Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Birgitte Secher Bøgh (ed.), Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity: Shifting Identities – Creating Change. Papers originally presented at a conference held in Ebeltoft, Denmark, December 1st-4th, 2012, at Aarhus University. Early Christianity in the context of antiquity, 16. Frankfurt am Main; New York: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. 311. ISBN 9783631658512. $76.95 (hb).

Reviewed by Thomas Blank, Universität des Saarlandes (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

To what extent the rise of Christianity in the 2nd to 4th centuries CE can be explained by monotheistic claims upon their adherents' confession involving a marked renunciation of polytheistic pagan cults is among the recurring controversies in the history of ancient religions. The notion of such exclusivity in monotheism is closely related to the distinction between monotheistic conversion (a personal shift of morals and belief resulting in a thorough and irreversible readjustment of the social and religious life according to the standards of the new adopted faith) and pagan adherence (a decision to take part in a specific cult neither exclusive of other religious beliefs and practices nor necessarily involving a change of social and moral standards) introduced by the early 20th century classicist Arthur Darby Nock. Nock's definition of conversion also led to its distinction from rites of initiation, the former being considered a full change of personality (with baptism as result—not source—of change) the latter a change of mere social status (with the rite as source—not result—of change). This distinction of Christian conversion/faith and pagan adherence/cult has been very influential in studies of Early Christian literature, liturgy, and ideology, as well as in the religious history of paganism and, especially, ancient mysteries.

The volume Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity. Shifting Identities – Creating Change presents the proceedings of a 2012 conference at Ebeltoft, Denmark, which aimed at reassessing Nock's definitions of conversion and initiation under the light of formerly neglected sources as well as contemporary social and cultural theory. The fifteen papers all address—and try to overcome—the post-Nockian distinction of paganism and monotheism along the lines of Nock's paradigmatic distinctions. This results in a highly coherent volume that pursues a clear agenda from multiple angles and perspectives. While, naturally, the degree to which the single papers convince readers will vary, the volume as a whole succeeds in its general agenda to highlight the need for reassessing the Nockian paradigms.

In her paper (pp. 25-46) Brigitte Bøgh suggests that initiation into Dionysiac cults involved the idea of a change of status and identity not only after death but in prior life as well. The choice to become a follower of Dionysus was thus not only motivated by eschatological hope, but especially by the redefinition of one's status as a participant in the society of initiates. Therefore, the strict opposition of conversion and initiation as defined by Nock should be overcome by a more open concept of varying degrees of conversion involved in the process of becoming a follower of any cult in general.

Éric Rebillard (pp. 47-58) concludes from his reading of Tertullian's early works de spectaculis, de idolatria, and de cultu feminarum, that while Christians were easily discernible by their social behaviour (daily gatherings, symbolic gestures, abstention from other cults etc.), that becoming a Christian did not necessarily involve a renunciation of all non-Christian social practices and identities or that there was no gap between the acceptance of Christian ethics in theory and everyday-behaviour. Instead, as Rebillard convincingly argues, Tertullian's polemic is directed against the predominating multiplicity of social identities Christians usually held and which they individually and intermittently activated according to different social contexts.

Jan Bremmer (pp. 59-76) also challenges the notion of Christian conversion as a radical change and reconfiguration of the spiritual and ethical single person. In his analysis on the Acts of John, the Acts of Peter, and the Acts of Paul, Bremmer underscores the fact that the narratives of conversion often describe them as group conversions triggered by the miracles worked by God through the Apostles, and that the distinction between these miracles and the magical delusions of the Apostles' opponents like Simon Magus is made by simply ascribing miracles to the working of God (in the case of the Apostles) instead of the wondrous man (and his possible rhetorical deceit). While Bremmer generally accepts Nock's idea of conversion as a phenomenon exclusive to Judaism/Christianity, he dismisses its restriction to the individual person's soul/character and stresses the social aspects of Christian conversion.

Jakob Engberg (pp. 77-99) argues that normative constructs of how conversions should take place had not only significant influence on the narratives of conversion in apologetic texts, but also on considerable numbers of actual conversions. Thus, the claim for active endeavours of both converts-to-be and already converted Christians to live up to the norms of true spiritual conversion (in order to convert, or, in order to give an example for true conversion) should not be too easily dismissed as pure literary constructs, but as guiding principles people tried to conform to. Also, the notion of divine agency involved in conversions should not be regarded as necessarily fictitious, but as something that converts possibly convinced themselves to believe.

The relation of philosophic and religious education is analysed in two articles by Tobias Georges and Nicholas Marshall. Georges (pp. 271-285) focuses on the depiction of Christianity as truest philosophy in Justin and Tatian, by which the study of pagan philosophy appears as necessary preparation for true conversion (a narrative that can only represent ideals of elite converts). Marshall (pp. 101-117) investigates philosophical protreptics as source for the notion of an upgrade of the convert's status to higher ontological spheres.1 He underscores the attraction that the prospect of achieving a more divine status could have on converts, and he argues that such 'ontological conversion' was used as rhetorical strategy to enhance conversions by both religious and philosophical groups. Thus, philosophical conversion is considered a social practice of the same type as religious conversion, which renders protreptic literature a possible source for such practice. Also, the concept of 'ontological conversion' remains rather independent from individual social contexts, insofar as affiliation to a virtual group of believers/enlightened persons can suffice for the protreptic strategies under discussion.

