Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimiliation and Resistance

By Johnston, Sarah Iles | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimiliation and Resistance


Johnston, Sarah Iles, Journal of Biblical Literature


Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance, by David Frankfurter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi + 315. $49.50.

Late antique Egypt has usually served as a backdrop against which other things could be charted: the emergence of Christianity or the nature of Roman imperialism, for example. Frankfurter takes what is still a relatively untrodden path and instead studies late antique Egypt from the inside out, so to speak. By focusing on changes in practices between about 100 and 600 C.E. Frankfurter examines how Egyptian religion responded to the changing circumstances-political, cultural, economic, and clerical-- in which it found itself The resulting book is rich in information that has been largely overlooked by historians of late antique Mediterranean religions and provocative in its use of theoretical models drawn from cultures as distant from the shores of the Nile as rural South America.

The theoretical model to which Frankfurter returns most often is Robert Redfield's "great tradition-little tradition," which Redfield first developed to study the ways in which Christianity (a "great tradition," i.e., one espoused by the educated and more urbanized populace) and pre-Christian, indigenous practices of the Yucatan (which constituted a "little tradition," i.e., one found predominantly in rural areas) affected one another. Similarly, Frankfurter is interested in the tensions between Christianity and pre-Christian Egyptian practices. Although he examines both the centrifugal forces, which drew people away from the urban centers where Christianity could be found, and the centripetal forces, which drove them away from villages toward urban centers, he is particularly interested in the former, and over the course of the book portrays late antique Egypt religion as centered in the individual, the family, or the small group-a portrayal by which I am persuaded, and which, moreover, I think holds true for many other cultures. To be niggling for a moment, I wish that Frankfurter had done more comparing of late antique Egypt to its Mediterranean neighbors in this respect. Contrary to his statement that "Egypt itself was different from other Mediterranean cultures that underwent great social and political changes in the Roman period" (p. 7), he could have extended his analyses by placing, for instance, the Egyptian rejection of nationally integrated worship of a deity and tendency toward multiple regional shrines alongside of our evidence for regional shrines in ancient Greece.

Another thesis to which Frankfurter returns throughout is that "religion in ancient and peasant societies is nothing if not the active negotiation of life" (p. 9), and some of the most interesting parts of the book demonstrate this, A good example is his discussion of the metamorphosis of the god Bes from a rather humble tutelary deity of pregnant women and babies to a postmortem protector of dead infants, thence to a protector of the dead Osiris and finally, from there, into a famous oracular god, replacing Osiris himself at Abydos's Memnonion (pp. 124ff. and pp. 169ff.). The chain of logic uniting these evolutionary steps is not altogether clear, as Frankfurter acknowledges, but the fact that it happened is fascinating nonetheless. …

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