BMCR 2023.04.02

Religious and philosophical conversion in the ancient Mediterranean traditions

, , Religious and philosophical conversion in the ancient Mediterranean traditions. Ancient philosophy and religion, 5. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xi, 477. ISBN 9789004501768.


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


The possibility of conversion fascinates, inspires, and frightens: could the basic boundaries of our identities be less stable than we think? This volume collects sixteen papers on the topic, originally delivered at a 2018 conference at the University of Bonn. The essays are organized into five sections, which give some notion of the volume’s range: there are two pieces on “Interdisciplinary Conversion Research,” four on “Conversion in Ancient Judaism,” three on “Conversion in Philosophical Traditions,” five on “Conversion in the New Testament,” and two on “Conversion in Mystery Cults and Late Antiquity.”

A preliminary question to be grappled with in a book on this topic is, of course, what conversion is. The contributors predictably do not agree on a definition, but many position themselves, often critically, in relation to the one proposed by Arthur Darby Nock in 1933: “the reorientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another, a turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right.”[1] They often contrast Nock’s approach to one associated with, among others, Lewis Rambo,[2] according to which conversion is not a sudden, value-laden shift in moral or theological beliefs, but rather a gradual process of identity change, both on a subjective level and within a community.

I have two comments about this framing. First, Nock’s definition should be understood with stress on its implied exclusivity. Conversion, in Nock’s view, was a phenomenon unique to Judaism, Christianity, and the philosophical schools, all of which demanded full renunciation of prior commitments; he contrasted this with traditional Greco-Roman cults that allowed for additive layers of affiliation and adhesion. Although Nock’s study is an easy target for criticism, his thesis still informs this volume’s organization: note that the main sections are on Judaism, Christianity, and philosophy. The two theoretical essays in the volume’s first section split on the issue of exclusivity: Pierre-Yves Brandt insists that conversion must involve “doctrinal or social rupture” resulting in “exclusive belonging,” while Rikard Roitto suggests that early Christians could “convert” and yet retain other cultic identities. Both positions are stipulative. The single essay on mystery cults, by Michel Herrero de Jáuregui, probes the exclusivity issue in somewhat more depth: he defends a Nockesque distinction between “conversion” and “initiation,” backed up by his analysis of a passage in Origen’s Contra Celsum contrasting Christianity with the τελεταί.[3]

My second observation is that while a Rambo-style sociological approach to ancient conversion would be very welcome, the surviving useful evidence is limited. Programmatic declarations aside, the essays in this volume generally do not take any of the rare opportunities that do exist. They almost all focus on the analysis of literary texts (as opposed to, say, epigraphic evidence), and thus remain largely within the realm of idealizing discourses about conversion. The paper by Matthew Williams, for instance, takes on the question of the relationship between early Christian conversion and almsgiving, but attempts to answer it solely on the basis of New Testament writings, with a focus on their theological perspectives.

In the absence of a clear definition of “conversion,” one of the methodological divides that runs through the volume is whether to privilege a lexical approach, attending to how texts deploy specific terms (usually ἐπιστροφή, μετάνοια, and their ilk), or whether to use broader criteria for identifying the phenomena. A second divide is whether to include under the heading of “conversion” experiences of repentance or recommitment that do not involve a radical change of allegiance. Different answers to these questions lead to very different conclusions. Phillip Davis, for instance, argues that ἐπιστροφή and μετάνοια in the Synoptic Gospels refer only to repentance, such that the rhetorical question in his title—“Is There Conversion in the Synoptic Gospels?”—appears to be answered in the negative. Helmut Löhr surveys a broader range of evidence for different currents within Second Temple Judaism (like the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the circle of John the Baptist), but still ultimately emphasizes the absence of specific terminology in his sources in order to conclude that one did not “convert” between these groups. On similar grounds he proceeds to question whether even Paul can be said to have “converted.” (This piece invites, but skirts, difficult questions concerning the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity and whether Judaism was or is a “religion.”) On the other side, Athanasios Despotis’s piece on Paul and John finds conversions everywhere, for instance in the healing of the blind man in John 9—an “embodied conversion,” Despotis says, on the basis of a metaphorical connection to Platonic language about blindness and sight.

