Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.28

Douglas R. Edwards, Religion and Power. Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. 234. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-508263-X.

Reviewed by G.W. Clarke, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University.

The theme of this book is quite appropriate, especially in the religious context of the ancient Mediterranean world, viz. the interplay between religion and power. And the declared approach has much to recommend it -- to concentrate on one area (the 'Greek East') and one period ('Flavio-Trajanic') and to listen carefully to the voices of three different witnesses from this area and this period, a Christian (Luke of the Gospel and Acts), a Jew (Josephus) and a Hellene (Chariton of Aphrodisias, the novelist -- thereby giving grounds for including a fair amount of illustration from Aphrodisias generally). This overall program should provide in theory an illuminating 'slice' of religious history.

That said, the book does disappoint by keeping to such a bland level of generality that no-one could cavill at its declared thesis: 'Religion helped structure the networks of power that shaped or informed the relationship between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East' (p. 151, the concluding sentence of the book). What is disappointing is the remarkably thin and superficial analysis of the chosen authors on such themes as The Past, Cosmic Connections, Geography and the Sacred, Cosmic Power Brokers, The Future. Altogether in a text of some 150pp., 40pp. only are devoted to the actual witness of the authors. The rest is generalised background material to the themes, methodologically uncomfortable at that, for whilst it certainly draws on a commendably rich variety of illustrative material it neither concentrates only on 'the Greek East' nor deals exclusively with testimony drawn from the Flavio-Trajanic period. The result is a blandly generalised picture where the concept of 'the Greek East' goes unpacked, differences are blurred (we are scarcely allowed to hear dissonant voices, only occasionally e.g. pp. 134, 141f.) and even the frequently invoked concept of 'local elites' goes unexamined (to judge from the background illustrations it seems to include anyone who has left any evidence from the past). For one who sets out to examine the (again invoked ad nauseam) 'networks of power in the local, regional, imperial and cosmic arenas' with their 'social, political and cultural forces' (repeated like an empowering mantra), the actual practical workings of those networks and forces get scant attention.

Altogether we are left with a picture of a disturbingly homogenised world in which we scarcely even hear how individual (or not) may be the witness of the authors under examination. This is especially worrying in the case of the Christian (Luke) and the Jew (Josephus). Though declared to be a reworked dissertation, the book still bears unfortunately the stamp of the mechanical structure of its origins. It is, however, elegantly presented (I spotted three typographical errors only in a close reading) and the sweep of its reading is commendably catholic.