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Review of Nongbri, Before Religion

My thanks to Yale University Press for sending me a copy of Brent Nongbri’s new book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). My thanks also to Dr. Nongbri, who graciously cleared up a few points of confusion before this review was published.

Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept is a book-length word study of the word “religion” and its classical counterparts, in which he seeks to provide “a (not the) history of that concept [i.e., the concept of religion], drawing together the results of diverse fields of research to show, first and foremost, that religion does indeed have a history: it is not a native category to ancient cultures” (7; emphasis original).

In chapter 1, Nongbri begins his study by defining what he means by “religion.” He surveys different scholars’ attempts to define “religion” and finds the assumptions behind those definitions lacking: “There are certain ‘things’ that people in the modern world are conditioned to regard as ‘religion,’ and attempts at definition are always subject to that impulse to be consistent with everyday speech” (17). Therefore, Nongbri takes a pragmatic approach and defines “religion” to match this modern, Western intuition: “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18)—or, less provocatively, “what most modern people appear to mean by religion is a kind of inner sentiment or personal faith ideally isolated from secular concerns” (8). Nongbri notes that he does not think this sort of definition is a good one, merely that it is the popular one (18, discussing a quote from Karen Armstrong), and it is this popular notion of religion that he wishes to argue against. The remainder of this chapter is a preliminary historical survey of the usage of the terms “religion,” “religions,” and “World Religions,” along with a brief discussion of why Nongbri finds those categories to be problematic.

In chapter 2, Nongbri surveys three classical languages—Latin, Greek, and Arabic—and discusses terms in each of these languages that are frequently translated into English as “religion”: Latin religio, Greek thrēskeia, and Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. Throughout the chapter, Nongbri highlights that these five classical words, though they are often translated as “religion,” do not mean what moderns mean by “religion.” He spends the most time discussing religio, and for obvious reason: it is the source of the English word “religion,” and he covers nearly two millennia of uses. Surveying a multitude of Latin sources, both pagan and Christian, from the second century BCE to the seventeenth century CE, Nongbri traces the development of religio from its original Roman sense of “scruples” (for example, in Plautus and Terence) to its modern definition as an “inward persuasion of the mind” (34, translating Locke), noting the range of meanings the term held in between the two endpoints. Curiously, Nongbri does not incorporate James B. Rives’ Religion in the Roman Empire either in this section or elsewhere in the book. One would imagine that incorporating Rives would only serve to further nuance his argument.

Nongbri spends substantially less time tracking the development of thrēskeia, the Greek word that, like religio, is often translated as “religion.” He tracks the development of the term from classical Greek (namely, Herodotus), where thrēskeia carries the sense of “rituals,” through the heyday of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century (namely, the Greek version of Barlaam and Ioasaph), where it maintains the same sense. Lastly, Nongbri explores the sense of the Arabic words dīn (“custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution” [41]), milla (“law or sect” [44]), and umma (“customs, traditions, and values” [44, quoting Denny]) in their Quranic context.

In chapter 3, Nongbri explores four historical cases that modern interpreters have seen as the beginning of a religious-secular divide: the Maccabean revolt, as interpreted by scholars like William Cantwell Smith; Cicero’s On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods, as interpreted by Mary Beard; Eusebius’ Preparatio evangelica and Demonstratio evangelica, as interpreted by Daniel Boyarin; and early Islam, as interpreted by Bernard Lewis. With regard to the Maccabees, Nongbri contrasts Smith’s argument—that the Greek term ioudaismos should be translated as “Judaism”—with arguments like those of Shaye J. D. Cohen and Steve Mason, who argue that ioudaismos refers to Judean customs, rather than a religion called “Judaism.” In discussing Cicero, Nongbri agrees with Beard that “something new is going on here with Cicero and his contemporaries” (53), but critiques her description of this new thing as “religion,” since it does not match the modern conception of religion. With Eusebius, Nongbri discusses how Eusebius’ use of christanismos parallels the Maccabean use of ioudaismos, such that christianismos refers to a set of customs practiced by an ethnicity (in this case, the christianoi). Finally, Nongbri critiques Lewis’s idea that early Islam saw itself as a new religion among other religions; instead, he argues, following Fred M. Donner, early Islam saw itself not as a new religion, but as standing in continuity with prior traditions.

