BMCR 2021.05.35

Rhetoric and religious identity in late antiquity

, , Rhetoric and religious identity in late antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780198813194 $100.00.

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

 This collection includes essays on a range of topics related to the “shifts in self-identification” (1) in Late Antiquity. Here, “rhetoric” is used in the general sense of “discourse that prescribes or perpetuates social norms,” but also literary or oratorical style. In many cases, the essays break down dichotomies and remind us to be careful when trying to fit people or texts into particular categories of religious identity. The editors’ goal was to study rhetoric in order to better understand religious identity and vice-versa, and the volume succeeds on both counts.

Éric Rebillard’s “Approaching ‘Religious Identity’ in Late Antiquity” discusses the term “semi-Christian.” Scholars have applied the label to Christians who carried on “pagan” traditions and to Christians who avoided baptism. Rebillard examines ancient writers’ use of similar terms and finds that each instance addressed a different problem, conveying different meanings. He criticizes the tendency to categorize according to discrete religious identities: instead, scholars should learn from identity theory and think in terms of multiple identities that are “activated” in different situations. With this approach, scholars would no longer expect religious affiliation to be consistent or clear-cut.

Aaron Johnson’s “The Rhetoric of Pagan Religious Identities: Porphyry and his Readers” examines “pagan” thinkers’ conceptualization of “paganism” by analyzing Porphyry of Tyre’s use of the term “Hellene.” What might seem like a narrow philological study leads readers into questions that are significant for anyone interested in late antique religion. “Hellenes” is often interpreted as referring to “pagan religion,” but Johnson asks whether late antique writers understood “religion” as a concept “disembedded from ethnic particularity” (36). Porphyry came close to articulating a concept of “religion,” but did not think of “paganism” as a discrete category. Johnson’s conclusions complement Rebillard’s: scholars should not allow the modern category of “religion” to lead them to asking the wrong questions.

Douglas Boin’s “The Maccabees, ‘Apostasy,’ and Julian’s Appropriation of Hellenismos as a Reclaimed Epithet in Christian Conversations of the Fourth Century CE” grapples with many issues stemming from the argument that Julian was no apostate but in fact a (moderate) Christian and that the accusations of apostasy were made by hardline Christians toward a more tolerant Christian. Boin discusses Julian’s embrace of “Hellenismos” (meaning “acting too Greek” rather than “paganism”) as a “reclaimed epithet” (the transformation of a derogatory word into a non-derogatory in-group term). He examines the different connotations of the term and includes a detailed discussion of linguistic studies of derogatory terms, but this reader would have appreciated further analysis of Julian as a Christian who was also happy to “act Greek.” The emphasis on militant versus moderate religious identities rather than doctrinal or confessional labels goes well with the previous two essays.

The next essay also focuses on Julian, but views him as a convert from Christianity, firmly in the “pagan” camp. Shaun Tougher’s “Julian the Apologist: Christians and Pagans on the Mother of the Gods” discusses Julian’s response to Christian attacks on traditional religion and how these texts reveal the centrality of the Great Mother to pagan religious identity. Tougher compares attacks on the Magna Mater by Arnobius of Sicca and Firmicus Maternus (both Christian converts from paganism) to Julian’s praise for the same goddess. This study provides more reasons why we should think more carefully about distinctions between pagans and Christians, since all three authors had “in-group” knowledge of both. Also, Tougher observes how so-called Christian “apologies” included attacks as well as defenses, while Julian’s “hymn” exhibits qualities found in sermons and apologies and was written in response to Christian critiques.

Susanna Elm’s “Bodies, Books, Histories: Augustine of Hippo and the Extraordinary (civ. Dei 16.8 and Pliny, HN 7)” is both sweeping in scope and extremely specific, focusing on a passage from City of God regarding people with unusual features, such as extra limbs or the “nature of both sexes.” The inclusion of these “extraordinary” people, Elm argues, was a way to express the unity of all humans as descendants of Adam. Moreover, Augustine includes examples of “extraordinary bodies” from his own time, which proved that they had truly existed in the past and would exist in the future, and thus are part of God’s hidden plan. This essay is not always explicitly related to the themes of rhetoric and religious identity, but it is nevertheless fascinating and is certainly one of the most thought-provoking pieces in the volume.

