Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.34

Jan N. Bremmer, Maidens, Magic and Martyrs in Early Christianity: Collected Essays I. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 379.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 501.  ISBN 9783161544507.  €169,00.  

Reviewed by Daniel J. Crosby, Bryn Mawr College (


The collected essays of Jan Bremmer are slated to be republished in three volumes, organized topically: Early Christianity, Greco-Roman mythology and religion, and third-century interactions of Christianity and Judaism with the Greco-Roman world. This volume, the first of the set, is composed of twenty-seven articles and chapters dating from 1989 to 2016, grouped into four sections. These papers are accompanied by a congenial preface, in which the author reflects upon his previous work as well as his life, scholarly formation, and influences. A blended, general index and index locorum round off the volume, but there is notably no bibliography either for the individual chapters or for the volume as a whole.

The first section of essays (“Aspects of Early Christianity”) is the broadest thematically. One partly unifying theme is Bremmer’s investigation of what attracted people generally, and women specifically, to Christianity, which he describes with the economic metaphor of “religious capital” (Chapter 2). Bremmer also offers some correctives regarding the traditionally neglected importance and prominence of women in the early rise of Christianity that are useful still today. His look at Lucian’s Death of Peregrinus and the author’s knowledge of Christianity (Chapter 5) constructs a view of Christianity from the perspective of a contemporary outsider.

A glance at a few titles found in Section Two (“Studies in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and Pseudo-Clementines,”) indicates Bremmer’s major concerns there: “Man, Magic, Martyrdom in the Acts of Andrew”; “Aspects of the Acts of Peter: Women, Magic, Place, and Date”; “The Acts of Thomas: Place, Date and Women”; “The Apocryphal Acts: Authors, Place, Time and Readership”; “Pseudo-Clementines: Texts, Dates, Places, Authors and Magic.” His primary interest is in gaining some perspective on the phenomenon of magic in the ancient world and the types of roles that women could play in Early Christianity, and the attendant discussions of time and place of these texts make his findings into useful pieces that can be arranged to fit into his picture of the ancient world. Throughout these chapters, Bremmer convincingly argues for the existence of an intended female readership, based on the prominence of the female characters, and consequently appreciates a potential “‘missionary’ effect” of these texts (e.g., 231).

The following section (“Apocalypses and Tours of Hell”) contains a number of attempts to chart out the specific textual, ideological, and religious influences on the Apocalyptic tours of heaven and hell again with special attention again to the time and places of authorship. Here, Bremmer argues essentially that there is a verbal, formal, and thematic thread that can be traced from these texts to their generic and ideological predecessors. The picture that comes together from these papers is a fairly tidy one (perhaps too much so) of the interweaving of earlier Orphic/Pythagorean tradition of descents with a Jewish tradition (represented by Enochic literature), which is then borrowed and adapted within a Christian tradition.

In the final section of essays (“The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas”), Bremmer is mostly exercised by the interpretation of the dreams of Perpetua and Saturus in the Passio Perpetuae, and that of Marian in the Passio Mariani et Iacobi. His mode is thoroughly historicist, using comparanda from roughly contemporary sources as a lens to illuminate the contemporary cultural symbolism. Collectively, these chapters represent a worthy and impassioned response to the more prevalent feminist and psychoanalytic interpretations (see especially 364–6). The other chapters include an excellent study of Felicitas, which is particularly welcome given the fact that her life has generally been passed over in favor of her more prominent co-martyr, and a commentary on several specific passages in the Passio Perpetuae.

Revisiting and republishing old papers must be a terribly difficult task for any author, particularly when it happens that the author no longer shares the opinion that he or she originally promoted. “It is, of course, impossible to completely redo one’s own research…,” Bremmer laments, “[y]et I did not want to reprint views that I no longer advocate” (XII). In the end, Bremmer has chosen to correct his original text selectively: “In some cases I have even completely rewritten the original text…”; “[i]n other cases I have simply updated the bibliography, made small corrections, removed overlaps where possible, reorganized a few sections and added more evidence” (XII). The statement is an accurate description of Bremmer’s editorial process, but it is unfortunate for the reader that Bremmer does not mark any of these changes outside of a few general indications in the preface. Happily, the final pages (469–470) carry the vital bibliographic information for the original appearances of these papers.

