Sunday, October 16, 2016


Heidi Marx-Wolf, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 216. ISBN 9780812247893. $55.00.

Reviewed by Heidi Wendt, Wright State University (

Version at BMCR home site


Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority offers a textured account of third-century intellectuals, defined broadly, and makes several productive contributions to the study of late ancient religion. Exploring how Platonically-inclined writers both known and anonymous staked out positions about the ontology and cosmic order of spirits, Heidi Marx-Wolf situates these figures and the "spiritual taxonomies" they produced within a common intellectual milieu characterized by regular discursive exchange. Her detailed literary analysis gestures far beyond the particular texts she examines, however, toward rivalries among would-be religious experts that paid little heed to the boundaries of putative ancient groups and continue to resist modern scholarly categories.

The book consists of four main chapters that align evidence ranging from the writings of Origen and philosophers in the lineage of Plotinus to certain "Gnostic" tractates and "magical" handbooks. Marx-Wolf argues that the spiritual taxonomies undergirding these texts were "one strategy in more global attempts to establish various kinds of authority, garner social capital, and wrest these from other contemporary cultural entrepreneurs and experts" (2). Her methodology collapses distinctions between the intellectuals she considers along two axes: horizontally, between Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, as well as the authors of select Nag Hammadi tractates and Greek and Coptic ritual papyri; and vertically, between literate experts of differential skill-levels and the popular audiences above which they sought to elevate themselves. The resulting picture is of an intellectual climate more integrated than factional, and far from the cultural nadir implied in much previous scholarship. Hence, hers joins other voices seeking to recast the third century as a period not of cultural decline or mayhem—a dark ages between the evanescence of the Second Sophistic and the triumph of Christianity —but of exchange, creativity, and innovation, particularly in the religious domain.1

After an introduction that surveys recent work on demon- and angelology and late-antique religious difference, the first chapter examines third-century debates about animal sacrifice, a regular site for hashing out the ontological and moral statuses of spirits. Porphyry's On Abstinence from Killing Animals receives ample consideration since his characterization of sacrifice as a demonic conspiracy clashes with the defensive posture that contemporary Platonists such as Iamblichus, and elsewhere Porphyry himself, typically adopted vis-à-vis traditional religion. His problem with sacrifice lay in the particular beings sustained by it: not gods or even good daemons, whose souls control their pneuma by reason, but bad daemons, whose souls, captive to anger and appetite, are instead controlled by their pneuma and who then compromise human bodies by inciting their passions in turn. Precedents for the idea that animal sacrifices propitiated evil daemons are found not in Platonic philosophy per se—Porphyry's contentions contravened the teaching of his own teacher, Plotinus—but the position is common, Marx-Wolf notes, among his Christian contemporaries. This is especially the case for Origen, whom, following Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, she takes to be identical with Ammonius Saccas' student of the same name, and whose theories on evil daemons Porphyry appears to have found persuasive.2

Chapter 2 further explores the impetus of third-century Platonists, including Origen, "to emplot spirits in a larger cosmic framework" with an emphasis on the concerns that motivated them to undertake such a project. Notwithstanding a pervasive interest in ordering and systematizing the realm of spirits, Marx-Wolf identifies "discursive ruptures" in their schemes that betray obligations to popular beliefs about the materiality of spirits. Dismantling ivory-tower expectations about ancient intellectuals, she suggests that these writers not only grappled with widely-held ideas about divine beings, but also accommodated such ideas in order to gain recognition as religious experts. "The importance of this realization," she explains, "is that we cannot maintain the view that intellectuals such as Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus were thinking and developing their taxonomic discourses in some isolated milieu apart from the society in which they lived. They were not only in dialogue across porous and flexible religious lines . . . but they were also engaged in dialogue across social boundaries" (63).3 Ultimately, their legitimacy depended on how successfully they conveyed expertise to their audiences in settings rife with others making similar claims.

Another intriguing yield of this chapter is that an author's "identity" was less determinative of the spiritual taxonomy he constructed than the specific writings that informed it. This is evident in Origen's uncritical embrace of key philosophical texts whose polytheistic premises did not, for his purposes, outweigh their intellectual value. Turning to On First Principles, Marx-Wolf illustrates how Origen plumbed the pages of the Timaeus, Genesis, and other writings to construct a single body of doctrine comprising everything from cosmogony and the ontology of daemons to the nature of human souls and their soteriological prospects. And while it may have been Marcion, Valentinus, and Basilides who prompted Origen to clarify his own teachings about the soul, he was no less impelled by non-Christian intellectuals such as Plotinus and Porphyry, whom he influenced in turn (43-4). Catechetical ambitions aside, the most significant difference between Origen and his Platonic interlocutors lay in the particular literary materials that sustained his purposive exegeses: a preference for biblical texts over Homeric.4 This is in keeping with what Marx-Wolf subsequently characterizes as a tendency among third-century "experts" to concoct synthetic wisdom from material ranging from ancient Judean or Egyptian literature, to the writings of Plato or Hippocrates, to various oracular corpora.

The juxtaposition of these religious actors raises questions about how to categorize them meaningfully when their distinctiveness might amount to which ingredients they enlisted in their proprietary programs. Is there greater explanatory value, then, in categories adduced from the content of their particular writings or from features of the would-be experts who produced and interpreted writings, in general, to common ends? Without denying the importance of content—after all, it is only by examining the intricacies of spiritual taxonomies that Marx-Wolf evinces and maps their authors' relationships —it may be secondary to deeper affinities that literate experts exhibited. For the same reason, I wondered about the scope and force of "identity" in this context, for, while it captures the constructive processes by which experts crafted their specialties and differentiated themselves from rivals, its connotation of subjectivities that are essential, passive, and group-oriented stands in slight tension with Marx-Wolf's depiction of individuals jostling in a common arena, and whose discourses of difference masked the common skills and interests that bound them together. Although she seems to employ "identity" in the former sense, this language may for some reinscribe difference more deeply than she intends.

