Jeff Sessions provoked an almighty uproar last week by citing nothing less than Apostle Paul’s "Epistle to the Romans" in support of American immigration law. The U.S. attorney general's reference to the sixth New Testament book raised hackles among theologians and historians alike, who noted that such use of Romans 13 has been made by the likes of the Nazis, supporters of apartheid in South Africa and slave owners in the United States itself.
But leave it to archaeology in Israel to show that the first recorded misuse of this guideline for government interaction goes back much farther back than that, apparently as much as 1,500 years ago, to a government agency operating in the Byzantine Christian city of Caesarea between the 4th and 7th centuries CE.
Live in fear
Caesarea, founded by the Jewish vassal king Herod the Great in the 1st century B.C.E. was to become one of the most important Christian cities in the ancient world, having earned its New Testament bona fides as the backdrop of some dramatic incidents involving both Paul and before him, Peter. The early Christian Church father Origen (185–254) taught there for over two decades; the huge library he built in Caesarea was a source of Christian wisdom and practice throughout the Byzantine world.
Jerusalem had all the most important holy sites, of course. But the vibrant, cosmopolitan port city of Caesarea was the center of a vast Roman, and later Byzantine, civil administration.
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Just off one of the Byzantine city’s main streets – which visitors to Caesarea National Park can still stroll down today – was a large complex featuring inscribed mosaic floors, measuring about 65 x 55 meters, almost an entire Byzantine city block. It served as Caesarea’s Roman government center, or Praetorium, and contained the governor’s residence, a court of law, and the tax revenue office.
It was here, apparently for the first time in history, rulers placed a verse in stone from Romans 13, to keep their subjects in line. It’s verse 3, which reads: “Do you wish to fear authority? Do what is good.”
Hebrew University Professor Emeritus Joseph Patrich, who directed the excavations at Caesarea from 1993 to 1998 and again in 2000 and 2001, chuckles at the suggestion of a connection between the book of Romans and a current humanitarian and political crisis half a world away. “I don’t know about a modern connection,” Patrich told Haaretz, but the room where the inscription was found was “clearly part of the Byzantine bureaucracy.”
Patrich, whose comprehensive book on Caesarea’s history and archaeology has just been published in English, says that as far as he knows, this is the oldest use discovered so far of this verse in mosaic. The oldest misuse, that is.
Blessings on Mousonious the accountant
That inscription, which dates to the 6th century C.E., must have been particularly significant to the bureaucrats, because it appears on the floors of two different rooms in two different versions.
One, the abridged version, was discovered by the archaeologist Avraham Negev in 1960. The longer second version was discovered along with other inscriptions with the rest of the complex by the Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima, directed by Robert Bull, from 1971 to 1987.
The mosaics were in were waiting rooms that flanked the main entrance to the revenue offices.
The shorter version suffices with the bare bones of the advice to do the right thing when it comes to the government. The longer inscription contains the rest of the verse as it appears in the New Testament: “do good and you will have praise from it.”
The evidence linking the complex to Byzantine financial administration includes two other inscriptions in nearby chambers seeking blessings on the endeavors of the men who worked in the skrinion. That was the Greek term for the provincial revenue office, which was run sometime in the 6th century by a man named Marinos, as we know from his title in the mosaic, “the master,” with the help of his officials, Ampelios, keeper of the archives, and Mousonious, the accountant. For good measure, blessings are called down on all the other clerks as well.
In renovations to the later phase of the building, to which the inscriptions belong, benches were added in the waiting rooms to accommodate large numbers of people indoors, out of the hot Mediterranean sun.
Whose idea was it to pick that particular verse from Romans for the floors of rooms where taxpayers awaited their fateful audit? They were probably nervously staring at the floor anyhow to avoid each other’s eyes, wondering if a single visit (perhaps to Mousonious the accountant?) would suffice or if they might find themselves in the moving on to the law court in the complex, facing a higher official.
Perhaps it was Marinos, the skrinion’s boss, who suggested it as part of the renovations. Or more likely, Patrich thinks, it was his boss, the unnamed Byzantine governor.
The Samaritan connection
By the way, Patrich says Marinos is a name associated with the Samaritan community, many of whom had converted to Christianity by that time.
Marinos may have taken on the dominant faith as the best way to rise up through the ranks, Patrich suggests.
Be that as it may, those officials must have thought they knew what they were doing in using a convenient Christian sacred verse to tell people, prior to one of their most vulnerable intersections with the powers that be, to obey their rulers – or else.
But they got it wrong, just as Sessions did: The manipulative use of Paul's exhortation, in Caesarea of yore and by vague reference in Washington now, was an abuse of the apostle's original intention, say scholars.
Rev. David Simmons, an Episcopalian priest from Wisconsin whose tweet against Session’s use of Paul’s epistle went viral, told Haaretz’s Dina Kraft recently that Paul’s advice to “be subject to the governing authorities” was meant for Christians who were living under pagan domination and persecution. He was, in other words, urging them to keep a low profile in order to survive.
Paul never meant to call for blanket, blind obedience to authorities. But taken out of context, his words seems to have a power all itstheir own.
Ironically, by the time taxpayers were presenting themselves in the revenue office of Caesarea, the governing authorities were not pagans oppressing Christians and trying to wipe out their faith any more. They were fellow Christians.