BMCR 2023.06.08

Participations civiques des juifs et des chrétiens dans l’Orient romain (Ier-IVe siècles)

, , Participations civiques des juifs et des chrétiens dans l'Orient romain (Ier-IVe siècles). Hautes Etudes du monde gréco-romain, 62. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2022. Pp. 456. ISBN 9782600057509

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


This volume edited by N. Belayche and A.-V. Pont capitalises on their own areas of expertise on the Roman East, regarding religious interactions and civic institutions respectively. It focuses on the participation of Jews and Christians in local politics in the provinces of the Roman Empire, chiefly in Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Near East, from the first to the fourth centuries. Unlike many collected papers, this volume is remarkably consistent. It consists of all available evidence on the political participation of Jews and Christians in systematic surveys sorted by categories of sources (legal, epigraphic, papyrological, rabbinic, hagiographic). These surveys are supplemented by two case studies on Galilaea and Ostia. The unity of the volume is enhanced by developed indices (including the names of the various persons identified as taking part in civic life), by many cross-references, and by a general bibliography (which nevertheless only lists a small portion of all the references mentioned in the individual chapters).

As the introduction makes clear, the enquiry is deeply rooted in the history of political institutions of Greek cities from the Hellenistic period onwards and fits in the current trend of scholarship that reappraises civic participation in Greek poleis under Roman rule.[1] Belayche and Pont start from the classical definition of citizenship which, regardless of the evolution toward greater integration of noncitizens in public life over time,[2] remained central for Greek cities during the imperial period and still implied participation in the worship of the tutelary gods of the city and attendance at the religious celebrations which were performed by officials and priests on behalf of the whole political community.[3] Yet, accepting and actively participating in such rituals proved problematic for Jews and Christians, given their exclusive theological beliefs. This leads to the main question of the book, which is put once again by Ameling in his own chapter: “Does that mean that monotheists of all kind did not participate in civic life?” (87). The volume intends to address this issue through both a quantitative and a qualitative approach, as well as to assess the Jewish and Christian responses to the challenges of local citizenship and local politics. It would be worth noting at this stage, however, that the civic context of early Christianity has also been the object of considerable attention in New Testament scholarship lately, with many works exploring the urban environment of the first Christ groups as well as the matching of Christian ethics with traditional Greek civic values.[4]

Relying on her previous works on the topic, Pont examines the Roman regulations regarding the status of Jewish communities and the ability of Jews to take part in public life in Greek cities. As a matter of fact, there were no limitations on Jews obtaining local citizenship or holding local offices, and Roman power repeatedly, as in the case of the emperor Claudius in 41 CE, issued ordinances confirming the privileges which were granted to Jews as an ethnic and religious group, such as the right to keep the Sabbath or the exemption from serving in the army. Christians, for their part, were prohibited from holding offices for the first time in 303 CE in the context of the Great Persecution. It would then be appropriate to refer to the recent suggestion made by B. Shaw, in a groundbreaking paper which ignited vivid discussion, that Christians do not seem to have been explicitly targeted by imperial power before the beginning of the second century CE, and that their constant refusal to perform sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, as shown by the famous letter by Pliny (Epist. 10.96), was probably the main reason for their punishment, if not the only one.[5]

