Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.34

Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. xi, 626.  ISBN 9780198724148.  $155.00.  

Reviewed by Alicia J. Batten, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo (


This book combines an examination of the Greek and Latin terms for faith — pistis and fides — in a wide range of Graeco-Roman contexts with a careful study of faith language in the New Testament. Teresa Morgan, Professor of Graeco-Roman History in the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University and a priest in the Church of England, is well versed in the long-standing debates among New Testament scholars regarding how best to interpret pistis in the New Testament. Because her book so richly and thoroughly explores the notion of faith in Greek and Roman settings, Morgan is able to offer a new approach to how people might interpret the term and its cognates when they encounter them in New Testament texts. Morgan argues that one can better understand the evolution of Christian faith if one appreciates how it emerged from specific contexts, and that rather than focusing upon faith as a set of beliefs or something abstract at work in the heart and mind, pistis/fides means trust and is fundamentally about a relationship that creates community.

The clear and thorough introduction sets forth the methodology and main arguments of the book. Morgan opens with the question of why faith became so important to early Christians. In order to answer this question, Morgan stresses that one must explore notions of faith within the environments from which Christianity emerged. Comparable to much of the current work done in biblical studies and early Christianity, Morgan insists that the New Testament writers are both products of and contributors to their social and cultural contexts. She adopts what she terms a “basic principle” of cultural historiography, which is that new groups do not automatically give radically different meanings to words and phrases that they adopt from the world around them (p. 4). Thus her method is interdisciplinary, a l’histoire des mentalités , that engages Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian sources. She includes both close readings of texts in all of their specificity while at the same time tracing patterns of thought and action that emerge through careful comparison of these texts.

As many biblical scholars emphasize, readers of the New Testament must be careful not to impose later understandings of faith onto first- and second-century texts. Thus Augustine’s influential notion that faith could be understood as either fides quae — which refers to the propositional content of faith — or fides qua — that is, faith at work in the heart and mind of the believer — would not be appropriate to presume when interpreting New Testament documents. Morgan reiterates that whether one works with pistis, fides, or their cognates, faith is relational. She therefore ends the introduction by asking a series of questions about what sorts of relationships and communities are formed by faith, on what are they based, when are they strong or weak, how are they reinforced, and to what ends.

Chapters 2 through 4 explore faith in the world of the early principate with regard to domestic and personal relations, state structures, and religious contexts respectively. Here, Morgan attempts to get at the overall mentalité of the context in which Christianity emerged. One of her central observations is that faith is never perceived in a purely instrumental manner in this period. Faith is a good — albeit a fragile one — in and of itself. She surveys a broad swath of sources, including literary and philosophical texts as well as legal documents in which faith may be understood more technically. Faith, again understood primarily as trust, is a virtue for the Greeks and Romans, and while this sort of faith was perceived to be basic to family, friendships and more broadly to society as a whole, it could be doubted, especially in friendships and political configurations. Morgan documents how faith was reified through legislation, oaths, cults of Fides, and other types of credit arrangements that would strengthen relationships of trust between people by guaranteeing this trust in a form that was independent of particular persons. When it came to religiosity, Morgan argues that the Greeks and Romans viewed the gods as trustworthy, for if they were not, no one would be, and society would crumble. Pistis/fides is foundational because it furnishes humans with the confidence that they can form relationships, take risks, and uphold loyalties and other moral goods. Therefore, she states, this virtue must also be present in their relationships with the gods, despite the fact that it is not the central core of Greek and Roman religiosity, at least not to the extent that it came to be in the early Church. Although Morgan does not concur with earlier hypotheses that people turned to various cults, including the Christian one, because they had lost confidence in traditional Greek and Roman religions, she does demonstrate successfully the degree to which pistis/fides was under tremendous pressure in the late Hellenistic kingdoms, late Roman republic, and early principate. There was a high premium on pistis/fides in these contexts, and where it functioned most effectively was in situations characterized by ritual and cultic activity. In other words, when divine/human pistis/fides was emphasized, human to human pistis/fides thrived. According to Morgan, such a context created opportunities that early proclaimers of the gospel could exploit. Thus, in these chapters Morgan has not only enriched our understanding of pistis/fides in Greco-Roman society and religion, she has contributed substantially to the ongoing discussion of why the Christ cult not only survived, but grew.

