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What’s the Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man All About?

In my previous post I summarized an Egyptian story about a rich man and a poor man who both die, with the poor man having a fantastic afterlife and the rich man suffering horrible torture.  The poor man was righteous and so was rewarded, the rich man was a sinner and so was punished.  Is that what the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 is also all about – rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked?  So that it’s a story that tries to stress that you need to live a good life or you’ll pay the consequences later?

It is indeed possible that this biblical story also contains an implicit teaching about righteous living.   But since, unlike the Egyptian tale, this parable says nothing about sin and righteousness, some interpreters have suggested different ways of understanding it.

Maybe the problem with the rich man in Luke’s parable is not that he is generally wicked, but that, more specifically, he hasn’t used his wealth in order to help those who were poor.  That would be suggested by the fact that Lazarus lay right outside the man’s gate, starving to death, while the man feasted every day in great luxury.  The man had no heart.  In support of this view is the fact that the rich man knew all about famished Lazarus.  When he is in Hades, he calls him by name.

Moreover, this understanding makes sense of the rest of the story.  The rich man is clearly a Jew: he calls Abraham “father,” and it is implied that he, like his brothers, should have paid attention to “Moses and the prophets.”  The Law of Moses tells people to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).   The rich man allowed Lazarus to starve to death when he easily could have done something about it.

Other scholars have argued a more …

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Mapping the Diversity of Earliest Christianity
The Fate of the Rich and the Poor: Another Story



  1. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  October 11, 2018

    In your book on the afterlife will you be discussing the social and political upheavals that happened to shake the “idea” of what heaven and hell looks like? I’m also studying ancient civilizations on the great courses with Professor Andrette. Which he points out how thoughts and influences happen based on the social and civil upheavals. For instance the Hyksos and Egyptians, the Indus and the aryans, etc. Will you be also taking a more biblical point on it from both the Hebrew Bible and the NT? Or a more broader view? Like comparing Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, India, Chinese, etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      To some extent (mainly involved with periods of intense religious opposition and persecution).

  2. Avatar
    Hume  October 11, 2018

    I wish I had my old faith back. In the afterlife would be my family and friends, forever. In this life I dip between completely fulfilled by my wife, family, and friends and knowing it will all pass, and thus I feel nihilistic. I know your theory on why the afterlife was created, but this seems to hit close to the bull’s-eye. What do you think and do you ever feel this way?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      You may want to read my book God’s Problem. I deal with that issue there (at teh beginning and end). Short story: no, I don’t feel nihilistic at all. I feel like I want to relish life as much as I can for as long as I can.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  October 12, 2018

        I get the sense when reading Jesus’ alleged sayings in the Gospels that he was not as enthused about the family as Christians have portrayed him. I’m thinking of his statement disavowing his mother and brothers in preference to those who “do the will of God”, and Luke 14:26, where he refuses discipleship to those not willing to abandon their families in preference to him. Aplologists have promised that those entering Heaven would gain a whole new family of Christians. I wonder if those public figures who often make pronouncements about “Judeo-Christian values” are truly aware of what they speak.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2018

          Yes, indeed — I talk about this in several of my books. It’s intersting that Jesus could actually be said to have opposed what many people today think of as family values — mainly because of his strongly apocalyptic views.

  3. Lev
    Lev  October 11, 2018

    May I ask an off-topic question?

    I think I saw you mention last year that Joel Marcus from USC will be publishing a really interesting book on John the Baptist in the fall of 2018, so I set a google reminder to ask you if you’ve had a chance to have a read it.

    I’ve just had another look at the google synopsis https://bit.ly/2A3iUiT and it does sound awesome. Do you know anything more about it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      Yup, I”ve read it. It’s really good I think, a very full and well documented study.

  4. Avatar
    DavidNeale  October 11, 2018

    I suppose that the author of Luke had a moral clarity which most people lack, then and now. It’s arguable that being rich in a grossly unequal society is indeed inherently immoral. If you’re rich, and spending lots of money on your own comforts, then you’re starving the poor more-or-less by definition, given how easy it would be to donate that money instead. Of course most of us middle-class people in rich countries (who are comparatively rich by global standards, at least in income terms) are guilty of this to a greater or lesser extent; we should give far more than we do.

    That said, the idea of eternal torture for anyone (rich or not) is horrifying. I’m somewhat glad (even as an atheist) that the historical Jesus didn’t teach that idea.

    • Avatar
      DavidNeale  October 11, 2018

      (This is of course a general “you”! Bart has raised vastly more for humanitarian causes than most people do in a lifetime.

      I give to various charities and to homeless people in the street, and did pro bono work when I was a lawyer. But can I really assert that I give all that I could give? Definitely not. Not even close.)

