Imagine No Religion

How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities

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Carlin A. Barton, Daniel Boyarin
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , October
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The reference to the classic John Lennon song in the title would appear to place this book in a very specific trajectory within religious studies. Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell McCutcheon, and Brent Nongbri, among many others, have all recently offered critiques of the constructedness of “religion” and its attending academic discipline. Between the title and the fact that the authors foreground Nongbri’s recent Before Religion (Yale University Press, 2012) in their introduction, it might seem that Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin are throwing their hats into the ring with their newest book, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities

The fact that the product has a much different focus than its catchy title might imply by no means diminishes the impressiveness of the final result. Imagine No Religion consists of two in-depth explorations of the semantic range of the Latin and Greek words religio and thrēskeia, with the working assumption that our modern term “religion” is not the appropriate translation for either. Barton and Boyarin argue that these words and their larger semantic fields carry affective resonances dealing with the proper maintenance of healthy relationships, whether to the gods or with other humans. Greeks and Romans, the authors maintain, tended to function according to a “balancing system” (38), where both too much enthusiasm toward the gods and too little were deemed undesirable; Tertullian and Josephus—the ancient authors who supply the book’s case studies—resisted this mindset by advocating or defending what contemporaries would view as “excessive” dispositions. 

The book has two parts, each consisting of a general introduction to the history of the term and an in-depth case study of a particular author. Barton tackles the interpretation of religio, using the corpus of 2nd- to 3rd-century Christian writer Tertullian as her case study. Boyarin, after collecting the literary and inscriptional attestations of thrēskeia, explores the functions of the term in Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century. Both authors proceed in a methodical fashion, quoting their sources at length and offering comments, ultimately providing a thematic commentary on the meaning and function of their key terms within their chosen works. 

Thus, the project here is primarily a translational one. Both authors are concerned with what is lost or obscured by translating their respective terms as “religion.” What results, therefore, is a kind of extended, methodologically deliberate lexicon entry: their goal, as stated in their joint introduction, is to discourage scholars from translating religio or thrēskeia as “religion” and instead attend to context, both local and across Latin and Greek corpora (1-4). The approach is necessarily narrow; while the authors acknowledge other words that could relate to our “religion,” their goal is to explore the translational possibilities of a single word each. Such a “vertically” structured project is most productive alongside studies that can either tackle related words in a similarly detailed way or explore the entire range of related terms in a “horizontal” sense. Dale Martin’s Inventing Superstition (Harvard University Press, 2004) and Nongbri’s Before Religion are prominent examples of texts that could helpfully be read alongside Barton and Boyarin’s. Hopefully, this project will serve not just as a resource but as a model for other scholars of religion in antiquity to take up similar projects on related terms such as fides or eusebeia

Although the reference in the subtitle to “modern abstractions” might suggest so, Imagine No Religion does not offer deep engagement with present discussions about the history and viability of religion as a category. This is not to say that the interrogation of “religion” must have explicit contemporary relevance to be of value; however, the authors’ critique would have been more forceful had it been more self-consciously situated within their particular disciplinary traditions (classics and biblical studies). Although questioning the utility of the term “religion” is a critical first step, it is also necessary toconfrontthe historical baggage associated with those disciplines or the kind of philological and historical-critical work the authors undertake here. The problem with religion is not simply that it is an inaccurate translation, as Barton and Boyarin rightly emphasize. Rather, it is embedded in Western history in ways that have had, and continue to have, profound socio-cultural effects in the world at large and in the academy. 

Overall, Imagine No Religion is an excellent attempt to approach translational issues with fresh eyes, though this may not be precisely what is suggested by the book’s cover. This is a scholarly work, which assumes a working knowledge of both Latin and Greek. The text is full of block quotations from the original sources; Boyarin tends to give both Greek and English translations of his quotes, while Barton usually sticks to the English translation, but both authors’ translations are frequently peppered with untranslated terms in their original languages. While its readability and often playful style make Imagine No Religion broadly accessible to non-specialists, the nature of the project means that those with considerable facility with the languages and familiarity with the sources will derive the most benefit from this work. For scholars who are willing to engage sympathetically and critically with Barton and Boyarin, this book presents a fresh methodological challenge to students of the ancient world and especially to scholars interested in the “religion” of the ancient Mediterranean.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Sheppard is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carlin A. Barton is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster and Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones.

Daniel Boyarin is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Among hisrecent books are The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012), Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (2009), and Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2004).



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