Tag Archives: Roman Empire

Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934)

Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Original 1934; English translation 1971).

Thesis: “Perhaps—I repeat, perhaps—certain manifestations of the Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as ‘heresies’ originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion—that is, for those regions they were simply ‘Christianity’” (xxii).

Introduction: Here Bauer sets forth his methodology and presuppositions. He explicitly takes a non-faith-based approach to studying the development of Christianity. For him, the historian plays the role of the judge—adjudicating fairly between two sides, “instead of simply submitting to the mental agility and firmness, the sagacity and loquacity” (xxi) of the dominant party, here orthodoxy’s view of Christian origins.

Ch. 1, “Edessa”: This chapter argues that the earliest Christians in Edessa were heretics—namely Marcionites, Manichaeans, and Bardaisanites—with orthodox (Palutian) Christianity only appearing afterward and as the minority, and ecclesiastical Christianity not arriving until the beginning of the fourth century. Marcionism first came to Syria by 150, and for a long time, it was the most prevalent form of Christianity there; even in the sixth century “Marcionites designated themselves as the Christians—much to the offence of the orthodox, who must be content with misleading alternatives such as ‘Messiah-worshippers’” (24). Orthodoxy did later become dominant in Syria, but only by forcibly converting heretical Christians.

Ch. 2, “Egypt”: Bauer argues that, in Egypt, the earliest form of Christianity was Gnosticism, as evidenced by the lack of non-Gnostic Christian literature in Egypt before the late second century. Bauer postulates two contemporaneous Gnostic groups there: one comprising Gentile Christians and the other Jewish Christians. He acknowledges that Orthodox Christians were certainly present in Egypt before the end of the second century, but says they were the minority. In addition, he argues, even into the third century, Egyptian Christians did not draw sharp distinctions between orthodox and heretics.

Ch. 3, “Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna; Macedonia and Crete”: In the late second century, orthodox Christians were the minority in Antioch (Gnostic Christians were the majority), leading, Bauer writes, to Ignatius’ struggle for episcopal authority: “orthodoxy in Antioch, deprived of its champion Ignatius, was in danger of being driven back, if not routed from the field, by heresy” (65). In Polycarp’s Smyrna, different types of Christians (orthodox, Marcionite, Gnostic) coexisted, albeit not very peacefully, and it is possible that two bishops—one orthodox and one Gnostic—competed for dominance there. Heretical Christianity also predominated in Crete and post-Pauline Macedonia, while orthodoxy was dominant in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Philadelphia —all in Asia Minor.

Ch. 4, “Asia Minor Prior to Ignatius”: Here Bauer correlates Ignatius’ letters and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. He writes that the churches that “fare best in the Apocalypse [viz. Smyrna and Philadelphia], appear also to be especially free of heresy” (79) in Ignatius. Likewise, Ignatius does not write to Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, or Laodicea, while Revelation has them full of its doctrinal enemies, making it likely that heretical Christianity had control there. In addition, 1 Peter does not mention churches in SE Asia Minor, leading Bauer to the conclusion that orthodox Christianity had not gained a foothold there; instead, “a gnosticizing Jewish Christianity” (88) held the majority position, though heretical and orthodox Christians associated with one another, as Jude and 1-3 John attest. Moreover, a significant number of Marcionites and Montanists were martyred in Asia Minor, along with orthodox Christians.

Ch. 5, “Rome and Christianity Outside of Rome”: Bauer argues that early Roman Christians sought to establish dominance over the Christians in other cities, as shown by 1 Clement, which brought the Corinthian Christians in line with the Romans’ doctrinal positions (though the Roman influence did not spread to the rest of Greece). The Roman Christians wanted to expand their influence to the major cities of the Empire, like Corinth, Alexandria, and Antioch; this drive was the source of orthodox missions to heretical areas.

Ch. 6, “Rome’s Persuasive and Polemical Tactics”: The Roman Christians relied on Peter and Paul—who were connected to Rome through their martyrdom there—to legitimate their strategies of expansion, including 1) emphasizing a single, authoritative bishop at the head of each city’s church, 2) requiring the apostolic succession of the episcopate, and 3) rejecting heresy. They also gave money (gathered from donations by rich Christians) to poorer churches, in an effort to win hearts and minds.

