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Trade Guilds

TRADE GUILDS. Otherwise known as collegia, they are first mentioned in Acts.19.1-Acts.19.41 as a base of organized opposition to the Christian church. These societies were not trade unions in the modern sense. Their functions were primarily social. Records exist of guilds of bakers, bankers, doctors, architects, producers of linen and woolen goods, dyers, workers in metal or stone or clay, builders, carpenters, farmers, pastry cooks, barbers, embalmers, and transport workers. “No other age,” wrote Dill, “felt a greater craving for some form of social life, greater than the family and narrower than the State” (Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, p. 271; cf. p.267). The collegia satisfied the need of the humble for the pleasures of social intercourse and the dignity of self-expression. It was the guild of the silversmiths and associated trades that, adroitly led, forced Paul to withdraw from Ephesus. It was, it appears, the guild of the butchers that precipitated the persecution of a.d. 112 in Bithynia, according to Pliny. The guild banquets, with associated worship of the patron deity and the compromising fellowship involved, were probably the problem of 1 Corinthians. The attempt of certain groups to work out a form of compromise, so essential to the social comfort, and indeed livelihood of many Christians, led to the strong reproaches of 2 Peter, Jude, and Rev.2.1-Rev.2.29-Rev.3.1-Rev.3.22.——EMB

TRADE GUILDS. Associations of men in the same craft or trade who have organized for mutual protection and for social and religious benefits.

In ancient times, guilds were more like fraternal orders than like labor unions. They seldom concerned themselves with wages, hours, or conditions of labor. Many of them were mutual benefit societies to defray the cost of a funeral. Their chief aim was pleasure and social intercourse. They were found all over the ancient world—in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, Palestine. In Rome, as early as the 7th century b.c., there were guilds of flute players, goldsmiths, coppersmiths, fullers, shoemakers, dyers, and carpenters. By the 2nd century b.c., cooks, tanners, builders, bronze workers, ironworkers, coppersmiths, weavers, priests, all had their own guilds and membership in a guild was compulsory. No one was permitted to leave the guild in which he was enrolled, and a son was required to follow the trade of his father. In Assyria, people were divided into five classes, with the patricians or nobles at the top, and craftsmen and professions organized into guilds directly below them. In Persia, there was a well-organized guild of physicians and surgeons, whose fees were fixed by law.

In ancient Pal., manufacturing centers were located in places where raw materials necessary for the business were readily available. The region around Tell Beit Mirsim was good for the raising of sheep, and therefore the place became a center for the weaving and dyeing of woolen cloth. There was an abundance of ore in Edom, and consequently a mining and smelting industry grew up in that country. Beth-ashbea, in sotuhern Pal., was the center of the linen industry (1 Chron 4:21).

It was the custom for tradesmen in larger cities in the Near E to live in separate quarters. For example, Jerusalem had a bakers’ street (Jer 37:21), and a goldsmiths’ district (Neh 3:32).

People who pursued a definite trade or profession often were designated by their particular calling, e.g. “Joseph, member of the perfumers.” Each guild had a chief officer, or president. 1 Chronicles 2:55 tells of three families of scribes who lived in the same town.

In the postexilic period, guilds were powerful organizations and were recognized by the government. A guild could prevent a craftsman from another area from working in its territory. It had a trade monopoly in its particular locality. A guild could monopolize the market. Guild members were insured against loss of tools, animals, and boats used in their business, unless the loss was caused by their own negligence. Guilds had their own religious and social institutions, even their own synagogues, next to which there were burial grounds for the members. In some cases, members of a guild collectively built and operated businesses.


I. Mendelsohn, “Guilds in Ancient Palestine,” BASOR, LXXX, 17-21; I. Mendelsohn, “Guilds in Babylonia and Assyria,” JAOS, LX, 68-72; F. F. Abbott, The Common People of Ancient Rome (1911), 215-234; W. Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (1954).