Category Archives: Synagogues

Launch of Associations in the Greco-Roman World website

With the November release of Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook (book info), Ascough, Kloppenborg, and I have been busy preparing a companion website that I think you’ll find of some interest:

Basically, users of the site can browse through hundreds of inscriptions (450 so far) involving guilds, immigrant groups, and other associations in the ancient Mediterranean. The user can browse by geography or by topics (including gods) using the right side bar. There is also a feature we called “selected exhibits” on (hopefully) interesting topics to a general reader (with about 10 inscriptions in each exhibit). There are many documents with English translations, and the user can choose to view just those (in selected exhibits). One of the selected exhibits is for Judeans (Jews) in the diaspora. The plan is to continue to expand the website with more inscriptions relating to these groups.  There are already 100 inscriptions that do not appear in the sourcebook (marked with an asterisk).

The AGRW sourcebook itself goes beyond the inscriptions to include literary excerpts on associations (from, e.g., Philo, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Tertullian), descriptions of meeting-place excavations, and an extensive annotated bibliography (table of contents here).  The book has been designed to be used as a text in courses as well.

Update: I should also add that I have previously released a podcast series on associations and you can access that all in one place here: Podcast series 6: Associations in the Greco-Roman World.

Richard sends the latest from the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Chicago:

My new book / website: Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians

In case you hadn’t noticed, my forthcoming book on Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities is now available on for preorder (due November) at under $20.  I have also created a companion website (which may be expanded further in time) for the book.  As usual, that subsite can be found in the pull-down menu for “My Other Websites”.

The book considers early Christian identities in relation to other associations, Judean groups, and immigrants in the Roman empire.  Read more about it on the companion site.  Here’s a look at the book cover:

Immigrants adrift in the Greco-Roman world?

What was it like to be an immigrant in the Greco-Roman world? Well, the answer given by many scholars of the past has been that it was not very good at all for immigrants. Without necessarily actually looking at any archeological or inscriptional evidence, some scholars tend to assume that foreigners were faced with significant hardships and feelings of rootlessness. Robert Turcan is somewhat representative of common views when he speaks of a “troubled and drifting world” in which “uprooted people”, particularly immigrants, lived “on the fringes of a disintegrating world” in both the Hellenistic and Roman eras (Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire [A. Nevill trans.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1996], 16-17).

Often this view of immigrant hardship is coupled with overstated notions regarding the decline of the ancient city in the Hellenistic and following eras, which resulted in general feelings of detachment and a lack of social connection. I have dealt with such problematic theories of decline in a full article elsewhere (The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context).

It is true that immigrants, foreigners or minorities could, at times, be faced with negative attitudes or treatment associated with xenophobia (fear of foreigners), so there were certainly negative sides to immigrant experience (see ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort). Nonetheless the all-encompassing scholarly picture of immigrants adrift in a disintegrating society does not fit with the actual evidence we have available, at least in the case of Syrian or Phoenician expatriots in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

My recent research into inscriptions that involve Syrians who settled elsewhere and formed themselves into associations points rather to the ways in which such “foreigners” maintained connections with the cultural traditions of their homeland while also finding a home for themselves in the society of settlement. Syrian immigrants acculturated, to various degrees, to local customs while also sustaining a sense of distinctiveness. In particular, there is a consistency in Syrians’ attention to the “gods of the homeland”. I am developing these ideas further for a forthcoming publication, but you can also see an inscription or two in an earlier post: For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island.

In this respect, there are significant commonalities between Syrians and Judeans (Jews) or Israelites (Samaritans) in the ways that they found a place for themselves in cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. See, for example my post ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays and my article Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis.

“Mothers” and “Fathers” in associations and synagogues: My new article on familial dimensions of group identity

I have now gained permission and uploaded my most recent article on the use of parental language in small group settings in antiquity:

Philip A. Harland, “Familial Dimensions of Group Identity (II): ‘Mothers’ and ‘Fathers’ in Associations and Synagogues of the Greek World,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 38 (2007) 57-79.

This article complements my earlier one on “brothers”:

Philip A. Harland, “Familial Dimensions of Group Identity: ‘Brothers’ (ΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ) in Associations of the Greek East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005) 491-513.

These and other articles are also accessible from the publications page.

Recent articles uploaded on Jews of Hierapolis and the (supposed) decline of the ancient city (polis)

As you may know, I always seek to gain permission from journals and others to reproduce my scholarly articles online, and you can read these articles on my publications page. I have now uploaded two of the most recent ones:

Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis,” Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (2006) 222-244. (This article looks at the grave-inscriptions of Judeans at Hierapolis in Asia Minor).

