Category Archives: Greco-Roman religions and culture

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: 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 Componanion 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).

Sounds a bit like me consulting the local oracle on a wintery day: “Alright, who stole my gloves.  Cheryl, have you seen my gloves?”

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).

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 Amazon.com 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

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 that has been posted (as an mp3) by Andy Rowell. 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.

Visiting Ephesus . . . in Vienna, part 2: Some gods

Monument relating to SalutarisWalking through an ancient city such as Ephesus, one would encounter a plethora of monuments, inscriptions and statues on a scale not familiar to a modern person who is used to sky-scrapers and plain old pavement. Among these were dedications to Roman imperial authorities, such as an emperor or a governor, and monuments erected by or for local notables in the city, such as the monument for C. Vibius Salutaris which you see to your left. There were also many buildings and monuments relating to the gods at Ephesus, some of which I have discussed before.
Hermes statue (missing head)

There are numerous artefacts pertaining to gods and goddesses in the “Ephesus Museum” at Vienna.Hermes Hermes head (without body)One might encounter a god like Hermes at various points in one’s travel through the city. Thus, for instance, archeologists have recovered a now headless statue of Hermes (above). But they have also found a bodiless head of Hermes (left). This messenger god Hermes also appears more than once at Ephesus in his other, less humanoid form as protector of those that travel (right).

Central to honouring any deity in the ancient Mediterranean was sacrifice. And so one would find altars on which to make offerings to certain deities, especially animal sacrifices, in the many temples and shrines in Ephesus. One of the altars that is now at Vienna possesses an interesting relief that depicts the goddess Nike (“Victory”) proceeding forward with an animal for sacrifice. Quite often Greeks (and Romans) would depict their gods engaged in the very activities that devotees engaged in. Thus deities are often pictured holding a libation bowl in their statues. Libation bowls were used by worshippers to honour a god or goddess with a drink offering.

Altar with Nike

Although not from Ephesus specifically, the museum at Vienna also happens to have a statue of a native Anatolian goddess (with many local “incarnations”), the Great Mother or Cybele as she was called by Greeks and Romans. Cybele was, in many cases, a goddess associated with the wild and with mountains in particular. Quite often she is pictured seated on a throne or standing with lions on either side as in this statue. Cybele was also known for her secretive “mysteries“.
Cybele from Pergamum

Visiting Ephesus . . . in Vienna, part 1

One of the more interesting parts of my recent visit to Austria for the SBL was visiting Ephesus. . . that’s right. The Austrian Archaeological Institute (Österreichische Archäologische Institut), whose website is here, has been active in excavations of this site in Turkey solidly since the 1950s (and Austrian work there goes back even further to the 1890s as you can read on that website). They have created the “Ephesos Museum” to display some of the finds that were brought back to Austria from Turkey.

As you may know, you can already read about Ephesus and view photos from the actualModel of Ephesus site on my own website here. I have also created a virtual tour of the “Selçuk (Ephesus) Archeological Museum” in Turkey, along with other museums, on my Archeological Museums webpage. Right now I thought I’d give you a few glimpses into the Ephesian materials that are kept in Vienna, in the Hapsburg palaces, no less. (No assassinations took place while I was there, as far as I know).

The Ephesos Museum has an interesting model in wood which provides a good overview of the site. Pictured here is the view from the south east showing the upper portion of the city with its temple for Domitian and Kuretes Street leading down towards the Celsus library, the theatre and the main marketplace (to the left of the theatre). Further in the distance (to the right of the theatre) are the two main gymnasia or athletic complexes.

Bronze Athlete This is an opportune time to mention some athletic related pieces in the museum.

First of all, there is a very well presented bronze statue of an athlete from Ephesus (reconstructed). This is a Roman copy of a Greek original (ca. 320 BCE) and is often categorized along with other statues that depict an athlete scraping off sweat and dirt after a competition (hence they are sometimes called “the scraper”, apoxyomenos — wiki article here). Here the athlete can be seen reaching down to scrape his thighs, holding his hands in a way that shows that the statue originally included a scraping instrument in his hands.