Ch. 7, “The Confrontation Between Orthodoxy and Heresy: General Characteristics and Operating Procedures”: This chapter mostly deals with the confrontation between orthodoxy and Montanism. Bauer argues that the orthodox polemics against Montanism dealt largely in unfair caricatures of the Montanists, because orthodoxy was the minority in places like Phrygia—where Montanism flourished—and needed to make itself seem superior to the heretical majority.

Ch. 8, “The Use of Literature in the Conflict”: Bauer argues, contra Eusebius, that anti-heretical writings were not widely produced and disseminated during the second and third centuries, and that Christian groups—both orthodox and heretical—produced many forgeries, deceptively edited texts, and relied on epistolary networks in order to further their own interests. Polemical texts from both sides took the form of divine revelations and biblical exegesis; the opponents’ revelations were couched as demonic possession and falsifications of the true Word.

Ch. 9, “The Old Testament, the Lord, and the Apostles”: Bauer shows how, from its beginnings, orthodox Christianity accepted the Old Testament alongside Christian writings (interpreting the OT in light of Christian scriptures), while heretical Christians rejected the Old Testament. In addition, different Christian groups used different gospels (both canonical and non-canonical) as their source of Jesus’ teachings. The proliferation of gospels was a major source of intra-Christian polemics. Finally, the apostles (especially Paul and, in Rome, Peter) were the “third authority of Christianity” (212) among both orthodox and heretical Christians.

Ch. 10, “The Beginnings”: This chapter summarizes the rest of the book. Bauer also argues here that Rome was the earliest center of orthodoxy, which ultimately beat out other forms of Christianity because it was the most organized group and because it was the one that was able to spread most efficiently.


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Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East, vol. 2 (1999)

H. Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East: Some Recent Archaeological Research, vol. 2 (1999)

1. Elise A. Friedland, “Graeco-Roman Sculpture in the Levant: The Marbles from the Sanctuary of Pan at Caesarea Philippi (Banias)”: Marble statues are foreign to the Levant; most Levantine sculpture is made of limestone or basalt, and the foreign-style statues represent “the varying degree of assimilation to and/or adoption of mainstream Graeco-Roman culture from province to province and site to site” (8). The Banias marbles were most likely carved in western Anatolia and then brought to Banias. They were not part of a single installation; rather, they were installed over time, as donors provided funds, thus attesting to a trade route linking Anatolia and Banias and the Hellenization at Banias.

2. Zeev Weiss, “Adopting a Novelty: The Jews and Roman Games in Palestine”: More than 30 theaters probably existed in Roman and Byzantine Palestine. Entertainment there consisted mostly of mime and pantomime performances. Hippodromes first appeared in the Herodian period, but most were built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The hippodromes housed games in honor of Caesar and local deities, chariot racing, combat sports (“wrestling, boxing, and pankration (a combination of the two)” [38]). Games typically involved foot races, jumping, discus, javelin, and the pentathlon. Amphitheaters were first built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. They housed gladiatorial games. The rabbis condemned games and spectacles and the buildings where they took place. However, the rabbis represent the minority view; based on archaeological and textual evidence, “it is clear that Jews did frequent games and spectacles from the 2nd c. onwards” (44).

3. Stephen Tracy, “The Dedicatory Inscription to Trajan at the ‘Metropolis’ of Petra”: A new edition of the inscription to Trajan at Petra, accompanied by an epigraphical commentary. It named Petra a metropolis, making Petra “the titular first city of the province” (56) and showing how important Syria and Arabia were to Trajan.

