Category Archives: Greco-Roman religions and culture

Greco-Roman deities: Artemis of Ephesus 3

Two of the statues I recently viewed in Italy really convinced me (as they have others such as Fleischer and LiDonnici) that the protuberances were usually understood not as breasts but as part of the costume which decorated the statue of Artemis Ephesia.

This is a statue you can now see in the Capitoline museum in Rome.  This statue has many of the same characteristics that we found in the other statues in my series here (arrangement of arms and legs, decoration of Artemis’ outfit with animals) with one very important exception: the use of two different colours of stone in the carving of the statue.  The artist that carved this statue, those who commissioned it, and likely many who viewed it considered the protrusions on Artemis’ front not as breasts (which would need to be black here to match the skin of her feet and arms) but as part of the clothing decoration.  Clearly these are not breasts.  As Fleischer and others note, it is likely that the artist was representing an earlier statue of Artemis Ephesia (perhaps a statue of dark wood) which was literally dressed in special garments on particular occasions (dressing and feeding statues was somewhat common in certain cultural circles in antiquity).  The artist chose to distinguish the earlier statue itself from the clothing and paraphernalia that decorated that statue by using two different colours of stone, and the bumps on her front are part of the costume here.

That this understanding of the protrusions was not just an anomaly is confirmed by another artist’s rendition found in Neapolis, which is now preserved in the national museum in Naples (inventory no. 6278):

So although church fathers such as Jerome and Minucius Felix later tended to generalize about the “multi-breasted” Artemis (Minucius Felix, Octavius 22.5; Jerome, Commentary on the Epistle to Ephesus proem), this characterization in late antiquity arose less from common perceptions among worshippers of this goddess and more from Christian propaganda aimed at presenting “paganism” as ridiculous or bizarre.  What exactly these objects are is at this point generally unanswerable, but what is clear is that they are part of Artemis Ephesia’s outfit, not her body.

Greco-Roman deities: Artemis of Ephesus 2

As you’ll see by comparing the photo here with my previous post on this Artemis, there are certain elements that repeat themselves in the images of Artemis Ephesia from about the mid-second century BCE on into the Roman era.  She is pictured standing upright with legs together, with upper arms tight against the body, and with her lower arms outstretched.  The statues have elaborate costumes decorated with animals, and there are those mysterious protuberances that have led to characterizations of this deity as the many-breasted goddess.  As in the previous statue I posted, these elements are also evident in the statue above that is now housed in the Vatican museum in Rome.  Here you find a crowned Artemis with garments decorated with lions on the upper arms and deer-like creatures lining the front.  Mythological and other figures appear on her sides and on her upper chest.

Although far from conclusive, there are hints here that the artist of this piece (and those who viewed this Artemis) may not have thought of the protuberances as breasts, since they are considerably low (and another statue of Artemis Ephesia which is now in the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland has even more clearly low-hanging protuberances that miss the chest area altogether).  The next statue photos will provide more conclusive suggestions regarding this issue.  Stay tuned.

My discussions of the statues are informed by the important work of Robert Fleischer, Artemis von Ephesos und verwandte Kultstatuen aus Anatolien und Syrien (EPRO 35; Leiden: Brill, 1973) and by Lynn R. LiDonnici, “The Images of Artemis Ephesia and Greco-Roman Worship: A Reconsideration,” Harvard Theological Review 85 (1992), 389-415.

Greco-Roman deities: Artemis of Ephesus 1

Here is perhaps the best known statue of Artemis Ephesia (or Artemis of Ephesus) as preserved in the Selçuk Archeological Museum (room C, inv. 718) near the ancient site of Ephesus:

After my recent trip to the Naples archeological museum, I now have a number of depictions of Artemis Ephesia and other gods and goddesses in photo form.  So I will be making a series of posts on Greco-Roman deities. There were many different local understandings and depictions of a particular god: in other words, there were many Dionysoses, Zeuses, and Artemises.  Often one Zeus would be distinguished from another Zeus by an epithet: for example, there was a Zeus Soter (“Saviour Zeus”), a Zeus Brontos (“Thunderer Zeus”), and a Zeus Polieus (City-protecting Zeus). One local understanding of Zeus could be distinguished from another through art, in the depiction of the specific form of the god in statues.

Artemis of Ephesus is just one local way in which this goddess was understood.  This Artemis Ephesia is consistently depicted as associated with nature and the wild, as the animals integrated within her garb and the deer at her side indicate.  And she is also always depicted with the strange protuberances which you will see in each of the photos I post.

There is some debate as to what these are.  Are they multiple breasts?  This may indicate notions of fertility and Artemis’ oversight over birth and life.  Are they part of Artemis’ outfit here (perhaps a garment made using bull-testicles, as some scholars suggest)?  Was this similar to an outfit worn by Artemis Ephesia’s main priestess and representative?  Did interpretations of these objects vary even among ancient observers and sculptors?  Actually, some of the photos I will show subsequently help to answer this mystery about the multiple breast-like objects.

More statues of this mysterious goddess to come!

Pompeii 2: Rivalries among associations and a riot at Pompeii

As I discuss at some length in my new book on Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, members of associations could feel a real sense of belonging in the group, and at times this sense of identity could express itself in rivalries with other groups.  Christians and Judeans were not the only ones involved in rivalries or tensions with other groups within society.   In fact, alongside areas of cooperation, competition was an inherent aspect of life within cities in the Roman empire, and associations sometimes took part in this.

Among the more interesting examples of rivalries between different associations (or collegia) is a riot that took place in Pompeii in the first century (59 CE).   This is one of those rare cases when we have more than one source regarding a violent incident involving associations, one of them being a painting from Pompeii.

One of the sources is the historian Tacitus, who relates an incident in which the tensions between different associations from two different cities (Nuceria and Pompeii) escalated into a mini-battle in the amphitheater at Pompeii.  Here is Tacitus’ description:

About this time there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show . . . During an exchange of taunts — characteristic of these disorderly country towns — abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best.  Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital.  Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair.  The senate passed it to the consuls.  When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years.  Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled (Annals 14.17; trans. by Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome [London: Penguin Books, 1973], 321-22).

Tacitus’ account shows us that rival associations from the two different cities played an instrumental role in the conflict.  So both civic and group identity played an important role here.  Such rivalries would not always lead to violent conflict, however.

The second piece of evidence is a painting that can now be seen in the National Museum of Naples.  In the painting is pictured people fighting in and around the amphitheater. Why exactly someone would have this painting commissioned is not completely clear.  Were they proud of the incident since their fellow Pompeiians had gained the upper hand in the rivalry?  Did they know some members of the associations involved?  Or is the painting reaffirming the action of the authorities in quelling and preventing such civic disturbances?  Was it made to celebrate the re-opening of the amphitheater after the imperial prohibition was lifted?