Similar statues have been found, such as the recent find (of 1996) in Croatia, on which see the online discussion of the Croatian Apoxyomenos. Another in the Vatican Museum (Pio Clementino inv. 1185), which is likely a copy of an original by the famous sculptor Lysippus, has been the subject of sketches that are available on the Perseus website here and here. An excellent photo of the upper portion of the Vatican statue is here.

Pliny the Elder also relates a story regarding a statue of this type by Lysippus. The story goes that this statue, which was dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in front of his baths was so admired by the emperor Tiberius that he had it moved into his own bedroom. There was such an uproar due to the popularity of the statue that Tiberius was compelled to put the statue back in its public setting for all to see (Pliny, Natural history 34.62).Herakles vs Centaur in Vienna

For another bronze athlete, this one found in the Aegean sea off the coast of Cyme in Turkey (now in the Izmir / Smyrna museum), see my photo here.

Another intriguing bronze piece at the Ephesos Museum is a lamp. I’m not sure whether you’d want this as a reading lamp for your living room, though. It depicts Herakles (Hercules), patron deity of athletes, engaged in a struggle with a mythical centaur (half man, half horse). Looking at the piece you get the feeling that Herakles has the upper-hand and that the centaur doesn’t have much time left–he’s going down. In previous posts, I have discussed mythology associated with the centaurs at some length (with photos from the British Museum): Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs.

I’ll have more from the museum at Vienna soon. Oooh, the suspense.

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.

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

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

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

This article complements my earlier one on “brothers”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 and John Madden’s Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins. 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]; 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.

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 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.

David Frankfurter on “fetus magic” in Roman Egypt

The most recent issue of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies (current issue not yet online) has a fascinating article by David Frankfurter (U. New Hampshire): “Fetus Magic and Sorcery Fears in Roman Egypt,” GRBS 46 (2006), 37-62. Frankfurter explores the case of one Gemellus Horion, a partially blind descendent of a Roman veteran who brought a formal complaint before the Roman strategos over an incident that occured in the village of Karanis in 197 CE. Horion’s not-so-friendly neighbours — the family of Julius — had on more than one occasion robbed Horion’s family of their harvest and had ensured that their thieving action would not be stopped by using magic. Not once, but twice, the neighbours had thrown an aborted or miscarried fetus (brephos) in order to “surround [the Horion family] with malice” and create a binding spell that would ensure that noone would stop them –apparently with success to the point of Horion’s petition for Roman action. The complaint on the papyrus, as translated by Frankfurter, reads in part:

“[Julius] again trespassed with his wife and a certain Zenas, holding a brephos (fetus), intending to surround my cultivator with malice so that he would abandon his labor after having harvested . . . Again, in the same manner, they threw the same brephos toward me, intending to surround me also with malice. . . Julius, after he had gathered in the remaining crops from the fields, took the brephos away to his house (PMich VI 423-424, lines 12-14, 16-18, 20-21, as translated by Frankfurter 2006:41).

Frankfurter goes on to discuss this incident of a binding spell within the context of local traditions of magical practice and shows how the fetus functions primarily as something completely out of place or “weird” and therefore impure (making use of Malinowksi’s principle of the “coefficient of weirdness”) (p. 52). I would highly recommend this and the many other solid studies that David Frankfurter has produced, including his Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) and “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 (2001), 352-381.

Frankfurter has a knack for picking interesting topics and solving important issues in the process, I would suggest.

“Alive and kicking”: Associations and Roman law again

A while back, I referred to an article by Ilias Arnaoutoglou in which he argued, like I had in Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (pp. 161-173), that evidence from Asia Minor shows that Roman law or legal action regarding associations was generally sporadic and not empire-wide. This argument is significant because so many scholars of the past and present assume that governmental control of associations or collegia was somewhat consistent over time and from one region to another; at times this comes to influence discussions of both Jewish and Christian groups. In other words, a well-ingrained scholarly assumption often distorts discussions of small social-religious groups in the Roman world generally.

