One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire

By Athanassiadi, Polymnia | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2012 | Go to article overview

One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire


Athanassiadi, Polymnia, The Catholic Historical Review


One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire. Edited by Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2010. Pp. 239- $99-00. ISBN 978-0-521-19416-7.)

Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. Edited by Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen. [Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion, 12.] (Leuven: Peeters. 2010. Pp. vi, 225. euro48,00 paperback. ISBN 978-9-042-92242-6.)

These two collections of essays are the product of a conference entitled "Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (1-4 c. AD)" that was held at Exeter University in July 2006 and represented a highlight of a triennial research program on the intellectual background to pagan mono theism. The program was conceived as a response to the volume Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Michael Frede and the reviewer.

The two books differ in conception and format. One God is an elegantly produced hardcover, containing six basically conceptual essays by recognized authorities in the field of religious studies, as well as the contributions of the two editors. Monotheism, on the other hand, is a paperback volume, apparently less carefully edited, which takes the form more of a series of case studies, as the editors themselves note (p. 8). While accepting "pagan monotheism" as a heuristic tool, both books give emphasis to the social and political context of religious praxis and the preeminence of cult and ritual over ideology, although the editors point to a chronological division between the two. Regarding the "Constantinian revolution" as a watershed, they assign to One God papers dealing with the era before the recognition of Christianity as a religio licita and to Monotheism those relating to the period 350-450. It may also be noted that One God concentrates on the Greek East, whereas Monotheism draws to an equal extent on Latin sources.

The papers in One God reflect the fundamental distinctions among (a) "soft" (inclusive) pagan and "hard" (exclusive) Judeo-Christian monotheism, (b) numerical and qualitative oneness, and (c) monotheistic thought and polytheistic cult. In a well-structured methodological article, "Pagan Monotheism as a Religious Phenomenon" (pp. 16-33), Peter Van Nuffelen discusses the history and usefulness of such coinages as henotheism, monotheism, and monolatry, together with the neologism megatheism, in the context of the study of Greco-Roman religion. All these terms, he argues, point to the changed way of conceiving and worshiping the godhead in the Roman Empire as from the first century, a change brought about by the interaction between various religious trends under the growing influence of philosophical discourse. Change is equally the central issue in the analysis of Roman religion from the first to the fourth century by John North, "Pagan Ritual and Monotheism" (pp. 34-52), although his emphasis is on social and sociological factors (listed on pp. 42 and 51); not only does North minimize the role of philosophy in the process of mutation, but he dismisses altogether the idea that the tendency toward monotheism is "a necessary condition for the religious transformations we are seeking to analyse" (p. 51). Frede ("The Case for Pagan Monotheism in Greek and Graeco-Roman Antiquity," pp. 53-81) and Stephen Mitchell ("Further Thoughts on the Cult of Theos Hypsistos," pp. 167-208) remain faithful to the positions adopted in their respective essays in Pagan Monotheism. Emphasizing continuity and intellectuality, Frede brings in evidence from Antisthenes, Chrysippus, and Galen to prove that philosophy is at the heart of ancient religion, which "is not just a matter of cult and ritual" (p. 81). By adducing new epigraphic evidence, Mitchell restates his thesis that the cult of Theos Hypsistos was "in essence and in spirit, if not in the narrowest definition, a form of monotheistic religion" (p. 198).

With reference to St. Augustine's reception of the Platonic theology, Alfons Fürst ("Monotheism between Cult and Politics: The Themes of the Ancient Debate between Pagan and Christian Monotheism," pp. …

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