4. Leah Di Segni, Gideon Foerster, and Yoram Tsafrir, “The Basilica and an Altar to Dionysos at Nysa-Scythopolis”: The basilica was one of the first buildings in the settlement in the Naḥal ‘Amal valley, which began in the late 1st century BCE or 1st century CE. The altar is a portable “polygonal monolithic block altar” (69); it has six sides, three of which bear the face of a deity. It also carries an inscription dated to 141/2 CE, showing that the altar was a votive offering to Dionysus, the patron god of Scythopolis. The top of the altar was subsequently broken away and the base was used as a statue by Christians in Late Antique Scythopolis.

5. David Kennedy, “Greek, Roman and Native Cultures in the Roman Near East”: A review of Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC – AD 337 (1993).

6. Garth Fowden, “’Desert Kites’: Ethnography, Archaeology, and Art”: The “desert kites” here are maṣāyid (sg. miṣyada), large stone traps that the Syrian Bedouin used to hunt gazelles. Similar structures first entered use around the 7th millennium BCE. A Safaitic inscription, dating to the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE, shows one in use. An 8th-century CE fresco from Quṣayr ‘Amra (located near a large group of maṣāyid) also shows a similar scene.

7. Zvi Uri Ma’oz, “The Synagogue at Capernaum: A Radical Solution”: The Capernaum synagogue, which is lavishly decorated and built of imported stone, does not fit its first-century context, which was a poor part of town. Instead, it is possible that the synagogue was purpose-built near Peter’s house in the 5th century, as a pilgrimage site, using stone imported from synagogues elsewhere in Galilee.

8. Leah Di Segni, “Epigraphic Documentation on Building in the Provinces of Palaestina and Arabia, 4th-7th c.”: Lists different building projects attested epigraphically for Late Antique Palestine and Arabia:

  • Sacred buildings
  • Defensive works and forts
  • Public inns and burgi (guarded roadhouses)
  • Fortifications in cities
  • Baths
  • Waterworks
  • Stoas and piazzas
  • Civil basilicas

9. Benjamin Isaac, “Inscriptions and Religious Identity on the Golan”: A review of Robert C. Gregg and Dan Urman, Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Golan Heights: Greek and Other Inscriptions of the Roman and Byzantine Eras (1996).

10. Jodi Magness, “Redating the Forts at Ein Boqeq, Upper Zohar, and other sites in SE Judaea, and the Implications for the Nature of the Limes Palaestinae”: Based on pottery finds and coins, “the forts at Upper Zohar and Ein Boqeq were constructed and initially occupied around the middle of the 6th c.” (198), not the 4th or 5th. The structures on the east side of Mount Hebron date from the 1st century BCE–2nd century CE. The 4th-century limes, then, was an administrative area, not a fortified border.

11. Mark Whittow, “Rome and the Jafnids: Writing the History of a 6th-c. Tribal Dynasty”: A review of Irfan Shahīd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 1, parts 1 and 2 (1995).

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Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East, vol. 1 (1995)

J. H. Humphrey, ed., The Roman and Byzantine Near East: Some Recent Archaeological Research, vol. 1 (1995).

1. Alla Kushnir-Stein, “The Predecessor of Caesarea: On the Identification of Demetrias in South Phoenicia”: The city of Demetrias, attested only on coins, was the Seleucid name for the city of Strato’s Tower, a well-established polis that Octavian gave to Herod, who renamed it Caesarea.

2. Yosef Porath, “Herod’s ‘Amphitheatre’ at Caesarea: A Multipurpose Entertainment Building”: The building that Josephus calls an “amphitheatre” is closer in form to a hippodrome; “in Herod’s day there was no clear functional distinction between the institutions that we call today the canonical amphitheatre, stadium, and hippodrome” (25).

3. Yizhar Hirschfeld, “The Early Roman Bath and Fortress at Ramat Hanadiv Near Caesarea”: The city was a Hasmonean fortified village (a chorion), which Herod inherited, and which persisted as a Judean fort until the Great Revolt. The bath was a public bath near Caesarea that was in use by Jewish residents from the end of the 1st century BCE until the 67 CE revolt. In the Byzantine period, an aqueduct ran from the spring (at that point considered magical) to Shuni, where it was used for the Maiumas (Shuni’s water festivities).