Chapter 4 discusses Christianity’s relationship with three “others”—Mani and Manichaeism, early Islam, and the Buddha—which Christians saw as heretical Christian figures or beliefs, rather than as separate religions or religious figures. Mani and his followers, Nongbri argues, did not see themselves as founding a new religion, but rather saw themselves as Christians, and were engaged in polemics with orthodox Christianity: “in some ways, [the Manichaeans] were the mirror image of the orthodox Christians who persecuted them. That is to say, Manichaeans viewed themselves as Christians, and they saw ‘orthodox’ Christians as inferior, or we might even say ‘heretical’” (71). Likewise, John of Damascus, in his Peri haireseōn, lists Muhammad and his followers as heretics; he claims that Muhammad was instructed by an Arian monk, then founded a hairesis, which his people accepted as divine. Finally, Nongbri discusses how the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph is a Christianized version of the Buddha’s biography, and that Christians canonized the Buddha under the name of Ioasaph—implying that the Christians did not see Buddhism as a separate religion, but as an extension of their own.

Chapter 5 skips ahead several hundred years, to the 16th and 17th centuries. Nongbri first surveys the use of christiana religio in early Christian authors (like Augustine and Lactantius), then moves forward to the Renaissance and then the Reformation, where he examines the use of prisca theologia—Ancient Theology; that is, Christian theology found among pre-Christian authors—and christiana religio in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian Neo-Platonists (like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno). He finds that the Italian Neo-Platonists conceived of the christiana religio as but one religio among many religiones. Nongbri then examines how the English Deists of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (namely, Edward Lord Herbert and John Toland) used religio; he finds that their usage of the term begins to approximate what we today mean by “religion”: different groups of faith and practice that should be seen as equally important. Next, Nongbri looks at Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth, where Bodin argues that if a state cannot achieve uniformity of religion, it should allow different groups to live according to their own beliefs. Finally, Nongbri discusses John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, where Locke argues that one’s beliefs have no place in the public sphere, and are ideally kept private; Nongbri argues that this view, while still somewhat different from the contemporary valences of the word “religion,” reflects a “turning point” (104) in the definition of the term.

Chapter 6 explores the discovery, among Westerners at least, of different religious traditions during the colonial era, namely Hinduism, the practices of the Hottentots in Southern Africa, and Shinto. Nongbri first gives a historical account of the Western discovery of these different religions, then examines how the colonialists tried to classify and systematize them. Basically, Nongbri asserts, the colonialists tried to reconcile their belief that (Protestant) Christianity was the “true religion” (as with Samuel Purchas, 120) with the variety of religions they found around the world; in the end, they claimed that all religions are the same in essence, but have different manifestations, and that religion was a private, not a public, affair. In concluding the chapter, Nongbri argues that the category of World Religions—and, more generally, that religion is “simply there” (129) in all cultures throughout all of history—is an artifact of the colonial age, and should be recognized as such.

Chapter 7 is a historical account of the development of the study of ancient religion, from which Nongbri argues that historians and classicists, although acknowledging that the modern valences of the term “religion” are often ill-suited for describing the practices of the ancient world, nonetheless continue to use the term. Nongbri begins the chapter by surveying the development of studying Greek and Roman religion from the beginning of the modern era, where it was seen as demon-worship, to the present, where it is seen as something totally different from modern understandings of religion. He then traces the “birth and growth of a new ‘ancient religion’” (143), that of ancient Mesopotamia, which, he argues, more or less followed the changes in scholars’ conceptions of religion, ending in defining Mesopotamian religion with reference to “religious experience” or “feelings,” a category Nongbri disputes throughout the book. Nongbri concludes that ascribing religion to an ancient society imposes a concept on ancient societies that those societies did not see in themselves, namely a concept of “religion” as separate from the secular.

In the conclusion, Nongbri proposes a shift in discourse, to replace religious studies’ current mode of analysis: “Religion could be deployed in nonessentialist ways to treat something as a religion for the purposes of analysis. . . . We would no longer ask the question ‘Is phenomenon X a religion?’ Rather we would ask something like ‘Can we see anything new and interesting about phenomenon X by considering it, for the purpose of study, as a religion?’” (155). Or, in relation to the ancient world, “religion can be used as a redescriptive concept for studying the ancient world. The question then becomes: What sort of definition or theory of religion should be used for this redescriptive project?” (157). These, I think, are very healthy ways to reframe the question.