Although the lexical approach has an air of philological rigor, it risks being arbitrary. With respect to the Synoptic Gospels, for example, could conversion not be indicated by less technical terminology, i.e., by words like “following” or “believing?” (This approach is taken by Williams in his piece on almsgiving.) The descriptions of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 and 22 contain no terms specifically associated with conversion at all, but if what these texts describe is not a “conversion,” then what is? And what are we to make of Josephus saying that, at age nineteen, he began to πολιτεύεσθαι τῇ Φαρισαίων αἱρέσει κατακολουθῶν, ἥ παραπλήσιός ἐστι τῇ παρ᾽Ἕλλησιν Στωϊκῇ λεγομένῃ (Vita 12)? Assuming arguendo that Lohr is right that the “semantics of the verbs used here … points to the adaptation of a distinct lifestyle, not necessarily to the formal and fixed membership in a group and its communal life” (103 n. 115), is that really a good reason to assert that Josephus did not “convert” to be a Pharisee?

The volume’s center of gravity lies in ancient Christianity, which may make it less accessible or interesting to some Classicists. (In addition to the five pieces in the “New Testament” section, at least four more devote significant space to discussion of ancient Christianity or Christian texts.) That many pieces demonstrate engagement with contemporary Christian theology is perhaps unsurprising, given how many of the contributors, including both editors, hold academic appointments in institutions dedicated to teaching it. It does, however, make for an uneasy contrast with the pieces on Judaism, which is at times implicitly treated as a historical prelude to Christianity.[4] It is a peculiarity of the section on “Conversion in Ancient Judaism” that it contains no essay dealing with gerut, i.e. the process for how non-Jews could become Jews. Teshuvah—the theme of Francesco Zanella’s piece on tannaitic texts—may be the closest literal Hebrew equivalent for conversio, but the word neither was nor is usually applied to entering Judaism from outside the tradition (admittedly, the Augustine-like narratives of some contemporary Jewish ba‘alei teshuvah may fit into Rambo’s category of conversion by “intensification”).[5]

Classicists will likely be intrigued by the text treated in Anna Furlan’s piece in the section on Judaism: a pseudo-Orphic poem apparently written by a Hellenistic Jew, in which the speaker (Orpheus) urges his son Musaeus to abandon τὰ πρὶν ἐν στήθεσσι φανέντα and instead embrace a λόγος θεῖος associated with Abraham and Moses. Furlan does not have space to explore the extremely complex philological problems surrounding the poem, which is preserved in several different versions through quotations in later authors. Ultimately, Furlan creates a link to the volume’s theme by assuming rather than proving that the poem was originally composed in order to convert pagans to a Jewish-inflected “henotheism.” Although the poem may dramatize something like a conversion attempt, the cryptic nature of the allusions to scripture makes it to my mind more likely that the intended readers were already (Hellenized) Jews.[6]

The three papers on philosophy deal with texts likely more familiar to Hellenists and even, glancingly, to Latinists. Sharon Padilla’s long paper explores motifs of wakefulness and sobriety in both literal and metaphorical contexts in Stoic writers (mainly Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius), while Sergi Grau’s piece treats the different ways in which individuals are “converted” to philosophy in Diogenes Laertius, with some intriguing hints about similarities to motifs in Christian conversion narratives. While interesting, both these papers tend toward being catalogues of passages rather than presenting focused arguments; Grau’s left me wondering generally about the gap between the actual practice of philosophy and literary discourses about it. Despotis’s paper on Plutarch begins with the sentence: “The first challenge of this study is to answer the question why one needs the term conversion to interpret Plutarchan ethics.” I could not tell what the answer was. Despotis argues that Plutarch in the Moralia takes a “holistic approach” to conversion (214), which seemed to mean that he draws eclectically from the terminology and ideas of earlier philosophers, in ways that are paralleled in other writers of his time.

As with any conference volume, topical coverage was not even, with some surprising absences: Augustine, Apuleius, and Justin Martyr were all mentioned only in passing. Some may find a turn away from Augustine refreshing, but I found it regrettable—especially given the heavy focus on Paul, an equally canonical figure. On a basic linguistic level, it was Augustine more than anyone else who blended Greek philosophical and Hebrew scriptural ideas into a Latin concept of conversio that still shapes how we use the English word. I think Augustine must be invited to any conversation about what counts as “conversion.”

