Kloppenborg and Ascough’s Greco-Roman Associations

(This is a re-post of a short blog review on a book I wrote on Sept. 3, 2013)

Thanks to the kind folks at De Gruyter for a review copy of this book.

What in the world is this book, and why would I even want to read it? That is a good question that you should probably learn the answer to. The best answer is from the first paragraph of the book’s foreword:

This volume and the two projected to follow it have their origins in a Greek reading seminar at the University of Toronto begun in the 1990s and after a short hiatus, recommenced in 2003. Many of the texts selected for translation were epigraphical and related to associations, guilds and clubs from Attica, Asia and Egypt. The focus on associations — cultic, professional, immigrant, domestic, and neighborhood — was a function of the conviction that in order to understand the associative practices of the early Christ groups in Asia, Macedonia, and Attica, it was crucial to understand the structures, activities, leadership, finances, and recruitment strategies of the many associations that had existed at least since the fourth century BCE and which continued to play an important part in social life well into the high Empire. (p. v)

That sums it up, really. In order to have a deeper understanding of the development of the early church, why not look into how other groups — associations — formed, had rules, met, funded themselves, policed themselves, and brought new members into the fold? What did the leaders do, and why?

Kloppenborg and Ascough provide ample source material in this volume. Transcriptions of inscriptions, translations of those inscriptions, along with notes and commentary on those inscriptions. And ample indices to recall/locate relevant information. As a edition with sources, this is stellar.

It is also easy to read, at least for a book of this nature. There are nearly 100 inscriptions provided in transcription and translation. That means it is easy to read or scan a transcription or two, in bite-sized chunks, before bed each night. At least, that’s how I read most of the book.

Some of the highlights?

Inscription 82, “Judaean sarcophagus inscription,” for its use of συμβιος (τη συμβιω αυτου Αννα // “for his wife Anna”). Made me smile. The inscription was a warning on the sarcophagus to not put any other bodies in, and if you did, then to pay “the synagogues 75,000 shiny denarii” (δωσι ταις συναγωγαις λαμπρας)

Inscription 12, “A List of thiasotai honored with crowns.” This is a list of personal names, each of which had been voted worthy to be crowned (εστεφανωσαν, from στεφανοω). Reasons for receiving a crown include “zeal on behalf of the membership” and “excellence and honesty shown to the association.” Immediately I wonder about any connection with the notion of receiving a crown as a reward, an image that occurs in Revelation.

Inscription 6, “Honorific decree by the orgeones of Amynos and Asklepios.” More mention of crowns. “… and to crown each of them with a golden crown with a value of 500 drachmae.”

Inscription 64, “Association of Donkey Drivers.” Well, for no reason other than the name, really.

Inscription 70, “An Association of Gladiators.” Again, for the name. But this inscription records a priest who made reliefs “of the gods at his own expense.” And here you see a major function of several of these inscriptions, which is recording who paid for something to ensure the gift is remembered.

Inscription 73, “Donation of a Synagogue.” This is interesting because it involves the gift of one Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos “who has conducted his whole life according to the principles of Judaism” who donated rooms for a synagogue “taking none of the holy revenues.” The inscription binds the authority of the “upper rooms” (which were not part of the donation) to remain in the family of the donor. The inscription expresses the relationship of the synagogue (not some fancy building, but four rooms and some porticoes in a larger structure still inhabited by a family) and the family that lives in the same structure. This inscription is from 2nd-3rd century (AD/CE) and from Macedonia. Of course, this brings to mind the house-churches mentioned in the NT and their benefactors. Could the relationship have been much different?

This is but a smattering of the material in this book. The notes and commentary are helpful as well. It provides real data on how groups of people who gathered for common cause managed their affairs. It will make you think.

If you’ve made it this far, and are still interested, I can point you to Baylor University Press’ Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook by Ascough, Philip A. Harland, and Kloppenborg. I have not read it, but from what I gather it provides more of this sort of information, though by translation and not with transcription or technical notes, on a wider set of inscriptions and what can be learned from them. This book would probably be a good place to start, with the De Gruyter volume as one you consult when you’re at the library. Let’s face it, at $182.00, few will buy it, but hopefully well-stocked libraries will have the book for you to consult. And you should consult it, there is a wealth of stuff in it along with excellent indices to point you where you need to go.

Also note that Philip A. Harland has a companion site for the Baylor Press book, which is worth poking around.


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