Riot at Pompeii

From the Casa della Rissa nell’Anfiteatro, or house of Actius Anicetus (inventory no. 112222).  Inscriptions depicted on the walls of the palaestra (to the right of the amphitheatre) proclaim: “Good fortune to D. Lucretius” (in Latin) and “Good fortune to Satrius Valens, Augustus Nero” (in Greek).  Photo by Phil.  Full Italian description in Bragantini and Sampaolo, La Pittura Pompeiana, p.512-13.

Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item)

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum a few weeks back in connection with the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Rome (where I presented a paper from my upcoming book).  The populations of both of these ancient towns were wiped out by the volcanic eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, and no subsequent building was done over the ruins.  So these are among the best preserved ancient cities to see.  One major result of the trip is that I now have about 1000 new photos relating to artifacts from the Roman era.  Among these are many photos of mosaics and paintings or frescoes from Pompeii (and some from Herculaneum).  So I’ll have a series of posts on some of these paintings (also drawing on some information found in Irene Bragantini and Valeria Sampaolo, La pittura pompeiana Naples: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, 2009).

The majority of paintings from Pompeii are now removed from Pompeii and preserved in the National Archeological Museum of Naples (Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli).  However, some are still in their original find-spots (in situ).  One of the most incredible wall-paintings from antiquity can still be found within a rather large home on the outskirts of the original town of Pompeii.

Mysteries of Dionysos

This home is known as Villa Item or Villa of the Mysteries, due to the paintings that decorated one of its banqueting halls.  This banqueting hall may also have been used in connection with initiations in the mysteries of Dionysos (Bacchus).  I have discussed the mysteries and Dionysos’ mysteries specifically on one of my websites, so I would suggest you read that first.  Right now I’d like to supplement my earlier discussion of the mysteries by supplying photos of the paintings which seem to depict stages in the initiation process and related mythological scenes.

The paintings seem to depict both the devotees of Dionysos in various stages of participation in initiation rites and mythological scenes which intersect with the progress of initiation itself.  The exact interpretation of these paintings is, of course, debated, but I will give a basic description with some consultation of M.P. Nilsson (The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistics and Roman Age [Lund: Gleerup, 1957], 66-78) and Walter Burkert (Ancient Mystery Cults [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987], 95-96).

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Scene 1 Villa of the Mysteries

Scene 1 – Preparations (north wall, on your left as you enter):

A naked boy reads from a papyrus scroll as two women of the house listen and a third woman carries a dish towards the next scene.

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Scene 2 – Preparations and segue to mythical or revelation scenes (north wall, on your left as you enter):

A seated woman (with back facing us) uncovers a tray with her left hand while receiving liquid into a dish with her right hand, perhaps cleaning her hands (Burkert) or making an offering to the god (Nilsson).  To her right is a mythical scene depicting a silenos playing the lyre, a boy playing a flute, and a girl suckling a goat.  Further to the right, a partially clothed woman runs in fear (perhaps running from the flogging scene on the opposite side).

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Scene 3 – Mythical scene with Silenos, Dionysos, and threatening winged female figure (east wall, straight ahead as you enter):

This may be a depiction of the revelation of the god Dionysos to the initiate.  A drunken and scantily clad god Dionysos, accompanied by Ariadne, is seated in the centre as a Silenos shows something (or offers a drink) to a boy (satyr?) while another boy holds up a theatrical mask.  To the right, a partially clothed woman lifts a veil to reveal the contents of a basket, likely the phallic symbol associated with initiation into the mysteries of DIonysos.  A threatening mythical figure appears on the far right (see next photo).

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Scene 4 – Flagellation and dancing woman (east and south walls):

A winged, mythical figure winds up to flog a woman (initiate-to-be?) with a rod or wand (thyrsos).  The woman lays her head in the lap of another woman for protection from the threatening figure.  To the right, a woman (same initiate who was previously flogged?) dances naked while playing finger-cymbals over her head and another woman holds a reed or wand (thyrsos), a symbol of the god Dionysos.

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Scene 5 – Seated woman being adorned by cupids

Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (2002)

I had been planning to read Beate Dignas’ book on the economics of sanctuaries in Asia Minor for some time, and I have finally done so: Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Oxford Classical Monographs; Oxford: OUP, 2002).   Here I’ll merely provide some highlights from my reading; this will not be a formal review.

Dignas argues that many studies of sanctuaries of Asia Minor in both the Hellenistic and Roman periods have been working with problematic assumptions.  The main assumption that Dignas challenges throughout the work is that concepts such as “polis religion” (in other words “city-state run religion”) or “state cults” or “public cults” are the most appropriate concepts when describing cults in Asia Minor.  In other words, she suggests that the common identification of cult with city (polis) and the notion that the sanctuaries were utterly dependent on civic government is not correct.  Dignas also feels that past attempts to categorize sanctuaries and to deal with the different categories in isolation do not find a basis in the ancient evidence.  In particular, she challenges a stark differentiation between urban and rural cults, or between Greek and so-called indigenous sanctuaries, or between regular sanctuaries and “temple-states”.  Here Dignas would stress similarities more than differences among these previously common categories.

Instead, Dignas emphasizes inscriptional evidence which points to the independence of certain cults from the cities with which they have been associated.  She also highlights cases when those in charge of a sanctuary (priests or what have you) sought to assert the interests of the sanctuary over against the city’s interests, usually by means of diplomatic relations with Hellenistic, Attalid, or Roman rulers.  The relationship between the cult of Zeus at Labraunda and the polis of Mylasa serves as the ongoing illustration of this point, alongside other examples.  The advantage of this particular case is that we possess epigraphic evidence from various points in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.  Dignas’ focus is on the economic management of the sanctuaries, with issues of administration, land, and income.

Dignas proposes a triangular understanding of the relation between city, cult, and ruler, with cases of rulers siding with cults being an important factor in her argument.  Hellenistic or Roman rulers and governors served a mediating role in these conflicts of interest, sometimes siding with a sanctuary’s leadership against the polis’ stance, and sometimes with the polis.  This approach rightly emphasizes the request-response and ad hoc nature of both Hellenistic and Roman rule.  She suggests that the motivations of these rulers in supporting the requests of specific cults may well have been related to concerns to honour the gods and ensure the ongoing welfare of the sanctuaries (rather than mere political interests).

Built into Dignas’ approach is an emphasis on continuity in the administration of sanctuaries from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, with little change in the overall dynamics of this triangular relationship.  She also suggests the ongoing economic stability of many sanctuaries over this period.  In doing so, she is correctly arguing against a far more common scholarly tradition which emphasizes the decline of traditional cults in the late Hellenistic and, especially, in the Roman periods.  She is definitely on the right track in deconstructing that older, previously dominant view.  For my own views on such theories of decline, you can check out my article on “The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context.”

