Paul in the Context of Greco-Roman Associations (Day 18)

A reading of 2 Corinthians 8, a Letter of Collection

In a nutshell: Paul sends a letter of recommendation to Corinth with a group of representatives from other assemblies in the surrounding regions on their way to deliver a special collection to Jerusalem.

As for Titus, he is my companion and co-worker on your behalf; as for our brothers, they are envoys of the various gatherings; they all bring honor to the Anointed. So in the presence of the Anointed’s gatherings, show these men your love and evidence for what we have claimed about you.
—2 Corinthians 8:23–24

Today strikes me as a great opportunity to introduce you to some Westar resources as well as a couple of very cool resources created by Philip Harland (York University, Toronto).

Some readers may recall that Harland presented on Greco-Roman associations at the Spring 2014 national meeting along with a number of other outstanding scholars in a wider conversation about what evidence should be included in any conversation about the history of early Christianity. Harland’s presentation was my first introduction to this topic, and it really helped me imagine how Jesus groups fit into the big picture of the Roman Empire. This serves as an important reminder that we can’t just build our picture of the world of Jesus, Paul, and the earliest generations of Christians based on literary evidence, such as books of the Bible.

When you broaden your view to the material evidence, that is, the physical evidence from fields like archaeology and epigraphy, you get a picture that takes into account all levels of society rather than just the elite. For example, Harland explained that associations really only appear in literary evidence when they get into trouble. If we only follow the literary evidence, we might come to assume that associations are always getting into trouble, but that would be an exaggeration. Actually these associations did a lot of good for society, everything from providing financial support to individual members to engaging in building and service projects.

In general the Spring 2014 national meeting’s emphasis on material culture was an enormous help in this respect, and I really encourage you to explore the many free resources that came out of that meeting (linked above).

Along with the Spring 2014 Meeting resources, another resource I want to mention here is Harland’s large collection of inscriptions from the Greco-Roman world, which is freely available online. This is a companion site to his jointly authored book Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook. Each inscription is accompanied by a translation, so even if you don’t read Greek you can still explore the evidence for yourself.

What does this have to do with Paul? Well, Paul’s coordination of a collection for the assemblies of the Anointed in Jerusalem needs to be viewed within a much wider context of other sorts of associations across Greco-Roman culture. Simply browsing the many inscriptions gives one a sense that this was a normal way for people to organize themselves around meaningful projects. For example, one assembly paid off a loan to Caesar on behalf of one of its members, who was a slave. Many of the inscriptions are dedications to specific deities. Many of them describe the rules and regulations of associations, often the standards for entry: What requirements must a person meet in order to join an association?

Of most relevance to us today, several touch on the donation of money toward specific causes, such as this one that honors a female benefactor named Julia for her “goodwill toward the society.” On one block in a marketplace, an inscription announces a donation by a freedman named Gaius Julius for sacrifices to the goddess Artemis on behalf of the city of the Ephesians.

Examples like this are practically inexhaustible and well worth exploring for anyone interested in learning more about the world occupied by Paul. I recommend filtering down the inscriptions to just the ones dated to the first century CE.

This funerary plaque, which is on display at the Met Museum, is unusual in that it has inscriptions (CIL III, 6731 = IGR III, 983) in both Latin and Greek, each of which follows conventions appropriate to the respective language. It reads in Latin above: “Julia Donata, the freedwoman of Olympus, lies here,” and in Greek below: “Good Ioulia Donata, the freedwoman of Olympos, farewell.”


Phil has also published a series on Paul and his Communities (scroll down to series 1) as part of his larger Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast. It is broken down by location into Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, and Rome and is well worth a listen. He also has a series on Associations in the Greco-Roman world more generally (series 6).

If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend Podcast 6.1: Introduction to Associations in the Greco-Roman World. From among the Spring 2014 Meeting resources, I recommend the very popular Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries related to Jesus (a report on Milton Moreland’s presentation by the same name).

Questions for the Road

  • How does knowing that assemblies of Jesus existed among many, many other assemblies on a diverse array of topics—not just worship of specific deities but also functional groups based on skills and trades—change your picture of Christian origins?
  • Based on the resources you explored from the links above, what stands out to you about the Greco-Roman world in the time of Jesus and Paul? Is it quite what you imagined?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

One thought on “Paul in the Context of Greco-Roman Associations (Day 18)

  1. 2 Corinthians 8, a paraphrase: Have you heard about the marvelous reaction of the churches in Macedonia to God’s grace? These impoverished brothers in the midst of great affliction gave beyond their means with great joy in the ministry to the saints. As you know God’s generosity with His gifts of the
    Spirit, so are we assured of an equal outpour of generosity as Titus completes this work among you. Rather than my demand, this is a test of the genuineness of Christ’s love in you, his impoverishment by crucifixion becoming your riches. Your abiding good will must now be matched by completion. Our goal is a fair balance, for others and for you, between abundance and need. Titus and the brother who is specially accepted by all the churches for the completion of this task are coming to you, accompanied by a second brother of exceptional dedication and abilities. Our intention is only to do right for the glory of Christ, and we don’t expect to be criticized for it. Therefore, rise to the occasion and demonstrate to all our associations the evidence of your love.

    Comment: It’s an interesting feel to translate “association” for “church, etc.” wherever it may be found. Another good resource for ‘association’ information is Westar scholar Hal Taussig’s In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity (2009), esp. 88-104, and the subj. index lists approximately 90 pages which refer to ‘associations.’ Here’s a summary quote:

    “The emergence of early Christianity is impossible to contemplate without the meal and the organizational form of Hellenistic associations. The creativity and sustaining power of the early churches depended crucially on the meal dynamics. The organizational spread of the early churches was unthinkable without the model of the associations. Although this does not mean to eliminate the role of new “Christian” ideas or personalities in Christianity’s emergence, it clearly relativizes their importance vis-a-vis the power of the meals and the association.”


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