BMCR 2011.01.31

Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 12

, , Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 12. Leuven: Peeters, 2010. 225. ISBN 9789042922426 €48.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

One god, many gods, or one god among many? This question can be framed as one of how and who to worship, or as one of what to believe; the language available for discussing it largely consists in an artillery of terms originally coined in polemical or apologetic contexts, such as the seventeenth century ‘monotheism’ of a Cambridge Platonist or the nineteenth century ‘henotheism’ of idealist philosophy.1 The debate has acquired political relevance in the modern West in struggles between the monotheistic religions, and in the quest of modernity for self-definition against pagan antiquity.2

In recent years, discussion about how much pagans and Christians really differed from one another in matters of monotheism received great impetus from the appearance of P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede (eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1999). This collection of essays emphasised the harmony between Christian and pagan understandings of deity; however, it was criticised for an overly philosophical selection of sources and approach, and for not defining the keyterm ‘monotheism’ sufficiently clearly.3 From 2004 to 2007, Stephen Mitchell led an AHRC-funded research project on pagan monotheism which sought to address these issues more effectively. In July 2006, he and Peter van Nuffelen, the postdoctoral researcher on the project, organised a conference at Exeter on ‘Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (1 st —4 th cent. A.D.)’, at which conceptual questions were discussed and a broader range of sources were drawn into the debate about the religious and intellectual background of pagan, Jewish and Christian monotheism. Two collections of essays have resulted from that conference, both edited by Mitchell and van Nuffelen, both published in 2010, and bearing titles that resonate closely with each other. The book under review here is one of the two; the other is One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (Cambridge).

These two collections are intended to complement each other. They stake out slightly different territory. One God focuses on the first three centuries A.D.; Monotheism on the fourth and fifth, the period after the Constantinian ‘revolution’. One God includes extensive discussion of conceptual issues about monotheism; Monotheism collects focused case-studies. One God emphasises cultic and other non-philosophical discourse; Monotheism engages in the discussion of the relationship between Christianity and paganism in the discourses of the intellectual elite. The books thus differ from each other in scope. However, one cannot help feeling that they also differ in the grandeur of their conception and in the quality of execution of their designs. Not only is One God published in hardback but Monotheism in paperback, but more generally the overall standard and lucidity of the contributions to One God exceeds that of Monotheism. In addition, the fact the theoretical framework and terminology of the debate about monotheism are discussed in detail only in One God leaves Monotheism a little limp if taken on its own, although a good introduction by Mitchell and van Nuffelen does mitigate the problem. As a companion volume to One God it has a useful contribution to make, but it is a less major work in its own right.

The introductory chapter by Mitchell and van Nuffelen sets out the main issues involved in studying the debate between pagans and Christians concerning monotheism in the fourth to fifth century context. They underscore the impact of Constantine’s public conversion and the significance of polemical discourse in the new set of power relations in the imperial regime. They emphasise the importance of social history and of practices of worship, not just of belief. Finally, they draw attention to the diversity of pagan ways of conceiving the divine.

Nine chapters then address specific texts and issues in more detail. Cerutti draws especially on philosophical texts (but also Orphic and magical ones) in order to differentiate between hierarchical and syncretistic forms of pagan monotheism, and explores the role of ontology in distinguishing hierarchical models.

Sfameni Gasparro discusses Lucian, Justin Martyr and a range of other Christian apologists and their opponents, especially Celsus. Christianity, she argues, tends to theological exclusivity underpinned by trinitarianism on the one hand, but social inclusivity through participation in rituals on the other. Pagan theologies, by contrast, tend to be philosophically inclusive in their adaptations to existing religious traditions, but socially exclusive because they are above all philosophically oriented.

Selter chooses a particularly interesting and unusual text corpus: he focuses on verse inscriptions drawn from the Carmina Latina Epigraphica. He highlights expectations of astral immortality cherished by philosophical Romans and Christians alike, pointing out the irony that this originally pagan conception of afterlife came to be regarded by Christians as their exclusive privilege.

Herrero de Jáuregui compares the genres of hymn and theogony in Orphic literature as ways of developing monotheism within polytheistic frameworks. The polyonomy of hymns structures a syncretistic form of monotheising polytheism, the birth narratives of theogony a hierarchical one. The generic adaptability of these literary forms to diverse systems of monotheism made them very influential.

Sandwell studies the pagan orators, Themistius and Libanius, underscoring how pagan conceptions of deity had the flexibility for varying degrees of accommodation to Christian monotheism, as demanded by diverse rhetorical occasions.