Although I feel that Dignas has a legitimate point to make regarding evidence for the independence of some sanctuaries at certain times, she sometimes tends to substitute repeated assertions regarding independence for actual evidence.  At times the rhetoric of these assertions or claims is problematic as well.   On one occasion, her confidence in her own claims approaches prophetic status:  “future studies will confirm” what I [Dignas] am saying (p. 242).  In cases when the evidence is minimal or difficult to interpret, she nonetheless proceeds full steam ahead with assuming or asserting a high level of independence.   Although I think she is right about some level of continuity in sanctuary life from the Hellenistic to the Roman period, the strength with which she asserts this continuity is not necessarily consonant with the fragmentary nature of the evidence she presents.  Strong claims of either continuity (Dignas’ point) or discontinuity (far more common in previous studies) are based on very partial evidence, and it is important to be very clear about that situation.  More nuanced statements are called for.  Still, she is right to suggest that the evidence does point to the ongoing vitality of many cults in Asia Minor.

Another conceptual difficulty with somewhat far-reaching implications is Dignas’ repeated contrast between “secular” and “profane” with the modern notion of the separation of “church” and “state” as a loose analogy (e.g. p. 13).  This is based, in part, on Dignas’ attempt to assert the independence of sanctuaries (the sacred) from the polis or civic control (profane).  Dignas is here working against a now common claim that what we as moderns label “religion” was in fact embedded within various other dimensions of life in antiquity.  So that what we as moderns might label a “political” factor or an “economic” factor was, in the Greco-Roman world, bound up in what we would tend to call a “religious” sphere, and vice versa.  In other words, some scholars (including myself) would emphasize the relative inadequacy of these categories for studying cultural life in antiquity.  On the other hand, Dignas can conclude with the claim that “a religious sphere can be distinguished within any context of life in ancient Anatolia” (p. 223).  I find Dignas’ attempt to go back to a clear differentiation between religion and politics or the sacred and the profane quite odd.  In reading her theoretical comments on such matters it becomes clear that Dignas is not exactly up to date on the academic study of religion generally.  Nor does she actually engage such theoretical issues in a direct way.  This is problematic when dealing with the subject of sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman world.  And yet it’s important to recognize that this book began as a dissertation in a Classical Studies department, not a Religious Studies department.  And, in an overall way, Dignas’ assertions that an independent “religious sphere” existed is based less on any theoretical consideration of the issue than it is based on her attempt to argue for the independence of many sanctuaries from the cities (which to me does not require a claim that religion was separate from other aspects of life).

Despite these theoretical problems, I nonetheless found Dignas’ work very useful, particularly since we generally lack monographs on the topic of cults in Asia Minor.

Consulting the gods about your favourite blanket

Oracles were an important part of life in Greek cities of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.  Individuals, groups or communities went to locales such as Delphi, Didyma, and Claros to consult a god — in these cases the god Apollo — and to ask for guidance on various dilemnas or problems faced in their lives.  The questions asked could range from what we would consider quite important political decisions (should be go to war with this or that power?) or important health concerns (how can we conceive?) to what we would consider more mundane matters.  In reading Pierre Bonnechere’s chapter on “Divination” (A Companion to Greek Religion, p. 157) today I came across this inscriptional gem in which a man consults Zeus and Zeus’ wife, Dione, about some missing bedding:

“Agis asks Zeus Naios and Dione about his blankets and pillows, whether he has lost them or whether someone else has stolen them” (SIG, 3rd edition 1163).

On Sexual Indulgence: Paul and contemporaries like Musonius Rufus

Quite well-known are the moral exhortations of early Christian authors such as Paul, which include a fair bit of advice on how to conduct oneself sexually.   Thus, for instance, Paul objects to a follower of Jesus at Corinth who was sleeping with his step-mother (the father was not likely around anymore) (1 Corinthians 5).  Quite well known and controversial these days are Paul’s comments about Greeks and Romans (“gentiles” = non-Judeans) who engage in what Paul considers “degrading passions”: “Their women exchanged  natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men. . . were consumed with passion for one another. . . ” (Romans 1:26-27 [NRSV]).  And Paul speaks to the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica and advocates that “you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body [vessel] in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles [non-Judeans] who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  In some ways, Paul is reflecting quite typical stereotypes about Greeks and Romans from a Judean perspective here.

Yet such perspectives on sexual morality and modes of moral exhortation were not necessarily specifically Judean or “Christian” in Paul’s time.  Some of Paul’s “lustful” gentiles advocated similar moral choices when it came to sex.  In many ways, the instructional techniques and lifestyle choices advocated by Paul have parallels in contemporary philosophers (see also my early post on the “Golden Rule” among the ‘pagans’).

Musonius Rufus is one of these contemporary philosophers, a Greek philosopher who combined elements from both the Stoic and Cynic schools.  As I was designing my introductory Christian origins course this week, which this year focuses on placing Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian founders in the context of contemporaries, I re-read Musonius’ advice “On Sex”.  There he includes the following advice addressed primarily to men:

Not the least significant part of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men. Sometimes they pursue one love [women] and sometimes another [men], and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood. Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage. But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature. Trans. by Cora E. Lutz, “Musonius Rufus: ‘The Roman Socrates’,” Yale Classical Studies 10 (1947) 85-87, with adjustments to punctuation.

To modern ears, this may sound wonderful or ridiculous, or a bit of both, depending on who’s listening.  Here one of my points is that Paul had more in common with a guy like Musonius than Paul’s condemnation of the morally bankrupt non-Judeans would imply.

Human sacrifice and cannibalism again — oh, and sexual perversion too

I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians.  “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?”  Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations.  External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.

In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups.  The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity.  Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.

Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways.  A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous.  This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).

At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.

The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well.  This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.

(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).

The anti-imperial Paul “coalition” — John Barclay’s response to N.T. Wright

I was just listening to John Barclay’s excellent talk from this year’s SBL. Now I’m wishing I had been at the talk itself. Not without humour, Barclay discusses what he calls the anti-imperial Paul “coalition” (including N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley and his group). In recent years, it has become very popular within scholarship to approach Paul as clearly anti-imperial and to see this figure as having clear intentions (however hidden in code) of taking stabs at the emperors (whether as rulers or as gods) throughout his letters. It seems to me that Barclay has, in this talk, clearly pinpointed the major fault-lines in the coalition’s approach to Paul and the methodological problems in imagining we can decode some hidden code in Paul’s letters. So do listen to that talk!

I would like to clearly position myself in these “battles” within scholarship over Paul and politics. As for my views on this matter, which clearly intersect with Barclay’s, I will quote an earlier post of mine that I wrote following on the SBL in Vienna in the summer:

[Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”] inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)

Much of my book on Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations was likewise focussed on deconstructing previous approaches to the study of imperial aspects of Greco-Roman society. In particular, I argued against the tendency to over-emphasize imperial cults and to interpret all of early Christianity through the lenses of the anti-imperial Apocalypse of John: “Although imperial cults [worship of the emperors] were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians” (p. 242). Quite often scholars project John the seer’s counter-imperialism onto other authors such as Paul, as though all early Christians agreed on such matters. Things were far more diverse, as I argued in that book.

