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

By Ferguson, Everett | Interpretation, April 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Ferguson, Everett, Interpretation


Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society by Philip A. Harland Fortress, Minneapolis, 2003. 399 pp. $22.00 ISBN 0-8006-3589-2.

PHILIP HARLAND ARGUES that the associations and guilds of Greek and Roman society provide the best sociological context for understanding Jewish synagogues and Christian congregations in the first centuries of the Christian era. Based in social networks, these associations drew on connections provided by households, a common ethnic or geographic origin, neighborhoods of residence, common occupations, and cult or temple affiliations. The three parts of the study describe associations, their involvement with the imperial cult, and the place of synagogues and congregations within the society. The center of attention is the Roman province of Asia, but the author ranges widely for illustrative material.

Harland approaches his study primarily through the inscriptions, inadequately exploited previously in the study of associations, but he makes reference to literary sources as well. From the inscriptional evidence he concludes, contrary to much earlier study, that the associations were not symptomatic of a decline in the life of the ancient city (polis). The associations not only provided a social life for their members, but they also participated fully in civic life, the political structures of society, and networks of benefaction. Associations often set up monuments or statues to honor a benefactor, a practice that advertised their connections with highly respected persons and so laid their claim to a place in society.

The inscriptions refer frequently to sacrifices, prayers, hymns, and dances in honor of the gods. Harland emphasizes this religious side of associations that was often downplayed by earlier scholars. However, he generalizes from selected scholars to describe this and other situations, betraying the book's origin in a certain style of dissertation that opposes all previous studies.

Cultic honors to humans were common in the Hellenistic world and became common in the Roman world. Harland argues that the imperial cults were genuinely religious and were embedded in the religious life generally; they were not the sole or primary focus of Christian-Roman antagonism. A major thesis of the work is that the associations were not always subversive, as often is claimed in secondary works, but had a positive involvement in giving honors to the imperial family and in other normal aspects of political life. It has long been recognized that many associations named the imperial household as patron deities and offered sacrifice to them. Harland takes account of occasions of disturbance under Roman rule that involved associations, but argues persuasively that these occasions were exceptional and not the norm.

Although the book presents a good case for a new way of looking at associations, at Jewish and Christian relations to the associations, and at the degree of Christian accommodation to society, some cautions are in order. The approach is not so "new" to those familiar with the sources and social history. Earlier scholarship gets painted with a broad brush. A. D. Nock's carefully worded statement quoted on page 119 does not say what Harland implies about a general downplaying of the significance of the imperial cult. Political loyalty could arouse and be expressed by religious acts (p. 123)-the twentieth century saw many examples. Nock did consider the imperial cult as truly religious, within the range of religious expressions of the time (part of the problem here may be semantic). Neither he nor Nilsson devalued rituals in religious but indeed spent much time expounding them. There is evidence for votive offerings to emperors (p. 294, n. 3), but Harland needs to apply to this meager evidence the restraint he advocates about the incidents of civil unrest associated with associations and not generalize about how common the practice was. …

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