4. Boaz Zissu, “Two Herodian Dovecotes: Horvat Abu Haf and Horvat ‘Aleq”: The towers at these two sites were columbaria that also probably functioned as watchtowers. Pigeons were raised as a source of food and fertilizer, and were very valuable. Columbaria are attested in Roman and Jewish literature.

5. Adam Zertal, “The Roman Siege-System at Khirbet al-Hamam (Narbata)”: The tel (located in northwest Samaria) was partially surrounded by a circumvallation wall with three (possibly four) Roman camps situated along it. The siege ramp made partial use of the road that ran into the town. Narbata was an influential regional capital. In 66 CE, Jews from Caesarea garrisoned themselves in the city, prompting the Roman general Gallus to lay siege to (and defeat) the city before heading to Jerusalem.

6. Benny Arubas and Haim Goldfus, “The Kilnworks of the Tenth Legion Fretensis”: The site served as the Roman army factory for pottery, bricks, and roofing tiles when Jerusalem was rebuilt as Aelia Capitolina. It was in use from the 1st through 3rd centuries CE.

7. Rivka Gersht, “Seven New Sculptural Pieces from Caesarea”: 1) A male figure that is probably Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161; the first sculpture of a Roman emperor from Caesarea); 2) A 4th-century woman, a private individual; 3) Aphrodite; 4) The base of a standing male; 5) The base of a standing figure; 6) and 7) Fragment of two garland sarcophagoi.

8. Moshe Fischer, with Antje Krug and Ze’ev Pearl, “The Basilica of Ascalon: Marble, Imperial Art, and Architecture in Roman Palestine”: The monumental decorations of the basilica show various deities. Four pilasters show Victory in various poses. Another shows Isis and a priest of Sarapis, “who seems only just to have emerged from childhood” (136). The building also likely housed Roman imperial cult.

9. Yoram Tsafrir, “The Synagogues at Capernaum and Meroth and the Dating of the Galilean Synagogue”: The synagogue at Capernaum was built in the 3rd century, during the time that the Galilean style of synagogue flourished. The synagogue at Meroth is in imitation of the Galliean-style synagogue and dates to the late 4th or early 5th century.

10. Ze’ev Weiss and Ehud Netzer, “New Evidence for Late-Roman and Byzantine Sepphoris”: During the Byzantine period, Sepphoris was a flourishing city. Most of the population was probably Jewish. One house (the “Nile festival house”) contains several mosaics, one of which commemorates the flooding of the Nile. At the intersection of the cardo and decumanus, under Bishop Eutropius, “the sidewalks were renovated and repaved with mosaics that featured geometric designs, and some changes were made to the entrances of the shops” (171); Eutropius also built a church. Several synagogues were also built in the city; one contains an ornate mosaic floor, the features of which all point along the axis that leads to Jerusalem. The city burned down toward the end of the Byzantine period.

11. David Adan-Bayewitz, “A Lamp Mould from Sepphoris and the Location of Workshops for Lamp and Common Pottery Manufacture in the Northern Palestine”: Lamp and figurine workshops were predominately located in cities, as is the pattern in the broader Roman world, whereas other pottery was produced, by and large, in rural areas. Rural areas certainly had the raw materials to make lamps and figurines, so it is likely that the smaller items were in higher demand in cities than in villages.

12. Rachel Hachlili, “Late Antique Jewish Art from the Golan”: The motifs in the art of Late Antique Jewish Golan were those of Jewish art more generally. They include:

  • Menorah (more common in synagogues than private houses)
  • Animals (including eagles, a peacock, a few birds, lions and lionesses, fish, and a snake)
  • Human figures (including people and mythological figures)
  • Geometric designs (rosettes, vine scrolls, wreaths, stylized “Trees of Life”)
  • Local variations on classical column capitals (mostly Ionic)

Most of the sculpture is carved out of basalt, as was the local tradition. The styles were in use for a long time, and no chronology can be established. In synagogues, the Torah shrine followed the style of the aedicula, with “a stone platform with columns surmounted by a lintel usually decorated by a Syrian gable” (189), inside of which a wooden Ark was placed. The aedicula pointed towards Jerusalem.

