BMCR 2023.02.11

Saviour gods and soteria in ancient Greece

, Saviour gods and soteria in ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xii, 319. ISBN 9780192894113



Theodora Suk Fong Jim’s erudite study of “saviour gods” and soteria in the ancient Greek Mediterranean compellingly problematizes numerous assumptions in the study of Greek religion: among others, that mystery cults revolved around “salvation,” that the divine epithets Soter and Soteira always meant the same thing, and that saviour gods were necessarily benevolent. It also makes a strong case against the imposition of Christian notions of “salvation” onto pre-Christian sources. In doing so, however, its author compounds the very problem she refutes by imposing a homogenizing notion of Christian salvation onto New Testament texts.

The book contains an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, and four appendices. Its introduction establishes the book’s central claim: “Soteria for the Greeks… had little or nothing to do with the afterlife; eschatological hopes, while present among the Greeks, were not normally expressed in the language of soteria. Unlike the Christian use of the word, soteria for the ancient Greeks could have a gradation of graver or less serious meanings depending on context, but almost without exception always with reference to this world rather than the next” (3). She asserts that the significance of the concept of soteria and divine and human soteres in Greek religion has been obfuscated by its use in the New Testament (and by extension in modern parlance) “to signify deliverance from the consequences of sin and attainment of a blessed afterlife through the mediation of Christ the Saviour” (1-2). Reserving this meaning for Christianity, she contends that soteria should be translated in pre-Christian texts as “deliverance,” “preservation,” “safety,” “rescue,” or “protection.” Overall, the introduction frames the Greeks’ plurality of soteres and varied understandings of soteria, sozein, etc. as emblematic of the “extraordinarily flexible and open nature of Greek religion” (15).

Chapter one is a survey of the polyvalent usage of soteria in Greek antiquity. Jim traces the earliest appearances of the divine epithets Soter and Soteira to evidence of a third libation for Zeus Soter at banquets and references to Poseidon and the Dioscuri as Soteres in the Homeric Hymns. Because Homer and Hesiod do not describe the protective functions of the gods as soteria but Herodotus and Aeschylus do, Jim posits that soteria became a widespread concept for communal and personal deliverance in the early fifth century in response to the Persian Wars. This language took on additional applications by the end of the fifth century, when it could be used for “the preservation of existing security or well-being rather than deliverance from real dangers encountered” (43).

Chapters two and three examine collective and individual appeals for soteria, respectively. In chapter two, we learn that Greek communities often honored the gods to request, or to express thanks for, their soteria. Sometimes soteria was invoked in situations of crisis such as war or natural phenomena like plagues, earthquakes, and floods. In other cases, crises do not seem to have been involved. Jim insightfully observes that Soter and Soteira do not always appear where we would expect them. It does not limit the protective power of a god if they do not receive the title, nor does being a city’s chief divinity guarantee it. Jim concludes that the distinction between the high-intensity and low-intensity situations in which gods were invoked and the distinction between saviour gods and other divinities who protected cities were both “fluid.”

Chapter three shows that individuals contribute to naming and shaping perceptions of saviour gods. Jim accomplishes an impressive feat in bringing together a wide range of prayers and dedicatory inscriptions that illuminate individuals’ lived religious experiences. These individuals invoked savior gods and soteria in such varied contexts as warfare, farming, healing, and lawsuits. Jim persuasively argues that individuals had substantial agency in choosing, adapting, and even creating their soteres, leading to such unpredictable results as Asclepius being called on to protect from dangers at sea.

The fourth chapter explores the uneven distribution of the “trans-divine epithet” Soter. Why, Jim asks, are some gods honored as Soteres but not others? It depends. It could have to do with a god’s “portfolio of power,” their prominence in a given location, or ad hoc considerations. Some of this chapter’s key contributions are an overview of the early history of Soter and Soteira as divine epithets (with superb maps), a discussion of the Attalid court’s official recognition of Asclepius as Soter leading to the proliferation of this previously uncommon title for him, and an examination of appeals to anonymous theoi soteres and the abstract Soteria.

In chapter five, the author investigates Hellenistic monarchs called Soteres. She begins by highlighting Gelon and Dion of Syracuse as pre-Hellenistic antecedents for royal Soteres. However, she identifies Philip II of Macedon as the first living king to receive the Soter as a cult title. She proceeds to analyze Antigonid, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and Attalid sources before offering synthetic remarks. I found the following noteworthy: applying the title Soter to Hellenistic kings legitimates them as benevolent while diverting attention from their acts of conquest and subordination; the Antigonids used the epithet locally whereas the Ptolemies, who institutionalized the title, used it in a more universal way, and the Seleucids and Attalids evinced both local and universal trends; the use of the title for human rulers in the Hellenistic and Roman imperial eras does not constitute a decline of Greek religion, but continuity.

Chapter six turns to early Christianity. After dismissing claims that the Greek Mysteries were focused on eschatological salvation, Jim argues that this was a Christian innovation. “[T]he abstract noun soteria,” she maintains, “is used predominately, but not exclusively in the eschatological sense in the New Testament” (221). Jim follows her problematic discussion of New Testament sources, which I address below, with compelling remarks about this-worldly uses of soteria in Christian inscriptions from late antiquity (e.g., sailors entreating the Lord to “protect” their boat). Both this chapter, and the following Conclusion, end by stressing continuity in this-worldly uses of soteria from Archaic Greece through Christian late antiquity—a trajectory that is largely pitted against the New Testament.

