BMCR 2003.02.32

Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age

, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman age. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. x, 165 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 080284913X $16.00 (pb).

In this book Antonía Tripolitis [T.] provides a useful survey introduction to the religions of classical antiquity. The author’s clarity of expression is evident on every page, as she presents the data about classical religions in a lucid, succinct and accessible manner. The book would serve very well as an undergraduate textbook. Of course, differences of opinion about the specific contents which should be included in an introductory volume such as this are inevitable. On the whole, T. has judiciously chosen the material to be covered in this book. At the same time, the book makes a number of assertions that are potentially misleading for students with little or no previous knowledge of the field.

The book is divided into five chapters. An introductory chapter briefly covers the historical background; the mystery cults of Demeter at Eleusis, Dionysus, Isis and Cybele/Magna Mater; and the philosophical schools of Stoicism, Epicureanism and Middle Platonism. This chapter is then followed by one chapter each on Mithraism, Hellenistic Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism.

Of course, the book makes no claim to be comprehensive. Its most obvious omission is the lack of discussion of popular religious beliefs and practices such as magic, miracles, astrology, the use of amulets, and worship which occurred in the home. Including these more mundane aspects of ancient religious life which had a significant place in the lives of ordinary people would have gone some way to balance the primary focus on the teachings of the religions under discussion as well as to counter the notion that there were discrete “religions” (in the modern sense) in antiquity. It is the clarity of the book, if not its breadth of subject matter, which renders it a great improvement over John Ferguson’s The Religions of the Roman Empire,1 which served a generation ago as a standard introductory textbook in the field.

T.’s treatment of the philosophical schools and of particular ancient thinkers is excellent.2 For example, her discussion of Origen provides a valuable overview of his theology, doctrine of the soul, and practice of Biblical interpretation (pp. 106-113) and rightly shows that Origen’s speculative explorations in areas of theology that had not yet been dogmatically defined led to his unjust condemnation in the fifth and sixth centuries (pp. 114-115). Moreover, T. situates Origen in his philosophical context vis-à-vis neoplatonic philosophers such as Ammonius Saccas and Porphyry. Useful summary discussions of the thought of other individuals are also included, such as Numenius of Apamea (pp. 41-44), Albinus (pp. 44-46), Philo of Alexandria (pp. 78-84), Celsus (pp. 99-101), and the early Christian Apologists, especially Justin Martyr (pp. 101-104). The summaries of the thought of noteworthy philosophical and religious figures of antiquity are among the most valuable sections of the entire book; they would serve as excellent entry points for students meeting these thinkers for the first time. The doctrine of the descent and ascent of the soul recurs in several of the ancient philosophers and theologians T. discusses, which is not surprising considering the widespread nature of this doctrine in antiquity as well as the fact that T. has earlier written an important work, The Doctrine of the Soul in the Thought of Plotinus and Origen.3

With regard to T’s discussion of the mystery religions in this book, it is unclear why a separate chapter is devoted to Mithraism when the other mystery religions are discussed in the first chapter and when T. expressly states that “Mithraism was … a mystery religion, in the full sense” (p. 48). Granted that the Mithraic mysteries were in some ways unique, nevertheless they ought properly to be considered in the same category as the mysteries of Eleusis, Dionysus, Isis and Cybele; this categorisation is evident in Walter Burkert’s influential study of the mystery religions, for example.4 As well, it is an over-generalization to say, as T. does, that the mystery religions promised “immortality through deification” (p. 2). Understanding the initiation rites of the mystery cults in terms of “deification” is at best one interpretation of these rites, and not the predominant one among scholars.

There is a contradiction between T.’s claim that in the mystery cults the term “mystery” did not refer to something secret or silent (p. 16) and her assertions that the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries “are among the best kept secrets of history”, that “[t]he requirement of silence imposed upon the initiates was very strictly enforced and maintained” (p. 20) and that at Eleusis disclosure of the sacred objects (i.e. the “dromena” or “things demonstrated”) “would have been severely punished: thus the secret was faithfully maintained” (p. 21). In fact, the “mysteries” of the mystery religions were more or less “open secrets”. In the case of Eleusis, the mysteries were known to the vast numbers of its initiates, while hostile writers revealed the “synthema” (password) of the Eleusinian initiations5 as well as the central dromena of the Eleusinian rite.6 Such revelations did not take away from the widespread appeal of the mysteries, while belief that the “secrecy” of the rites needed to be protected added to the prestige of the mystery cults.7