Before turning to Christian contexts Morgan devotes a chapter to pistis in the Septuagint. She claims that pistis is not central to these writings, but remains significant as a basis for relationships between people and is an important aspect of the deity’s commitment to humanity. Some stories between the divine and the human, such as those of Abraham and Job, reveal that trust is not taken for granted in this relationship, but may be in question, or at a formative stage. The divine being remains trustworthy but is more distant than in ages past, and is not trusted because children are born safely or enemies defeated, but because the deity is the creator and regulator of the cosmos. The chapter points out that the individual must trust this deity despite the fact that all will not go well for that particular human and his or her community. This is a shift in the understanding of pistis, claims Morgan, for while it still entails trust and confidence, it also involves “risk, doubt, and negotiation” (p. 210).

Chapters 6 through 10 then focus on early Christian notions of pistis. Morgan begins with First Thessalonians and the Corinthian correspondence, then turns to the rest of Paul, all non-Pauline letters (including the Deutero-Paulines), Synoptics and Acts, and finally, a chapter on the Johannine writings that includes a brief discussion of the book of Revelation. Morgan argues that in the New Testament, pistis remains a relational term denoting trust, but in some of the texts it reflects a degree of evolution, referring sometimes to the specific relationship between humanity and the deity, the community that is created by that relationship, and even the new covenant. But to argue that pistis now signals “the faith” would be anachronistic. Indeed, Morgan grants that a propositional notion of pistis emerges in some writings, but as she states near the end of the book, this notion of faith as propositional belief develops out of debates between Christians, or between Christians and non-Christians. As an example she points to the Letter of James, which many scholars think is in tension with some of Paul’s ideas, or with later interpretations of Paul’s ideas, and which harshly criticizes propositional faith that is not accompanied by works. Morgan also wades into the longstanding debate about how to understand Paul’s references to pistis Christou (for example, Galatians 2:16). Is it an objective genitive, and better translated as “faith(fulness) in Christ,” or a subjective genitive and therefore a reference to “Christ’s faith(fulness)”? Morgan opts for a middle position here when she argues that pistis, being a relational term, can also include a propositional belief. She thinks that Paul employs this language to demonstrate that Christ stands in the centre of the relationship between humans and the deity. Christ is faithful to this deity, and also to humanity, just as the deity and humanity trust Christ. Morgan compares Christ to a Roman mediator (one could argue, as some New Testament scholars have, that Christ is a broker here). Christ’s middle position enables him to restore humanity to a righteous relationship with God.

In the final chapters, Morgan asks to what extent interiority is a dimension of pistis, and addresses its role in human communities. Although there is an emotional dimension to faith in most of the ancient materials that Morgan studies, these same materials are not interested in the interiority of pistis in and of itself. Whenever faith is at work, she argues, interiority is never separate from relationality and action. In other words, “pistis/fides (along with justice, mercy and a few others) is one of those qualities that can only be practised socially …” (p. 472). Thus it makes sense, Morgan states in the penultimate chapter, that pistis/fides is foundational to communities, including the earthly and divine kingdoms. Morgan’s last chapter concisely summarizes her findings.

Why then, did pistis become so important to the writers of the New Testament? Morgan posits that perhaps a Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent of pistis goes back to Jesus himself or at least to disputes among his followers soon after his death. But she admits that such possibilities remain hypothetical. What she does assert, however, is that for Greek- speaking Christ groups, pistis was such a rich and adaptable idea that it enabled them to develop their thinking about the deity, about Christ, and about humanity’s relationship to both. The language of trust and relationship became central to articulating how communities of Christ followers thought, felt, and behaved.

This is wonderful and refreshing book that offers insights for classicists, New Testament scholars, and those who, like Morgan, bridge both fields. Although New Testament scholars have pursued a “contextual” approach to studying the New Testament for some time, to my knowledge no one has explored the notion of pistis/fides in such a thorough manner, and with such careful attention to how the notion of faith or trust emerges from specific social contexts, and adapts and changes over time. Although Morgan has not engaged cultural anthropology consistently throughout the book, she has developed a model of pistis/fides, then carefully probed how the model shifts as groups face challenges or adapt to new environments. The volume will undoubtedly become required reading for anyone interested in the pistis Christou debate, regardless of whether they agree with Morgan. There are always more materials that the study might have tackled, but at over 500 pages, it is sufficiently thorough. Finally, the writing is engaging, the bibliography extensive, and the arguments clear. I highly recommend it.

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