Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

By Abraham Johannes Malherbe | Go to book overview

LAST WILLS AND TESTAMENTS
IN GRAECO-ROMAN PERSPECTIVE

John T. Fitzgerald

During the Graeco-Roman period, both Jews and Christians produced a number of works that either bear the title of “testament” (such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Testament of Job) or have distinct testamentary features, such as the farewell discourses of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke (22:21–38) and John (13:1–17:26), Paul’s farewell address at Miletus (Acts 20:17–38), and the pseudonymous letters attributed to both Peter (2 Peter) and Paul (2 Timothy). All of these documents and others like them have been thoroughly scrutinized from the perspective of the literary traditions of which they are a part,1 but only rarely have they been analyzed in the light of actual last wills and testaments written by Greeks and Romans. Furthermore, biblical scholars have done little in the way of examining the mentalité of those who chose to make wills rather than simply die intestate.2 The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview of Greek and Roman wills, giving emphasis to those features of will-making that appear to be most relevant to the testamentary literature produced by Jews and Christians living in

1 The secondary literature on testaments, farewell discourses, and documents with a pronounced testamentary character is vast. For a survey of scholarship to 1994, see Martin Winter, Die Vermächlnis Jesu und die Abschiedsworte der Väter: Gattungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen der Vermächtnisrede im Blick auf Joh. 13–17 (FRLANT 161; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994) 9–37. For a more recent study of the testament as a literary genre, see Rosa M. Boixareu i Vilaplana, El gènere titerari dels testaments deb dotze patriarques (Collectània lecció Sant Pacià 66; Barcelona: Edicions de la Facultat de Teologia de Catalunya, 1999) (in Catalan). A helpful up-to-date overview of testamentary literature is provided by Marinus de Jonge in his article on “Testamentenliteratur” in the TRE 33:1–2 (2001) 110–13. 1 wish to thank Professor de Jonge for supplying me with a pre-publication copy of his article.

2 There were important differences between Greeks and Romans in regard to laws of succession and testamentary practice, and wills made in places such as Egypt sometimes reflect the influence of local native law as well as Hellenistic and/or Roman law and testamentary formulas. Yet the perspectives of Greeks, Romans, and others on wills and many of their practices in formulating wills were either the same or quite similar, especially during the Graeco-Roman period. In this essay I shall focus on what they had in common, not their differences, and thus I shall draw freely upon both Greek and Roman wills to illuminate these shared aspects of testamentary perspective and practice. I shall give greater attention, however, to Roman wills.

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