The anti-imperial Paul coalition’s position on Paul is based, in part, on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of imperial cults. Here is an excerpt from my book on how imperial cults have been misused in scholarship on early Christianity (pp. 241-243), some of which clearly pertain to views espoused by Richard Horsley, N.T. Wright and others:

Scholars tend to overplay the significance of imperial cults–distinguished from religious life generally–in connection with diaspora Judaism and, even more so, early Christianity. . . . [There is a] common emphasis on the centrality of imperial cults per se for our understanding of Christian assemblies’ relations to society, particularly with regard to persecutions. Thus we find frequent references within scholarship to the antagonism or “clash” between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar, the latter being singled out from religious life generally (cf. Deissmann 1995 [1908]:338-78; Cuss 1974:35). Donald L. Jones (1980:1023), for instance, can begin his paper on Christianity and the imperial cult with the statement that: “From the perspective of early Christianity, the worst abuse in the Roman Empire was the imperial cult.” . . . An important basis of this view is the assumption that we can take the hostile viewpoints and futuristic scenarios of John’s Apocalypse as representative of the real situations and perspectives of most Christians, or even as a reliable commentary on the nature of imperial cults.

Along with such views comes a common, but highly questionable, depiction of imperial cults. One often reads of how emperor worship (particularly though not solely under emperors like Domitian) was “enforced” by Roman authorities or that there was considerable “pressure” or “demands” on Christians in their daily lives to conform to the obligational practices of imperial cults specifically (cf. Cuss 1974; Schüssler Fiorenza 1985:192-99; Hemer 1986:7-12; Winter 1994:124-43; Kraybill 1996; Slater 1998; Beale 1999:5-15, 712-14). Moreover, in this perspective, Rome took an active role in promoting such cults in the provinces and neglecting to participate could be taken as the equivalent of political disloyalty or treason, especially since imperial cults were merely political. Imperial cults stood out as a central factor leading to the persecution of Christians both by the inhabitants in the cities and by the imperial regime itself, especially in the time of Domitian when Christians were faced with death if they did not participate in such cults and acknowledge him as “lord and god.” . . .
This traditional view regarding the significance of imperial cults for Judaism and Christianity falters on several inter-related points concerning the actual character of these cults in Asia Minor. Although imperial cults were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians (cf. de Ste. Croix 1963:10; Millar 1973; Price 1984:15, 220-22). First of all, . . . cultic honors for the emperors were not an imposed feature of cultural life in Roman Asia. Rather, they were a natural outgrowth and spontaneous response on the part of civic communities and inhabitants in relation to imperial power. . . Most emperors and officials were not concerned whether the living emperor was worshiped so long as they were shown respect and honor (in whatever form) indicative of a situation in which order and peace could be maintained in the provinces. In fact, quite often these religious honors exceeded what the emperors themselves would expect or desire, at least in the case of emperors who wanted to keep in line with some Republican and Augustan traditions (cf. Suetonius, Divine Augustus 52).

Secondly, in contrast to a popular tradition within scholarship, . . . imperial cults in Roman Asia were not in fact solely political phenomena devoid of religious dimensions. If imperial cults were indeed merely political then we could understand the Christians’ non-participation as the equivalent of disloyalty or treason, in which case this would be a central cause of the persecution of Christians. However, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Fergus Millar, and others show the inadequacies of such political explanations of the persecutions, which had more to do with broader though interconnected religious and social issues. That is, persecution was often linked to the failure of Christians to fully participate in religious activities (especially sacrifice) in honor of the Greco-Roman gods generally.

Thirdly, far from being totally distinct phenomena in the eyes of most inhabitants in Asia, imperial cults were thoroughly integrated within religious life at various levels of civic and provincial society. . . [G]roups and communities reflecting various social strata integrated the emperors and imperial power within their cultural framework. The forms of honors or rituals addressed to “the revered gods” (emperors and imperial family) were not fundamentally different from those offered to traditional deities. This integration is a key to understanding the actual significance of the imperial cults for both Judaism and Christianity.

The imperial cults and the gods they honored were an issue for group-society relations only insofar as they were part and parcel of religious life in the cities. Failure to fully participate in appropriately honoring the gods (imperial deities included) in cultic contexts was one of the sources of negative attitudes towards both Jews and Christians among some civic inhabitants. Jewish and Christian “atheism” could then be perceived by some as lack of concern for others (“misanthropy”) and, potentially, as a cause of those natural disasters and other circumstances by which the gods punished individuals, groups, and communities that failed to give them their due (cf. Tertullian, Apology 40.1-5). This is why we find inhabitants of western Asia Minor, on one occasion, protesting that “if the Jews were to be their fellows, they should worship the Ionians’ gods” (Josephus, Antiquities 12.126; c. 16-13 BCE; cf. Against Apion 2.65-67; Apollonios Molon of Rhodes in Stern 1976:1.148-56). This issue which is broader than, though inclusive of, imperial cults is also a key to understanding sporadic outbreaks of persecution against Christians in Asia Minor.

It is time for scholars, particularly those of the “coalition”, to take more care in their study of Paul within the broader context of the Roman empire. It is time to stop reading into Paul (and other ancient authors) what we wish he had thought and said. Or, to quote Barclay’s appropriate critique of the “coalition”: “once you start looking for code in Paul, you can end up just about anywhere you want.” Paul said very little about imperial cults or the empire and its emperors, so let’s face that and move on to studying what he and other Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and others did say, think, or do.

Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists . . . (NT 3.2)

in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is.

Followers of Jesus, like others devoted to the God of the Judeans, were among the most odd inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world when it comes to their attitudes towards the gods of others. Virtually everyone agreed that there were many gods, and that each home, association, city, ethnic group, or empire might have its own favourite deities without denying others. Few beyond those who honoured the Judean God were concerned with denying the legitimacy of other gods or with questioning other peoples’ practice of honouring their own gods, even if they looked down upon people from another ethnic group or place.

Monotheism was not the norm in antiquity. It was an anomaly. As a result, some Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and others had difficulty making sense of the Judean focus on one god, which seemed to them the equivalent of denying the gods altogether, of “atheism”.

Despite other ways in which they made a home in the Greco-Roman world, this is where the early followers of Jesus were at odds with surrounding culture, and it could be a source of harassment, abuse or even violence. In times of trouble or catastrophe, fingers began to point at those who failed to honour the gods properly, at the “atheists”. The gods were punishing people through natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, because the gods were not being honoured fittingly and atheists like the followers of Jesus were being blamed.

