The love of God according to ancient grocery lists
Few things are as quirky as a science dedicated to the study of trash: garbology. But the science is fascinating, in part, for what it unearths about us. For example, we over-report our healthy eating habits and under-report our alcohol intake by up to 40-60%.[i] We know this because garbologists have compared people’s claims with the contents of their trash.
Antiquity, too, had garbage dumps. In the dry Egyptian desert, along a branch of the Nile River, lay an ancient hub of commerce called the city of Oxyrhynchus. In 1896, two young archaeologists sifted through the dry, undisturbed remnants of this city’s trash heaps and found a myriad of ancient scraps of material similar to modern-day paper (these scraps are technically called papyri).
Beneath the wars and rumors of wars over the past decades, students and researchers have quietly worked away at a tremendously mundane but commendable project: the digitization of almost 50,000 of these ancient paper scraps for the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri.
This databank includes ancient grocery lists (P. Oxy. IV 738), indecent proposals (P. Oxy. XLII 3070), marriage contracts, slave contracts, and legal documents. Many scraps can be dated to an exact year. And many date to the time of Jesus.
Such papyri, being in relative proximity to the Palestine of Jesus, can inform us about real-life conditions within his world. We learn, for example, that complaints of criminality were often directed at shepherds.[ii] We learn that shepherds were a despised and nomadic group of people. We learn that they rarely owned the flock they shepherded. We learn that shepherding earned barely enough to survive.
Conversely, we learn that certain items at the time of Jesus were costly. Oil to light a lamp was precious.[iii] The value of a single sheep could amount to a month of a shepherd’s wages.[iv] The shepherd, further, was responsible to pay for any sheep lost under his care.
A shepherd and a woman
How can this be relevant to the average Christian? For one, it can enrich our readings of Jesus’ most treasured parables. The shepherd who leaves the 99 for the one (Luke 15:3–7), for example, would have been a despised individual — exactly the type of hero we often find in stories told by Jesus. But more, our knowledge of the past can explain an odd feature of this parable.
We know from documentary papyri that a shepherd guarding a hundred sheep (a normal size flock) on behalf of the owner(s) would typically be by himself. Why then would this man leave the ninety-nine unattended while he sought the missing sheep?
The fact that this parable is coupled with a second parable in Luke’s Gospel helps us to find an answer — the parable of a woman who loses one out of 10 coins (Luke 15:8–9). Jesus describes her lighting a lamp to find this coin. But the value of a coin is close to that of the oil she would have burned in her lamp.
Why then does she burn it to search so diligently (v. 8)? The most obvious answer is that she, like the shepherd, is poor.
It might cost the woman approximately the same value as the lost coin if she searched too long. Likewise, it might cost the shepherd his 99 sheep if he did not find the one sheep soon enough. Why do both characters act this way? Desperation.
Both the shepherd and the woman wager. They wager that the possibility of gaining back what was lost was worth the risk of losing even more. No wonder they both rejoice (Luke 15:6, 9). Hope had danced on a razor’s edge.
God, Jesus implies, is like this shepherd and this woman, and Heaven rejoices when God’s risk pays off. But what is God risking in the ministry of Jesus? That is something worth reflecting on.
We, too, are asked to take a risk in these parables, to commit to seeing God through a fresh perspective. That is, most simply, what a parable is. Parables are not merely earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are invitations to reflect on God and his kingdom anew.
This article is excerpted from For People Like Us: God’s Love for the Lost of Luke 15.
[i] William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (New York, N.Y: HarperCollins, 1992; repr. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), 70–71.
[ii] For a thorough, scholarly treatment of this topic, see John Kloppenborg and Callie Callon, “The Parable of the Shepherd and the Transformation of Pastoral Discourse,” Early Christianity 1 (2010): 1–43.
[iii] Erin Vearncombe, “Searching for a Lost Coin: Papyrological Backgrounds for Q 15,8-10,” in Metaphor, Narrative, and Parables in Q, edited by Dieter Roth, Ruben Zimmermann, and Michael Labahn (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 307–37; Ernest van Eck, “A Realistic Reading of the Parable of the Lost Coin in Q: Gaining or Losing Even More?” HTS Theological Studies 75.3 (2019): 1–9, esp. 3–6.
[iv] Ernest van Eck, “In the Kingdom Everybody Has Enough – A Social-scientific and Realistic Reading of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:4–6).” HTS Theological Studies 67.3 (2011): 1–10, esp. 6.
Luuk Vandeweghe I have a PhD in New Testament Studies from the University of Aberdeen, have written several books, and I have publicly debated skeptics on issues of faith. My work has been published in preeminent peer-reviewed journals such as New Testament Studies, Tyndale Bulletin, and Bulletin for Biblical Research. For more from the author, visit www.luukvandeweghe.com