Friday, November 11, 2011


Philip A. Harland, Travel and Religion in Antiquity. Studies in Christianity and Judaism/Études sur le christianisme et le judaisme, 21. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 289. ISBN 9781554582228. $85.00.

Reviewed by Josephine Shaya, The College of Wooster (

Version at BMCR home site


This interdisciplinary collection of essays tackles the complicated and significant role of travel and movement in ancient Mediterranean religions. Its chapters address issues of pilgrimage, travel narratives, ethnography, migration and occupational travel through the examination of literary, epigraphic, papyrological and archaeological sources. Focusing primarily on the eastern Mediterranean, it explores travel in the religious lives of ancient Mesopotamians, Judeans, Greeks, Romans, Nabateans, and Christians. Its chronological, geographic and methodological range is impressive and the chapters only grow stronger when seen in dialogue with one another.

Readers will come at these essays in very different ways, depending on their own interests and expertise. Altogether, though, the essays succeed admirably at charting new directions and exploring new terrain. While many others have studied travel and religion, especially with regard to pilgrimage and identity, the range of this collection leads us to think about travel as an inherent and widespread component of religions in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Harland's introduction, "Pausing at the Intersection of Religion and Travel," offers a brief but useful overview of the state of the field and frames the essays that follow. He organized the essays around five key themes where religion and travel intersect: travel to honor the gods, travel to promote a god or a way of life, travel to explore foreign cultures and people, migration, and travel to make a living. The chapters intersect in many thought-provoking ways. While some are stronger than others (Schellenberg, Rives and Lightstone are the best of the bunch), they all contribute to the collection as a whole and their arguments and examples are much enriched by their juxtaposition with one another.

The chapters in the first section ("Honouring the Gods") come together around the theme of the realities of travel (for both humans and divinities). Steven Muir's sweeping "Religion on the Road in Ancient Greece and Rome" shows that interactions with the gods played a central role in ancient travel. Muir examines many examples of roadside worship and other activities associated with the gods during travel from Archaic Greece to the Roman period. While on the road, travellers replicated religious practices from home to assuage anxieties of travel, which were due to practical hardships and the precarious state of one's social identity when separated from family and community. Travellers invoked gods, then, both for protection and as a means of maintaining their identity while away from home.

Susan Haber's careful study of pilgrimage and ritual purity in first century Judea, "Going Up to Jerusalem: Pilgrimage, Purity, the Historical Jesus," offers new insight on the historical Jesus and his cultural context. The degree to which Jesus observed purity laws has been a matter of debate. Haber argues that while we cannot be certain that the historical Jesus kept to purity laws, it is highly likely that he did so in ways similar to other pilgrims (p. 64). Ritual purity was an essential requirement for a visit to the temple, which was the highlight of pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Wayne McCready's "Pilgrimage, Place, and Meaning Making by Jews in Greco-Roman Egypt" resonates with Haber's chapter in its consideration of Judean pilgrimage to the temple at Elephantine in Egypt, the site of an important Judean military colony that was probably installed during the Persian occupation and destroyed in 410 BCE. Examining a small number of Elephantine papyri and using insights gained from interdisciplinary studies of space, McCready explores the experience of place in diaspora pilgrimage.

Karljürgen Feuerherm moves from human pilgrimage to the travel of gods themselves in "Have Horn, Will Travel: The Journeys of Mesopotamian Deities." He shows that travel was a significant component in ancient Mesopotamian religion, for both gods and humans. Fundamental to these travels was the conception of the very real presence of the deity infused in the cult image. Cult images literally travelled from their houses (temples) to those of other divinities to ritually renew fecundity and intercult relations. Drawing on Sumerian texts, Feuerherm describes a number of these journeys in detail. Mobile gods continued to play a role in later religious practices, as Lucian's Syrian Goddess attests.

The next section, "Promoting A Deity or Way of Life," turns to literary representations of travel and their role in the characterization of heroes. In accounts of the lives of itinerant religious figures, such as Apollonius of Tyana, authors used the tropes of travel to support claims to divinity. Dismantling the scholarly category of the itinerant holy man, Ian Scott argues in "The Divine Wanderer: Travel and Divinization in Late Antiquity" that figures like Apollonius, Pythagoras, Peregrinus, and Alexander Abonuteichos did not share a common itinerant way of life. While all accounts of their lives connect their superhuman status with some form of travel, the precise nature of this travel varies widely. What these figures do have in common, however, is that they all belong to the same symbolic universe in which travel in various configurations emphasizes extraordinary status and power.

Philip Harland's chapter, "Journeys in Pursuit of Divine Wisdom," expands and enriches Scott's observations. Harland examines recurring motifs in travel narratives that describe quests for knowledge from the gods or holy men. Greco- Roman authors had a common set of expectations as to how one accessed divine wisdom in which the notion of wandering was key. A letter that served as a preface to an astrological herbal attributed to Thessalsos describes the author's quest for divine knowledge in Egypt that resulted in a vision of the god Asklepios. Harland shows how Thessalos' autobiographical tale fits well with other accounts of travel to exotic lands in search of divine wisdom and concludes that for many Greco-Roman authors, stories of learning the secrets of the gods were integrally bound up with ideas of wandering and travel. He includes a translation of the letter as well as its Greek text.