The following chapters, forming the core of the volume, consist of five surveys, as comprehensive as possible, of the sources pertaining to the involvement of Jews and Christians in civic politics, W. Ameling and S. Destephen dealing with inscriptions, K. Blouin with papyri, S. Stern with rabbinic literature, and A. Laniado with Christian literature. The chapters, in particular those by Ameling, Destephen, and Laniado, include large appendices collecting the evidence (although unfortunately the first two do not mention the date of the inscriptions). A recurrent question through the chapters, which is a particular focus for Ameling and Blouin, concerns the methodology used to identify Jews and Christians in inscriptions and papyri. Most of the time, explicit Jewish or Christian “markers” (90, 354) are not found in the evidence; in particular, Jews are typically not identified by ethnic terms such as Ioudaios or Hebraios, and, as Blouin notes, onomastics remains an unreliable method for determining religious identity (see also 381). Out of the hundreds of inscriptions which can still be considered “Jewish,” only a handful mention Jews holding offices or being members of the Council. Destephen reaches the same conclusion, being able to identify only a dozen people directly involved in civic life out of the ca. 300 pre-Constantinian Christian inscriptions from Asia Minor, as does Blouin, who spots only a couple of papyri for the third and fourth centuries (including P.Bas. II 43 after the reassessment by S. Hübner). This is especially interesting since papyri are usually considered, in contrast to inscriptions, to allow a more in-depth look into the social life and administrative realities of the provinces. It turns out that the depiction of Christians as such was largely irrelevant in Egypt for administrative purposes as well as for social recognition, like in Asia Minor. The only exception for both Jews and Christians was Phrygia: local conditions in cities like Akmoneia and Eumeneia were apparently more favourable for monotheists to display their affiliation with specific religious groups. The identification of Phrygian inscriptions openly claiming a Christian identity through the recurrent use of the name Christianos, as well as possible connections with the diffusion of the Montanist movement, would have merited further exploration in this context.

Stern’s chapter collects the evidence for mentions of imperial and civic offices in rabbinic literature from the third century onwards. Apart from a few pages devoted to the specific case of Sepphoris, the chapter lacks a contextualisation of Late Antique cities in Palestine, which would have been welcome to get a better sense of the urban and institutional realities referred to in the comments of the rabbis. Fortunately, this is provided by the chapter of Belayche for the case of Galilaea, which also looks at material culture, coins, and iconography to explore the coexistence of polytheist and Jewish cultural features in cities of the region as well as the acceptance, and to some extent the assimilation, by Jews of the “pagan” cultural koine (as shown by the depiction of Helios in synagogues, for instance). This case study, together with the case of Ostia examined by Van Haeperen, shows that the survey of archaeological evidence (early synagogues and church houses, but also artifacts)—although unable to offer much insight about the participation of Jews and Christians in civic institutions per se—would still be very fruitful for the discussion of the integration of these religious groups in Greek cities.

Laniado’s chapter, with its ample appendix collecting the references to Christians depicted as members of the local elite in the hagiographical literature along with a thorough analysis, will become a landmark in the scholarship on martyrology. In fact, the chapter is not limited, as suggested by the title, to (later) hagiography, since it also gives an overview of the relevant passages in early Christian literature during the first three centuries, including New Testament literature, that concern a question crucial for early Christians: whether they should take part in the earthly city or rather await their “community in heaven,” as the apostle Paul frames it (Phil. 3.20—not mentioned in the volume). Laniado shows that the reason that the higher social status of Christians was frequently mentioned in martyrology was because their social and economic class had implications for the kinds of punishment which were used against them, and that hagiography’s interest in promoting cults of local saints accounts for the emphasis placed on Christians from prominent families in those narratives.

In their conclusion, Belayche and Pont reflect on the reasons why so few traces of local officials explicitly identified as Jews or Christians can be identified in the different categories of sources surveyed in the volume. As several contributors mention, an assumption would be that the number of (Jews and) Christians among local officials was in fact much great than has been estimated thus far. Another factor, mentioned by Laniado (288–89), might be that Christians, depending on their circumstances, may have wanted to conceal their religious identity due to fear of repression—this would be consistent with the deliberate use of an “in-group language” in the earliest Christian inscriptions.[6] In the end, Belayche and Pont propose that the refusal of Jews and Christians to claim and assert a distinctive identity implies their ability to cope with the requirements of Greek civic life.

