Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 2, 2010

Andrew Arterbury, Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality

I preached recently on Christian hospitality in the New Testament.  I’ve previously posted on Christian hospitality, and further reading has convinced me that what we think of as hospitality today is not precisely what was considered “hospitality” in the NT times, although there is some overlap.

Some of the most recent in-depth work on the subject has been done by Andrew Arterbury.  Arterbury published a couple of articles on the topic in the early 00’s: “Abraham’s Hospitality among Jewish and Early Christian Writers: A Tradition History of Gen 18:1-16 and Its Relevance for the Study of the New Testament,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (2003): 359-76; and “The Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 29 (2002): 53-72.  These were incorporated into his dissertation, which was published in 2005 as Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in its Mediterranean Setting (Sheffield Phoenix Press), which I’m now perusing.

Arterbury notes, in agreement with the conclusions to which I’ve come, that “biblical scholars routinely neglect an ancient understanding of hospitality (xenia) and instead work with a contemporary definition of hospitality that grows out of our own social or theological contexts rather than a historical one” (Entertaining Angels, 1).   Arterbury finds that “at its core, ancient hospitality referred to the act of assisting one or more travelers for a limited amount of time” (6); both Greco-Roman and Jewish expressions of hospitality find at their core “the kind reception of a stranger or traveler” (57).  After surveying examples of Greco-Roman hospitality in the extant literature, Arterbuty concludes that Greco-Roman hospitality consisted of “an extensive set of behaviorial conventions that govern the host and guest relationship,” and (perhaps more accessibly) notes that “though the individual manifestations differ, hospitality takes place where a host welcomes a traveler by providing for the needs of the traveler and helping the traveler on his or her way” (51).  After surveying examples of Jewish hospitality, Arterbury concludes that “Jewish hospitality differs very little from the Greco-Roman hospitality” (90).

As to Christian hospitality, Arterbury sees little that is distinct from the general practice of hospitality in the Mediterranean world: “As one would expect, Christian hospitality largely functioned as the continuation of either Greco-Roman hospitality within a Greco-Roman context or Jewish hospitality within a Jewish context.  Thus, for the most part, early Christian hospitality was in continuity with the broader Mediterranean social convention of hospitality” (94).  Some practices distinctive to Christian hospitality, however, include “Christians first attempting to locate fellow believers in a particular region in order to request hospitality from them”; prominent recipients of Christian hospitality being the poor, widows, and especially traveling missionaries;  and women, widows, and especially bishops being prominent hosts (96-97).  Overall, however, “even though it is possible to find distinctive elements of this broad Mediterranean custom within the subsets of the overarching culture, it is best to think of this social convention as one custom, as opposed to three or more” (183).

Arterbury sums up his research on Mediterranean hospitality:

At its core, hospitality is the Mediterranean social convention that was employed when a person chose to assist a traveler who was away from his or her home region by supplying him or her with provisions and protection.  Furthermore, I have been able to document an overarching similarity among the actions and the typical vocabulary associated with this custom in antiquity . . .

Yet, despite the similarities, we have also seen significant differences in the various cultural expressions of this Mediterranean practice.  First, the various cultural subgroups had different methods of selecting their hosts and guests.  In Greco-Roman hospitality, a meritorious host was expected to assist any traveler who needed assistance.  Yet, in reality, Greco-Roman hosts and guests commonly selected counterparts whom they anticipated would create a personal benefit for them through the exchange of gifts and the like.  Alternatively, Jewish travelers typically avoided accepting hospitality from non-Jews.  Instead, they generally sought out a distant family member or tribesman if possible.  Finally, in early Christian hospitality, despite the fact that both Paul (Rom 12.13b) and the author of Hebrews (13.2) appear to exhort Christians to provide hospitality to all those in need, in reality Christian hosts typically offered hospitality only to Christian travelers (Mt. 25.31-46; 1 Pet. 4.9; 2 Jn 10-11; 3 Jn 5-8).

A second distinguishing feature of hospitality among the various cultural subsets can be detected in the manner in which guests reciprocated their hosts’ generosity.  For instance, Christine Pohl argues that Christian hospitality was not reciprocal like its Greco-Roman counterpart.  Even though Pohl clearly overstates the differences between Greco-Roman and early Christian hospitality, she nevertheless makes a helpful observation.  One can at least say that Jewish and Christian expressions of hospitality do not appear to have carried with them the same degree of expectation in regard to reciprocity as Greco-Roman hospitality did (131-32).

For a more detailed review of Arterbury, see Craig Blomerg’s critique.


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