Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.28

Éric Rebillard, Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE.   Ithaca; London:  Cornell University Press, 2012.  Pp. 134.  ISBN 9780801451423.  $49.95.  


Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (bruces@colorado.edu)

For the past two decades, Éric Rebillard has produced some of the most influential scholarship on funerary culture in late antiquity. In addition to his two monographs on Christian attitudes toward death and the dead – In hora mortis: Évolution de la pastorale chrétienne de la mort aux IVe et Ve siècles dans l’Occident latin (Rome, 1994); and The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity (Ithaca, 2009) – he has also published a host of articles on a wide range of topics related to late ancient Christianity, eighteen of which will appear in his forthcoming Variorum volume, Transformations of Religious Practices in Late Antiquity (Surrey, 2013). In the book under review, Rebillard has abandoned the world of the dead to pose fundamental yet difficult questions about Christians living in late Roman North Africa. What did their Christian identity mean to them and to what degree was this particular identity exclusive of other identities? His answers will surprise you. Drawing on evidence from the works of Tertullian in the decades around 200 CE, the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, who was martyred in 258 CE, and the copious correspondence and sermons of Augustine, who became bishop of Hippo Regius in 395 CE, Rebillard argues that “most Christians practiced a situational selection of identities; that is, they did not give salience to their Christianness at all times.” (8) Dismissing the crude binary of “Christian” and “non-Christian” favored by late antique Christian bishops and the historians who have taken them at their word, Rebillard shows that individual Christians had a much more fluid and complex sense of their religious and social allegiances than we have previously thought. In fact, his findings irrevocably complicate our understanding of the process of Christianization in late antiquity. Moreover, they raise fascinating questions about what it meant to be a Christian well beyond the narrow confines of late Roman North Africa.

Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity is a very short book (97 pages not including endnotes or the bibliography) comprising three chapters prefaced by a laconic introduction. Moving beyond the investigation of the interaction between predominant religious groups in late antiquity (pagans, Christians and Jews), Rebillard’s study focuses on what we can infer about the religious identity of individuals. Following Bernard Lahire’s notion that individuals possess an “internal plurality” (The Plural Actor [Cambridge, 2011]), Rebillard uses the relatively abundant sources from North Africa between the second and fifth centuries to investigate “how laypeople conceived of their own identities.” (7) Chapter One (“Setting the Stage: Carthage at the End of the Second Century”) examines the parameters of Christian identity in several treatises by Tertullian (De spectaculis, De cultu feminarum, and De idololatria). Despite their different topics, these works all concerned the problems associated with Christians attempting to live in a society dominated by pagan practices. First, Rebillard sets out how one became a Christian in Tertullian’s North Africa and how this membership was expressed to outsiders. The sources betray very little evidence of the nature of the catechumenate in this period and do not explicitly address the expulsion of bad Christians from the community. Rather, Tertullian spends much more time defining what he considers to be the external markers of Christian membership. Superficial signs of social distinction – looks, clothing, speech, names and occupations – did not seem to distinguish Christians from polytheists in this period. Instead, Christians were more clearly recognizable by their actions: churchgoing (that is, having fixed meeting places and taking part in ritual activities there); feeding the martyrs in prison; and visiting the poor. Rebillard also points out that Christians were equally recognizable by abstention, for example, by their refusal to take part in the public cults. But Tertullian’s recommendation that his readers abstain from particular activities signals that he was addressing a point of contention among the Christian community in Carthage. His treatise De spectaculis argues that public games are contrary to the Christian faith, but it is clear from this work that he is responding to Christians who have dissociated their Christian identity from their attendance of the games. Likewise, in De idolotria, Tertullian criticizes Christians whose occupations directly or indirectly relate to the creation of idols (masons, painters, metal workers, etc.). Rebillard argues that “[t]his … suggests that some Christians considered occupation an area not relevant to religion. ‘I make, but I do not worship’ is the position they defend.” (26) He concludes from this that “Christianness was only one of the many affiliations that mattered in everyday life” and warns that “we should not assume that the degree of groupness associated with the Christian category was as high, stable, and consistent as Tertullian claims it to be.” (33)

