Book Review: Bruce Longenecker, In Stone and Story


Longenecker, Bruce W. In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Roman World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2020. 292 pp. Hb. $34.99.   Link to Baker Academic

Longenecker has already written on the importance of Pompeii for understanding early Christianity in his The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (Fortress, 2016, follow this link for an interview with Nijay Gupta on the topic of this book). Like his popular The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Second edition; Baker Academic 2016), this new volume presents historical data for the non-specialist. The book is richly illustrated with Longenecker’s own photographs from Pompeii, although photographs of realia is prohibited in the book. Unfortunately, the Superintendency of the Vesuvian towns prohibit reproduction of these photographs.

As he states in his introductory unit, this book is not a complete introduction to the archaeology of Pompeii, nor is it an introduction to early Christianity in the Roman world. Longenecker intends to provide a series of snapshots, or “up-close vignettes” to illustrate first century context and bring that context to bear on New Testament texts (p. 24).

Although the book is written for non-specialists, Longenecker is thoroughly aware of current scholarship on the Vesuvian towns and early Jesus devotion and cites this literature in an appendix. His goal is not to write an academic book on Pompeii or the development of early Christianity.

The book is divided into four parts: Protocols of engagement, popular devotion, social prominence, and household effectiveness. Each chapter introduces the reader to some aspect of Pompeiian culture followed by how it relates to the New Testament. Every chapter is richly illustrated with both photographs and citations of primary sources.

Protocols of Engagement serves as an introduction to the book. Longenecker begins with the observation historians access the Roman world through the study of classical literature and the study of archaeology. Although he occasionally refers to ancient literature, Longenecker’s focuses is on the archaeology of Pompeii and Herculaneum as a window into the actual life of the first century Roman world. Because Mount Vesuvius destroyed both in 79 CE, they are frozen in time. Both cities have been excavated and there is an extensive collection of graffiti, frescoes, and other real-world artifacts to illustrate life in a Roman city.

With a population of ten to twelve thousand, Pompeii is comparable to the city of Philippi. Herculaneum much smaller with no more that five thousand inhabitants. Although Christianity developed in much larger cities (Ephesus, Pergamum, for example), the unique archaeological situation at Pompeii and Herculaneum can illustrate other Greco-Roman urban centers. Peter Oakes has a similar method in his Reading Romans in Pompeii (Fortress 2013). After describing the archaeology of a set of houses with various social statuses in Pompeii, Oakes suggests how the residents of each home may have heard Romans differently because of their social status.

In part 2, Protocols of Popular Devotion Longenecker begins with two chapters on religion in the Roman world. For most people in the Roman world, there is never a sense that having a favorite deity required them to be exclusively devoted to that God. Pompeii was dedicated to Venus, but also had temples to Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, Juno, Minerva, and many more. The Christian gospel demanded exclusive devotion to Jesus, which challenged the Roman religious system. Similarly, sacrifices were made in all of these temples frequently. Yet the Christian gospel recite sacrificial practices. Longenecker introduces the reader to the early controversy of eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8-10).

Chapters 6-7 concern devotion to the empire. The Roman empire claimed they ushered in the present era of abundant peace and security, and they promoted this ideology in every Roman city through inscriptions and imperial statues. After several pages explaining the concept of genius and juno (the spirit of a man and woman), Longenecker observes the people of Pompeii were eager to worship the emperor’s genius since this worship would contribute to the heath of the empire. After the devastating earthquake of AD 62, temples for the imperial cult were the first to be rebuilt (p. 87). He then shows how dangerous a book like Revelation might have been since it declares the source of Rome’s power to be satanic (Rev 12:9).

