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Book Notice: Reading Romans in Pompeii

Book Notice: Reading Romans in Pompeii October 17, 2013

Peter Oakes
Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level
London: SPCK, 2009.
Available at Amazon.com

As I began writing my Romans commentary (SOGBC), I decided that I would read two books while I was doing it. First, Peter Lampe’s magisterial From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, and second, Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii.

Oakes looks at archaeological evidence in Pompeii based around a cluster of apartments and proceeds to use it as a model for imagining Christian life in Rome. Oakes is fully aware that Rome is not Pompeii, but it does provide a good way of imagining life in the social situation of first-century Christians.

The book contains a survey of pertinent archaeological data, sociological modelling, and a reading of Romans in light of them. Oakes claims that most Christians were non-elite, therefore, “A key argument of the present book is that scholars have generally been looking at the wrong houses when looking for types of house in which a typical early Christian group would have met. The elite were a tiny percentage of society. They must have formed an even lower percentage of house-church members” (70).

Probably the highlight of the book is chapter 4 on Romans 12 where Oakes looks at how Paul’s exhortation would resonate with a group of about thirty non-elite Gentiles who gather for Christian meetings in a workshop or apartment in the Transtiberium. On Rom 12:10 “Paul’s call [to out do each other in giving honour] implies give each person honour individually, rather than all honour just being rolled up into the householder’s honour. It implies the slave-owners giving honour to their slaves. In first-century terms this is outrageous” (110). On Rom 12:11 about eagerness to work: “Having lifted them all up to seats at a convivial gathering, Paul pushes them all firmly down into the world of hard work and service. All are of high status in God’s eyes. All need to serve” (112).

Whereas many scholars try to read Romans through the lens of an “ideal reader,” who has a near encyclopedia knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint, Oakes is arguing for what I would call “fictitious real readers.” By that I mean, a hypothetical group of real persons located in the social situation of the addressees. Peter Bolt does something similar in his dissertation Jesus’ Defeat of Death: Persuading Mark’s Early Readers, which I recommend as well. It is simply asking the question: how would readers hear the text and how might it resonate with them? It is a mixture of narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, and historical-criticism. If meaning is located in the “fusion” of author, text, and reader, then we need to bring in the readers (implied, ideal, fictitious real, and reception-history) into the mix.

All in all, a very informative, stimulating, and learned book which is worth getting hold of if you are interested in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

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