Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society

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Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society, by Philip A. Harland (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). Pp. xv + 399. $22.00 (paper). ISBN 0800635892.

Harland's work is an examination of the literary and archaeological remains of western Asia Minor in the first few centuries of the Christian era. The region and the period were particularly fertile for the Christian movement, as is immediately apparent when one considers the list of works considered to have been produced thereabouts, such as the Pastorals, Ephesians, Colossians, Acts, 1 Peter, possibly the Johannine writings, the Ignatian correspondence, and more. Such a voluminous output not only shows the importance of attaining a proper understanding of the region, but also provides us with abundant documentary evidence to use in the development ofthat understanding.

Harland's study focuses on the related phenomena of associations, synagogues, and congregations; he is concerned with "assessing and comparing the place of [these groups] . . . within the framework of the Greek city, or polis, under Roman rule in Asia Minor. More specifically, [he] focuses on the significance of imperial cults, honours and connections in the external relations and internal life of these groups" (p. 8).

In the past, there has been a tendency to consider these three groups ([pagan] associations, [Jewish] synagogues and [Christian] congregations) as isolated from each other. Associations have been seen as the, so to speak, "indigenous" product of the Hellenistic polis, from which the early Christian groups were eager to distinguish themselves by their fanatical, aggressively sectarian character. The Jewish groups are considered to have been less vehement in their rejection of contemporary pagan norms, quietly isolationist rather than loudly secessionist, but nonetheless sharply distinguished both from pagan associations and from their Christian relatives and rivals. Harland rejects this view, however, at least in its extreme form: he argues that synagogues and congregations "were associations in important respects" and that "ancient observers . . . recognized this parallelism, sometimes describing synagogues and assemblies [used as a synonym for 'congregations'] in terms of association life in the Greco-Roman world" (p. 3, italics his). This is not to say that there were no differences between Christian, Jewish, and pagan groups; rather, Harland thinks these differences have been overstated, as has been the degree to which Jews and Christians were integrated into their predominantly pagan environment.

Overall, Harland intends to reevaluate and, simultaneously, to nuance our understanding of these related phenomena, with particular emphasis on associations, to which his work gives clear priority both in terms of the amount of space allotted to them and in the way that they provide the template for discussions of synagogues and congregations. But this is to be expected, given that one of his goals is to decrease the perceived distance and tension between these latter sorts of organizations and day-to-day life in the late antique world of Asia Minor. It is precisely Harland's point that these groups are not purely foreign implantations, at odds with or at the very least alien to their Hellenistic contexts, but rather that they are integrated into them, and that this integration is carried out following the model laid down by the popular associations.

Harland avails himself of three sources of evidence. First, as is to be expected, he uses literary remains-texts produced in, or relevant to, Asia Minor in this period. His analyses of these texts are not extreme or tendentious, but he does try to show the hitherto-overlooked evidence in them of the integration of the early Christian communities in their (pagan) environments, an effort that goes against the interpretative grain but which Harland presents convincingly.

His second and major source of evidence is epigraphic, coining from inscriptions, a source that is often underused by scholars of early Christianity. …