Ryan Schellenberg's chapter also adds to our understanding of travelling religious figures. In "'Danger in the wilderness, danger at sea': Paul and the Perils of Travel," Schellenberg challenges New Testament scholarship's interpretation of Paul in relation to his travels. The portrait of the heroic traveller in Acts has shaped the common understanding of Paul and his journeys. However, Schellenberg observes, Paul's letters have been largely overlooked as a source for his travels. Whereas in Acts travel is a narrative trope that emphasizes Paul's remarkable courage, Paul's letters show that, for Paul, travel was a source of hardship, toil and suffering. Paul did not always travel when and where he wanted; rather, his movements were limited by his relationships with local authorities and the communities he visited. The diverse factors that motivated Paul's travels make it difficult to speak of Paul's "mission." Furthermore, anachronistic notions of Paul as a travelling missionary obscure more mundane motives that shaped his movements such as his own vulnerability and the need to make a living.

The next section, "Encountering Foreign Cultures," contains only one chapter. In "Roman Translation: Tacitus and Ethnographic Interpretation," James Rives asks how Romans encountered and interpreted the gods of neighboring peoples. Using Tacitus' Germania as a point of departure, Rives first considers the circulation of ethnographic information. He then reflects on the ancient practice of translating divine names known as interpretatio Romana. Scholars today rightly view this practice in terms of cultural violence and imperialism. However, Rives insists, the ancient perspective of the phenomenon was somewhat different. To the Romans, a god could have many forms and names yet could still be a single deity. When a traveller encountered an unfamiliar god, he had to decide whether the god was a genuinely new deity or one he already knew only by a different name. For Romans, then, the complicated problem of interpretation was a matter of divine identification.

In the section entitled "Migrating," Jack Lightstone shows the importance of travel, migration and communication in the development of Greco-Roman diaspora Judaism. While many modern scholars credit the earliest Palestinian rabbis with the creation of post-Temple Judaism, Lightstone maintains in "Migration and the Emergence of Greco- Roman Diaspora Judaism" that fundamental developments in Judaism arose in diaspora communities in the Greco- Roman period before the destruction of the Temple. Post-temple Judaism did not spread from Palestine into diaspora communities; rather, early rabbis were influenced by the practices of diaspora Judaism. Lightstone argues in favor of seeing diaspora Judaism in the Greco-Roman period as a single entity or taxon. Common origins in Judea, shared urban culture, and especially inter-urban trade, travel and communication led to unified diaspora institutions across the Mediterranean.

The chapters that comprise the final section of the book, called "Making a Living," speak to the intersection of travel, religion, and work. While Lightstone highlights the role of travel and mobility in the creation of a common urban culture across the Roman Mediterranean, Michele Murray focuses on the religious activities of semi-nomadic peoples in "Religion and the Nomadic Lifestyle: The Nabateans." Drawing on archaeological evidence, Murray observes that the mobile lifestyle of the Nabateans was reflected in their religious practices and artifacts. As the Nabateans encountered foreign gods and customs, their religious symbols, art and architecture changed; likewise, they left their own cultic imprint on the lands in which they travelled.

The last chapter, Lincoln Blumell's "Christians on the Move in Late Antique Oxyrhynchus," offers a picture of Christian travel that is strikingly different from travel accounts found in literary sources. While the literary evidence gives the impression that Christians traveled for religious purposes, papyri letters from Oxyrhynchus reveal that ordinary Christians were on the move for more mundane reasons, primarily for work. Evangelism and pilgrimage do not figure at all in the letters, and ecclesiastical duties motivate the travels of only a few. Rather, Christians in Oxyrhynchus most often travelled for secular reasons, and, Blumell suggests, their movements might speak to wider travel patterns in the late antique Mediterranean.

The collection closes with an extensive list of works cited. Harland has also created a very useful website for the book that includes online bibliographies and links to external resources.

This thought-provoking collection leads us to think about travel and religion in the ancient Mediterranean in very broad terms. Its strengths lie in its interdisciplinarity, range and in the juxtaposition of the essays. Together the chapters strike a nice balance between elite and non-elite perspectives on religious travel and between the practicalities of travel (who was travelling, where, how much and how) and its cultural representations. Overall, the book illustrates the great degree to which movement was linked to religion in the ancient Mediterranean and shows the importance of this connection for our understanding of both.

Taken as a collection, then, the chapters are of interest far beyond their particular areas of specialization. Indeed, a key context for the book (though it is not addressed in the introduction) is debate about connectivity and movement in the history of the Mediterranean (Harris 2005, Malkin 2005, Horden and Purcell 2000).1 Many of the essays are case studies of local religious networks and the webs of religious relations between inhabitants of different communities and regions.

The book is well produced with the exception of a few typos and references that do not appear in the list of works cited. More maps would have been helpful as well as illustrations of the archaeological evidence. The front cover depicts the dedication from Jovinus to Triumphal Caelestis in fulfillment of a vow (AE 1950, 51), not the altar erected by Titus Albanius Principianus in honor of the imperial house for a safe voyage (CIL 6.830). Some sections of the book are slimmer than others, and the book by no means exhausts its subject. B,ut, as Harland says, the work is a beginning and its chapters "initial forays" into "largely uncharted territory."

Travel and Religion in Antiquity will surely spark future research in this important area, especially in light of its timeliness. All told it is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on ancient travel and religion.


1.   Harris, William V, ed. 2005. Rethinking the Mediterranean. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press; Horden, Peregrine. 2000. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. Oxford [U.K.] ; Malden, MA: Blackwell; Malkin, Irad, ed. 2005. Mediterranean Paradigms and Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge.

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