Raffaella Cribiore’s contribution, “Classical Decadence or Christian Aesthetics? Libanius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine on Rhetoric,” examines attitudes toward rhetorical education during a period of “democratization of culture.” All three ancient authors remarked on the shift away from traditional rhetorical education. This change was not due to the influence of Christianity but to men (with various religious affiliations) seeking more efficient career paths. Even though scholars might expect religious identity to be at the core of cultural changes in Late Antiquity, Cribiore’s essay provides another argument against overstating the differences between Christians and pagans in this period.

Nicholas Baker-Brian’s “‘Very great are your words’: Dialogue as Rhetoric in Manichaean Kephalaia,” shifts away from the Roman Empire and examines the portrayal of Mani. Baker-Brian highlights the dialogic element of the Kephalaia, which depict Mani convincing wise men of his superior wisdom. The perceived genre of these texts, which circulated from Syria to the Indus, depended on the readers’ background. In some cases, Mani is acclaimed as a Buddha, in others, he is positioned among sages of the Sasanian court. These texts demonstrate dialogue as a rhetorical tool that allowed one religious identity to claim superiority over others.

The title of Maijastina Kahlos’ “‘A Christian Cannot Employ Magic’: Rhetorical Self-fashioning of the Magicless Christianity of Late Antiquity” quotes Jerome’s Life of Hilarion, in which holy water—not “magic”—helps a Christian win a race. While modern scholars understand the subjectivity of “magic,” Kahlos asks how people in antiquity distinguished between magic and acceptable rituals. Early Christian authors developed a “magicless self-image” (131), but artifacts reveal that Christians used amulets and spells. From the perspective of church authorities, Christian magic was an oxymoron: acceptable Christian rituals were not magic. But, undoubtedly, “acceptable rituals” were defined in different ways. Kahlos encourages scholars to think in terms of “rituals” and “ritual experts”; the term “magic” is only useful when discussing the rhetoric used to attack others’ practices.

In “The Rhetorical Construction of a Christian Empire in the Theodosian Code,” Mark Humphries examines how the Code, compiled during the 430’s, represents fourth-century religious policies. The laws portray increasing hostility toward paganism, but Humphries argues that this impression is due to the editing. Rather than reflecting fourth-century attitudes, the Code provides a fifth-century perspective. Due to its starting point with Constantine and scarce references to earlier emperors or laws, the compilers clearly aimed to portray a “Christian Empire,” but this does not mean that the laws were infused with a new, Christian way of thinking. Book 16 presents a “specifically Theodosian version of orthodoxy” (156), which included relatively few laws regarding paganism; instead, the laws are more concerned with Jews, heretics, and schismatics. While only a small portion of the laws were explicitly related to religion, the Code was meant to demonstrate that the Christian Empire was a “well-ordered society” and vice-versa.

Peter Van Nuffelen discusses less well-known texts in “What Happened after Eusebius? Chronicles and Narrative Identities in the Fourth Century.” Chronicles from 325-412 CE (listed in an appendix, 178-9) demonstrate how fourth-century Christian historians understood religious identity. Like Humphries’ essay, this one reminds us not to confuse a fifth-century depiction of the fourth century with what actual fourth-century texts say about this period. While theological controversies dominated the fifth-century Church Histories, the fourth-century chronicles do not share this concern, while covering centuries or even millennia, often starting with Adam. Van Nuffelen introduces the “Anonymous Homoean historian” and demonstrates that doctrinal allegiance was not central to his worldview or to his history. Instead, the chronicler was more concerned with drawing a line between Judaism and Christianity. Van Nuffelen’s essay demonstrates that the later importance of doctrinal positions can lead to an overemphasis on this aspect of religious identity in earlier texts.

In “The Rhetoric of Heresiological Prefaces,” Richard Flower examines the construction of orthodox authority in the prefaces to Epiphanius’ Panarion, Filastrius of Brescia’s Diuersarum hereseon liber, and Augustine’s De haeresibus. Flower shows how all three authors used the “rhetoric of compulsion” as well as the “rhetoric of modesty” to justify their projects, which involved attacking other religious individuals and groups. Flower compares their claims of compulsion and their gestures toward modesty to similar self-presentations of classical technical and scientific authors such as Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius. The comparison is not meant to imply direct influence from these authors, but instead, to highlight the similarity of their strategies: anti-heresy writers wanted to appear as “disinterested experts” (184), not scandalmongers. Flower demonstrates how these prefaces helped the authors avoid questions about their motives, while also building their authority as dispassionate observers of heretical phenomena.

