Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.10

Jörg Rüpke, Wolfgang Spickermann (ed.), Reflections on Religious Individuality: Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian Texts and Practices. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, Band 62.   Berlin: De Gruyter:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. vi, 268.  ISBN 9783110286748.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Brent Nongbri, Macquarie University (


The recognition that the disembodied, autonomous, cogitating self generally associated with Descartes is an artifact of a particular time and place rather than a timeless and universal quality of all humans has led to a re-imagining of what individuality might mean in different contexts.1 The last twenty years have seen a number of efforts to find better ways of talking about ancient selves and ancient notions of individuality, and these discussions have often gravitated toward those practices that the modern west has called “religious.”2 The volume under review enriches this ongoing discussion and emerges from the work of the research group “Religious individualization in a historical perspective” based in the Max Weber Centre at the University of Erfurt.

A short introduction by the editors attempts to clarify at the outset what is meant by individuality. They invoke the notion of “de-traditionalization” and suggest conceptualizing five different types of individuality for heuristic purposes. These types are spelled out more clearly in the opening (pp. 71-74) of Richard Gordon’s essay, which could itself serve as introduction to the entire volume. I borrow Gordon’s wording in the following description of the proposed types of individuality: 1) pragmatic individuality, which results from the rupture of family bonds through death, travel, or social displacement; 2) moral individuality, which results from the attempt to live up to a set of ethical norms; 3) competitive individuality, which results from competition for status among elites; 4) representative individuality, which is brought about by the emergence of exemplary individuals within a given tradition of achievement; and 5) reflexive individuality, which is based on a specific legitimating discourse.

Gordon notes that the purpose of the typology is to minimize influence of modern connotations of the word “individuality.” Aspects of this typology of individualities appear in many of the essays (which provides a unity sometimes missing in edited collections). Curiously, however, the title’s adjectival modifier, “religious,” does not receive such thorough examination in the introduction or elsewhere in the volume.

The editors have arranged the chapters into three groups: “Individuals and Personhood,” “Representative and Charismatic Individuality,” and “Reading and Writing.” The first heading contains only two essays. Annette Hupfloher’s contribution (“Kultgründungen durch Individuen im klassischen Griechenland”) looks beyond the place of civic authorities in approving cult foundations in classical Greece to examine the role of a series of individual benefactors in establishing or renovating cultic sites in response to what she calls “persönliches religiöses Erlebnis,” (religious experience, a concept that is invoked throughout the book). Hupfloher thus argues that we should see greater continuity between the founding of cult sites in classical Greece and in the Hellenistic age, when the roles of individuals in cult foundations are more generally appreciated.

Ian H. Henderson’s “Hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3): Modes of Personhood in Deutero-Pauline Tradition” explores the “economy of pseudepigraphy” in the letter to the Colossians. Henderson argues that in spite of the epistle’s “intensely corporate ecclesiology,” one can see a “reflective individuality” in Colossians that is “grounded in the real religious and imaginative experience” of the pseudepigraphic author.

Four essays are gathered under the second heading, “Representative and Charismatic Individuality.” After its useful introduction, Richard Gordon’s chapter (“Representative Individuality in Iamblichus’ De vita pythagorica”) insightfully analyzes De vita pythagorica by demonstrating the ways in which the fictional “Pythagoras” served as a representative individual model of piety for the cultivation of reflexive individuality of the wealthy young men who could attend Iamblichus’ lectures. Furthermore, this cultivation of “hypercivility” in the school setting may well have had implications for the competitive individuality of the fathers of these young men, the local elites of the eastern empire.

Sarah Iles Johnston’s chapter (“Sosipatra and the Theurgic Life: Eunapius Vitae Sophistorum 6.6.5-6.9.24”) continues the focus on the neo-Pythagorean school setting with an examination of the portrayal of Sosipatra by Eunapius. After noting unique aspects of Eunapius’ story of Sosipatra (her early training by two mysteriously powerful figures, her lack of agency in the manifestation of her remarkable abilities), Johnston argues that the fictive persona of Sosipatra is an ideal model for Iambichean theurgists. The (gendered) quality of passivity that Eunapius accents in his narration of Sosipatra’s powers insulated her from associations with other neo-Pythagorean theurgists accused of misusing their theurgic talents.

In an especially well-crafted and illuminating essay (“Gregory Taught, Gregory Written: The effacement and definition of individualization in the Address to Origen and the Life of Gregory the Wonderworker”), Blossom Stefaniw explores potentials of individuality by comparing Gregory Thaumaturgus’ Address to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus. Stefaniw begins by pointing out that while Gregory Thumaturgus features as a main character in both narratives, the two works are not really “concerned with one and the same person.” Rather, Gregory-Thaumaturus-as-author in the setting of an urban philosophical school is simply different from (and, importantly, no more or less authentic than) Gregory-Thaumaturgus-as-subject in the hagiographical account of Gregory of Nyssa. The more illuminating comparison in the two narratives is that between Origen in the Address and Gregory Thaumaturgus in the Life. In the Address, Gregory presents himself not as an active subject in the philosophical school, but as being passively intellectually molded by his charismatic teacher, Origen. Similarly, in the Life Gregory of Nyssa presents Gregory Thaumaturgus as being such a powerful miracle-worker that the locals in the narrative cannot help but be persuaded to accept Gregory’s god. Yet, the individualities envisioned in the two texts are very different. Origen’s intense philosophical regimen portrayed in the Address offered disciplined elite students the possibility of communion with the divine, but such a goal would likely hold little interest for the audience of Gregory of Nyssa’s Life.