In all, I think Nongbri’s book is a useful contribution to the study of religion, and especially to the study of religion in the ancient world. It brings religion scholars face-to-face with the history of a term that is central to our field of study, and it questions the assumptions about that term that lie hidden within scholarly discourse on the subject. In the end, Nongbri’s proposals are quite helpful, and provide a way for religion scholars to be fair to ancient and/or non-Western sources, while still using the categories of study they have inherited.

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Cyrus vs. Babylon in Herodotus, Isaiah, and Jeremiah

Cyrus’ sack of Babylon in 539 BCE was a truly impressive feat. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, with an unprecedented military engagement known as the Battle of Opis. The famed walls of Babylon were indeed impenetrable, with the only way into the city through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls. Metal gates at the river’s in-flow and out-flow prevented underwater intruders, if one could hold one’s breath to reach them. Cyrus (or his generals) devised a plan to use the Euphrates as the mode of entry to the city, ordering large camps of troops at each point and instructed them to wait for the signal. Awaiting an evening of a national feast among Babylonians (generally thought to refer to the feast of Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel V), Cyrus’ troops diverted the Euphrates river upstream, causing the Euphrates to drop to about ‘mid thigh level on a man’ or to dry up altogether. The soldiers marched under the walls through the lowered water. The Persian Army conquered the outlying areas of the city’s interior while a majority of Babylonians at the city center were oblivious to the breach. The account was elaborated upon by Herodotus [1.191], and is also mentioned by passages in the Hebrew Bible [Isa 44:9-45:4; Jer 50-51].

For your reading pleasure, here are links to the three ancient works the Wikipedia article cites, with excerpts to whet your appetite.

Herodotus:

. . . and when he came to the lake, Cyrus dealt with it and with the river just as had the Babylonian queen: drawing off the river by a canal into the lake, which was a marsh, he made the stream sink until its former channel could be forded. . . . because of the great size of the city (those who dwell there say) those in the outer parts of it were overcome, but the inhabitants of the middle part knew nothing of it; all this time they were dancing and celebrating a holiday which happened to fall then, until they learned the truth only too well.

Isaiah:

I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth; who frustrates the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; . . . who says to the deep, “Be dry— I will dry up your rivers”; who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.”

Jeremiah:

Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
do not conceal it, say:
Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.

For out of the north a nation has come up against her; it shall make her land a desolation, and no one shall live in it; both human beings and animals shall flee away.

I especially enjoy the reference in Isaiah, because it comes at the end of a very funny satire on idolatry, when compared with Yahweh worship. I also think it’s very cool that an event recorded in a Greek historian was of such significance for Israel that it made its way into two of the prophets.

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Epic in the Song of Deborah

I’ve been thinking all day long about the Song of Deborah (from, primarily, Judges 5). It is one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry we have, dating back, in all likelihood, to the 1200s BCE, and I’d argue that it’s an episode from a longer epic, which we no longer have. I see three reasons in support of it originally being from a longer epic: first, the song itself mentions that it is to be sung in encampments at watering holes; second, it is highly repetitious at climactic or vivid moments; third, it has a quite abrupt ending.

First, though, here’s the text from the NRSV:

Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:

“When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly— bless the Lord!

“Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.

“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways. The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel. When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless the Lord.

“Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

“Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.

“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam. Then down marched the remnant of the noble; the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty. From Ephraim they set out into the valley, following you, Benjamin, with your kin; from Machir marched down the commanders, and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal’s staff; the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed out at his heels. Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the piping for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings. Zebulun is a people that scorned death; Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.

“The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!

“Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

“Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they did not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

And the land had rest forty years.

(For a helpful commentary on this text, with an amended and reconstructed text of the song, see Thomas F. McDaniel’s The Song of Deborah: Poetry in Dialect.)

This text shows two features that make it undoubtedly very old. First, Yahweh is still a storm god who lives on Mount Sinai (“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.”). Second, Israel’s main occupation is still donkey caravaneering (“you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way”).

What strikes me most about this text, though, is that it’s meant to be sung in encampments, likely while on the caravan trail:

Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Given that this passage is meant to be sung for entertainment and to communicate an important historical victory, I think it’s plausible that this song is a scene from a longer epic, the rest of which we no longer have.

