Brent Nongbri, Before Religion

ImageIn the opening chapters of Before Religion, Brent Nongbri’s case is simple: “religion” is not an ancient category. For students and scholars of biblical studies, the absence of “religion” in antiquity may come as something of a surprise. Trained in seminaries and divinity schools, many of us simply inherited the assumption that ancient people were by definition religious people and that their texts were necessarily religious texts. We sometimes forget that historical inquiry is actually the most challenging sort of cross-cultural exploration, and assume that our ancestors shared our penchant for neat categories like “religious” and “secular.” All too often biblical scholars have conceived of ancient “religion” as an inherently private affair that took place off-stage, outside of the public sphere. Although the perspective that “religion” is an ancient category and biblical texts are by definition “religious” texts is persistent, Nongbri’s corrective reflects a growing consensus among biblical scholars that it is no longer a tenable position.

According to Nonbgri, not only did our ancestors not share our tendency to dichotomize between “religious” and “secular,”[1] they broke all of the rules of polite dinner conversation by mixing their “religious” matters in with their political, social, and economic structures. While often translated as “religion,” terms such as religio, thrēskia, and dīn transcend the limited meaning of such a wooden rendering. These terms point to social, political, and legal networks in addition to symbol systems which scholars might flatly term “religious.”[2] Indeed, as Nongbri shows in his tour of “premature births of religion,” what some have come to regard as simply “religion” actually has more to do with ethnicity, political structures, and cultural boundaries in antiquity.[3]

All of this is incredibly problematic for the biblical scholar still operating under the assumption that religion is (A) a universal concept, and (B) to be found in isolation in antiquity. Because Nongbri’s work was so recently published (January, 2013), it is impossible to know whether or not, and to what extent, the guild has reckoned with his thesis. Yet by briefly surveying a few recent volumes on Judaism and Christianity in antiquity, it quickly becomes apparent that Nongbri’s corrective is sorely needed by some and supports the already established paradigm of others.

In the popular translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Wise, Abegg, Jr., and Cook, the authors note that “all the scrolls, with a few minor exceptions, are Jewish religious texts.”[4] They express surprise that there are no surviving scrolls devoted to “secular, ‘practical’” topics such as agriculture or animal husbandry.[5] Yet it is taken as granted that the scrolls found at Qumran were maintained by a community for whom a dichotomization of “religious” and “secular” was intelligible. What the authors call “religious texts” are actually inclusive of laws governing community life (1QS),  how to handle disputes (1QS, 4Q255-264a, 5Q11), rules governing the gleaning of crops (4Q284a), and many other matters which could otherwise be described as “practical” or “secular.”

Another recent publication still supports this religious-secular dichotomy in its format, if not in its constitutive essays. Stanley Porter’s edited volume, Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism, is set up in two parts: (1) Hellenistic Social Contexts for Christian Origins and (2) Hellenistic Jewish Literary and Religious Contexts for Christian Origins (emphasis mine). Despite this arbitrary editorial binary which separates “social” contexts from “religious” ones, the contributing authors each seem to understand that there can be no neat bifurcation between “social” and “literary/religious” contexts within the Greco-Roman world. Thus Marshak contributes a study on the Herodian dynasty to part one (“Social Contexts”), but his work is based in large part on literary/textual sources and explores the so-called “religious” elements of the Herodian propaganda machine (which might better fit part two).[6] Similarly, Costa blends the “religious” and “social” contexts of Paul in writing about the apostle’s divine calling in part one,[7] while Cirafesi explores both the “religious” and “social-political” elements of the Qumran community’s disposition towards Jerusalem in part two.[8] Clearly the contributors do not dichotomize between “religious” and “secular,” yet the neat (and ahistorical) division comprises the structure of this recent Brill-published book.

Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity is among the most sophisticated treatments of “religion” in the ancient world. Yet, as evidenced in the subtitle, Johnson still assumes that “religion” is an ancient category. Johnson follows Joachim Wach in defining “religion” in terms of human response to ultimate power—a definition, he is proud to say, that “is broad enough to include virtually everything that calls itself religious.”[9] Still, Johnson does not fully adhere to the old essentialist model and allows what he calls “religion” to have significant points of contact with the political, social, and economic spheres of everyday life.[10] Like many of the contributors to the aforementioned Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism, Johnson understands that religion cannot be separated from other structures in antiquity, even if he still understands it to be an ancient concept.

There are, of course, many scholars in the field for whom Nongbri’s corrective is nothing new. A few examples will suffice. Horsley’s recent contribution to historical Jesus studies is built upon “a more relational and contextual approach” that reads Jesus, his message, and the movement he generated in terms of social and political structures.[11] This approach is in marked divergence from previous attempts at establishing the person and message of the historical Jesus. Where Schweitzer, Allison, and Ehrman have posited an “apocalyptic” Jesus who preached a millenarian, and therefore “religious,” message, Horsley suggests a Jesus whose apocalyptic rhetoric is indicative of a message and movement in opposition to Roman rule.[12] Similarly, Davina Lopez has created new inroads for appreciating Paul’s message against its Roman imperial context. In Apostle to the Conquered, Lopez rejects the common assumption that “Gentile” (ethnos) is a discretely religious category for Paul and instead contextualizes it vis-à-vis the imperium. In doing this, Lopez is able to explore the political contours of Paul’s mission to the “nations conquered by and assimilated into Roman territorial and cosmic rule.”[13] Not limited to monographs, the perspective that religious matters in antiquity have cognates in political and economic spheres is also reflected in New Testament introductory material. Ehrman’s popular New Testament introductory text begins with an admonition to students that, in antiquity, matters of “religion” are not distinct from other social, political, and economic structures.[14]

Clearly, Nongbri’s perspective represents what could be, and in some cases already is, a corrective to long-held assumptions about religion in the biblical studies world. Some scholars will resist this corrective, continue to assume “religion” to be an ancient category, and treat entire corpora of ancient texts as primarily “religious” in nature. But still others, like those mentioned immediately above, will continue to make room in their conceptual apparatus for what is ultimately a more faithful, social-relational, and useful lens through which the ancient world can be studied.


[1] Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 4.

[2] Ibid., 25–45.

[3] Most pertinent for biblical scholars is Nongbri’s critical treatment of a common understanding of the Maccabean Revolt as the putative birth of Judaism (and thus “religion”). Ibid., 46ff.

[4] Michael Owen Wise, Martin G. Abegg, Jr., and Edward M. Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 11. Emphasis mine.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adam Kolman Marshak, “Glorifying the Present through the Past: Herod the Great and His Jewish Royal Predecessors,” in Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament, ed. Stanley E Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 51–81.

[7] Tony Costa, “‘Is Saul of Tarsus Among the Prophets?’ Paul’s Calling as Prophetic Divine Commissioning,” in Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism, 203–236.

[8] Wally V. Cirafesi, “The Temple Attitudes of John and Qumran in Light of Hellenistic Judaism,” in Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism, 315–340.

[9] Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 17.

[10] Ibid., 95ff.

[11] Richard A. Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 67.

[12] Ibid., 79–94; 130–149. This is, of course, a note Horsley has been sounding throughout his career. Cf. Richard A Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 147ff; Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel: Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Movements, and Apocalypticism,” ed. John J. Collins, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 2000), 303-344; Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 121ff; Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

[13] Davina C Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 17.

[14] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 39–41.

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