This is why, in part, the emperor Nero could choose the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that took place in Rome in 64 CE (see these sources and translations see Early Christians through Greco-Roman eyes). The Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 109 CE) relates how rumours were spreading that Nero had intentionally started a fire in an area of town where he had hoped to rebuild and renovate (Tacitus does not like Nero, by the way). To distract away from these rumours, which Tacitus implies were true, Nero was looking for someone to blame and he chose “a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Tacitus relates how these “superstitious” Christians were tortured and killed in a disturbing display, a display that was so over the top that it went well beyond any “hatred” that the populace had, or upper class disdain Tacitus had, for these little known worshippers of the Judean God and followers of an obscure criminal executed under Pontius Pilate (as Tacitus would put it).

A similar dynamic relating to the Christians’ failure to honour the gods seems to be at work behind the accusations brought before the governor Pliny the Younger in a northern province of Asia Minor (c. 110 CE). This Roman governor, like other authorities, knows very little, if anything at all, about this obscure group devoted to one “Christ”. This even though Pliny had spent previous decades in important imperial positions in Rome itself. What he does know from locals who brought charges against the accused is that followers of Christ will not honour other gods, including the emperor as a god:

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your [emperor Trajan’s] image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do (Pliny, Epistle 10.96).

So the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ. So far, I’ve not mentioned any cases where Christians are explicitly called what is implied in the cases discussed so far, namely “atheists”. Actual martyrdoms of Christians were not very common, but when anger towards Christians reached the point of violence and death, other Christians were careful to remember the deceased who were considered martyrs, “witnesses”.

One such remembrance in the form of a story related in a letter from one Christian group to others is the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written in the decades following Polycarp’s death in the 160s CE). It is here that we find the explicit charge of atheism. The angry crowds shout out “away with the atheists!” in reference to the Christians. And, when Polycarp is brought before the Roman governor (proconsul) of Asia for final trial, Polycarp turns the accusation on his accusers (something more than “I know you are but what am I” is going on):

“Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant saying, ‘Have respect for your age,’ and other such thngs as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the Genius [guardian spirit] of Caesar; repent, say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!'” (Mart. Poly. 9.2; trans. by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer and revised by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992]).

Similar charges of “atheism” and “impiety” were brought against Christians in Lyons in France in the 170s CE (see H. Musiurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], 64-65). The perception of early Christians as atheists was not uncommon.

Contexts of early Christianity (NT 3.1)

One of the things that needs to be emphasized when approaching the study of early Christianity is the fact that the early Christians, and the writings they produced, were part of a real world (for my course outline and discussion notes for Christian origins go here). Writings such as those found in the New Testament were not floating up in heaven somewhere. Instead, they were written by real people in real places. As a result, they both reflected and were products of broader social and cultural contexts, both Greco-Roman (or Hellenistic) and Judean.

On the one hand, it is important to consider the complicated conglomeration of things we scholars simplify with labels such as “Hellenistic (Greek) world” or “Greco-Roman world”. There is far too much to cover under such terms, but among the issues are the ways in which Hellenistic (Greek) culture came to prominent position in the ancient Mediterranean, something that I have discussed in a post on Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2). You might also get a taste, but only a mere taste, of how complicated this world was by reading some of the posts in my category Greco-Roman Religions and Culture.

There is a sense in which dividing the Judean world from the Hellenistic world is itself a problem, since the two cultures were in interaction for more than three centuries before the emergence of the Jesus movement in Judea. A similar thing could be said of interaction with Roman (better: Greco-Roman) culture once the Romans were in charge of things (beginning in the second century BCE but climaxing with the imperial period, beginning about 31 BCE). The so-called Maccabean revolt of the 170s BCE, which I discuss in ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays, involved a sustained war arising from conflicts with certain actions by Hellenistic rulers and those Judeans who adopted certain aspects of Hellenistic culture. However, the relation between Judaism and Hellenism was by no means entirely hostile, and there were varying reactions by Judean individuals and groups to particular facets of Greek culture both within Israel and in the dispersion (cities across the Mediterranean). The fact that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (a translation known as the Septuagint = LXX) beginning in the third century BCE is indicative of the less antagonistic interactions that were going on in various places.

This discussion of varying Judean responses to Hellenistic culture segues well into the second main cultural sphere: Judean culture. To understand a movement that began within Judaism, such as the Jesus movement, one needs to consider Judean culture in its many forms in the first and following centuries. This is a tall order, since Judaism itself was marked by a variety which I have discussed in posts including Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). The Jesus movement was just one among many groups within second temple Judaism and it is important to consider how to plot out these followers of Jesus in relation to others. As we shall soon see in the case of Paul and the situation at Galatia, even early followers of Jesus could have different answers regarding the relation between the Jesus movement and certain aspects of Judean culture (circumcision among them).

There is a sense in which a course on the New Testament or early Christian literature is, through and through, a study of these two worlds and the interplay between them.  So we will continue to struggle with these issues for a while.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

Was Paul a man of his time?: Contemporaries on the treatment of slaves (NT 2.11)

Yes he was. When studying Paul’s letters, it is important to consider Paul’s views on important social and cultural institutions of Greco-Roman society. One of these institutions was slavery.

Slavery was an important part of the economy in the Roman empire, and the lives of most slaves were by no means easy. You can read about some of this online in Keith Bradley’s Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome. Slaves were also integrated within social and family life, as slaves were considered to belong to the “household” as broadly understood in antiquity. They were objects owned by their masters and subject to the orders of their masters, but belonged to the “family” at the lowest rung in the ladder.

Slaves were also subject to punishment for failing to obey their masters, and this could sometimes be quite brutal, as the quotations from Galen and Seneca below indicate. It seems that Paul, like other contemporaries, assumed the continued existence of slavery and did not show any signs of calling for its abolishment or even for the manumission (setting free) of slaves. When Paul wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Onesimus, who was most likely a runaway slave, he did not ask Onesimus’ master, Philemon, to free (manumit) the slave. Nor did Paul call for the end of slavery. Elsewhere Paul advised that slaves (and others) should remain as they are in light of the present distress and coming end (1 Cor 7:21-24).

Paul, like virtually all of his contemporaries, could not imagine a society that did not have a system of slavery. Nonetheless, it may be that Paul, like some contemporary philosophers, did advocate that masters like Philemon at least treat their slaves in a more controlled manner, or even as a “brother”, as Paul puts it (at least if the slave belonged to the Jesus movement). In writing his letter, Paul seems to be concerned that Onesimus the slave not receive severe punishment from his master for whatever wrongdoing or disobedience his master perceived.

So Paul’s concerns may have something in common with the sentiments of upper-class authors such as Galen and Seneca. Galen, a physician and philosopher who lived in Pergamum (Asia Minor) in the second century, had this to say about punishing slaves:

“If a man adheres to the practice of never striking any of his slaves with his hand, he will be less likely to succumb [to a fit of anger] later on. . . my father trained me to behave in this way myself. . . . There are other people who don’t just hit their slaves, but kick them and gouge out their eyes. . . . The story is told that the Emperor Hadrian struck one of his attendants in the eye with a pen. When he realised that [the slave] had become blind in one eye as a result of this stroke, he called him to him and offered to let him ask him for any gift to make up for what he had suffered. When the victim remained silent, Hadrian again asked him to make a request of whatever he wanted. He declined to accept anything else, but asked for his eye back — for what gift could provide compensation for the loss of an eye?” (Galen, The Diseases of the Mind, 4; translation from T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery [London: Croom Helm, 1981] 180-81).