As further evidence that this song is part of an epic, a poem meant to be sung for entertainment, note the repetition it shows in its phrasing (beyond the normal parallelism in Hebrew poetry):

Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds. . . .

[Jael] put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. . . .

Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

This repetition is a means of adding emphasis when singing the poem at the watering holes and of making the scenes more vivid and memorable (cf. the similar use of repetition in the Iliad), and is well suited for recounting Israel’s historic exploits at a wadi on the caravan trail.

My final observation in support of an original epic setting for this song is the abrupt ending:

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

The last tag is, pretty obviously, the moral of the song within the framework of Judges 4-5. The episode of Sisera’s mother and her slaves, though, begs to be drawn to a close. We’d expect a scene where she discovers the death of her slaves and mourns her terrible misfortune, which would give the Israelite storyteller and audience even more opportunity to gloat over the death of Sisera. As it stands, though, the song is jarringly disjointed between the last episode and the moralizing tag, which argues strongly in favor of the Song of Deborah being one section of a longer epic.

Thus, in conclusion, I think that the Song of Deborah is a single episode, drawn from a longer epic. I see three factors in support of this conclusion. First, the song says quite clearly that it is to be sung around watering holes on the caravan trail, likely for entertainment, as an epic would be. Second, the language is full of parallelism and is highly repetitious and vivid at climactic points, like in other epics. Finally, the ending of this song is abrupt and disjointed, which supports the conclusion that the song comes from a longer work.

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The Apocalyptic Messiah and the Philosophical Trinity

Andrew Perriman has a great post on the difference between the biblical narrative of Jesus and the later doctrines of the Trinity. Here’s an excerpt:

Such an understanding of the Trinity binds our God into the narrative of history, not in modalist or process terms, but perhaps eschatologically: it is our way of saying that we relate to God only on the grounds of the messianic intervention in the story of Israel and of the hope of a final new creation to which that intervention gave rise. Significantly, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that at the end the “kingdom”—this authority to rule—will be given back to God the Father, with even the Son subjecting himself to him. That would make the “Trinitarian” arrangement contingent, not absolute, confined to the circumstances of human history and the contextualized witness of the covenant people. . . .

The doctrine of the Trinity may not come into quite the same category of redundant intellectual furniture as theories of the atonement, but if we are going to retain the construct, I would argue that it has to be done in a way that is much more transparent to the dominant lines of biblical thought. Clearly we still need to be able to speak coherently about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but I seriously wonder whether the Western ontological-relational paradigm still serves a useful purpose. As with the atonement, I suspect that the narrative-historical approach has a lot to teach us.

Go check it out.

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Did Matthew Think Jesus Was Divine?

I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. . . .

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Marv’s conclusion that “the data rather indicates the divinity of Christ is an underlying concept in the gospel of Matthew”. I greatly appreciate the trouble he (and others) have taken to engage with the argument—and their willingness to pursue the debate beyond the entry-requirement of a profession of orthodoxy. But I am strongly of the opinion that if we are going to profess a biblically Trinitarian belief, we have to do so by way of what Matthew and Luke say, rather than by way of what they do not say.

“More on the divinity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels” | p.ost

I have to agree with Andrew here. Orthodoxy seems largely to have been a Christian outworking of a specific sort of philosophy (namely, Platonism and its children/relatives). But if we come to find out that a given orthodox affirmation is untenable in the light of historical research, it is up to us to re-shape orthodoxy based on that new knowledge, rather than holding to the old teaching just because it is the old teaching. After all, “all truth is God’s truth,” and if we come to learn that something we’ve believed for centuries actually is untrue, we must do the godly thing and replace that untruth with the truth, even if it proves uncomfortable.

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A Foretaste of the New Life

“Early Christian preaching, however, was not based simply on the message of Jesus. Rather, it grew out of the conviction that the content of his message had been both validated and actualized through his resurrection from the dead. The powers which rule the present world-order had repudiated Jesus and slain him. But God had raised him up, and this meant that in him and for him the promised transformation of the world, ‘the life of the age to come,’ was already real. Furthermore, it meant that people could even now have a foretaste of that new life because the Spirit of God had, through Jesus, been bestowed on those who accepted him as the one in whom their own destiny was revealed and determined.”

Richard A. Norris, Jr., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 1-2.

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