Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.07

David Frankfurter, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity. Martin Classical Lectures.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2018.  Pp. xix, 314; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780691176970.  $39.95.  


Reviewed by Michael Beshay, The Ohio State University (beshay.2@osu.edu)

Preview

Since the publication of Religion in Roman Egypt (Princeton University Press, 1998), David Frankfurter has produced an impressive body of scholarship oriented around the challenge of characterizing Egypt’s transition from a pagan society centered on its temples to a Christian landscape of churches, monasteries, saints’ shrines, and a variety of Christian actors. His latest book, Christianizing Egypt, is in many ways the culmination of these decades of study of Roman Egypt at the local and regional levels, as Frankfurter acknowledges (xiii); yet it also represents a significant step further, which readers of his past work will be delighted to find. Much like his 1998 book, Christianizing Egypt is not a comprehensive survey, but rather a series of interconnected studies of particular aspects—in this case, “discrete religious worlds or ‘social sites’” (xiv)—of late antique Egyptian society and culture, each applying important insights from anthropological and sociological models to the analysis of ancient artifacts; but whereas the former stressed the continuity of Egyptian religious tradition among Christians and their institutions over the course of the Roman period, the present volume seeks to clarify the process by which certain forms of religious expression in Egypt became Christian up to the seventh century. How, and to what extent, does an ancient culture such as Roman Egypt render an object, text, place, or practice as “Christian”?

Thus, the goal of Frankfurter’s project is to explore Christianization in Egypt by questioning the very nature of religious transformation, with the express hope of providing a model for the study of other periods and places in history (xv). At the core of this undertaking is Frankfurter’s rehabilitation of the term “syncretism,” discussed in chapter one. Far from its much-criticized use in classifying religions as mere combinations of pure traditions—a view implied by related notions like “conversion” and “pagan survivals”—Frankfurter focuses on the process by which indigenous symbols, discourses, and practices are assembled into novel religious idioms. Frankfurter’s version of religious “syncretism” concerns the interworking of agency (of people, materials, and environment), gesture (equivalent to Mauss and Bourdieu’s habitus), and landscape (the local context and medium through which agency and gestures are translated) (20–24). Of the three, agency, which permits “a range of degrees of deliberate or self-conscious action,” carries the most weight for Frankfurter’s theoretical reconstitution of “syncretism” (21); and while the present reviewer is convinced of his success in this regard, readers will most likely judge the value of Frankfurter’s model based on his conceptualization of agency over its two siblings, gesture and landscape.

In terms of evidence, Frankfurter prioritizes archaeological and documentary materials—such as votives, textiles, papyri, and architecture—discerning instances of Christianization embodied in monumental structures such as temples, all the way down to everyday items such as lamps and bread stamps. The rich collection of materials surveyed in this book, in combination with literary sources and apart, alone provides a satisfying journey through the Egyptian landscape, shedding light on the coordination of people and objects moving between homes, workshops, and holy sites. As for Christianization, Frankfurter is particularly interested in cases where “seemingly archaic religious elements appear in Christian form,” much like the seventh-century Coptic spell invoking “Jesus Horus” that opens chapter one (1–2). These objects are viewed as repositories of the multidirectional flows of agency that make up Christianization.

The picture of Christian Egypt that emerges from Frankfurter’s analysis is a network of people, places, and materials linked through channels of agency—a vibrant tapestry of interlocking threads seized in motion. A woman who seeks a cure for her ailing child at a martyr’s shrine is herself shaping perceptions of efficacy attached to this environment and the material blessings it produces, no less than the holy man or cleric who fashions an amulet or consecrates an ampule of oil. The concerns she harbors brings to bear the domestic sphere on the martyr’s sanctuary, while the votive she purchases translates the agencies of the cult site and the workshop into her dwelling. Thus, Christianization unfolds as a dynamic process combining interconnected streams of cultural expectations, both familiar and new, rendering objects, texts, gestures, and places as Christian—or better perhaps, “as Christian as any premodern culture could be” (5).

Each chapter that follows examines a different social site as part of this broader network. Chapter two explores the domestic sphere, expressed chiefly through the activities and concerns of women. These include fertility, family relations, health, safety, good fortune, and the veneration of ancestors. For Frankfurter, the domestic sphere encompasses much more than the physical house; rather than isolating its occupants, the home creates a nexus point of relationships extended across households and between villages, linked through participation in regional activities like festivals. As members of the household traverse the landscape in pursuit of material blessings, they function as creative agents shaped by domestic concerns, thus generating a productive tension between private and institutionalized Christianity. In this way, the facility of the family, and women especially, to manage domestic problems by traditional means—for example, lamp- lighting or apotropaic charms—frames the parameters within which Christian efficacy is constructed.

