Monthly Archives: August 2015

On Greco-Roman religion.

A few weeks ago I concluded my summer reading group on Greco-Roman religion.  When I realized over spring break that I was meant to be a biblical scholar, I waltzed into my professor’s office the first week of classes and asked if he would be my guide to the religions of Greece and Rome.  I am grateful for his patience with my seemingly last-minute whimsy — especially because this is such a vital topic for understanding early Christianity.  We continued through the summer.

What did we read?

  1. Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi
  2. Jon Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion
  3. Mary Beard, Religions of Rome, Volume I: A History
  4. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book I
  5. Simon Price, The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor
  6. R. Gordon Wasson, The Road to Eleusis
  7. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice
  8. Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets
  9. Apolostos Athanasakkis, The Orphic Hymns
  10. W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion
  11. E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational
  12. Chris Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic

What did I get out of the reading group?

My professor defined Greek religion as “approaching the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.”  The religion of the Greeks involved piety, which is knowing your place in the universe.  It involved satisfying various psychological and cultural needs: love, food, the security of the state, etc., all of which required the help of the gods to keep going.  From those premises, we went on to look at the functions Greek and Roman religions served for their practitioners, and tried to draw connections to modern times.

First, I was reminded how difficult it is to really compare religions.  It’s very easy to forget that there is no such thing as a “religion,” that it’s a made-up construct.  It is useful for explaining some things but we must not take it too seriously.

It is hard to compare religions because any religious tradition sufficiently broad has both sides of many of the binaries members or scholars of that religion construct to simplify it.  These binaries are usually created for some kind of apologetic purpose, and I tend not to trust them.

So for example, it might be easy to say that Greco-Roman polytheism was just empty ritual, done more for the purpose of social cohesion than for any kind of individual, powerful relationship with a deity.  But then we look at the Dionysiac cult, or the Orphic cult, or any number of the mystery religions that sprung up during the Hellenistic era.  Even the “empty ritual” of the imperial cult could be heartfelt devotion, as Simon Price demonstrated in The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor.

One reason some study Greco-Roman religions is to better understand why early Christianity was so successful.   One is tempted to ask: what was Greco-Roman religion missing?  I’m not sure that is even a valid question.  I’m still figuring it out.  But understanding that classical paganism was very multi-faceted defeats means we can’t seek facile answers to the question above.  The minute we think something was missing, it turns out it was there, but in a form we may not recognize.  For example, Matthew Ferguson at Adversus Apologetica argues that there was a concept of “sacred text” in Greek polytheism.  (His essay is long but worth checking out!)

Second, if religion is in part about getting what one needs from the gods, it only makes sense that religious syncretism is a practice of those who need the help of the gods most.  In other words, if you need all the help you can get, you will request it from all the gods you can get.  So the evidence on magical papyri and mystery cults, both practices associated with the socially marginalized, show influences from all over the Mediterranean.  Some of the liturgies of mystery cults quoted in Marvin Meyer’s sourcebook quote from Greek, Jewish, Persian, and several other pantheons and cults.

These syncretistic practices, because they come from the marginalized, represented a threat to the elites who write most of what we know about them.  Just witness the Mother Cybele or the cult of Dionysus in Rome!

Third, at the end of the term I had to revise my professor’s definition.  I would say that Greek religion is requesting favors of the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.”  From this perspective, religion is a tool for getting what we need from the gods, whether or not you believe those gods and their myths are real and true.

Just some thoughts.  Summer is winding down for me — I get married this Saturday, have a honeymoon for one week, then immediately start my MA program.  Yikes.  So this week is the calm before the storm.

A little update…

It’s been a little while!  As they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead yet!”

Seriously, though, this has been a crazy August for three reasons:

  1. I have been editing the selected writings of my late friend and mentor, Fr. George Kennard. George was a Jesuit for 76 years, most of them spent teaching philosophy at UC Berkeley, the Marianist Chaminade University of Honolulu, and of course, three different Jesuit institutions.  I met him after he had retired from teaching at age 89.  (As an alumnus of a Jesuit university myself, I can’t say this is too abnormal — I’ve never seen any of them at my school retire under age 75.)  George was very intelligent, always interested in new ideas, and for that reason never published any of the material he wanted the world to see.  I (along with a few of his friends) am publishing an edited volume of some of his writings: a conference presentation, small articles he hoped to integrate into his book, several homilies, etc.  I think it’s a fitting tribute to a man who devoted his life to thinking for the Church and the World.

    I got my part of the book done: collecting the writings, deciding what would be included and what left out of the book, obtaining copyright permissions, formatting a nice manuscript.  Now I have sent all of my work off to the publisher, a small press run by one of his friends.  I feel very relieved to have gotten my part done — for now.

  2. I am currently condensing my senior thesis on Herakles in Gandharan art into an article for The Silk Road, a journal for the general public on issues of the Silk Road.  Yes, this may seem like an odd choice of venues for a budding biblical scholar.  But I spent months on my senior thesis, and I don’t want my work to go to waste.  Plus, two scholars of Indian Buddhism told me they thought I had come up with some interesting and original ideas, so I have at least a little confidence in my work.

    Reworking this into an article has not only been good writing practice, but it is pushing me to think more broadly about the spread of Greek culture in the Hellenistic world.  That will be a big topic for me as I take a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Intertestamental Literature this fall.  Sometimes what seems unrelated can actually be very useful.

  3. Also, I am getting married in 16 days.  So I’m trying to get #2 done by the end of next week so I can devote the week before the wedding purely to last minute details.