Studies in Hellenistic Religions

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Luther H. Martin
Panayotis Pachis
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Luther H. Martin is an Emeritus Professor of Religion at the University of Vermont. In addition to being the author of a vast body of work on Greco-Roman religions, he is also the founding editor of the Journal of Cognitive Historiography. This volume is a collection of lectures and papers Martin has given and written over several years, selected and edited by Panayotis Pachis (Professor of the Scientific Study of Religion, Thessaloniki, Greece).

The introduction by Pachis presents a review of the social, cultural, political, and religious changes in the Hellenistic Era. Pachis then explains the two-fold purpose of his selections of Martin’s research: (1) proposals that challenge the traditional reconstructions of Hellenistic religions; and (2) the importance of the scientific study of religion, with religion understood within a systematic cognitive framework of patterns of relationships.

The scientific revolution introduced the idea of a worldview of a particular religious system in terms of “cosmos and nomos, or sociopolitical categories of world formation and maintenance” (37). Martin claims that while cosmosand its relation to religion have been extensively studied through ancient philosophy, the sociopolitical elements (nomos) have not received the same amount of attention. The social constructions of kingship and kinship (either historical or fictive) are equally as significant in reconstructions of ancient societies. This is a unifying argument throughout the book.

Martin critiques the modern concept of syncretism to describe Hellenistic religions. Syncretism is inappropriate, he says, as it attempts to harmonize Hellenistic religious thought and behavior as a defined system while ignoring the differences: “syncretism betrays modern theological and historiographical concerns” (101). Rather, Hellenistic religions demonstrate a pattern of relationships that can be fully understood only within the parameters of the entirety of their historical context.

Chapter 6, “Biology, Sociology, and the Study of Religion,” discusses the history of the social scientific research of religion, highlighting the importance of the cognitive sciences. Itsattempt to understand how humans think (experience, data input, categorization, memory, and so on) can shed light on the various ways in which religious ideas are constructed, remembered, and transmitted to future generations.  

Part 2, “Oracular Dreaming,” opens with critiques of modern attempts to analyze the interpretation of dreams in the ancient world since Freud. The ancients viewed dreams as “constructed upon culturally constituted signs of the external world to be discerned, whereas modern psychoanalytic theory is predicated upon the presumption of a universal but hidden subjective reality to be uncovered” (149).

Part 3, “Greco-Roman Mysteries,” begins with a discussion of the work of Harvey Whitehouse on divergent modes of religiosity. The “imagistic” refers to “a convergence of precepts and practices that are transmitted through infrequently performed but high-arousal rituals among small-scale, face-to-face groups.” The “doctrinal mode” refers to “a widespread transmission and affirmation of a commonly held set of cogently argued and narratively expressed beliefs that allow for the construction of large-scale, if anonymous, communities”  (172). Martin discusses various critiques of this theoretical model (can the modes combine or do they remain distinct?). He argues that “folklore” as a distinct concept (in theories of primitive religion) for the origins of the Mysteries “has no theoretical basis and no analytical usefulness for the academic study of religion” (225). The rest of this section discusses the cult of Mithras in relation to network theory, “star-talk” as a cognitive framework (astrology), and theoretical models with which to understand social formations in the Roman Empire.

In part 4, “Hellenistic Judaism and Christianity,” chapter 17 opens with “Josephus’s Use of Heimarmeme in the Jewish Antiquities 8.171-173.” Martin analyzes the paradox of Josephus’s descriptions of Jewish factions. On the one hand, he represents the broader Hellenistic view of “fate” and “destiny” as operative in relation to people vis-à-vis the cosmos. At the same time, Josephus claims that the Jews are also freed from this determinism through the providence of God as illuminated by Torah.  

Chapters 19 and 20, “The Hellenization of Judaeo-Christian Faith or the Christianization of Hellenic Thought?” and “Past Minds: Evolution, Cognition, and Biblical Studies,” are an appeal to scholars of both testaments to appreciate the importance of modern social study theory and cognitive studies in the analyses of these texts.             

The final section, part 5, “Gnosticism,” utilizes the Apocalypse of Adamand the Thomas literature (Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas) to demonstrate new methods for exploring the contexts of these documents. While psychological analysis has been plentiful, a proposed social context has been neglected. Gnostics (and others) offered alternative views to the traditions of kingship and kinship.  

The importance of the application of cognitive science theory has now been recognized with a program unit at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meetings. This is crucially important for the plethora of recent textbooks analyzing the rise (and triumph) of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The traditional view that Christianity offered something new and vital to pagans (usually in the form of absent morality and a focus on the individual) is effectively argued away by Martin: “The early Christianities must be seen as a specific type of Hellenistic social formation that attributed their legitimacy to the name of Jesus but, in other ways, stood in cultural continuity with the welter of alternative groups in the Graeco-Roman world” (292).

Studies in Hellenistic Religions is not for the faint of heart. Each chapter begins with (and challenges) social scientific models in the study of religion from the past two hundred years. The reader should be forewarned that many of Martin’s proposals can be fully judged only by familiarity with all of these theories and models. Nevertheless, each chapter contains a full bibliography which amounts to a phenomenal collection for the study of religion in the Hellenistic era.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is Senior Lecturer in the Early History of Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luther H. Martin is Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Vermont. He is the editor of Past Minds (2011) and author of Deep History, Secular Theory (2014) and The Mind of Mithraists (2015). Martin is a founding editor of the Journal of Cognitive Historiography. He has been recognized as an Honorary Life Member of the International Association for the History of Religions.

Panayotis Pachis is Professor of the Scientific Study of Religion at the Theology of Aristotle of Thessaloniki.



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