Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.52

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity. Sozomena. Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts 7.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 442.  ISBN 9783110206333.  $136.00.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, MacEwan University (


Readers seeking a speculative and sensational exposé of intimate and hitherto secret links between phantasmal circles of Orphic adepts and the first Christians will not find one in this book. Instead Herrero de Jáuregui has offered the scholarly world a sober and substantial contribution which is sure to stand the test of time in the form of a philological examination of the testimonies of Orphic texts and practice found in early Christian apologetic literature. This material (the most important examples of which are offered in translation as appendices to the volume) is not only among our best evidence for the phenomenon of Orphism in antiquity, it also represents a telling case-study of the early Christian engagement with the religious and philosophical discourse of the Greek culture which surrounded it, as the early Christians might have said, of which it was a part as contemporary scholars, like Herrero de Jáuregui might say. All those interested in the religious life, both pagan and Christian, of the Imperial centuries should be grateful that this translation has made Herrero de Jáuregui’s 2007 book Tradición órfica y cristianismo antiguo accessible to a wider audience.

Herrero de Jáuregui begins with a survey of the prejudices and consequent trends in previous scholarship on the ties between Orphism and Christianity. If he does not start his study with a clean slate, at least we know we are following a guide unlikely to stumble into the traps and pitfalls of his predecessors. This ‘state of the scholarship’ is followed by a set of careful definitions for the seemingly straightforward terms which will recur in the text: Christians, Pagans, and ‘Orphics’. Herrero de Jáuregui thoroughly problematizes the last term. He considers ‘Orphic’ an appropriate label for “attempts to create an abstract and non-local language departing from traditional cultural forms ... in order to express speculative insights arising from the religious experiences of the traditional Greek mysteries” (p. 25). While Herrero de Jáuregui insists upon ‘Orphic’ as a useful descriptor for the elements of an observable, unified phenomenon, he doubts that there is any evidence for ritual uniformity or even the primacy of ritual in Orphism. Herrero de Jáuregui rejects ‘Orphic’ as a label for groups or individuals, and he follows Burkert in visualizing Orphism as a circle superimposed over the three different fields of Pythagoreans, initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, and devotees of Dionysiac cult.

Chapter 2 examines the evidence for Orphism from the second century AD, and begins with a survey of the specifically Orphic literature by genre: theogonies, hymns, and catabases. Herrero de Jáuregui then turns to the principally epigraphic and papyrological evidence for actual ritual practice in the period and in those regions which do offer such evidence, namely Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Rome, attempting to measure the presence and popularity of Orphic rites, ideas, and influences. Herrero de Jáuregui notes the sources and prevalence of a stock body of knowledge about Orphic myth and ritual found in Diodorus, Strabo, and Apuleius, which forms the basis of many other references to Orphism. It is from this repertory that some of our later sources, especially the Neoplatonists, ‘recreate’ imaginary rites and impute them to the ‘practicing Orphics’ of old. Herrero de Jáuregui indicates that the second century AD saw the beginning of a resurgence of Orphism, and one that was largely due to the literary tradition, rather than the transmission of Orphic rites and poems within a group which enjoyed a continuity over generations. “The rise of Christianity and the need for pagan self reconsideration” (p. 79) actuated certain antiquarian tendencies in Greek religion at this time. Orphism was connected in this process to the prestige not only of antiquity, but also of the mysteries and of Greek religious identity itself.

Chapter 3 deals with the points of overlap and convergence between Orphism and Christianity. In regard to philosophical traditions, Platonic metaphysics, Stoic ethics, and Neopythagorean number theory, each of which claimed a basis in Orphic precedents, all exercised a particular strong influence on early Christian thought. The opposition to Christianity sharpened the need for divinely revealed theological texts among the pagans, and Orpheus was considered the chief of a number of poets who had been good enough to provide these. Along with the parallel material in the Hermetic prose the Orphic poetry came to “coalesce into a single source of pagan theology” (p. 103), a monolithic target for Christian apologetics and at times an intimation of Christian truth. Despite a shared emphasis on certain key ideas (e.g., body/soul dualism) and the Christian charge that Orphism had spawned Gnosticism, the ties between Orphism and Gnosticism were much mediated, especially by Plato. Hellenistic Judaism is addressed in broad terms because it provided a model for Christian engagement with Greek culture generally. Orpheus appears only rarely in the Jewish apologists, and then as a conduit to the Greeks of wisdom from the fountainhead of Moses or as a pattern for the depiction of David. Herrero de Jáuregui ends by problematizing the neat distinctions of the apologists with reference to iconography. Should an image of a lyre player in a Phrygian cap in the midst of beasts in a Christian context be seen as Christ as Orpheus, an evocation of similar and sympathetic ideas, an identification of Christ and Orpheus as both ‘theoi andres’, or as mere decoration? Any pat answer to such a question will be endlessly complicated by a glance at a seal depicting a crucified ‘Orpheos Bakkikos’.

The twenty Christian apologists who mention Orphism are introduced at length in the beginning of chapter 4. This introduction may be useful for the classicist unfamiliar with early Christian literature. Herrero de Jáuregui then proceeds to a discussion of the various Orphic themes found in this material. The Orpheus of the apologists is not a hero of sentimental myth, but a figure that could be pegged in the chronology so as to prove the lateness of Greek culture and its dependence on Mosaic teaching, as well as a teacher who straddled the roles of theologian, mystagogue, and sorcerer to lead the Greeks to perdition. Lactantius is an exception to this largely critical stance. He praised Orpheus for apprehending the truth of an uncreated creator and graciously indulged the failures of his insight. Herrero de Jáuregui shows that the Christian testimonials to the Orphic mysteries are almost entirely based on reading, and avers that the central problem in their interpretation is the relation of the others to an important passage in Clement’s Protrepticus. But Herrero de Jáuregui’s insistence on the bookish nature of Christian knowledge of Orphism can push him to unwarranted presumptions. For example, he assumes that Firmicus Maternus’ Euhemerist interpretation of the mysteries must have had a textual source, but the Christians of the fourth century were quite capable of composing Euhemeristic narratives out of whole cloth.

Chapter 5 sets the Christian testimonials to Orphism back in their original apologetic context. This has the value of reminding us what they do and do not tell us with reference to what they were intended to say. Herrero de Jáuregui provides a general discussion of Christian approaches to Greek myth and religious texts, which often followed models which originated in the Greek philosophical tradition itself. Herrero de Jáuregui outlines three broad strategies of rejecting the pagan gods as fit objects of worship, appropriating the insights and purple passages of pagan texts which might seem to support Christian positions, and omitting to mention those themes and ideas which brought paganism embarrassingly close to Christianity. These strategies necessitated a ‘construction of paganism’ in Christian literature, that is, a multifarious and incoherent body of tradition, ritual, texts, and beliefs (whose only real unity lay in that they were not Christian) had to be presented as a unified and coherent opponent to Christianity. Orphism was central to this image of a ‘system of paganism’, not least because it was by its very nature capable of incorporating a variety of diverse ideas and practices and became a banner around which Neoplatonists and other pagan die-hards rallied. But for the very reason that Orphism was presented as the antithesis of Christianity it could also bridge the gulf between Christianity and paganism. The description of Christianity in terms of what it was not allowed Christianity to be presented in the terms of traditional Greek religion and theology.

The final chapter addresses the question of what we can learn about Orphism from the Christian apologists. Here Herrero de Jáuregui is concerned not merely to present Christianity as a distorting mirror, but also to show that where there is an insistence on difference, as between Christianity and Orphism, details and underlying ideas can be drawn out with special clarity and sharpness. This is particularly true in the case of similar ideas and practices held in common by the two groups. So Herrero de Jáuregui dwells upon those points where Orphism has in the past been seen as exerting an influence on Christianity or even serving as a ‘proto-Christianity’, such as monism, the role of the ‘creative voice’, saviour gods, and theophagy. Herrero de Jáuregui stresses the distinctions between Orphic and Christian understandings of these concepts in a way that would gratify the authors of his early Christian sources and that allows us to perceive Orphism on its own terms, rather than presented in terms of Christian categories. He does not, however, hesitate to essay an explanation for the common traits found in Christianity and Orphism. He concentrates on four points: both Christianity and Orphism are ‘religions of salvation’ and we should expect them, arising as they do in similar social circumstances, to share certain resemblances in concern and expression; both Greek Christianity and Orphism are subject to intense Near Eastern influence and both try to integrate foreign concepts, like the creative and vivifying pneuma into Greek discourse; both are subject to the general influence of a widely popular, if not scrupulously faithful, Platonism which inculcated such ideas as a body/soul dualism and judgment after death; and finally he makes a concession of mutual influence in a few cases, for instance the Christian adoption of Orphic afterlife imagery and the pagan effort to assemble the Orphic poems into a sacred text to rival the Bible.

Altogether, the reader is justified in feeling that he has come to a better knowledge of the books, beliefs, and rites of Orphism, of the Christian apologists and their encounter with Greek religion and ideas, and of the specific texts discussed here. He has found, moreover, a resource to which he can return for insight and direction on these and many related matters for years to come. For this contribution, once again, Herrero de Jáuregui is to be thanked.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 14:57:24, Monday, 25 October 2010