Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.54

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Florian Wilk (ed.), Gut und Böse in Mensch und Welt: philosophische und religiöse Konzeptionen vom Alten Orient bis zum frühen Islam. Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 10.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2013.  Pp. viii, 340.  ISBN 9783161525742.  €89.00.  

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This interesting volume results from a symposium held at Göttingen University in 2010. Most of the papers presented there have been published in this volume; the Editors in the Vorwort detail that two further chapters, by Therese Fuhrer and Martin Tamcke, were commissioned independently of their presentation at the symposium, in order to bridge the gap between late antiquity and Islam. Beyond this, the scope of the topic is so broad that the Editors, understandably enough, have not really articulated a rationale for bringing these specific papers together, besides their delivery at the symposium and their dealing with the issue of good and evil from the ancient East to early Islam.

Schipper shows how the concepts of good and evil are omnipresent in ancient Egyptian literature, where they have not only an ethical, but also a cosmological significance. Good functions specifically as a principle of order, while evil stands for disorder and chaos. This was symbolised by Seth in late Egyptian theology and mythology. The feminine principle Ma’at, on the contrary, represented the good order in the world. Remarkably, according to Schipper’s analysis, in ancient Egyptian texts evil would not disappear, but could only be defeated temporarily. In later times, Egyptian Christians such as Origen of Alexandria would make the utter vanquishing of evil a pillar of their eschatology.

Mittermeyer examines Mesopotamian myths and draws a distinction between Sumerian and Akkadian myths. The former present instances of both good and bad deeds on the part of humans; the latter, especially the most recent ones, tend to feature humans who act badly and entertain a negative relation with the deities.

Good and evil in Zoroastrianism is the topic chosen by Kreyenbroek: in this dualistic religion, good and evil are opposites as antithetical principles on a par with one another. As Kreyenbroek shows, however, the picture is not so straightforward. Absolute dualism is a characteristic of later, not earlier, forms of Zoroastrianism. Here, Good and Evil are eternal principles on an equal footing with one another. Evil must be rendered powerless at the end of time, and humans can contribute to this during history. Kreyenbroek analyses both earlier texts, such as the Gathas, and the later version of the creation myth, which arose in Middle Persian times and is preserved in the Greater Bundahišn. This was written down in the ninth/tenth century CE, but the myth itself is earlier: it was previously transmitted orally and seems to date back to the Sasanian age (third to seventh cent.). This myth bears significant similarities to Bardaisan of Edessa’s († 222 CE) creation myth, though Bardaisan was a monist, since he did not deem evil a principle on a par with God,1 while the Zoroastrian myth in question is dualist. At any rate, a possible influence of Bardaisan on this myth is not to be ruled out. According to the Middle Persian Zoroastrian myth, in the beginning Ohrmazd, the good God, was on high, in light, and Ahriman, the evil principle, below, in darkness. Likewise the initial situation depicted by Bardaisan in the “cosmological traditions” is that God was above all, and darkness-evil below, under all. In the Persian myth, Ohrmazd created good creatures, and Ahriman evil creatures; these then got mixed. Bardaisan too spoke of the present state of the world as a state of mixture, though not between good and bad creatures —since all creatures are creatures of God and are all good—but between good creatures and evil, which is now among them, but will be annihilated in the end (Bardaisan seems to have been the first supporter of universal apokatastasis or restoration). The eventual overcoming of Evil is also a feature of the Middle Persian myth, which calls this “Renovation,” a notion close to apokatastasis. Bardaisan at the end of the Book of the Laws of Countries spoke of the constitution of a “new world” in which evil will have no part. This, from Bardaisan’s Christian viewpoint, will be the result of the work of Christ, the Saviour born from a virgin. Likewise for the Middle Persian myth the Renovation begins with the appearance of a Saviour born from a virgin. The Saviour will bring about the resurrection of the dead, and the Judgment will purify humans from sin: these are further elements of contact with the Christian theory represented by Bardaisan. I believe that the possibility of some influence of Bardaisan’s ideas on this phase of Zoroastrianism deserves further investigation.