Seneca, a first-century philosopher, stressed that one needed to control one’s passions or impulses in order to live a wise life (the philosophical life). In the context of discussing the control of anger, he used the treatment of slaves as an example:

“Why do I have to punish my slave with a whipping or imprisonment if he gives me a cheeky answer or disrespectful look or mutters something which I can’t quite hear? Is my status so special that offending my ears should be a crime? There are many people who have forgiven defeated enemies — am I not to forgive someone for being lazy or careless or talkative? If he’s a child, his age should excuse him, if female, her sex, if he doesn’t belong to me, his independence, and if he does belong to my household, the ties of family” (Seneca, Dialogue 5: On Anger, 3.24; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, 179-80).

Both Paul and Seneca seem to be concerned with modifying perceptions of status in some cases and with alleviating the negative treatments that could flow from status-distinctions, but neither had in mind an end to slavery.

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apology 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island

The Greek island of Delos supplies the social historian with an unusually rich source of information regarding immigrant associations in the ancient world (especially for the second century BCE). Seldom can one boast of finding communities of Italians, Samaritans, Judeans, and Egyptians to study in one locale. Added to these many groups were guilds of immigrants from two important Syrian towns, Tyre and Berytos (modern Beirut in Lebanon).

Here I would like to briefly discuss two inscriptions involving the guild of Berytian merchants. These monuments illustrate well the expression of ethnic identity alongside adaptation or acculturation to local ways.

On the one hand is an inscription which shows the continuing importance of the gods of the homeland (Poseidon and, likely, Astarte or Ashtoreth) for this group on Delos:

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers and receivers from Berytos set up the building (oikos), the pillars, and the oracles for the ancestral gods” (IDelos 1774).

On the other is a dedication not to the gods of the homeland but to the goddess Roma, personified Rome, herself.

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers, and receivers from Berytos honoured the goddess Roma, benefactor, on account of the goodwill which she has in relation to the association and the homeland. This was done when Mnaseos son of Dionysios, benefactor, was chief of the cult-society for the second time. Menandros son of Melas, Athenian, prepared this monument” (IDelos 1778).

This was set up at the time of Roman ascendancy in this area of the Mediterranean, when Rome was further facilitating the flow of goods to important ports such as Delos. What particularly stands out in terms of identity and acculturation here is the fact that these immigrants honour the divine “mascot” of Rome. Yet they do so precisely because she is believed to have shown goodwill to the homeland of Beirut (in Syria) itself, as well as to these Syrian immigrants abroad.

These are just some of the many indications of continuing attachments to the homeland combined with a sense of belonging in a new home among immigrants in the Greco-Roman world. There’ll be more to come on immigrants soon.

Associations of Immigrants: Thracians and the goddess Bendis near Athens

As I have mentioned, I am presently writing an article on immigrants and immigrant associations in the Greco-Roman world. My primary focus now is on comparing Judean (Jewish) synagogues in the dispersion with other immigrants from the Levant (east of the Mediterranean) who likewise formed associations, especially Syrians or Phoenicians.

Jews were by no means the only group of immigrants who gathered together regularly in associations and maintained important connections with the culture and religion of their homeland. I will save the Syrians for future posts, but thought I’d mention one of our earliest attested cases of a group of immigrants who formed an association devoted to the deity of their homeland: the Thracians devoted to the goddess Bendis near Athens, Greece, in the Piraeus.

Thracian Goddess Bendis with devotees

Votive relief depicting the Thracian goddess Bendis with a number of torch-race victors approaching their goddess (c. 400-350 BCE, now in the British Museum, photo by Phil)

We know very little about the goddess Bendis herself, who is often (as here) depicted in Thracian hunting gear (and with affinities to Artemis the huntress). At the Piraeus there were at least two associations devoted to her, one of them for immigrants from Thracia (north of Macedonia) specifically and the other for citizens of the city. We first catch a glimpse of a group of Thracians requesting and gaining permission from Athens (which controlled the port city of Piraeus) to set up a temple for their goddess somewhere between 434 and 411 BCE.

Sophia’s repentance: The Apocryphon of John (NT Apocrypha 20)

In a previous post, I have discussed the (“gnostic”) mythology surrounding the figure of Sophia (Wisdom personified) as developed in some of the Nag Hammadi writings. My earlier discussion of Sophia’s mistake in connection with the document called The Sophia of Jesus Christ placed this mythology within the framework of Middle Platonic philosophy and discussed the manner in which Sophia, as a divine being (aeon), was responsible for the mistake that led to the creation of the inferior material realm, our world as we know it.

The second-century Apocryphon of John (or Secret Book of John, online here) presents a far more developed story of the emergence of the perfect spiritual realm and the abortive creation of the material realm. Here Sophia is once again instrumental in performing a massive blunder that leads to the creation of our physical world, but the story is extended in various ways, including a more developed reference to the fact that Sophia was repentant for the mistake and willing to do penance, so to speak.

In the Apocryphon of John, Sophia is once again among the many emanations from the original monad or perfect spirit, the Father. Sophia is also once again responsible, on her own (apart from her “consort”), for the emergence or emanation of the “ruler” (archon) or “world-creator” (demiurge), here called Ialdabaoth:

“Now the wisdom [Sophia] belonging to afterthought, which is an aeon, thought a thought derived from herself. . . She wanted to show forth within herself an image, without the spirit’s [will]; and her consort did not consent. . . And out of her was shown forth an imperfect product, that was different from her manner of appearance, for she had made it without her consort. And compared to the image of its mother it was misshapen, having a different form” (Apocryphon of John 9.25-10.7; trans. by Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions [New York: Doubleday, 1987]).

Ialdabaoth (also spelled Ialtabaoth or Aldabaoth), who is largely identified with the creator god of Genesis, then goes on to create other “rulers” (archons) like himself who assist in creating the material realm, including human beings (Adam and Eve). He is an ignorant god (ignorant of where he had come from and from where his power came), according to this author, a god who just loves to assert how he’s the one-and-only (playing on passages from the Hebrew Bible), when in fact he is not : “It is I who am god, and no other god exists apart from me” (11.21-22), or “For my part, I am a jealous god. And there is no other god apart from me” (13:8-12). (This author, like some other “gnostic” authors, expresses some clear anti-Jewish tendencies, at least in the rejection of the Jewish scriptures’ creator God as an ignorant god.) So the physical world comes into being as a result of acts of ignorance and a divine element is trapped within the physical bodies of human beings, an element that properly belongs in the spiritual realm of the Father.

