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Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity

Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity

Edited by David M. Gwynn and Susanne Bangert (Late Antique Archaeology 6). Pp. xiv + 561, figs. 69, table 1. Brill, Leiden 2010. $246. ISBN 978-90-04-18000-0 (cloth).

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This collection is one of a pair, the second of which (L. Lavan and M. Mulryan, eds., The Archaeology of Late Antique Paganism.” Late Antique Archaeology 7 [Leiden 2011]) addresses pagan religion/s. Based on a 2005 conference at the Ashmolean Museum, this collection contains 14 contributions on the archaeology and history of religion of Jews, Samaritans, and, preponderantly, Christians (including “Arians”) between the third and seventh centuries C.E., preceded by an introduction and a bibliographic essay. As noted in the introduction, the goals of the volume are twofold: (1) to increase the integration of archaeological and material evidence into a history of religion that historically has privileged texts, and (2) to complicate understandings of Christianity and Judaism as religious identities in formation in the changing sociopolitical conditions of the Roman empire, rather than stable orthodoxies (5–10). They are worthy goals, much attempted in the past decade, but only partially achieved here too.

Gwynn’s bibliographic essay is uneven both in its discussion and in its selection. It includes massive numbers of recent surveys and specialized literature of Late Antique history of Judaism and Christianity, heresies, magic, and “popular religion.” One also finds editions and translations of Late Antique texts, catalogues, and excavation reports and works on the art history of most media and genres. But novices are likely to be overwhelmed. Alphabetical lists make it difficult to identify the most recent contributions and to trace the development of the discourse. Neither the categories of presentation nor the discussion reliably provides the disciplinary approach of the authors, their positions on disputed points of method or approach, or their reception or influence on the discourse. The strongest treatments are of material related to Gwynn’s own recent The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the Arian Controversy” (Oxford 2007). Weakest treatments are of art history. Emphasis on recent monographs means some more important contributions in journals are absent.

The organization of the individual studies in the volume corresponds to the traditional categories of the bibliography. It is an obstacle to the intended revisionism. For example, why do magical gems belong to “Magic and Religion” rather than “Popular Piety” (maybe piety belongs only to religion?) or, if we consider them medically, “Sacred and Secular?” The editors do not establish common definitions for any of these problematic terms, while individual contributors work with a variety of implicit or explicit definitions. Nevertheless, the variety of studies and approaches collected here stimulates critique of our received discourses. Most of the archaeological contributions do fulfill the mission of the series to represent the state of research.

Section 1 contains all studies of “Jews and Samaritans,” although thematically they share concerns with the Christian studies. Magness correlates some third-century C.E. iconographies and material finds at Beth Shearim and Dura Europos to recent text-based histories of Judaism that find evidences in early Rabbinic times of traditions and practices, such as temple priests, mystic eschatology, magic, and messianic expectations, not standard in later Rabbinic Judaism. Whether these are common to one group or belong to separate contemporary groups is not addressed. Weiss, comparing the synagogue mosaics with the Nile Festival mosaics of fifth-century Sepphoris, paints a picture of Jewish participation in the Graeco-Roman image culture of contemporary civic life, perhaps even to the extent of Jewish artisans and patrons sharing in executing traditionally pagan mythological iconographies. To my eye, the two sets of mosaics are not easily attributable to the same artisans, but the observation of shared motifs and modes of presentation based in classical tradition is clearly valid. Whether the Nile Festival iconography has become a mere allegory of seasonal fertility really remains a question for the last section, “Sacred and Secular.” Finally, Dar presents a useful survey of recent Late Antique Samaritan archaeology.

New interpretations in section 2, “Orthodoxy and Heresy,” are primarily text-based. Perrin establishes a Christian tradition of shunning “heretics” in the period of doctrinal disputes from ca. 200 to 430 C.E. and enumerates factors (martyrdom, asceticism, oratorical skill, alms) competing for popular allegiance with the dogmatic authority of bishops and theologians. (It belongs under “Popular Piety,” but it cannot go there because it is about theology.) Gwynn’s critique of several recent attempts by religious studies scholars to find anti-Arian iconographies relies on his important argument that the putative fourth-century Arian Controversy is a retrospective construct by the later Orthodox. Ward-Perkins surveys the already well-known lack of specifically Arian iconography in the Gothic churches of Ravenna and other Germanic churches. These are not advances in art history or archaeology but may be useful to religious studies students.

“Popular Piety” consists of pilgrimage to martyria and stylite saints. Bangert’s account of archaeological evidence from Abu Mina emphasizes the localism and the variety of the material culture of pilgrim sites and souvenirs and usefully reintroduces the time-honored types of statuettes and jugs that appear in the same clay as the Menas ampullae but have not been included in the corpus of Early Christian art. Schachner’s survey of the normal infrastructure of stylite sites, with an excellent bibliography, presents a striking contrast with text treatments of stylites as extraordinary phenomena. Fulfilling his call for more extensive excavation of the north Syrian monasteries might indeed clarify the role of the column and its saint in a regional Christian tradition. Does the column precede the monastery, or is a stylite monastery established with its stylite? Is there a succession of stylites or a martyrium?

“Magic and Religion” includes some paganism and “bad Christians” (who claim their practices are secular) in Karivieri’s “Magic and Syncretic Religious Culture in the East” (a list of archaeological evidences of practices conventionally considered magical) and Sfameni’s study of magical gems (465–67), which does discuss definitions of magic and religious references in magical gems and papyri.

Much in “Sacred and Secular” also exemplifies the interference of the very conventional religious and literary categories it is attempting to revise. Jeffreys brings some historical rigor to assigning religious valences to literary genres in treating the Chronographia of Malalas as secular literature because of its secular author and audience. But Humphries (with Gwynn), looking for Christian thought in secular genres, and Lepelley, on Christian use of classical mythology, are handicapped by assuming, for example, that chronicles are Christian, while histories and poetry are classical and therefore secular. These categories tautologically require that classical literature first be secularized before in the sixth century it is Christianized, rather than fostering examination of the shifting territory of the secular across genres. Sandwell’s discussion of John Chrysostom’s audiences points out that defenders of a secular cultural sphere even in the fourth century are not necessarily pagans.

This collection is an excellent representative of contemporary approaches to the important questions of Late Antique religious change, among religious identities as well as in the nature and scope of the religious sphere. As the editors point out in the introduction, material and textual evidence present different opportunities and limitations. The religious history of this period will surely benefit from collaborative efforts like this one.

Alice Christ
School of Art and Visual Studies
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40506-0022

Book Review of Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity, edited by David M. Gwynn and Susanne Bangert

Reviewed by Alice Christ

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 2 (April 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1172.Christ

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