One difficulty we possess in understanding the world of the NT is projecting our modern Western, particularly American, assumptions back onto the Graeco-Roman World. One area in particular that this manifests itself is the tendency for scholars, ministers, and lay people to paint the Roman Empire with broad brushstrokes and generalizations. One thing we must realize is that the Roman Empire was extremely diverse and consisted of numerous city-states and provinces. As a result, simply because something was true for one province or city-state, does not mean it was true for all the provinces or city-states (I am not saying however that there were no fundamental tenants that the entire Roman Empire shared). Case in point, associations, which consisted of groups of private denizens of the Roman Empire.
For example, Pliny the Younger who was a lawyer and the governor of the province of Pontus Bithynia c. 110 CE (a region to which the letter 1 Peter is addressed, 1 Pet 1.1) evidences a variegated treatment of associations within his province, i.e., from Nicomedia to Amisus (see map below; Nicomedia is on the eastern side of the province while Amisus is a free city on the western side).
|Courtesy of Wiki Commons|
First and foremost, after a fire destroyed some property in the town of Nicomedia, Pliny wrote the Emperor Trajan and requested he be given permission to start a fire brigade:
“. . . Do you, my lord, consider whether you think it well to organize an association (collegium) of firemen, not to exceed 150 members. I will see to it that none but firemen are admitted into it, and that the privileges granted shall not be abused for any other purpose; and since they would be so few, it would not be difficult to keep them under surveillance” (Pliny, Letters10.33; LCL).
It seems from Pliny’s comment that he presupposes Trajan is not keen on the idea of an association. Thus Pliny almost makes an apology for the creation of one. That is, he attempts to make the association small, reassures Trajan that it will consist of firemen and firemen alone, and that they could be kept under surveillance.
Nevertheless, Trajan is not convinced by Pliny’s reassurances:
“You are of course thinking of the examples of a number of other places in suggesting that an association (collegium) of firemen might be organized in Nicomedia. But we must remember that the peace of your province, and particularly of those cities, has been repeatedly disturbed by organizations of this kind. Whatever name we give them, and for whatever purpose, men who have gathered together will all the same become a political association before long. It is therefore better to provide equipment which can be helpful for controlling fires, advise property owners to use these themselves, and, if the situation warrants it, call on the populace for assistance” (Pliny, Letters 10.34; LCL).
It is clear from Trajan’s response that associations of firemen exist in other locales, for he assumes this is where Pliny got the idea. Be that as it may, Trajan is against the creation of an association in Nicomedia because of its history of disturbing the peace, i.e., Pax Romana. Moreover, Trajan’s fear is that the association will become political. Thus the manner in which Trajan managed the Roman Empire was different in different cities and provinces. This is even more evident in another letter that Pliny wrote to Trajan about a free city on the western side of his province, Amisus:
“Pliny to the Emperor Trajan,
The free allied city of Amisus enjoys, by benefit of your indulgence, the use of its own laws. A petition having been presented to me there concerning mutual benefit societies, I append it to this letter, that you may consider, my lord, whether and to what extent these are either to be permitted or prohibited” (Pliny, Letters 10.92; LCL).
“Trajan to Pliny,
As to Amisus, whose petition you appended to your letter, if they are permitted by their laws, which they enjoy by virtue of their treaty, to maintain a mutual-benefit society, we cannot prevent them from having one, especially if the contributions are employed not for the purposes of rioting and illicit gatherings but for the support of the indigent. In other cities, however, which are subject to our laws, organizations of this nature are to be prohibited” (Pliny, Letters 10.93; LCL).
It is evident that although Trajan allows the denizens of Amisus to have a mutual-benefit society, he also expresses his fears by contrasting the legal uses of a mutual-benefit society with those that are illicit. Moreover, he ends his letter by reminding Pliny that in the cities that are subject to Roman laws, mutual-benefit societies are prohibited.
Thus it is clear that the administration within the Roman Empire was not monolithic, and the history of each city was taken into context. Although Trajan acknowledged that some cities had fire brigades in the Empire (for that is where Trajan assumes that Pliny got the idea), the city of Nicomedia cannot because of its history of insurrection. Conversely, because Amisus is a free allied governed by its own rules, it may have a mutual-benefit society. Nevertheless, this is a concession by Trajan and it not the norm everywhere.
What are the implications for the varied treatments of associations for the study of the NT? A lot of work has been recently on understanding the first Christian churches in light of associations from the Graeco-Roman world, i.e., the first Christians and others who lived in the first century may have believed that a Christian church was a form of an association. If this is correct, I suggest that it MAY be one of the numerous reasons why the persecution of nascent Christians varied in the first century from locale to locale. Therefore it may be an explanation for the variegated responses by governmental officials on Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts. That is, the varied treatments of associations may explain why governmental officials in the city of Thessalonica involved themselves in the affairs of the Christian community after hearing that the Christians were preaching another King in Jesus, while in the very next episode the governmental officials do not become involved in Christian affairs at Berea.