Arnaoutoglou now has another article that hones in on Egypt specifically, and extends the earlier argument in the process: Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, “Collegia in the Province of Egypt in the First Century CE,” Ancient Society 35 (2005): 197-216. Juxtaposing Philo’s mention of A. Aillius Flaccus’ actions in banning associations in Alexandria around 35 CE (Philo, Flaccus 4) with the actual papyrological and inscriptional evidence for associations from the late first century BCE through the first CE, Arnaoutoglou shows that this action was not part of an empire-wide attempt to quell associations and that, generally, “collegia were alive and kicking in first-century Egypt” (p. 209). For more on Philo and the associations of Alexandria, see Torrey Seland’s online article: “Philo and the Clubs and Associations of Alexandria.” (Also, for Philo generally see Torrey’s blog).

There are two key passages in Philo, the Jewish philosopher, regarding associations that are worth citing (the first reflecting his moral indignation and the latter his respect for Flaccus’ action in banning some of these supposedly wild groups):

In the city there are clubs (thiasoi) with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor and drunkenness and sottish carousing and their offspring, wantonness. “Synods” and “banqueting-couches” (klinai) are the particular names given to them by the people of the country (Flaccus 136 [trans. by Colson in LCL, with adaptations]).

[The Roman prefect Flaccus] dissolved the associations and guilds, which were continually holding feasts on the pretext of sacrifice and misconducted their offices by insobriety, dealing drastically and peremptorily with the recalcitrant (Flaccus 4; trans. by H. Box as cited in Arnaoutoglou, p. 204)

Philo doesn’t like these non-Jewish associations, in case you hadn’t noticed, and in another treatise on the Therapeutai contrasts the ascetic lifestyle of this particular Jewish group with the wild parties of the worshippers of the god Dionysos and others (see Philo, The Contemplative Life). On the need to exercize caution in evaluating descriptions of wild banquets see my earlier posts here and here. For an entire article on the subject read this: “Culturally Transgressive Banquets in Greco-Roman Associations: Imagination and Reality.”

(Like the associations in Roman Egypt, I, too, am “alive and kicking” despite some major set-backs recently and hope to begin posting somewhat more regularly, though less than usual, soon. My apologies for the hiatus. Despite the temptation, I won’t quote any lyrics from Simple Minds, by the way).

‘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.

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 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?

New study on imperial cults / worship of the emperors: “Temple-wardens” (neokoroi)

Worship of the emperors is a fascinating aspect of religious life in the Roman empire. Over on BMCR, there is a review (by Kieran Hendrick) of a recent book that deals with the title “temple-warden” (neokoros) in connection with provincial imperial cults (temples devoted to worship of the emperors): Barbara Burrell, Neokoroi: Greek cities and Roman Emperors. Cincinnati Classical Studies, New Series Volume IX. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Cities throughout Asia Minor and other eastern areas of the empire proudly took on the title “temple-warden” when they came to host a provincial temple in honour of the “revered ones” (Sebastoi), the emperors or imperial family as gods. Burrell’s book gathers together and provides an overview of the evidence for this practice.

If you would like to know more about worship of the emperors in the eastern part of the empire, you can read a brief overview here on my site. Or, if you would like to read more about imperial cults at the local level within associations, read my journal article here (or this one). On the significance of these cults for John’s Apocalypse (Revelation), which speaks of “worshipping the beast”, read this. The classic study which set the stage for much recent research in this area, including my own, is Simon Price’s Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1984). That is still the place to start if you want to read a book on the subject.

Photo (above right): Head of the colossal statue of emperor Domitian (or Titus) associated with the provincial imperial cult temple at Ephesus (which made the city “twice temple warden” in the Flavian era, the late first century). Now in the Ephesus Museum (mini-photo-tour of museum here). Photo by Phil.

