BMCR 2022.05.23

Gaming Greekness: cultural agonism among Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire

, Gaming Greekness: cultural agonism among Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire. Gorgias studies in early Christianity and patristics, 76. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 358. ISBN 9781463241230. $158.00.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “game” as “an activity or diversion of the nature of or having the form of a contest or competition, governed by rules of play, according to which victory or success may be achieved through skill, strength, or good luck.”[1] Its semantic universe expands when prefaced by “the” and as an adjective and intransitive or transitive verb, the latter potentially meaning play, mock, deceive, manipulate, or squander. This lexigraphic range points to the problems and possibilities of Gaming Greekness: Cultural Agonism Among Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire by Allan Georgia. At first glance, actual rhetorical contests, literary representations of dialogues and disputes, and critical evaluations of proper Hellenism all point to serious and/or amusing competition governed by rules achieving success through skill. At the end of this erudite and somewhat meandering journey through a number of mostly Christian authors, I began to wonder, however, how productive “game” might be as a framework for analyzing Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire.

Chapter One, “Gaming the System: Cultural Competition and the stakes of ‘Greekness’ in the Early Roman Empire” functions as an introduction of sorts by tracing various topics associated with Greek paideia and connecting these threads to a framework for exploring Christian and Jewish engagement with Greekness that occupies the rest of the work. Drawing on previous scholarship, the author traces the universal possibility of acquiring Greekness through paideia (Isocrates) as a vehicle for identity formation, cultural production, and social and political advancement in the Roman world especially during the Second Sophistic. The story is complicated by the dynamic, unstable character of paideia whose acquisition and expression occurs within a competitive landscape that Georgia labels a “non zero-sum” game (p.52).

In Chapter Two, “In and Out of the Game: Favorinus, Lucian and the Strategic Possibilities of Competing for Greekness,” the author focuses on two Second Sophistic intellectuals, Favorinus and Lucian, to demonstrate different potential functions of Greekness. For Favorinus (Corinthian Oration), Greekness is an end in itself while for Lucian it is a means to wealth, leisure, fame and immortality (The Dream). Lucian eschews the zero-sum competition between having and lacking paideia in favor of a model where sophists both compete and collaborate with each other to valorize Greekness. He shapes Greekness more than an ever elusive, essentialized pure Greekness shapes him. Chapter Three, “Paul’s Understudy: Recasting Paul as a 2nd Century Cultural Competitor” analyzes 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 2 Timothy 2:4-6, Acts 19 and 21-22 to demonstrate that Paul was configured by subsequent Christian authors as a competitive player in a Roman cultural world dominated by claims of Greekness. Recastings of Paul “implicitly” align him with philosophers against popular and manipulative charlatans and offer a “long-term strategy” to achieving “political, social, cultural and also intellectual” legitimacy (p.167).

Chapter Four, “Piety and Paideia: Jews, Dying Like Greeks in Front of Romans in 4 Maccabees” frames the Torah as a Hellenized “paideutic” work. 4 Maccabees combines the competitive rhetorical genre of ἐπίδειξις(‘demonstration’) with the mediation of Roman anxieties about kingship (pp.172). “Antiochus becomes the common denominator that allows Roman anxieties about kingship and Jewish claims about the philosophical validity of the law to be conceptually resolved” (p.204). This is a fair claim supported by 4 Maccabees 14:2 when praising the seven brothers: “O powers of reason, more royal than kings and freer than the free” (p.212), but Georgia ends rather than begins the chapter with this crucial passage. I was further puzzled why the author focused on the martyrdom of Eleazar, but treats the martyrdom of the Mother and Seven Brothers very briefly, even though agonistic language is much more explicit in their story, e.g., the encomium in 4 Maccabees 17:11-16 which frequently employs the term ἀγών.

As its title suggests, Chapter Five, “The Parting of Ways Had Greek Road Signs: Posture, Deportment and the Philosophical Marketplace in the Frame Narrative of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho,” addresses the oft-neglected philosophical and sophistic aspects of the dialogue by focusing on the frame narrative. According to Georgia, the end of the dialogue subverts zero-sum competition: although Justin wins the debate, since the discussion was enjoyable and he and Trypho part as friends, they both emerge as winners.

Chapter Six, “The Monster At the End of [T]his Book: Hybridity as Theological Strategy and Cultural Critique in Tatian’s Against the Greeks,” a version of which appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 2018, is the finest chapter in the book.[2] Like Justin, Tatian masterfully dons sophistic garb in a way that both undermines and promotes the value of Greek culture. Unlike Justin, he highlights his monstrous hybridity as educated and barbarian as a “subtle strategy to reveal the arbitrary basis for the acclaim enjoyed by sophistic Greekness” (p.263). Describing himself as “a philosopher after the manner of the barbarians” (Ad Graec. 26.2.), Tatian simultaneously utilizes the Hellene/barbarian binary and claims that he belongs to both, thereby subverting their conceptual validity.

