BMCR 2011.08.42

Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities

, Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities. New York: T Clark, 2009. xii, 239. ISBN 9780567111463 $29.95 (pb).


This book includes eight studies (two of them new), presented together within a general framework, developed in a long introduction. The eight chapters of the book deal with various aspects of group identity of Jews and Christians in the Roman world (more precisely, in the Eastern Mediterranean). The first chapter deals with associations and group identity among Jews and Christians. (Harland speaks of Judeans rather than of Jews; the present reviewer, perhaps because he belongs to an older generation, admits to being unable to appreciate the real advantage obtained in transforming our traditional vocabulary.) Chapter 2 studies local cultural life and Christian identity. Chapter 3 analyses the word “brothers” in associations and congregations, while Chapter 4 discusses “Mothers” and “Fathers. In a second part, Harland deals in turn with other diasporas, and with the problem of acculturation of immigrants (Chapter 5) and with interaction and integration among Jews (Chapter 6). The last two chapters study group interactions and rivalries, through the study of Sardis and Smyrna (Chapter 7) and the anti-associations and their banquets (Chapter 8).

The author, who teaches at York University, has in recent years shown great dynamism in his approach to early Christian and Jewish communities. More precisely, he has vigorously pursued, in a series of publications, as well as in the maintenance of a website, what is usually called a “social scientific” approach to these communities.

Harland claims that most scholarly studies of ancient Judaism and early Christianity tend to focus on literary evidence, at the expense of archeological (and epigraphic) evidence. This claim stands to reason, and it is regrettable indeed that students of Judaism or of Christianity in the Roman empire too often ignore the evidence of (and on) stones. One should not overemphasize this point, however. The best among the historians of ancient Christianity do not fail to include the insights gleaned from archeology or epigraphy. Let us think only, for instance, of Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, and of its wonderful use of Louis Robert’s magisterial epigraphic studies.

This is not all, however. Harland makes a point of using in a systematic way intuitions gleaned from contemporary sociological literature (what he and others call, in a rather inelegant fashion “social science”). Here too, Harland is correct, both in his claim that philologists and ancient historians too rarely make serious use of sociological literature and in his estimate that such use may permit new insights on important aspects of the problems at hand. There is no denying the fact that more fluid transmission of knowledge and discussion of methods between sociologists and (ancient) historians could have a major role in permitting new perspectives on, for instance, religious phenomena in ancient societies. The best among historians have always known that history is simply sociology applied to the past (one may think, for instance, of Paul Veyne).

All in all, Harland is quite right to perceive the Jewish and Christian communities within the theoretical framework of minority ethnic or cultural groups in the Empire. The dialectics of assimilation and dissimilation (what he calls ‘cultural maintenance’) offers a dynamic way to understand the identity of these ‘enclave communities’. Social networks can be revealed, and the collective identity of such ethnic (or ‘para-ethnic’) groups should be understood at once as a ‘system of symbols’ and as ‘practice’.

Harland’s examples for his theoretical approach are taken from a great number of cases from the Eastern Mediterranean, and the volume’s iconographic evidence is well presented. Although Harland argues his case cogently, this reviewer, probably unfairly, remained under the impression that the author almost overplays his hand. Some insights are to be gained, no doubt, from a real effort to understand and apply, whenever possible, concepts gleaned from sociological literature. But it would be a mistake to expect too much from such an open mindedness across the disciplines. Many of these insights, indeed, are the fruit of common sense, which a technical vocabulary may sometimes occlude rather than reveal.