“The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context,” in Leif E. Vaage, ed., Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity. Studies in Christianity and Judaism, vol. 18. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006, pp. 21-49. (This article discusses scholarly ideas regarding the decline of the ancient city and uses evidence for associations in Asia Minor to refute some common theories).

‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays

I am presently researching questions of cultural interactions in antiquity, particularly with regard to the ways in which immigrants (including Jews) both found a place for themselves within the cities of the Roman empire and maintained their own specific ties with the culture of their homeland. So I thought I’d write a brief post appropriate to the holiday season while addressing issues of acculturation (adopting and adapting to cultural practices of others) and the simultaneous maintenance of cultural or ethnic identities. And I’ll use two Jewish families to illustrate. (This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive discussion of the Maccabean revolt, Hanukkah, and New Year’s, by the way).

On the one hand is the story of a Jewish family who refused to adapt to foreign deities and led a revolt which successfully “cleansed” and re-dedicated the temple in Jerusalem in the 160s BCE. I am speaking of the Maccabees who are at the centre of the story of the festival of Hanukkah, or Chanukah (“Dedication”; for a brief online article go here). The years following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Mediterranean (he died in 323 BCE) were a time of complicated cultural interactions as peoples living in various parts of the known world gradually adjusted to and/or reacted against the Hellenistic (Greek) customs that made their way through governmental, trade, and other social networks. As you can imagine there was a variety of reactions to Hellenistic ways and religions on the ground. Some, such as the Syrian soldiers who identified their own god — in this case Syrian Ba’al Shamem (“Lord of Heaven”) — with a Greek deity (Zeus Olympios), more readily adopted Hellenistic modes of expression. At the same time these same Syrians were also clearly maintaining certain aspects of their own specific religious practices and worldviews (it was Ba’al they worshipped under the guise of Zeus, so to speak).

We know from the story of the Maccabees itself that Judeans (Jews) were not universally agreed on what aspects of Greek culture should or should not be tolerated, adopted, or adapted. Some Judeans were willing to establish a Hellenistic-style city (polis) and gymnasium in Jerusalem, for instance. What the Maccabees and most other Judeans agreed on, however, was that their tradition of monotheistic worship in the Jerusalem temple not be compromised by identifying their God with any god of the Greeks (a “syncretistic” custom that was common in most other places where polytheism prevaled). So when the Syrian soldiers stationed in Jerusalem established an altar in the Jerusalem temple in order to offer sacrifices to Ba’al, this was normal for the soldiers but the last straw for the Maccabees and others like them (see First, Second, Third and Fourth Maccabees in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, available online by clicking on the numbers above). The Maccabean revolt resulted in the cleansing and re-dedication of the temple which are, essentially, the institution of the Hanukkah celebration (according to 1 Maccabees):

“Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev. . . they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. . . Then Judas [Maccabee] and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days. . . ” (1 Maccabees 4:52-59 [NRSV]).

Jewish family grave from Hierapolis (IJO II 196)Grave of a Jewish family at Hierapolis (IJO II 196; photo by Phil)

On the other hand is a Jewish family settled in Hierapolis (a Greek city in Asia Minor) who apparently celebrated the Roman New Year’s festival (feast of Kalends), as well as customary Jewish festivals including Passover and Pentecost. Our evidence for this comes from a family grave dating to the third century CE, which happens to preserve for us the arrangements that a certain man made for himself and his family ( IJO II 196, revising CIJ 777). (I have a forthcoming article that deals at length with questions of acculturation and identity among Jews in Hierapolis which I will post, if possible, when it comes out. In the mean time, for more on Jews, Christians and guilds in Hierapolis and the Lycos valley, go here.)

It was customary for wealthier people in Asia Minor to make arrangements (leave money) for particular people or a group, such as a guild, to come to the family grave on a regular basis and to care for the grave itself. What stands out in this case is that Glykon and his wife, Amia, who were apparently Jews, arranged to have local guilds of purple-dyers and carpet-weavers (who likely included non-Jews in their membership) attend to the grave-ceremonies on both Jewish and Roman holidays. The Roman New Year festival, a precedessor of our New Year celebrations, took place in early January and, as Ovid emphasizes, centred on the exchange of “good wishes” and gifts, including “sweet” gifts (e.g. dates, figs, honey), as well as cash, indicating an omen of a sweet year to come (Fasti 1.171-194). The celebrations were also associated with the Roman god Janus (hence January). Here, then, is a family that clearly maintained Jewish aspects of its identity and arranged for others to continue to remember them on Jewish holy days, but also a family that adapted to some Roman practices, in this case the New Year celebration.