A couple of papers address the role of instruction and teaching in processes of conversion and initiation (Anders-Christian Jacobsen, pp. 203-223; Per Bilde, pp. 225-245; Roger Beck, 247-255; Elisabetta Abate, pp. 257-269; Georges, see above). Taken together, they succeed in demonstrating the processual character of integrating new members in both monotheistic and pagan cult groups. The most ambitious of these articles is that of Per Bilde, who tries to show that many pagan cult-groups had institutions comparable to the Christian catechumenate. Thus, he defines conversion as the "decision to apply for an initiation" (p. 228) and underlines the fact that monotheistic religions also had initiation rites. As enticing and plausible as this approach might be, it has to cope with a lack of sources clearly testifying to the existence of formalised instruction. Thus, in some instances, Bilde can only point to possible alternative interpretations of his sources without corroborating these as the most plausible. In the case of two sources for Dionysiac cults (p. 236), the argument is even based upon erroneous translations/interpretations.2 This error naturally weakens Bilde's argument, which, however, still remains theoretically possible and worthwhile for further investigation.

Although, as mentioned above, the volume appears highly consistent in the common agenda of all chapters, this agenda does not mean that there was no disagreement between the single papers concerning method and interpretation. As a result, it is rather difficult to summarize common results of the different articles, especially because the problems of comparability (different religions and social contexts) and unity (single religions in different groups, regions, eras) are not thoroughly addressed from a bird's eye perspective. Here, a conclusive chapter might have helped the reader to better understand the potential for comparisons that the contributors themselves saw in specific cases.

The greatest agreement is reached in the notion that conversion should be considered less as a sudden event, in which some divine revelation or experience leads to a punctual decision to convert, than a process, in which personal change and integration into the group are achieved by instruction and rites. In this respect, most of the papers (esp. Bøgh; Bremmer; Engberg; Marshall; Crook, pp. 119-134; Cvetković, pp. 135-152; Jacobsen; Abate) implicitly or explicitly describe initiation as a ritual part of larger processes of conversion, thus negating the mutual exclusiveness of both concepts. While this general interpretation is convincing, one could pose the question of whether the Nockian terms—influential as they have been—should be applied at all to concepts so fundamentally different. Also, not all of the papers addressing the processual character of conversion take as far-reaching conclusions as described above: Bremmer explicitly (pp. 72-73) and Jacobsen implicitly acknowledge Nock's idea that conversion was exclusively connected to the rise of monotheistic religions.

Controversial are the papers dealing with methods and modes of instruction in Mithraic religion/cult groups. Not only do the three papers addressing the so-called Mithras Liturgy (Edmonds, Bilde, Beck) evaluate the usefulness of this text as a source for Mithraic concepts quite differently, but Bilde and Beck directly oppose Edmonds' (pp. 185-201) unconvincing interpretation of initiations as (nothing more than) purification rites without any meaning for group affiliation. In another instance of direct opposition, Jacobsen rejects the concepts of multiple or constructed identities underlying the interpretations of Rebillard and others in the volume. Instead, he embraces the notion of a genuine and indivisible core of identity that underwent a polar transformation during the process of conversion. Diverging in its theoretical approach is Luther Martin's article (pp. 153-168). Martin adduces concepts from social and cognitive science to indicate new paths to investigate the problem of inclusive and exclusive experiences involved in initiation rites. By this sociological approach he overcomes the modern bias of social fields that narrows the view on ancient cult groups as (nothing more than) religious.

Even though it is helpful to see genuine controversy arising from opposing theoretical concepts or methodological frameworks, the strong opposition between single papers within the volume to a certain degree undermines the comparability of their results and thus the consistency of the volume, regardless of its very coherent agenda. Generally, as an almost natural result of the focus on social/religious concepts, most papers deal with abstract considerations rather than with detailed analysis of vast source material. All papers, to be sure, are based upon tangible case-studies. Still, they aim more at providing thought-provoking impulses for further studies than at giving conclusive and definite answers. In this respect, the volume is, indeed, very useful and can be considered a welcome contribution to the study of the social and cultural history of ancient religions.

The volume is neatly produced and contains only few errors in typography, grammar, or orthography. The indices (General Index, Index Locorum, pp. 287-311) are concise and useful. Regrettably, all bibliographical information is restricted to the footnotes of the articles, and there is no general bibliography, which renders the volume less useful for readers who wish to look up general literature on some of the larger issues under discussion.


1.   The notion of 'ontological conversion' is taken from C. H. T. Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam, Leiden 2002, esp. pp. 6-9.
2.   SEG 28,841 ([…] γιγνώσκηις ἱεροῦ λουτροῖο μετασχών πάντα λόγον [...], καὶ σιγᾶν ὅ τι κρύπτον ἐπιστάμενος καὶ ἀϋτεῖν ὅσσα θέμις, στείχηις ὄργια ταῦτα μαθών […]), Bilde: "you will recognise the holy washing ritual […]," and "you will comply by learning the orgia", instead of: "you will understand the whole logos by taking part in the holy washing ritual," and "you will comply to the orgia by learning this [=the knowledge when to be esoterically silent or exoterically outspoken];" Liv. 39,18,3 (praeeunte verba sacerdote praecationes fecerant), which Bilde interprets as an education in prayers, while it refers to a prompting of the ritual words during the ritual, which (if referring to instruction at all) can only mean that the initiands had not learned the words before.

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