13. Clive Foss, “The Near Eastern Countryside in Late Antiquity: A Review Article”: A review of one work on Byzantine Syria and two on the Byzantine Negev. Syria flourished in the Byzantine period until the late 6th century, when it collapsed due to plague and the Persian invasion. The Negev, on the other hand, saw a peaceful transition between the Byzantine and Arab periods

14. Peter Fabian, “The Late-Roman Military Camp at Beer Sheba: A New Discovery”: Previously thought lost, the Roman military camp was located at the center of Byzantine Beersheba. In the Roman and Byzantine periods, it was a major fort (likely a headquarters) guarding the roads from the northern Negev to the Gulf of Eilat.

15. David F. Graf, “The Via Nova Traiana in Arabia Petraea”: Petra, not the Roman provincial capital Bostra, was the head of the Trajanic road. Two routes exist between Petra and Ṣadaqa, both of which attest milestones, either of which could be the Trajanic road. The road then continues south from Ṣadaqa to ‘Aqaba, again attested by milestones as well as by preserved stretches of pavement,

15. [sic] J. Wilson and Eleanor E. Myers, “Low-Altitude Aerial Photography at Petra”: A collection of photographs taken from an unmanned, tethered blimp at Petra showing archaeological features that were not otherwise visible.

16. Zbigniew T. Fiema, Robert Schick, and Khairieh ‘Amr, “The Petra Church Project: Interim Report, 1992-1994”: The church at Petra was built in the late 5th century and was in use until the mid-6th century, when it collapsed and burned down. It was subsequently robbed. The church contained several mosaics and a library of papyrus scrolls dating from the 5th-6th century (the Petra Papyri). Excavation also recovered extensive finds (metal building materials, some pottery dating to the 5th-7th centuries, stone and marble furnishings, wall mosaics and plaster, glass windows panes and lamps, some epigraphic finds dating from the Nabatean period to the Byzantine period, and animal remains).

17. Jean-Pierre Sodini, “L’organisation liturgique des églises en Palestine et Judée”: A review of Yoram Tsafrir, ed., Ancient Churches Revealed (1993).

18. Leah Di Segni, “The Involvement of Local, Municipal and Provincial Authorities in Urban Building in Late Antique Palestine and Arabia”: In Late Antiquity, churches were built by bishops and priests, but also by village officials. Municipal and provincial authorities usually built civil buildings; work was overseen by various aristocrats and local and military officials. Funding for public buildings came from city or provincial treasuries.

19. Kenneth G. Holum, “Inscriptions from the Imperial Revenue Office of Byzantine Caesarea Palaestinae”: Editions of three of the six inscriptions from the imperial revenue office at Caesarea Maritima. One is the text of Rom 13:3 (“If you would not fear the authority, then do good and you will receive praise from it” [339]). The second mentions two classes of civil servants working in the same administrative bureau. The third mentions another officer in the same bureau. One of the officials named is a numerarios (an accountant in the civil administration), meaning that the bureau dealt with the revenue and expenditures of Byzantine Palestine.

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Moore, Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (2006)

Stephen D. Moore, Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (2006)

This book is a brief guide to, and example of, postcolonial biblical interpretation. In five chapters, Moore offers an overview of postcolonial theory as it intersects with biblical studies, as well as examining three NT books—Mark, John, and Revelation—to see if they support the weight that postcolonial interpreters have laid upon them. In the end, he concludes that Mark, John, and Revelation are ultimately ambivalent to the question of imperialism/colonialism, critiquing imperialism in some places while adopting it as a conceptual model in others.

In the first chapter of his book, Moore traces the intellectual genealogy of postcolonial biblical studies. He begins with three seminal works in postcolonial studies—Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1985), and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994)—showing how they have structuralism/poststructuralism as their conceptual cores. Next, he traces the influence that postcolonial theory has had on biblical interpretation. Moore organizes works of postcolonial biblical criticism into three subgroups:

  1. Those that are influenced by liberation theology. These works typically engage only lightly extra-biblical postcolonial studies.
  2. Those that “focus on the theme of empire as an exegetical lens through which to reframe and reread selected New Testament texts” (18). These works usually do not engage with extra-biblical postcolonial studies at all.
  3. Those that are deeply engaged with extra-biblical postcolonial studies.