I’ll post again in the new year. Have a good one.

UPDATE (Dec 23): For two different media takes on the Maccabees and Hanukkah (mentioned by Jim Davila), see Hanukka and Hellenization (Jerusalem Post) and The Maccabees and the Hellenists (Slate).

(Dec. 27): Even more media reflections on the Hasmoneans a.k.a. Maccabees (thanks to Jim Davila’s keen eye) here and here.

Redating the Sardis Synagogue?: Jodi Magness argues for the 6th century

As Jim Davila points out, there is an article in the new issue of the American Journal of Archaeology which argues on numismatic (coin) evidence that the Sardis synagogue dates to the sixth century, about two centuries later than commonly suggested (Jodi Magness, “The Date of the Sardis Synagogue in Light of the Numismatic Evidence,” AJA 109 [2005] 443-47). The mosaic floors in the Sardis synagogue, which is located within the larger Greco-Roman bath-gymnasium complex, had previously been dated to the mid-fourth century based on coins found beneath the intact mosaics of the synagogue floor (primarily during the excavations of the 1960s).

(The main hall of the Sardis synagogue, showing the mosaic floors [ by Phil]).

However, Magness carefully re-evaluates all published reports and descriptions and throws into doubt this evaluation of the numismatic (coin) evidence. She points out how there are indeed coins found under the mosaic floors that date considerably later, including coins from the fifth and sixth centuries under both the forecourt and main hall floors (some of which were perhaps too easily dismissed as “contamination” or explained away in other ways once the fourth century dating was the working hypothesis). If this is indeed a correct revision, then many books and articles on the Sardis synagogue will become obsolete, so to speak. Certainly my discussion of the synagogue on my website (here) will need to be substantially revised if this newer view is true. I am somewhat convinced by Magness’ argument, but will need time to digest this further before deciding whether the suggested sixth century date for the mosaic floors is more likely.
(Right: Photo of the synagogue forecourt at Sardis).

At this point it is worth saying that even if the mosaic floors are sixth century, this does not rule out the possibility that the Jews were making use of the structure before that final, major overhaul. In fact, this is precisely what has been argued by the excavators, including Andrew R. Seager, who suggested that the Jews acquired and used this section of the bath-gymnasium (in so called stage 3) before making the final renovation with the mosaic floors (in stage 4). It is the mid-fourth century date for stage 4 that Magness is challenging.

It is worth briefly placing this discussion within other recent re-evaluations of the dates of other diaspora synagogue buildings and Jewish monuments. On pushing dates back, I have previously discussed Monika Trümper’s recent article which suggests an even earlier date for the synagogue on Delos. On pushing dates forward, Angelos Chaniotis convincingly argues that the donation inscription from Aphrodisias, which includes references to god-fearers, should now be dated to the fourth or fifth centuries, not the second or third (see Angelos Chaniotis, “The Jews of Aphrodisias: New Evidence and Old Problems.” Scripta Classica Israelica 21 [2002] 209-42). It will be intriguing to watch the reaction to Magness’ article and its impact on the study of diaspora Judaism, since the Sardis synagogue is often cited in broader discussions of the relations of diaspora Jews to Greco-Roman culture in the imperial (not later Byzantine) period.

Those other (“pagan”) synagogues

Unofficial groups in the Greco-Roman world that I (and others) typically call “associations” used a variety of terms to describe themselves. Some of the favourite Greek terms were synodos (“synod”), koinon, synergasia (“guild”), thiasos (“cult-society”), and mystai (“initiates”). Today, when people (including many scholars) hear the term synagogue or head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) they tend to assume some Jewish group (or building) is in mind. However, the term synagogue (stemming from the Greek synagō, meaning to gather or bring together) was also used by other “pagan” associations and was not necessarily a sign of Jewish connections.

Thus, for instance, one monument from Apamea in Bithynia (northern Asia Minor / Turkey), which involves a group of men and women devotees (thiasitai and thiastides) honouring a priestess of Cybele (the Great Mother), mentions that the inscription was set up in the “synagogue” of Zeus (IApamBith 35). Across the Propontis in Perinthos-Herakleia in Thracia, there was an occupationally-based “synagogue of oar (or small-ware) dealers” that shows no sign of Jewish connections (IPerinthos 59 [first or second century]). At both Beroia and Hagios Mamas in Macedonia there were associations (devoted to Poseidon and a hero-god respectively) whose main leader was known as the head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) (IMakedD 747 [second century]; SEG 27 [1977] 267). And there are many other “pagan” cases where the chief leader of the group, as in some Jewish gatherings, was termed head-of-the-synagogue (e.g. NewDocs I 5; IG X.2 288-289; SEG 42 [1992] 625).