One can already see from the chapter summaries the potential for a fragmented presentation. In a short space of a couple of sentences (pp.6-7), Georgia jumps from Isocratean paideia, to its use as a strategy for addressing the rise of Roman power in the 2nd century BCE, to the beginning of the Roman principate, to Second Sophistic. Not only is the periodization blurry, but so too are the parameters of competition: what does characterizing “Christian and Jewish competition for Greek cultural legitimacy” as a non zero-sum game mean? Is the competition for Greekness not zero sum, but competition with each other zero sum? This fluidity of definition that contributes to opacity of argument may also account for the puzzling placement and choice of evidence. For example, the author buries in the middle of the chapter Plutarch’s description of Numa in Parallel Lives as a “Greeker lawgiver” than Lycurgus, even though it is the most convincing reference supporting the primary claim that paideia is universal, accessible, and can be appropriated. One could easily miss how much Plutarch exemplifies those “cunning cultural strategists who successfully navigated the complex relationship between Roman imperial power and the culturally dominant forms of Greekness that thrived in the late 1st century through early 3rd centuries CE” (p.51). Equally perplexing, at the end of a chapter devoted to the manipulative mastering of Greekness, he gives prominence to a discussion of a Latin work by Tertullian, De Pallio. This disconnect between argument and evidence continues throughout the work. I wondered how Paul possessed the “virtuosic ability to belong” (p.150) in the complex, threefold world of Jerusalem, Greek sophistry, and Roman citizenship when one of those groups says “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live” (Acts 22:22, RSV). Georgia at least recognizes the complexities of Paul’s “ability to belong” when he pivots to a discussion of the apostle in the context of exile in the Roman World.

The analysis of 4th Maccabees also undercuts its value as a Jewish exemplar of agonistic engagement with Greekness in the Roman world. Not only does the author acknowledge that 4th Maccabees is an outlier among Jewish texts in general (p.169), he overdetermines the strangeness of Eleazar’s age and circumstance (“ironic” and “implausible” pp.185, 186). After all, Plato, Cicero, and Seneca directly associate philosophy with old age, while the hypostasis of the law (p.189) appears in Plato’s Crito. The anomaly of 4th Maccabees reflects the more pervasive undetermined comparison of Jewish and Christian experiences of Second Sophistic. The author ignores Josephus, the one Jewish author whose chronology, style, and content especially merits consideration in the context of Second Sophistic, a point noted by Eran Almagor.[3] Not only does Josephus exemplify the expression of Hellenism as a medium of competitive exchange appropriated by the colonized (p.32) for the purposes of “self-invention and cultural improvisation,” (p.59), he, along with Philo, complicates claims that Paul’s code-switching is “exceptional” (p.161).

The author does do an especially good job of addressing the discursive foundation of key concepts. He questions essentializing definitions of Greekness and nicely explains how to speak about cultural competition without reifying culture by focusing on “changeability, adaptability, and resourcefulness of strategic players” (p.44). As he notes, competition is the place where culture, however malleable and unstable, is produced. It is praiseworthy to include Jewish and Christian literature as loci of cultural production since they are often excluded from studies of the intellectual world of Rome in general and Second Sophistic in particular.  He also has a delightful way with words. My favorite is the description of the ending of Lucian’s Teacher of Rhetoric: “….a resigned Lucian concedes defeat as a slew of lightly trained rhetoricians crowd into the heavenly vehicle, making a clown car of Paideia’s chariot” (p.93). Regrettably, the occasional rhetorical bon mot and proper methodological caveats do not draw together the numerous threads of the book.

“It is difficult to put the dynamic and fluid interchanges that characterize the ancient world into historically descriptive language,” (p.302) observes the author at the end of Gaming Greekness. Nonetheless, he accepts the challenge, weaving his way through selected texts produced by Jews and Christians. Connecting his analysis through the threads of cultural competition related in shifting ways to Greekness in the Roman World, the reader is left with the sense that Jewish and Christian encounters with Greekness were complicated. Detailing the precise nature of these complications engenders the stylistic challenge of providing a cohering narrative for a monograph. Despite Georgia’s remarkable erudition and a number of discrete interesting textual analyses, a description of cultural complexity and competition ultimately does not suffice for a compelling narrative. This does not mean, however, that the discussions of specific works in the book will not be of interest to specialists.


[1] OED, Third Edition, March 2013.

[2] Allan T. Georgia, “The Monster at the End of His Book: Monstrosity as Theological Strategy and Cultural Critique in Tatian’s Against the Greeks.” JECS 26.2 (Summer):191-219.

[3] Eran Almagor, “Josephus and Greek Imperial Literature,” Chapman, Honora Howell and Zuleika Rodgers (edd.). A Companion to Josephus. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp.108-122.