Religious conflict in Late Antiquity has become a topic of increasing interest, judging by the volumes that have appeared in the Transformation of the Classical Heritage series over the past decade, as well as other stand-alone volumes from various publishing houses. Many of them, with an eye to current events, have focused on the link between religious extremism and violence. Yet, most are aware that violence takes many forms and may not always be the best descriptor. The twelve contributions to this volume from a team of leading scholars of late antique Christianity examine the religious conflicts of Late Antiquity within a new pluralistic framework of understanding.
In her introductory chapter, Wendy Mayer sets out to reframe the ways in which we understand religious interaction and name the biases that underpin much scholarly work. In particular, she challenges the Enlightenment secularist assumption that ancient societies were intolerant and that Christianity's (or, more generally, monotheism's) claim to exclusivism in particular was particularly intolerant of a tolerant polytheism. In addition, Mayer is critical of the idea that religious competition is a valid model for assessing the role of religion in ancient societies. Finally, she raises questions about the role of conflict in determining in-group and out-group identities as applied to monotheisms on the basis of a differential between rhetoric and reality. Ultimately Mayer argues for a new theoretical framework for understanding religious conflict, one based on neuroscience. As always, her comments stimulate critical reflection and will be a valuable guide for anyone wishing to engage on this topic.
The other introductory essay is provided by Jan Bremmer, in which he sets forth six theses: that the roots of religious violence should be examined from a global perspective, that polytheism is not inherently more tolerant than monotheism, that religious violence in pre-modern times is often local and it is often impossible to distinguish religious from other causes, that in pre-modern times religious violence was instituted by governments or the elite, that secularisation and individualism make religious violence unlikely in the West, and that religious violence today has immediate rather than long-term causes. It is a framework that deserves further examination.
The three chapters that comprise section two on rhetorical and literary trajectories raise some interesting questions and issues. Pieter Botha takes the story of the man born blind in John 9 to consider questions of religious conflict. Some insightful points are made for those not up-to-date with the interpretation of this passage about how blindness is always a spiritual problem needing to be overcome (even for Jesus, who does not include the man in his group until his condition is cured) and a way of “othering” or “delegitimising” the afflicted and a precondition for discriminating against them, which is a form of conflict. However, the notion of conflict itself is less developed in this essay than it could have been. It may be right to posit that the author of John's Gospel's concern with spiritual realities leads him to discriminate against those with physical disability, but a better appreciation of the connection between discrimination and conflict would be more helpful in fully exploring the question of conflict. Chris de Wet looks at sexual exceptionalism in the rhetoric of John Chrysostom, by which is meant the idea that the exceptional bodies of the patriotic are contrasted with the sexually perverse bodies of monsters-terrorists-fags that must be destroyed. Part of the rhetoric is to portray one's enemies as monsters (teratogenisation) and to link sexual exceptionalism with the formation of masculinity. This is not an easy chapter to read for anyone not familiar with the modern theories de Wet reads. I, for one, remain unconvinced about the validity of these modern insights. What makes sexual exceptionalism “sexual”? Are the four aspects of teratogenisation considered here (corporeal mutilation, psychic illness and medicalisation, demonisation, and infantilisation) all equally to be seen within a sexual framework? Some more evidence of how Chrysostom saw women as displaying masculinity in overcoming themselves would certainly make the case more patent. Tina Shepardson looks at John of Ephesus' anti-Chalcedonian Historia ecclesiastica of the late sixth century, and argues that the rhetoric of suffering is essential in the perseverance of true (anti-Chalcedonian) Christians in the face of conflict. Yet, when we are told (p. 88) that suffering caused by natural disasters and disease plays a greater role in John's narrative, one has to ask what this has to do with conflict, unless such suffering is the result of conflict with the divine, which we find on p. 90. I would like to see some attention paid to locating divine punishment of sin within a theory of religious conflict. The economic pressure on non-Chalcedonians as part of the conflict between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians is the most interesting part of this chapter. A little more attention to this as a feature of conflict would drive home the point all the more. In the final entry of this section, Alan Cadwallader considers the epiphany story that led to the establishment of the healing spring at Chonai (Colossae) recounted in The Story of St Michael of Chonai within the context of local conflict (between Laodikeia and Colossae during the Arian controversy) and regime change in the late fourth century. The role of the story in navigating that conflict between two Asian cities is well described.
The third section focuses on Christianization. It begins with a chapter by Christoph Stenschke looking at the conflict between Christians and diaspora Jews in Acts of the Apostles. Once again we are informed that religious conflict, whether physical or discursive, is rarely solely religious in origin. He relies upon a framework set out by Wendy Mayer in a previous publication, particularly in terms of different contested domains. Along the lines developed in recent “parting of the ways” scholarship, the conflict in Acts 9–28 is seen as intra-Jewish conflict in the diaspora. The relevance of this chapter to the volume theme is immediate, apparent, and compelling. Maijastina Kahlos looks at everyday conflicts of interest in the religious sphere rather than the large conflicts reported in narratives, exemplified in client-patron relationships in North Africa and Italy. Much of what she presents is on the theoretical level rather than the actual, derived from laws or episcopal sermons about what ought to happen rather than what was happening, especially with regard to pagan practices on Christian land holdings. Keeping tenants and clients under control is one thing; showing why this should be considered as conflict is another. This is addressed at the end of the chapter.
The fourth section looks at threats of violence. Jitse Dijkstra challenges the notion that religious violence was endemic by problematising the words “religion” and “violence.” Being forced to define one's understanding and the issues involved in satisfactory definitions is extremely important. Dijkstra turns attention to the supposed destruction of pagan temples in Egypt in Late Antiquity and finds the literary evidence untrustworthy triumphalism. Peter Van Nuffelen examines crowd behaviour in Late Antiquity, in Constantinople mostly, as a form of violence not from a modern framework but from ancient virtue-based models (particularly with regard to justice) as a relationship between people and leader. Underlying it is the epistemological problem of trying to use modern methods to understand evidence that was framed in completely different terms. This is certainly a question of ongoing significance. The argument is advanced that an ethical framework is helpful not only for understanding crowd behavior but that such a framework shaped the actual actions of crowds.
The fifth and final section consists of two chapters. Elizabeth DePalma Digeser looks at the legacy of religious conflict in the aftermath of Diocletian's persecution. Once again, the notion that there are other factors besides religion involved in a religious conflict is to the fore, given that people have multiple identities. In the wake of persecution, survivors can often be seen more as “them” rather than “us” as boundaries between identities are drawn more restrictively. The Donatist schism is thus understood as a reaction against collaborators. So too is the Arian controversy, which provides food for thought. Gerhard van den Heever finishes the volume with a chapter that lacks explicit focus, although it seems to have something to do with symbolic revolution, apocalypticism, discourse and the reconstruction of society, taking as his starting point recent campaigns to decolonise education in South Africa. Much of the early part of the chapter is an attack on capitalism and industrialisation as the necessary precursor to apartheid in South Africa and the experience of Spain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whatever is said about early Christianity is perfunctory, talking about a slow rather than sudden revolution in the midst more of coexistence than rivalry, which is a good point but is one not added to here by consideration of new evidence.
Each chapter is supplied with ample footnotes and an extensive bibliography. As always with a collection of essays, a sense of unity for the entire volume is hard to achieve. Those chapters that dealt with a theory of conflict in a particular situation will probably prove to be more useful in the long term than some of the other chapters, but nonetheless this book succeeds in keeping scholarly attention fixed on conflict and speaks directly in ways that challenge modern reporting of religious conflict.