Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.07

Laura Nasrallah, Charalambos Bakirtzis, Steven J. Friesen (ed.), From Roman to Early Christian Thessalonikê: Studies in Religion and Archaeology. Harvard Theological Studies 64.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Divinity School, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 437.  ISBN 9780674053229.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Dickenson, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (


From Roman to Early Christian Thessalonikē succeeds admirably in bringing together specialists in various disciplines – archaeology, New Testament studies, ancient history, epigraphy – to cast new light on this important ancient city. These papers were presented at what must have been a stimulating conference at the Harvard Divinity School in 2007. The publication belongs to a series in which volumes on Ephesos, Pergamon and Corinth have already appeared. Religious change is the central theme but this work, like its forerunners, is broad in scope and touches on political, socio-economic and cultural history. All of the papers are in English and the bibliographies are thorough and up-to-date. Particularly for the more archaeological topics, where most research has been published in Greek, the book is useful in making scholarship on the city accessible to a wider audience. The work is divided into two halves, with seven chapters on the Early Roman Empire, seven on Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period. It is a tribute to the consistent high quality of the contributions that none can be easily passed over in reviewing this book.

Chapter One by Pantelis M. Nigdelis explores the epigraphic evidence (44 inscriptions mainly funerary) for “voluntary associations” at Thessalonikē for the first three centuries C.E. The Greek texts are included as an appendix. Thessalonikē had more than its fair share of associations, explained here by the city’s cosmopolitan character. Key issues are well discussed, including: types of associations (religious groups predominate), activities (best attested are organising funerals and feasting), composition (more than 60% of members were Roman citizens), internal organisation and finances. Nigdelis concludes that the associations were a response to the restricted possibilities for lower status individuals to participate in institutional politics. This fits previous interpretations of voluntary associations in the Greek East, though the evidence from Thessalonikē does not provide much new insight into this more general issue.

The second chapter connects well with the first. Here Richard S. Ascough suggests that the voluntary associations of Thessaloniki provide the context in which the activities of the city’s early Jesus-group (his term to avoid anachronistically calling them Christians) should be understood. The main thrust of the argument is that a passage in the (probably) pseudonymous letter of Paul, 2. Thessalonians, advocates punishing some kind of transgressive behaviour by withholding the right to participate in communal eating rituals. Commensality thus fulfilled a similar role in the life of that group as it did for the associations: it strengthened social bonds and was similarly subject to rules and regulations. The article builds on Ascough’s earlier work in which he has argued that the first Jesus worshippers at Thessalonikē emerged from an existing professional association.

Chapter 3 by Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre explores the presence of wo/men (her term) among the city’s early worshippers of Christ. Her point of departure is the possible absence of females from Paul's letter 1. Thessalonians (an issue that depends on what he meant by the word “adelphoi”). Johnson-DeBaufre’s comments on how scholarly writing, just as much as ancient evidence, has determined our impression of the place of women in antiquity, both in general and for Thessalonikē in particular, are insightful. The opening paragraph discusses the ubiquity of women in the material culture of the period but this evidence is largely overlooked here; the areas of scholarship considered in her section on “archaeology” (pagan religion, voluntary associations and the imperial cult) all draw mainly on epigraphic and literary evidence. Johnson-DeBaufre’s suggestions for the ways that women may have negotiated their identities within their religious community and within society as a whole are speculative but usefully expand our range of potential interpretations.

1. Thessalonians is again the subject of Chapter Four. Christine M. Thomas argues convincingly that Paul’s instructions on perpetual bodily purity in the letter were intended to set the early Christians apart from the “gentile” (pagan) inhabitants of the city, whose own purity laws — widely attested from the Greek world, though not specifically for Thessalonikē — typically applied to space specific contexts such as temples and temene. One critical remark: the Athenian phratries are suggested (p.116) as a parallel for the Thessalonian tribes though the Athenian tribes seem a more useful comparison. The Athenian phratries lost their importance in the early Classical period, whereas many poleis, including Athens, were organised by tribe down to the days of St. Paul.

Helmut Koester’s chapter on Egyptian religion largely concerns the so-called Serapeion of the city (excavated in 1939). For the first time the architectural remains, and some of the most important finds and inscriptions, are published together in English. There is evidence for the worship of Isis, Serapis and Dionysus and a healing cult. This cannot have been the city’s main temple of Serapis because it is too small. Unlike typical Greek temples this seems to have been a space for people to assemble inside, a possible precursor of Christian churches. Also discussed is an intriguing relief stele to Anubis, found elsewhere in the city, dedicated by a dining association. Koester suggests that the 69 inscriptions relating to Egyptian cults at Thessalonikē deserve further consideration.

Thea Stefanidou-Tiveriou, together with Nigdelis, is currently preparing a study of the c. 290 sarcophagi of Roman Thessalonikē. Her contribution here is a preliminary publication of this work. She first presents an overview of the evidence for Roman funerary monuments (including urns and grave reliefs); the main types are discussed and questions of stylistic influence and provenance are considered. A recurring theme is that the predominant influence was from the Greek East rather than the Roman west. This underlines Stefanidou-Tiveriou’s main conclusion, backed by onomastic studies, that a large number of the individuals represented by these monuments came from, or had familial links with cities in Asia Minor. She also suggests a strong preference for locally produced monuments. Where more expensive Attic imports were chosen, this was not so much a question of ostentation as of preference for the elaborate mythological scenes depicted.

