comparison with other possible evidence of first-century Christian presence elsewhere, and reaches the conclusion that there were indeed Christians living in the doomed town. Illustrated with maps, charts, photographs, and line drawings depicting artifacts from the town, The Crosses of Pompeii presents an elegant case for their presence. Longenecker’s arguments require dramatic changes to our understanding of the early history of Christianity.


NKG: Your latest research took you to Pompeii. Can you tell us a little about how you became interested in the proof and possibility of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii?

BWLBWL:  The historian in me became more and more enthralled with the fact that two first-century towns (Pompeii and Herculaneum) were, in a sense, right on our doorstep today. I began to see how peculiar it was that I had never come to terms with those towns in my research as a first-century historian. So after finishing my 2010 book Remember the Poor (on Christianity and the economic structures of the Greco-Roman world), it made sense to dig into these towns in order to sharpen my scholarly agenda even further.

When I began doing that, I had absolutely no intention of undertaking the case for Jesus-devotion in those towns. At first, I accepted the consensus view that there is no evidence of a Christian presence in Pompeii – even though the argumentation supporting that conclusion seemed a bit weak whenever I came across it. I just assumed there must be a really good reason for the conclusion, even though the reasons actually offered here or there were not very good. But as I read more and more, I came to realize that the one really good reason in support of the consensus view simply wasn’t there. The assumptions supporting the consensus might have carried weight when they were articulated in the nineteenth century, say, but those assumptions have very little force today. I began to see not only how weak the current consensus is but how it needed to be challenged – in order to assist the process of exploring the first-century world and, moreover, the place of the emerging Jesus-movement within its Greco-Roman context.

NKG: You endeavor in this book to “bust” a couple of myths that go on in not only Pompeiian scholarship, but also the study of earliest Christianity. Can you describe these myths, why scholars believe them, and briefly what evidence led you to seek to debunk them? 

The big myth that needed to be busted is one that has hung over the data as, itself, a long-standing consensus. It is the assumption that Christians never depicted the cross of Jesus Christ in visual media until Constantine legitimated Christianity in the early fourth century; only then did the cross start to appear in material realia as a sign of Christian devotion. Before that (the argument goes), Christian fear of persecution and sensitivity to social ostracism left them with a deep aversion to displays of the cross as a visual symbol of their devotion.

The short story is that this just isn’t true. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the cross was the preeminent symbol of Christian devotion everywhere and always. But at times, in certain situations, Christians did think it important to embed crosses in ancient visual media, even long before Constantine (as I seek to show in The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol [2015]).

Consequently, when artifacts in Pompeii depict the shape of a cross, and when those artifacts seem to have served a symbolic rather than a functional purpose, historians need to consider whether that symbol might reflect the presence of Jesus-devotion. The consensus view is that we have no artifacts to demonstrate Jesus-followers in Pompeii, but that view is supported by unfounded assumptions that have been used to arrive at the consensus view illegitimately. By clearing the deck of these unmerited assumptions (about five of them), I was able to open up fresh analysis of cross-shaped artifacts from Pompeii and to apply a process of elimination to test possible explanations of those artifacts. In my view, the most plausible explanation (or perhaps, the least implausible explanation) is that those artifacts stem from Jesus-devotion present in Pompeii prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. This was the task of The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town.


NKG: If nearly twenty crosses appear in two neighborhoods in Pompeii and are even visible today in the remains, why have they been so ignored or downplayed?

BWL: This is just one of those curious things. It hasn’t helped that these visible crosses are relatively small (about two inches or so in size), and appear in stone without having been incised very deeply. So even though they are visible, they are also relatively hard to see. They are more visible at certain times of the day, when the sun shines from a particular direction and hits them at an angle that best brings them out.

As I point out in the book, to my knowledge only one of these crosses in the stone has ever been discussed, and that was back in 1895, when one archaeologist noted one of them, saying it was an ancient stone mason’s mark (which doesn’t work as an interpretation, once all the incised crosses are considered in their systematic relationships). I have had casual conversations about these cross marks with some preeminent archaeologists and historians, and none of them has ever seen them. I even spoke with a surveyor, when I was there in December 2015, who had placed his survey tripod less than six inches away from one of them. When I asked him what he thought it was, he said he had never seen it. But once he inspected it, he said it was a mark from the Roman world. It’s just a little example of how these crosses just haven’t been on people’s radar.

One thing is clear, however. These ancient crosses were incised into Pompeian stone in a systematic way. In the book, I entertained various options as to what they might be. As far as I can see, the only option that makes sense of all of their qualities is that they are crosses left by Jesus-devotees – probably the same ones who were mentioned in a charcoal graffito within a Pompeii inn.