The volume is physically well produced, although I noticed some typos, possibly stemming from articles undergoing forced conversions to English.[7] The decision to publish contributions in English only is in any case a pity, not only because of the intrinsic value of linguistic diversity in intellectual life, but also because infelicitous expression can undermine even important academic arguments. Given the volume’s bewildering price, why not assume that the tiny number of scholars who will have access to it are able to read the major modern European languages?


Authors and Titles

Introduction (Athanasios Despotis)

Part 1: Interdisciplinary Conversion Research
Contemporary Models of Conversion and Identity Transformation (Pierre-Yves Brandt)
Using Behavioural Sciences to Understand Early Christian Experiences of Conversion (Rikard Roitto)

Part 2: Conversion in Ancient Judaism
The Lost Daughter: A Philological Study on the Book of Ruth (Karl-Heinrich Ostmeyer)
Conversion within Israel?: An Essay on Old and New in Second Temple Judaism, and on Paul the Convert According to Phil 3:2–4:1 (Hermut Löhr)
Strategies of Conversion in a Jewish-Orphic Hieros Logos: A Cognitive Approach (Anna Furlan)
“Making tešuvā” (לעשות תשובה): “(Re-)turning” in Tannaitic Literature (Francesco Zanella)

Part 3: Conversion in Philosophical Traditions
The Awake and Sober Way of Life: A Key Motif in the Stoic Conversion (Sharon Padilla)
Philosophical Conversion in Plutarch’s Moralia and the Cultural Discourses in the Ancient Mediterranean (Athanasios Despotis)
Conversion to Philosophy in Diogenes Laertius: Forms and Functions (Sergi Grau)

Part 4: Conversion in the New Testament
Is There Conversion in the Synoptic Gospels? (Phillip A. Davis Jr.)
Metanoia in the Sermon on the Mount: A Philosophical Approach (Raul Heimann)
Religious and Philosophical Conversion in Paul and John (Athanasios Despotis)
“Consider Yourselves Dead” (Rom 6:11): Biographical Reconstruction, Conversion, and the Death of the Self in Romans (Stephen J. Chester)
A Cost of Discipleship? The Relationship Between Conversion and Almsgiving for the New Testament Authors (Matthew N. Williams)

Part 5: Conversion in Mystery Cults and Late Antiquity
Back to a Classic Debate: Conversion and Salvation in Ancient Mystery Cults? (Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui)
The Sychar Story as a Standard Conversion Narrative in Heracleon’s Hypomnēmata (Carl Johan Berglund)



[1] Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo, Oxford, 1933, 7.

[2] Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, Yale, 1995.

[3] For a contrary view, see Birgitte Bøgh, “Beyond Nock: From Adhesion to Conversion in the Mystery Cults,” History of Religions 54:260–287 (2015).

[4] The concluding sentence of Karl-Heinrich Ostmeyer’s essay on the Book of Ruth is a subtle but striking illustration of this scholarly posture: “Ruth’s conversion, both in a narrative as in a philological sense, made her suitable for the New Testament (see Matt 1:5) as an ancestress of the messiah” (80).

[5] Zanella does note briefly the “explicit parallelism” between one who makes teshuvah and a proselyte (ger) in m. B.M. 4:10. I would call it less than explicit, because the mishnah here in fact refers to the son of proselytes (ben gerim), although its subsequent quotation of Exodus 22:20 would perhaps support Zanella’s idea.

[6] Moses, for instance, is referred to only as “the water-born one” (ὑδογενής, which is in fact Scaliger’s debatable emendation for ὑλογενής in the manuscripts) who received a teaching ἐκ θεόθεν γνώμῃσι…κατὰ δίπλακα θέσμον (apparently a reference to the stone tablets received at Sinai). Note that all of the “clear” references to Judaism occur only in the version of the poem quoted by the second century B.C.E. Alexandrian Jewish intellectual Aristobulus; his role in the formation of the text does not seem to me to have been satisfactorily elucidated. On the poem, see most recently Fabienne Jourdan, Poème judéo-hellénistique attribué à Orphée: production juive et reception chrétienne, Paris, 2010.

[7] For instance: “The contribute of the present paper…” (145, first sentence of an article), “Plato’s conversion idea involves an ascend of the philosopher…” (205), inconsistent use of German spellings like “Juda” (61) or “Chrysipp” (209, 213). Page numbers in footnotes and the index locorum are also off: the reference to 216 n. 17 at 99 n. 96 is really to 247 n. 17, and so on.