Reconceiving Religious Conflict

New Views from the Formative Centuries of Christianity

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Wendy Mayer, Chris L. de Wet
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     354 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One way of understanding religious violence is to distinguish between dogmatic and ritual differences. Reconceiving Religious Conflict is a collection of essays that highlight cases of religious violence within the context of their history, culture, ethnic identity, politics, and economics. Its focus is on the origins of Christian violence as it came to dominate the Roman Empire and how many of these concepts remain central to modern religious exclusion and denigration of “the Other.”

The book, edited by Wendy Mayer and Chris L. de Wet, is divided into five sections: “Foundations,” “Rhetorical and Literary Trajectories,” “Christianization,” “Threats of Violence,” and “Ancient and Modern Intersections.” The chapters within each section address case studies from the ancient world in an attempt to locate parallels in modern society.

The opening chapter by Wendy Mayer, “Re-theorizing Religious Conflict: Early Christianity to Late Antiquity and Beyond,” explores the traditional Western claim that views polytheism as tolerant and monotheism as intolerant. The subsequent chapters challenge this view and analyze the role of religious claims for inciting religious conflict, both rhetorical and actual. In modern, secular terms, we are quick to label religious violence as irrational (which in modern parlance equates to medieval). Mayer emphasizes modern studies in neuroscience that focus on the integration of emotions that suggest that rationality should be understood relative to the entirety of the human experience.

Each chapter is quite lengthy, so all of them cannot be addressed in a limited review. I will highlight a few of the ones that are important for the theme of the volume as a whole.

Chapter 2, “Religious Violence and its Roots,” by Jan Bremmer, argues that “studying the roots of religious violence should be done from a global perspective” (32). It opens with examples of the execution of Christians in medieval Japan and China and the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in India by Hindu radicals. Examples from Greco-Roman culture that demonstrate intolerance of some religious ideas and native cults is provided. (However, his example from Livy’s report of the scandal of the Bacchanalia cult remains problematic; we cannot confirm either the report or the extent of the Senate’s reaction.) This confirms that polytheistic systems are not necessarily tolerant. Bremmer claims that such intolerance was directed by the state, and as such, with the modern secularization of identity, “religious violence is increasingly unlikely in the West” (35), a claim that may be debatable in relation to an increased association of religion and government by some American groups.

Pieter J. J. Botha, in chapter 3, “Blindness in Early Christianity: Tracking the Fundamentals of Religious Conflict,” uses John 9 to demonstrate religious conflict concerning the disabled. Jesus heals a blind man and most exegetes agree that the story resonates with the larger narrative of the fourth gospel, which uses metaphors of “seeing” and “enlightenment.” He applies the concept of delegitimization (excluding certain groups from the norm, 47) which is often fueled by intergroup prejudice. Botha then explores the literature on blindness in both the Jewish scriptures and Greco-Roman literature, recognizing that the social attitude toward blindness (and its relation to the divine) depends upon context.

Chapter 4, “Religious Conflict, Radicalism, and Sexual Exceptionalism in the Rhetoric of John Chrysostom,” by de Wet, explores “the locus where sexuality, specifically the formation of masculinity, intersects with religious conflict ... in the homilies of John Chrysostom” (70). For Chrysostom, the Greco-Roman virtue of “self-mastery” (sophrosyne) became one of the highest Christian virtues with which to measure others; without this virtue, groups fit into a “grey zone” of not quite belonging because of their inferior morality. Such control defined “real men” against the cultural elements of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity. The excesses that Chrysostom saw in society led to teratogenization, or the making of the Other into monsters, fed by their animal instincts. Minimizing the “grey zone,” in de Wet’s opinion, could achieve diminished polarities in modern religious conflict.

Christoph Stenschke analyzes the competition for space in chapter 7, “Contested Domains in the Conflicts between the Early Christian Mission and Diaspora Judaism According to the Book of Acts.” According to the conflict stories in Acts, Christians challenged the domain of the synagogue in both its ideology (its interpretation of scripture) and local authority, resulting in a new locus of authority in private homes. At the same time, group identity moved from Jews alone to Jews and Gentiles.

The destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria, Shenoute of Atripe’s anti-pagan crusades against temples, and the closing of the temple of Isis at Philae in the 5th century have become classic examples of Christian violence. Jitse H. F. Dijkstra challenges this view with an attempt to coordinate the literature with the historical and archaeological record of various sites in Egypt in chapter 9, “Religious Violence in Late Antique Egypt Reconsidered: The Cases of Alexandria, Panopolis, and Philae.” Confused narratives of exactly what happened in each case should include analyses of imperial and local politics and not just the religious issues involved. The fact that the temple of Isis at Philae still survives with its various layers belies the view of total destruction at the time.

Reconceiving Religious Conflict is an excellent addition to the growing body of scholarship on religion and violence. The bibliographies that accompany each chapter are exceptional and include ancient writings that have often been overlooked. At the same time, each chapter includes the application of models and methodologies that help to illuminate a more fine-tuned analysis of this literature. However, I do fault the editing. Almost every chapter contains extremely long paragraphs that consist of one sentence. The reader is forced to continually go back and re-read each paragraph in order to keep track of the argument being offered. Nevertheless, Mayer and de Wet’s collection enhances both our resources and the application of those resources to the study of religion and violence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca I. Denova is Senior Lecturer in the Early History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wendy Mayer is Professor and Associate Dean of Research at Australian Lutheran College, University of Divinity, and Research Fellow in Biblical and Ancient Studies at the University of South Africa.

Chris L. de Wet is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of South Africa, and Honorary Research Fellow at Australian Lutheran College, University of Divinity.


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