top of page

Verisimilitude, Celery Crowns, and the Erastus Inscription

Updated: Jul 5

By John W. Moore

 

It might be unfamiliar. It might even sound to us like one of those peculiar literary devices discussed in a course on biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpretation). Even pronouncing it can be challenging, but verisimilitude is a helpful term used in such disciplines as philosophy, literature, and law. It is also important to biblical archaeologists as I came to observe in our production of Go Now to Shiloh, when Dr. Scott Stripling spoke of it during excavations in Israel.


In His book Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, Craig Evans defines verisimilitude as, “the resemblance or likeness of the way that things [the known world of history] really were” (Evans, 1-8).  Evans likewise emphasized that greater attention should be given to the way in which the Bible matches the discoveries of Archaeology in contrast to how some attempt to use archaeology to prove the bible is from God. I believe his perspective is valid and we must be careful not to make assertions about various archaeological discoveries which purport to prove the Bible.


Archaeology is a human endeavor, subject to presuppositions, error, and human bias. Its information and findings must be used with caution, especially by those of us not credentialed in the field. However, if used correctly, the findings of archaeology can be an extremely important tool for defending the faith. It not only provides context to the biblical world, but it also aides us in demonstrating the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical text. While the discovery of a first-century oil lamp in Jerusalem doesn’t’ prove that Jesus taught a parable about ten virgins and their oil lamps (Matthew 25), it does reveal that even the smallest of details given in scripture are consistent with reality. Similarly, discovering an inscription from Corinth about a man named Erastus (discussed below) doesn’t prove that the apostle Paul was inspired of God. It does, however, show in part that the bible writers can be trusted. Verisimilitude exists between the information contained in scripture and the known world of history.


Temple of Apollo at the Ancient Ruins of Corinth

In connecting spiritual truths to a real historical context, the bible writers were meticulous in describing real people, places, events, political systems, religious practices, beliefs and customs. Therefore, when a bible writer makes a claim that a said prophecy or written document is from God (inspired) we should expect his information to be accurate in every detail. Because God is all-knowing, the Bible’s references to people, places, and events should be consistent with the facts of history. Archaeology, despite its bias, can aide us in proving this assertion. If the bible writers are accurate in their recording of history, and if what they prophesied and predicted about the future can be corroborated by historical fact, then we can trust them on matters of theology.

 

For example, as a Christian, I believe in Jesus because of the biblical record of Matthew’s testimony (and others like Mark, Luke, John etc.; cf. John 20:30-31). After years of traveling through Israel, reading the works of history, and considering the discoveries of Archaeology, I have come to know that Matthew is a trustworthy witness and accurate historian. He knew what he was talking about! He was not only a contemporary to the times in which the ministry of Jesus occurred, but the literary value of his work is supreme. He doesn’t make outlandish claims that are incompatible

Debris from the temple destroyed in A.D. 70. Matthew accurately recorded what Jesus had prophesied (Mat. 24)

with science or the facts of history. His words have a divine character that are lofty and sublime (as with all the books of the bible). It reflects a sacred beauty that mere mortals could never match. This, along with the ability to cross examine and verify Matthew’s testimony against other witnesses (i.e. Mark, Luke, John, and Paul) and the findings of archaeology, serve to create an unwavering faith within us. Or, as Luke puts it, a faith with certainty (Luke 1:4). While I personally did not witness the resurrection of Jesus with my own eyes, I have full confidence and assurance in the testimony of the bible writers who did. As Luke revealed at the beginning of his narrative, the bible writers undertook an investigatory mission of their own so that we “may know the exact truth” about the things taught by Jesus and what others have said about him (Luke 1:1-4). My own investigation has likewise led me to trust Luke's testimony.


Boxing Fresco from the Classical Greek Period - Athens Greece

So, in what other ways can archaeology be used to show the “resemblance or likeness of the way that things really were?" Over the years, most of my study and video documentation has occurred in Israel, but my recent trips to Rome, Turkey, and Greece have given me the opportunity to broaden my investigation of the Bible writers who lived and worked outside of Israel. Specifically, regarding the letters of Paul and the city of Corinth the argument from verisimilitude is the same. Archaeology doesn’t prove Paul’s theological assertions in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians, but it does reveal a match between his reference to titles, people, cultural practices, and the facts of history. Corinth, the context of the Corinthian letters (and the likely place from which he composed the book of Romans), and the archaeological discoveries made there, reveal that Paul can be trusted as a trustworthy witness. He was without a doubt a contemporary of the time in which he wrote and a first-hand observer of the customs and people associated with the cities to whom he wrote, like Corinth.

