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Reviewed by:
  • Religion in the Roman Empire
  • Timothy Barnes
James B. Rives . Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell. 2007. xiv, 237. US$34.95

James Rives taught for eight years at Columbia University, then at York University in Toronto from 1998 to 2006, when he returned to his native United States to take up a named chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His first book, which analyzed religious developments in Roman Carthage, was published before he came to Canada, but his general study of religion in the Roman Empire, though published after he left, is a distinguished product of his eight years in the country.

Rives defines his aim as 'merely to sketch out a possible framework for thinking about' religion in the Roman Empire. That is unduly modest, for [End Page 351] Rives has written what is probably the best introduction to this complex and difficult subject within a single pair of covers to be composed in English. His achievement, about which he should not feel diffident, rests on his intellectual honesty, his prior appreciation of the difficulties that confront all modern enquirers into ancient religion and religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, his knowledge of the relevant evidence, which is diverse and widely scattered, and his awareness of the problems involved in interpreting this evidence in terms of ancient modes of thought. The book proceeds logically, starting from first principles. What exactly is meant by 'religion in the Roman Empire'? What sources of information are available? How do we identify 'religion' in the Greco-Roman world? Having posed these questions and given clear answers to them, Rives sets out the variety of religious traditions that we find in different areas of this world, from the most Roman to the most exotic. He then discusses in turn the presence of the gods in it, religion and community, religion and empire, religious options and Roman religious policy, with an epilogue on religious change in the Roman Empire. At every stage the exposition is clear and accurate, illustrated with aptly chosen examples, and illuminated by perceptive observations that have the virtue of propounding no overall interpretative theory, but sympathetically set out the evidence, its value, and its problems.

What then can the most carping of reviewers find to criticize? The only seriously and consistently irritating feature of the book is its systematic replacement of the normal and unexceptionable noun Jew and adjective Jewish by the word Judaean, which in normal parlance has an exclusively geographical reference: the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1989 registered only the two meanings 'of or pertaining to Judaea or southern Palestine' and 'a native or inhabitant of this region.' Rives's book applies the term Judaean even to Jews from other regions of the Roman Empire who lived or were born far from Holy Land, so that the glossary describes the apostle Paul, not as a Jew, but 'a Judaean.' For the sake of the author's academic reputation, one can only hope that this idiocy has been imposed on him by a zealous and misguided employee of Blackwell Publishing. Rives himself, however, must be held responsible for a serious misrepresentation of Paul's social status. He deduces from Paul's self-deprecatory remarks in his letters that he was a 'humble artisan' who 'worked as a tentmaker' and a 'traveling craftsman.' But Paul was born a Roman citizen and therefore came from the upper crust in his native city of Tarsus, and his parents could afford to send him as an adolescent from Cilicia to Jerusalem to study with Gamaliel, the leading Jewish teacher of the day. It would be worth knowing what Paul's Roman family name was, from what Roman army commander or provincial governor his father or grandfather had acquired [End Page 352] his citizenship before Paul was born, and what precise services this man performed to obtain such a valuable reward.



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