NKG: Most Biblical scholars ply their trade with noses in books. You, on the other hand, made frequent trips to Italy and walked streets and examined walls with a magnifying glass and camera. What was it like to do such a different kind of academic work, almost operating like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes!

At times it was absolutely exhilarating – especially the first time I found a cross that had never been registered in the archaeological record (the first of about a dozen and a half of them). Just as exhilarating was when I said to myself, “If this turns out to be a Christian cross, and if I understand its function correctly, there might also be another one at location X” – and sure enough, another cross of exactly the same kind was in precisely that expected position. Then, knowing what to look for, further crosses just kept presenting themselves! I kept emailing a friend, “I found another one.” I began to doubt my own sanity. But sure enough, they’re there.

I didn’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions before testing the results, however. So when tourists asked what the cross shape was that I had highlighted with water from my water bottle (in order to bring out its shape more clearly for photographs), I erred on the side of caution, saying, “It’s just a survey mark from a nineteenth century surveyor.” Instead, it turns out that I was taking a registry of symbols from the first-century world that had never before been recognized as part of the ancient material record.


NKG: You paint a picture at the end of your book of what it would have been like to be a Jesus-devotee in Pompeii in the first century; just give us a taste here. What might Jesus-devotion have looked like in Pompeii?

BWL: The town of 10,000 people was rebuilding itself in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated the region in 62 or 63. Seneca tells us a lot about the town as a consequence of that tragedy. The people were shaken to their psychological core; the foundations of their world were unstable. The things they took for granted had proved unreliable. Their devotion to the deities needed to be reenergized.

Beyond Seneca, we know that the cult of Isis was extremely popular in Pompeii in the aftermath of the earthquake. The Egyptian deity Isis promised her devotees a life of enhancement both in the present and beyond death itself. We also know from graffiti around the town that the people of Pompeii put great hope in the fact that one of their own had become the emperor’s wife – Poppaea Sabina, whom Nero married in 62. No doubt she would bring good things to enhance their town. But their hopes for special favors were dashed when she died in the imperial palace only three years later (in 65), with Nero being suspected of causing her death one way or another.

Meanwhile, Nero had begun persecuting Christians in Rome, blaming them for the fire of Rome in July 64. Importantly, Tacitus tells us that Nero’s efforts to scapegoat Christians backfired. The undeserved tortures that Christians underwent stirred up a sympathetic compassion for them – and this was probably happening precisely in the final decade of Pompeii’s life (and at precisely the time when we can date Christian artifacts to that town). Perhaps some Pompeians could see parallels in the undeserved fates of both their beloved Poppaea Sabina and Christians.

It was in this kind of a context (i.e., some psychological angst, some devastated hopes, and some compassion for Christians) that Jesus-devotion begins to appear within the archaeological record (from about 68 onwards).

We can’t put too fine a point on those findings, but a few things emerge from the artifacts. Jesus-devotees seem to have been attracted to Christianity as a form of protection against the spiritual forces that they (like their peers) imagined to course through the streets of their town – a fear commonly testified to by the archaeological remains and by literary sources. Their resurrected deity, who himself had overcome the forces of evil, promised his devotees enhanced life in the present and beyond. If Isis-devotees held similar expectations of their deity, so too did Jesus-devotees. At least one Jesus-devotee seems to have fashioned the cross of Jesus in imitation of the Egyptian Ankh, a symbol of life commonly used in Isis-devotion.

Jesus-devotees may have met in a few locations, at least one of which was a bakery, where Jesus-devotion seems to have been based from the late 60s to the eruption in 79. Jesus-followers included some slaves (at least one of which seems to have been a managerial slave) and probably some freed or free persons. Their economic profiles ranged from the economically vulnerable to the relatively secure. There might have been a Jewish element to it all, but we can’t be sure about that. There might have been different degrees of devotion to Jesus, or different views about whether such devotion needed to be exclusive – again, we simply can’t be too sure. But some of their surviving artifacts suggest that they sought to bring spiritual protection to the neighborhoods in which they were embedded, doing good to those around them.

NKG: Are you putting Pompeii behind you now, or are you planning further research and publication on this subject?

BWL: Pompeii is like a dangerous drug. You try a little, and it’s kind of cool, so you do more and more. Pretty soon, you’re in its clutches. I don’t imagine I have the strength to go cold turkey against its enticements.

With regard to further research and publications, I still have a few things up my sleeve. But all in good time, I imagine. In the meantime, my air miles will probably continue to clock up for the foreseeable future.

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