Maidens, Magic and Martyrs in Early Christianity

Collected Essays I

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Jan N. Bremmer
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , July
     2017.
     501 pages.
     $175.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783161544507.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Maidens, Magic, and Martyrs in Early Christianity is the first of three planned volumes to collect and publish Jan Bremmer’s formidable essay corpus. For nearly five decades, Bremmer, a historian of the ancient Mediterranean world, has posed important questions at the intersection of ancient Greek and Roman culture and early Christianities. As this volume’s contents suggests, Bremmer has catalyzed several generations of scholarship on gender, magic, and martyrdom. Methodologically, he has brought ample historical sensitivity to the study of early Christian literature, perhaps especially the apocryphal Acts, reminding his readers along the way that we have a responsibility to engage the widest possible collection of evidence in our attempts to reconstruct and understand the elusive ancient world of the early Christians. 

The essays in this volume have been contextualized, edited, and organized in such a way to maximally benefit interested readers, and are arranged thematically over four sections. Section I, “Aspects of Early Christianity,” features six essays, including the methodologically challenging “Why Did Jesus’ Followers Call Themselves ‘Christians’?” and “The Social and Religious Capital of the Early Christians.” These two essays alone stand as still-important models for interdisciplinary engagement with early Christian literature. Bremmer’s interest in women and gender in the ancient world, stemming from an investment in second-wave feminist thought and organizing, shine through in four of his classic interrelated essays that query the presence of widows, upper-class women, and women prophets in early Christian discourses. As well, “Peregrinus’ Christian Career” is a reminder that, while we may never know everything about the early Christians, or about how similar to or different from their neighbors they actually were, we can still glean something from second-century rhetoric such as that offered by Lucian.

Section II, “Studies in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and Pseudo-Clementines,” includes ten essays, the topics of which range from women, gender, and magic in each of the apocryphal Acts to a study of conversion in the same. Bremmer’s essays in these areas are broadly comparative, as he thinks critically about the omnipresence of magic in the ancient world and examines how the early Christians, through their discourses, attempted to set themselves apart from other practitioners of magic. Also included here are his proposals concerning the authorship, dating, audiences, and geographical locations of the apocryphal acts and pseudo-Clementines.

Section III, “Apocalypses and Tours of Hell,” contains five essays on methodological issues in apocalyptic literature, focusing on the Apocalypse of Peter and Apocalypse of Paul. These essays also offer broader questions about Greek and Jewish influences on early Christian apocalyptic rhetorics. Through reading these particular essays in these sections together, readers can obtain a sense of how Bremmer’s thought has developed over time.

The final cohort of six essays appears in Section IV, “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.” Herein one gains an appreciation of the depth of Bremmer’s interest in and contribution to the study of the Acts of the Christian Martyrs. These essays concern such issues in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas as the rhetorical contours and ideological outlook of this famous document, intertextual echoes between the Acts of the Martyrs and earlier Acts, and how these texts respond to the world in which they are situated. 

Taken together, this first volume of Bremmer’s collected essays on early Christian discourses shows his range and depth as a scholar of the ancient world. The most significant contribution, however, might lie in his introductory essay, which serves as an abbreviated intellectual biography of sorts and illuminates the essays in terms of their own time, place, authorship, and ideological inclination. Here we learn, for example, not only that Bremmer is descended from Calvinist ministers and theologians, but also that his interest in the apocryphal Acts was enhanced by access to eastern European scholars following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist dictatorships. Similarly, we learn how the happy, if serendipitous, invitation to co-teach a seminar on the Acts of the Christian Martyrs in the late 1970s led to new scholarly vistas, and about the deep influence of 1980s feminist organizing in the Netherlands on Bremmer’s thinking about women and their embodiment in ancient contexts. We also learn about the abiding impact of the events of September 11, 2001, and contemporary suicide bombings on a scholar who already was interested in both understanding the motivations and rhetorics of martyrs and bringing ancient and modern worlds together. Such personal revelation and scholarly contextualization enriches one’s understanding of, and engagement with, Bremmer’s already-rich discourses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd Penner teaches at the University of Philosophical Research and the Holmes Institute. He is the author of several monographs in the study of early Christianity, most recently, with Davina Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jan N. Bremmer is a fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Dynamiken der Religionsgeschichte zwischen Asien und Europa, Bochum.

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