The contribution of Ron Naiweld (“The Father of Man: Abraham as the rabbinic Jesus”) charts the changing role of Abraham in ancient Jewish texts and focuses especially on rabbinic literature, in which Abraham’s importance significantly expands. Palestinian rabbinic traditions portray Abraham both as a paragon of self-mastery (“the rabbinic model of the holy man”) and as a new Adam who radically changes the relationship between humanity and god. Naiwald reads both developments in the context of contemporary Christian thinking about Jesus and asceticism.

The third and final division of the book, “Reading and Writing,” contains four chapters. Guy G. Stroumsa (“Reading Practices in Early Christianity and the Individualisation Process”) makes the argument that the centrality of the book among Christians, especially monks who engaged in intensive reading practices, marked the emergence of a new “reflexive self.” This type of individuality was not the “cultivation of the self” associated with Greek philosophy but rather a transformation of the sinful self.

In “Reading and Religion in Rome” Greg Woolf focuses on the reading culture of Rome prior to Augustine and ponders why early imperial Rome produced no scriptures of the sort generated by Christians and other late antique groups. His intriguing answer is that the chief loci of theological writing in Rome were the genres of philosophy and poetry, genres which were subject to assessment and criticism among elite reading groups. That practice of criticism was a means for self-fashioning, but it inhibited the texts from being invested with scriptural authority.

In the next essay, (“‘Einer jeden Gottheit ihren eigenen Kult’: Verbrifte Individualreligion am Clitumnus fons (Plinius epist. 8,8)”), Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser investigates “Individualreligion” in Pliny’s description of the spring and shrine at the source of the Clitumnus River in a letter to his friend Romanus. From the coins tossed in the spring to the dedicatory inscriptions to the graffiti on the columns and walls of the shrine, Egelhaaf-Gaiser finds numerous expressions of individuality. She makes the further point that even Pliny’s letter itself, especially through its description of the graffiti, can be read as a transmission of “personal experience of place and divinity” (persönliche Orts-und Gotteserfahrung).

In a short final chapter, “Four Letter-writers: Religion in Pliny, Trajan, Libanius, and Julian,” Veit Rosenberger finds few signs of individuality in the letters of Pliny, Trajan, and Libanius, who “do not offer insights into their religious experience.” In the letters of the emperor Julian, however, he finds abundant evidence for representative individuality, as Julian’s program of cultic reforms establish him as an exemplary pagan.

Each essay contains a list of works cited (occasionally incomplete), and the book concludes with a topical index.

As a whole, the volume serves as a nice corrective to some scholarship on antiquity that can tend toward overemphasis on the collective aspect of ancient cultic practices.3 For the most part, these chapters shed light upon the individualities of exceptional people, either ancient authors or “fictional” persons of some renown, although the chapters of Hupfloher and Egelhaaf-Gaiser, with their consideration of votive offerings, do draw attention to the activities of a broader spectrum of the population (though still a portion of the population with the means to leave behind epigraphic remains or with a level of literacy sufficient to produce graffiti).

Along with the editors, a number of the contributors casually refer to “religious experience,” suggesting that this concept might be worthy of more extended and explicit reflection that it receives in the book. Work in the academic fields of religious studies and modern history has raised a number of flags about the use of the concept of experience in historical discussions.4 It would be worth pondering to what degree appeals to “experience” trade on the romantic nations of individuality that the volume seeks to complicate or displace. The modifier “religious” also merits greater scrutiny. In the course of the volume, a dizzying array of terms are modified by the word “religious.” In the space of just two pages (123-4), we encounter “religious action” (four times), “religious activity,” “religious agency,” “religious change,” “religious ideals,” “religious individualization,” “religious life” (twice), and “religious practice.” Throughout the essays, it is rarely clear what work the adjective is doing. In many instances, the modifier could be left out with no appreciable change in meaning. In other instances, a more apt descriptor (often “philosophical,” “cultic,” or simply “ideological”) would be more precise and informative in context.

The stimulating collection raises expectations for further contributions from the Erfurt research group.


1.   See, for example, Robert Kurzban and C. Athena Aktipis, “Modularity and the Social Mind: Are Psychologists to Self-ish?” Personality and Social Psychology Review 11 (2007) 131-149 and Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Putnam, 1994).
2.   Two of the more rewarding collaborative efforts are David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds.), Self and Self- Transformation in the History of Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) and David Brakke, Michael L. Stalow, and Steven Weitzman (eds.), Religion and the Self in Antiquity (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2005).
3.   See, for example, Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).
4.   For overviews, see Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (ed. Mark C. Taylor; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 94-115 and Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991) 773-797.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010