The repentance of a pacing Sophia comes into the picture once she sees what has happened as a result of her independent action:

“when she saw the imperfection that had come to exist and the theft that her offspring had committed, she repented. And in the darkness of unacquaintance, forgetfullness came over her. And she began to be ashamed, moving back and forth. . . And the entreaty of her repentance was heard, and all the fullness lifted up praise on her behalf unto the invisible virgin spirit, and it consented. And while the holy spirit was consenting, the holy spirit poured over her something of the fullness of all. For her consort did not come to her (in person); rather, it came to her through the fullness in order to rectify her lack. And she was conveyed not to her own eternal realm but to a place higher than her offspring, so as to dwell in the ninth (heaven) until she rectified her lack” (13.21-14.12).

Sophia’s mistake, however massive in the view of this author, did not preclude rectification and a continuing important role as part of the perfect spiritual realm.

Sophia’s mistake: The Sophia of Jesus Christ and Eugnostos (NT Apocrypha 16)

The mythologies preserved in the Nag Hammadi documents can be both fascinating and bewildering to the modern reader. Many, such as The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ (usually dated to the second century CE) quite clearly express their views concerning the origins of the divine realm. Often they build on the assumptions and concepts of contemporary Platonic philosophers who elaborated on the creation of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus (online article on “Middle Platonism“; online translation of Timaeus). One of The Sophia‘s main sources, Eugnostos the Blessed, is saturated in such Platonisms (and Sophia takes them on) in presenting its insights into the five main beings which emerged from the one perfect and indescribable Good, called “God of truth” or “Forefather” by the author. (Eugnostos and The Sophia available online here — check them out for yourself).

Both Eugnostos and The Sophia then go on to innumerate the other main emanations or beings that came to constitute the perfect, spiritual realm along with the Forefather. These beings include the “Self-Father” (the image of the Forefather as if viewed in a mirror), the “Immortal Androgynous Man” (who emerges in the beam of light as the Forefather views his/her image), the “Son of Man” (who is the first-begotten–the others were not begotten), and the “Saviour” (who is “revealed” as a “great androgynous light” by the Son of Man). Each of these figures are androgynous and have their corresponding “female” portion, usually called “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom). So far, so confused, and I won’t try and sort these out for you now (in the document it is only the Saviour who can explain the whole thing in order to bring understanding).

What I especially want to point out is what The Sophia of Jesus Christ does with this source and an important “story” which the author uses to supplement this scenario. The Sophia places the whole letter of instruction into the form of a dialogue between “the Saviour” (identified with Christ) and his disciples (Eugnostos, on the other hand, shows no signs of being “Christian”, and very little, if any, indication of being “Jewish”). Absent in Eugnostos is any elaboration on how the material realm (rather than the spiritual realm discussed above) came to be, or on who it was that created the material realm in which we humans live and on how we got here.

Enter Sophia and her mistake, referred to in The Sophia document. “Saviour” (Christ) talking here:

“All who come into the world, like a drop from the Light, are sent by him to the world of Almighty, that they may be guarded by him. And the bond of his forgetfulness bound him by the will of Sophia, that the matter might be revealed through it to the whole world in poverty concerning his (Almighty’s) arrogance and blindness and the ignorance that he was named. But I (Saviour) came from the places above by the will of the great Light. . . I have cut off the work of the robbers (powers that created or control the material realm); I have wakened that drop that was sent from Sophia, that it might bear much fruit. . . And you (disciples being addressed) were sent by the Son, who was sent that you might receive Light and remove yourselves from the forgetfulness of the authorities. . . Tread upon their (the robbers or authorities who rule the material realm) malicious intent” (Sophia of Jesus Christ 106-108; trans. D. M. Parrott in The Nag Hammadi Library in English ; explanatory notes added by me).

Here we have what does recur (in variant forms) in some other Nag Hammadi documents (such as the Apocryphon of John) and which is referred to in some heresiologists (like Irenaeus). This is a reference to the story of Sophia’s mistake in desiring, by herself and without her consort, “to bring these (authorities including Almighty, or Yaldabaoth) to existence” (114; BG 118). She created, by this mistake, the “Almighty”, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and his “robber” buddies, in this author’s view. Here the god of the Hebrew Bible is cast as the ignorant creator of the material realm (demiurge), whose work necessitated the sending of a Saviour from another God, the perfect and ineffable Forefather, to awaken and bring back the drops of the perfect spiritual realm (trapped within bodies-prisons in this material realm) to the place they belong. The Saviour came to bring the knowledge of the situation so that “they (the drops) might be joined with that Spirit and Breath. . . and might from two become one,” one with the perfect spiritual realm of the Forefather. This scenario is precisely what salvation is all about, for this author (and some others who also thought of themselves as followers of Christ).

But don’t expect to understand such mythology easily, since the documents that present it presume some previous knowledge of this way of thinking. We (moderns) can at least begin to get a sense of how different this is from some other early Christian writings where salvation instead pivots on Jesus’ death and resurrection (as in Paul’s letters, for instance).

These discussions of Nag Hammadi material (traditionally “gnosticism”) are far longer than what you want a blog entry to be and they certainly do not do justice to the topic. But what can you do?

Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs

Bandits or pirates play an important role within many of the ancient Greek novels. In essence, these thugs come to embody just about every improper social and religious activity you can imagine, including human sacrifice and cannibalism (as I discussed in earlier entries on ethnography. They are also depicted as engaging in improper banqueting activity in other respects.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) relates the story of a man who is turned into an ass through magic and goes on adventures towards his ultimate salvation from the goddess Isis. In the mean time, his adventures include capture by a guild (collegium) of bandits (6.31), whose meal etiquette is characterized thus:

They ate and drank in utter disorder, swallowing meat by the heap, bread by the stack, and cups by the legion. They played raucously, sang deafeningly, and joked abusively, and in every other respect behaved just like those half-beasts, the Lapiths and Centaurs (Metamorphoses 4.8, trans LCL).

According to Greek mythology, the wedding celebration of Peirithous, a Lapith, ended in utter violence between the two peoples due to the drunken behaviour of a Centaur (cf. Homer, Od. 21.285-304). So these mythical figures became the epitome of terrible and violent banqueting behaviour ever since, as evidenced in the title of Lucian’s satirical Symposium, or The Lapiths, and in many artistic representations (cf. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.17.2; 1.28.2; 5.10.8).

(A Lapith struggles with a Centaur, Parthenon metope, now in the British Museum).

The brigands in Apuleius’ novel have “principles,” by the way, which are manifest in their (foiled) plan to punish the girl and the ass in the most humiliating manner: by having the living girl sewn inside the executed animal and leaving them both in the hot sun for dogs and vultures to devour.

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 to the Associations in the Greco-Roman World site (under my websites above).

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 Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (click the Books / Articles tab for a free download), 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).

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my publications page, 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.

Banqueting under the protection of your gods

Down in a dusty basement of the British Museum, where few will ever see it, is a very interesting monument involving an association devoted to Zeus Hypsistos (“Most High”; GIBM IV.2 1007; from Panormos, near Kyzikos in Asia Minor).