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.

You can read more about such characterizations of wild meals or anti-banquets of bandits and other “low-lifes” in a paper I wrote here.

Pink Floyd, Pompeii, and the Mysteries of Dionysos

I recently re-watched Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” (originally 1972) film which has now been released as a director’s cut DVD (also with the original version included). The live concert was recorded (with no audience, I might add) in the amphitheatre at Pompeii, with excellent results in sound. The new director’s cut version of the film adds considerable Roman archeological material as background (the original version had some). In particular, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, which is mesmerizing to begin with, is now interspersed with shots of the paintings from the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa Item), which pertain to the mysteries of the god Dionysos (Dionysus) or Bacchus (which you can read about here). If you do like Pink Floyd’s music or you are interested in Roman archeology and the mysteries, then it’s well worth a watch. It also has the track “Madame Nobs” (recorded in a studio, not Pompeii) which is a blues tune with harmonica and live howling dog accompaniment (my son enjoys that the most).

New study on Roman imperial statue bases and Troels on inscription erasures (Epigraphy 5)

Over on “Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm“, Troels mentions a new study by Jakob Munk Højte on Roman imperial statue bases. Troels then goes on to the question of the mutilation of inscriptions, and mentions a case in the Prytaneion (presidency building) at Ephesus which involves the obliteration of the goddess Artemis’ name (probably by Christians). Troels also promises some more entries on the topic, to which I will look forward.
Troels also mentions the relative commonality of the erasure of an emperor’s name in cases where an emperor was so disliked by other senators that his memory was “condemned” (damnatio memoriae) after his death. I happen to have on hand a photo of an inscription, now in the museum at Ephesus, that involves a dedication to the emperor Domitian in 88-89 CE (by the city of Klazomenae) (IEph 235). After the condemnation of Domitian’s memory, Domitian’s name was erased and the monument was rededicated to the emperor Vespasian. The erasure and re-inscription took place on lines two and four, with Domitian being replaced with “god” (theos) in line two and Germanicus being replaced with “Vespasian” in line four).

You can also check out some other monuments and statues in the Ephesus museum, as well as other Turkish museums, here.

UPDATE: Welcome to readers of Respectful Insolence (aka Orac Knows), a blog by an “academic surgeon and scientist” that covers just about everything you could imagine, including science and history (especially WW II and the Holocaust). If you are interested in Roman history and the history of religions in the Roman empire (including Judaism and Christianity, of course), you may (are sure to) find other entries of interest here.

Some online articles on associations in the ancient Mediterranean

As you may know, you can read a number of articles dealing with the social and religious life of associations and guilds in the Roman empire by clicking on my full-text online articles (and scrolling down). But I thought I’d mention a few other articles on associations (collegia, thiasoi, synodoi, etc) that are also freely available online:

Our friendly neighbourhood Philo scholar has the following very interesting paper hosted on the Ioudaios site (which later appeared in revised form in the volume edited by John S. Kloppenborg and Stephen G. Wilson):
Torrey Seland, “Philo and the Clubs and Associations of Alexandria.”

The Hendrickson site has Richard S. Ascough’s general discussion (from an edited book) of “Greco-Roman Philosophic, Religious, and Voluntary Associations.”

Ascough’s book on What are they Saying about the Formation of the Pauline Churches, which also has introductory discussions on associations and on mysteries as a backdrop for Pauline groups, is available for browsing on GooglePrint

Ilias Arnaoutoglou, an expert on Greek law, has an article on whether or not there were strictly enforced laws regarding associations in Asia Minor (answering, as do I in my book [pp.161-176], in the negative):
Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, “Roman Law and Collegia in Asia Minor,” Revue Internationale des droits de l’antiquité 49 (2002): 27-44.

Those other (“pagan”) synagogues

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

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

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

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

Multiple memberships in the world of the early Christians

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

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

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

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