In her discussion of the cult of Cybele T. describes the famous taurobolium rite (p. 35) in which, it has been believed, the priest of Cybele descended into a covered pit over which a bull was killed; thus the priest was bathed in the bull’s blood. T. recognizes that the main source for our knowledge of this rite is the Peristephanon of the late fourth century Latin poet Prudentius. However, T. fails to mention that Prudentius was a Christian and that his testimony is hostile (as also is the brief reference to the rite in the anonymous Carmen Contra Paganos, also written by a Christian poet of the fourth century8). Aside from that, references to the taurobolium derive from funerary and other inscriptions which do not describe the rite at all. T.’s easy acceptance of Prudentius’ testimony contradicts her earlier statement that “Testimonies about the secret rites [of the mystery religions] come from Christian polemic writings and are not reliable” (p. 20): if that is the case, one must ask why T. considers Prudentius to be reliable in this instance. Considering the horrific nature of the event Prudentius describes (imagine being drenched with the blood of a large bull!), it seems at least worth asking if his (surprisingly long and detailed) description of the taurobolium in Peristephanon 10.1006-1050 deserves the credit that it usually receives from scholars.9 Moreover, T.’s claim (p. 35) that after the taurobolium the initiate made an “affirmation of faith” with the words “I have eaten from the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbal, I have become an initiate of Attis” is not based on evidence: though she does not cite the source from which she is quoting the initiate’s statement it seems closest to the version in Firmicus Maternus, De Errore Profanarum Religionum 18.1, which makes no mention of the taurobolium.10

In the chapter on Mithraism, T. recognizes that there are various scholarly interpretations of Mithraic iconography, in particular the depiction of the killing of the bull (tauroctony) which occupied the central location in the cult’s worship space (the mithraeum). At the same time, it seems that T. leans toward accepting the recent interpretation of the tauroctony (as well as the scene of Mithras’ birth from a rock) in terms of ancient astrology proposed by scholars such as S. Insler, Roger Beck and Richard L. Gordon (p. 51).11 Given the imperial Roman context of Mithraism these astrological interpretations are more persuasive than the earlier view of Franz Cumont, who essentially saw Mithraism as the Roman form of Zoroastrianism.

However, T.’s estimation of the status of Mithraism within ancient Roman society is overblown and misleading. The consecration of an altar12 to Mithras at Carnuntum (a military camp on the northeast frontier of the empire) by the emperors Diocletian, Galerius and Maximian in 308 C.E. did not establish “Mithras as the official god of the Roman state” (pp. 3 and 57). As there is no other corroborating evidence for any “official” status for the worship of Mithras in the fourth century, it is much more plausible to regard this imperial altar dedication as a reflection of the popularity of the worship of Mithras among the Roman military. Moreover, T.’s claim that until Constantine’s triumph in 312 “it appeared as if it [Mithraism] might become the sole state religion” (p. 57) is reminiscent of Ernest Renan’s famous dictum: “si le christianisme eût été arrêté dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eût été mithriaste,”13 a vast exaggeration which has rightly been rejected by scholars.14 Since Mithraism was restricted to male participants and since it appealed primarily to soldiers on the frontiers and petty bureaucrats in Rome,15 it can scarcely be regarded as a “formidable competitor of Christianity” (p. 58) or as a serious contender for advancement as the established religion of the empire.

It is also hard to credit the statement on p. 59 that “each town had its mithraeum with its Pater” (the latter was the highest level of Mithraic initiation and hence the leading figure in the cult). Mithraea were almost exclusively located in and around Rome and on the frontiers of the empire, as one would expect from a religion whose membership consisted primarily of soldiers in the army. Finally, it is unclear why Mithraism should be characterized as the “most syncretistic of all cults and religions” (p. 59) since, as T. affirms elsewhere, syncretism was characteristic of all religions in Graeco-Roman antiquity (pp. 11 and 98).

