Christianizing Egypt

Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity

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David Frankfurter
Martin Classical Lectures
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his latest volume, David Frankfurter marshals a wide array of evidence to argue that “Christianization” was not a single event, and that the process of Christianity’s incorporation into preexisting social structures did not resemble a monolithic institution replacing older systems (2, 6, 10, 257). Christianity instead served as a sandbox for trying out innovative ways of addressing  common concerns through mixing the new and the old (3, 15-20). Frankfurter explores late antique Egypt as a template for illustrating the syncretic process of Christianization more broadly (31-33). He utilizes six overlapping lines of evidence, all of which are interrelated as part of the complex web of social relations in late antiquity. Each of these evidentiary lines falls into one or more of the “three basic dimensions of religious syncretism: agency, gesture, and landscape” (20). Christianizing is about the people, including what they did and where they did it, a point that Frankfurter emphasizes repeatedly (e.g., 48, 109, 122, 231).

Frankfurter focuses on the lived experience of Christianity in Egypt (24-25) to describe the process of Christianization. Starting with the domestic realm (chapter 2), he outlines the concerns that drove individuals toward religious practices such as consulting holy men or visiting shrines (chapters 3 and 4). The materiality of domestic religious life and shrine attendance means that scholars must pay careful attention to the workshops that produced these objects (chapter 5) and the written petitions themselves (chapter 6). Finally, in addressing the concerns of daily and yearly living, individuals performed ritual activities in specified locations (chapter 7). Each of these realms of syncretism overlapped with most of the others, and Frankfurter uses them to evince a process that is otherwise opaque and difficult to systematize. The syncretism of Christianization was a slow process in which both the society and the religion changed as the result of their relationship: the Christianities of Egypt were changed as a result of being in Egypt, just as Egyptians were changed by encountering the persons and symbols of Christianity. Christianity engaged in “an ongoing process of negotiation” (6)—not just Christianizing, but itself acculturating.

Frankfurter meets a challenge in drawing out the universal from the particular (122, 149, 184, but especially 258-59), though he is quite conscious of this fact. Whereas Christianization is a social process, his materials depict individuals (or small social groups) who were part of Egyptian society and who also shaped that society through their actions. While what they did, consumed, produced, and performed reflected their relationship to their society, the fact of Christianization means that some of them were also innovating and thus reshaping their social surroundings. Sometimes it seems hard to know when a particular piece of evidence reflects existing social norms, or is instead a synthesis produced by an innovative local.

There are even issues in speaking of “Egyptian” Christianization while utilizing texts and materials across regions and time periods, including some that are unprovenanced. This limitation is unexpectedly also one of the book’s greatest strengths. Frankfurter addresses the problem of sources by carefully weaving together his lines of evidence and the three analytic categories to ensure that a single unprovenanced item does not support more weight than it can hold.

I have three small quibbles with this volume. First is periodization: whereas only some scholars would question calling 4th through 7th century Egypt “late antiquity” (31), calling 7th and 8th century Burgundy the same (156) certainly seems a stretch. Second involves the comparative approach Frankfurter occasionally employs, using other locations and much later time periods to illuminate the Egyptian setting (31-33). While he at points admits that one cannot draw the strongest conclusions from this approach (e.g., 222), that caution does not appear at other points (e.g., 81). A more consistent and careful application of the comparative approach would strengthen the book. Third, I would like to have seen a better approach to questions of gender and agency in the rituals surrounding the domestic realm (64-67). The texts he cites are fundamentally kyriocentric, a point that Frankfurter elides. His attempt to explore women as ritual agents in households is undermined by the third of this section introduced by the question, “But then what of men?” (66). Yes, men performed domestic religious rituals; emphasizing this point (when men are the main agents, period, in late antique Egypt) undermines an attempt to address women’s agency.

Those points aside, this is an outstanding book. The thesis is interesting, the evidence effective, and Frankfurter gifts us three things. First, he demonstrates how to analyze lived religion in late antiquity without relying on the written sources produced by “elite” practitioners. Second, Frankfurter provides scholars with a robust approach to thinking through late antiquity as a religiously, culturally, politically, and socially transitional period. Finally, he challenges overly simplistic or monolithic approaches to Christianity, and his contention that lived Christianity defies reduction in the late antique period may apply equally to other periods.

This book is suitable for advanced graduate students and specialists; it is not suitable (even in portions) for undergraduates. At points the language intrudes too much; readers would have been better served by smaller, more precise words. Mark Twain’s last rule of writing, “employ a simple and straightforward style,” would improve this volume. Apart from its difficult prose presentation, this work is a must-read for cultural historians, religious historians, and intellectual historians. For the latter group this volume provides a much-needed counterbalance to overreliance on elite literary sources. Overall, this book does what it claims to do and more, with care and attention to detail. Agree or disagree with Frankfurter’s central claims, Christianizing Egypt may become a methodological must-read for anyone working in pre-modern Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zachary B. Smith is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Creighton University.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Frankfurter is Professor of Religion at Boston University and a scholar of early Christianity whose specialties include apocalyptic literature, magical texts, demonology, popular religion, and Egypt in the Roman and late antique periods. He is the author of Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance and Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (both Princeton). Each won an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion.


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