Jim has succeeded at demonstrating the polyvalence of soteria in Greek antiquity through nuanced discussions that highlight local variation, fluidity, and the creative agency of individuals. This admirable caution throughout the book makes her two-dimensional treatment of the New Testament surprising.

Jim describes the New Testament as “Christian” without qualifications and nowhere engages the mountain of recent scholarship asserting the Jewishness of these texts.[1] This erasure of Judaism and lack of attention to the fluid boundaries of what we call “Judaism” and “Christianity” is not an isolated problem; it reflects the book’s broader tendency to portray Greek religion, like Christianity, as a relatively static cultural entity, though one whose “nature” is flexibility. She characterizes Greek religion as something that people “adopt.” As a result, she often centers Greekness in her analysis where more dynamic models of cultural exchange would have recognized indigenous contributions.[2] For example, she casts Soter and soteria in the Greek portions of bilingual inscriptions as continuous with Greek culture but ignores their demotic and Phoenician correspondents (185, 209). She also does not consider, for instance, how the naming of Isis as Soteira and Ptolemaic kings and queens as Soter/Soteira may have drawn on Egyptian notions of divine protection and Isis’s healing powers.[3]

Insulating Greek religion in contexts of hybridity betrays the same theoretical tendency as emphasizing differences between New Testament “Christianity” and “Greek religion”: essentialism. Unlike the “nature” of Greek polytheism, where imprecision is “an inherent feature” (236), “Christianity… is explicitly and primarily concerned with the destiny of the soul” (217-18). Jim presupposes that Greek polytheism is this-worldly, offering flexible means by which practitioners may cope with everyday experiences, but “Christian monotheism” is other-worldly, focused on the afterlife (227, 232). Greek religion and Christianity are thus bounded entities mapped onto the dichotomy of polytheism vs. monotheism. This taxonomy, however, only emerged in the context of sixteenth and seventeenth century anti-Trinitarian polemics and found traction in this heyday of European colonialism as a way to differentiate Christianity from other religions deemed inferior.[4] Scholars increasingly reject these categories because they obscure Greek and Roman perceptions of an ultimate divine power. They also cast Jews and Christians as only believing in the existence of one God when, in fact, they recognized the existence of “many gods and many lords” (1 Cor 8:5) but denied that they were the supreme divinity.[5]

The apostle Paul was not a Christian monotheist “adopting the familiar Greek words and attributing to them connotations alien to them in ancient Greek” (214), but a Jew whose proclamation of soteria through Christ is a bricolage of Jewish, Greek, and other Mediterranean traditions. Recent scholarship has stressed that even Jewish and Christian texts that advance apocalyptic eschatologies concerned with other-worldly soteria often view redemption as already unfolding in the present.[6] John, Colossians, and Ephesians are regularly recognized as having “realized” or “inaugurated” eschatologies,” but in fact many New Testament texts present soteria as already underway among the faithful. Paul thus speaks of life in the Spirit through whom God is revealed to “those who are being saved” (tois sōzomenois, 2 Cor 2:15; cf. 1 Cor 2:6-16; 15:2; 2 Cor 3:18) and describes them and himself as imitating Christ by enduring their present afflictions for soteria (1 Cor 11:1; 2 Cor 1:6). Jim regards “the continuous process of saving” in the LXX as “different in nature” (220) from the New Testament’s futurist eschatology, but this misses the mark. I wish she would have examined the corpora of extracanonical Jewish texts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, where soteria often bridges the present and future, or, as the author of Psalms of Solomon 16:4 puts it, God is Soter “at all times.”

Greek sources on immortality and the afterlife also posit such continuities between this-worldly and other-worldly states.[7] In defiance of Jim’s this-worldly/other-worldly and Greek/Christian dichotomies, Philo of Alexandria’s eschatological ruminations on soteria are as indebted to Middle Platonism as Jewish traditions. For example, he interprets the phrase “waiting for soteria” in Gen 49:18 LXX through the lens of Plato’s reincarnation of souls, saying “he who falls from the passions is saved (sōzetai) by God…. May my soul meet with such a fall as this… in order that it may await the soteria of God and attain to happiness!” (Leg. 2.101). For Philo, the soul that cultivates virtue by overcoming the passions is saved from the body in the present and future. Because it has reached God, it will not be reincarnated upon death.[8]

This book is in many ways a groundbreaking investigation of a significant religious concept. It should be widely read by scholars of religion in the ancient Mediterranean. Unfortunately, its reduction of “Christian monotheism” to an orientation toward otherworldly soteria is a well-intentioned strawman that nonetheless reproduces a longstanding metanarrative of Christian exceptionalism. Researchers building on this study would do well to recast Jim’s division between this-worldly “protection” and other-worldly “salvation” along the lines of the fluidity Jim has so effectively illustrated elsewhere.



[1] Among others: Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[2] E.g., Carolina López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

[3] Philippa Lang, Medicine and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 59.

[4] J.Z. Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 187; Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds., Reading J.Z. Smith: Interviews and Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 32.

[5] Emma Wasserman, Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Annette Yoshiko Reed, Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Paula Fredriksen, “Philo, Herod, Paul, and the Many Gods of Ancient Jewish ‘Monotheism,’” Harvard Theological Review 115 (2022): 23-45.

[6] Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017).

[7] See now, Hilary Marlow et al., eds., Eschatology in Antiquity: Forms and Functions (London: Routledge, 2021).

[8] Sami Yli-Karjanmaa, Reincarnation in Philo of Alexandria (Atlanta: SBL, 2015).