Diaspora Jewish groups (including Jesus-devotees) shared more in common with “run-of-the-mill” associations of the Greco-Roman world than often acknowledged, and their “gatherings” would have been viewed as such by outsiders in some important respects.

To read more about associations in the Greco-Roman world, as well as their relevance to early Judaism and Christianity, go here.

Multiple memberships in the world of the early Christians

Until recently, the suggestion that members of the early Christian congregations may have simultaneously been members in other associations and guilds remained under-explored. In my book, I dealt with the question of multiple memberships in connection with the Christians at Corinth (addressed by Paul in 1 Cor 8 and 10) who were attending banquets alongside non-Christians (“pagans”). I also considered the possibility that the opponents addressed by John’s Apocalypse, especially those accused of eating idol-food (or idol-meat) with “Jezebel”, may have been encountering sacrificial food as members in the guilds of Thyatira (something that William Ramsay suggested, but did not explore, long ago). For all this, see pp. 205-10, 259-63 of Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations.

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my site, I looked at the implications of multiple memberships for questions of rivalries and competition among different groups.

I have now just read a very interesting article on associations on the island of Rhodes by Vincent Gabrielson, which drew my attention to another interesting case of multiple memberships in associations (dealing with IG XII[1] 155). A man named Dionysodoros, who was an immigrant from Alexandria (in Egypt), was honoured by a number of associations (koina) at Rhodes in the second century BCE, including the “Haliasts and Haliads,” the “Paniasts,” and the “Dionysiasts” (devoted to the god Dionysos). A closer look at this lengthy inscription shows that he was not only honoured by these groups, but was also a member in at least four associations at Rhodes! (See Vincent Gabrielson, “The Rhodian Associations Honouring Dionysodoros from Alexandria, ” Classica et mediaevalia 45 [1994] 137-60.)

And these memberships were not fleeting. Dionysodoros was a member of the “Haliasts and Haliads” for 35 years, and he acted as their chief-of-banquets (archeranistas) for 23 years. Simultaneously he was a faithful member and benefactor of other associations, including the “Paniasts” whom he served as chief-of-banquets for at least 18 years. This is the sort of atmosphere of multiple affiliations and interactions in which the early Christians and diaspora Jews found themselves. So we should not be too surprised if we find some Jews or Christians going to synagogue or church one day, and hanging out with friends in the guild or association the next.

Early Jewish synagogue buildings in the diaspora: Not formerly houses

Two recent studies challenge L. Michael White’s suggestion that many synagogue buildings developed from earlier domestic buildings (that is, houses). In the case of the Greek island of Delos, Monika Trümper argues that the building variously identified as either a Samaritan or a Judean synagogue (known as GD80) shows no signs of having been a domestic dwelling. Furthermore, she also challenges those (such as Donald Binder, who also has a very good website) who suggest that the building was previously used by a “pagan” association and only later acquired by the Samaritans. Instead, her interpretation of the remains suggests that the building was used by the Judeans/Jews (or Samaritans) from as early as the second century B.C.E. If this is true, then this would represent the earliest known synagogue building in the dispersion. See the extensive article by Monika Trümper, “The Oldest Original Synagogue Building in the Diaspora: The Delos Synagogue Reconsidered,” Hesperia 73 (2004) 513-598. UPDATE: Article available free online (without original page numbers and without photos and figures) at find articles.

In the case of the port city of Rome, Ostia, Anders Runesson convincingly shows that the archeological evidence previously used to support the notion that the building was originally a house is incorrect. Instead, he argues that “the original edifice was public and monumental, containing a triclinium for common meals, and dated to the late Julio-Claudian period” (first century CE) (p. 171). See Anders Runesson, “A Monumental Synagogue from the First Century: The Case of Ostia,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 33 (2002) 171-220.

The photo to the right shows a menorah (seven-branched candle-holder) on the capital of a column of the Ostia synagogue. For a photographic tour of the various guild-buildings at Ostia, as well as more photos of the synagogue, go to another section of my website here.

It will be interesting to watch the debate develop now as these common notions (at least since the 1990s) concerning the origins of the synagogue are challenged.

Runesson’s excellent survey of research on the The Origins of the Synagogue: A Socio-Historical Study (2001) is among the recent works that convincingly argues that, both socially and architecturally, synagogues have much in common with associations or collegia in the Greco-Roman world. There is an interesting online article by Runesson, which summarizes some of his work, here.