Early Christian Ritual Life

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Richard E. DeMaris, Jason Lamoreaux, Steven C. Muir
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is an interesting and lively collection of essays that seek to open new perspectives, new insights, and new issues in the study of earliest Christianity through the specific lens of ritual studies. The introduction by Richard DeMaris offers a deft and helpful guide to ritual, its primary theoretical models, and its relevance to both students and scholars of the New Testament and related fields. Nine essays follow, structured around three themes: “Interacting with the Divine,” “Group Interactions,” and “Contesting and Creating Ritual Protocols.” A conclusion by Hal Taussig summarizes recent advances in the field, and lays out challenges and prospects for moving forward. Each essay draws on particular ritual theorists, applying the models to different areas of relevant ancient Mediterranean religious life and culture. The names cited are those familiar to religion scholars more generally: Catherine Bell, Ronald Grimes, Talal Assad, Erving Goffman, Arnold Van Gennep, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Roy Rappaport. In all cases, ritual theory is used to make visible aspects of ancient religion that students—and scholars, also—often miss, or do not pause to consider as significant. The book was planned collectively by the contributors, who present it as an introductory effort to be used with conventional New Testament textbooks. To the editors’ credit, the authors cross the gamut from junior to senior, and interact attentively as an ensemble.

At its best, there is rich fare to be harvested here. Jonathan Schwiebert’s essay, “Honoring the Divine,” is one that really would work with students of all kinds who lack a background in ancient religion. Lucid yet nuanced, it slots ancient Jews and Christians into the larger religious landscape of the Mediterranean, with vibrant insight and perceptive tact. Richard Ascough is masterful on ritual modification and innovation, elegantly laying open the ways in which ritual navigates and negotiates change while yet appearing to be “static” or unchanging over generations. The presentation of his primary case study, on the Jerusalem temple and temple traditions in the Gospel of Luke, is concise, concrete, and incisive. 

Enthusiasm and a sense of adventure are everywhere evident in these essays. Erin Vearncombe wants students to see ritual as meaningful, and even powerful, in mundane places they might not expect: table manners, clothing, and hair styles. Agnes Choi wants them to consider the many types and valances of bathing and water rituals in the Roman world. Ritva Williams presents a kind of taxonomy of ancient ways to seek knowledge of the divine, or of divine will. Nicola Hayward wants to attune her readers to the ways in which seeing itself could be a ritual action, as she explicates visual culture as a key component of funerary conduct. Stephen Muir proposes that ritual was present where scholars have not seen it, in a hitherto unnoticed breathing practice. Jason Lamoreaux considers ritual as a means of negotiation between competing parties. Richard DeMaris is perceptively—even provocatively—intriguing in his treatment of ritual transgression.

This is an ambitious project, with some uneven results. The authors take great care to introduce material from ritual studies, sometimes even painstakingly. With New Testament or other relevant material, by contrast, much is presupposed, both in terms of familiarity with the evidence itself and also familiarity with various scholarly debates or currents of thought. Thus it seems to me that the intended audience is that of graduate students or seminary students, more often than undergraduates. Taussig’s conclusion, on the other hand, despite his disclaimer to the contrary, seems to speak directly to a more advanced scholarly community. Admirably, this includes scholars both sympathetic to the project and those with whom he has strong disagreements, such as Risto Uro (whose work he uses profitably, even while offering stern critique).

In some instances, direct engagement with New Testament sources is quite thin. In part, this is deliberate since the authors are attempting to open new avenues of exploration. But in some chapters, there is a proverbial elephant in the room, as relevant and widely familiar New Testament texts are simply left out of the discussion. At times, again, other modes of analysis seemed crucial although omitted. Discussion of rhetoric, for example, seemed necessary particularly in the treatment of Pauline material: not only rhetorical strategies, but rhetorical conventions and tropes. Attention to the senses, and to epistemology, seemed highly relevant, as well. The scrupulous, laser-like focus on ritual studies was again a choice. It enabled a short book, but the contributors might have accomplished more towards their goal with even a bit more leeway, demonstrating how attention to ritual can work well with, and even illuminate, other methodologies.

This is a collection wherein interesting ideas abound, and useful articulations raise promising possibilities. Even if sometimes unwieldy for students, it may help scholars teach (and learn) in more effective fashion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan Ashbrock Harvey is Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Professor of Religion and History at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
July 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard E. DeMaris is a Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, USA and a specialist in New Testament studies.

Jason T. Lamoreaux is an Adjunct Professor at Texas Christian University, USA. His research focuses on the social contexts of early Christianity.

Steven C. Muir is a Professor at Concordia University of Edmonton, Canada and a specialist in early Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.



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