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Reviewed by:
  • Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World
  • Patricia Cox Miller
John S. Kloppenborg and Stephen G. Wilson, Editors. Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xvii + 333. $74.95.

Fourteen essays loosely united by the category “voluntary association” comprise this volume, which presents the results of a five-year seminar (1988–1993) sponsored by the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. The time period into which the bulk of the essays falls is roughly late Hellenistic to early Imperial (1st c. b.c.e. to 2nd c. c.e.). Geographically, areas around the Mediterranean basin from Egypt to Palestine to Rome are covered. [End Page 152]

Although there are two studies that are comparative in focus (S. Mason, “Philosophiai: Graeco-Roman, Judean, and Christian”; B. McLean, “The Place of Cult in Voluntary Associations and Christian Churches on Delos,”), and two that are explicitly methodological in their approach to the topic (J. Kloppenborg, “Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership”; S. Walker-Ramisch, “Graeco-Roman Voluntary Associations and the Damascus Document: A Sociological Analysis,”), most treat discreet phenomena (W. McCready, “Ekklesia and Voluntary Associations”; W. Cotter, “The Collegia and Roman Law: State Restrictions on Voluntary Associations”; P. Richardson, “Early Synagogues as Collegia in the Diaspora and Palestine”; T. Seland, “Philo and the Clubs and Associations of Alexandria”; H. Remus, “Voluntary Association and Networks: Aelius Aristides at the Asclepeion in Pergamum”; R. Beck, “The Mysteries of Mithras”; P. Richardson and V. Heuchan, “Jewish Voluntary Associations in Egypt and the Roles of Women”; E. Schuller, “Evidence for Women in the Community of the Dead Sea Scrolls”; and S. Mattila, “Where Women Sat in Ancient Synagogues: The Archaeological Evidence in Context”).

In an opening “overview” that attempts to give the volume methodological and material coherence, S. G. Wilson notes that “the initial impulse of the seminar was to understand how discrete Jewish and Christian communities fitted into patterns of communal life already established in Graeco-Roman society” (p. 1). The sociological term “voluntary association” was chosen for its ability to characterize “a broad social phenomenon” (p. 4) indicated in antiquity by a wide variety of terms: collegium, secta, factio, thiasos, eranos, koinon, ekklesia, synodos, and others. Excluding institutions into which one was born (family, city, state), the term “voluntary” indicates the contractual nature of membership in such organizations, whose activities were primarily social rather than economic or political and which often functioned as extended or “fictive” families for their largely lower-class (i.e., non-aristocratic) members, providing a mediating space between family and state. As Walker-Ramisch explains, “Although there could be an economic advantage to the incorporation of herders or weavers or longshoremen, even the professional guilds assembled for social purposes. It was primarily the experience of conviviality and communio provided by the collegia which drew people together, and this is reflected in the names they gave to their societies—‘Mates and Marble Workers,’ ‘Brother Builders,’ ‘The Comrade Smiths,’ ‘The Late Drinkers’” (p. 133).

As with all institutions in antiquity, “religion” pervaded the collegia; indeed, as Walker-Ramisch, again, points out, “To speak of a religious association in the ancient world is to speak anachronistically” (p. 135). Attempting to avoid a “messy taxonomy” (p. 22), Kloppenborg rejects the conventional division of Roman associations into three types putatively based on their principal activities (funerary collegia [collegia tenuiorum], religious clubs [collegia sodalicia], and professional associations), since their activities overlapped to a significant degree (p. 18). He offers instead a taxonomy built on membership bases and suggests three groupings of collegia: “those associated with a household, those formed around a common trade (and civic locale), and those formed around the cult of a deity” (p. 26). This taxonomy, however, does not really address the issue raised by Walker-Ramisch and is in any case too general to be definitionally useful. [End Page 153]

In fact, the role of religion in voluntary associations, particularly when the term is applied to synagogues and churches, is precisely where the volume as a whole is conceptually fuzzy. What, really, might a member of a synagogue have in common with a member of the “Mates and Marble Workers”? One of the conceptual...