Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities.
Although the subtitle of Harland's extremely useful new book appears neither on its cover nor on its first title page, "Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities" are in fact the key to Harland's analysis. The primary contribution of the work to early Christian studies, and to the study of ancient religion more generally, lies in how few pages are actually spent on "early Christians," and how many are spent on their world. Harland's work is a social-historical analysis of ethnic, familial, and association identity markers in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his limited discussion of early Christian sources is firmly embedded in this context. Harland uses contemporary social-scientific models of identity theory, ethnic studies, and migration studies, and applies these models primarily to understudied inscriptional evidence, in order to explore the social and ideological contexts in which early Christian groups first came into being. This is important and enlightening work, and the focus on contemporaneous non-Christian identity markers and identity groupings is a welcome addition both to the literature on religion in the Roman world and, more indirectly, on the growth of the new Christian movement.
The book is divided into four parts, with two chapters in each part: part 1, "Judean and Christian Identities in the Context of Associations," contains the most direct engagement with early Christian and Jewish texts, and is in many ways the most conventional in its analysis, concentrating on images and vocabulary from Philo, Josephus, and Ignatius to set Jewish and Christian communities into the larger social context of associations and ethnic groups. Part 2, "Familial Dimensions of Group Identity," moves much further into the area of inscriptional evidence. Harland prudently notes the differences in vocabulary between epistolary and epigraphic sources (67), with abundant evidence of fictive kin language in earliest Christian letters contrasted with little use of this language in Christian inscriptions before the late second century, and suggests that the apparent rarity of this language in non-Christian inscriptions should not be taken to indicate rarity of use overall. Harland breaks his analysis into two parts: the use of "brothers" in non-Christian associations (chapter 3) and the use of "mothers" and "fathers" in synagogues and Jewish associations (chapter 4). Part 3, "Identity and Acculturation among Judeans and Other Ethnic Associations," is in my view the strongest of the sections, particularly chapter 6, which centers on a detailed and nuanced reading of the funerary inscription for the family of P. Aelius Glykon and Aurelia Amia in Hierapolis. This section draws out the overlapping and multifaceted strands of identity that cross what we now see as religious, ethnic, national, and professional boundaries. Finally, part 4, "Group Interactions and Rivalries," returns to the more literary sources of part 1, especially in chapter 8, which compares accounts of orgiastic or otherwise transgressive banquet scenes tied to minority associations. A short conclusion reiterates the subject of each section and then brings the cumulative force of Harland's detailed readings to its clear and simple end: "The attention to shared modes of identity construction, negotiation, and communication is not meant to suggest that Christians were not unique. However, Christians were unique or distinctive insofar as every association minority group, or ethnic group was unique or distinctive, each in its own way" (185).
Harland's work may be best read as part of a trend in recent work on early Christian identity formation along ethnic lines. Harland briefly mentions the work of Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), and Aaron P. Johnson, Ethnicity and Argument in Eusebius? Praeparatio Evangelica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) in his introduction (17), but he does not seem strongly influenced by them; one might add Caroline Johnson Hodge's If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). These works, however, concentrate on the analysis of long-form literary texts, and Harland's focus on epigraphic evidence and use of social scientific models, rather than rhetorical, literary, or cultural studies models, works well as a supplement to these other works. At the same time, Harland's restriction to these models and primarily to non-literary texts sometimes prevents the book from pursuing its analyses as far as a more free-form cultural studies approach might allow. For example, chapter 3, "'Brothers' in Associations and Congregations," is restricted for the most part to the vocabulary found in epigraphic and papyrological evidence; although Plutarch's On Brotherly Love is mentioned at the end of the chapter, Harland does not attempt to integrate such sources into the body of the chapter in a substantive way. In contrast, when presented with the lengthy and multivalent Glykon inscription in chapter 6, Harland's analysis, in which he uses, among others, Ovid, Tertullian, and Artemidorus as points of reference, successfully reaches the level of detail that these rich texts have to offer.
Harland's work presents the reader with an excellent resource for the study of religious and ethnic associations in the ancient world, and his focus on the complex interactions of identities, and identity categories, assumed by a variety of persons in antiquity successfully complicates the study of the early Christian world. It also opens up several promising lines of inquiry about identity in the ancient world more broadly: what is the relationship between fictive kinship and representations of the posthumous, in funerary inscriptions? How might the stresses between multiple identity categories structure interactions between individuals or within family groups, rather than in competition or interaction between groups; or to what extent can ancient identities be said to be "individual" at all? Harland's book is a serious addition to the study of religious identity in the ancient world, and its sources and their analysis will repay careful reading.
Catherine M. Chin
University of California, Davis
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|Author:||Chin, Catherine M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2011|
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