Category Archives: Identity in the world of the early Christians

Podcast 6.14: Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 2

This final episode in the series continues the discussion of how negative ethnic stereotypes (including accusations of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and incest) impacted immigrant associations and cultural minorities, including groups of Jesus followers.

Podcast 6.14: Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 2 (mp3; page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 6.13: Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 1

This and the following episode explore ethnic stereotypes as they impacted associations of Judeans and Jesus-followers, placing these groups within the context of ethnic rivalries. In this episode, I discuss common negative stereotypes about Judeans found within writings of the elites, particularly the Roman Tacitus and the Greek Egyptian Apion.

Podcast 6.13: Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 1 (mp3; page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 6.6: Approaches to Studying Ethnic Associations and Identities

Here I discuss concepts of identity, assimilation, and other sociological and anthropological tools for studying immigrant groups or ethnic associations in the ancient context, preparing the way for an investigation of Phoenician, Judean, and other immigrant groups or cultural minorities. This is part of series 6 (Associations in the Greco-Roman World) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 6.6: Approaches to Studying Ethnic Associations and Identities (mp3; page with various downloading options here).

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A couple more reviews of Dynamics of Identity

There is a very well-written and thoughtful review of my book out in Journal of Religion by Joshua D. Garroway of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion.  It was rewarding to hear my arguments accurately explained by someone else, and in this case the reviewer also offers very carefully expressed criticisms of my approach.  If your institution has a subscription to JSTOR, you can find the full review here:

Here are two excerpts:

“Harland does not deny the uniqueness of Christian or Judean groups, but to study them alongside  associations—indeed, as associations—requires him to lay stress on similarities rather than  differences. In his defense, this approach contrasts with much previous scholarship that emphasized—and, in light of Harland’s convincing studies, probably overemphasized—the uniqueness of Christians and Judeans.”

“Until recently, scholars of early Judaism and Christianity have generally pursued the differential quality. Harland’s effort to broaden that perspective by seeing what we might learn about Judeans and Christians by considering their similarities to other “cultural minority groups” in antiquity, even if it is overstated at times, therefore comes as a welcome alternative. The sharpness with which Harland presents that perspective makes it all the more rewarding.”

There is another somewhat less analytical review by Guy Stroumsa at the BMCR site:

Another review of my Dynamics of Identity in Church History

Catherine M. Chin (University of California, Davis) has now published a review of my Dynamics of Identity book in the latest volume of Church History 80 (2011), 371-73. She has some interesting observations on the book, as well as insightful critique.  You can access the article through Cambridge journals online here if your university has a subscription.  I also notice that has the full text of the review available for free at this point.  I’ll be adding some excerpts from reviews to the companion site here.

For now, here is an excerpt:

“The primary contribution of the work to early Christian studies, and to the study of ancient religion more generally, lies in how few pages are actually spent on “early Christians,” and how many are spent on their world. Harland’s work is a social-historical analysis of ethnic, familial, and association identity markers in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his limited discussion of early Christian sources is firmly embedded in this context. Harland uses contemporary social-scientific models of identity theory, ethnic studies, and migration studies, and applies these models primarily to understudied inscriptional evidence, in order to explore the social and ideological contexts in which early Christian groups first came into being. This is important and enlightening work, and the focus on contemporaneous non-Christian identity markers and identity groupings is a welcome addition both to the literature on religion in the Roman world and, more indirectly, on the growth of the new Christian movement.”


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:

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.

Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson

A new book in honour of Stephen G. Wilson (perhaps best known for his Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170 CE) was released at the Society of Biblical Literature this year in San Diego:

Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland, eds., Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007 (312 pp.).
ISBN-10: 1906055173; ISBN-13: 978-1906055172

I have gained permission from the publisher to reproduce my article here, partly as inspiration for you (or your institution’s library through your prodding) to purchase the book itself:

Philip A. Harland, “‘These people are . . . Men Eaters’: Banquets of the Anti-Associations and Perceptions of Minority Cultural Groups.”

Buy the book at or directly from Sheffield Phoenix.

The volume contains some intriguing articles by names you may recognize:

  • Zeba A. Crook , Introduction
  • Peter Richardson, Stephen G. Wilson 35 Years On
  • Kimberly B. Stratton, Curse Rhetoric and the Violence of Identity in Early Judaism and Christianity
  • Adele Reinhartz, Who Cares about Caiaphas?
  • Willi Braun, ‘Our Religion Compels Us to Make a Distinction’: Prolegomena on Meals and Social Formation
  • Philip A. Harland, ‘These people are . . . Men Eaters’: Banquets of the Anti-Associations and Perceptions of Minority Cultural Groups
  • Richard S. Ascough, ‘A Place to Stand, a Place to Grow’: Architectural and Epigraphic Evidence for Expansion in Greco-Roman Associations
  • John M.G. Barclay, Constructing Judean Identity after 70 CE: A Study of Josephus’ Against Apion
  • John S. Kloppenborg, Judaeans or Judaean Christians in James?
  • Laurence Broadhurst, ‘Where my interests and ignorance coincide’: Early Christian Music and other Musics
  • L. W. Hurtado , The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts
  • Edith M. Humphrey, On Visions, Arguments, and Naming: The Rhetoric of Specificity and Mystery in the Apocalypse
  • Michele Murray, Christian Identity in the Apostolic Constitutions: Some Observations
  • Roger Beck, Identifying and Interacting with the ‘Others’: The Late Antique ‘Horoscope of Islam’
  • Alan F. Segal, The History Boy: The Importance of Perspective in the Study of Early Judaism and Christianity
  • Robert Morgan, S.G. Wilson On Religion and its Theological Despisers
  • William Arnal, A Parting of the Ways? Scholarly Identities and a Peculiar Species of Ancient Mediterranean Religion

Those present at the celebratory release had a great time and Steve was indeed surprised, as we had hoped. Many (including myself) reminisced about how Steve had welcomed them at Canadian and international conferences and had influenced their own careers or research.

Buy at Amazon

“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.

‘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]; full text online here).

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’ (Apol. 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.

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 devoteesVotive 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.

‘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.

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.