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How did “religious experts” communicate their thoughts and beliefs in different local contexts of the Roman Empire during the 1st to the 3rd century? It is an innovative idea to study the conditions that those experts were facing in different local contexts, and to scrutinize the communicative models that can be grasped. That is the topic Katja Wedekind is tackling, starting from Christian sources, in her monograph – which is the slightly revised version of her dissertation on the basis of which she was conferred a doctoral degree by the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Erfurt/Germany in spring 2007. Unfortunately, often it remains unclear whether the author is only reconstructing models of communication that fictitious texts are relying on or whether she wants to detect how faith was actually communicated by concrete individuals. The author oscillates between those poles, and this sometimes makes it hard for the reader to follow her.
The dissertation’s overall structure is clear and, basically, convincing. In an introductory chapter (1), the author sketches her questions, method, terminology – especially the term “religious expert” – and the sources she wants to analyse: extracts from Christian – and mainly narrative – texts written from the 1st to the 3rd century designated to highlight major aspects of communication during that timeframe (because of this structural criterion, they are not arranged chronologically or according to genres, authors etc.). On the grounds of various texts (from ActPaul, Vita Cypriani, the synoptic Gospels, Eusebius’ Church history, ActThom, Justin’s Dialogue and Tertullian’s De pallio), she first highlights the religious experts’ self-projection and their perception by their audience (chapter 2). After that, she moves to the social and topographical conditions for the religious experts acting in different local contexts (3) which, again, she depicts with numerous texts (from Acts, ActPaul, ActJoh and ActPetr). She also focuses on the criteria for differentiating and identifying “true” and “wrong” religious experts (4), referring again to a wide range of texts (from Herm, Did, 2 Petr and other New Testament texts), before she illustrates the experts’ strategies with which they legitimized themselves using rhetoric and extraordinary performances (5). For that goal, the author again points to a variety of texts (from ActJoh, ActPetr, Acts and the Pseudoclementines). In a final chapter (6), she summarises her results.
With this thematic arrangement, Wedekind highlights interesting details and draws a multi-layered picture of the various conditions Christian religious experts met and of the ways they communicated their thoughts and beliefs. They did not attach great importance to their self-projection which, basically, did not differ much from that of other experts like, e.g., Cynic philosophers. For their mission, they preferred larger cities that were significant for trade and traffic (like, e.g., Antioch, Athens and Ephesus) where they were looking for public places of religious and political importance. When differentiating between “true” and “wrong” Christian experts, the sources referred mainly to the experts’ way of life and performance – special teachings were not named as criteria. The experts presented and legitimised their teachings verbally and non-verbally, and the particular composition of verbal and non-verbal communication depended on the addressees’ education and the respective context.
While those results are welcome, the study faces basic problems that need to be evaluated critically. First of all, by studying Christian texts, the author claims to shed light on religious communication in the Roman Empire in general. While it is very promising to focus on communication in early Christianity within the broader context of Roman society, good arguments would be necessary in order to generalize from Christian communication to more general religious communication – arguments the author does not give. She does not explain why, in the context of religious experts, she focuses especially on Christian actors, and in what way those Christians could be typical of religious experts in general – e.g., the parallels between Christians’ and Cynics’ self-projection could be a starting point for those questions, but the questions would have to be tackled thoroughly and from the start. That Wedekind wants to shed light on religious communication in general is highlighted by her presentation of the term “religious expert” which, for her, is neutral and allows different perceptions of a religious figure to be collected under the same label. But this term, in itself, seems to be quite problematic: can a Christian apostle, a Cynic philosopher and a priest of Artemis really be comprehended within this collective term?
But while this trouble does not affect the analysis of religious communication in Christian sources as such, there is a major problem within the author’s approach to the sources. Sometimes, she claims just to analyse the ideal “communicative models” inherent in the sources, that is, in the authors’ minds; sometimes she actually reconstructs the ways Christian “experts” like the apostles communicated their faith; she doesn’t draw a clear distinction between those approaches. Looking at the overall results, one can hardly doubt that, in the end, she wants to reconstruct not only ideal, but real ways of communication, and with sources like the New Testament Acts or Eusebius’ Church history whose narrations are, at least, starting from historical events, it seems possible to shed light on that kind of communication. But she analyses these sources in exactly the same way as sources like the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles – sources where historical data behind the highly fictitious and legendary story can hardly be grasped at all: she is comparing, on the same level, the evidence drawn from both types of sources, and even when she states that she can only detect models, she claims that those models reflect actual communication – e.g., from a source like ActPetr, she draws conclusions about Peter’s acting and teaching in Rome. So, her fresh approach to a multitude and variety of Christian sources seems to be promising at first sight, but she does not seem to have respected the distinctions between different genres and kinds of sources that research has stressed for a long time – it does not seem to be mere coincidence that, for the sources she is using, she treats of the introductory questions (author, dating, addressees etc.) in a few words, although so many books have been written on them.
Besides this fundamental criticism, in the end, the study’s merits need not be neglected: by analysing, within the multi-religious world of the Roman Empire and its local contexts, the ways in which outstanding early Christians communicated their faith, Wedekind has attacked an important topic and has created interesting results.