Friday, May 29, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Maria-Zoe Petropolou, Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 BC to AD 200. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 336. ISBN 978-0-19-921854-7. $120.00.
Reviewed by Paul Dilley, Kansas State University

This important book is a survey and analysis of animal sacrifice in Greek polytheism, Judaism, and Christianity, from 100 BC to AD 200, in the eastern Mediterranean. It is part of a recent resurgence of studies on sacrifice in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and its relationship to Judaism and Christianity.1 The author is motivated by "the fact that Christianity is known as a religion with no altars for slaughter, in combination with the historical fact that early Christians came from religious environments where animal sacrifice was practiced" (p. v). Despite this ultimate goal of understanding Christian sacrifice, the work is most useful as a series of individual studies. Petropoulou bases her research almost entirely upon textual sources, both literary and epigraphic; given the geographical area of study, most of these are in Greek, although she also considers the Mishnah in English translation. Rather than assuming a decline in Greek animal sacrifice in the Roman period, a frequent assertion made popular especially by the influential scholar M.P. Nilsson, Petropolou demonstrates its continued significance during the first two centuries of the development of Christianity. In this context, she then explores Hellenistic Jewish, early Rabbinic, and early Christian attitudes to animal sacrifice.

In Chapter One, "Approaching the Issue of Sacrifice," Petropoulou briefly discusses the work of various theorists of sacrifice, including E. B. Tylor, W. Robertson Smith, James George Frazer, and Marcel Mauss, and classicists, including Karl Meuli, Walter Burkert, René Girard, and the "Vernant School." She also reviews several studies of Jewish sacrifice, by Mary Douglas, Francis Schmidt, and Jonathan Klawans. This group represents a fairly broad cross section of approaches to ancient ritual, with a few conspicuous absences, for instance recent work based on Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory.2 Petropoulou critiques these different approaches, despite the highly simplified form in which she has presented them, and somewhat abruptly concludes with her own understanding of sacrifice: "a composite of beliefs, gestures, objects, and materials, which are defined by both vertical and horizontal lines, as these have been described above: that is, vertical is the line linking offerer and recipient, and horizontal is the one linking the offerer with objective reality" (p. 28). Although no sustained argument for this approach is offered, it proves to be a useful heuristic device, which is used occasionally in later chapters.

Chapter Two, "Greek Animal Sacrifice in the Period 100 BC-AD 200," forms the heart of the book and is its most significant contribution. Contrary to the widespread view that animal sacrifice declined in this period, Petropoulou argues that it remained an integral part of Greek religion through the second century CE. She makes good use of a number of authors, but especially Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca Historica, the Moralia of Plutarch, and Pausanias' Description of Greece. Petropoulou argues that although these authors often refer to the remote past in their discussion of various rituals, including animal sacrifice, they assume continuity with the present. She also establishes convincingly that some of the passages in Pausanius closely reflect the language of the so-called "sacred laws," that is, inscriptions which regulate cultic practice, which continued to be produced into the second century. This is an important connection, although Petropolou does not discuss the difficulties in defining "sacred laws," which have been the subject of recent studies.3 Citing Dionysius of Halicarnassus, she concludes that Greek religion was fundamentally conservative, and even points to several areas in which "animal sacrifice was an act required of the Greek pagan, or felt as necessary by him/her" (p. 102). This chapter is followed immediately by Appendix 1 and Appendix 2, the Greek text of relevant passages by Plutarch.

Chapter Three, "From Greek Religion to Judaism: A Bridge," is a brief comparison between Greek and Jewish sacrifice. Petropoulou suggests that while our evidence for Greek religion concerns mostly the "horizontal" line, for Judaism it is possible to describe not only the "horizontal" but also the "vertical" in some detail, that is, "the wishes and intentions of the offerer" (p. 122).

