Friday, February 9, 2018


Robert Knapp, The Dawn of Christianity. People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 303; 16 p. plates. ISBN 9780674976467. $29.95 (hb).

Reviewed by Giovanni Alberto Cecconi, Università degli Studi Firenze (

Version at BMCR home site


Already the author of a volume on the lives of ordinary people and those in the lowest social ranks during the Empire from Augustus to Constantine (Invisible Romans, Cambridge MA), Robert Knapp continues to examine ordinary people, refocusing his attention on a completely different historical topic. Here he sketches a broad outline of religious life and attitudes toward the divine in Jewish, Christian, and polytheist individuals and communities (Knapp opts for the systematic use of the word "polytheists", cf. especially chap. 5 "Polytheists in their World", 59-87; 59: "Polytheists… had a panoply of attitudes and approaches to the supernatural which the term 'polytheism' encapsulates"). The book considers the preexisting conditions for the formation and spread of Christianity from the Late Hellenistic period to the 1st century C.E. The author highlights common ground and points of divergence between the various contexts and traditions mentioned above, laying the basis for a more suitable knowledge and a clearer interpretation of the first "dawn of Christianity" and equally of historical-religious processes that are chronologically later, and which in this book are left undertreated or not treated at all, e.g., Christianization after Constantine (defined as "top down").

The book, which contains useful maps and several high-quality images, has a highly articulated structure: there are eleven chapters, very brief closing remarks (as a "valedictory"), a glossary, a section dedicated to the difficulties posed by the sources, a selected bibliography, notes by chapter, and an index. After an enjoyable introductory chapter on religion and the formation of the Hebrew identity, including a brief history of the Jews, (which he returns to and concludes in chap. 4, "The Justice of Yahweh" and in chap. 6 "Paths to Change"), the author gets to the heart of the topics that most interest him. Here it wouldn't be appropriate to describe the content of the many chapters in detail especially as they are intertwined. They repeatedly deal with some of the major issues: polytheists and Jews in their different social and political contexts; the genesis of Christianity in its relationship with the tradition and practices of Judaism; the historical figure of Jesus as a charismatic leader similar to other prophets and pagan theioi andres (the pages on Jesus offer a clear interpretation, 123-129); the reasons for Christianity's success (both with the Jews, and with the people who worshipped Capitoline or local gods) as well as the hostility that it encountered, especially from the lower and middle groups of society. The relationship between Jews, Christians and the Roman Empire functions as a constantly emerging backdrop. Knapp insists on the commonality between the religious customs and the attitudes towards the supernatural of the various groups that he considers (e.g. the spontaneous idea of do ut des and what he calls the "'show me' factor", 24).

From the beginning, emphasis is also placed on the common ground consisting of the plurality of deities, demons and divine forces of animistic nature, as well as related practices—magic, witchcraft, divination, thaumaturgy, miracles—that were present in social milieux where monotheism was prevalent, even though that presence and its perception varied through historical phases. The alleged magical and miraculous practices are discussed at great length and with numerous examples. These practices are considered both in relation to the religions from which they were considered a deviation and in relation to the figures that put them in action in Jewish (e.g., 189-192), early Christian (196-197), and polytheistic circles. Some famous magicians are discussed in a long and evocative paragraph, which also stresses the role of women in this field (192-207, esp. 194-195, cf. 30-31).

In general, the content of the book is valuable and convincing. Knapp has a clear mastery of scriptural and classical (literary, epigraphical, iconographical) material, which constantly comes into play. The book leaves the impression of being primarily the result of the author's direct assessment of the sources, while the general reworking of the material is original and, in a certain sense, unlike current scholarship. Knapp offers an elegant declaration of his perspective while introducing the bibliography (257):

Sources for the study of religious practices among the general population provide a rich if, as always, incomplete picture. The scholarship on all these sources is simply immense - almost defying comprehension. Each year scores, even hundreds of articles or books are written just on someone like Jesus or Paul... Scholarly combat ensues on hundreds of topics, large and small. Sorting out a general treatment that offers something new, even in a small way, proves daunting...

Yet in the bibliography, non-Anglophone historical criticism is hardly mentioned. This does not mean of course that Knapp overlooked this material while preparing the work; contributions by Walter Burkert are cited (twice), and the German philologist and historian of ancient religions is, along with Ramsay MacMullen, one of the very few contemporary scholars that are mentioned in the main body of the text.

That said, in this writer's opinion, the editorial organization of the work is not fully satisfactory. Arguments on the similarities between Roman (religious and professional) associations and the structures, functions, and activities of early Christian communities (83-84), as well as the views on the congruity between early Christianity's monotheism and the cult of Zeus Hypsistos (81-83, 144), appear to be rather generic. The style is often engaging, but in some parts, the titles of the paragraphs are not sufficient to follow the arguments without difficulty. The direct quotations in the text do not have the corresponding references to the works (in the case of authors), or collections (in the case of inscriptions) with the result that the reader has to search for them in the rather atypical notes (270-287, where the deliberately brief indications for the documentary basis of statements are confined). The total absence of texts in the original languages is the symptom of a much broader cultural issue. The fact remains that every primary source (including the most important and more widely commented passages) is systematically translated into English; thus, neither the specialist nor the more erudite reader have the chance to verify and to rethink in the light of the originals. Very few misprints were identified (the only noteworthy one is the misspelling of Arthur Darby Nock's last name at p. 260).

In summary, Knapp shows a talent for agile writing and is brilliant in portraying age-changing developments that bristle with methodological complexity. His work is informative and will surely captivate curious and cultured members of the general public, to whom the book seems to be intended.

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