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Treasures in Clay Jars

Earlier this year a well-known New Testament scholar visited Antalya, Turkey. The two of us spoke to a group of pastors and their spouses from international churches in Europe and the Middle East.

A coin hoard stored in a clay jar at the Aydın Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

During one session my friend spoke about a familiar text written by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The Greek word for clay is ostrakinos, from which the archaeological term “ostraca”—pottery sherds—is derived. He argued that the references to light in verses 4 and 6 strongly suggest that clay lamps were the ceramic objects in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage. So Paul developed his analogy about the fragility of the human body from the clay lamps used in antiquity to provide light. Such lamps are discovered regularly at archaeological excavations. My friend’s idea seemed plausible, but because Paul used the general word vessel (skeuos) and not the specific word for lamp (lychnos), I was not totally sold on this interpretation.

On the post-conference tour we joined a group traveling to Cyprus. There we visited the Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia, which houses a small but rich collection of artifacts. One display in particular jumped out at me—a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. The description said it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century C.E. The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability. Coins were also hoarded for ritual purposes as votive offerings. The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7. So they seem to be talking about the same thing!

Coin hoards can be seen in many archaeological museums in Turkey. One of the most famous—the Elmalı Hoard—is now on display in the Antalya Archaeological Museum. In 1984 three Turks with a metal detector discovered a clay jar buried in a muddy field. The jar contained some 1900 silver coins struck by the Attica-Delos League. The hoard included fourteen rare, medallion-sized decadrahmi produced by Athens to celebrate its victory over the Persians. The hoard was smuggled illegally out of Turkey and sold to collectors, much of it going to the wealthy American businessman William I. Koch. After a decade-long lawsuit initiated by the Turkish government, Koch returned 1,661 coins to Turkey in 1999. While visiting the new archaeological museum at Aydın (ancient Tralles) recently, I saw two coin hoards on display. The hoards were found at excavations nearby and consisted of Hellenistic bronze coins (4th century B.C.E) and silver Roman coinage (40–270 C.E.). The clay jars that contained these hoards were well-preserved and displayed next to the coins (see one in photo).

The ubiquity of hoards in antiquity, both in time and region, suggests that the phenomenon was so well known that Paul could reasonably use it as an analogy. However, these treasures—the coin hoards mentioned in 2 Corinthians 4:7—were never placed in clay lamps but rather in clay jars.

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Destroying a Temple

The burning of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis by Herostratus

The apostle Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, warned: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The magnificent structure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo: Mark Wilson.

July 21 marked the anniversary of one of the most infamous destructions of a temple in history. On that night in 356 B.C.E., an Ephesian named Herostratus set out to make his mark in history. He walked to the Temple of Artemis with fire and flammable materials with the intention of burning it down.

The construction of this temple, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sponsored in part through the benefaction of Croesus, the wealthy king of the Lydian empire. Begun around 550 B.C.E. under the direction of the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes, 36 of its columns were decorated with relief carvings, according to Pliny the Elder. A massive structure—it was 377 feet long and 151 feet wide, the size of a football field—it was supposedly the first Greek temple built of marble.

Herostratus must have been an unhappy man who had failed to achieve honor and status in Ephesus. So he became determined to put his name in the history books. Herostratus knew that he could not do much damage to the marble itself. However, if he could get to the wooden furnishings inside the temple, he would have a great chance of success.

Sneaking past the temple guards, Herostratus placed the rags in key places inside the naos, the inner sanctuary. He then lit each one, probably using the small flame from the olive oil lamp he would have carried. Soon fire was raging with flames climbing up the wooden beams to engulf the wooden ceiling. Even the cult statue of Artemis, made of ebony or grapewood by the noted Athenian sculptor Endoios (also spelled Endoeus), was burning. By morning all that remained was a smoldering ruin of 40-foot high columns.

The Ephesian Artemis. Ephesus Museum, Selçuk, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Instead of fleeing the scene, Herostratus was boastful about his deed. He surrendered to the temple authorities and was imprisoned. Ephesian officials, to discourage similar acts in the future, quickly executed Herostratus and attempted to remove his name from memory by forbidding its mention under penalty of death. However, an ancient historian named Theopompus recorded Herostratus’s arson in his book Hellenics. The arsonist’s name that the Ephesians had tried to erase has thus been preserved to this day.

Later Greek and Roman tradition states that Alexander the Great was born in Macedonia on that same night, July 21, 356. The Roman historian Plutarch suggested in his Life of Alexander that the goddess Artemis was so busy attending to Alexander’s birth that she failed to protect her temple. Alexander later tried to pay for the temple’s rebuilding, but was told by Ephesian officials that it was not right for a god to build a temple for another god.

Herostratus’s destruction of the Temple of Artemis led to the coining of the phrase “Herostratic fame” meaning someone who commits a criminal act in order to receive the notoriety that follows. And reference to him and his arson has appeared in the works of noted authors such as Chaucer, Cervantes and Sartre.

The Temple of Artemis that stood during Paul’s visits to Ephesus was the successor to the one Herostratus had burned down. Is it possible that Paul and his audience in Corinth knew the story of Herostratus and his infamous destruction of the Temple of Artemis? I think it is probable that this incident was in mind when Paul wrote the well-known verse (quoted above) to the Corinthians. He was accusing them of perpetrating a similar shameful act: destroying the temple of God in Corinth—the church—through their immature and immoral behavior.