BMCR 2007.05.19

Religious Identity in Late Antiquity

, , Religious identity in late antiquity. Toronto: Edgar Kent, Inc., Publishers, 2006. 290 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0888666535 $82.50.

Identity has been a hot topic in academic discourse for some years now and Classical Studies is no exception. A wealth of recent studies has looked at different varieties of identity: ethnic, religious, gendered, and the more all-encompassing ‘cultural’. Late Antiquity in particular has seen a wealth of interest in the theme of identity, especially clustering around such identities as ‘pagan’, ‘Christian’ and ‘Jew’ as well as ‘Greek’, ‘Roman’ and ‘barbarian’. Research has done much to show how these identities were never simple ‘facts’ but rather needed to be (variously) artfully constructed, vigorously contested, or even violently erased. This new collection of papers, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, throws a host of different identities into the mix, which, despite the volume’s title, are more than purely religious, and stretch from sub-Roman Britain to Islamic Syria, and from the philosophical schools of the Neoplatonists to the lands of dog-headed cannibals. From the outset it is clear that it would take a strong editorial hand to mould this material into a coherent shape, in order to add a distinctive contribution to an already burgeoning field of publication.

The volume begins with a brief introduction by the editors and is followed by eight papers proper, which are grouped into three thematic sections, each prefaced by a useful ‘synopsis’. There follow both an ‘afterword’ and a conclusion, and finally a set of individual bibliographies, i.e. one for each chapter. The preface tells us, as so often, that the book has its origin in conference papers, though in this case, we are told, the volume derives not from a single event, but rather from a series of North American conferences. As the number of papers is not overly large, I shall briefly comment on each paper in turn before making broader comments on the overall scope and contents of the volume.

The editors’ introduction (Ch. 1: ‘Approaching Late Antique Religious Identity’) is somewhat brief and chooses to provide a swift historiographical overview of ‘Late Antiquity’ rather than treat the subject of religious identity in depth. To this reviewer, this is a rather surprising choice: the editors seem to have missed an opportunity to look over recent scholarship on questions of identity, both in late antiquity, and in comparative perspective, which could have provided a useful status quaestionae for the reader, as well as a framework for the papers which followed. As it stands, the introduction seems rather perfunctory.

The first of the thematic groupings of papers (Part II) is headed ‘Athens and Jerusalem’, alluding to Tertullian’s famous dichotomy. Each of the four papers in this section deals in some sense with the often closely connected worlds of theology and philosophy in the ancient world.

Laura Nasrallah’s paper (Ch. 3: ‘Prophecy, the Periodization of History, and Early Christian Identity: A Case from the So-Called Montanist Controversy’, 13-35) looks at the opposition constructed between history and rationality in the context of the ‘so-called Montanist Controversy’. Nasrallah shows how false dichotomies and dubious narratives have distorted both the original early Christian debate, and its modern historiographical construction. This is one of the most theoretically aware papers of the collection, moving from classic Weberian formulations to radical postcolonial critiques, posing genuinely stimulating questions about the assumptions of patristic scholarship, and its legacy for scholars writing today.1

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser (Ch. 4: ‘Christian or Hellene? The Great Persecution and the Problem of Identity’, 36-57) sets out to offer a new interpretation of the motivations behind Diocletian’s ‘Great Persecution’. The paper looks closely at how the philosopher Porphyry, identified as one of the prime movers of the persecution’s instigation in Nicomedia, saw Christianity as threatening the body politic. Digeser clearly shows how Porphyry presented the Christians as an illegitimate ethnos, and also notes that Porphyry was the first person to use the word ‘Hellene’ in the sense that would later be labelled ‘pagan’. In this way the theme of ‘identity’ is incorporated into a study which covers otherwise familiar ground.

The next paper, that of Olivier Dufault (Ch. 5: ‘Magic and Religion in Augustine and Iamblichus’, 59-83), keeps us within the purview of the Neoplatonists, examining another familiar binary definition, that of ‘magic’ versus ‘religion’. The main point is hardly new: that definitions of magic tended to be constructed on ideological, rather than purely theoretical ground. Nonetheless, Dufault does show, interestingly, that the theories of Augustine and those of Iamblichus were closer together than has generally been assumed.

