Reviews of

Christ’s Associations

In Community, Jason Borges, John S. KLOPPENBORG, NT social setting, Yale University Press on September 11, 2020 at 3:00 pm

2020.09.16 | John S. Kloppenborg. Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780300217049.

Review by Jason Borges, Durham University.

New Testament scholarship since the 1970s has explored the social history of early Christian origins. Wayne Meeks, Abraham Malherbe, Gerd Theissen, Howard Kee, and others charted the social aspects of early Christ communities, with a focus on the leadership structure, economic status, and ritual activities of these groups. John Kloppenborg’s Christ’s Associations stands in this current of social-science history and extends the conversation.

Christ’s Associations systematically compares early Christian assemblies (for which we have relatively minimal social data) to ancient Greek and Roman associations (for which we have abundant inscriptional evidence) in order to discern new information about early Christ-followers. Kloppenborg focuses on matters of leadership patterns, financing, size, locale, rules, and social class within the group. The heuristic methodology, as he details, does not propose a derivative or genealogical connection, but rather, compares practices to alert us to overlooked issues and set controls on our historical imaginations. Comparison offers potential models for imagining how early Christ groups performed community. 

Kloppenborg, a co-editor of the five-volume edition of primary texts Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary (de Gruyter, 2011–), presents a wealth of inscriptional evidence regarding ancient associations. The opening chapters classify the various types of functions of Greco-Roman associations—immigrant, cultic, occupational, neighborhood—to serve as examples of the varied Christ-assemblies established by Paul. This offers a helpful introduction to ancient associations, especially their functions and extensiveness.

The indirect nature of heuristic comparison leads to intriguing historical suggestions. For example, chapter 2—about membership lists—suggests that Paul and the Philippians were engaged “in some kind of business venture” (pp. 82–83) and that the Thessalonian community, like ancient occupational guides, was only male (pp. 88–89). Yet the comparative approach offers better results in the following chapter, “Visualizing Christ Assemblies: Size and Space.” Based on occupational and cultic membership lists (alba), early Christ communities were most likely small (15–30 members) and gathered in various venues (not just homes).  

Ancient associations materialized their group belongingness and members’ status through ritualized forms, such as inscriptions, processions, meals, rites, rules, rosters, and sanctions. In light of our selective evidence of early Christian practice, the comparative approach illuminates early Christians’ common meals, especially issues of meal-time conflict (see 1 Cor 5; James 2). However, the issue of required attendance, a grave concern for many groups to create social belongingness, finds little parallel in early Christianity (Heb 10:24–27?). 

Chapters 5 and 6 break from the comparative analysis to analyze the “status” of early Christians, as social position shaped communal practices. Kloppenborg advances two arguments. One, the Roman empire had a significant middle group, so Christ-followers were likely not the dire poor, though the lack of evidence prevents a firm conclusion. Two, status is determined more by connectivity and access to others, so historians ought to compare how ancient associations fostered internal social connections to infer members’ status. 

The next three chapters (7, 8, and 9) compare the financial practices surrounding meals, collections, and burials of ancient guilds and associations with early Christ assemblies. The bulk of each chapter assesses the patterns found in cultic and business associations and suggests that “Christ groups adopted the same range of practices that are widely attested in pagan groups” (p. 276). The weekly meals, he argues, were not a patron-financed feast or potluck-style eranos, but likely funded by a combination of peer benefaction (rotating hosts) and member contributions, as attested to in ancient associations. 

The financial collection for Jerusalem saints (see also 1 Cor 16:1–4) was analogous to association subscriptions (epidodeis)in which communities raised money from members for public projects. The act of giving performed one’s membership and received appropriate recognition. The Corinthians were familiar with pooling resources but had concerns about the anomalous transference of their funds to a distant ethnic group―hence, the need for Paul to provide assurances and instructions. The financing and attending of members’ funerals was a central, often primary, reason for ancient associations. Yet we have virtually no data regarding Christian burial in the first two centuries.

The final two chapters step back from specific practices for performing group membership to analyze broader questions of group identity and belonging. Chapter 10, “Living in the City” (“city” taken here as a political polis, not an urban setting), assesses how early Christ communities mimicked civic structures (e.g., presuming the designation ekklēsia, encouraging benefaction for public recognition), while also developing an outsider identity through the language of resident non-citizens and visitors (cf. 1 Peter, Hermas’s Similitude 2). The final chapter discusses group recruitment, expansion, and decline. According to sociologists and inscriptional evidence, recruitment occurs through trust networks; therefore, we should image early Christianity expanding primarily through occupational and relational ties, not public peaching. Though few elites joined Christ assemblies, Kloppenborg notes two potential benefits for people of status: becoming a patronage and joining a reading community, both established avenues for elites to enhance their honor.

A word about the book’s method explains the results. Kloppenborg limits comparanda to Greco-Roman associations, and so does not situate early Christian groups alongside diaspora Judaism or ancient “religions.” The Christ-cult gets analyzed purely as an ancient social group. This approach rightly locates ancient Christians within their social environments, yet Kloppenborg’s assumption that early Christ-followers “would have resembled other associations” (p. 54) downplays any potential contrast or uniqueness. The social approach assumes common social practices and motives, and so does not allow for early Christian particulars, especially in areas of belief/theology. 

As a senior NT scholar, Kloppenborg demonstrates commendable knowledge of not just early Christian literature but also ancient prosopography and inscriptional evidence. He marshals a broad range of primary and secondary sources, as rarely encountered in New Testament publications. One downside, however, is a minimal amount of actual New Testament interpretation, as most pages detail the inscriptions and practices of Greco-Roman associations. Plus, Kloppenborg’s critical approach is limited to the communities behind Paul’s undisputed letters, as other NT documents (e.g., Pastorals, Acts, James) are deemed early second-century. 

Throughout the book, Kloppenborg highlights the social function of ancient group behaviors (which relates to the book’s subtitle, Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City). The reader learns of the many ways which the constructs of honor-shame, connectivity, reciprocity, and group identity shaped people in the ancient world. Kloppenborg demonstrates that the main function of social groups in antiquity, including the emerging Christ associations, was to build esteem and social capital. In sum, Christ’s Associations will rightly join the ranks of essential reading for those interested in the social history of early Christian origins.

Jason Borges
Durham University
jasangborges [at] gmail.com

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