Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.35

Éric Rebillard, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity. CUA studies in early Christianity.   Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2015.  Pp. viii, 331.  ISBN 9780813227436.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Kendra Eshleman, Boston College (


Late antique religious identity has been a fertile site of scholarship in recent decades, with the three-volume Jewish and Christian Self-Definition as an early landmark.1 Such studies have done much to elucidate the contingent, contested, often artificial nature of the categories “Jewish,” “Christian,” and “pagan.” Yet describing the identities of groups and individuals precisely, without lapsing into essentialism or exaggerated dichotomies, remains devilishly difficult. That is the challenge taken up by the volume under consideration, which originates in a 2011 conference held by the research group “Religious Individualization in Historical Perspective.” In their introduction, Rebillard and Rüpke observe that studies of interactions among pagans, Jews, and Christians, even when they acknowledge the fluidity of group identities, tend to reify those identities by attributing them to groups, and treating those groups as internally homogenous or divided simply into “elite” and “popular.” They propose that employing the “instrument of ‘individualization’” will yield a more nuanced, dynamic picture (4); reading evidence of group life “with individuals as the focal point” reveals “the profound complexity of the interactions between group identity and religious individuality” (6). Following that prompt, the papers collected here offer illuminating meditations on ways that individual religious expression shaped, was constrained by, and eluded the demands of emerging group identities in late antiquity (here, late second to sixth centuries).

Different papers approach that interplay from different directions. Some bypass the “institutional imperative” (55) to emphasize individual initiative and idiosyncrasy (BeDuhn, Bowes, Elm, Rüpke, Raja, Rebillard). Others foreground the claims of group identity on individuals (Noethlichs, Rajak, Perkins, Iara, Spickermann). A number challenge traditional oppositions between institutional and individual religion (Bowes, Elm, Rajak, Perkins) or secular and religious (Iara, Rebillard); several argue against understanding late antique religious history in terms of conflict between discrete, stable groups (Rüpke, Raja, Rebillard). I recommend starting with Rebillard’s chapter, which lays out those issues most clearly. His distinction between lateral arrangements of identity, in which an individual’s various category memberships (ethnic, occupational, religious, educational, etc.) are roughly on the same level and rise or fall in salience depending on the situation, and hierarchical ones, in which all other categories are subordinated to and interpreted in terms of one category, could be usefully applied in other chapters as well.

The papers are grouped into four sections. Some sections juxtapose chapters on different religious groups, but most papers concentrate persons within a single category, or conversation across category boundaries; if discarding those categories entirely is a goal (as I am not sure it can be), it is not met here.

Part 1 (Background) consists of Karl Leo Noethlichs’ chapter, “The Legal Framework of Religious Identity in the Roman Empire.” Surveying the history of legal structures that promoted state religion, Noethlichs shows that whereas classical law pays little attention to individual religiosity, late antique law moves toward more intrusive regulation and legal definition of individuals in terms of their religion. His focus is normative, on the demands of the state rather than what individuals actually did, but he does briefly consider how individuals might have found scope for nonconformity under the Christian legal regime.

Part 2 (Religion and Religious Individuals) examines collaborations of individual and group at points where they might seem at odds. Jason BeDuhn (“Am I a Christian? The Individual at the Manichaean-Christian Interface”) explores the dialectic between group and individual as the engine of change within religious traditions. While the group seeks to impose its norms through inhabitation and indoctrination, individual understanding and performance are inevitably idiosyncratic. BeDuhn devotes some insightful pages to the causes of idiosyncrasy, and hence the inability of religions to reproduce themselves exactly. Augustine and his Manichaean mentor, Faustus of Milevis, represent extreme examples: both were influentially eccentric in their Manichaeanism, and much of Augustine’s eccentric version of Nicene Christianity was absorbed into Western orthodoxy.

Kim Bowes (“Sixth-Century Individual Rituals: Private Chapels and the Reserved Eucharist”) skillfully dissects the tangled relationship of domestic worship to church institutions. While her earlier work spotlighted conflicts between individual piety and episcopal authority, here Bowes emphasizes that sixth-century domestic religious practices “depend upon and, indeed, insistently reference the very institutions they elide and even subvert” (71). Miniaturized domestic versions of local basilicas, reserved eucharist, and pilgrim eulogiae stood apart from the public church and its rituals, which they distilled into detachable, possessable objects outside episcopal control, yet they could not exist without the institutions to which they stood in synecdochic relation; “the fragment owed its meaning and ritual power to the notional community … for which it stood” (75).

Susanna Elm (“Gregory of Nazianzus: Mediation between Individual and Community”) advances a revisionist interpretation of Gregory’s notion of theiosis. Against traditional views of theiosis as metaphorical, Platonist, and aimed at withdrawal from the world, Elm understands it as a literal approximation to divinity, derived from Stoic oikeiosis. The model of theiosis that Gregory developed against Julian in Oration 4 reworks his concept of oikeiosis pros ton theon as the basis for priestly leadership (Oration 2). On that model, the ideal priest achieves a kinship with God and hence divinization that — contra Julian — is unattainable for ordinary people. Far from separating from the world, however, he becomes a bridge between it and God, drawing his congregation into a chain of connection with the divine. Gregory thus sets the exceptional individual apart from the group, but in service to the group’s needs.

Part 3 (Group Strategies and Individual Religiosity), by contrast, shows group imperatives impinging even on seemingly individualistic religious behavior. Tessa Rajak and Judith Perkins read martyr narratives as scripting collective identities, rather than celebrating extraordinary individuals. In a dense, rewarding reading of 4 Maccabees (“The Mother’s Role in Maccabean Martyrology”), Rajak shows that a mother makes a good exemplary martyr precisely because of the characteristics that could conflict with that role; if she can do it, anyone can. The Maccabean mother’s weak, irrational femininity is overcome, her passivity reconfigured as heroic endurance, and the individualized intimacy of the mother-child relationship subordinated to collective loyalty. 4 Maccabees advocates for a hierarchical arrangement of identity, with religious affiliation subsuming all other categories.

