BMCR 2022.09.04

Group survival in the ancient Mediterranean

, , Group survival in the ancient Mediterranean: rethinking material conditions in the landscape of Jews and Christians. London; New York: Bloosmbury Academic, 2020. Pp. xi, 230. ISBN 9780567657480 $115.00.

In this highly granular investigation, Last and Harland provide a valuable study of ancient Mediterranean voluntary associations. They include here not only the usual suspects (devotees of Demeter, Dionysos, Isis, Mithra, Sarapis, occupational associations), but also those associations which they categorize collectively as those “devoted to the Israelite god:” Judeans (more often designated “Jews”); Jesus-devotees (more often designated “Christians,”) and occasionally even Samaritans, who are rarely included in any studies of ancient Mediterranean groups.

Their focus is more precisely “unofficial associations,” defined as “informal and non-compulsory” relatively small gatherings (generally of ten to fifty persons), whose “members met together on a regular basis [emph. original] to socialize with one another and to honour both earthly and divine benefactors” (p. 9). Their primary question is how such associations did or did not survive as groups. To answer it, they rely heavily on inscriptions and papyri pertaining to such associations.

Harland laid the foundation for this book in Associations, Groups and Synagogues: Claiming a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society (Fortress Press, 2003; 2nd ed. 2013) which concentrated on Roman Asia Minor through the third century ce. As with the present volume, it began with a survey and analysis of evidence for a broad range of associations, before moving to a comparative consideration of Judean and Jesus-focused associations. Its central argument was clear: in contrast to scholarship stressing how these latter associations set themselves in opposition to various elements of civic life, “associations in Roman Asia Minor, including some synagogues and assemblies, could participate in certain aspects of civic life under Roman rule, including involvements in imperial honors and connections” (2013:6).

This new joint project with Richard Last extends Harland’s project to a consideration of the distribution and practices of associations throughout the empire in roughly the same chronological period. Relying even more extensively on epigraphic and papyrological evidence, it attends in great depth to the “down-to-earth material factors and socioeconomic procedures,” of such associations, from the same “social-historical perspective” (p.149) previously articulated by Harland (2013:9-10). Despite some overlap between the two studies, readers will find it profitable to read both, as well as to consult Harland’s Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook conveniently available through links in the online edition of Harland’s initial study.[1]

Each chapter considers a different aspect of the survival of these groups, building toward their location of associations devoted to the Israelite god within this Mediterranean landscape. Against both older and more recent scholarship, their analysis of the demographics of association membership in chapter one demonstrates that both in villages and in cities, a wide range of non-elite persons participated, from those living at a subsistence level to those of considerable means. Chapter two puts forth an important argument that the effective management of material resources was more critical to the fate of associations over some significant period of time than was the socio-economic status of the members themselves. Associations that incurred expenses beyond their ability to raise funds and manage them effectively were vulnerable to dysfunction, decline, and ultimately dissolution. Associations that functioned just within their material means had a better chance of persisting over time. And perhaps unsurprisingly, associations that managed their funds well, and were able to spend less than their available resources (from whatever sources) were most likely to succeed and continue over relatively long periods of time.

Chapter three examines how associations began. Other scholars have often sought the beginnings of such groupings in the acts of an initial wealthy benefactor, which Harland and Last note did sometimes occur. But their scrutiny of the data suggests that “collective agency” and “group interaction” were far more important to the founding of such associations.

Chapter four explores in detail the costs incurred by associations to conduct their regular affairs: renting or purchasing meeting spaces, funding communal meals, honoring important local figures, venerating one or more deities, and burying deceased members. The mundane aspects of this are particularly engaging in their ordinariness: how did associations find an acceptable place to meet? How much did it cost? Meeting in a member’s dwelling, or the house of a wealthy benefactor incurred no monetary cost. Renting a room in a poor part of town for a short period (e.g. for a communal meal) was relatively cheap. Renting or even owning an entire building could be quite expensive, unless defrayed by a wealthy benefactor. Associations with modest means were more likely to meet in houses, rent inexpensive spaces for short periods of time, and host modest meals. Associations with more economically advantaged members might afford capacious spaces and have lavish feasts.

Chapter five continues this inquiry, examining how associations obtained the resources they needed to survive and flourish. Their various strategies often sound remarkably like those still used today by many voluntary associations. Members themselves made regular contributions for general expenses (effectively membership dues), as well as additional voluntary contributions to cover particular expenditures. Associations sought out the support of wealthy patrons and other non-members, sometimes called friends (philoi). They offered their benefactors various kinds of honors, in exchange for financial support and practical aid. These honors could include crowns bestowed on various occasions, the best seats at association events, extra portions of food and wine at association meals, elaborate praises inscribed on plaques displayed in association properties, and others.

Although the authors only briefly note it, an inscription from Phocaea, probably 3rd cent. ce (101 n. 105: IJO 2.36: AGRW105) exemplifies these strategies. In recognition of her personal financial contributions for their “oikos,” an association of Ioudaioi honored a woman named Tation with a gold crown and privileged seating, whose location is not specified (in the synagogue at a banquet?). That Tation gave these “to the association of the Ioudaioi,” and that association honored her suggests that Tation was not herself a member. Scholars have speculated that she made these donations because she was a “God-fearer,” an outsider who shared some of the beliefs of the Ioudaioi, but was not herself one of the Ioudaioi. But the evidence marshalled by the authors makes clear that many associations welcomed the participation of others. Tation’s benefaction coheres with a common practice that requires no further explanation.

