Companion to Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations

Introduction

Associations and guilds were small, unofficial groups (ranging from about 10-100 members) that met together regularly for a variety of intertwined social, religious and burial purposes.  These groups were widespread in the Roman empire, especially in regions like Asia Minor, and they went by a variety of ancient terms including koinon (“association”), synedrion (“sanhedrin”), thiasos (“cult-society”), synodos (“synod”), synergasia (“fellow-workers” or “guild”), collegium (“college”), and corpus (“body”).  They could draw their membership from numerous social settings, including connections associated with the household or family, the work-place, the neighbourhood, and the temple or shrine.  There were also associations consisting of persons from a common ethnic or geographic background, like the associations of Phrygians (from Asia Minor) that existed in the city of Rome and the group of Samaritans that gathered together on the Greek island of Delos.  Included among these various types of associations were the many groups of initiates that devoted themselves to “the mysteries” of specific deities, which you can read about here, including Demeter and Kore (see photo of Demeter below), Dionysos, Isis, Mithras, the Great Mother, and the Great Gods of Samothrace.  But virtually all kinds of associations chose a deity as patron of the group, honouring the gods in a variety of ways.

On this web-site you can learn about these associations and guilds in various places, including Ephesos, Sardis, Pergamon, Bithynia-Pontus, Hierapolis, Laodicea, Colossae, and Ostia (a port-city of Rome).  You can explore specific topics relating to religious life, including the mysteries and worship of the emperors (imperial cult). 

Associations of all kinds congregated in the cities of Roman Asia Minor in order to share meals, socialize, and have a good time (see the photo of the monument from Panormos, depicting the meal of an association with entertainment).  Yet they were also very concerned with honouring the gods and goddesses who protected them in their group, family, and work life.  In the Greco-Roman world, there were a variety of activities and rituals that served to honour (or worship) these deities, including hymns, prayers, plays, dancing, mysteries, and, most importantly, sacrifice and the accompanying meal.  In the Greek part of the empire, the emperors were often considered among the gods and were, therefore, deserving of such cultic honours or worship, something that is often discussed by scholars under the rubric of “imperial cults”.

At the same time, these associations and guilds were also concerned to honour the earthly benefactors who could supply the group or the city with material or other support or services.  In fact, maintaining such positive relations with members of the local or imperial upper classes (the elites) was one way in which these otherwise insignificant groups could claim a place for themselves and feel important within ancient society.  Among the most conspicuous forms of honouring both earthly and divine benefactors were acts of setting up an inscribed monument, statue, or plaque in their honour, something I call “monumentalizing”.  For this reason, the vast majority of our evidence for associations derives from this archeological and epigraphical evidence (e.g. buildings, monuments, inscriptions).  Associations are also mentioned from time to time in the writings of the educated elites.  But there was a tendency among these ancient authors (and modern scholars, too) to emphasize the involvement of associations in riots and civic disturbances to the neglect of other daily activities and positive social relations among these associations within the cities.  My book helps to rectify this unbalanced picture of associations as subversive by discussing the varied activities of these groups; it also provides a framework for reassessing Jewish and Christian groups within this same context.

New perspectives on Jewish synagogues and Christian congregations

The place of congregations and synagogues within the culture of the Roman empire has been a hotly debated issue, with the vast majority of scholars emphasizing the sectarian or separation-oriented approach of both ancient Jews and Christians.   According to standard views, Jews and Christians set themselves completely apart from Greco-Roman society, and avoided any participation in surrounding culture.  It is indeed true that, from a bird’s eye view of culture in the Roman empire, synagogues and congregations stand together as minority cultural groups.  This is primarily because of their monotheism—devotion to one God only--in a polytheistic culture.  Greeks and Romans could be offended by Jews’ and Christians’ refusal to recognize the gods which protected their (the “pagans”) cities, communities and families, and this was a source of social tensions or occasional persecution.

Yet, at the same time, a closer look at synagogues and congregations within the context of associations in Asia Minor begins to draw attention to the many ways in which gatherings of Jews and Christians, like other “pagan” associations, could claim a place for themselves and find a home within ancient Mediterranean society.  Participation in honours for the emperors, for instance, is just one way in which some synagogues and congregations took part in cultural life in Asia Minor.  Comparing associations with both Jewish and Christian groups can provide new, even revolutionary, perspectives on Christian origins and the New Testament, including John’s Revelation, 1 Peter, Paul’s letters, and many others.  Archeological evidence from the cities of Asia Minor provides a new vantage point from which to reassess our understanding of social and religious life in the Roman empire among Jews, Christians, and other Greeks and Romans.  This web-site introduces these ancient associations and their significance for early Christianity and Judaism, offering just a taste of new discoveries and insights which I investigate fully in my book.