Allan Georgia, "'Unless He Competes Professionally': Agonism and Cultural Production among Christians and Jews in the Roman World," Ph.D. Dissertation, Fordham University, 2016.
Odhesi Cenaj, a child of Albanian immigrants who was attending secondary school in a small Greek village in 2003, was having serious problems at school. Or, rather, his school had a serious problem with him. Cenaj was doing well in school - too well in fact. He was the top student in his class, and that meant that he would serve as the Greek flag bearer for an upcoming celebration of Greece's resistance to Axis forces during World War II––forces that included Albania. Cenaj was Greek enough to do well in a Greek school, but too Albanian to enjoy such an honor. A wave of national controversy ensued that crested when the Greek president quoted Isocrates (Panegyr. 50) to journalists in the boy's defense, explaining that being Greek is more a function of learning than it is of birth. Odhesi Cenaj would have to learn what many ancient people knew well: trying to be Greek is a complicated business.
And yet, especially in the ancient world, there were powerful reasons for wanting to be Greek. For Roman subjects - much as it would later seem to be for Cenaj - "being Greek" could be claimed by those who hailed from elsewhere in the Empire through education. Moreover, adopting the language, codes, and habits that characterized Greek culture served as a way of exchanging the dominant cultural currency of the early Roman Empire for social legitimacy.[i] Even for those who were born in the traditional lands of Hellas, one had to perform Greekness. This made "Greekness" (i.e., the cultivated and civilizing dimension of Greek culture represented by people who explicitly or implicitly claimed it) a valuable way to win legitimacy in early Imperial society - valuable enough to foster a culture of ambition and competition.
The cultural ecosystem that resulted from this competition over Greekness was filled with the diverse peoples of Mediterranean whose competition and cooperation with one another functioned to establish the value of Greek paideia - education in Greek language and literature, but also the quality of having been civilized by a Greek education - which in turn was traded, invested and exchanged into social acclaim and public notoriety. This is the landscape that Christian and Jewish communities occupied in the early centuries CE. Describing the competition that characterized this ambitious cultural field in language is not easy. But I make the case that it can help us capture the kinetic, frictive and multi-dimensional fields of contest on which Judaism and Christianity presented themselves in the early Roman Empire.
In this account, "Hellenism" was not only an atmosphere that was breathed in by Mediterranean peoples, resulting in a passive influence on the Jewish and Christian communities. Rather, I argue that communities strategically and dynamically responded to their cultural worlds by deploying the language, codes, and comportment of Greek paideia to win legitimacy for themselves. By competing, they contributed to paideia's high valuation. But, in turn, they were constrained by the cultural forces against which they struggled.
Analyzing dimensions of cultural competition enables historians to pull off something that is quietly extraordinary: bringing into focus the generative points of contact between subjects and their contexts. Historians have sometimes painted Jewish and Christian communities against a static, Hellenized background. However, considering these as incentivized and competing groups permits us a glimpse of the dynamic, generative exchanges that would otherwise be static and one-dimensional––like Van Gogh's subtle rebuke of still lives in his kinetic impression of almost-flapping crows.
Paying attention to the dynamics of competition allows for new readings of texts that have not always been seen as competitive. In order to understand the strategic possibilities available in this period, I first consider two non-Greek "Greeks" from outside of the networks of Jews and Christians in the 2nd century: the sophist Favorinus and the literary iconoclast Lucian. These two figures provide distinct, but remarkable case studies for how competing for Greekness could lead to extraordinary claims of self-ascription and creative cultural expressions. By reading these texts as part of an Empire-wide, competitive field around what Greekness signified, the generative possibilities for Jewish and Christian communities who engaged with Greekness become more and more clear.
The second half of the study focuses on Jewish and Christian communities and how they expressed themselves in the structures of competition that characterized the early Roman world. The readings I offer focus on an intentionally broad set of texts that offer discreet instances in which competitive strategies were deployed. However, these texts and the communities they reflect existed within an impossibly complex field of cultural competition - far beyond the scope of any single study to retrieve. But in seeing how competition shaped these texts, we can get a glimpse of the dynamic world in which these communities competed.