The “three-storey” relief on this monument depicts the gods to whom the association was devoted, with Zeus (left) alongside Artemis (middle) and Apollo (right). All three deities hold out a libation bowl in their right hands, symbolic of the libations (drink-offerings) which humans offer in honour of these figures.

Even more interesting is the rare picture of an association’s banquet which is depicted under the benevolent protection of the gods. Here we see a number of members of the association reclining for the meal in a customary manner as they watch a female dance, perhaps performing in honour of the gods. She is accompanied by a seated man playing a Phrygian flute and a percussionist (using reeds) while, off to the right, a man takes care of the wine bowl for the symposium (drinking party).

A monument like this illustrates well the interconnected social and religious purposes of the associations. Partying and honouring the gods went together quite well in antiquity.

 

The inscription in the triangular shape at the top reads as follows: “To Zeus Hypsistos and the place. Thallos, eponymous official, dedicated this relief.”

There will be more to come from my recent visit to the British Museum, and perhaps more on Zeus Most High, whose connections with Judaism are somewhat controversial. (I would like to thank Dr. Peter Higgs, curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities, for arranging access to the monument).

An invitation from the god Sarapis: Banqueting with the gods

When the members of associations or guilds in the Roman empire gathered together for a meal, much more than simply satisfying the appetite or merely socializing was going on. Things that we moderns might separate into the categories of “social” and “religious” were intimately intertwined in antiquity, and the sacrificial meal is a case in point. The main way to honour the gods or goddesses was to make offerings of food or animal sacrifices, and in the majority of cases this, by default, included the accompanying meal of the worshipers.

In fact, in some cases it was even imagined that the god threw the banquet and was present with devotees as they shared in a communal meal. One banquet invitation on papyrus (ancient paper made from plants in Egypt) shows that the (Greco-Egyptian) god Sarapis sometimes sent out personal invitations for dinner: “The god calls you to a banquet being held. . . tomorrow from the 9th hour” (trans. by G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. I no. 1). And this is one of those rare cases when an upper-class author (in this case Aelius Aristides of Smyrna) happens to clarify how the members of an association devoted to Sarapis might think about their god’s presence, whether in Egypt or in Asia Minor:

“And mankind exceptionally makes this god [Sarapis] alone a full partner in their sacrifices, summoning him to the feast and making him both their chief guest and host, so that while different gods contribute to different banquets, he is the universal contributor to all banquets and has the rank of mess president for those who assemble at times for his sake . . . he is a participant in the libations and is the one who receives the libations, and he goes as a guest to the revel and issues the invitations to the revelers, who under his guidance perform a dance.  Orations 45.27-28; trans. by Charles A. Behr, P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981 (second century).

Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor

Quite well-known is the book of Revelation’s (aka John’s Apocalypse) condemnation of “worshiping the beast” in his writing to the Christians in Asia Minor:

[The beast rising from the sea] was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered (13:7-8 [NRSV]).

Scholars have for a long time recognized in this a reference to worship of the Roman emperor, with the emperor being cast as a chaotic beast in this passage. In the Greek part of the empire (including Asia Minor), in particular, the emperor and the imperial family were granted honours equivalent to those offered traditional deities, like Zeus or Artemis. They were referred to as the “revered ones” (Sebastoi), the Greek equivalent of the title “Augusti”. This worship included temples in their honour as well as sacrifices at both the city and the provincial levels.

Yet quite often those who have studied these “imperial cults” tend to see them as primarily political and lacking in religiosity, or as “public” rather than “private”. This problematic view is partly due to the neglect of the many monuments and inscriptions set up by small, informal groups or associations at the local level in many cities of Asia Minor. Many of these groups worshiped the emperors without anyone imposing that on them. One such association at Pergamum was called the “hymn-singers” (hymnodoi). Once in a while they participated in special provincial celebrations in honour of god Augustus and his heirs, but they also engaged in special “mysteries” that lasted three days in honour of the “revered ones” within their local meetings. Similarly, an association at Ephesus in the time of emperor Domitian had “mysteries and sacrifices” which they performed each year “to Demeter…and to the Sebastoi gods”.

Click on the Books / Articles tab at the top of the page to read some scholarly articles on this topic.

Banquets of the anti-associations: “They sacrificed a human being and partook of the flesh”

Quite well-known are the accusations of cannibalism (Thyestan feasts) and incest (Oedipean unions) made by some Greeks, Romans, and others against Christians in the second century (as reflected in the letter written by Christians at Lyons in Gaul [France] to those in Asia Minor [Turkey] in 177 CE). Yet such allegations were part of a common set of stereotypes for describing the “other” (that is, foreign or “barbarian” peoples and groups) that were also used by ancient writers of history and fiction concerning “foreign” religious associations or criminal “lowlife” guilds.

Some Christian authors in later years would draw on the same stockpile of accusations in their fight with other Christians that they considered “heretics” (e.g. Epiphanius on the Phibionites). The same “rituals of atrocity” would be leveled against supposed heretics and “witches” in the middle ages, and most recently recurred in stories about the supposed ritual murders performed among Satanist groups in the 1980s. I am now in the midst of writing a paper that explores such accusations of wildly transgressive rituals and banquets in antiquity (for the Society of Biblical Literature Greco-Roman meals seminar).

Among the more interesting and deliberately shocking accounts in ancient Greek novels is the episode from Lollianos’ (or Lollianus’) A Phoenician Story (Phoenikika – second century CE), which describes a criminal guild of initiates engaging in ritual murder:

Meanwhile another man, who was naked, walked by, wearing a crimson loincloth, and throwing the body of the pais (child or servant) on its back, he cut it up, and tore out its heart and placed it upon the fire. Then, he took up [the cooked heart] and sliced it up to the middle. And on the surface [of the slices] he sprinkled [barley groats] and wet it with oil; and when he had sufficiently prepared them, [he gave them to the] initiates, and those who held (a slice?) [he ordered] to swear in the blood of the heart that they would neither give up nor betray [——–], not [even if they are led off to prison], nor yet if they be tortured
PColon 3328, B 1 Recto, lines 9-16. Translation from Susan A. Stephens and John J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 338-341.

What might be missed by a modern reader is just how normal this episode would be if not for the fact that the sacrificial victim is human. Greeks and Romans regularly engaged in sacrifices of animals in order to honour their gods, and the procedure described here would not be considered out of the ordinary. The sacrifice was accompanied by a communal meal sharing in portions of the sacrificed animal (including the innards, which were somewhat of a delicacy). Greeks and Romans alike would be utterly shocked and outraged, however, at the idea of a human victim. (The quotation in this post’s title comes from Plutarch’s Life of Cicero 10.4 and speaks of Cicero’s political opponent Cataline and his supposed co-conspirators in the 60s BCE.)

Perhaps this is less bland than my introductory post.