Tag Archives: Guy G. Stroumsa

Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice (2009)

Guy G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (trans. Susan Emanuel; 2009).

Thesis: The religious landscape of Late Antiquity represented a radical change from the eras prior to it.

Chapter 1, “A New Care of the Self,” argues that the anthropological shifts in Late Antiquity had their basis in religious practices. The main religious change of Late Antiquity, of course, was the high status that Christianity attained. However, “it is with Jewish weapons”—like communal asceticism, conversion as repentance (metanoia) rather than a returning (epistrophe), and the prophet as the ideal person—“that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire” (11). Late Antique Judaism adapted the prophetic ideal into the figure of the sage, who occupies him/herself with studying Torah, while Christianity turned the prophet into the saint, the holy man who confronts the bishop from the margins of society, the same way that the biblical prophets confronted the priests. Moreover, Christianity made holiness, achieved through ascesis, available to everyone (unlike in pagan culture, where spiritual greatness was reserved for philosophers and other “intellectual elites” [25]).

Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Religions of the Book,” tracks how Late Antique religions developed their understandings of sacred texts. Stroumsa begins with Judaism, which developed a rich textual tradition during the Second-Temple period, but by Late Antiquity held the Torah as the only truly sacred book (supplemented by oral traditions). Next, he discusses the Quranic category of “people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), noting that, in Quranic usage, the “Book” (kitāb) is an oral text related to heavenly revelation, independent of the codex (musḥaf). This concept was also already present in Manichaeism, which contained a strong theology of the book. Early Christians also were deeply devoted to sacred texts, almost all of which were codices (rather than scrolls, the dominant form of the book when Christianity developed). Codices were inexpensive and portable—qualities which allowed Christians to disseminate information quickly. The early Christians used Jewish sacred texts (i.e., the Septuagint), and they readily acknowledged the Jewishness of those scriptures (to the point of sparing Jewish books whenever they razed synagogues). Christians, of course, also developed their own canon (the New Testament), the core of which was finalized in the 180s, around the same time that the Mishnah was completed. Early Christianity, like Second-Temple Judaism, saw a proliferation of sacred texts. By Late Antiquity, however, Christianity—again like its contemporary Judaism—devoted itself to the study of a small selection of sacred literature (canonized, by that point, as the Bible).

Chapter 3, “Transformations of Ritual,” shows how Late Antiquity marked a turning point in religious practices. Before the second century (where Stroumsa idiosyncratically places the beginning of Late Antiquity), Mediterranean religious practice centered on blood sacrifice. With the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, Jewish worship became spiritualized and democratized, focusing on prayer and Torah study—which could be done anywhere, not just Jerusalem. By the rabbinic period, (elite) Jewish practice revolved around halakha, much in the same way contemporaneous elite Christian practice focused on askēsis. In contrast to post-70 Judaism, early Christianity defined itself as a sacrificial religion; however, it emphasized that only one sacrifice (Jesus’) was necessary to appease God, and that sacrifice was re-enacted in the Eucharist and in martyrdom. At the end of the chapter, Stroumsa includes two interesting asides: 1) the Docetic crucifixion story, where Christ laughs from Heaven while his stand-in is crucified, can be seen as a Christian reworking of the Akedah, and 2) Philo—a contemporary of Paul’s—argues that Isaac (the Jewish sacrificial hero par excellence, like Jesus was for the Christians) was the son of God, who miraculously made Sarah a virgin before she conceived Isaac.

Chapter 4, “From Civic Religion to Community Religion”: Before Late Antiquity, religion resided in the public domain; it required correct performance of rituals but did not require adherence to a certain set of beliefs, and the rituals were performed in public by all the residents of a city, or at least their representatives. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, and the subsequent interiorization of religion, it moved out of the public sphere and into the realm of individual groups. At the same time, religious groups began to require orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. Stroumsa also treats inter-religious violence in this chapter, focusing on Christian anti-paganism and anti-Semitism (which developed out of a purely theological anti-Judaism in the fourth century), showing that the end of religious (pagan) pluralism led to these polemics.

Chapter 5, “From Wisdom Teacher to Spiritual Master,” compares pagan philosophy with Christian spirituality (which Stroumsa himself acknowledges as an artificial distinction). Stroumsa argues that Greek and Roman priests were not spiritual leaders, whereas Christian priests, like their Jewish predecessors, played such a role. Christian spiritual formation thus represents a “rupture with the past” (116). Pagan philosophical instruction took place among elites, who had the leisure to contemplate the good life, which Christian spiritual leaders evangelized members of all levels of society. By Late Antiquity, “the spiritual director is less a sage than a saint” (125)—that is, the spiritual master’s teachings do not bring wisdom, but abolish independent thought, thereby saving the disciple.

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