Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
John Bodel, Saul M. Olyan (ed.), Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Pub., Pp. xii, 324. ISBN 9781405175791. $100.00.
Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Indiana University, Bloomington

Household and Family Religion in Antiquity is a volume of essays that grew out of a 2005 conference at Brown University. The purpose of the book and the conference, the editors explain in their introduction, is "to advance our understanding, both contextually and comparatively, of a distinct and widespread ancient religious phenomenon--household and family religion--within a number of discrete cultural and historical settings of Mediterranean and West Asian antiquity." (p. 1) To achieve this end the editors brought together a range of scholars to discuss "the phenomenon of household and family religion in a number of different cultural contexts: Second Millennium West Asia (Mesopotamia, Emar, Nuzi, Ugarit); First Millennium West Asia (including Israel); Egypt; Greece; and Rome." (p. 1)

On the positive side the essays, which range from relatively brief summaries like Barbara Lesko's "Household and Domestic Religion in Ancient Egypt" (pp. 197-209) to detailed surveys, like Rainer Albertz's "Family Religion in Ancient Israel" (pp. 89-112), are generally sound introductory statements of the current situation in their respective fields concerning the study of family and household religion. The essays all follow a similar format, which aids in making comparisons, and are accessible to both the non-specialist scholar and general reader. Though the editors do provide a comparative essay by way of conclusion, comparison is little used elsewhere: the primary focus of these essays is on case studies of the particular cultural group and time covered in the individual essay rather than on the comparative study of the materials.

That said, it must also be noted that the book could have been much more. The main problem with the book is its failure to address the previous literature on household and family religion. There is an enormous literature on the problems of household and family religion--or, as it is more often called, popular or folk religion--in a number of fields, including folklore, history, anthropology, religious studies, and sociology. It is a scholarship that also ranges across a number of languages: from my own work in folk religion I know of important works in, for instance, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Estonian. Granted, the last two are unlikely to be known by many, but the others are nevertheless major scholarly languages....... It is discouraging to read a book on a topic where so much excellent work has been done in languages other than English and yet no use made of the theoretical and methodological insights of this previous work. Rainer Albertz is the only author to mention this wealth of scholarship, though he doesn't get it quite right: "The division between official and popular religion or Volksfrömmigkeit is very popular among Old Testament scholars, but only a few are aware that it was derived from the Volkskunde of the nineteenth century and was developed to analyze the customs of the people in Christian, mainly Catholic, societies. In this context the term "popular religion" denotes a phenomenon in which laymen take elements of orthodox Catholic beliefs, rites and symbols and redefine them and reuse them for their own religious purposes.... Thus, popular religion in this original sense is a kind of degenerate subtype of official religion. It presupposes the establishment of orthodoxy, a clear stratification between a priestly elite and an unprofessional laity, and a claimed priestly monopoly over all goods of salvation." (p. 91) To correct a couple of points Albertz makes, I would note that while there are nineteenth-century precursors to the study of popular religion, the major work on the topic was really twentieth century, with much of the early theoretically oriented work originating in German Lutheran seminaries. The study of popular religion quickly moved beyond the Lutheran seminaries to cover Catholic and Jewish folk religion as well, and as scholarship on folk religion progressed, it came to cover many other religious traditions too. His notion that the study of popular or folk religion, as it is currently imagined, assumes that the folk religion is a degenerate form of the elite or official religion shows that he is out of touch with current scholarship on folk religion.

This lack of connection to twentieth-century scholarship on folk religion runs throughout the book, and renders most of the effort at theorizing, but especially Stanley K. Stowers "Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families" (pp. 5-19), the second essay in the book, into an exercise in reinventing the wheel. This is unfortunate, as the essays would have been much better had they attempted to engage previous scholarship.

Still, Family and Household Religion in Antiquity will prove useful for its case studies, which will at least give a reader new to the topic a guide to the texts and material remains for the individual religious traditions covered, and to the current scholarship on these religions. But, the reader will then have to go elsewhere to find out more about the theoretical and methodological concerns in the study of folk religion.

Table of Contents:

1. Introduction: John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan.
2. Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families: Stanley K. Stowers (Brown University).
3. Family Religion in Second Millennium West Asia (Mesopotamia, Emar, Nuzi): Karel van der Toorn (University of Amsterdam).
4. The Integration of Household and Community Religion in Ancient Syria: Daniel E. Fleming (New York University).
5. Family, Household, and Local Religion at Late Bronze Age Ugarit: Theodore J. Lewis (Johns Hopkins University).
6. Family Religion in Ancient Israel and Its Surroundings: Rainer Albertz (Westfalische Wilhelms University, Munster).
7. Family Religion in Israel and the Wider Levant of the First Millennium BCE: Saul M. Olyan (Brown University).
8. Household Religion, Family Religion, and Women's Religion in Ancient Israel: Susan Ackerman (Dartmouth College).
9. Ashdod and the Material Remains of Domestic Cults in the Philistine Coastal Plain: Rudiger Schmitt (University of Munster).
10. Household Religion in Ancient Egypt: Robert K. Ritner (The Oriental Institute, Chicago).
11. Household and Domestic Religion in Ancient Egypt: Barbara S. Lesko (Brown University).
12. Household Religion in Ancient Greece: Christopher A. Faraone (University of Chicago).
13. Family Matters: Domestic Religion in Classical Greece: Deborah Boedeker (Brown University).
15. Cicero's Minerva, Penates, and the Mother of the Lares: An Outline of Roman Domestic Religion: John Bodel (Brown University).
16. Comparative Perspectives: John Bodel (Brown University) and Saul M. Olyan (Brown University).

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