Christian Trade Guilds
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Dionysiac Artists 173


Dionysiac ArtistsTrade guilds like the associations for performers, tradesmen and artisans in a town in the Roman Empire were quickly adopted as a format for Christian meetings. Co-fraternities of tradesmen and professional associations organized like a trade union, a cartel or a secret society were especially important in Rome. Trade Guilds, otherwise known as "collegia" were mentioned in Acts 19.23-25 for their organized opposition to the Christian Church. Saint Luke writes, "About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades." They were silversmiths who feared the loss of their trade in silver idols. Other guilds are also known to have existed for bankers, architects, bakers, linen manufacturers, doctors, workers in metal or stone, dyers, pastry cooks, barbers and even embalmers! They often relied on permits or letters patent from a ruler or other authority to ensure the flow of trade to self employed members and to keep ownership of the supply of materials and tools. They often met and conducted their business from "guildhalls" and later became town halls and local law courts. Before the Roman Empire, they had been uncommon in the East, apart from special cases like the "Dionysiac Artists" illustrated on a carved plaque, a guild of actors, scene painters, and others associated with the theatre. In this period, the organization of other artisans, merchants and trade guilds spread throughout Greek cities as well.

Purely Social Bodies

Icon of Early ChristiansAlthough it is now common to call these groups "Christian trade guilds", their purpose is not to be confused with those of medieval guilds, much less with those of modern trade unions. Inscriptions indicate that the trade guilds seem to have been purely social bodies, unconcerned with the business activities of their members. Only in later times did the government sometimes intervene and manipulate the trade guilds in an attempt to regulate commerce.

Patchwork Rug Makers

ThessalonicaBuilders and carpenters, patchwork rug makers, porters and groups like the purple dyers of Eighteenth Street in Thessalonica met to have a banquet and to drink the best wine supplied by the member whose turn it was. Trade guilds would perhaps also celebrate the birthday of the founder or patron or commemorate the feast of a local god such as the Greek and Olympian gods like Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Silvanus. Another function of some trade guilds was to draw up membership rules and to ensure a decent burial for their members when their time came. Christian trade guilds appeared to the authorities to be just another such trade guild meeting.

"Christian Trade Guilds"
by Ron Meacock © 2018

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