  5. Avatar
    godspell  October 11, 2018

    I good bet I’ll have finished this book within a day or two of it showing up on my Kindle.

    And this will win me eternal paradise, right? 😉

  6. Robert
    Robert  October 11, 2018

    “The ending itself is the dead giveaway. …”

    You will have to spend eternity biting your tongue.

  7. Avatar
    crucker  October 11, 2018

    I once heard somebody make the case that this parable also symbolized the rich man as the Jewish people (being inside the gate as symbolic for their access to God), with Lazarus representing gentiles (outside of the community, unclean, etc.). And then in the end we see the tables turned with the Jews being shut out and a gentile sitting on Abraham’s bosom, which reflected the later development of the gospel being taken to the gentiles and them being more responsive. This Jew/gentile symbolism was argued with other parables as well (e.g. the prodigal son, which the symbolism does seem stronger between the two sons). Do you think the author intended such symbolism in this parable?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      I think it’s a bit of a stretch; the parable seems much more concerned to reinforce Luke’s teaching about wealth and poverty.

    • Avatar
      Sixtus  October 13, 2018

      Such readings of the parables are inherently anachronistic and, worse, anti-Semitic. Read Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus and/or her Jewish Annotated New Testament for more historically plausible interpretations.

  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 11, 2018

    1) Is it plausible that Jesus did tell the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, but Luke appended the ending about someone rising from the dead?
    2) I used to read the Rich Man’s request to send Lazarus to his brothers, to be about sending Lazarus as a ghost or apparition, rather than as a bodily raised man. Does the 1st century Jewish context permit this reading?
    3) Verse 31 does refer to bodily resurrection of a solitary person while other people remain in their normal bodily form. Is this notion inconsistent with 1st century Jewish thought prior to birth of the church?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      1. Yup, that would be an option. But there’s nothing in the text, in my opinion, that would suggest it. 2. It’s an option, but at the end he talks about being raised from the dead, not appearing as a ghost. 3. Not necessarily. It’s what the Christians said, after all.

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  October 12, 2018

        Regarding point3, NT Wright made much of the thesis that before the birth of the church, Jews believed in bodily resurrection of everyone at end of time, and the notion of resurrection of a solitary individual was unheard of. Hence Wright and Christian apologists point to this feature as evidence that the disciples didn’t and couldn’t have made up Jesus’ resurrection.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2018

          Interesting idea. (On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who thinks that teh disciples “made up” the view of the resurrection, so I’m not sure whom he is/would be arguing against)

          • Avatar
            dankoh  October 15, 2018

            Wright was making the “argument from uniqueness” – something had happened to Jesus that had never happened to anyone anywhere before this, and also that no one (no mortal anyway) would have though of this, a single body rising from the dead. So of course he has to say that the Greek never had the idea of a single person being resurrected and made immortal. (Except that they did.)

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 11, 2018

    ‘A longing to eat what falls from the rich man’s table’ is an obvious reference to the canaanite woman in matthew 15.
    The rich man is the northern Kingdom which was lost without sharing the message the gentiles – the five brothers are the five tribes left in Judah which won’t spread the word even if someone rises from the dead

  10. tompicard
    tompicard  October 11, 2018

    That is WAY TOO SUBTLE for me that
    Second sentence of Lk 16:31 refers is referring to Jesus ?
    > neither will they be convinced even if SOMEONE [Jesus?} rises from the dead

    much better exegesis/hermeneutics, if those are the right words, is that being right with God depends on following the laws and prophets and not expecting some magical event like a person rising from the dead (or some magical appearance of a being standing on a cloud),

  11. Avatar
    JohnKesler  October 11, 2018

    Luke appears to believe in postmortem rewards: Luke 23:43, the “penitent thief,” and the aforementioned Lazarus. Any other passages that support this view? One issue that I have is that Luke/Acts states that the following people were raised from the dead:

    1) Luke 7:11-17: The widow of Nain’s son.
    2) Acts 9:36-42: Tabitha/Dorcas.
    3) Acts 20:7-12: Eutychus.

    If Luke believed that immediately at death one goes to Paradise/Abraham’s bosom or Hell–and presumably all three are in the former category–then were these three people “pulled back” from Paradise? The second two were raised after the resurrection of Jesus, so even if Luke believed that no one prior to Jesus’ resurrection went to Paradise (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:23), how do we explain these cases?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      Yes, if Luke is being internally consistent (one very big question is whether he is), then presumably the righteous people raised from the dead are being brought back from paradise AND that is seen as a good thing. Go figure!