I begin with the legacy of Paul as it appears in the Pastoral Epistles and the canonical Acts. The question of how Paul's authority was contested by different Christian traditions has laid important groundwork for how we think about inter-religious competition.[ii] But this chapter considers the various ways in which Paul was portrayed as a cultural competitor for Greekness in a broader frame. The eclecticism of these portrayals indicates how multifaceted and valuable association with Greekness could be for ambitious intellectuals. In these texts, Paul is portrayed to compete in a range of venues that exploit the cultural economy of Greekness. He is likened to a range of explicit competitors (2 Tim. 2, riffing on 1 Cor. 9:24-27), he is portrayed as a religious competitor and entrepreneur (Acts 19), and he is pitted against several constituencies within the Roman social order to depict him as a literal citizen of the world - a "civic virtuoso" who could skillfully navigate the complex political and social contours of the Roman near East (Acts 21-23).
4 Maccabees reflects an entirely different approach to Greekness. The re-telling of the deaths of Eleazar, the seven brothers, and their mother is carefully situated for a Jewish audience, but with an awareness of other listeners. Here, a Jewish community presents its own traditional Torah piety in the full palette of Greek philosophical values like courage, manliness, and self-control - the ones most prized by philhellenic Romans. The demonstration of these martyrs' virtues is juxtaposed to a figure who typified Roman anxieties about monarchical rule––the intemperate and tyrannical Antiochus IV. In this way, 4 Maccabees employs Greek philosophical culture to win Roman audiences that had proven themselves enamored of non-native wisdom that could help them foster manly self-control.
Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho portrays the inter-religious competition in the 2nd century in uncommonly explicit terms. However, this chapter does not focus on the confrontation of the so-called "ways that parted" that takes place in the foreground. I turn my attention instead toward the Dialogue's frame narrative, which situates the meeting of Justin and Trypho deeply within the stylistic economy of ambitious Greek intellectuals. The Dialogue with Trypho displays how cultural competition could take place even at the most vanishingly subtle level. In framing the dialogue that ensues, both figures are portrayed as urbane intellectuals who joust with one another through gestures and expressions that were culled from sophistic and philosophical personalities. Through their choice of vocabulary, their back-and-forth about popular philosophical venues and teachers, and even their meaning-laden smiles, their entire confrontation takes place against a backdrop redolent of Greek paideia and its styles of self-presentation.
Justin's student, Tatian, provides the final voice in this study. The self-styled barbarian, whose text is perhaps the one that is most rhetorically manicured in this study, opts for an aggressive strategy to supplant paideia's prestige in his ferocious Against the Greeks. Here Tatian portrays himself as a thing that was monstrous to his Greek-speaking intellectual contemporaries––a barbarian who declaimed the prestige of Greek paideia by performing it and, in the same breath, dismissing it. In a world of ambitious, aspiring Greeks, Tatian is a counter-cultural revolutionary. His strategy is explicitly hostile, but it is also knowing. He lays bare the subdued terms of cultural discourse and refuses to play by its rules of imitation and appropriation. He taps into Greek fears about its own experience as a plundered culture and names the contortions of would-be Greeks outright in order to speak out for the barbarian wisdom of Moses and his Christian readers.
Rarely does the evidence available in textual remains invite us to see the underlying, generative way that conflict and competition textured religious cultures in the late ancient world. This study is an attempt to read Jewish and Christian history in the 2nd-3rd centuries, CE by and seeing the points of overlap and confrontation that can be seen beyond the frame. The expansiveness of Greekness and the high valuation of Greek paideia in the early Roman Empire provide a remarkable test case that demonstrates how this kind of competition helped produce the Jewish and Christian worlds. But it points to other kinds of competition taking place in other texts and on other fields.
The strategies that can be unearthed in these texts were not forged in an isolated war room or pondered at a distance. They were messy decisions made by weary players who relied on intuition and hope in order to exploit what moves were available in order to win safety, space, and time. Competing for Greekness compelled and constrained these Jewish and Christian voices by limiting how they could present themselves. But, at the same time, their incremental victories and strategic ingenuity began to shape an ever-evolving world that would, in the centuries that followed, find some of these communities in the center of the cultural and intellectual fields of Late Antiquity.
Dr. Allan Georgia is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Theology at Fordham University in New York City
[i] Fortunately, a group of scholarly luminaries has spent the last 30 years untangling this cultural world, which had been largely dismissed for the majority of the early 20th century: Bowersock (1969); Gleason (1995); Swain (1998); Whitmarsh (2001); Eshleman (2012); Perkins (2009); Nasrallah (2010) make up some of the highlights of this work.
[ii] Extraordinary scholarship has already been done on this question, including notably the recent work of Pervo (2010) and White (2014).