In Chapter Two (“Persecution and the Limits of Religious Allegiance”), Rebillard uses the evidence provided by Tertullian and the correspondence of Cyprian of Carthage to analyze how Christian groups responded when targeted as a group by polytheists during periods of persecution. While Tertullian’s treatises give the impression that Christian leaders fostered a communal response to the intermittent persecutions of the early third century by encouraging the faithful to visit Christians under arrest and offer them moral support, the evidence from the middle of the century tells a somewhat different story. In the wake of Decius’ edict requiring all Roman citizens to offer sacrifices for the good of the empire, which scholars now believe was not aimed specifically at Christian communities, the majority of Christians complied with the requirement, that is, “[they] did not consider the sacrifice relevant to their [Christian] membership and accordingly performed it freely and willingly.” (53) Moreover, those Christians who offered sacrifice do not seem to have considered this act contrary to their Christian beliefs and did not expect to compromise their Christian membership as a result of their actions. A much smaller group of uncompromising Christian individuals ignored the edict entirely and as a result endured exile and in some cases martyrdom for their obstinacy. Here again, the evidence is consistent with Chapter One: third-century Christians had a number of meaningful identities and their religious allegiance did not necessarily trump other identities at all times. As a result, when the edict of Decius demanded sacrifice from all Roman citizens “the majority of Christians complied, as it was a requirement of their membership in the imperial commonwealth … [t]hey did this either unaware that it might be contradictory to their Christian membership, or because they simply did not activate their Christian membership in this context.” (60)

The final chapter brings us to the decades around 400 CE (“Being Christian in the Age of Augustine”). The relative abundance of North African evidence indicative of the identity of Christian laymen in the third century peters out in the early fourth century, when the Donatist schism dominates the discourse, but fortunately after a gap of almost a century the letters and sermons of Augustine allow Rebillard to pursue his thesis further. What is so surprising in this chapter is how little those watershed moments of the fourth century – from the conversion of Constantine to the removal of the altar of Victory by Gratian to the outlawing of public paganism by Theodosius the Great – seem to have mattered at all. Rebillard begins the chapter with a strong qualification: “[T]he closure of the temples and the ban on all ritual practices associated with traditional Greco-Roman cults did not amount to a Christianization of public life.” (62) Augustine’s writings provide us with a far more detailed sense of what it meant to be a Christian than the works of Tertullian or Cyprian. They also show, however, that Augustine had to deal with many of the same issues raised by the “internal plurality” of his constituents as his third-century counterparts. His sermons are particularly vivid in this regard. In many of them, we find the bishop rebuking his audience in such a way that suggests that “there was a wide variety of situations in which Christians did not think their Christianness to be relevant.” (75) Competing allegiances included the social obligations binding family and neighbors, clients and patrons, and a strong sense of civic identity. An analysis of several letters of Augustine show how the bishop attempted to impose his own view of the primacy of a Christian outlook onto correspondents who did not agree with his point of view. In the past, their recalcitrance led historians to presume that they must be pagans, but Rebillard demonstrates convincingly that they may well have been Christians who did not see their Christian identity being as relevant in particular situations as Augustine would have liked. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of the ways in which Augustine may have fostered a group identity among his congregation. In the end, Rebillard concludes that “[t]he intermittency of Christianness is structurally consistent in the everyday life of Christians from the end of the second to the middle of the fifth century, …[in other words] the sense of belonging was just as available and just as often – or infrequently – activated in Augustine’s time as it was in Tertullian’s.” (96)

Although its style is laconic to the point of being clinical, Rebillard’s book is nonetheless a stimulating work of revisionist history. In particular, the notion of individual plurality breaks down the perception of distinct religious and secular spheres in late antique society that was the cornerstone of Robert Markus’ classic The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, 1990). Moreover, Rebillard’s thesis raises important questions about how we can measure the progress of Christianization in this period and even calls into question the applicability of the term. Some historians will chafe at the sociological jargon employed throughout the book – “groupness,” “Christianness,” and the personal “activation” and “deactivation” of religious and social allegiances – but no scholar of early Christianity should ignore the implications of Rebillard’s conclusions. Indeed, specialists in other ages of Christian history would be wise to test the methodology employed here to their own sets of evidence for the identity of Christian laymen. The results are sure to be fruitful.

In the past few years, it seems to me that late antique scholarship has entered its Mesozoic era. Enormous sauropods have come to dominate the landscape. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense. Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford, 2010), Brent Shaw’s Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge, 2011), and Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Late Antiquity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012) are the vigorous and formidable titans of recent late antique history. Rebillard’s book is so exciting because it offers something altogether different from these weighty tomes. Unabashedly theoretical, concise and clinically incisive, it represents a new species of late antique religious scholarship. And it just may be a herald of things to come.

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