Robin Jensen turns from texts to images in “Constructing Identity in the Tomb: the visual rhetoric of early Christian Iconography.” The well-illustrated essay describes how the decoration of Christian sarcophagi differed from pagan sarcophagi, while also discussing what these images communicated to viewers. An overview of changes in pagan iconography from the first to third centuries helps to highlight the unique traits of Christian coffins. Interestingly, the latest “pagan” and the earliest “Christian” sarcophagi featured religiously neutral images such as hunting, shepherds, and banquets. A new “visual rhetoric” emerged in the fourth century, with depictions of biblical scenes. Jensen calls our attention to the compositions: multiple biblical images are often crowded together and, unlike personalized figures on pagan sarcophagi, Christian burials put little emphasis on portraiture. Jensen compares the composition of the images to stories Christians knew from sermons; the crowded images could serve as “catechism at a glance” (218). She makes a persuasive argument that Christian sarcophagi are remarkably similar to each other and thus reflect a coherent group identity, compared to the individuality of pagan sarcophagi.

In “Renunciation and Ascetic Identity in the Liber ad Renatum of Asterius Ansedunensis,” Hajnalka Tamas introduces an early fifth-century text on ascetic identity: in addition to distinctions among pagans, Jews, and various Christian doctrinal groups, ascetic teachers promoted their views and engaged in polemic among themselves. Tamas calls our attention to this text because of its unusual argument: Asterius (an associate of Jerome) considered asceticism to be the natural state for all humans. In particular, Asterius argued that humans were created to live in solitude and “avoid the mundane responsibilities that go together with relating to other people” (224). Part of his reasoning was based on his interpretation of Adam as the original hermit, a monachus who was alone and thus undistracted from God. Tamas’ essay provides a fascinating example of how distinctive religious identities proliferated even within ascetic movements that shared the same doctrinal affiliation.

The final essay is Morwenna Ludlow’s “Christian Literary Identity and Rhetoric about Style,” which treats the Cappadocian Fathers as its case study. Ludlow examines how these highly educated Christian authors understood different levels of style, how they described the Bible’s literary style(s), and how style was part of their self-definition. An especially compelling part of this essay is Ludlow’s clear yet nuanced description of what “style” actually meant—a better translation would be “moods” or sensibilities” (233)—and the distinctive aspect of different styles (“slender,” “pleasant,” and “sublime”). Knowing when each style was appropriate was the key to effective writing or oratory. This emphasis on “appropriateness to the occasion” helps us understand how the Cappadocians could appreciate the plain-speaking apostles without expecting all Christians to write in this way. Ludlow ends her clear and concise account with the suggestion that other Christian authors’ prose could be studied in this way. This discussion ends the volume with an example that points toward the continuity between Christian and classical cultures, and away from oversimplified dichotomies.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Richard Flower and Morwenna Ludlow

2. Approaching ‘Religious Identity’ in Late Antiquity, Éric Rebillard
3. The Rhetoric of Pagan Religious Identities: Porphyry and his First Readers, Aaron P. Johnson
4. The Maccabees, ‘Apostasy’ and Julian’s Appropriation of Hellenismos as a Reclaimed Epithet in Christian Conversations of the Fourth Century C.E., Douglas Boin

5. Julian the Apologist: Christians and Pagans on the Mother of the Gods, Shaun Tougher
6. Bodies, Books, Histories: Augustine of Hippo and the Extraordinary (civ. Dei 16.8 and Pliny, HN 7), Susanna Elm
7. Classical Decadence or Christian Aesthetics? Libanius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine on Rhetoric, Raffaella Cribiore
8. ‘Very great are your words’: Dialogue as Rhetoric in Manichaean Kephalaia, Nicholas Baker-Brian
9. ‘A Christian Cannot Employ Magic’: Rhetorical Self-fashioning of the Magicless Christianity of Late Antiquity, Maijastina Kahlos

10. The Rhetorical Construction of a Christian Empire in the Theodosian Code, Mark Humphries
11. What Happened after Eusebius? Chronicles and Narrative Identities in the Fourth Century, Peter Van Nuffelen
12. The Rhetoric of Heresiological Prefaces, Richard Flower
13. Constructing Identity in the Tomb: The Visual Rhetoric of Early Christian Iconography, Robin M. Jensen
14. Renunciation and Ascetic Identity in the Liber ad Renatum of Asterius Ansedunensis, Hajnalka Tamas
15. Christian Literary Identity and Rhetoric about Style, Morwenna Ludlow