Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Pedro Barceló (ed.), Religiöser Fundamentalismus in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge Bd. 29. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. 250. ISBN 9783515094443. €53.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst

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

This volume contains the text of thirteen contributions to a colloquium held at the university of Potsdam in 2008. Most of the papers are worth reading; some are even of high quality; but as a whole the volume is a very mixed bag. That is partly caused by the fact that apparently the organizers of the conference did not make clear what exactly they understand fundamentalism to be. In his preface, the editor states that in contemporary parlance fundamentalism has become almost a synonym of fanaticism and radicalism, often accompanied by violence. But that is not enough, for the fact that fundamentalism almost invariably is bound up with a particularly static view of a holy book is of paramount importance, and that relation is neglected here. For that reason, several of the contributions deal with various forms of religious radicalism or fanaticism that have little or nothing to do with fundamentalism as I see it. Moreover, the religion that initiated the idea of a sacrosanct book, post-biblical Judaism, is totally ignored in this volume.

I very briefly summarize the contents of the chapters. In ch. 1, Jörg Rüpke argues that problems with the role of the priesthood in republican (not: imperial!) Rome had to do with conflicts between patricians and plebeians. In ch. 2, Christiane Kunst shows that the priests of Cybele in Rome, in spite of their radical self-presentation (ecstaticism, self-castration etc.) and the foreign origin of the cult. succeeded in becoming fully integrated into the Roman 'Staatskult.' Ch. 3 is a somewhat rambling theoretical piece by Jaime Alvar in which occasionally Spanish words and phrases of the original have curiously been left untranslated (the piece is in German). Alvar too deals with the integration of oriental gods into Roman imperial religion, and he rightly stresses that there was no potential for fundamentalism in these cults because they had no holy books. 'Es existiert nichts Gleichartiges in der römischen Welt mit Ausnahme des Judentums, das den Ursprung der anderen Religionen mit fundamentalistischem Potential bildet' (44). So he saw the problem. Ch. 4 by Peter Herz has the title 'Gab es eine religiöse Grundüberzeugung?' In it the author sketches several elementary ideas that the ancients had in common with people(s) of many other times and places (the importance and power of religious places; the belief in the transfer of power, negative and positive, by physical contact with other people; etc.). Again, this has little to do with fundamentalism in the Roman Empire. In ch. 5, Babett Edelmann tries to demonstrate that since Augustus one can discern a 'Theologisierung der Kaiserapotheose,' which implied that the Empire required not just the participation in the rites of the ruler cult but also an active belief in the divinity of the Roman Emperor. This belief, Edelmann argues, became both a 'fundamentum religionis' and a 'fundamentum rei publicae.' But is this the same as religious fundamentalism? In ch. 6, Peter Eich engages in a debate with those (such as Michael Frede) who claim that it is justified to speak of 'pagan monotheism' in the second to fourth centuries. He argues that 'henotheism' (as used by Henk Versnel) is a more adequate nomenclature and that the influence of the administrative structure of the Roman Empire on the concept of the heavenly world should be taken into account. It is a fine contribution, with some remarks about religious violence as a kind of lip-service to the main theme of the conference. In another fine study, Pedro Barceló shows that the violent measures against Christianity by the Empire had nothing to do with the contents of the Christian faith but rather with the wish to forge national unity and coherence in times of crisis, a wish that also motivated later the similar measures of the Christian Emperors against paganism. In the latter case, however, the contents of pagan faith did matter. Manfred Clauss argues that the development of the exclusive claim to possess the absolute truth in early Christianity led to 'eine fanatische Rechthaberei' (139), over against not only pagans and Jews but also non-orthodox Christians, often with violence as a consequence. Johann Hafner sees the origins of Christian fundamentalism in the introduction of the regula fidei in the second half of the second century and demonstrates this by pointing out the widely differing approaches of 'heretics' and 'heresy' in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. In a sympathetic but theologically very naïve contribution Bertram Blum tries to demonstrate that fundamentalism and Christian faith are fundamentally irreconcilable; no word about the Roman imperial period. The contribution by Eike Faber on early Christian monasticism begins with a mistake: he states that the addressee of Jerome's Epistula 22 was a man, whereas Eustochium (sic) was the daughter of the famous Paula. Eich wants to demonstrate that the ascetic movement was 'the fundamentalism of the rich,' for "wer nichts hat, kann nicht demonstrativen Verzicht üben" (195). For the rest, this is a short study of ascetic fanaticism, not fundamentalism. In a very good contribution, Almuth Lotz concedes that the use of the term 'fundamentalism' in our days suffers from "definitorische Unschärfe" but that fundamentalists are usually characterized by "die buchstäbliche Auslegung heiliger Texte und das kompromisslose Festhalten an deren absoluten Wahrheiten" (197). Thereafter she demonstrates, in a case study of the murder of Hypatia by Christians in Alexandria in 415, that this act of Christian fanaticism had little to do with fundamentalism but much with the struggle for power of the local bishop. "Diese Fallstudie zeigt meines Erachtens deutlich, wie problematisch eine Übertragung des Fundamentalismus-Begriffs auf spätantike Verhältnisse ist" (206). Would that these wise words had been heeded by the editor. Finally, the longest contribution in the volume, by Johannes Hahn, deals with the destruction of pagan statues and temples (and other sacred sites) by fanatic Christian monks and bishops, with special emphasis on Northern Syria, Lower Egypt, and Alexandria (esp. the destruction of the Sarapis temple in 392 CE). He emphasizes that these acts of violence often had not only a religious background, but also a political and socio-economic one.

The last two chapters are the best in this volume, but they stress that 'religious fundamentalism' is a category that is hardly applicable to the Roman Empire. Most of the contributions in this volume deal with aspects of what might better have been called "Religious Fanaticism and Extremism (or: Intolerance) in the Roman Empire." Some do not even come close to the main theme of the book. The present title of the volume is a misnomer and quite misleading. The editing of the volume also leaves much to be desired. There are no indexes whatsoever, which is a shame. There are too many errors in the Greek quotations. The fact that here is no chapter on Judaism, the religion which laid the foundation of fundamentalism, is a glaring and incomprehensible omission. In short: this book contains several good and instructive essays, but its incoherence, ill-chosen title, and sloppiness left this reader very unsatisfied.

Table of contents:

Radikale im öffentlichen Dienst.
Status und Individualisierung unter römischen Priestern republikanischer Zeit

Die Priester der Kybele

Henotheismus und Essentialismus in den Kulten der orientalischen Götter

Gab es eine religiöse Grundüberzeugung?

„Wie kommt der Kaiser zu den Göttern?"
Was die Kaiserapotheose über religiöse Grundeinstellungen antiker Kulturen offenbart

Theismus und Fanatismus.
Überlegungen zur Entstehung, Bedeutung und Konfliktträchtigkeit des sogenannten heidnischen Monotheismus im zweiten und dritten Jahrhundert n. Chr.

Fundamentalistische Tendenzen in Heidentum und Christentum des vierten Jahrhunderts

Der Weg zur Wahrheit kostet Leben.
Zum frühchristlichen Selbstverständnis

Vom Lehrhaus zum Lehramt.
Häresie-Begriff und Glaubensregel als Ursprünge des christlichen Fundamentalismus

Die Unvereinbarkeit von Fundamentalismus und Christentum.
Anmerkungen aus theologisch-praktischer Sicht

Armut als Ideal.
Der Fundamentalismus der Wohlhabenden

Religiöse Intoleranz und Gewalt in der Spätantike

„Ausgemerzt werden muß der Irrglaube!"
Zur Ideologie und Praxis christlicher Gewalt gegen pagane Kulte

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