The Spread of Religious Ideas in the Roman World: Recent Book
This summer I noticed a recent book on the spread of religious ideas in the Roman world: Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2013). As the topic addresses some projects of my own, and it promised methodological innovation, I even shelled out the rather costly price (£60). Overall, it’s very much worth the reading (although the price remains steep, to my mind). Though she mentions early Christianity only briefly, for anyone interested in the religious scene of the Roman period this is an interesting study. The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.
The methodological innovation involves the use of “network theory,” a topic on which I knew nothing prior to this book. The initial chapter takes readers through the varied ways that this concept (or ganglia of concepts) is used in various disciplines. Frankly, I don’t think that the chapter should have been published as it stands. It’s not necessary, for example, to note how “network theory” functions in scientific disciplines, involving the computerized use of large volumes of data. A simple and brief statement about this sort of thing would suffice. For as Collar uses “network theory,” it’s much simpler.
In three case studies that form the heart of the book, she focuses on inscriptional evidence of the distribution and spread of the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, what she proposes as evidence of the spread of rabbinic reforms in Judaism, and inscriptions referring to a “theos hypsistos” (“most high god”). I’m not an epigrapher myself, but I appreciate the importance of the evidence and those expert in it. (I’ve passed the book now to my colleague here, Dr. Margaret Williams, an accomplished Greek/Latin epigrapher, for her comments, and I may be able to report on them later.)
Basically, Collar logs on a map where inscriptions mentioning, for example, Jupiter Dolichenus, were found. Then, she tries to identify geographical clusters and possible linkages, also taking into account the dates of the inscriptions. This allows her to plot where the cult seems to have been practiced, and the interesting thing here is that it is more heavily attested along the Rhine frontier and in Britain, not in the East from whence the god likely originated. She also notes the people mentioned in the inscriptions (which are mainly dedicatory inscriptions to the god), and is thus able to show that the social network through which this cult spread seems to have been officer ranks of the Roman army.
This combination of geographical plotting, dating of evidence, and a kind of prosopography of the people mentioned gives an impressive analysis. It’s not clear that it’s really “network theory” as practiced in the sciences, but it’s still a valuable study, and opens up a body of data unfamiliar to non-epigraphers such as me.
I found the analysis of the Jupiter Dolichenus data persuasive. I wasn’t quite so persuaded, however, by her argument from the Jewish inscriptions that they show specifically the influence of rabbinic reform efforts. Nor was I satisfied with her endorsement of Stephen Mitchell’s position that the “theos/Zeus hypsistos” inscriptions reflect a particular cult. I remain suspicious that the term was applied to a variety of gods in various locations (including, of course, the use of “theos hypsistos” as the Greek translation of the Hebrew “El elyon” in the Septuagint). So, I’ll be keen to learn what Williams thinks.
My final observation is something that Collar doesn’t note at all. In the same period that she studies in the book (essentially the first three/four centuries CE), there are these numerous inscriptions reflecting the Jupiter Dolichenus cult, for example. Now, in the same period we have scant epigraphical evidence of early Christianity (our earliest identifiable Christian inscriptions dated to the early to mid 3rd century CE, and then still very few). But we have a torrent of Christian literary evidence (e.g., by my count, at least some 250 books written by Christians in the first three centuries), but the Jupiter Dolichenus cult left scant literary evidence.
It’s yet another example of how unusual early Christianity was among the many and varied religious groups of the Roman period.