Companion website - Dynamics of Identity
in the World of the Early
Welcome to the website companion to Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities (by Philip A. Harland, 2009). This is a sister site to Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (2003).
This project is focussed on questions of identity and belonging within small groups in the Greco-Roman world. The concept of identity has to do with answers surrounding the questions "Who are we?", "Why do we belong together?" and "What distinguishes us from them?" Scholars of early Christianity have explored the New Testament regarding how followers of Jesus defined themselves and how they expressed both a sense of belonging together and a sense of distinction from others. However, often early Christian identity has been studied in isolation, as though groups of Jesus followers lived in a vacuum. Those that have begun to consider Christian identities in comparison with other identities in the Greco-Roman world have tended to focus on literary sources and have not considered groups or associations specifically. This study moves beyond early Christian literature to look to what other groups or associations in the same context can tell us about group-identity in the world of Christians and Judeans (Jews). Neglected archeological and inscriptional evidence regarding associations, immigrant groups, and cultural minorities provides a new angle of vision. We begin to see the ways in which Jesus-followers were part of a larger world in which answers to the question "Who are we?" and "Where do I belong?" were varied and evolving.
In Dynamics of Identity and on this site you can learn more about associations, immigrant groups, and cultural minorities in the Roman empire, including Judeans and Jesus-followers in the first two centuries. You can also learn more about how ethnic and other groups define who they are and how they express their identities within broader society. As I argue in the book, "Ancient Judean and Christian answers to the question 'Who are we?' come into sharper focus through close attention to the cultural environments and real-life settings of associations in the cities of the Roman empire. Despite the peculiarities of both Judean gatherings and Christian congregations, there were significant overlaps in how associations of various kinds communicated their identities and in how members of such groups expressed notions of belonging internally" (from p. 1 of the introduction).
Sociologists and anthropologists who give considerable attention to such questions regarding identity construction and negotiation tend to emphasize two factors in dynamics of identity. On the one hand, members of a group engage in internal self-definition, expressing who they think they are and why they belong together. On the other hand, outsiders engage in external categorizations of a given social or ethnic group, often developing negative stereotypes concerning members of that group. These stereotypes then affect how members of the categorized group react to outsiders' perceptions, and this then plays a role in the re-formulation and expression of identities. These two factors play a fundamental role in this study of group identity in the Greco-Roman world.
In the first part of the book, I explore the ways in the group names or self-designations tell us something about identity and about how we should view Judean and Christian groups within a broader cultural context. The scholarly tendency to categorize Christian (and Judean) groups as "sects" in a sociological sense, emphasizing tensions and separation, often distracts us away from other models that served to define these groups in the Greco-Roman world, including the model of the association. Associations were small (usually about 15-50 members), informal groups that gathered together regularly to honour both their earthly and divine benefactors, and you can read a more extended definition on my other site, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations.
There are many instances when both outsiders and insiders identified Judean gatherings and Christian congregations in terms drawn from association-life. Judean authors like Philo of Alexandria and Josephus of Jerusalem use the same terms to describe both regular, "pagan" associations as they do to describe Judean groups, including the terms "society" (thiasos) and "synod" (synodos). In some cases they show that both imperial and civic authorities did likewise, considering Judean gatherings under the rubric of associations. So we are dealing with both internal self-definitions and external categorizations here. Regarding self-definition, inscriptions further confirm that some Judeans chose to identify their their own groups using self-designations familiar within other Greek and Roman associations. Many inscriptions show that even the term "synagogue" was not unique to the Judeans and was a common term adopted by associations and guilds in the Roman empire, including a synagogue of Zeus in northern Asia Minor.
Pliny the Younger and the Christians he encountered in northern Asia Minor apparently viewed the Christian groups as associations in connection with a law that Roman governor had passed in the early second century. Internally, Christian leaders such as Ignatius of Antioch could express Christian identity in terms drawn from local cultural life in the Greek cities, in this case drawing on the world of local associations of fellow-initiates (symmystai or mystai) who engaged in "mysteries." And when some Greek-speaking authors, such as Celsus, engaged in critique of Christians for their failure to honour the Greek and Roman gods, such authors nonetheless could think of a Christian group as a group of "society-members" (thiasotai, members of a thiasos), which is among the most common terms for an association in the Roman empire.
Despite their peculiarities that set them apart in certain cultural respects -- mainly their failure to acknowledge or honour the gods of others -- Judean gatherings and Christian congregations could also be viewed as and express their own identities in terms of associations of the normal type. This is something you can learn more about in the book.
As I discuss in part 2 of the book, scholars have long recognized the importance of familial terminology or fictive kinship for early Christian identity. Paul and the groups he established sometimes understood the group in terms of membership in a fictive family, and they called one another "brothers" and "sisters" to express their sense of belonging together. Paul could speak of himself as a father caring for his children, the members of his congregations. However, many scholars have neglected similar familial dimensions of identity within the Greco-Roman world more broadly. Although each Christian group was certainly distinctive in its own way, Christians were not distinctive in relation to non-Christian groups in using family language to express social attachments and hierarchies within the group.