Perkins (“Perpetua’s vas: Asserting Christian Identity”) holds that early Christian identity was consciously constructed as a socially inclusive alternative to another empire-wide identity, that of the multiethnic educated elite that managed the Roman empire. Christian martyrdom narratives represent a Christian form of education, rivaling Second Sophistic paideia, and offering models for imitation that were available to all regardless of wealth or education. Even purportedly first-person accounts such as the Passio Perpetuae should be read less as private religious expressions than as projections of public selves, aimed at crafting collective memory from which corporate identity is formed.

Turning to pagan activity, Kristine Iara and Wolfgang Spickermann stress the communal dimensions of seemingly personal religious choices. Iara (“Senatorial Aristocracy: How Individual is Individual Religiosity?”) catalogues pagan religious actions of late antique senatorial aristocrats, including public priesthoods, non-official priesthoods and initiations, and restoration of monuments. While she urges against regarding “religious” and “political” motives as mutually exclusive, she concludes that most of these acts are best understood not as evidence of individual religiosity, but as expressions of collective membership or the comme il faut behavior of the senatorial elite. Unfortunately missing are Christian- identified members of the senatorial elite and their expectations about aristocratic religiosity; dialogue with Rüpke’s and Rebillard’s chapters would have been welcome here.

Spickermann (“‘Initiation’ in the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire”) similarly underlines the public nature of rituals in the cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras. Apart from the Mainz Mithraic krater, Spickermann finds little epigraphic or material evidence of private initiatory ritual. Rather, the communal nature of these acts predominates to the point that it “almost excludes any individual component of the action. Individual action must be interpreted as serving the community” (221). This article contains fascinating material, but it is frustrating to read, as it appears to be a haphazard abridgment of a longer work.

Part 4 (Individuals, Identities, and Religion) returns to individual self-understanding. Jörg Rüpke (“Roles and Individuality in the Chronograph of 354”) approaches the Chronograph of 354 as an individualized compilation that locates its recipient at the intersection of multiple roles. Its exhortation to “flourish with God” evokes senatorial otium cum dignitate, rather than specific confessional affiliation. Its astrological orientation connects human events to “a natural, cosmological order that transcends human history” (262), while its geography and political history focus on Rome at the expense of other imperial capitals. The codex enters into on-going Christian doctrinal controversies, but that is subsumed within a framework that tacitly asserts the compatibility of Christianity and (pagan) Roman tradition for “a Roman senator’s son who was to be interested in distinctions other than those between paganism and Christianity” (262).

Similarly, Rubina Raja (“Bishop Aeneas and the Church of St. Theodore in Gerasa”) analyzes how a fifth-century church and its dedicatory inscription proclaim the multi-faceted identity of its dedicator, Aeneas. The church’s central location, elaborate decoration, and monumental hexameter inscription, complete with Iliadic quotation, announce Aeneas’ wealth, local prominence, and Christian appropriation of Greco-Roman paideia. On Raja’s reading, the inscription simultaneously draws and denies a polemical contrast between Christianity and paganism. It presents the church as a universally welcome improvement, replacing a site polluted by the stench of slaughtered animals (a temple, she assumes) with one marked by beauty and “ambrosial fragrance,” a source of wonder to (all) passersby. Raja reads here a claim to benefit all Gerasenes, pagan and Christian; she does not consider the alternative, that Aeneas’ language implicitly effaces the presence of non-Christians in Gerasa. For Raja, Aeneas’ self-representation bespeaks neither cultural conflict nor assimilation to a single group, but the melding of multiple identities (pagan, Christian, Greco-Roman, Gerasene), as the bishop positions himself at the forefront of all those groups.

Finally, Eric Rebillard (“Late Antique Limits of Christianness: North Africa in the Age of Augustine”) stresses the contingent, ephemeral nature of “groupness.” Instead of treating “Christians,” “Jews,” and “pagans” as stable group actors, he takes “the group-making process as an object of study” (314). Analyzing Augustine’s efforts to activate the Christian identification of his audiences, Rebillard persuasively finds a campaign to replace lateral arrangements of identity with hierarchical. In sermons and letters, Augustine pushes addressees to consider Christian affiliation relevant in situations that they evidently thought fell instead under their roles as citizens, clients, or members of the learned or political elite. As in BeDuhn’s chapter, Augustine’s eccentric Christianity reshapes prevailing local norms. The second half of the chapter argues that clashes commonly regarded as pitting Christians against pagans were not conflicts between clear-cut religious groups or the work of unleashed Christian mobs; many were engineered from above. At times, Augustine succeeded in mobilizing a momentary, localized sense of Christian “groupness,” but we should not assume that in their daily lives North African Christians regularly acted as a self-conscious bloc.

This is a commendable volume. The editors have framed the question of late antique religious identity in a way that moves the discussion forward. Concentrating on the behaviors and self-expressions of individuals offers a more sensitive mechanism for capturing the messy lived experience of ancient religious identity, as well as the creative friction between group and individual self-conceptions. Overall, the quality of the papers is high. As usual, some chapters pertain to the theme more obviously than others, and one could wish for more conversation among chapters. It is difficult to imagine a single reader who will want to read all eleven essays, but individual papers have much to offer, and the person who does read them all will come away with a richer sense of the complex dialogue between individual agency and group-formation.


1.   E.P. Sanders (ed.) Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, 3 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980-83.

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