Theorizing "Religion" in Antiquity

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Nickolas P. Roubekas
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing
    , May
     458 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theorizing “Religion” in Antiquity addresses a theme that, for better or worse, continues to occupy scholarship on “ancient religion,” or whatever one wants to call it. Namely: is it intelligible or justified to talk about ancient “religion”? Scholars like Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013) and Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham University Press, 2016) argue that it is not. Essays in this volume disagree about the question. Nongbri’s introduction posits that this volume epitomizes this scholarly divide.

Steve Mason locates in ancient priestly activities aspects of life and discourse “that hinder our efforts to locate something like our religion in antiquity” (16–17), while Jason Davies draws on cognitive science to argue against scholarly use of the term belief in antiquity.

Kevin Schilbrack draws on J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press, 1982), to articulate a choice between “a critical nonrealism that argues that nothing like what modern people call religion existed in antiquity, and a critical realism that says that something like what modern people call religion did” (60). For Schilbrack, modern scholars can legitimately “discover” ancient religion along these lines.

Donald Wiebe casts the pre-Socratic philosophers as forebears of the scientific study of religion since they rejected a supernatural/divine epistemology. Nickolas Roubekas posits (needlessly) that Herodotus’ account of the gods “is hard … to fit into the theory” of a particular brand of diffusionism (141), coming to the basic conclusion that Herodotus’ “religion” serves ethnography and identity formation.

Alan Lenzi surveys ritual speech in the ancient Akkadian lexicon—which contained no word for “religion”—to exposit “what may be profitably considered an implicit theory of religion” (153). Rita Lucarelli surveys ancient Egyptian magic, a topic only half-fitting in a volume on religion. Panayotis Pachis undertakes a dense and ambiguous attempt to situate Diodorus Siculus’ Egyptian theologoumena as a politically interested treatment of Egyptian “religion.”

Spencer Cole shows how the Roman shift to understanding certain humans as transcending heavenward after death was “facilitated in part by metaphor’s capacity to effect cognitive realignments” (239).

Michael Satlow shows how Philo of Alexandria, in defining the Jewish practice vis-à-vis its sacred texts, may help modern scholars identify something which they might call “religion,” or (a) “Judaism.” Sarah Imhoff, drawing on Hellenistic, rabbinic, and other ancient forms of Jewishness, compellingly argues that Jewish identity “has long been diffuse, mixed, and even partial” (284), with fuzzy borders and malleable forms.

Roubekas’ second contribution applies spatial theory to Christian identity formation in Tertullian’s On the Spectacles, repeating basic observations—already effectively made in one paragraph of Geoffrey Dunn, Tertullian (Taylor & Francis, 2004), 141. This chapter problematically assumes absolute distinctions between, for example, Christianity and Roman culture (297) and 1st-century Jewish versus Christian practice (298).

Sarah Rollens challenges talk of ancient religious communities, like those associated with the Gospels or Paul’s letters. Rollens takes an important observation too far; of course ancient peoples formed identity beyond the bounds of “religious” identity-affecting groups, something which does not mean that ancient (religious) communities did not exist.

Leonardo Ambasciano applies the cognitive/evolutionary study of religion to ancient Rome, producing the most “religious” essay of the volume inasmuch as it presumes to explicate ancient mysteries (“the deep history of the human species,” 332) via reference to inscrutable specialists (e.g., neuroscientists) as a way of projecting a cosmic explanation of human religious existence (the Darwinian Cognitive Science of Religion/Evolutionary Science of Religion, CSR/ESR).

Justin Tse’s “Cultural Geography” enlists Mircea Eliade to argue that, far from being simply trendy, cultural geography has long been foundational to the study of ancient religion and its religious places. James Crossley surveys post-Enlightenment readings to illustrate basic, borderline banal dilemmas inherent to negotiating biblical texts. Irene Salvo suggests that gender, depending on theoretical orientation, provides insight for reading ancient Greek (and Roman) ritual; yet Salvo defines gender—its relation to sex is unclear—in a thoroughly modern way.

Luther H. Martin’s epilogue critiques and helpfully questions the volume’s contributions. Martin echoes contributors such as Schilbrack in questioning approaches that eschew religion from the study of antiquity inasmuch as “the use of any term of category that is contemporaneous with a historian” is “modern” (433). Martin shows that scholars have long recognized the pitfalls of anachronism and disconnect between modern religion and ancient things that seem similar thereto. Is the hubbub surrounding “religion” in antiquity much ado about nothing?

Martin’s insistence that “this volume is welcome and important” (435) belies the work’s cacophonous inconsonance in perspective, method, and, frankly, quality. The chapters by Schilbrack, Lenzi, Cole, Martin, and maybe Satlow constitute scholarship very well done; the contributions of Nongbri, Mason, Davies, Lucarelli, Ambasciano, Rollens, and Salvo are also quite good. Slightly less helpful are chapters by Wiebe, Tse, and Crossley, and the contributions of Mogyoródi, Roubekas, and Pachis are not great. Moreover, the volume suffers from grammatical infelicities—especially prominent in the use of articles and prepositions—something which might be charged to volume editor and/or series editor; this is most noticeable in certain chapters (including the preface). Nevertheless, the volume is important in embodying the interdisciplinarity, fault lines of disagreement and difference, and distinctive methods with which scholars come to “religion” in (only) Western antiquity. In this regard, this volume is at least a should-read for students of ancient religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carson Bay is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Jewish Studies in the Theology Faculty of the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria.


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