Chapter 3, on Hellenistic Judaism, is an engaging overview, offering useful brief introductions to wisdom and apocalyptic literature, Philo of Alexandria, and the early development of the synagogue. T. has an enormously high regard for the Septuagint (pp. 66-68); however, in a chapter on “Hellenistic Judaism” it is curious that there is no reference at all to the existence of other ancient Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible in antiquity. Moreover, while she notes the attention that early Christian writers paid to Jewish apocalyptic texts such as 1 Enoch, she gives no indication of the popularity of the Septuagint among the early Christians (which also accounts in no small part for its transmission history). Similarly, in her discussion of Philo she makes no mention of the widespread use of Philo (particularly his exegetical methods) among early Christian writers.

A more significant problem in chapter 3 is T.’s failure to point out that the traditional separation of “Hellenistic” from “Palestinian” Judaism has been increasingly regarded as problematic by recent scholars.16 Indeed, it is far from clear that “the effects of hellenization were more profound in the Diaspora than in Palestine, where the Palestinian Jews vigorously rejected all that Hellenistic culture had to offer” (p. 64). On the one hand, ancient Jews often defined themselves over against “Greeks” (i.e. Gentiles). However, “hellenization” was more than just a (debased) development of classical Greek culture which came to dominate the Mediterranean and near east after Alexander the Great. Rather, as Shaye Cohen has pointed out, after Alexander Hellenistic culture tended to absorb ideas and practices from the cultures with which it came into contact in a process by which “the natives were Hellenized, and the Greeks were ‘Orientalized'”.17 T’s discussion not only omits the mutual influence of Hellenistic and Jewish culture but also perpetuates the quaint notion that Palestinian Judaism was free of Hellenistic influence, a notion which has been undermined by recent archaeological studies of Galilee, for example.18 T. also refers several times (pp. 62, 68, 71) to the “Council of Jamnia in 90 CE” as having pivotal significance in fixing the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in restructuring Judaism following the suppression of the Jewish revolt by the Romans in 70 CE. This is a generalization of the situation of Judaism after 70 CE and ignores the paucity of evidence for the “decisions” of the Council of Jamnia.19 Indeed, according to one recent writer, “on-going debates … on … the hypothesis of the Council of Jamnia … raise the question whether it has not served its usefulness and should be relegated to the limbo of unestablished hypotheses.”20

T.’s presentation of early Christianity is critical as well as sympathetic. She discusses the historical Jesus and his followers, Paul and the spread of Christianity, the social context of the early church, anti-Christian polemics, the Apologists, and the development of Christianity in the second and third centuries. Given the book’s emphasis on religious teachings, the Christianity exemplified in figures such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Origen is appropriately described as “a systematic religious philosophy” (pp. 104-115).

On p. 91 T. writes: “The Romans accused Jesus of sedition for the claim that he was King of the Jews,’ and the Jewish leaders accused him of blasphemy for claiming to be the Messiah.” This reflects an overly literal view of the trial narratives in the New Testament Gospels. Claiming to be the Messiah has never been regarded as blasphemy in the history of Judaism, as is evident from the numerous examples of others who made messianic claims or had such claims made on their behalf, from Jesus to Bar Cochba in the early second century C.E. to Sabbatai Zevi in the seventeenth century and even the Lubavitcher Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the past decade. Moreover, numerous important studies by Biblical scholars have shown the historical implausibility of Jewish involvement in the trial of Jesus as it is portrayed in the Gospel accounts.21 Given the historic connection between antisemitism and the charge of Jewish culpability for the death of Christ it would be far better to offer a more nuanced and historically accurate discussion of Jesus’ trial.

There are a few other problems in T.’s discussion of early Christianity. It is anachronistic and misleading to use the term “Christianity” to refer to the movement of Jesus’ Jewish followers that Paul persecuted in the early decades of the first century (p. 93).22 Paul’s teaching was not that all Christians were free from the Jewish Torah (p. 94) but rather that Gentiles were not obliged to be Torah observant if they came to faith in Christ: his attitude toward his fellow Jews who like him were also followers of Jesus was presumably more traditional. Moreover, Hellenistic Gentile Christianity was not “based on the teachings of Paul” (p. 94): the historical situation was much more fluid, with different types of Gentile Christianities in existence from the outset of the mission to the Gentiles.23

Finally, while the persecution of the Christians under the emperor Decius (249-251) was indeed a “systematic, empire-wide, governmental persecution” (p. 104) that situation did not, as T. claims, continue until the so-called “great persecution” under Diocletian and Galerius in the early fourth century. There were periods during this time when Christians were free of official persecution, though this did not lessen the significance of persecution (or the threat that it might be re-instituted) within the minds of the Christians themselves.

