The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews and Christians

Written by J. A. North and S. R. F. Price, eds Reviewed By Michael J. Thate

Since readers of Themelios come from varying Christian perspectives, it is worth considering the importance of North and Price’s edited volume, The Religious History of the Roman Empire, in terms of its bearing on biblical and theological studies. The volume in the first instance falls within the genre of classics, but the texts of the Christian NT were shaped by and centered irreducibly within the classical world. There is a need for scholars of biblical and theological studies, therefore, to have at least a cursory knowledge of the classical field. This, sadly, is a rare skill. Christian scholars tend to stick with “Christian” histories, Jewish scholars with “Jewish” histories, and Classicists with “pagan” and Greco-Roman histories (see, e.g., p. 1). This is in some measure a simple byproduct of the University’s division of labor. Perhaps, too, owing in part to hangovers from the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, there is a reticence in some quarters of biblical studies to engage in the religious milieu of the Roman Empire. In this approach, the primary “background”—an unfortunate word—is Judaism, and if any recourse is made to classical history or religions throughout the Empire, it is done so by highlighting the distinctive monotheistic texture to the Judeo-Christian confession or the odd statement about the Emperor cult. This approach is unfortunate in that it is guided by the colonial (arrogant?) assumption that cultures can be so neatly parsed into Jewish, Christian, and Pagan. Though it must be maintained that there were elements of distinctive identity in these sets of practices, these practices were entangled with one another. From the second century b.c., onward there was massive migration within and around the Mediterranean owing to long-distance merchants, traveling military, economic migrants, and itinerant professionals. Cities “came to contain communities speaking different languages and inheriting different traditions, including religious ones” (p. 2). Owing in part to the movements of locally enlisted soldiers, conquest relocations, and the economic factors produced by these movements, “radically different groups and ideas in contact with one another had produced new ideas and new vocabulary as well as new practices” (pp. 3–4). Another tendency within some spheres of biblical studies is to see “Caesar” behind every bush and to fit early Christianity with an empire-sized whipping stick. This approach misses the layered realities of identity affirmation and negotiation within the complex realities of imperial administration.

The study of the religious history of the Roman Empire, however, has gone through a kind of “revolution in our way of thinking about the subject” (p. 3), and the collection of essays in this volume attempt to document these developments. This “revolution” has taken place on five broad fronts:

  1. “Pagan religious traditions in the centuries after Augustus, once thought to have been in terminal decline, is now seen as showing surprisingly persistent vigour and even creativity, both in the Greek-speaking and the Latin-speaking areas of the Empire.”
  2. “In relation to the evolution of pagan religion in areas of the Empire outside Italy, the degree of Roman influence, the strength of local traditions, and the emergence of mixed forms have all been radically re-assessed.”
  3. “Various types of elective cult have been much debated, both those within the pagan tradition, such as Mithraism or the mystery-cults, and those from outside that tradition, such as Christianity, Manichaeism, and the various groups formed within Judaism, of which Christianity was to be the most long-lived.”
  4. “Questions about the nature of Christianity in the first three centuries AD, have increasingly led to the conviction that there was no single dominant tradition, that many different forms of Christianity co-existed, before it evolved the structures and doctrines characteristic of later centuries.”
  5. “It has been increasingly recognized that the awareness of pagan practices as constituting a single ‘religion,’ eventually to be called pagan-ism, emerged slowly, and mostly even then in the writings of Christians not of pagans, as a result of the competition between the different religious communities” (pp. 2–3).

These developments are traced through and ordered by four sectional divisions:

  1. Changes in Religious Life (pp. 9–250)
  2. Elective Cults (pp. 252–382)
  3. Co-existences of Religions, Old and New (pp. 385–502)
  4. Late Antiquity (pp. 505–61)

The essays selected in this volume have all appeared in print before (see pp. 562–63 for their original publication details) and were selected for their significance and impact upon the field. All the essays are worth reading, but of particular interest for this readership might be Jörg Rüpke’s essay on issues of method (pp. 9–36), Richard Gordon’s essay on the Imperial Cult (pp. 37–70), Nicole Belayche’s essay on hypsistos (pp. 139–74), Giulia Sfameni Gasparro’s essay on mystery and Oriental cults (pp. 276–324), Philip Harland’s essay on acculturation and identity in the Diaspora (pp. 385–418), Martin Goodman on the variety of first-century Judaism within Josephus (pp. 419–34), Judith Lieu’s excellent essay on “The Forging of Christian Identity and the Letter to Diognetus” (pp. 435–59), and Averil Cameron on discourses of female desire (pp. 505–30). There is also a helpful section on further reading (pp. 564–71).

All in all, this is a remarkable resource for gaining a general sense of the religious diversity and complexity within the Roman world. A good weekend alone with this collection of essays will prove valuable in terms of situating the rise of early Christianity within the complicated cartography of Roman religious history.

Michael J. Thate

Michael J. Thate
Durham University
Durham, England, UK

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