Category Archives: Proposal

Pulling in Text

From William Stearns Davis, ed. Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. II: Rome and the West, p. 289. Accessed 05/23/2017 through Paul Halsall, The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University 1998, <http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/250sacrificecert.asp>. Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods 250CE:

To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander’s Island:

From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander’s Island, aged 72 years: —scar on his right eyebrow.

I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell.

—–Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes.

—–I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated].

Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]

This text is from a papyrus found in Oxyrhyncus, Egypt. It is an example of a certificate of sacrifice, or libellus, which was a legal document proving the carrier observed Roman religious traditions. These libelli are the physical witnesses to Decius’ 250 persecution of Christians and other non-conforming peoples. They demonstrate the rigor with which Decius enforced his decree, but also that Christians were not the only group targeted by this program.

At this early stage of project development, I imagine showing this text, along with other examples of libelli, to demonstrate the Roman empire’s view of Christians in the 3rd century and how they acted upon those views. I would like to pair these documents with Pliny’s letter to Trajan, about 100 years earlier (in which Pliny isn’t sure how to deal with Christians), to prompt the question: “How did Romans’ attitude towards Christians change? How did it stay the same?” As intermediate questions to answer, “Why were Christians a concern at all?”

Thinking with Images

I have been asked to select an image which I might work with in my final project. My mind immediately leapt to a graffito from the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the Alexamenos Graffito, or graffito blasfemo (blasphemous graffiti):

The image, scratched into a plaster wall, depicts a man standing below a crucified person with a donkey’s head attended by the description “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” Modern Christian viewers  correctly identify this image as a jest against a Christian. This image, however, is much more complex than simply calling Jesus an ass, and implying that Alexamenos is a fool.

The same symbol which renders the image recognizable is the same that leads to misinterpretation: the cross. Today, the cross is the universal ubiquitous symbol of Christianity. This was not so in third century Rome when this image was produced.

In Roman culture, the cross was immediately recognizable as a symbol of criminal  otherness. Only non-Romans were crucified, so by virtue of this alone the artist is making claims about the person of Jesus- he was not a Roman, therefore not authoritative. The artist was not content to let the cross alone speak to this characterization and drew in the horse’s head, the connotation of which persists. Crucifixion was also reserved for severe crimes, such as being a traitor. This artist communicates that Jesus was not a Roman, and also a most deplorable criminal. It would be akin to symbolizing a modern day advocate for peace with a noose.

Selecting an Audience

As I learned last semester, selecting and catering to the needs of an audience is, I think, the most important part of creating a successful product. I want to create a lesson about how early Christians resisted the Decian Persecution. Now I have to think- who would be interested in this subject?

My audience of last semester, Sunday School teachers and retirees, are probably not the ideal audience. The content of this lesson isn’t appropriate for children, nor leads them towards the goal of understanding their faith tradition. Retirees might find it interesting, but from my experience these people want to  find fun, interesting fact, rather than harsh realities.

In light of this, I think my primary audience is hypothetical students in a  Early Christian History college course.  These courses are typically surveys, which would benefit from an exercise in reading primary sources. Additionally, these course tend to be very text heavy, and rely on old clunky translations that make the content difficult to access. College students come with a preexisting set of technology skills that will help them understand my material.

A secondary audience would be Christians in the general public. The idea of Christianity as an oppressed religion in modern America is currently popular among fundamentalist Christians. I hope that the topic will draw them to the site, but that the content will leave them questioning their experience of so-called oppression when confronted with evidence of violent persecution and resistance. I do not, however, intend to cater to this audience. I think their preexisting prejudices are far too ingrained for this project to confront.

Exploring Christians Online

At this point in the semester I’m leaning towards leading students through the question: “How did Christians resist oppression?” I think it can be narrowed down through preliminary research and I already have a corpus of documents and objects to present to the audience. I’m thinking a better formulated question is, “How did Christians resist oppression during the Decian Persecution.”
I think the digital environment will be an essential part of exploring this question. With a compendium of documents, Christian resistance seems like a letter writing campaign. Digital tools will allow me to show that the persecution was more than a flurry of strongly worded letters between gentlemen of differing opinion. It will also allow me to dispel the myth on the other side of the spectrum that masses of Christians were dragged out of their homes by the hair and tossed to the lions. A Digital space allows for a more generous exploration of archaeological material. Images don’t do objects much justice, even with scale bars next to them. I would love to incorporate 3D models and printer files into this project. By showing the graffiti, wall paintings, oil lamps and other objects in more tactile ways, I think students will be able to “read” them better.
The digital landscape also allows for documents and objects to be literally linked together. Clicking through pages of a website is like clicking through a stream of consciousness. I want to show that the persecutions were less about stamping out Jesus Christ, but more about competing identities: what was Roman? Could a Christian be Roman? Christians used the persecution to form negative identities (what we are not).
In this early stage, I envision a lot of primary documents with the interpretation of the documents demonstrated more through hyperlinks than actual accompanying texts. My thinking is that showing students material in a particular order will both encourage them to think for themselves, but towards the understanding I have in mind. It would be really cool if there was something like a digital notepad that went with them from page to page where they could note observations. Perhaps at the end I could provide an activity that utilizes this information.

