Describing Religion Anew
Richard Ascough is a Queen’s professor of religious studies whose research explores the origins of Christianity during the first two centuries after the death of Christ. As most people know, Christ’s earliest followers banded together in small groups. But what did these groups look like? How did they develop? How did they fit into the broader Greek and Roman cultures of which they were a part?
Ascough is trying to reveal the social organization and structure of these and other groups of the day. Known as associations, they were the ancient equivalent of today’s Rotary Clubs or Lions Clubs. Like their modern-day counterparts, they were localized gatherings of people who shared certain social or job-related interests.
Much of Ascough’s research involves translating and comparing inscriptions left by these associations and “Christ groups” to better understand the latter. The inscriptions are carved in stone, or inscribed on pottery or bronze, while their documents are written on papyrus. They record the regulations of the associations and provide insight into how they functioned, who the leaders were and the activities the members were involved in.
Historically, Christ groups have typically been portrayed as radical, threatening to the Romans and more important than the other groups. The research of Ascough and his colleagues is challenging this idea.
That’s not to say Christ groups weren’t a threat. Romans demanded a very clear social order. There was nothing more important than preserving the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. Anything that undermined the status quo had to be quickly dealt with. For example, the pantheist Romans thought of their emperor as an earthly god. If the gods were not appeased, they might wreak havoc on earth. As monotheists, Christ groups refused to worship the emperor, and were thus a threat to the social order.
The Romans did take measures to discourage nonconformity, which has given rise to legends of widespread persecution of early Christians. However, Jews were also monotheists. Other groups, such as some worshippers of Dionysus, were also perceived as threats for other reasons. As Ascough and his colleagues have demonstrated, Christ groups were not unique, but similar to many other groups. Thus, through his research, Ascough hopes to help overturn the oversimplified popular categorization of Roman religions as Christians, Jews and pagan “others.”
“Framing the discourse that way privileges Christianity in a way that, historically, didn’t happen,” says Ascough.
Ascough has only a few chances at Queen’s to teach classes directly related to his research on early Christ groups, although this winter he will teach a new course on Greek and Roman Religions. His other regular courses include Religion in Film and Religion and Business Ethics, where he attempts to inspire students to think critically about what they’re reading or watching by recognizing and analyzing any conscious or subconscious assumptions they may bring to the material.
Says Ascough: “I’ve been asked before, ‘How does your research manifest in the classroom?’ To answer that, I can describe what I research in the Greco-Roman period and how it shows up in certain courses, where I use it to help students work through changes in their perceptions or paradigms of Christianity. But another way research shows up is when students generate discussion outside of my field. For example, in the Religion and Film course they may pose questions I don’t know the answer to. It’s then that I employ my research skills and I say to the students, ‘That’s a good question, we need to know more about it.’ I then model the skills of a researcher to address their questions.”
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014
Learn more about:
Dr. Ascough's research
Dr. Richard Ascough