BMCR 2023.10.31

Statuto del corpo e annuncio di salvezza: dalla Grecia di età classica alla Palestina nel momento di Gesù

, Statuto del corpo e annuncio di salvezza: dalla Grecia di età classica alla Palestina nel momento di Gesù. Problemi e ricerche di storia antica, 36. Rome: L'Erma, 2022. Pp. 238. ISBN 9788891326027.

The Greek Soteria has been the subject of particular scholarly interest throughout the year 2022. Theodora Jim’s book “Saviour gods and Soteria in ancient Greece”, for example, addresses similar issues to the ones tackled in this book.[1] The aim of Camassa’s work is nevertheless different. The author focuses on the role of the body as a beneficiary or an agent of a salvific action in the complex process of soteriological intervention in ancient societies. While the book does not aim to constitute a comprehensive study of the notion of salvation through the ages, its chronological range is quite wide, from the 5th century BC to the early Christian era. A second volume, in preparation, will cover later periods, with a particular focus on the authors of Late Antiquity.

The main difference between Jim’s and Camassa’s books is structural. Whereas the former dedicates only one of her six chapters to Christianity, Camassa divides his book into three parts, each of them focusing on a distinct cultural complex: the Greco-Roman world, the Hebrew Bible, and Christianity. This choice of structure brings out the comparative aim of the author.

Chapter 1, presented as a percorso, outlines the evolution of the theme of salvation throughout antiquity. Intended as an introduction, it enables the author to articulate the notions of salvezza and salute, hence salvation and health. The book’s comparative intention is made clear right from this chapter, as it already takes into consideration all the cultural areas which are discussed in the following chapters.

Chapter 2 addresses the Greco-Roman context, focusing on Greek Soteria. Camassa links the increased importance given to this notion to the growing political instability affecting Greek cities during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Through the figures who brought salvation, such as philosophers, physicians and rulers, as well as gods and heroes, Camassa depicts a series of portraits outlining the major stages in the evolution of Soteria. He then turns to the Roman context, arguing that the term Salus is more than a simple translation of Hellenistic Soteria, and that we must recognize that the concept emerged as a result of the demands of the specific Roman religious tradition. The chapter then closes on an appendix containing epigraphical attestations of the expression Σωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου applied to Roman emperors.

Chapter 3 deals with the texts of the Hebrew Bible from older traditions. The author defines the main characteristics of monolatry, which differs from monotheism insofar as it represents the culmination of a gradual process putting forward a divine entity as the sole repository of a people’s salvation. This chapter highlights the specific features of Hebrew monolatry in relation to the Christian monotheism that derived from it, and to the ancient polytheisms of which it was a contemporary. In addition, the author affirms the overlay of the notions of salvezza and salute in the Jewish culture from the earliest texts of the Old Testament. Far from confining himself to theological discussion, Camassa also looks at evidence documenting ritual practice to complete his presentation.

Chapter 4 focuses on Yahweh as protector of mankind, taking into account texts from more recent Jewish traditions, such as the Book of Isaiah or the Qumran Scrolls. These texts depict an anthropomorphic representation of the divinity and represents Yahweh as the protector of mankind created in His own image. A study of the speeches related to the resurrection of the dead refers to an all-powerful Savior who is the sole repository of the salvation of the Hebrew people.

Chapter 5 finally takes into account the New Testament, focusing on the figure of Christ. Throughout a study of the lexical field of salvation (e.g. the triad ἅπτομαι, σῴζω, πίστις), the author compiles the modalities of Christ’s intervention on physical bodies. In doing so, Camassa reaffirms the inextricable links between salvation of the body (salute or sanazione) and salvation tout court (salvezza) in the New Testament.

Overall, the spatial range of the book is as wide as its chronological range, addressing various sources, including texts transmitted through complex traditions. The author is aware of this and cautiously places the texts that he analyses in their context of composition while also discussing their modes of transmission. In chapter 4, for example, the narrative composition of the episode of the exodus (Exoduskomposition) is carefully taken into consideration. In the same manner, Camassa also analyses Christian sources while taking into account their particular context. This method allows the author to address the intertextuality between the texts of the New and the Old Testament.

Camassa’s comparative aim allows him to tackle the structural differences between the relevant religious systems. In order to do so, he uses the binary model putting in opposition locative and utopian religions. Even though, as he admits, this model is not perfect, the use of these two categories has the benefit of underlining, for the non-specialist reader, a number of characteristics of the religions discussed in the book. In this perspective, the main merit of this work is to bring out the eschatological aims of Christian Soteria: as Greek and Hebrew salvations is, in the author’s words, intramondana, that is before death, the salvation offered by Christ is oltremondana (in the afterlife).

The comparative ambition of the work could leave an impression of superficiality to a reader specialized in one or the other culture under scrutiny. For example, a Hellenist interested in ancient Greek religion might regret that the topic of Greek gods involved in salvific actions is only briefly addressed. In Chapter 2, the study of particular sources where deities are qualified as Sôter, only partially meets the expectations of the Hellenist, with a partial panorama of savior gods.

Moreover, the fact that the notions of Soteria and Salus are discussed together in the same chapter could give the impression of an evolving model. In this perspective, Soteria, as perceived by the Greeks, seems to refer to the persistence of the citizen body, which is the polis, which then falls prey to a political and religious crisis following the advent of the Hellenistic monarchies. The Roman Salus, on the other hand, would have more to do with the physical health of the emperor, who restored the political order. Although this model could perhaps be effective in a long-term perspective, it reveals a misconception of the relationship between the political and the religious sphere at the beginning of the Hellenistic period. It is true that the loss of the political independence of the cities, as well as the political instability resulting from the wars of the Diadochi and their successors, encouraged the use of the Soteria motif. The author, nevertheless, argues that this diffusion reflects the Greeks’ inability to “conceptualize chaos”, of which Hellenistic rulers were the “carnal embodiment”, claiming that the emphasis put on Soteria at the beginning of the Hellenistic period is clear evidence of the close links between the civic religion and the political events of this period, rather than a response to a breakdown in the dialogue between them (p. 35-36). In addition, the adaptability that cities demonstrated in different contexts – the fluidity that Jim illustrates so well in her book – is barely touched upon. Putting the emphasis on the example of the cult of Demetrios Poliorcetes in Athens gives the impression of a uniform phenomenon, whose manifestations in other contexts follow a single underlying logic.

To conclude, this book proposes a relevant comparison that brings out the main features of the religious traditions it analyses. Although this work as a whole offers an appreciable overview, it fails to offer precise analyses when these would be expected. The indexes at the end of the volume are a symptom of this observation, since they are scarcely fleshed out, despite the considerable body of documentation available on the subject. In the same way, the absence of a final bibliography makes it difficult to get a global idea of the works used by the author and makes the footnotes too heavy. These characteristics would not be problematic, if this book were intended for a large readership of non-specialists eager to understand the structural differences between ancient polytheism, monolatry and monotheism, through the study of one specific notion. Camassa’s writing style, whose elegance sometimes is on the verge of literary style, allows for a very pleasant reading, easily accessible to a readership of non-specialists. However, the publisher’s price tag is too high for the average person of such an audience. In conclusion, specialist readers may not find the discussion of the subject they are most familiar with to be ground-breaking. However, the book offers a good starting point for those interested in embarking on a comparative analysis outside their own field.



[1] Reviewed in BMCR.