Blümer deals with ancient Greek poets, Hesiod and Homer, to determine whether the choice between good and evil, as represented by them, depends on human agents or divinities. The human factor in decisions is more prominent in Hesiod’s Works and Days than in his Theogony. In Homer, human decision-making is evident in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, especially in the case of Iliadic heroes such as Sarpedon, Agamemnon, and Hector. Odysseus himself could be taken as an example. He is certainly guided by the gods, such as Athena, but his decision-making is no less emphasised than his cleverness and versatility, and is related to them.

Schmid concerns himself with the Old Testament, in particular late wisdom literature and extra-canonical and apocalyptic literature. Texts such as those in which God is said to give humans a new heart may be disconcerting, as they seem to detract from human responsibility; I will just note that later Christian exegetes read in such passages references to God’s grace, which most of them, such as Origen and Nyssen, considered fully compatible with human freewill. As one would expect, a strong eschatological orientation is detected by Schmid in apocalyptic texts: the good will overcome in the end. This orientation is also found in the NT Apocalypse of John, which belongs to the same genre.

Dimant studies the opposition between the forces of Light (the realm of Truth) and those of Darkness (the realm of iniquity) in the texts found at Qumran and arguably composed by the sect that inhabited the site. The forces of Light are good, those of Darkness evil, and each “army” is led by an angel, respectively the Archangel of Light and the Angel of Darkness, also named Belial (Treatise of the Two Spirits, a part of the Community Rule). Dimant programmatically considers the sectarian literature “an essentially homogeneous corpus, in which various compositions are mutually explanatory” (106). In this literature, and especially in the Treatise, the world is seen as contaminated by wickedness, but in the end—which the members of the sect, like Saul/Paul, tended to see as imminent —the world will be purified from it (1QS IV 21). The triumph of the forces of Light is assured by God’s support. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is in the focus of Dochhorn’s essay. He provides a detailed analysis of the Greek terms that mean “evil” therein, and highlights that Paul in this epistle attributes a bad behaviour to all humans, Jews and gentiles. However, Paul does so in order to stress that all humans are in need of God’s mercy, and will receive it.

In a dense, engaging essay Volp considers the question of good and evil in the creation doctrine in early Christianity. Given his engagement also with “pagan” philosophical literature concerning protology, it might have been advisable to cite and deal at least with Charlotte Köckert, Christliche Kosmologie und kaiserzeitliche Philosophie, Tübingen 2009, which focuses on the doctrine of creation, while Paul Blowers’ Drama of the Divine Economy (Oxford 2012) should now also be consulted, although it deals less with “pagan” thinking. Volp begins with the doctrine of creation as expressed in Paul’s Areopagus speech, where God appears as the Creator and Judge of the world. Volp treats briefly the emergence of the creatio ex nihilo doctrine in Christianity, embracing May’s view that it appeared as an antithesis to the Greek worldview. There were, however, Christians who did not embrace this theory, even as late as Calcidius. Volp then moves on to the Celsus–Origen debate, Macarius’ Apocriticus/Monogenes, and Augustine. Celsus supported the eternity of matter and denied any progress in the world, while Origen upheld both the creation of matter by God and a progress that leads to the eventual apokatastasis, when all evil will vanish: God will bring about the διόρθωσις of the world (Cels. 4.69). Interestingly, Macarius too seems to embrace ἀποκατάστασις πάντων. For Augustine, I would just add that the ontological description of malum as privatio boni and the whole metaphysics of evil in his anti-Manichaean phase—when Augustine even adhered to universal apokatastasis— arguably derives from Origen.2

