The Making of Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity

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Guy G. Stroumsa
Oxford Studies in the Abrahamic Religions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Late antiquity, with its intersecting trajectories of Christianity, Judaism and other religious traditions, is being studied intensively today as the crucible for the origin of Islam. Guy Stroumsa has made enormous contributions in this area, and so this collection of ten of his articles originally published between 1986 and 2015, along with a new article and an introduction, is welcome as it makes available articles otherwise scattered in various less accessible festschriften and collections.

The thematic goal of the collection is to outline how late antiquity constituted a sort of praeparatio coranica for the logical emergence of the Qur’an and Islam in the seventh century C.E.: “Many of the characteristics of Islam in its earliest stages did not appear ex nihilo, but might be better understood within the background of late antique religious phenomena” (127). As in any collection, repetition and overlap occurs between articles, but an effort has been made to provide coherence by some modification of the articles, provision of cross references in footnotes, and an introductory overview.

After the introduction, the book is divided into four parts. Part 1 (two articles) investigates major general transformations of religion in late antiquity, focusing on the progressive disappearance of animal sacrifice in temples and its replacement by portable sacred revealed texts, and patterns of rationalization leading to monotheism and an emphasis on conscience and singular truth in religious identification. Part 2 (three articles) surveys the surge of concern with false prophecy in the context of heightened eschatological expectations at various points in late antiquity, and especially the emergence of the concept of a chain of prophets culminating in a “seal of the prophets” (an Islamic concept preceded by Manichaean and Jewish-Christian developments). Part 3 (two articles) investigates the changing relationship between Jews and Christians in late antiquity precipitated by political changes, and the prefiguration of Islamic concepts such as ahl al-kitāb (“people of the book”) and ahl al-dhimma (“protected – and restricted – non-Muslim populations”) in official Christian theological and legal stances towards Jews. The portrayal of the emperor as God’s representative on earth also anticipates the early Islamic caliphate. Part 4 (three articles and an envoi) considers a variety of vectors informing early Islam: Jewish-Christian traditions, the symbolic place of Jerusalem, the linguistic interplay of the labels “heretic” and “barbarian,” and especially the contestation over which religious community is the true heir of Abraham.

Throughout, Stroumsa is committed to the longue durée of late antiquity, extending from at least the first to the seventh or eighth centuries CE, and encompassing geographically not only the Christian territories of the Roman Empire, but the entire Mediterranean basin and ancient Near East. Although he could be faulted for a dominant focus on Christian communities and sources (these are the most plentiful for the period), he insists that the various religious vectors of Jewish, Manichaean, and pagan traditions and communities must also be included. He oscillates between overarching themes and discrete traditions, with the ultimate theoretical goal of discovering the rules of transformative grammar that could explain religious change and mutation. Nonetheless, some specific historical episodes stand out repeatedly as significant, such as the Constantinian shift in the fourth century CE and the Persian and Arabic conquests of Jerusalem in the early seventh century CE.

Stroumsa portrays the dynamism of religious communities and identities during late antiquity, interacting, mutating, and transforming rather than crystallizing into hard identities. And yet all these traditions in flux draw on what he calls a common religious koine—a sort of shared common denominator or cultural ecosystem that included scripturalism, prophecy, eschatology, monotheism, asceticism, and magic. During this period, both the New Testament and the Mishnah were codified and canonized as rival hermeneutics of the Hebrew Bible, monotheism became the “politically correct” religious idiom even among pagans, and “religion” itself was transformed from public and civic action to private and communitarian belief.

Stroumsa engages with various theoretical and taxonomic historical issues along the way, including the idea of cultural or collective memory or the concept of an “axial age” (he considers the latter to be a beguiling scholarly mirage). Most important is his affirmation of the label “Abrahamic” as a heuristically useful category for examining and analyzing shared late antique religious tendencies—not to be confused with the wishful use of “Abrahamic” in modern interfaith discourse. In fact, Abraham in late antiquity divides more than he unites. Emergent Islam reduplicates the earlier model of emergent Christianity in claiming to be the true heir of Abraham over against other claimants. Abraham “represents at once the religious koiné and the principle of discord between Jews, Christians and Muslims” (198). Contestation over Abraham stretches from the apostle Paul and Justin Martyr all the way to the Qur’an and John of Damascus: “The Abraham movement did less to promote ecumenism than to enhance the rise of heretical movements [for Stroumsa, these include all the various forms of late antique Judaism, Christianity and Islam], each claiming that its own vision was the only correct one” (198).

Stroumsa also takes a strong view on the existence and influence of “Jewish Christians” in late antiquity, an issue on which the scholarly community today is divided, with some seeing the label as merely a retrojection of current categories, and many questioning any continuing influence by such groups after the fourth century CE. Critiquing what he sees as fashionable historiographical revisionism, Stroumsa argues that the available evidence makes it plausible that “Jewish-Christian” traditions and communities were still present, even if only marginally, in the seventh century CE. (e.g., 75-76), and had a significant role as a vector of Jewish and Christian traditions in the emergence of Islam. As with the label “Abrahamic” (and perhaps also the label “Gnostic”), Stroumsa finds the label “Jewish Christian” heuristically useful without insisting on complete historical veracity.

Although not explicit in most of these articles, in the end Stroumsa does acknowledge the present day reverberations that the investigation of late antique religious developments can have. His observation that the late antique “‘clash of civilizations’ between the Christian and the Islamic imperial states was nurtured in the cocoon of the Jewish-Christian clash of interpretations” (170) points to the complexities of such discourse today. Although hoping for an end to the current religious bigotry between the “children of Abraham” (perhaps thinking that knowledge of the intersecting and contentious history behind their traditions will somehow neutralize their antagonism), Stroumsa is realistic, noting that the late antique experience indicates that “regular contacts . . .have never represented a panacea against ethnic, religious or community tensions” (113).

This collection of erudite articles is densely annotated with detailed footnotes and citations of primary sources in ancient Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic, and secondary sources in English, French, German, Italian, and Hebrew. It is peppered with foreign phrases and memorable turns of phrase, graced with an extensive bibliography and a useful—although not comprehensive enough—index. Although readers may find the elevated cosmopolitan prose difficult, and the argument more impressionistic and suggestive than definitive, Stroumsa provides a provocative and informative perspective on how not just Islam, but also Judaism and Christianity, were shaped in relation to each other in the crucible of late antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Franz Volker Greifenhagen is Professor of Religious Studies at Luther College at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Guy G. Stroumsa is professor emeritus of the study of the Abrahamic religions at University of Oxford and Martin Buber professor of comparative religion emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He obtained his PhD from Harvard in 1978. Professor Stroumsa received a Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Zurich in 2004, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award in 2008, and a Chevalier dans l'Ordre du Merite in 2012. He is a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

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