Cheryl Riggs’ paper (Ch. 6: ‘ Apokatastasis and the Search for Religious Identity in Patristic Salvation History’, 84-102) looks at the philosophical and theological debates regarding the phenomenon of apokatastasis, as well as the broader concept of ’emanationism’ (a term which may well not be familiar to most readers of this book). The issue of ‘identity’ seems to appear only tangentially in this paper, when Riggs argues at its end that it was in an attempt to secure a clear Christian identity in late Antiquity that theologians relegated emanationist ideas to the theological long grass.

In the next section (Part ιιἰ, entitled ‘Identity in a Changing Landscape’ we move from theology to ‘situations in which Romans all found themselves coming to terms with a profoundly changing world’ [p. 10]. This designation seems rather vague, and certainly has to be, in order to encapsulate two papers on very different themes.

Felix Racine (Ch. 8: ‘Geography, Identity and the Legend of Saint Christopher’, 106-125) takes us to the far reaches of the world, following the stories of the St Christopher tradition, stories involving “strange lands and people”, in a way that differs from the classical ethnographic tradition. Racine argues that in these hagiographical texts we can find a blurring of boundaries, even a radical de-othering of the monstrous other, which he puts down to two key factors: the expansion of Christianity outside the border of empire, on the one hand, and the intrusion of the ‘barbarian’ onto ‘Roman’ territory on the other. The new ‘worldview’ Racine identifies on the basis of these texts alone might need more in the way of substantiation for some readers, but the paper is an interesting one, that is germane to the professed themes of the book.

In the second editorial contribution (Ch. 9: ‘The Religious Identity and Purpose of the Compiler of the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum or Lex Dei‘, 126-147) Robert Frakes takes on a very different subject: the religious identity of the compiler of the late antique legal compilation generally known as the ‘Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum’. The greater part of the paper goes over clearly, and in some detail, the history of the scholarly debate regarding whether the compiler was Christian or Jewish. While this may seem to some readers to be a debate with no likely profitable outcome, Frakes does pick a side (for him the compiler was a Christian lawyer, interested in reaching out to ‘pagan’ colleagues’). However, Frakes concludes, with an eye on the book’s title, that ‘that the state of late antique religious identity was still rather fluid at the end of the fourth century’ (p. 147).

The final section of the book, ‘Identity and the Periphery’ (Part ι again takes in two papers, each dealing with periods and/or locations that were once seen as entirely peripheral to the study of even the late Roman world. Both papers are considerably longer than the previous six.

While the orbit of ‘Late Antiquity’ gets ever broader, the appearance of ‘sub-Roman’ Britain in the volume will nonetheless come of something as a surprise for some. In this long paper (Ch. 11: ‘Crisis, Provincial Historiography, and Identity in Sub-Roman Britain’, 150-191) Greg Fisher examines the development of a distinct ‘British’ identity, notably in, Gildo’s De Excidio. Strangely, and unfortunately, his paper maintains several notions about the British Church (such as its “Pelagian” character) which were discredited some time ago.

In the final paper, that of Thomas Sizgorich (Ch. 12: ”The sword scrapes away sin’: Ascetic Praxis and Communal Boundaries in Late Antique Islam’, 192-227), we return convincingly to the theme of the shifting boundaries of religious identity in Late Antiquity. Here the focus is on the role played by asceticism in the construction of Islamic identity. In one of the few papers really to engage explicitly with the book’s theme, Sizgorich demonstrates very clearly the communality of much religious practices in Late Antiquity, even as he shows different religious groups trying to erect boundaries and to assert unique and pure identities. We see late antique Islamic writers concerned with ‘slippage in the very boundaries upon which communal identity depends’ [205], an analysis which could indeed, be profitably applied to several other religious groups in the same period.

After such a diverse collection of papers it is quite a task for H. A. Drake to construct a meaningful synthesis, but in his ‘Afterword: Socrates’ Question’ (Ch. 13, 228-241) he does a highly creditable job in drawing out key themes and connections, and making a number of interesting points of his own, leaving little for the editors’ brief conclusions (Ch. 14, 242-3) to add.

Ultimately this is a book which suffers from the fate that afflicts so many edited collections, in that it does not really convince as a coherent and focused whole. There are a number of interesting papers but the whole is perhaps somewhat less than the sum of its parts. More robust editing might have gone some way towards alleviating this feeling, including a more thematically directed introduction and the creation of a consolidated general bibliography. To end on a positive note, it is clear that there is still more to be said about the subject of religious identities in Late Antiquity, some of which might even be prompted by the somewhat disappointing realisation of this volume.


1. For readers who have read Nasrallash’s 2003 monograph (reviewed at BMCR 2004.10.11), this will already be familiar.