Chapter 8 describes mysteries cults in Pompeii, primarily the worship of Dionysus at the Villa of the Mysteries. Isis cult is the main topic of chapter 9, “death and life.” In his Crosses of Pompeii, Longenecker describes Pompeii as suffering from “Egyptomania” (p. 108-15). He suggests the idea of resurrection central to the Isis cult may have led some Jesus-followers to think of Christian as a kind of mystery cult (p. 115). This may shed light on Paul’s discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Part 3 deals with Protocols of Social Prominence: Prominence and Character, Money and Influence, Literacies and Status, Combat and Courts, and Business and Success. Pursuit of honor was a primary cultural value for a Roman, as evidences by graffiti from Pompeii (p. 124). Romans demonstrated their wealth and political power through benefaction. Although there are examples of wealthy benefactors in the New Testament (Philemon, for example), Jesus-followers challenged these values. For example, James 2:1-6 turns the Roman social expectation of honoring the wealthy upside down. Jesus himself taught his disciples to not be like the Gentiles; leaders ought to be like one who serves (Luke 22:25-26). In addition, Longenecker points to Revelation 18 and John’s condemnation of economic greed of Roman merchants.

Part 4 deals with issues of real life, “Protocols of Household Effectiveness.” In each case, Early Jesus-followers were often at odds with the Roman ideal in each of these cultural areas. For example, the relationships within a Roman household differed greatly from the New Testament household codes (Eph 4-6; Col 3-4). Chapters 15 and 16 survey the relationships within the family, including the relationship of masters and slaves, including sex slavery. Longenecker shows how radical Paul’s teaching on masters and slaves would have been in Roman Pompeii.

Chapter 17 (Piety and Pragmatism) and 18 (Powers and Protection). These chapters discuss how a Roman family may have worshiped household gods to ensure safety and prosperity. Residents of Pompeii feared curses and took measures to ward off evil and the powerful influence of the dead (p. 231). Longenecker refers to the use of curse language and the evil eye in Galatians 3-5. I expected material on the apotropaic cross markings Longenecker described in Crosses of Pompeii as a likely use of Christian imagery for warding off evil.

Finally, this section concludes with a chapter on “Banqueting and the Dead,” a survey of burial practices in Pompeii, including memorial meals celebrated at family tombs. The chapter draws analogies to Paul’s view of death 1 Corinthians and the practice of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Jesus’s death. Longenecker suggests Paul’s perception of the Lord’s Supper as “a spiritual meal involving spiritual power was completely at home in the first-century” (249).

As an appendix to the book, Longenecker gives several “questions to consider” for chapters 4-19. These questions ask students to consider some portion of the New Testament in the light of the world described in the chapter. For example, after reading the chapter on money and influence, Longenecker asks what the Corinthian church may have thought about Paul’s request they support his collection for the poor (1 Cor 16:1-4). The final verse of 1 John is “keep yourself from idols.” In what ways might an enslaved Jesus-follower in a pagan household have wanted to know more about the practicalities of that instruction? Or consider a woman who became a Jesus follower after marrying into a pagan household reading “keep yourself from idols.”

There is actually very little on sexuality in Pompeii in the book which is surprising given the number of phalluses carved around the city (although there are a few examples on p. 232; see also Crosses of Pompeii, 132-33). In addition, there is an abundance of filthy graffiti from Pompeii cataloged. Perhaps the intended audience restricted this content.

Following short glossary of key terms is a section for “further reading.” Longenecker provides additional scholarly material on the city of Pompeii and its relevance for understanding early Christianity. He has an excellent bibliography of general studies of early Christianity in the Roman world. Following these general bibliographies are important studies on the topic of each chapter. Much of the material in these bibliographies will be difficult for the average reader to find, since most of these titles will require a visit to a university research library.

Conclusion. Anyone with an interest in how the Greco-Roman world illustrates the world of the New Testament will thoroughly enjoy reading this book. Despite targeting a popular audience, In Stone and Story would be an excellent choice for a New Testament backgrounds course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Longenecker summarizes the scholarship in the chapter’s topic and provides a wealth of supplemental reading for further research at the academic level.

NB: Thanks to Baker Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.