Chapter 5, on Gnosticism, describes the main features of those beliefs that have been characterized as “Gnostic” and sets out the most important Christian and non-Christian Gnostic thinkers and texts. Even in an introductory work such as this more information about the debates regarding the origins of Christian Gnosticism would have been welcome (pp. 120-121). As well, there is no mention of the fact that some have recently questioned the use of the term “Gnosticism” per se.24 Again, T. provides valuable brief discussions of particular thinkers, including Basilides, Marcion, and Valentinus, as well as the Hermetic treatise Poimandres. However, her repeated claim that Gnostic teachers “dominated Christian intellectual life” (pp. 5, 121, 125) is exaggerated.

The problems with the book that I have listed here could easily be addressed in class by the teacher who would be using this book as a course text. They do not detract from my recommendation of this book as an informative and readable introductory textbook on the religions of Greco-Roman antiquity.


1. Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1970.

2. My only quibble is with one comment on p. 37: if at the end of the 1st century B.C.E. and the early 1st century C.E. the ideals of Stoicism “were no longer adequate to satisfy the religious longings of humankind” then why did Stoicism remain “the most popular and influential philosophical system … to the early 2nd century C.E.”?

3. Roslyn Heights, NY: Libra, 1978.

4. See Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

5. Clement of Alexandria, Protreptikos 2.21.2: “I have fasted, I have drunk the cup; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest.” This revelation was repeated by Arnobius of Sicca, Adversus Nationes 5.26.

6. A Gnostic source (“the Naassene”) cited in Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Haeresium 5.8.39: “an ear of corn in silence reaped.”

7. Burkert, Cults, p. 9.

8. Ed. T. Mommsen, Hermes 4 (1870), 350-363; English translation in Brian Croke and Jill Harries, ed. Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome: A Documentary Study (Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1982), pp. 80-83.

9. Burkert’s recognition that emerging from the taurobolium “would hardly have seemed a blessed state” (Cults, p. 98) is an understatement.

10. Cf. the statements of the initiate of Attis “revealed” in Clement, Protreptikos 2.15.3 and Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica 2.3.18, which differ from the version given by Firmicus Maternus.

11. Roger Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, ed. Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, 2.17.4 (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), 2081-2083.

12. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 3, 4413; H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 659; M.J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae 1698.

13. Marc Aurèle et la fin du monde antique (Paris, 1882), p. 579.

14. Beck, “Mithraism since Cumont,” p. 2095; Burkert, Cults, p. 3.

15. On the social makeup of the Mithraic mysteries see Richard L. Gordon, “Mithraism and Roman Society,” Religion 2 (1972), 92-121, repr. Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996); Manfred Clauss, Cultores Mithrae. Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1992.

16. See Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, trans. John Bowden, vol.1 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), pp. 104-105.

17. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), p. 36.

18. See Sean Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E.: A Study of Second Temple Judaism (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); Richard A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1995); Richard A. Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: the Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996); James F. Strange, “First Century Galilee from Archaeology and from the Texts,” Archaeology and the Galilee: Texts and Contexts in the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods, ed. D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), pp. 39-48.

19. See Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Significance of Yavneh: Pharisees, Rabbis and the End of Jewish Sectarianism,” Hebrew Union College Annual 55 (1984), 27-53.

20. Jack P. Lewis, “Jamnia (Jabneh), Council of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, p. 637.

21. Among the more important studies of the trial of Jesus are: Ernst Bammel, ed. The Trial of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1970); Edwin Keith Broadhead, Prophet, Son, Messiah: Narrative Form and Function in Mark 14-16 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994); Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1994); John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); John R. Donahue, Are You the Christ?: The Trial Narrative in the Gospel of Mark (Missoula, Montana: SBL, 1973); Joel B. Green, The Death of Jesus (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1988); Werner Kelber, The Passion in Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976); Gerard Sloyan, Jesus on Trial (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973); Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1961).

22. The argument is made forcefully by John Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: University Press, 2000), pp. viii , 23-25; see also Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 23-29.

23. Raymond E. Brown, “Introduction,” in Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity (New York: Paulist, 1983), pp. 1-9.

24. Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: University Press, 1996).