    • Avatar
      ftbond  October 14, 2018

      re: “The second two were raised after the resurrection of Jesus, so even if Luke believed that no one prior to Jesus’ resurrection went to Paradise (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:23), how do we explain these cases?”

      Don’t confuse resuscitation with resurrection. Two totally different things.

      Regarding Paradise – Paradise was not a “fixed point of theology” by any means. When you die, your “life” – the soul, “nephesh”, spirit – whatever – “goes someplace” where, presumably, it awaits the resurrection. But, Jews were (and still are) all over the place when it comes to defining “paradise”.

      One would have to dig into ages-worth of Rabbinic writings to be able to say “this is what Luke meant”, or “this is what Jesus meant”, but in real life, what was *specifically* meant, in any given usage of the word, is probably not even knowable.

      It’s a *concept*. The parable of Laz and the Rich Guy is as much “folklore” as is, say, a story (or even a joke) about some guy dying, and “going to heaven”, and “meeting Peter at the Pearly Gates”.

      One Jewish writer (who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell) noted “If anything is less Jewish than belief in heaven and hell, it’s Jews agreeing on an official theological party line.” She goes on to quote an old saying: “Two Jews, three afterlives”.

      What I’m getting at is this: If you find someone that can tell you what Jews believed about heaven, hell, paradise, or even the afterlife in general, then you’ve found someone who’s trying to sell you something…

      If you’re trying to figure out what happens if a guy dies, and then is resuscitated, good luck with that. Because you’ll *never* find a definitive answer in Judaism – and in particular, in the Judaism of the time of Jesus.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  October 11, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, have you noticed that this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus could have even been written or taught by a Pharisee? There’s nothing in the meat of the story that begs it to be taken as distinctly Christian — notice there is no mention of anything unique to Christianity in the entire parable (unless, of course, you choose to interpret that last verse as referring to Jesus, but, again, the reference is not explicit, only inferred).

    Indeed, it is a very Jewish kind of parable. If you add to that the fact that taking care of the poor (as well as widows and orphans) was considered standard practice in the Judaism of Jesus’s day, then it becomes all too clear what the purpose of this parable is. Its purpose is to show what it means to be a righteous Jew (whether Christian or not), and what the reward for that generous righteous Jew is (eternal paradise with the Saints) and the punishment for the miserly unrighteous Jew (the fires of Gehenna/Hades). I could imagine this parable being found, word for word, within the Talmud itself. And it wouldn’t, at all, be out of place.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      For most of it, yes. But what is distinctively Christian is the end: “even if someone is raised from the dead” in the context of Luke’s Gospel does not mean “just anyone” but is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection, which, for Luke, did indeed occur and people *still* aren’t paying attention.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 12, 2018

        Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man had a Jewish origin, and the only reason Luke chose to include it in his gospel was *because* it made that reference to returning from death at the end. In other words, Luke took what was originally meant to be a general Jewish parable and made it apply to Christian doctrine by inference. (We could imagine the parable’s provenance as follows: some apocalyptic Jew creates the parable; it finds its way into a common pool of apocalyptic parables; at some point the parable gets attributed to Jesus; the author of Luke agrees with that attribution and thus includes it among other purported words of Jesus.)

        That being said, I should make clear that I don’t think Jesus originated this parable, but that’s for a different reason. I place this parable within the category of Catastrophe sayings (of the 3 Cs: Commission, Community and Catastrophe) which were created to portray Jesus as presaging his own demise. The fact that this parable implies that Jesus knows he’s going to die would take it out of contention. However, the sentiment of the parable sounds exactly like something any apocalyptic Jew, including Jesus! could have uttered. That’s my point.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 11, 2018

    Growing up as a debater, I naively thought that most people would be persuaded by the best evidence. How wrong I was to think such a thing. Recently, I have been reading about how people, even good and smart people, especially when it comes to religion and politics, often are unpersuaded by even overwhelming evidence and I have learned about confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance reduction, motivated reasoning, the backfire effect, and so on and so forth. If any readers of this blog are interested in such stuff, I recommend an article by Chris Mooney entitled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” that appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of “Mother Jones.” The story in this article about how Dorothy Martin and her followers responded when the anticipated spaceships did not arrive on schedule is especially interesting as is the work of the Stanford psychologist Leon Fostinger which is described in the article. If anyone has other such references, I would love having them. My guess is that people living in the first century had similar tendencies and biases when it came to explaining stuff. How could it be otherwise? Thanks

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 12, 2018

      “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” ~ Upton Sinclair

  14. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 11, 2018

    The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich man doesn’t align with Paul’s theology either. In the Parable, the Rich man is being punished for his lack of righteous behavior and not on his failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

    Not a question on the Afterlife but more on the Gospels vs Paul. Although we know Paul’s letters were written prior to the Gospels, how well known was Paul and his writings? Is it possible that the Gospel writers were unfamiliar with Paul and his theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      It’s usually thought (rightly in my view) that the Gospel writers did not know Paul’s writings.

