BMCR 2021.12.13

Christian divination in late antiquity

, Christian divination in late antiquity. Social worlds of late antiquity and the early middle ages. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Pp. 288. ISBN 9789462988705. €105,00.

In the fourth century CE, traditional Greco-Roman forms of divination fell out of favour, were explicitly and repeatedly banned by law, and ultimately challenged by a Christian conception as to who could read the future and how. Wiśniewski focuses on the last, exploring Christian modes of divination through an extended survey of a wide range of source material spanning several centuries. The book is an English translation of Wiśniewski’s 2013 Polish monograph by the same name. This will ensure that Wiśniewski’s important findings are more widely known, and he should be commended for considering scholarly advancements and discoveries in the intervening years. The central thesis is that Christian divination emerged in the mid-fourth century, commensurate with the increasing prominence of Christianity, especially Christian holy places, and that Christian divination should be thought of as largely independent of pagan and Judaic divinatory practices. Parallels are still acknowledged, but invariably downplayed or otherwise dismissed entirely. The book has an introduction, conclusion, and seven chapters, which examine Christian attitudes to divination, responses to demoniacs, and the use of prophets, the bible, practical divinatory manuals, lots, and incubation to make predictions. The chronological span is largely focused on the fourth to sixth centuries, but Wiśniewski also dips into earlier and later periods when relevant.

In the introduction Wiśniewski maps out the scope of his inquiry. The overview of previous scholarship is suitably detailed, though one wonders if the discussion (p.12) of nineteenth-century attitudes to divination as a field of study is necessary (and if it is, then it ought to have been fully referenced). The vast scope of Wiśniewski’s inquiry presents a major methodological challenge, in that he is repeatedly compelled to generalise either from minimal evidence or by drawing together material from significantly different parts of the late antique world. Wiśniewski is aware of this challenge “the various types of sources offer little else but an unwieldy assortment of vague glimpses. It is indeed exceedingly difficult to piece them together to develop a broader, cohesive picture of the phenomenon in question” (p.17), but it nevertheless remains a repeated check on the applicability of some of his generalisations. Wiśniewski’s decision to preclude numerology and astrology is justified on the basis that they “fall outside the realm of the religious” (p.19), but as Wiśniewski never specifies what he takes “religious” to mean, the case is more asserted than argued, and some further discussion of both could have helped, given the prominence of numerological interpretations of the Old Testament and Christian exegesis of the star of Bethlehem.

Chapter 1, “Attitudes to Divination,” explores how Christians thought about traditional Greco-Roman divination and Judaic and Christian divinatory precedents, and then offers a brief discussion of the banning of divination in Roman law. This chapter is the most problematic, in large part because Wiśniewski’s inclination towards historical positivism limits his analysis of rhetorical evidence. Thus, rhetorical claims regarding divination are either taken as evidence of a historical reality, or as evidence of how groups were perceived, and the attitudes that they inspired. This is dangerous territory, especially given that Christian attitudes to divination are often so rhetorically sharpened that they reveal more about the contest of ideas than the historical reality of their composition or the author’s genuine beliefs about a given group. In this chapter, Wiśniewski introduces Augustine and John Chrysostom, two thinkers whom he repeatedly draws upon in the chapters that follow. The use of the latter is well done, but a little more time on the development of Augustine’s ideas would have helped give Wiśniewski’s claims much needed nuance. Similarly, the discussion of Constantius II’s ban on divination (Theodosian Code 9.16.4) could have benefitted from consideration of Ammianus Marcellinus 16.8.1-2, further legislation in the Theodosian code, and some discussion of the perceived link between divination and usurpation.

Chapter 2, “Prophets,” convincingly maps out Christian attitudes to prophets, as Wiśniewski draws together his various glimpses to offer the reader a compelling picture. Wiśniewski could have profitably cast his net further. The discussion of John of Lykopolis for instance might have drawn on Claudian, but in general this chapter offers detailed and clear analyses of how Christians used and understood prophecy. Chapter 3, “Take and Read,” focuses on Christian uses of the bible to make divinatory claims. Wiśniewski convincingly shows that Christian, divinatory use of the bible differed substantially from the Greco-Roman bibliomantic use of epic, and was influenced by the development of the codex. At times the tendency to historicism leaves Wiśniewski’s claims underdeveloped. On p. 89, for example, Wiśniewski concludes, following analysis of the use of biblical verses to make predictions in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony and Gregory of Tours Historia, that “it does not matter to us whether any of these episodes really happened. It suffices to know that these authors believed that they could have happened.” Perhaps, but Wiśniewski sidesteps further discussion of what the authors may have hoped to achieve by these episodes and how they helped contribute to the prophetic importance of the bible as well as to promote Christian admiration of biblical expressions and its potential to reveal divine future knowledge. Similarly, on p. 92, Wiśniewski acknowledges that Augustine’s account of his conversion is rhetorically charged, but again, this is only mentioned for the limits it should place on taking Augustine’s account as an accurate reflection of his lived experience, including the sing-song voice of an unidentified child which Augustine presents as a divine instruction. Some further consideration of the vast literature on this episode may have helped Wiśniewski think through some of his claims.