The remains of an ancient mirror discovered at Corinth

Consider, for example, Paul’s references to “running a race”, "the games", "boxing", "mirrors”, “a perishable crown”, and a "judgment seat" (1 Corinthians 9:24-26; 13:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Did these things exist in Corinth? Were they widely known? Isn’t boxing, and other organized athletic events, only a modern development? How would the recipients of Corinth know what Paul was speaking about if mirrors had not existed? Weren’t mirrors a later invention thus leading us to think that maybe a much later redactor or editor had inserted information into the text? Not at all. Because of the discoveries of archaeology made at and near Corinth, we know that mirrors, gymnasiums, running tracks for athletic competitions, boxing, crowns made out of perishable plants (such as olive trees and celery; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25), and judgments seats (bemas; cf. Acts 18:12) were all a part of the culture at Corinth when Paul penned his letters. These items and depictions of their likeness were discovered among the ruins of various Greek and Roman towns and are now on permanent display in museums scattered throughout Greece.  On one of our most recent bible lands tours, I was privileged to talk about these discoveries and many others.


The bema or judgment seat at Corinth (cf. Acts 18:12)

One of the more fascinating discoveries of archaeology I encountered at Corinth was the famed Erastus inscription, which can still be observed in the precise location where it was found. It, like the discoveries mentioned above, is but another example of verisimilitude. Unearthed in 1929, a team of excavators discovered in the ancient roadway a Latin inscription carved deep into a limestone rock. The rock was being used as a paver within a plaza near the ancient theater.  Letters found in the inscription were 7-inches tall and were probably at one time filled with bronze. The inscription reads “Erastus pro aedilitate sua pecunia stravit and is translated as “Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense.” It’s wording precisely matches something found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  


The Erastus Inscription at Corinth lies just as it was discovered in 1929

From history we know that governments did not always have the funds to pay for new construction, so wealthy citizens or patrons often financed the construction of public buildings and roads. Personally, I have observed numerous inscriptions of this type throughout the ruins of the Roman world. Some are on columns of temples, archways of an agora, etc. all of which were meant to honor a donor who made possible the construction or materials.  The honorific information might be inscribed with a name, title, act, and occasionally additional information or reference to an Emperor or deity. The Erastus inscription at Corinth specifically identifies Erastus as holding the office of aedile which was a high-ranking public office within a Roman city who functioned as the governmental appointee of public works.

 

The Greek equivalent to aedile (found in the inscription) is oikonomos and this is precisely the title given to a Christian convert named Erastus to whom Paul mentions in Romans 16:23 (a letter likely penned from Corinth). Variously rendered in the biblical translations as “treasurer” “chamberlain”, and “director of public works”, oikonomos is defined in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Words as a city manager or steward. This title was used throughout the Roman empire along with official job titles such as consulship, praetorship, plebeian tribunate, quaestorship, and military tribunate. Could, therefore, the Erastus inscription refer to the man identified by Paul in Romans 16:23, Acts 19:22, and 2 Timothy 4:20?

 

Because the date of the Erastus inscription is contested, and because we do not have a further inscription which reads “Erastus the treasurer of Corinth who became a Christian and friend to the apostle Paul,” we cannot say with 100% certainty that the donor of the pavement and the man identified in Romans 16:23 are one and the same. Nevertheless, its seems highly likely and almost certain that they are one in the same, and here is why: (1) we know that people from various social and economic stations in life were converted to Christ such as Lydia, the Philippian Jailer, Crispus the Synagogue ruler, and Cornelius a Roman Centurion, so it is plausible that a city treasurer would accept Jesus as well; (2) Erastus was a unique name within the Roman empire found only in the archaeological record at Corinth; (3) because in Romans 16:23 the exact Greek equivalent to the title found in the inscription at Corinth was used in reference to the Erastus who became a Christian.  The evidence is sound, and the connection is plausible.

Stone-crafted starting blocks at the race track of ancient Corinth in Greece

 

But, if in some peculiar and rare instance another man of history named Erastus, bearing the title of city manager were to be discovered, and was likewise proven to be an atheist throughout the entire time that Paul wrote his letters, we would still have reason to consider the Erastus inscription helpful to believers. The reference in Romans 16:23 would still bear “the resemblance or likeness of the way that things [the known world of history] really were”.


Truly, the Erastus inscription discovered at Corinth bears both a name and title found within the city in which Paul lived and worked. It is also consistent with the chronology of Paul’s life. The Bible matches the discoveries of archaeology, and the Erastus inscription is a prime example of that precise correlation. Paul’s characterization of people, their titles and their practices is historically accurate. He demonstrates at every turn verisimilitude between his writings and the facts of history.

 

The bible overall describes real persons, places, events, governments, religious practices, beliefs and customs. Archaeological discoveries clarify and corroborate the bible, and the bible produces faith and conviction in our knowledge of God and certainty of salvation (Romans 10:17; 1 John 5:13-15). Praise be to God for his infallible and powerful word, and for the tools of science we have at our disposal. The plethora of discoveries that continue to surface throughout the Bible lands, especially ones like the Erastus Inscription, are both exciting and remarkable.  There is no other book like the bible; nothing comes close.


JWM



117 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page