Chapter three shifts focus from the petitioner to those petitioned—to the agency of the local “holy man” of late antique Egypt. According to Frankfurter, this figure should be understood as a type of “regional prophet,” situated at the intersection between traditional and modernizing perceptions of efficacy with regards to the spirits, places, and materials they manage. As the ritual specialist who offers protection, assistance, and divinatory support, the “holy man” adapts new forms of Christian power and holiness to familiar materials and gestures. The “holy man” is a syncretistic agent, above all, in his capacity to interpret ancient customs according to new religious standards, better understood as reordering native concepts rather than replacing them.

In chapter four, Frankfurter examines such acts of local and regional integration as they coalesce around the saint’s shrine. At this social site, the physical environment meets with various gestural components of Egyptian devotional life—including pilgrimages, processions, feasting, and dancing—furnishing the backdrop against which the creative agency of the Christian “holy man” can be discerned. Frankfurter emphasizes the inherent materiality of such devotional acts, and the architectural agency of spaces, that make shrines not only important loci of Christian myth, literature, and communal identity, but also redistributors of the sacred qualities associated with such institutional functions through customary mediums like votives, oracle tickets, and consecrated oils.

The next two chapters continue with the theme of materialized expressions of religious innovation by focusing on workshops and scribes. In chapter five, Frankfurter examines workshops as crucibles of “material Christianity,” where craftsmen construct iconographic scenes, weave textiles, paint portraits, whittle figurines, and carve stelae. These craftsmen practice a “magic of craft”—that is, the construction of potent objects with traditionally efficacious designs. Such motifs convey ritual, social, and economic power, given the workshops entanglement in a web of various social sites and their functions. Craftsmen thus synthesize archaic elements with new Christian idioms, generating amalgamated works through acts of creative redeployment.

Much the same applies to the work of scribes in late antique Egypt, the subjects of chapter six. Frankfurter analyzes a broad range of literate figures, from institutional types such as the monastic scribe, to peripheral figures such as the freelance expert. As craftsmen in their own right, scribes are treated as syncretistic agents of the written word, with due consideration for the material efficacy of writing and the documents scribes produce. Such works include literary and liturgical texts, divinations, incantations, and songs. Frankfurter accounts for traditional efficacies intrinsic to the act of writing in Egypt as well as the elevation of scribes and their medium through their elaboration of Christian genres, as demonstrated in the ways Egyptian afterlife traditions (of Amente) are deployed in Christian apocalyptic visions.

The final chapter provides a sweeping overview of the Egyptian landscape—a living environment of spirits, ghosts, and hotspots of efficacy—as the setting for the social sites explored thus far and beyond. Frankfurter spends considerable space theorizing the responses of Christians to Egyptian temples, preferring an approach comprising a set of purposeful reactions that helped shape Christianity (as opposed to generalized theories of Christian violence towards pagan sanctuaries). The natural landscape also receives attention, as Frankfurter discerns the impress of the Nile’s rhythms on the liturgical and processional life of Christians; these ceremonial activities, marching through time and space, (re)construct the very landscape and its structures as Christian.

Frankfurter has produced a sophisticated and thought-provoking study of Christianization in Egypt that offers as much to the scholar of religion as it does the historian of ancient Christianity. A book like this, brimming with illuminating insights and a wide assortment of sources, will no doubt provoke further questions. For example, given the largely synchronous nature of Frankfurter’s analysis, one is left pondering the methods by which craftsmen develop their facility with archaic motifs, or how a temple’s various administrative uses may have altered perceptions of it over time—questions to which admittedly there may be no clear answers. One might also interrogate the roles that social and political dynamics among Christians play in the syncretistic process vis-à-vis the Egyptian landscape, both within Egypt and beyond. How do historical interactions between Christians—for example, delegitimization and censorship among political rivals—shape and reshape “native” Egyptian religion and alter processes of Christianization? At what point does the reordering of indigenous concepts, especially by people with translocal affiliations, produce things “native” or “Christian” no longer intelligible to their erstwhile mediators?

These are by no means criticisms of the book; on the contrary, the potential of this book to invite further questions in light of its nuanced arguments and ample evidence earns its place as a standard in future studies of Christianization in Egypt and religious transformation writ large.

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