BMCR 2005.06.20

Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society

, Associations, synagogues, and congregations : claiming a place in ancient Mediterranean society. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xv, 399 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0800635892 $22.00.

Harland’s monograph is the fruit of his doctoral research under the supervision of John S. Kloppenborg at the University of Toronto. Parts of it have previously been published in several journals and a handbook of social science approaches to early Christianity and are also available as full-text reproductions on his impressive website 1 together with other complementary material. The book offers a comparative socio-historical reading of Christian origins with particular attention to epigraphic and other archeological realia and with a geographical and chronological focus on western Asia Minor during the early Roman empire — from Augustus to Antonius Pius (27 BCE-161 CE). Harland’s most valuable contribution is to weave together his critical reading of areas that have generated particular academic interest in recent years — Greco-Roman associations, the Roman imperial cult, and synagogues and churches during the formative period of Judaism and Christianity. In so doing, he succeeds in challenging a simplistic reading of early Judaeo-Christianity as self-enclosed sectarian groups, in favour of a more complex picture that allows for a spectrum of group-society interaction, ranging from the sectarian to the moderately integrated.

The book is structured in three parts, each part comprising three chapters. The first part, “Associations in Roman Asia” (25-112), provides a basis for the subsequent argument by addressing preliminary issues concerning the internal life and the general context of Greco-Roman associations. Chapter 1 (25-53) outlines the extensive evidence, which is by and large epigraphic, for the associations in Roman Asia. In this chapter Harland also provides a working definition for an association and a fivefold typology based on their composition. Chapter 2 (55-87) focuses on the social function of associations for their members, as reflected in the social and religious traits of their internal lives. Chapter 3 (89-112) goes on to discuss their external life by considering associations within their civic context. It is here that Harland begins to stress the possibility that associations may have had a positive involvement within the polis, instead of understanding their existence and success as a sign for the decline of civic structures during the early Roman empire. This argument will prove to be central to his reading of contemporary Judaeo-Christian groups.

Part two, “Imperial Cults and Connections among Associations” (113-173), fleshes out this argument by introducing a further research area. Following a post-Pricean2 reading of Roman imperial cult, Harland addresses in chapter 4 (115-136) its importance within the religious life of associations and concludes his argument by stressing the associations’ tendency to be relatively integrated into society. Chapter 5 (137-160) substantiates this reading by considering the extensive evidence that demonstrates the associations’ positive participation in civic life and their interaction with provincial and imperial officials. Chapter 6 dismisses a reading of the occasional incidences of unrest in Asia Minor as counterargument, by understanding the involvement of associations as not broadly representative.

It is in part three, “Synagogues and Congregations within Society” (175-264), that Harland’s argumentation reaches its final focus and the preceding results are drawn together to reinterpret the social life of formative Judaeo-Christian groups. He does not do this, however, without a very useful theoretical-methodological reflection on comparing socio-religious groups in antiquity in chapter 7 (177-212). Harland points out the analogical traits of associations, synagogues, and congregations: patronage of deity/ies, importance of socialising, communal meals, and honouring the benefactor. Harland notes that the comparability of these groups did not escape the attention of Greco-Roman authors. Chapter 8 (213-237) returns to actual group practice and discusses the imperial facets of civic life in which some, albeit not all, synagogues and congregations did participate, while chapter 9 (239-264) points out the clear limitations that Judaeo-Christian monotheism presented to the demonstration of respect and honour towards emperors and other authorities. Harland always makes an effort to present the variety of views and practice within these groups.

The extent and critical care Harland devotes to the issues raised in parts one and two of this book indicate that the socio-historical reconstruction of associations and imperial cult is more than a mere convenient backdrop for his historiographically orientated biblical studies. It is surely reassuring to scholars of antiquity that a member of a new generation of biblical scholars is showing interest and proficiency in more traditional historiographical matters in a discipline that had increasingly directed its attention away from such approaches. Harland’s discussion of this material presents a useful synthesis of current discussions and a good point of departure for scholars and students with a background in biblical studies.

Particularly impressive is Harland’s use of epigraphic material, which is often the only remaining information on some associations. This alone will make this book highly recommendable to students who seek an entry point to this material which is becoming increasingly available in collections. The forthcoming publication of epigraphic and archeological material from Asia Minor in both print and electronic form will add further interest in critically engaging Harland’s argument.3 He provides over 20 black and white photos and graphs, several interesting figures, a good bibliography, and two useful indices.


1. The website has received two awards thus far.

2. S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

3. Cf. Walter Ameling (ed.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, Vol. 2: Kleinasien, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 99, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 2004; and Charlotte Roueché, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Inscriptions, revised second edition, 2004, which is part of a project to publish all inscriptions from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor.