BMCR 2020.08.05

Private associations and Jewish communities in the Hellenistic and Roman cities

, Private associations and Jewish communities in the Hellenistic and Roman cities. Supplements to the Journal for the study of Judaism, 191. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 227 p.. ISBN 9789004405370. €105,00.

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This volume offers a fresh reappraisal of a longstanding debate: did Jewish collectivities in the Hellenistic and Roman periods belong to the wider phenomenon of Greek and Roman private/voluntary associations or were they sui generis? Disagreement over the nature of early Christian (Pauline) communities is a prominent corollary to this question: did these draw on the synagogue or the Greco-Roman association as the model for their formation? Or is the framing of this question misguided? Scholarly approaches have long been divided along disciplinary lines, principally between Romanists and Hellenists and between ancient (Greco-Roman) historians and scholars of religion. As a result, the methodologies employed and conclusions reached have varied widely.

As Benedikt Eckhardt—the volume’s editor and the author of three of its nine chapters—sets out in the introduction, this book aims to reassess some of these scholarly divisions. The primary impetus is a growing consensus in recent decades that Jewish groups were essentially a type of Greco-Roman private association (the “Greco-Roman Association” model, in Eckhardt’s shorthand). This model advocates employing a comparative body of data from a wide variety of such subcivic collectivities to ask questions about their organization and structure.[1] Adherents of this approach readily concede that this model does not represent an ancient category but a modern heuristic. It is largely concerned with synchronic questions about associations and their functions (e.g., fees, communal meals, or membership structures). Despite the dominance of this paradigm within religious studies, recent works on associations within the field of ancient history have largely sidelined Jewish groups or met this model with skepticism.[2] Eckhardt seeks to bridge this divide by pointing, on the one hand, to certain misconceptions about the goals of the “Greco-Roman Association” model and, on the other, to the limitations of the model itself, especially its applicability to diachronic and/or historically differentiated questions. How this balanced agenda plays out within this volume is, however, a somewhat different matter, as the summary of contents acknowledges. Eckhardt’s own contributions are largely critical of the “Greco-Roman Associations” model and seek to restore a differentiated view (between the Greek and Roman worlds, different local contexts, legal statuses, ancient categories, etc.). This preference characterizes many of the other contributions, though lessons from the “Greco-Roman Associations” model are acknowledged or engaged with throughout.

The second chapter (“Private Associations in Hellenistic and Roman Cities: Common Ground and Dividing Lines”), also by Eckhardt, follows up on several points from the introduction: the tradition of studies on associations being siloed in separate works on the Greek and Roman phenomena and the recent tendency of the “Greco-Roman Association” model to minimize chronological and geographic differentiation in favor of a wide, synchronic view. It first asks whether there is sufficient evidence for describing Greek associational culture as a monolithic phenomenon. The evidence is dominated by several distinctive maritime cities (Athens, Delos, Rhodes). Still, Eckhardt sees certain features that typify Hellenistic associational culture—its flexibility, its lack of state control, its mirroring of democratic civic institutions—but there are equally important local variations. The second part reviews the evidence for the influence of Greek associational culture in Hellenistic Judea. The evidence is too scanty to draw firm conclusions, but Eckhardt does see a clear change in Judean associational culture with the advent of Roman rule. The final section makes the case for seeing crucial differences between Roman and Greek attitudes toward associations.

In “Political and Sacred Animals: Religious Associations in Greco-Roman Egypt,” Andrew Monson draws on a lesser-known data set, Egyptian religious associations attested mainly in Demotic documents, which developed independently from Jewish and Greco-Roman associations but came to resemble both closely. These were recognized in Egyptian law, and most of the documents in fact originate from temple administration or state bureaucracy. Monson stresses the symbiotic relationship between associations and the Ptolemaic state in Hellenistic Egypt. Associations received state recognition and also served as vehicles for the promotion of ruler cult and the state cults of Isis and Serapis. This official standing in Ptolemaic Egypt allowed them to flourish as venues for local cults and the advancement of the economic and social activities of their members. Monson stresses structural similarities to associational behaviors in the Greco-Roman, Jewish, Medieval, and Tang Chinese worlds, in line with the approach of the “Greco-Roman Associations” model, though he cautions that none of these can be divorced from their cultural milieus. Indeed, the close connection of these religious associations to the Ptolemaic state seems to illustrate an instance of how they were not fully “private,” an important point of distinction from what is usually seen as typical of associations.

