Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.06.28

Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman World.   London:  Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999.  Pp. 402.  ISBN 0-297-81982-8.  £25.  

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College (
Word count: 1090 words

I suspect that more than once in the course of thinking out and writing A World Full of Gods Keith Hopkins reflected with pleasure on the problems the book would present to reviewers, for in this "experiment in how to write religious history", Hopkins has attempted to incorporate "emphatic wonder, knowledge, pseudo-objective analysis, ignorance, competing assumptions and disagreements" (p. 3), qualities which, to be sure, in one form or other, and to a greater or lesser degree, regularly supply grist for the reviewers' mill but do so only rarely in quite the quantity or quality peculiar to this figurative shipment. How to handle, for example, James and Martha, 20th-century time-travelers to Pompeii, Egypt, and Ephesus, through whose accounts of their adventures Hopkins hopes to expose the obstacles facing any historian who attempts to represent the past? Or what to do with a chapter on the Dead Sea Scrolls, late-antique Judaism, and Christianity set partly in the form of a television documentary in which "the TV Camera itself ... symbolises that common and underrated, but nonetheless invaluable instrument of history-writing, namely simplificatory misunderstanding" (p. 60)? And do the challenges these examples pose to the reviewer not increase as a result of the inclusion of collegial correspondence -- much of it preemptive of the sort of criticism Hopkins could reasonably expect from many reviewers -- in reaction to the form and content of his work?

This reviewer's answer to these questions was made somewhat easier by his considered opinion that readers reasonably familiar with the evidence upon which Hopkins draws and with a fair range of representative modern scholarship concerned with that same evidence will most often encounter little or nothing new with respect to data or interpretation: the distinctive significance of A World Full of Gods will, for them, reside in Hopkins' provocative method. Thus, this review focuses on just how Hopkins attempts to use varying literary forms to drive home the message that, inasmuch as doing and reading history involves selection, it thereby entails distortion, which, in turn -- to the degree that selection and distortion undermine any supposed distinction between history and explicitly fictive forms of discourse -- validates his approach.

Chapters One and Five relate the adventures of the time-travelers James and Martha. Their impressionistic narrative takes the place of scholarly argumentation based on evidence. The difference, or lack of difference, between these two modes of discourse is Hopkins' underlying point, a critique of which Hopkins himself provides in the form of a letter sent to him from Mary Beard (pp. 44-45). Hopkins casts Chapter Two, the subject of which is the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the form of a description of the making of a television documentary, complete with remarks (see, e.g., those attributed to Jaroslav Pelikan [p. 66]), reports from academic talking heads, and an exchange of memoranda between the program's producer and several network administrators. Here the camera represents a selective process, which, in Hopkins' view, is also present in "scholarly" research. Chapter Three, "The Christian Revolution," is, except for another epistolary interlude -- this time a letter from Josh _____ of Brunel University's Department of Social Anthropology -- a more traditional type of investigation (and, I think, one which will strike some readers as all the more provocative for it) of the transformation of Christianity and the Roman state in the first four centuries A.D. Chapter Four (which contains an entertaining exchange of letters between Hopkins and a Professor Hartmut _____ of Heidelberg) draws from the Acts of John, of Andrew, and of Thomas -- each "proposing ethical and metaphysical solutions to core human problems [, none] purposively retelling what we would now call true histories" (p. 178) -- to present portions of what were to become apocryphal narratives of Jesus. Chapter Six is Hopkins' account of a dinner party and its aftermath -- "preserved", we learn from another Hopkins-to-Hartmut missive, "in two previously unpublished third-century letters" of a certain Macarius, a recent convert to Christianity (p. 208). Appended to the conversation between Macarius, a fellow Christian named Clement, various representatives of paganism, and Isidorus/Simon son of Judas, a hellenizing Jew, is more correspondence from Hartmut, followed by two letters from Avi _____ of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, each a reaction to the form and content of Hopkins' imagined get-together. Chapter Six, "Recreating the Cosmos," deals in a paradoxically straightforward fashion with Gnostic and Manichaean cosmology, though it concludes with another of Hopkins' creations, this time a death-bed confession of none other than Augustine. Chapter Seven considers Jesus as a "retro-constructed sacred hero" (p. 290), narratives about whom fostered not just belief but a sense of belonging rooted in action: "For most, being a Christian may have mattered even more than believing" (p. 335). Though Hopkins puts his conceptual cards on the table in his introduction, he might have shown his hand again in an afterword.

Except for an astonishing number of misplaced commas -- e.g., "By the normal rule, that successful prophecies are recorded, after the event, because of Jesus' prediction of the temple's destruction (13.1-2), Mark is most sensibly dated after 70 CE." (p. 311) -- there are only few errors of production: p. 31, "bring" for "brought"; p. 66, "preposition" for "proposition"; p. 68, "JUSTIN" for "JEREMIAH"; p. 291, "rulers" for "rules". On p. 279, the parenthetical reference to plates 17-18 is mistaken, as is the reference to plates 25-26 on p. 281, which should refer only to plate 25. On p. 302, the transliteration "w" appears for the omega of γενέσεως. The forty-six pages of notes are generally informative and to the point, though there are some slips (e.g., at p. 366, n. 51, the inscription referred to from Bob Sherk's Documents from the Greek East is no. 65 rather than 69). There is a Select Bibliography (pp. 383-392), a Subject Index, and a Selective Index of Proper Names, good color and black-and-white plates, and several reproductions of graffiti and drawings of demons from magical papyri.

I wonder if most of Hopkins' scholarly readers will, in varying measure, be amused and, before they put the book aside -- not likely to open it again --, reflect in a slightly different fashion on what they do. But I wonder more about the reactions of the curious, intelligent-but-uncredentialed readership A World Full of Gods might attract. Perhaps those so moved from either group should, taking a cue from Avi, Harmut, Josh, and Mary, share their thoughts with the author himself, who can be reached at King's College, Cambridge CB2 1ST.

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