Some other associations and members of associations expressed their sense of belonging with others by employing fictive familial terms, as I demonstrate in the book. There is evidence that in some groups in various parts of the empire members addressed one another as siblings, using the term "brothers" (adelphoi) or, less often attested, "sisters." Perhaps even more well attested is the use of parental language in relation to leaders and benefactors.
The Judean practice of referring to certain important leaders or benefactors as "mothers of the synagogue" or "fathers of the synagogue" further illustrates the importance of the family as a model of community and belonging. In doing so, Judean groups were reflecting a more widespread cultural practice within associations and cities in the Greek part of the empire. Among the earliest examples (from 12-15 CE) of an association calling a leader or benefactor "father" is a Greek inscription from Callatis in Thracia (north of Asia Minor), for instance. In this inscription, the "society-members" (thiasitai) pass a decree in honour of Ariston, who is called "father," as well as "benefactor" of the society (thiasos) and founder of the city. This group of Dionysos-worshippers is likely one of the associations of "Asians" founded by Greek-speaking immigrants from Asia Minor, which brings us to ethnic associations.
In part 3 of the book, I investigate evidence for immigrants who formed associations in the cities of the Roman empire and consider issues surrounding ethnic identities. The case of ethnic groups from Phoenicia or Syria who settled elsewhere and formed associations illustrates how these immigrants could maintain connections with the cultural life of their homelands while also finding a place for themselves within the society of settlement. Sociological approaches to acculturation, assimilation, and dissimilation help us to better understand the nature of interactions between immigrants and surrounding society.
Contrary to many scholarly portraits of the Greco-Roman world, not all immigrants were lost and rootless in a declining society. Studying such immigrant or cultural minority groups also provides a comparative framework for understanding the place of other cultural minorities, including Judean immigrants and Christian groups, within the cities of the Roman empire.
Judeans (Jews) settled throughout the cities of the Roman empire, and in many cases they also formed their own associations, comparable to Syrians and other ethnic groups. Such associations could be a means by which such immigrants maintained their own ethnic identities while also finding a place within the society of settlement. Twenty three Judean grave inscriptions from the city of Hierapolis in Asia Minor provide a particularly fruitful area for studying the ways in which these cultural minorities (both as individuals and as groups) adapted to local cultural life while also expressing their Judean identities within that same context. You can view photos of many of these graves in the photo galleries section of this site.
One of the most fascinating among the Hierapolis inscriptions, which I explore at length in the book, involves the grave of Publius Aelius Glykon and Aurelia Amia. This inscription illustrates very well the cultural interactions which could take place at the local level between members of different ethnic and cultural groups. It shows how specific ethnic identities were maintained at the same time as cultural minorities found a place for themselves within the Greek cities in Roman Asia Minor. Here in this inscription, an apparently Judean family leaves behind funds for two occupational associations to perform certain rituals at the family grave. What is striking is the involvement of regular guilds, including the association of purple-dyers, in the upkeep of a Judean family grave and that this involvement took place on both Judean and Roman festivals or holy days. The case of the Glykon grave illustrates further the complicated and multiple nature of identities.
Rivalries and competition were an integral part of social and cultural life in the Roman empire, and associations were sometimes involved in this part of life. Part four of the book investigates how rivalries of various kinds, including ethnic rivalries, played a role in dynamics of identity among many groups. For instance, groups of various kinds, including Judean gatherings and Christian groups, were competitors for support from local benefactors. Associations were also competitors for new members and for the allegiance of members they had, and there is suggestive evidence of multiple memberships in associations and guilds, with implications for the multiple identities of those involved.
Social identity theorists have long recognized the importance of external categorizations and stereotypes for understanding how groups define themselves and distinguish "us" from "them." Outsiders' characterizations of another cultural group also play a role in how that cultural group re-formulates its own identity as it reacts to negative stereotypes.
One of the most fascinating (and disturbing) ancient examples of such categorizations by outsiders involves accusations of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion, often levelled against cultural minorities. Both Judean gatherings and Christian congregations were sometimes accused of these atrocities, but they were not the only cultural minorities to face such strongly negative characterizations, as explained in the book.
By accusing another ethnic group of such atrocities the accuser was attempting to define his or her own ethnic group as superior and civilized in contrast to the barbarous foreigner. The members of the groups accused of such actions would often need to respond by refuting the stereotypes, thereby making the stereotypes an important element in the definition and re-definition of who the group was or was not. These are just some of the important issues addressed in my book regarding how cultural minority groups and associations in the ancient context answered the questions "Who are we?", "Who do we belong with?", and "What makes us the same or different from others?"