Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent
Worry not. I am not writing an article about the 2021 National Champion Georgia Bulldogs, even though that is an article I had wished to write for decades. No, I am thinking of an archaeological discovery made in a Pompeiian house (“House of the Tragic Poet”) renowned for its exquisite frescoes and mosaics. Within the house’s vestibule, there is a dog mosaic. Below the dog, there are also these two words in Latin: “Cave Canem.” I imagine you have guessed from the context of our title what those Latin words mean. Yes, they read, “Beware of the dog.” (Literally, “Beware the dog.”) The mosaic dates to the second century BC.1
Did you imagine that the ancient Romans had “Beware of the Dog” signs? I admit being unaware of this until I stumbled upon a bit of clickbait on social media promising interesting archaeological finds. OK, so maybe this “sign” wasn’t the most breathtaking discovery ever. But it was interesting. It serves as an example of Solomon’s inspired truth that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9).
Typically, we think of the “Beware of the Dog” sign as a warning to unwanted visitors. It says, “We have a dog, and it may bite you.” However, scholars believe that the sign’s original purpose was the opposite. Visitors did not have to worry about dog attacks but needed to avoid trampling the family dog. “When you come inside, you will encounter a small animal we cherish. Please be mindful of him.”
The Italian Greyhound, for example, is an older breed originating more than two thousand years ago. It is the smallest of the sighthounds. The AKC states that breeders bred them as “noble companions.”2 That fits what we know of Pompeii, a resort town for wealthy Romans who would surely own such canines. Indeed, the House of the Tragic Poet was not the only house in Pompeii with a “Cave Canem” mosaic. It was just the first one excavated.
Now, why would I spend so much time within a religious forum talking about a “Beware of the Dog” sign? It so happens that Paul used that expression in Philippian 3.2: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (all ref. NASB1995 unless otherwise indicated). In Koine Greek, that is “Βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας.” As odd as it sounds to the dog-loving United States today, Arabs and Jews were more likely to despise dogs. Remember that even Jesus cautioned us, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs…” (Matthew 7.6).
Dogs were often wild and roamed in packs in ancient Judea. There was no archaeological evidence of pet dogs in the region until the post-exilic era.3 In their nondomesticated state, these dogs would do disgusting things like eating the bodies of the dead (e.g., 1Kings 14.11). These reasons are why generic Biblical scholarship believes Jews and Arabs dislike dogs and use the term as a byword for detested people. (Indeed, Western languages now likewise use “dog” in a derogatory manner, but it doesn’t impact the Western perception of the animal.)
Paul didn’t straddle the fence when it came to the truth, but he did straddle a cultural divide. He who was the “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3.5) would be the Apostle ordained to take the Gospel to the gentile world (Acts 8.15). That is why as outrageous as it sounds, we benefit from “Cave Canem” since knowing cultural concepts helps us better understand a verse’s context.
So, what was Paul saying here? To the Gentile, being asked to “beware of the dog” meant looking out for him, lest you trip over him. To the Jew, “beware of the dog” meant being wary of the one with a vile nature, fitting with their cultural perception of a dog. So, Paul begins with a Jewish insult. The third noun, translated as “concision” (KJV) or “false circumcision” (NASB1995), actually means “mutilation.” Would those Judaizers insisting that Gentiles be circumcised to become Christians enjoy being called a “mutilator?”
It sounds less like we are talking about multiple groups troubling the church at Philippi and more like Paul describes one group by using three noun descriptions. Two of the nouns speak more loudly to one cultural group. So then, what of the “evil workers?” Would this not also describe the same “mutilating dogs?” That seems to fit the context better. This second noun and its adjective also remind one of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.23, particularly in the King James Version: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” These latter “iniquity workers” felt they had done laudable things but discovered they neglected to do God’s Will (Matthew 7.21-23). We can make the case that such was true of the Judaizer also.
Lest anyone interpret this sentiment as anti-Semitic, we emphasize that the three nouns used by Paul work as well for any false teacher. Yet, the Judaizers were a thorn in Paul’s side as he fulfilled his ministry. And even though Gentiles doubtlessly read the words of this epistle, their Jewish brethren in this cosmopolitan congregation of Philippi could provide greater meaning while also helping their Gentile brethren be wary of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (cf., Matthew 16.6)
In conclusion, although the Bible serves as its own best commentary, we note we can obtain understanding through additional sources of information. Sometimes those sources can be surprising, like a dog mosaic in the vestibule of a Pompeiian house. Yes, there might be some put off by this idea that it takes effort to delve deeper into the word of God as we look for answers within God’s Word and without, in sources like archaeology. However, the proper mindset makes Bible study more attractive, even fun. You can find faith-building things everywhere. Just think about that the next time you see those words, “Beware of the Dog.”
1 Arellano, Anastasia. “Ancient Mosaic ‘Beware of Dog’ Sign Found Dating Back 2,000+ Years.” Dusty Old Thing, Great Life Publishing, 4 Mar. 2021, dustyoldthing.com/pompeii-ancient-beware-of-dog-sign/.
2 “Italian Greyhound Dog Breed Information – American Kennel Club.” American Kennel Club, The American Kennel Club, Inc,www.akc.org/dog-breeds/italian-greyhound/.
3 White, Ellen. “No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Bible.” Biblical Archaeology Society, Biblical Archaeology Society, 28 Sept. 2021,www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/dogs-in-the-bible/.