Building on these five chapters, the next two pursue the ways in which the collective agency of fundraising practices enabled the fulfillment of group goals, both among Greco-Roman associations broadly, and among associations devoted specifically to the Israelite god. They argue that for members with the means to do so, contributing to such associations had real social benefits: it enabled them to “express” a “sense of belonging in the group” (p.119). Contributing funds voluntarily was a way both of professing one’s loyalty to the membership and demonstrating one’s status in the association. Further – as is still the case in modernity – the ability to raise such funds served as a public pronouncement of group cohesion and stability, and increased the likelihood that the association would continue to flourish.

Although they occasionally consider associations devoted to the Israelite deity in earlier chapters, in chapters seven and eight, they consider whether and how their analysis of communal collections applies to associations of Judeans, Samaritans, and Jesus devotees. Here, however, as they recognize, they face a significant disparity of sources that was already apparent in Harland’s initial project. With the exception of some epigraphic and papyrological evidence from Egypt and the Judean desert (this last mostly unexplored), almost all of the evidence for these associations before the late third century is literary, often from sources whose reliability is problematic (e.g. Josephus, Acts, Ignatius of Antioch). Nevertheless, these sources hint at the same dynamics of other associations: social pressures to contribute; competition among members for the prestige, status and honor that donations obtained; and more generally, the ways in which financial and other forms of contributions were part of a system of exchange, regardless of direction: support in exchange for honors or honors in exchange for support.

Their final chapter looks at mutual aid and group cohesion: financial support for association members with ongoing need; practical and financial aid for members in particular difficult circumstances, such as legal problems, or imprisonment; and funds for funerals and burials. While conceding that the data here is thin, they suggest that mutual aid was a significant component of some associations, including those devoted to the Israelite deity.

Readers in the field of early Christian studies especially may recognize the affinity of their work with that of scholarship in the last several decades on the “redescription” of early Christianity. Redescription presents data not in the “emic” claims, terms and values of the groups and sources being studied (as so much scholarship in this area has done), but in common and neutral “etic” categories, constructed deliberately to ask and answer questions of interest to modern investigators. Hence, the authors redescribe “synagogues,” and “churches” as “gatherings,” or “assemblies,” themselves subsets of the larger category of “associations. The objects of their devotion are redescribed as the Israelite “deity,” or “god,” or sometimes “Jesus,” but not “God,” or “Jesus Christ.” Despite the book’s subtitle (the choice of the publisher?) members of these associations are not “Christians” and “Jews” but “Jesus devotees (or adherents)” and “Judeans.” It would have been helpful, though, to acknowledge recent concerns that translating Ioudaios and Iudeus as Judean risks disrupting the complex historical continuities between ancient persons and later Jews, who are never subsequently called “Judeans.”

Viewing these associations as unique, other scholars have rejected the utility of comparing them with those of others proximate both in location and time. Instead, they have appealed to the theological distinctiveness of these associations to explain their success (or failure). By contrast, the authors demonstrate that judicious “comparison of contemporaneous and geographically proximate social formations” facilitates the recognition of commonalities and differences that might otherwise not be apparent. Associations redescribed as those devoted to the Israelite god turn out to have much in common with other Mediterranean associations, albeit with some distinctive and potentially significant features. And their emphasis on material conditions and group survival contrasts as well with the work of other scholars who share their methods of description and comparison, yet focus more on the substantial role played by competing individual ritual experts offering exotic, novel teachings in the formation and survival especially (although not only) of these associations.

The authors might have done a few things differently. Their designation of association participants as “members,” or “contributors” seems admirably gender-neutral. Yet it obscures the actual gender compositions of these associations. Data from the sixty association membership lists they analyze does not justify their optimistically inclusive language. Slightly more than ten percent of members were women, distributed unevenly. Thirty-eight associations were entirely men: only two were entirely women. Ten more had fewer than ten percent women members. The authors missed an opportunity to examine whether attention to these gender disparities would (or would not) affect their analyses.

Expanding the book’s chronological and geographic choices might have provided further data for the primary focus of the book: how ancient associations did or did not survive as groups. This takes on very different dimensions from the fourth century on, as the many associations devoted to diverse Mediterranean deities were suppressed by the emerging dominance of one particular form of “devotion to the Israelite deity.” The archaeological data for Judean associations (now perhaps appropriately called “Jewish”) is much better in the later period, not only for the diaspora, but also the homeland: burial and donative inscriptions, and physical buildings, many of which are 4th-6th centuries. The same is true for (smaller) associations now perhaps appropriately collectively called “Christian,” for which we now have substantial archaeological evidence, abundant literary sources, and a treasure trove of imperial legislation. This material suggests that although differences between Christian associations had theological dimensions, issues of patronage, funding, land ownership and the like were very much in play. Similar sources point to complex dynamics of patronage and power in the relationships, contentious and otherwise, between associations of Jews and non-Jews. Yet the extent to which any association devoted to the Israelite deity “could participate in certain aspects of civic life under Roman rule,” a central question for both the present study and Harland 2013, is largely moot. As civic life in the Roman empire increasingly melds with one particular form of that devotion, the remaining forms, Judeans and Samaritans, could continue their participation in most of civic life only if they renounced their ancestral practices and adopted those of the third. This, perhaps, is the roadmap for a subsequent volume.


[1] (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), online at