In “Qumran Discipline and Rites of Affliction in Their Associational Context,” Andrew Krause examines how members were excluded from the yaḥad against the background of the long-standing approach of comparing the Qumran community to Greco-Roman associations and the more recent trend of seeing the yaḥad movement as fairly widespread. Looking at disciplinary measures and “rites of affliction” (rituals intended to ward off malevolent powers) in the Community Rule and the Damascus Document, Krause sees instructive parallels between the precepts for exclusion and expulsion of members from the yaḥad and similar provisions in the rules of Greco-Roman associations. These correspondences illuminate how groups drew boundaries of belonging, but Krause notes that there is no evidence for direct influence of Greco-Roman practice on the yaḥad movement. Moreover, these disciplinary practices are not unique to Greco-Roman associations. Still, for Krause, the “Greco-Roman Associations” model is useful for drawing out commonalities of organization and praxis, even if it does not explain the development of these communities or their relationship to state authorities.

Kimberley Czajkowski (“Jewish Associations in Alexandria?”) addresses the complex problem of the organization and status of the Alexandrian Jewish community in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and how these factors intersected with the eruption of anti-Jewish violence in 38 CE. Recent work has questioned the influential position that anti-Jewish sentiment was inflamed by the Jews’ privileged organization in a politeuma. Czajkowski accepts that under the Ptolemies the politeuma of the Jews was not a private association but a state-sponsored ethnic grouping, which like other politeumata, probably was organized originally for military purposes. This accorded the Jews of the politeuma the legal status of Hellenes. In the Roman era the legal status of these politeumata changed, and they transformed into private associations. The privileged status of members of the Jewish politeuma as Hellenes was also eliminated. In this context, Czajkowski argues that Philo appeals to Roman legal categories to contrast the illegitimate associations banned by Flaccus with collegia licita, among which the politeuma of the Jews belonged. This reconstruction draws sharp lines between Ptolemaic and Roman institutions and reemphasizes Roman legal categories. This differentiated view of the shifting status of the Jewish politeuma has important implications for the outbreak of violence in 38 and shows some of the weaknesses of the “Greco-Roman Associations” model in addressing historical questions of this sort.

The next three chapters focus on diaspora communities in Greece and Asia Minor. In “Les communautés juives de la Diaspora dans le droit commun des associations du monde gréco-romain,” Marie-Françoise Baslez examines the evidence from Delos and argues that authorities did not view or treat Jewish groups differently from other noncitizen associations. In particular, they can be compared closely to other well-attested associations of immigrants from Phoenician cities that are so well represented in the sources. Moreover, in Baslez’s view, the advent of Roman rule did not result in a general (exceptional) policy toward the Jews.

In the next chapter, (“Associations beyond the City: Jews, Actors and Empire in the Roman Period”), by contrast, Eckhardt examines the “translocal aspects” of Jewish communities in the Roman Empire and finds common ground with other exceptional groups, in particular the Dionysiac technitai that had an empire-wide organization and received privileges from Roman authorities that extended to all areas of their operation. Eckhardt maintains that like actors (and other groups such as athletes or ship owners), Jewish groups originally organized and gained privileges on a case-by-case basis, but as Roman authorities affirmed the status of these communities as legitimate, a more wide-ranging policy developed that did not apply to other associations. This leads Eckhardt to conclude that in important ways Jewish groups were neither “private” in that they were recognized broadly by the Romans nor perhaps even “voluntary” in the sense that members could not necessarily opt out of belonging easily. Both conclusions will surely generate further discussion, though the latter may be circumscribed by limitations of evidence.