Finally, Moore forecasts the future of postcolonial biblical studies, the fortunes of which he sees lying with his third, theory-savvy subgroup.

In chapter 2, Moore examines the Gospel of Mark through a postcolonial lens. He begins with a short, verse-by-verse exegesis of Mark 5:1-9 (the healing of the Gerasene demoniac), interpreting it as a critique of Roman imperial power. However, he rejects that such a view is programmatic for Mark, noting that “Mark altogether lacks the snarling, fang-bearing hostility toward the Roman state” (32) that characterizes Revelation. Instead, Mark is both attracted to and repulsed by Roman imperialism—for instance, he rejects Roman leadership as oppressive, but still adopts the concept of empire, redeploying it in favor of Jesus, whom he sees as the authority figure in the divine empire. Likewise, Mark has Jesus praising two poor women who nonetheless give extravagant gifts without expectation of reciprocity (a critique of imperialist economics), while simultaneously upholding the notion of empire through his announcement of the parousia. Therefore, Moore concludes that Mark is not a thoroughgoing anti-imperialist text, but simultaneously critiques and upholds the notion of empire.

Chapter 3 treats the Gospel of John’s views of empire. Moore finds John to be “at once the most—and the least—political of the canonical gospels” (50). That is, John lauds Jesus as a political figure—he has the people try forcefully to make Jesus king, for instance—while also depoliticizing Jesus in the face of the Roman Empire. The Romans are the unquestioned political authority in John. Pilate—the face of the Roman Empire in John’s Gospel—exercises Roman political might when he has Jesus scourged in the middle of the passion narrative, an event that John portrays negatively. However, John has Caiaphas prophecy Jesus’ death, which serves not only to propitiate God, but also to propitiate Caesar. In addition, John implicitly predicts the eventual identification of Christianity with Rome. Therefore, though John critiques Roman authority, he by no means rejects it in toto.

Chapter 4 is an interlude from the exegetical chapters of the book. In this chapter, Moore situates postcolonialism within postmodernity, which Moore identifies as neocolonialism, as it continues the oppressive economic practices of the capitalist age. He notes the irony that the most successful postcolonial thinkers are rewarded with prestigious positions in Western universities, thus participating in the very system they critique so harshly. Moore latches onto Homi Bhabha, whose work he has seen empower students who come from colonialist situations. Therefore, he offers an extended overview of Bhabha’s views of colonialist evangelism in the 19th century, from which Bhabha devised several theories. Moore highlights several of Bhabha’s ideas:

  • ambivalence—the idea that the colonized vacillates between outright mimicry of the colonizer, on the one hand, and hybridizing of the colonizing and colonized cultures, on the other
  • deconstruction—the cultural tools of the colonizer, rather than changing the culture of the colonized to match that of the colonizer, instead mold themselves to, and are shaped by, the culture of the colonized.
  • agency—the colonized are actively engaged in subverting the colonizer’s cultural discourse.

Bhabha’s ideas are important to Moore’s exegeses, so it is curious that Moore placed this chapter here, in the middle of his exegeses, rather than placing it alongside the first chapter. At any rate, it provides a nice glimpse into the theory that lies at the heart of Moore’s book.

Chapter 5 examines the book of Revelation. Moore first gives a topical introduction to Roman imperial ideology, interspersed with modern theoretical readings of the same concepts. Next, Moore reads Revelation through a Bhabhan lens, showing how Revelation is ambivalent, in a Bhabhan sense, to Rome; Revelation both espouses (mimics) Roman imperial ideology in its theology, while also harshly rejecting those Christians who collaborated with (hybridized with) Rome. Therefore, Revelation is far from being an outright rejection of empire; instead, like Mark and John, it both critiques and accepts imperialism.

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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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