The most significant development in Bremmer’s thought relates to the dates and places of authorship of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (AAA), most significantly the Acts of John(AJ). In his earlier contribution, Bremmer argued that it was a second-century Egyptian text. Here (Chapter 7), Bremmer is much more confident in placing the AJ in the 160s chiefly on the strength of the appearance of the name Verus, which he thinks refers to the co-emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161–169 CE). Further, the “utmost rarity” of the name Drusiana in extant evidence and its coincidence in the AJ and a Nicomedian tombstone “suggest[s] that the author… took [the name] from a local honorific or funerary inscription for this Drusiana” (113). He subsequently argues for the “almost certain” (114) Nicomedian origin of the author, pointing toward other possible examples of onomastic inspiration from inscriptions for the Acts of Peter and the Acts of Paul (see 145 and 160–161, where Bremmer is equally sure: “the author will have read her [Falconilla’s] name on a local honorific inscription…”). Bremmer may be correct in his surmise, but much depends on the inscription in question being at home in the mid-second rather than the late-second or even third century CE (131, n. 72). In any case, such near-certainty seems to me misplaced, especially considering the author’s almost defensive tone both across the page and elsewhere (e.g., “The location may surprise…” [114]; “… this specific location may look like no more than speculation…” [145]). As a consequence, the Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Peter now gravitate toward Nicomedia as well, and many of the subsections on date and places for the AAA are updated accordingly.

Bremmer seeks to create some impression of unified composition. Among the minor emendations are introductory words and phrases, allusions, and helpful, though sporadic, cross-references that link the chapters to each other. A number of themes, arguments, and sources recur in this volume which are generally consistent with each other. I have only noticed one issue in which the ideas that Bremmer expresses do not quite square. Early in the volume, he claims that the martyr Perpetua “seems to have read or heard of” the Acts of Paul, and in the subsequent sentences, that “she will have read the APt [Acts of Peter] in the original Greek” (139–40. cf. 154–5, 230, 357–8, 375). Later, Bremmer, quoting Walter Ameling, pronounces that there is “no positive evidence to prove that Perpetua herself read many of the books that were to be incorporated into the Latin New Testament—let alone that she read them in Greek” (428).1 The quotation is presented without objection in text or in footnote and it passes as evidence into his argument. The claim for Perpetua’s knowledge of Greek deserves to be examined with greater clarity and nuance—one important distinction is that between reading and speaking/listening ability (Coepit Perpetua Graece cum illis loqui. Passio 13.4)—because it affects how we understand the education of women and their engagement with literature in North Africa at that time. A more direct treatment or at least a more consistent acknowledgement of Ameling’s strong challenge to the theory of Perpetua’s knowledge of Greek (only referenced on this issue once at 358, n. 53) would have helped clarify matters.

Generally, Bremmer’s updates foster greater clarity. The reader frequently encounters many references to more recent studies and evidence, in support of the author’s arguments, in his extensive footnotes. Occasionally, though, the reader may encounter new “piles” of bibliographic data that obscure recent scholarship more than elucidate it.2 For example, in his discussion of our knowledge of Orphism, Bremmer says, “These new discoveries enable us to speak about Orphism with much more certainty than previous generations of scholars” (278). The footnote following this statement contains a suitable register of prominent Orphic mystagogues. But to the uninitiated, Radcliffe Edmonds’s work, Redefining Ancient Orphism, could wrongly be taken to endorse Bremmer’s view of Orphism both here and throughout. The praeteritio here is also striking because Bremmer does not on principle shy away from responding directly to objections in his updated and edited text (see the direct responses to Judith Lieu on page 21 and Charlotte Touati on page 300). So we are left to wonder why he has chosen to engage more deeply with current scholarship there and not here. He seems to be trying to bring attention to the work of other scholars in the field and providing avenues of research for his readers. His notes are fulfilling two different roles—they can be a place to indicate his engagement (support or opposition) with authorities and to list recommended readings—but it is left to the reader to divine which is which in each particular case.

In this volume, Bremmer has assembled the products of a long and successful career in the study of the ancient world. It is these updated versions of his papers that the author wants to stand as his views. The issues stemming from his updates aside, my main critique is the extent to which Bremmer is willing to press rather slim evidence into assertions of nearly certain fact. He has, however, offered his particular view of the ancient world, impressively rigorous in its use of both primary and secondary sources and admirably well-organized in its content. The greatest merit of this volume is the author’s ability to identify questions for investigation that are not being studied and his juxtaposition of sources (e.g., Christian texts and the Greek Magical Papyri) that are even now only rarely brought into conversation with each other. In this way, Bremmer has undertaken the great and laudable effort of mending the old divide between Classics and Early Christian Studies. I conclude with his own inspiring formulation: “Christian literature has for too long been neglected by classicists and ancient historians, due to the unfortunate opinions of leading lights in England and, especially, in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. Our observations have indicated that there is still much to be done. One century later, it is time to make a new beginning” (386).


1.   Walter Ameling, “Femina Liberaliter Instituta,” in Bremmer and Formisano ed., Perpetua’s Passions (Oxford, 2012), 98.
2.   I find Steve Nimis’ perspective on footnotes insightful. Nimis, “Fussnoten: Das Fundament der Wissenschaft” Arethusa 17 (1984), 105–34.

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