Religions of the Constantinian Empire

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Mark Edwards
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2016.
     376 pages.
     $49.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199687725.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mark Edwards’s remarkably rich book, at once a tour d’horizon and a tour de force, in many ways represents the distilled result of decades of patient work. It is written in crisp language, and its thirteen chapters are at once concise and sharp. Each does much more than summarize the scholarly consensus concerning the diverse religious situation in the empire at the time of the Constantinian religious revolution; it also presents Edwards’s own views. These are established on close reading of the sources, of which the distinguished author possesses an unsurpassed knowledge, and on his marshaling of the vast scholarly literature. 

As Edwards reminds us at the onset of his preface, this book was published in the wake of the 17th centenary of Constantine’s conversion. The first question, then, that a reader is entitled to ask is whether one can say anything new about the religious scene in the Roman Empire in Constantine’s days. A great deal, actually, as Edwards argues. As a quick perusal of the titles of the many monographs dealing with the problem at hand will soon show, the focus of almost all previous monographs is different from Edwards’s approach, and almost always more limited. Such works usually deal with historical processes among Christians and pagans, or Christians and Jews, or patristic (“Orthodox”) Christianity and Dualist trends, in the Roman Empire. Edwards certainly discusses trends and transformations, but his main goal is to provide us with something that, oddly enough, did not exist previously: a high-resolution snapshot of the religious landscape in the first half of the 4th century. There are many trees in this landscape, all autopsied by Edwards, but they don’t obscure the contours of the woods. Edwards distinguishes three large forests: that of Platonism, in its various garbs; that of what he calls “religious plurality” (a term that includes Oriental cults); and finally that of “Christian polyphony,” a term referring to the development of patristic thought and the various noble heresies around the time of the Ecumenical Council of Nicea.

The reader gets the impression that the author has not forgotten to mention a single text bearing on the topic. On the other hand, relatively little use is made of the archeological and epigraphic evidence. This is indeed the book of an intellectual rather than of a social historian. It  starts with Eusebius, in a sense the main witness to Constantine and his religious conversion. The first part of the book deals with the Auseinandersetzung between Christians and Platonists. In a sense, some of the most important literary remains of early Christianity are apologetic and echo the attempts of Christian intellectuals to confront Platonist philosophers. It is not by chance, notes Edwards, that the Christian authors saw themselves as representing a new philosophical school, rather than a new threskeia, or cult.

Indeed, on a number of key issues, such as the nature of Christian monotheism (in contradistinction with monist trends among the pagan philosophers), or the question of blood sacrifices and their end in the 4th century, Edwards offers what we may call, following the anthropologists, “thick descriptions.” Insisting on highlighting what he considers the main vectors in the complex evidence, he is able to present a cogent vision of how things developed on the ground.

In the second part, “Religious Plurality,” Edwards deals with all the main religious trends in the 4th-century empire, especially in light of the Christian texts (mainly Firmicus Maternus) polemicizing against “the Oriental cults.” He also discusses the various Gnostic and dualistic trends, Hermes Trismegistus, and Zosimus “the alchemist.” On the capital question of Judaism and the Jews, Edwards’s discussion is perhaps a bit short, but even here, he contributes interesting remarks on letter mysticism among Jews and Christians. On the relationship between Manichaeism and Christianity, a possible impact of the former on the origins of Christian monasticism is convincingly raised.

The third part of the book presents the “polyphony” within Christianity itself, from Origen to Arius. Edwards discusses Eusebius again, as well as Athanasius and the establishment of the Nicene Church. Edwards returns to the topic of pagans and Christians in the 4th century once more, but does so after the complex religious background has been elucidated.

The great strength of Edwards’s book lies with his sophisticated analysis of philosophical and patristic texts. The author’s decision to read such philosophical polemics within the broader framework of religious history offers a new and enlightening perspective. He can thus highlight the emergence of new forms of saintliness (philosophical as well as Christian). 

Each chapter ends with some concluding paragraphs, and the author adds an epilogue to the volume, which summarizes clearly and in detail the main arguments. Despite such pedagogical efforts, this book is not recommended for (most) undergraduate students, who would not be able to appreciate many of its arguments. This impressive book is written for scholars, by an imposing scholar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Guy G. Stroumsa is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Edwards is Professor of Early Christian Studies at University of Oxford. His publications include Catholicity and Heresy in the Early Church (Ashgate, 2009) and John Through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

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