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  • Translocal Relationships among Voluntary Associations and Early Christianity
  • Richard S. Ascough (bio)

An analysis of inscriptional data from voluntary associations in antiquity suggests that some associations had translocal links. At the same time, early Christian groups are shown to be more locally based than is often assumed. Thus, despite the common assumption within New Testament scholarship to the contrary, Christian congregations and voluntary associations can both be seen as locally based groups with limited translocal connections. This conclusion will open the way for the more profitable use of voluntary associations as an analogy for understanding the formation and organization of early Christian groups.

In the past a number of scholars have used the voluntary associations of Greco-Roman antiquity as an analogy for understanding early Christian groups in urban centers, particularly Paul's churches.1 However, some of these same scholars have highlighted the differences between the voluntary associations and the Christian communities in order to lessen the significance of the analogy. Often emphasized is the localized nature of voluntary associations verses the translocal nature of Christianity. [End Page 223]

A close analysis of relevant material suggests that some voluntary associations in antiquity had translocal links and that Christianity was more locally based than is often assumed. Thus both Christian congregations and voluntary associations were locally based groups with limited translocal connections. In establishing this, the way is opened for more fruitful use of the analogy of voluntary associations for understanding the formation and organization of early Christian groups.

Two of the earliest scholars to argue that the Christian groups were collegia were Theodore Mommsen and Geovanni De Rossi.2 Another important and early scholar was Edwin Hatch,3 although he experienced strong opposition.4 However, by 1910 Max Radin could write [End Page 224]

Now, the Christians formed associations everywhere. Indeed, Christian worship of that time, as all worship, was unthinkable except in that form. . . . We must assume then that as societies the Christian collegia were on a par with the vast majority of other collegia, even with those of the privileged Jewish ones.5

Most modern New Testament scholars have stopped short in their use of the analogy for a number of reasons, not least of which is the problem with "translocal links." E. A. Judge is a bit ambivalent, suggesting that in the mind of the public, Christians would not have been distinguished from other unofficial associations.6 Although he maintains that they had "international links" like the Jews, he admits that unlike the Jews they lacked a national seat for their cult. However, Judge goes on to suggest that, "[t]he international direction . . . may be unusual, but does not seriously qualify the similarity at the local level."7 Some seventeen years later William Countryman states that every association, due to the characteristic of being a "strictly local institution," was "firmly enmeshed in the social order of its city" with no outside authority higher than the patron.8 In this way, the analogy of associations and Christianity is played down.

In the early 1970s Robert Wilken contrasted associations with the ancient philosophical schools by pointing out that "[t]he collegia were [End Page 225] local associations seldom exceeding several hundred members."9 In a later work he states that the associations were drawn from people living in a specific city and "were not 'international.'"10 Christianity, for Wilken, is more like the Stoics or Epicureans in reaching beyond local boundaries. He does, however, concede that on the local level Christianity "engaged in much the same activities as other associations."11 This leads him to conclude that Christianity represents a combination of "philosophical school" and "association."12

Barton and Horsley use their lengthy analysis of an inscription from Philadelphia (SIG3 985) to point out some similarities that early Christianity shared with cult groups.13 For example, both were comprised of "voluntary" membership and relied on cooperation and hospitality. Both types of groups were founded by private initiative and attracted members through their offer of security and salvation in an age of uncertainty about traditional institutions. However, the most important difference that Barton and Horsley highlight is the international scope of the Christian groups, in contrast to...


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pp. 223-241
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