Friday, October 10, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Richard E. DeMaris, The New Testament in its Ritual World. London/New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. x, 143. ISBN 9780415438261. $34.95 (pb).
Reviewed by V. Henry T. Nguyen, Loyola Marymount University

This book tackles a neglected area in the study of the New Testament -- ritual -- by making it the focal point of the work. DeMaris states: "This study starts from the premise that ritual was central to, and definitive for, early Christian life (as it is for all social orders), and it explores the New Testament through ritual lens" (p. 11). In order to gain new insights into the ritual dimensions of the earliest Christian communities, he grounds the study in ritual theory, Greco-Roman ritual life, social history, and the literary and archeological evidence of the ancient Mediterranean world. In doing so, he reconsiders longstanding scholarly consensuses and interpretations of New Testament texts referring to rites practiced in the church (especially baptism) and surrounding cultural environments.

DeMaris commences with an introductory chapter laying the foundation and rationale for the book. He describes the slow progression of studies on the topic of rituals and how some scholars have now appraised rituals as essential for understanding Mediterranean religion and culture. He further explains that this neglect of the ancient ritual world has suffered particularly within the field of New Testament studies. DeMaris optimistically predicts that with New Testament scholars' increasing interest in recovering the community life of the early church, the neglect of rituals may soon diminish. After tracing the recent scholarly probes into the ritual dimensions of the New Testament, DeMaris surmises that scholars of the "ritual criticism" of the New Testament are probably several years away from producing a comprehensive and critical study of rituals in the New Testament. He explains that although the field has a proper understanding of the nexus between ritual and text (i.e. the New Testament), there is still no a theoretical framework to conduct a full-scale study. DeMaris, accordingly, indicates that his study should be regarded as "introductory and exploratory rather than conclusive and exhaustive" (p. 6).

Part I ("Entry Rites") begins with a chapter (Ch. 1) entitled "Perilous Passage," which provides an accessible and non-technical introduction to ritual theory, and emphasizes the understanding by ritual theorists that the context and circumstances around a rite's performance determine and dictate its effect and significance. In particular, DeMaris focuses on the New Testament rite of baptism and challenges two longstanding consensuses in New Testament scholarship: 1) since there are only a few references to baptism in the New Testament writings, it was firmly established and universal in that era and beyond controversy; and 2) baptism was a rite of initiation into the Christian movement. Concerning the first issue, DeMaris highlights a couple of instances where the rite attracted controversy within the Christian communities (e.g. 1 Cor 1.10-13, 17). And with the second issue, he shows evidence revealing how problematic it is merely to regard baptism as an initiatory rite; instead, he determines baptism and other rites in the early church to be "boundary-crossing rites" (i.e. "rituals"). DeMaris explains how rites, especially those marking transition (like baptism), typically occur at times of social crises in the life of an individual or group. He elucidates that rites, then, cope with the changes in social status and the threats to the social order as the individual transitions into a new group.

In Chapter 2, "Contested Waters," DeMaris describes the context for the ritual practices of baptism within the early church -- in particular the church at Roman Corinth. For this and the following chapters, he focuses on the rite of baptism in the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, since there are several references to baptism in the letter; the letter provides the most details in the New Testament of a particular church; and there is considerable literary and archaeological evidence describing the Roman colony during the time of Paul. In this chapter, DeMaris assembles ancient evidence and secondary literature to describe the use of water in Corinth. From the evidence, he determines that the Romans used water to accentuate the Romanitas of Corinth, and also that the Greek indigenous people would have maintained their Greek understanding of the sacred or cultic use of water. By positing this dual function of water in Corinth, he intimates that the Corinthian Christian's sacred water use (baptism) partly functioned as an expression of resistance to Rome.

Chapter 3, "And the Greatest of These is Death," deals with the Corinthian Christian's ritual of baptism on behalf of the dead (1 Cor 15.29), which is an obscure practice in the early church, and has puzzled New Testament scholars for years. DeMaris gathers literary and archaeological evidence to depict a culture in which the world of the living could affect the world of the dead. Moreover, he claims that the rite of baptism was malleable and subject to ritual innovation; and in the case of baptism on behalf of the dead, the rite transitioned the deceased individual from the realm of the living to the community of the dead. DeMaris applies this understanding and contends that Paul capitalizes on the Corinthian believers' preoccupation with the underworld with his proclamation of the death of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 1.21-5; 2.2). Despite trying to show how this practice was not uncommon in Corinth, DeMaris does not offer much interpretation for Paul's reference to it.

The focus of the book then shifts to the topic of "Exit Rites" (Part II) and leads off with Chapter 4, "Paul's Omphalos." DeMaris begins the chapter by reviewing the various attempts made by New Testament scholars to locate the "center" of Paul's theology. In particular, DeMaris argues against reading Paul's letters through the lens of morality and ethics as they relate to theology; instead, he discerns that Paul's preoccupation is often with purity and holiness, which would restore ritual to the central place in the letter and Paul's thought. DeMaris focuses on 1 Cor 5.1-5, in which Paul commands the congregation to expel or excommunicate the sexually immoral individual. By drawing attention to a few pieces of literary evidence, he argues that Paul here is articulating what he expects the Corinthian believers to do within a ritual setting, rather than a deliberative or juridical setting. Thus, Paul's employment of the exit ritual of expulsion -- like other funerary, burial, and mourning rites -- resolves the disorder in the community and maintains purity.

In the final chapter (Ch. 5), "Jesus Jettisoned," DeMaris considers the passion narrative in Mark's gospel as an exit ritual. He focuses on the passion narrative, which is a significant part of Mark's gospel presentation, as a status degradation ritual of an individual and his or her associated exit from a community -- a ritual which DeMaris views as commonly practiced in the ancient Mediterranean world. He establishes this interpretation of the passion narrative by considering: Jesus' death as a sacrifice in light of the scape-goat ritual in Leviticus 16; the Greek curative exit ritual of pharmakos; and the Roman association of an emissary that diverted evil or averted disaster with an act of devotio. According to DeMaris, Mark is depicting Jesus, then, as bearing away the misfortunes of the Jewish people in Roman Palestine--a ritual act which would benefit many and ultimately restore purity.

In sum, DeMaris' well-written book is a welcome addition to the study of rituals in the New Testament. I only have a few points of criticism. First, the title of his exploratory work is somewhat misleading. Readers might be disappointed to discover that this brief work, contrary to its title, is not a comprehensive or in-depth study of various rituals in the New Testament. Instead the work focuses on a few specific rites -- especially baptism -- as found in a few New Testament texts. And given the brevity of the book, DeMaris does not heavily interact with primary and secondary sources; so at times his ritual-centered arguments and interpretations are found wanting, since they lack strong supporting evidence. Consequently, DeMaris could be criticized for pushing the envelope too far by making ritual the central focus almost everywhere in the New Testament. This, in turn, would not easily sway readers to accept his innovative readings of texts that challenge longstanding scholarly consensuses. Despite these few quibbles, this valuable work forces New Testament scholars to give more attention to the neglected ritual world of the New Testament.

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