The BYU Religious Studies Center promotes research and publication through grants and publication venues. One aspect of the RSC’s mission is to help reconstruct the world of the scriptures and the Restoration to provide helpful context.
Currently, I am codirecting a BYU Study Abroad program in Rome and Athens for the summer with Gary Hatch, associate dean of General Education and Honors. Forty students have joined us on this adventure, and it is an adventure—it is hot, humid, and sometimes difficult to get everyone to a particular museum or archaeological site via a congested and confusing bus, subway, and train system.
As one can imagine, we spend a significant amount of time walking through ancient Rome. In some places we may have even walked in the footsteps of Peter and Paul. This coming week we take a journey further afield—to ancient Pompeii, near modern Naples, Italy.
I have made my way to Pompeii on numerous occasions since my first visit with a group of high school students from York, Maine, in 1972. With each successive visit, I go away more melancholy than the first, so I am not really looking forward to this visit. I am haunted by the images of death in the city, especially by plaster casts ingeniously made of the bodies of the people who died there so many years ago. Nevertheless, I have been preparing for the visit with our students by reading a new book on Pompeii by Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).
Beard’s book reminds me that the past is much more complex than we sometimes imagine. This is an important book for anyone dreaming of going to Pompeii or anyone wanting to understand the complexity of history. First, the author tells us Pompeii is more than a city “simply frozen in midflow” (9). Chapter after chapter, the author tells us, “Everything is not as it may at first seem” (13). There was destruction before the famous eruption in AD 79 (she argues against the August 25 date), and there was looting almost immediately after the tragedy. Then in 1943, Allied bombs did even more destruction—it is a very complicated story indeed! Nevertheless, Beard notes, “It is true that the city offers us more vivid glimpses of real people and their real lives than almost anywhere else in the Roman world” (15). However, “the bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed” (16).
Beard provides word pictures that help us see beyond the modern reconstruction of the city and our Hollywood imagination of what it may have been like, to a nuanced and complex story that is, in reality, what life is like. Next time you read the second part of the New Testament, consider filling in the cultural and historical gaps in the story found in Acts. It will reveal an interesting and complex world, providing context to the writings of Paul, Luke, Peter, and others.