At the Temple Gates

The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire

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Heidi Wendt
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2016.
     280 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190267148.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In a comprehensive and remarkable study of the ecosystem of religious beliefs during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire—the last decades of the first century BCE through the first part of the second century—Heidi Wendt sheds lights on a fascinating world of practices and beliefs. While her goal to “theorize all self-authorized or ‘freelance’ experts in religion as participants in a common type or class of religious activity” (7), and to show that “inhabitants of the ancient world sought them out on a regular basis” (9) is met with great success, it is without a doubt her ability to summarize extremely complex information that stands out. Indeed, in order to isolate a particular class or type of religious practitioner based on their practices involving various gods and similar beings, she must rely on a rich and heterogeneous assortment of texts, historical data, and archeological findings.

Wendt's analysis, and her definition of what is to be considered as a “freelance expert” does not shy away from difficult etymological discussions, in which she defends her use of terms such as “magic,” “religion,” and “philosophy.” Scholars of religion could, of course, disagree with some of her choices of theoretical frame—wondering for instance why Marcel Mauss's “General Theory of Magic” is not mentioned. A solid and precise definition of what Wendt refers to when speaking of “religion” would have been useful, although her process of demonstrating how porous these spheres of activity actually are, makes up for a lack of precision on that matter. It is true that a “few would likely disagree with [her] characterization of magic as a form of religious activity” (142).

Making good use of a wide range of sources including Suetonius, Pliny, Lucian, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Juvenal, the Bible, Plato, and the Derveni Papyrus to name only a few, Wendt succeeds in demonstrating how “all freelance actors were participating in a shared intellectual milieu that might crystallize in different ways” (136). In the end, Wendt's analysis is a testament to the fertility of heterogeneity and open-mindedness that emerge from her findings. At the Temple Gates is not an easy read, and requires a great deal of knowledge on the historical period involved. Understanding how Paul is a witness to the Religion of Freelance experts (chapter 4), for example, will undoubtedly provide good teaching material and provoke strong reactions while better framing the gradual success of Christianity, but can also be challenging for younger readers and students. Nonetheless, At the Temple Gates is a must read for anyone interested in the end of Antiquity and the beginning of Christianity, as well as for scholars working on the exchanges and influences among various institutions or groups.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Pigeon is professor of religious studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heidi Wendt is assistant professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She has written articles in the Journal of Roman Studies, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Journal of Ancient Judaism and teaches courses on Judeans and Christians in the Roman Empire, and the Greco-Roman context of New Testament literature.

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