Stein tackles the issue of good and evil in a dualistic religion, Manichaeism—in this respect an offspring of Zoroastrianism. Humanity is seen as a byproduct of the opposition between the Kingdom of Light (Good) and the Kingdom of Darkness (Evil). Every human must assist in liberating particles of light from darkness-evil-matter and thereby contribute to the separation of light from darkness, which will be fully achieved only at the end of times. The eschatological perspective is here ostensibly different from the Christian, where evil is not to be separated from good, but radically eliminated. This view was emphasised by thinkers such as Origen, Nyssen, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena.3 Fuhrer concentrates on the notion of sin (peccatum) in Augustine, in what she depicts as a pessimistic anthropology. While in the beginning humanity was still able to avoid sin (posse et peccare et non peccare), after the original sin it cannot (non posse non peccare). Only in heaven, the few who will be worthy of it—Augustine later rejected apokatastasis—will be free from sin: non posse peccare.

Neuwirth passes on to the Islamic world and examines the notion of evil in the Quran. She is rightly attentive to recent text criticism concerning the various stages of this text’s development, to which different representations of evil correspond. A substantial essay by Ulrika Mårtensson is particularly relevant to this,4 and in part builds on Neuwirth’s own past scholarship.

Finally, Martin Tamcke deals with late Syriac biographies of saints to uncover their representation of the conflict between good and evil. The biography of the Katholikos (Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon) Isho’yahb III is especially interesting. It stems from the early Islamic times, and its author, a Christian, polemicised with the Islamic description of Jesus as a mere prophet, against the Christian identification of Jesus as God’s Son. Isho’yahb is depicted in this Vita as imitating Christ, and all believers are invited to do the same. Thus they will be able to defeat the forces of evil, which tempt people into sin and bodily pleasures.

This is a fascinating—though necessarily far from exhaustive—trip through different ancient cultures following the red thread of good and evil in dualistic or non dualistic worldviews.

Table of Contents

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath – Florian Wilk, “Einleitung”
Berns Schipper, “Gut und Böse im alten Ägypten”
Katherine Mittermayer, “Gut und Böse. Anforderungen an menschliches Handeln im Beziehungsgefüge zwischen Göttern und Menschen in den mesopotamischen Mythen”
Philip Kreyenbroek, “Good and Evil in Zoroastrianism”
Wilhelm Blümer, “Gutes und Böses aus Götterhand? Zum Verhältnis von Selbstbestimmung und Fremdbestimmung des Menschen in der frühgriechischen Dichtung”
Konrad Schmid, “Genealogien der Moral. Prozesse fortschreitender ethischer Qualifizierung von Mensch und Welt im Alten Testament”
Devorah Dimant, “The Demonic Realm in Qumran Sectarian Literature”
Jan Dochhorn, “Das Böse und Gott im Römerbrief—eine Skizze”
Ulrich Volp, “Der Schöpfergott und die Ambivalenzen seiner Welt. Das Bild vom Schöpfergott als ethisches Leitbild im frühen Christentum in seiner Auseinandersetzung mit der philosophischen Kritik”
Markus Stein, “Der Dualismus bei den Manichäern und der freie Wille”
Therese Fuhrer, “Kann der Mensch ohne Fehler sein? Augustin über die ’Sünde’”
Angelica Neuwirth, “Die Entdeckung des Bösen im Koran. Überlegungen zu den koranischen Versionen des Dekalogs”
Martin Tamcke, “‘Das reine Leben des Glaubens will ich nach deinem Vorbild erwerben’. Der Kampf um das Gute und wider das Böse nach einer ostsyrischen Heiligenlegende


1.   See I. Ramelli, Bardaisan of Edessa, Piscataway 2009.
2.   Argument in I. Ramelli, “Origen and Augustine,” Numen 60 (2013) 280-307.
3.   See I. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, Leiden 2013.
4.   U. Mårtensson, “‘The persuasive proof’: a study of Aristotle’s Politics and Rhetoric in the Quran and in al-Tabarı’s commentary,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and the Islam 34 (2008) 363-420. See also S.J. Shoemaker, “Muhammad and the Quran,” in S. Johnson (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Oxford 2012, 1078- 1108.

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