Chapter 4, “Book and Bones,” and chapter 5, “Divinatory Lots,” are real highlights, as Wiśniewski delves into the material culture and practical handbooks that helped Christians to engage in divination. The analysis of works such as the Sortes Sanctorum (Ch. 4) and oracular tickets (Ch. 5) provide great grist for Wiśniewski’s mill, as he comes closest to the kind of quotidian use of Christian divination by non-elites that is otherwise difficult to uncover. This remains an important area of research, and, no doubt, further findings will help reveal more of the picture, but in the interim, Wiśniewski’s arguments will surely be of great use to both experts and general academic readers alike. Wiśniewski does well to avoid interpreting the absence of evidence as evidence for an actual absence and is careful not to push his claims beyond what seems broadly plausible. For example, the fact that the only formal ban of book divination arises in Gaul is rightly taken by Wiśniewski not to indicate that the practice was found only in Gaul, even if his only corroborating evidence is piecemeal.

Chapter 6, “Interrogating Demoniacs,” explores how Christians responded to individuals predicting the future owing to their supposed possessions by demonic spirits. At times this chapter gets a little bogged down in trying to understand and distinguish various technical terms for the possessed (for example Pythones, engastrimythoi, ventriloqui, arrepticii), but its analysis of the presence of demoniacs in Christian spaces forms a useful link between their literary representation and the realia of their existence. Chapter 7, “Incubation,” explores Christian attitudes to the use of dreams to divine the future. The chapter begins with a brief consideration of Synesius of Cyrene’s On Dreams; some mention of Synesius’ unique attitude towards Christianity would have complemented well Wiśniewski’s disclaimer that it is unclear if Synesius had converted to Christianity when this treatise was written, which all but presumes that Synesius’ conversion may have changed his attitude to dreams. The analysis of Julian’s criticism of incubation at the tombs of martyrs (pp.206-207) is a bit of a missed opportunity, given Wiśniewski does not mention the example of incubation in Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 6.2-5, prior to Julian’s death, nor link Julian’s criticism to Christian exegesis of Isaiah. Wiśniewski’s analysis is more compelling when he examines specific religious sites that seem to suggest Christians practiced incubation.

The conclusion is well written. It clearly highlights the major claims of the book. Wiśniewski demonstrates that Christian divination may be understood on its own terms, as a practice that arose in the complex intellectual and cultural milieu of the mid fourth century. Perhaps he might have spent more time on the importance of Christian holy places to divination, given this is one of the major conclusions of the book.

Throughout, Wiśniewski does well to maintain a nuanced interpretation of the category of Christian, but the same cannot be said for his approach to pagans. Thus, Zosimus’ portrait of Constantine is dismissed as that of a “pagan hardliner” (p.41), so too the author of the Historia Augusta (p.95) – even though his paganism remains as conjectural as his other biographical details. At times, I was surprised to see that Wiśniewski does not cite important studies on specific topics. For example, Augustine’s treatise De divinatione daemonum is mentioned on numerous occasions, but Bouton-Touboulic’s important 1997 study of this treatise is not. Similarly, Wiśniewski’s discussion of Hydatius’ claim that Galla Placidia’s marriage to Athaulf fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy is poorer for its lack of engagement with Sivan’s analysis of this remark in her 2011 monograph Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. At times this lack of familiarity with scholarship leads to errors or outdated claims, such as Wiśniewski’s reliance on Feiertag 1994 for dating the Consultations of Zacchaeus and Apollonius to the 410s which has been superseded by Claussen’s 1995 redating of the text to the mid 390s (JEH 46), supported by Hunter 2007 Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy and Salzman 2010 (JECS 18). Wiśniewski’s claim that Christian attitudes to astrology (p.20) “await[s] a separate study” suggests that he is unaware of Hegedus’ important 2007 monograph Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology, which is uncited.

The English is generally easy to follow, though not always, as, for example, “the literary history risks to play down continuity in this regard” (p.51) and “the practice in question required in order to emerge was formulated back” (p. 87). There is also the occasional oddity, such as references to Josephus as simply Flavius.

I liked this book. I enjoyed reading it. The material it explores is often fascinating. Wiśniewski should be commended for taking on such a difficult task and handling such a wide range of evidence. There is no doubt more has to be done (isn’t there always?), but Wiśniewski has done a great service to the field by providing a wide-ranging study of a complex and disparate phenomenon.