Chapter Four, "Jewish Animal Sacrifice in the Period 100 BC-AD 200," begins with a discussion of Jewish animal sacrifice from a historical perspective, both before and after the destruction of the Temple; and then gives a synchronic perspective on the Jewish sacrificial system. For the former, Petropolou's primary source is Josephus; for the latter, she uses Philo and the Mishnah, primarily Kodashim. She argues that Jewish sacrifice did not decline in the Second Temple period, until its end in 70 CE, a view shared by a number of other scholars. According to Petropoulou, animal sacrifice remained important for Diaspora Judaism, at least as represented by Philo. She quickly dismisses the overly "allegorical" interpretations of his oeuvre, citing a passage (De migratione Abrahami 89-93) in which Philo explicitly advocates following the law, in contrast those who oppose literal adherence to it, instead emphasizing its symbolism. After a survey of the Mishnah, Petropolou concludes that "a common aspect between the horizontal lines of Greek religion and Judaism, which has arisen from this study, is the insistence on the definition of ritual details" (p. 206).

Chapter Five, "A Bridge Linking Greek Religion and Judaism to Christianity," is a transition to Petropoulou's discussion of Christian animal sacrifice. According to Petropoulou, early Christians included "Greek pagans, Jerusalem Jews, Diaspora Jews, and Jewish sympathizers" (p. 218), all of whom would have had various preconceptions about animal sacrifice. She speculates as to the possible shift in attitudes about sacrifice among pagan converts to Christianity, as well as gentile God-fearers, in the first century.

In Chapter Six, "Christians and Animal Sacrifice in the Period up to AD 200," surveys early Christian attitudes toward sacrifice. Petropoulou argues that, although there is no explicit evidence, some Jewish Christians may have continued to participate in Temple sacrifice before 70 CE, and that "to some Christians, the problem of participation in pagan feasts had not yet been solved" (p. 240). While these conclusions about the place of sacrifice in the New Testament will not surprise specialists, her overview of the apologists (including Tertullian, with Pliny the only Latin author she discusses) is an important contribution. She argues that a widespread argument against sacrifice had been developed by the second century and deployed against proponents of sacrifice, both pagans and Jews, despite the fact that Jews did not conduct animal sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple. In fact, one interesting rhetorical ploy of Christian authors in this period is to elide the differences between pagan and Jewish sacrifice, labeling the latter "idolatry". The apologists' primary critique of sacrifice was simply that it was unnecessary for an omnipotent God. The theological rather than practical nature of this critique is of great interest.

In Chapter Seven, "Conclusions," Petropoulou offers some reflections on the question of why Christians seem to have largely abandoned animal sacrifice by the second century CE, while noting the difficulty in answering this question, given that most of the evidence is from the second century, rather than the first. She applies her heuristic tool for analyzing ritual to this major development within early Christianity: "Any change in the vertical line, that is, in the relationship of the worshipper to the recipient of sacrifice, results in radical changes in the horizontal line, that is, in new cultic codes" (p. 285). Petropolou then turns, somewhat unexpectedly, to the ambiguous notion of "experience," a vertical phenomenon in the form of contact with Jesus, "which, in turn, led to an exceptional change in cultural semiotics, namely the tendency to abolish ancestral customs." This underdeveloped appeal to "experience" (and by implication "conversion"), whether it is to be understood psychologically or in terms of "cultural semiotics," distracts from the force of the arguments in the first six chapters.

Despite this somewhat problematic conclusion, Petropoulou's book is an important contribution to the study of late Hellenistic and early Roman religion, most notably for its demonstration of the continued importance of animal sacrifice in the early imperial period, and its elucidation of early Christian responses to this phenomenon, particularly in the second century.


1.   See, for instance, Francesca Prescendi, Decrire et comprendre le sacrifice. Les réflexions des Romains sur leur propre religion à partir de la littérature antiquaire, Stuttgart 2007; George Heyman,The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict, Washington, D.C. 2007.
2.   For such an approach, see Stanley Stowers, "Greeks Who Sacrifice and Those Who Do Not: Toward an Anthropology of Greek Religion," in L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough (eds.),The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, Philadelphia 1995, 293-333. Another important overlooked work is Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity, Chicago 1992.
3.   See, for instance, Eran Lupu, Greek Sacred Law. A Collection of New Documents, Leiden 2005.

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