With this stimulating conclusion in mind, however, two further factors should be emphasised. First, although New Testament scholarship has shown that early Christ groups were organised along a structure which was similar to polytheist private associations and occupational clubs,[7] Christians, on an individual or collective basis, did not advertise themselves through inscriptions in the cityscape as polytheist clubs frequently did. Second, while Jews were ready to make many compromises in order to maintain their official recognition and the privileges they were granted by imperial power, in particular offering dedications “on behalf of the Emperor” (96–99, 369–70), even in their synagogues (see the remarks by Van Haeperen about Ostia on 388–90), Christians were reluctant to have a share in what Belayche very appropriately calls “une même culture d’empire” (378) with regards to the behaviour of both the “pagan” and the Jewish elite toward Rome in Galilaea. These two characteristics should then lead us to highlight rather the exclusiveness claimed in this respect by the Christian groups. In any event, thanks to the evidence that this important volume collects, which will be instrumental in promoting further research in the history of Jewish and early Christian communities, the results of this study will have deep implications for our understanding of the status of those religious groups within the Roman Empire.


Authors and Titles

Introduction. Participations civiques et appartenances religieuses: termes et conditions de l’enquête, Nicole Belayche, Anne-Valérie Pont

Citoyenneté et participation civique des juifs et des chrétiens d’après les reglements grecs et romains, d’Auguste au IVe siècle, Anne-Valérie Pont

“Jewish inscriptions” and civic participation, Walter Ameling

Civic participation and Christianity in Asia Minor: The epigraphic evidence, Sylvain Destephen

Les sources papyrologiques et la participation de juifs et de chrétiens à la vie civique dans l’Égypte romaine, Katherine Blouin

Rabbinic sources as evidence of Jewish civic participation in the later Roman Empire, Sacha Stern

Appartenances religieuses et participation civique dans l’Orient romain. L’apport des sources hagiographiques, Avshalom Laniado

Participations civiques de juifs en contexte dans la « région des nations » (Galilée), IIe– IVe siècles, Nicole Belayche

Participation de « non-polythéistes » à la vie civique d’Ostie, Françoise Van Haeperen

Conclusion. La participation de juifs et de chrétiens: une forme du quotidien civique, Nicole Belayche, Anne-Valérie Pont



[1] For the (later) Imperial period see C. Brélaz, E. Rose (eds), Civic Identity and Civic Participation in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Turnhout, 2021.

[2] See C. Müller, “La (dé)construction de la politeia. Citoyenneté et octroi de privilèges aux étrangers dans les démocraties hellénistiques”, Annales (HSS) 69.3 (2014), 753–75.

[3] For the Classical period, see J. Blok, Citizenship in Classical Athens, Cambridge, 2017.

[4] See the various volumes edited by S. J. Friesen and D. N. Schowalter on Corinth, Ephesus and Philippi (Brill), as well as the First Urban Churches series edited by J. R. Harrison and L. L. Welborn (Society of Biblical Literature) ; S. Walton, P. R. Trebilco and D. W. J. Gill (eds), The Urban World and the First Christians, Grand Rapids, MI, 2017; J. R. Harrison, Paul and the Ancient Celebrity Circuit, Tübingen, 2019; L. S. Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul, Oxford, 2019.

[5] B. D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution”, JRS 105 (2015), 73–100; C. P. Jones “The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution: A Response to Brent Shaw”, NTS 63 (2017), 146–52; B. D. Shaw, “Response to Christopher Jones: The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution”, NTS 64 (2018), 231–42.

[6] A. E. Felle, “Examples of ‘In-group’ Epigraphic Language: The Very First Inscriptions by Christians”, Journal of Epigraphic Studies 3 (2020), 131–47.

[7] J. M. Ogereau, Paul’s Koinonia with the Philippians. A Socio-Historical Investigation of a Pauline Economic Partnership, Tübingen, 2014; J. S. Kloppenborg, Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City, New Haven, 2019; R. S. Ascough (ed.), Christ Groups and Associations. Foundational Essays, Waco, 2022.