Ulrich Huttner’s contribution (“Organisationsstrukturen jüdischer Gemeinden im Mäandertal”) traces the fragmentary evidence for Jewish communities in a particular region, the cities in the Maeander valley. Huttner examines the diverse scraps of evidence for Jewish organization though the lenses of local history and a comparative approach. Huttner stresses how little can be concluded about the individuals or groups named in the epigraphic evidence and their relationship to their cities. At the same time, he finds the comparison with other Greco-Roman associations useful for filling in context. At Miletos for example, an inscription reserving a section of seats in the theater for Jews quite literally juxtaposes this group with the association of goldsmiths (aurarii) and their reserved seats. Such clues, Huttner observes, give insight into contemporary views of the organization and status of the Jewish community.

In “The Associates and the Others: Were Rabbinic Ḥavurot Greco-Roman Associations?” Clemens Leonhard investigates whether rabbinic groups should be conceptualized as Greco-Roman associations. An affirmative answer could provide an important link between the institutions of Second Temple Judaism and the organization of rabbinic Judaism. Leonhard, however, argues that the term ḥavurah, in early sources of the Tosefta, does not define a group sharply separated from the rest of society. In the later world of Babylonian Talmud, rabbinic groups drew clearer distinctions between those that belonged (ḥaverim) and those who did not, but these terms only served to underscore a difference of social status not membership in an association. In this case, the systematic interrogation of ḥavurot against the “Greco-Roman Associations” paradigm elucidates the nature of these social groupings and reveals the limits of an overarching model.

The individual contributions are valuable treatments of a diverse set of data relating to the central question of how we should understand the organization of Jewish groups. The volume’s particular strength lies in its sustained engagement with the “Greco-Roman Associations” model. Eckhardt’s contributions are the most focused on this question and effectively underscore some of the weaknesses of the approach. Other chapters strike more of a middle ground, finding utility in fleshing out the details of poorly attested cases with comparative evidence. The result is an effective demonstration of the volume’s stated aim: to differentiate between the kind of historical questions that can and cannot be addressed effectively by the “Greco-Roman Associations” model. In so doing, it firmly grounds its approach to Jewish collectivities in a methodologically rigorous framework that does not abnegate the comparative paradigm but contests its primacy. This important volume will surely find a place at the center of future discussions.

Table of contents

Introduction: “Greco-Roman Associations” and the Jews, Benedikt Eckhardt (1–12)
Private Associations in Hellenistic and Roman Cities: Common Ground and Dividing Lines, Benedikt Eckhardt (13–36)
Political and Sacred Animals: Religious Associations in Greco-Roman Egypt, Andrew Monson (37–57)
Qumran Discipline and Rites of Affliction in Their Associational Context, Andrew R. Krause (58–75)
Jewish Associations in Alexandria?, Kimberley Czajkowski (76–96)
Les communautés juives de la Diaspora dans le droit commun des associations du monde gréco-romain, Marie-Françoise Baslez (97–114)
Associations beyond the City: Jews, Actors and Empire in the Roman Period, Benedikt Eckhardt (115–156)
Organisationsstrukturen jüdischer Gemeinden im Mäandertal, Ulrich Huttner (157–178)
The Associates and the Others: Were Rabbinic Ḥavurot Greco-Roman Associations?, Clemens Leonhard (179–205)


[1] Represented in particular by the ongoing publication of regional corpora: J. Kloppenborg and R. Ascough, 2011. Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. I. Attica, Central Greece, Macedonia, Thrace. Berlin; P. Harland. 2014. Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations and Commentary. II. North Coast of the Black Sea, Asia Minor. Berlin. See also the companion sourcebook: R. Ascough, P. Harland, and J. Kloppenborg. 2012. Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook. Waco.

[2] The Copenhagen Associations Project (, a forthcoming database of associations in the Greco-Roman World under the direction of Vincent Gabrielsen, for example, does not include Jewish groups systematically. For the first of a series of publications associated with this project, see: V. Gabrielsen, C. Thomsen. 2015. Private Associations and the Public Sphere. Copenhagen.