Brainstorming: Creating a Learning Opprotunity

What I really want to teach is what it is that archaeologists actually do. My final project requires, however, that I create an online learning opportunity for students to work through and understand a historical question. My solution: ask a historical question that can be answered archaeologically.

As I thought about questions I might ask, I came to realize that at least I, if not archaeologists in general, are more interested by “how” than “why” questions. Although we most certainly want to know “why” something happened, we’re more fascinated by how something happened.  It’s probably because we frame reality as the result of interactive processes. Therefore, my first attempt at a “why” question was perhaps not very good:

“Why was Christianity successful in Late Antique Mediterranean?” The significance is almost self evident- Christianity came to dominate all aspects to European life for over a millennia. This is a huge question that entire libraries have been dedicated to, which I would not expect to even remotely cover in nine weeks. And this is also why students struggle understanding this process-  they think it’s just too big to comprehend.

As much as the world craves an answer, evidence of the first seeds of the great tree of Christianity are scant in both text and material culture. Therefore, a balanced use of both lines of evidence is absolutely necessary to arrive at any legitimate answer. For a short semester project, I might focus in on one aspect of the question: “Who was drawn to Christianity?” Typical answers are women and poor, but was it really true or just  wealthy men trying to blame traditional scapegoats with the uneasy change the aging empire was going through?

I didn’t really like this train of thought. So I decided to try out a “how” question:

“How did Late Antique Christians resist oppression?” “What were the most effective modes of resistance?” The triumph of Christianity over paganism is often taken as evidence of Christianity’s superiority and truth. Therefore, many people take Christianity’s prevalence in the modern world as a matter-of-fact and just assume that Christianity was destined to win. They often fail to see Christians as oppressed minorities, since Christians have long been the powerful majority in the western world. Seeing a dominate religious tradition, especially if the student belongs to that faith tradition, as vulnerable is therefore difficult.

This question lead me to a different kind of question altogether:

“To what extent did Roman culture influence the development of Christianity?” This question is difficult for students to answer because it’s pretty huge. And since  I have only a few weeks to formulate this learning opportunity, I’d better narrow it down. “To what extent did Roman funerary practices influence  early Christianity?” This is difficult for students to understand because they attempt to draw direct parallels between the two traditions, rather than recognizing nuances. Additionally, they project their own experiences of Christianity onto the past, assuming that all Christians have always believed  as they do.  

I find myself still struggling with the term “historical question.” I think it means a complex open-ended question about the past the requires the careful evaluation of primary sources. Hopefully, as we discuss these concepts in class, I will be able to formulate better questions.

Project Proposal: Contextualizing Baptism

Since 33AD there have been countless people who have identified as followers of Jesus Christ. Throughout both time and location the meaning of that identity has changed radically, yet all call themselves Jesus-believers. One of the few rituals that has been maintained across centuries and territories is Baptism, yet even this fundamental Christian practice has not gone unchanged.  This project seeks to explore the changes in practice and interpretation Baptism has undergone by focusing in on one town, Hebron, CT, which is home to five churches: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational and Non-denominational.

The project seeks to describe Baptismal practices leading up to the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational and Non-denominatinal traditions. This will be accomplished by showing Baptismal material culture from the earliest known Bapistry (Dura-Europos, Syria, 2nd century), then from churches I will select that were the first (or nearly the first) built after a schism, and lastly from Hebron churches. The website will then draw comparisions and contrasts between the traditions and between periods.

The second part of the website will explore how Christians have interpreted Baptism as part of their lives.  I will select a representative sample of accounts from past churches (again, I will need to develope a methdology, but I will likely select the voices of authority (clergy) and of parishioners (where possible) of the specific buildings I discussed in the first part).  I will then supply responses of Hebron residents, both church leaders and layity.

Part One of the project will use digital photographs as the main body if evidence. These photographs will be organized in an Omeka exhibit, and hopfully in an interactive image-map. Part Two will use mp3 files for recorded interviews and text organized as an archive. I will also use a comment box for users to submit their Baptism stories  and comments to be vetted by me before being posted.

I chose Hebron because I live here and will have consistent access to my audience. My primary audience consists of the approximately 2,300 Christians living in Hebron, CT.  Of that 2,300, I am targetting an even smaller subset- those active Christians who are interested in church history and interdenominational communication. I anticipate my users can be divided into two main categories: life-long learners and faith formation educators.

Life-long learners are induviduals 50+ who are active members of their congregations and, most importantly, interested in expanding their own education independantly. I am thinking of retirees, filling  their time with learning and community involvement. Many 50+ adults use the internet for religious purposes and would find my project personally enriching.

Faith formation educators are church leaders engaged in teaching catecism, CCD, RCIA, and Sunday school, as well as adult programming. This is primarily a female audience, with a wide age range.  Many of these educators seek out engaging resources on-line for their classes. I want to provide them tools they can utilize to teach their students about Baptism in their specific community and where the tradition comes from.

A third group, which I think will mostly be composed of members from the other two, is people interested in interdenominational dialog. The town of Hebron, CT already has an Interfaith Human Services, and interfaith events; this project will hopefully serve to fascilitate continuing interdenominational coversations and events. Through the contribute function if the website, I hope members of the five faith communities will learn about each other and open up to conversation.

A secondary audience are people engageed with religious studies, including religious seekers. My website will provide case-studies of modern American Baptismal practices that scholars and interested public can draw from to inform their research.