The book under review is part of the series “Studienbücher Theologie”, which is published by Kohlhammer, one of the best known publishers of Theological literature. Conceived as an introduction to all disciplines of Catholic Theology, this series addresses readers who study at a university or independent scholars interested in this topic. It is the publishers’ aim to present basic knowledge in a didactically structured method and to inform the reader about the current state of discussion in Biblical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology. Since 1992, most of the planned 25 volumes, as well as several part-volumes, have been already accomplished. All of them are written in German by leading researchers.
One of the latest volumes, the present publication on Phoenician, Punic and Aramaic religion appeared in 2010 (vol. 4.2). It is the second part of a sub-volume of three parts titled “Religionen in der Umwelt des Alten Testaments” which comprises the religions of the Babylonians, Syrians, and Persians, as well as the religion of Ancient Egypt. This volume itself is subdivided into two parts: Phoenician and Punic religion, written by Corinne Bonnet, and Aramaic religion, written by Herbert Niehr. Both of them are known specialists and authors of several outstanding publications in their fields of study: Corinne Bonnet, who teaches Ancient History at the University of Toulouse, has published the standard works on the cults of Melqart and Astarte in the Mediterranean.1 Herbert Niehr, professor for “Biblische Einleitung und Zeitgeschichte” at the faculty of Catholic Theology, is best known for his studies of the religion of the Phoenicians and the religions connected to the Old Testament.2
Bonnet starts her study of Phoenician and Punic religion with a brief introduction to the current state of knowledge, the problems, definitions, and perspectives of the geographical and chronological framework of the Phoenician and Punic world. She then presents the available written, archaeological, and iconographic sources regarding Phoenician and Punic history in general and their religion in particular. Both are very helpful for the understanding of the following chapters but also useful for everyone interested in the Phoenicians in general – considering their expansion in the whole Mediterranean area for about one millennium. Bonnet then progresses by presenting the panthea of the most important and best known Phoenician and Punic cities such as Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Carthage, as well as the indication of the other but poorly known panthea. Only then does she attend to the Phoenician and Punic deities themselves, describing their role and function in relation to the Phoenician society. Within this systematic approach, for example, the status of the Punic god Baal Hammon is clarified as the most important god in connection to the cult-site “Tophet”, testified by exceedingly numerous dedication inscriptions on the Tophet-stelae, but not necessarily the highest god in the Carthaginian pantheon (pp. 57-60). Bonnet also mentions the difficulties in simply “translating” Greek or Roman gods into Phoenician and Punic gods and vice versa as many scholars have tried to do, such as the attempt to understand the listing of deities in the treaty between Philipp V of Macedonia and Hannibal. She succeeds in characterizing the complex system of processes, parallelism, assimilation, and syncretism of the Phoenician and Punic religion. In the next chapter, Bonnet describes the ideology of Phoenician religion, including mythology, the relation between god and man, and the conception of death, whereas the cult practice with all its diverse aspects is treated in the last chapter. The discussion of the beginning and the end of the Phoenicians and their religion are postponed to the concluding remarks of the study, with the emphasis once again on the developing process of the Phoenician and Punic religion in the Iron Age Mediterranean.
According to the outline of the series, Bonnet gives an overview of the topic, without undertaking new researches or presenting a detailed documentation. The bibliography in front of each chapter cites only a small selection of the immense literature to this specific field, and the footnotes only occasionally provide further references. For a more profound and detailed study of Phoenician and Punic religion, the reader therefore has to consider one of the numerous compendia.3 But it is a great pleasure to read these brief but easily comprehensible, concise, and stylistically elegant portrayals by Bonnet, an attempt not only to collect and present the relevant sources but to approach this subject in an intellectual way, and her co-author Herbert Niehr does a brilliant job in the German translation of her original French text.
Niehr was assigned the task to present the still poorly known Aramaic religion. In this study, he refers to his earlier work “Religionen in Israels Umwelt”, published in Würzburg in 1998, and elaborates on it. He, too, starts with a brief introduction to the written and archaeological sources of the Aramaeans from the formation of Aramaic kingdoms in the 11th century until their annexation by the Assyrians at the end of the 8 th century BC, including an extensive and valuable bibliography. Since abundant information about Aramaic religion is lacking, he chooses a systematic geographical approach by outlining the history of every Aramaic kingdom and city and then describing the individual deities, rites and ritual sites, as well as the burial customs and funerary rites of each kingdom and city, meticulously assembling any written, archaeological, and iconographic evidence. These mostly small paragraphs are also accompanied by an extensive bibliography. Not taken into account, however, is the onomastics as a valuable source for Aramaic religion, presumably as it would have exceeded the scope of this analysis, but references for further reading are provided. The particular challenge in the study of the Aramaeans lies in their origin, formation, development, and further amalgamation of the Aramaic culture with Luwian, Phoenician, and Assyrian cultural elements as well as in the incorporation of their deities, some of them already worshipped since the 3 rd millennium BC, such as the weather god Addu/Hadad. The longevity of the Aramaic culture (and religion) not only in the Assyrian Empire but also in Early Christian times, and its impact on the Old Testament are briefly touched upon in the last chapter. Due to its systematic approach, the complete presentation of the sources, and its concise language, this study of Aramaic religion enables an easy access to this subject for any interested reader and will undoubtedly be the reference work for any future analysis.
These two presentations of religions in the environment of the Old Testament, the Phoenician/Punic and the Aramaic, are completely different in style and structure. Both cases however are excellent and appropriate to the history of research and the current state of knowledge of Phoenician and Punic and Aramaic religion. They are of high quality and very useful for a broad readership. They set a new benchmark in these fields of research.
1. C. Bonnet, Melqart. Cultes et mythes de l’Héraclès tyrien en Méditerranée (Leuven-Namur 1988); C. Bonnet, Astarté: dossier documentaire et perspectives historiques, Collezione di studi fenici 37 (Rome 1996).
2. H. Niehr, Ba‘alšamem. Studien zu Herkunft, Geschichte und Rezeptionsgeschichte eines phönizischen Gottes, Studia Phoenicia 17 (Leuven 2003); H. Niehr, Der höchste Gott. Alttestamentlicher JHWH-Glaube im Kontext syrisch-kanaanäischer Religion des 1. Jahrtausends v. Chr., Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 190 (Berlin-New York 1990); H. Niehr, Religionen in Israels Umwelt. Einführung in die nordwestsemitischen Religionen Syrien-Palästinas, Die Neue Echter-Bibel Ergänzungsband 5 (Würzburg 1998); H. Niehr, Il contesto religioso dell´ Israele antico, Introduzione allo studio della Bibbia, Supplementi 7 (Brescia 2002).
3. e.g. E. Lipiński (ed.), Dictionnaire de la Civilisation Phénicienne et Punique (Turnhout 1993); E. Lipiński, “Dieux et déesses de l’univers Phénicien et Punique”, Studia Phoenicia 14 (Leuven 1995).