Monday, November 27, 2017


Stephen E. Potthoff, The Afterlife in Early Christian Carthage: Near-Death Experience, Ancestor Cult, and the Archaeology of Paradise. Routledge studies in the early Christian world. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xiii, 240. ISBN 9781138182981. $149.95.

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site


The rich textual and material remains of late Roman North Africa between the early third and early fifth centuries have attracted many scholars of ancient Christianity. As a result, the southern littoral of the late antique Mediterranean has become one of the most vivid settings in our historical imagination. Based on a dissertation completed in the early 1990s, Stephen Potthoff's book explores accounts of near-death visions and encounters with ghosts in this familiar place, while at the same time examining the activities of early Christians at gravesites and symbols of the afterlife on funerary monuments. Over the course of eight chapters, he treats the following topics: visionary journeys to paradise in the ancient Mediterranean (ch. 1), the cult of ancestors in early Christian Rome (ch. 2), the material evidence for graveside commemoration in Carthage (ch. 3), thoughts and debates about the postmortem fate of the dead in the writings of Tertullian (ch. 4), Cyprian (ch. 5), and Augustine (ch. 6), the archaeology of Christian cemeteries in North Africa at the time of Augustine (ch. 7), and the language and images of paradise on funerary inscriptions and sarcophagi (ch. 8).

Unfortunately, Potthoff's book manages to summarize much that is old without taking due account of all that is new. While drawing heavily from the work of scholars who published before 1995, Potthoff's treatment of more recent historiography is disappointing. For example, the book takes no account of the most significant work on late Roman funerary culture and early Christian identity published between Brent Shaw's classic "Seasons of Death: Aspects of Mortality in Ancient Rome" (1996) and Eric Rebillard's paradigm-changing Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity: North Africa, 200-450 CE (2012).1 The failure to incorporate the insights of Rebillard's book, let alone his many articles on these topics, undermines the arguments of the volume under review because it is now impossible to talk about late antique Christians as a homogenous body of like-minded believers.2 Moreover, Potthoff's primary contribution—the comparison of the visions of ancient Christian martyrs to modern near-death experiences—is not very convincing nor particularly useful as a heuristic for understanding the ancient world. Lastly, his reliance on outdated translations of primary source materials and his failure to acknowledge modern editions of the texts he uses as evidence do not meet the standards of scholarship that one expects of a modern monograph.3


1.   Brent Shaw, "Seasons of Death: Aspects of Mortality in Ancient Rome," JRS 86 (1996): 100-138. Eric Rebillard, Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity: North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), see my review in BMCR 2013.05.28.
2.   Conveniently collected and translated in Eric Rebillard, Transformations of Religious Practices in Late Antiquity (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014).
3.   See p. 118: "Unless otherwise noted, all English translations are from the ANF [Ante-Nicene Fathers] series; Latin, with corresponding numeration, is from the PL [Patrologia Latina] series."

1 comment:

  1. Though I appreciate the decidedly minimal substantive critique Professor Bruce offers of my book, his overall assessment of the book’s contribution to scholarship is both incomplete and unfair. I noticed in the guidelines for reviewers that reviews should not attack authors for “not writing the book you wanted to write.” Professor Bruce’s brief review largely dismisses my book’s overall value with a few unsupported blanket statements, pointing out some bibliographic omissions but without recognizing virtually any of the many contributions to scholarship in various fields my highly interdisciplinary study offers. Professor Bruce seems to expect my book to be a more traditional historical study, though I make clear in the introduction that this is not what I set out to write. Moreover, having looked over the most recent book whose omission Bruce states invalidates my own work, I have found that my own interdisciplinary analysis actually complements and supports the insights offered by the book Bruce champions (and had earlier reviewed in extensive and glowing terms for BMCR). In summary, Bruce’s review would have been much more helpful to me and others had he been able to offer a more well-considered, thoughtful and balanced engagement with the insights I develop.


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