Group Survival in the Ancient Mediterranean

Rethinking Material Conditions in the Landscape of Jews and Christians

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Philip A. Harland, Richard Last
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Group Survival in the Ancient Mediterranean asks what the authors call “a simple, yet largely unanswered, question regarding collective life in the Hellenistic and Roman eras” (1)—that is, the question of how groups, including Jewish and Christian groups, survived in the ancient world. Whereas many scholars have skipped over this question, Philip Harland and Richard Last analyze the evidence about what allowed some ancient groups to remain economically viable (and, alternatively, what led to the demise of others). The authors argue that “group cohesion” and “collective action” were perhaps the most critical factors in group survival in the ancient world. In the authors’ view, an ancient group’s livelihood depended much more on these two things than on the group’s possession of a single wealthy benefactor (a prevailing view in prior research on associations).

A few other prefatory notes are necessary. Scholarly interest in “voluntary associations” has been burgeoning over the last century. A “voluntary association” is the technical term for groups in the ancient world that fell somewhere between the family and the state. These groups could form on a number of bases: people living in the same neighborhood, sharing the same trade, devoted to the same god(s), and so on. Voluntary associations have also been of particular interest to New Testament scholars because they provide a comparative model that some have used to assess the economic profile of early Christian groups and, in particular, communities founded by the apostle Paul.

The first part of the book presents a broad framework for conceptualizing associations: associations membership, examples of groups that succeeded and declined, how associations were started, the fees associated with communal life, and how groups might acquire additional resources when they needed them. The material here is an accessible entry point into the scholarly conversation on voluntary associations for the less familiar, and the more advanced will be interested in the ways Harland and Last disagree with or nuance prior scholarly arguments (e.g., their push-back against the suggestion that those of “middling” wealth predominated in ancient groups). One of the key dynamics in these early chapters is the challenge of working with the limited evidence that has survived from antiquity. Surviving papyri that record fees paid by associations and inscriptions on burial tombs are thus taken to be the fragmentary remains of practices that were probably much more widespread. Harland and Last’s project is made especially difficult because data from groups that did not survive is even more seldom preserved than data from groups that did (a limitation they admirably acknowledge).

Scholars and students of religion will be most intrigued by the final three chapters in which Jewish and Christian groups figure more prominently in the argument. Communal collections are especially in view here, including Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem and the Jewish temple tax. Harland and Last challenge apologetic exaggerations that cast Jewish and Christian groups as uniquely involved in the sharing of resources. The evidence suggests, rather, that the practices of Jews and Christians were paralleled by other groups. It was not only Christians and Jews that were willing to sacrifice resources on behalf of a needy neighbor; in fact, this is a widely attested practice in ancient group life. In terms of biblical content, Paul’s collection for Jerusalem receives the greatest attention. The most significant contribution here is the authors’ analysis of the terminology used in Paul’s collection texts. Terms like λογια (collection) and θησαυρίζω (to store), that Paul uses in 1 Cor. 16:1-2, were also used by other associations to describe their financial practices.

With this comparative data in mind, the authors make several hypotheses about details left unstated by Paul: i.e. where the funds might have been stored, how they might have been kept seperate from other financial contributions, and who might have assumed responsibility for their safe keeping and delivery. The authors also express concern here about privileging theological explanations of Paul’s collection over “more mundane explanations or analogies” (146). This is helpful to an extent, but it also leads to a neglect of some crucial points. For example, when Paul grounds the collection for Jerusalem in the incarnation of Jesus (see 2 Cor 8:9) he certainly seems to be operating with a unique economic vision and the Christological aspect of the collection is largely undeveloped in the book. Readers will want to think critically about how much early Christian economic practice was driven by typical concerns for “survival” and how much Christian economic practice was driven by a concern to imitate and obey Christ (see 2 Cor 8:1-3).

This book pursues an important question with impressive rigor. Its findings are not especially surprising: groups were comprised of people occupying a diversity of positions on the economic ladder, and prudent usage of funds, collective action, and sharing of resources among nonelite group members were as important for a group’s survival than the group’s access to a wealthy benefactor. But these conclusions are significant, and the authors’ reference to primary source data is admirable. Moreover, Harland and Last succeed in exposing a number of exaggerations and misunderstandings sometimes advanced by scholars. Jews and Christians were not the only charitable people in antiquity. It is true that the survival of these groups required some of the same communal ingenuity that others employed. These are helpful points of nuance.

However, it will be important for readers to remember that one of the authors’ aims in this book is to rebalance what they perceive as a privileging of Christian groups in assessments of the ancient data and this means that more theological explanations of the evidence tend to be neglected. Of final note, it should be said that the authors desire for their readers to engage with the primary sources themselves and have drafted the book in a way that is conducive to that end. Thus, this book could be profitably used in a classroom context (especially among students of religion with only a more introductory knowledge of economic dynamics in the ancient world).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hunter Brown is a graduate student in New Testament at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
October 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip A. Harland is professor at York University in the Humanities Department and in the collaborative U of T-York University doctoral programme in Ancient Greek and Roman History.

Richard Last is assistant professor in the Ancient Greek and Roman Studies program at Trent University, Canada.


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