Chapters 3 and 4 mark a productive transition from how third-century intellectuals labored to locate spirits within complex philosophical and theological discourses, to why they were so intensely interested in doing so. Turning to the elaborate cosmologies found in the Nag Hammadi codices, Marx-Wolf argues that these writings were dialogically enmeshed with and likely served as a catalyst for the development and refinement of the spiritual taxonomies she treats earlier. Certain tractates might even be characterized as spiritual taxonomies in narrative form, equally totalizing and, for their compelling genre, all the more potent than drier theological treatises. That Nag Hammadi and (other) Platonic writings of the second and third centuries exhibit common intellectual preoccupations—with questions of metaphysics, ontology, cosmology, ethics, soteriology, and so on—should be unsurprising. As Marx-Wolf reminds us, many of these works arose, or likely did, from similar social settings: philosophical schools or circles in large urban centers that supported expansive networks of intellectual and literary exchange.

If the authors or expositors of so-called Gnostic cosmologies formed one set of "theological competitors" in these environments, the priestly figures behind certain Greek and Coptic ritual texts were another, although the designation of these artifacts as "magical" has obscured their intellectual character and continuities with a wider phenomenon of self- authorized expertise. The production of taxonomic discourses by Platonic intellectuals was thus no idle academic exercise. Rather, literary composition and interpretation were intrinsic to rivalries encompassing would-be experts of varied affiliations—"Christian," "Platonic," "Hermetic," and however else one might identify—who were nevertheless united by claims to religious authority predicated on texts.5

It is impossible to do justice here to the disciplined exegesis that supports these larger conclusions. Using the particularities of texts to illuminate the social webs in which they were embedded, Marx-Wolf makes a persuasive case that the spiritual taxonomies she considers participated in rivalries that cut across disciplinary and religious boundaries, to the extent these existed in the third century. Rather, the elite Platonic philosopher, the Christian intellectual, and the Egyptian priest co-existed in close and dynamic proximity. The book conveys the intimacy of their exchanges while offering new interpretive avenues for features of thought that have been characterized as inconsistent or unsystematic, when they might be seen instead as predictable effects of competition and mutual differentiation that were occurring at a time when religious identities were still under construction.

It was in this environment, Marx-Wolf argues, that philosophical discourses became increasingly entangled with religious practices, that many Platonists acquired a hieratic status, taking on the persona of the priest or theurgist to become active players in the late antique landscape of ritual expertise. While this trend may predate the third century, the shift she identifies calls into question whether "philosopher" is the best designation for the cluster of writer-intellectuals at the center of her study. In the third century and earlier we find experts who made ample use of philosophical discourses, but who—unlike others who drew a line between theorizing matters of religion and invoking divine beings directly—enlisted these in the context of activities that actually summoned the gods and daemons or imparted divine pneuma, and so on.

While the edges are bound to be hazy, it seems that some third-century intellectuals continued to function as "philosophers," while others drew heavily on philosophy to explain and justify the religious practices they prescribed. At risk of appearing to split hairs, redescribing the latter figures collectively as, say, intellectualizing religious experts as opposed to philosophers, theurgists, Christian intellectuals, priests, or ritual experts may allow for greater analytical precision without resorting to categories that imply fundamental distinctions between them. I raise these matters not as criticisms, but because Marx-Wolf is so effective at jettisoning the fraught language and categories that have compartmentalized the ambitious scope of evidence she considers that readers are at liberty to sift through and formulate fresh methodological queries about what remains. She shifts our focus productively from groups to individuals, whose interests, habits, and choices make it is easier to appreciate the limitations of existing models for theorizing religious difference in Late Antiquity.

While third-century intellectuals diverged on the specifics of cosmology, or of soteriological prescriptions and outcomes, this occurred as often among members of a common genealogy or religious affiliation as it did between ostensible groups. Indeed, the exact terms of a salvation scheme are shown to have been largely at the discretion of a given writer, who sampled with few constraints from intellectual currents of the day to arrive at a diagnosis of the human condition that he (or she), acting as religious expert, might then remedy. Would-be experts might disagree sharply on these terms, yet their representational or epistemological disagreements are arguably less important than the tremendous commonalities that Marx-Wolf throws into relief. Her study of taxonomy thus raises important taxonomic questions that will be of interest to scholars of ancient religion and philosophy alike.


1.   For similar recuperative efforts, see, e.g., Kendra Eshleman, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
2.   On this point, Marx-Wolf challenges the "conflict model" that views relations between Christians and non-Christians of the third century in predominantly hostile terms. Placing Porphyry's works within the larger context of the Greek intellectual heritage that he and Origen shared, she proposes that Porphyry adopted a seemingly Christian position on blood sacrifice, one that draws on specific associations between blood sacrifice and corporeal existence found predominantly in Christian texts (27-8). This particular stance might have derived from Origen's Concerning Daemons, a work certainly known to Porphyry (22-3) and one that compensates for Plotinus's relative silence on the topic of intermediate spirits (52).
3.   Marx-Wolf may slightly overstate the currency of this view, insofar as much scholarship of the past decades has stressed the degree to which Roman-period philosophers were embedded in and beholden to their respective social ecologies.
4.   See also Maren R. Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
5.   Radcliffe G. Edmonds III makes similar arguments about the relationship between expertise and books in Classical Athens: see Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), esp. 112-16.

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