      • Avatar
        Silver  October 12, 2018

        I was very surprised to read that it is generally held that the gospel writers did not know of Paul’s writings. Does this apply to Luke who devoted so much of Acts to Paul’s activities? Why is it thought that Luke would not have been interested in Paul’s pastoral care of the churches he founded?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2018

          Yes, that’s the truly odd part. Luke (in Acts) shows no evidence of knowing Paul’s letters — or even of knowing that Paul *wrote* letters!

  15. Avatar
    fishician  October 11, 2018

    1. This parable does not assume eternal punishment, as the scene is clearly before the final judgment, when, according to Revelation, Hades and its inhabitants will be consumed in the lake of fire.
    2. Is the rejection of wealth based on the apocalyptic view that the end is near, so who needs money and possessions?
    3. Is it possible (or likely?) that the name Lazarus was added to conform with the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John? In John Lazarus is raised, and rather than inspiring faith they conspire to kill him!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      2. Yup, probably 3. It’s usually read the opposite way. There was a story about a man named Lazarus involving someone being raised from the dead, and it came to be transformed in the retelling to an account of Jesus raising someone named Lazarus from the dead.

  16. Avatar
    Gary  October 11, 2018

    Off topic question: In Matthew’s account of the burial of Jesus, did Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus on the Sabbath? There is no mention of the Jews being anxious to get the bodies below ground; no mention of anyone’s legs being broken; no mention of anyone being poked in the side with a spear. Was “Matthew” unaware that burying a body after sunset was a violation of Moses’ Law or does the word “evening” mean something other than the period of time shortly after sunset?

    When it was EVENING, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. -Matthew 27:57 (NRSV)

    • Avatar
      Gary  October 11, 2018

      I checked and the KJV, NKJV, RSV, ESV, Dhouay-Rheims, ASV, Wycliffe, and several other English Bibles all translate the Greek word in question as “evening”.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      That’s interesting — I never noticed it before. I guess it must mean that it was when it started to get dark, not after the next day began. I’ll have to look into it!

      • Avatar
        Gary  October 12, 2018

        Some Christian apologists say that the Greek word in question means “late” and that Jews used this term to refer to the time period of 3PM – 6PM. This would have given Joseph of Arimathea three hours to go to Pilate, buy the burial cloth, take Jesus down from the cross, and bury him.

        It starts to get dark only after the sun goes down (sunset) which is the start of the next day, which in this instance, would have been the sabbath.

        Is it really possible that first century Jews referred to late afternoon (when the sun was still in the sky) as “evening”?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2018

          I don’t know. I’d have to see sonme evidence of it. In the standard Greek lexicon of the NT it is claimed that it often refers to teh period between late afternoon and darkness, but I would have to do a word study to be convinced. From what I’m seeing in a quick overview, it appears that the word simply means (literally) “late” rather than “after sundown”

  17. Avatar
    caesar  October 11, 2018

    When we see ‘poor in spirit’ vs ‘poor’, and ‘those who hunger for righteousness’ vs ‘those who hunger’–does that suggest that Luke is changing Matthew for theological reasons, or vice-versa? Or does it indicate that both Matthew and Luke had a similar source, and only one of them changed it?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      It comes from Q, and so one of them appears to have changed it. Usually it’s thought that it was Matthew, but since Luke’s version so clearly promotes Luke’s agenda, maybe it was the the other way around.

  18. Avatar
    GeorgieC7  October 11, 2018

    Hi Bart, this was interesting. I have always wondered about the perspective of time in Luke’s writings. Would you consider the verse in Luke 14:27 “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple”, similar to the one in 16:31 “neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”? In other words, don’t both indicate that these quotes were conceived after the crucifixion and can’t be referring to an actual utterance by Jesus when he was alive?
    Oh, and btw, I saw your debate with Dinesh D’Souza centered around suffering and wonder if you’ve ever heard of Rupert Spira? He comes from a completely different school of thought and like Alan Watts does not subscribe to the Biblical notion of God however I thought this might be interesting to you personally. I’m not really looking for a comment on this. Just thought you’d find it interesting. “The Royal Way to Approach Suffering” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FalrMDDmlW0
    Thanks for all of your insights and hard work.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      Yes, indeed — both assume a time after Jesus’ death.

      I’m afraid I don’t know of R. Spira.

