Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Vindolanda Bible Study
The name Onesimus emerges in First or Second Century records from Hadrian’s Wall as well as in Paul’s letter to Philemon, and apparently is quite a common name (particularly for a slave since it means ‘useful’ - so, perhaps, is something like calling someone ‘the help’). We visited the Wall on our way back from Scotland including these on-going excavation at Vindolanda which is where scraps of wooden notes inefficiently consigned to an administrative bonfire have been recovered and deciphered.
We saw some of the tablets ranging from an invitation to a birthday party to a report on how many soldiers were available for deployment on a specific day. I was sufficiently intrigued to buy the British Museum’s book about them which reproduces the most substantial and important. Another touching point with the biblical epistles was immediately apparent which is simply the way several letters finish with a few words in the sender’s own handwriting (and probably include on the birthday party invitation the earliest surviving female handwriting).
This much later building on the site is thought to have been a Christian church. In Philemon Paul (a Roman citizen) refers to Onesimus (a slave) as a brother, so I was particularly struck in the book to find writing from the same period in which Severus (a cornicularius - a sort of NCO) address Candidus (a slave) as brother. But now I’ve come home and explored the Oxford website for these texts, I find scholars there read things differently (isn't it always the way?) and reason exactly the other way around: ‘palaeographically, this reading could be defended - it is certain, however, that Candidus is a slave and we think it inconceivable that a cornicularius would address a slave with the word frater'.
Meanwhile a couple of miles away this Roman altar has been reused as a the font in the old church at Haydon where we stayed.