Many scholars have argued that Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians is pseudepigraphical. Steven J. Friesen in his chapter goes further and argues that it is a forgery — a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader into thinking Paul is the author, as opposed to a letter like 3. Corinthians, which draws legitimacy from Paul’s name but makes minimal effort to appear as if it was actually written by the apostle. By highlighting key passages where the text of the letter explicitly contrasts its own authority with that of Paul’s verbal communications to the community, Friesen argues that the letter provides an important glimpse of a stage in the early history of the church when the written word was beginning to surpass oral communication as the main source of religious authority.

Slobodan Ćurčić, in the first chapter of Part Two, concisely describes the major Christian buildings that transformed the urban landscape of Thessalonikē between the 4th and 6th centuries C.E: the rotunda, the basilicas of Hagios Demetrios and Acheiropoietos and two other churches known only from archaeology. His considerations of the impact of these buildings on the city as a whole are, however, somewhat vague, largely because his central concept “urban iconography” is not defined. He uses it to refer to the actual appearance of the city rather than to representations of buildings, as the term might lead us to expect. His attempt to connect the developments at Thessalonikē with images of churches in mosaics from other contemporary cities does not really tell us much except that churches made cities look more Christian. The supporting figures could have been sharper, and it detracts from Ćurčić’s comparison between Thessalonikē and Philippi that the map of that city on p.234 does not have a key.

James Skedros’ chapter is really more about episcopal authority than identity, as his title seems to promise. Throughout the 4th and 6th Centuries AD Thessalonikē was a city torn in two directions: administratively it fell within orbit of Constantinople but in terms of its relation to the church was oriented westward, being a vicariate of Rome. The precarious balance of power between east and west, between church and state underwent constant shifts and adjustments – a history that Skedros charts commendably. Skedros concludes that the cult of St. Demetrios was eventually promoted as an alternative source of religious authority as the city became increasingly isolated from Rome and as the power of the Praetorian Prefect, who had been based there, declined. Once the Demetrios cult takes centre stage in the discussion the focus on identity sharpens but we learn more about what the saint meant for the bishop than for the city’s population as a whole.

The following two chapters concern the material culture of everyday life in the late antique city. Demetra Papanikola- Bakirtzi discusses the ceramic evidence and Anastassios Antonaras the glassware. Their considerations of typologies and production techniques are likely to be of most interest to experts in these fields but both present the material in an accessible way for the non-specialist. Both chapters also pay considerable attention to the social, cultural, economic and religious context in which artifacts made from these materials were used.

For a reader unfamiliar with the site, Aristoteles Mentzos’ chapter on the so-called Tetrarchic palace would have benefited from more introductory information concerning the complex as a whole. Instead he gets quickly to a consideration of the parts of the building that are best known archaeologically, the Octagon, the Palace Basilica and North Court. Nonetheless his contribution is important as the first discussion of this major building in English. His interpretations of the building’s various phases are convincing, and previous alternative points of view are usefully discussed and referenced. Mentzos argues that scholars have been mistaken to think that the palace was constructed at a single point in time. He suggests that it is more appropriate to call it the “Byzantine Palace” than to refer to it as the palace of Galerius, its supposed builder.

Laura Nasrallah’s chapter is about interpreting the 5th C mosaic in the apse of the small church of Moni Latomou (uncovered in the 1920s). It depicts a beardless Christ, standing on a rainbow, accompanied by two other men and some animals. Previously, scholars have attempted to identify a specific biblical scene. Nasrallah argues that we should allow for a multiplicity of meanings because the image was produced before the canon of Christian literature had become rigidly fixed. Influences she suggests include Revelations and Paul’s letter 1.Thessalonians. Here she discusses a sermon by John Chrysostom in which he draws on various biblical passages, old and new testament, to elucidate Paul’s letter for his congregation. The way the sermon combines these references to produce meaning is a convincing parallel for the intertextuality that Nasrallah believes can be detected in the mosaic. Her arguments, as she stresses, have broader relevance for how we interpret early Christian images and highlight the problems in prioritising texts in doing so.

Charalambos Bakirtzis, appropriately for the final chapter, considers aspects of the transformation of Thessalonikē from a Roman into a Christian city. Two areas are addressed. First he connects the healing aspect of the St. Demetrios cult with old pagan religion. Serapis, rather than Asklepios is suggested as the most likely forerunner. The second part of the chapter considers the influence of theatre, in particular mimes, in the culture of the late antique city. Bakirtzis plausibly argues that a scripted dialogue preserved in the Miracles of St. Demetrios is actually a late Roman mime with the names of the characters changed to give the play a new Christian significance. A second scripted dialogue revolving around the trial of a group of Christian martyrs is argued to be a mime from late antiquity rather than the transcript of a real trial for which it is sometimes taken.

A danger with such collections of papers is that readers will only consult those most directly connected with their own field of interest. This book, however, is worth reading from cover to cover, and this reviewer has learned a great deal from doing so.

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