  19. Avatar
    Todd  October 11, 2018

    Why do you think this concept took root and became the central idea regarding concequences in the afterlife? Something must have happened in the Church or in society that would perpetuate this notion to our times. I hope your books follows this as the Church expands.

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  October 11, 2018

    What books in the New Testament were written above Koine Greek (common Greek), say at the Second Sophistic level (started during the reign of Nero and going into the second century)?

    Was Paul’s Romans written at the Second Sophistic level instead of Koine Greek?

    = = =
    Background from Wikipedia
    The Second Sophistic is a literary-historical term referring to the Greek writers who flourished from the reign of Nero until c. 230 AD and who were catalogued and celebrated by Philostratus in his Lives of the Sophists. However, some recent research has indicated that this Second Sophistic, which was previously thought to have very suddenly and abruptly appeared in the late 1st century, actually had its roots in the early 1st century. It was followed in the 5th century by the philosophy of Byzantine rhetoric, sometimes referred to as the “Third Sophistic.”

    Writers known as members of the Second Sophistic include Nicetas of Smyrna, Aelius Aristides, Dio Chrysostom, Herodes Atticus, Favorinus, Philostratus, Lucian, and Polemon of Laodicea. Plutarch is also often associated with the Second Sophistic movement as well.

    The term “Second Sophistic” comes from Philostratus. In his Lives of the Sophists, Philostratus traces the beginnings of the movement to the orator Aeschines in the 4th century BC. But its earliest representative was really Nicetes of Smyrna, in the late 1st century AD. Unlike the original Sophistic movement of the 5th century BC, the Second Sophistic was little concerned with politics. But it was, to a large degree, to meet the everyday needs and respond to the practical problems of Graeco-Roman society. It came to dominate higher education and left its mark on many forms of literature. The period from around AD 50 to 100 was a period when oratorical elements dealing with the first sophists of Greece were reintroduced to the Roman Empire. The province of Asia embraced the Second Sophistic the most.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      None of the books are written at an elevated level of Attic Greek Hebrews probably comes closest.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 12, 2018

        High style isn’t everything when it comes to writing a book people care about over the long term. Not that you said it was. It is a simple fact that the literary lions of almost any given era would be horrified to know about some of the writers of their day who are remembered now.

        It’s not about elegance, and it’s not about short-term popularity won by pandering to popular tastes. It’s about passion. How much of yourself you put into the work. Style is a means whereby the writer expresses his or her inner self. Some writers who seem to have very crude styles are in fact highly sophisticated–more so, in some cases, then those who do everything properly by the existing rules. Breaking the rules often leads to better results.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  October 12, 2018

        Thank you.

        I just put in the search field: “Clement I.”

        the letter as a whole, along with its constituent parts, shows clear familiarity with Hellenistic rhetorical forms. In particular, the letter functions as a kind of “homonoia (= harmony) speech,” a rhetorical form common among Greek and Roman orators for urging peace and harmony in a city-state experiencing internal strife and disruption.

        Does Clement I, therefore, reach High Greek?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 14, 2018

          No, I was referring to its rhetorical form (homonoia speech) rather than the quality of its literary Greek.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  October 14, 2018

            He was smart enough to have the rhetorical forms but not educated at a level to write High Greek.

            James S. Jeffers (Chair of the History Department at California State University, Dominguez Hills):
            Hermas describes a Clement as the one charged with addressing other churches on behalf of the Roman Christians (Vis. 2.4.3). Scholars in general believe that Hermas refers to the author of 1 Clement. Irenaeus asserts that this Clement, who had conversed with the apostles (peter and paul) was the 3rd to succeed them as bishop of Rome. Eusebius also reports that in AD 92 to 101, he became the 3rd bishop of Rome to succeed Peter and Paul. Jerome also places Clement 3rd.

            He may have been a Roman aristocrat educated in Greek or a Greek-speaking freedman.

            Most current scholars doubt that Clement had training in philosophy, however, Harnack believes the author lacks a higher philosophical education and Roman aesthetic taste. Lightfoot suggested that the author of 1 Clement was a former slave. Maybe he was a slave of Flavia Clemens and Flavia Domitilla but hard evidence is lacking.

            “Send back quickly to us our messengers Claudius Ephebus and Valerius Vito” lends credence to the idea that Clement was an imperial freedman and the three probably belonged to the same house church in Rome.

            Based on his comparison of 1 Clement with the Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, Losh asserts that Clement must have been one of the imperial slaves who composed official letters.

            Hm, official letters not quite rising to the level of High Greek. But, I guess if a senator, consul, or emperor were writing, they wrote in High Greek.

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