Siniossoglou draws on neoplatonic philosophers and imperial rhetors to highlight the tension between monotheistic philosophical religion and traditional, polytheistic ritual religion. He suggests that Julian and others tried to reconcile the two by assigning each nation to a god who was finally subordinate to a highest God, but the inclusivity of pagan polytheism rendered it weak in debate with Christian polemical affirmation of one true God alone.

Addey analyses Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles and its reception by Augustine in De Civitate Dei. She argues that Augustine discredits Porphyry by glossing his henotheism as monotheism and then pitting it against polytheism in a polarised, bipartite comparison. Augustine regards Porphyry as insincere in his attempt to reconcile his religious tradition with his philosophy; the saint thinks the true philosopher would abandon his traditional cult.

Kahlos too discusses Augustine amongst other examples of debates in Latin literature of the period which use polarising rhetoric to differentiate divine beings, but which focus on the question of who should be worshipped.

Clark handles a further aspect of Augustine, namely his critique of Varro, the great scholarly, republican authority on Roman religion, much used by Augustine in De Civitate Dei. She shows that Augustine’s perception of paganism is that the truth is held by a few philosophers and the masses worship demons, but he sees Christianity as providing a way for a wider group of people to combine true philosophy and right worship.

Monotheism among Pagans and Christians offers a helpful set of case studies in which important questions about conceptions of the divine are raised. The contributions do vary in lucidity; read together, they share some themes, observations and conclusions, but one misses an orderly argument or structure in the book as a whole. However, the essays are collectively effective in challenging the Christian master narrative about the nature of the divine. They do this by drawing attention to how the philosophical exclusivity of the Christian discourse was wedded to polemical rhetoric and political power. The book shows the importance of this period in the history of conceptions of the divine. The range of kinds of text it deals with increases its value. It is no substitute for a grand narrative about monotheism among pagans and Christians, nor for a systematic study of the conceptual issues involved in the use of those elusive terms, polytheism and monotheism, nor for a historiographical survey of the debate about them. However, it does not set out to provide these things and succeeds nonetheless in offering a useful contribution to a wider debate.

Table of Contents

S. Mitchell and P. van Nuffelen, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-14.
M. V. Cerutti, ‘“Pagan Monotheism”? Towards a Historical Typology’, pp. 15-32.
G. Sfameni Gasparro, ‘One God and Divine Unity. Late Antique Theologies beween Exclusivism and Inclusiveness’, pp. 33-56.
B. Selter, ‘ Eadem spectamus astra. Astral Immortality as Common Ground between Pagan and Christian monotheism’, pp. 57-76.
M. Herrero de Jáuregui, ‘Orphic God(s): Theogonies and Hymns as Vehicles of Monotheism’, pp. 77-100.
I. Sandwell, ‘Pagan Conceptions of Monotheism in the Fourth Century: The Example of Libanius and Themistius’, pp. 101-126.
N. Siniossoglou, ‘From Philosophic Monotheism to Imperial Henotheism: Esoteric and Popular Religion ain Late Antique Platonism’, pp. 127-148.
C. Addey, ‘Monotheism, Henotheism, and Polytheism in Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles ’, pp. 149-166.
M. Kahlos, ‘Refuting and Reclaiming Monotheism: Monotheism in the Debate between “Pagans” and Christians in 380-430’, pp. 167-181.
G. Clark, ‘Augustine’s Varro and Pagan Monotheism’, pp. 181-202.


1. For discussions of the vocabulary of the debate, see T. D. Barnes, ‘Monotheists All’ in Phoenix 55 (2001), pp. 142-3; N. MacDonald, ‘The Origin of “Monotheism”’ in L. T. Stuckenbruck and W. E. S. North (edd.), Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (London and New York, 2004), pp. 204-15; P. van Nuffelen, ‘Pagan Monotheism as a Religious Phenomenon’, in S. Mitchell and P. van Nuffelen (edd.), One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 16-33.

2. Cf. J. Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus (Munich and Vienna, 2003), discussed in C. Markschies, ‘The Price of Monotheism: Some New Observations on a Curent Debate about Late Antiquity’ in Mitchell and van Nuffelen, One God (n.1, above), pp. 100-11.

3. M. Edwards, Review of Athanassiadi and Frede (1999), in Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000), pp. 339-42; idem, ‘Pagan and Christian Monotheism in the Age of Constantine’ in S. Swain and M. Edwards (edd.), Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire (Oxford, 2004), pp. 211-34. Reviews by T. D. Barnes were more favourable to Athanassiadi and Frede and less favourable to M. Edwards: see T. D. Barnes, ‘Monotheists All?’ (n. 1, above) and idem, Review of Swain and Edwards (2004), in Classical Review, 55 (2005), esp. p. 639.