- Religions of the Constantinian Empire by Mark Edwards
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
Pp. xi + 365. £31.99. $49.50.
The past decade of notable anniversaries has seen more books on Constantine and his conversion to Christianity than any bookshelf (however sturdy) can reasonably hold. Mark Edwards’s Religions of the Constantinian Empire weighs in on the solar halo, the sincerity of the emperor’s conversion, and All That (Chapter 9). But Edwards’s book takes a wider perspective, through fourteen essays exploring aspects of the Constantinian era’s religious thought. Religions provides a comprehensive and lucid introduction to the many and varied “religious” texts (broadly conceived) written c. 300–340 c.e., without ever quite spelling out how this panoramic view is supposed to change our understanding of the period or re-orient recent scholarship.
Part I reads various early fourth-century Christian authors as (and in light of) ancient philosophy (viii). These chapters set the pattern for the book as a whole, summarizing groups of related texts: Eusebius of Caesarea’s Preparation for the Gospel (Chapter 1); the Latin apologetic writings of Lactantius and Arnobius (Chapter 2); the early fourth-century Neo-Platonists Iamblichus, Theodorus, Chalcidius, and Methodius (Chapter 3); the Lives of Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyre (Chapter 4); and the Lives and writings of Antony and Pachomius (Chapter 5). Edwards takes as a given the shared basis of Christian and other philosophical texts and instead emphasizes what distinguished them. So, the Platonic influence on logos theology (60–64) and the significance of wonderworking for “pagan holiness” should not be exaggerated (65–66); the sociability of the “pagan holy man” contrasts sharply with the “anti-social” piety of Christian monasticism (93, 97; “anti-social” at 83). Christianity’s philosophy appears as a competitor to—and a departure from—ancient Mediterranean philosophical traditions (esp. 93).
Part II (somewhat misleadingly titled “Religious Plurality”) considers everything which falls outside these mainstream Christian and philosophical currents. Chapter 6 attempts to reconstruct various “Religions of the Vanquished” (the worship of Mithras, Isis and Osiris, Attis, Astarte, Dionysus, Baal, and theos hupsistos) starting from Christian polemical writings; unsurprisingly, most sections quickly turn instead to contemporary inscriptions. Edwards then groups “Religions of Transformation”: Manichaeism, Hermetic literature, Gnosticism, [End Page 663] and the alchemical writings of Zosimus of Panopolis (Chapter 7); the literary contexts and cultural frameworks of all four are identified as Christian (one way or another). Finally, Chapter 8 considers the status of Jewish communities in the fourth-century empire in general and Palestine in particular; for the latter, Edwards characterizes the reign of Constantine as a crucial turning point (159, 174–75).
Part III deals with heterogeneous “theological” topics. Chapter 9 makes the case for Constantine’s “religious integrity,” disavowing any attempt to judge the historicity of his visions and instead foregrounding the emperor’s own words. Edwards seeks to disentangle imperial toleration from personal affiliation: “we cannot assume . . . that [Constantine] must have been a tepid or equivocating Christian if he aimed at anything less than a complete annihilation of paganism” (191). Chapter 10 sets out the nuanced positions of Porphyry and Iamblichus on the question of sacrifice before arguing against the notion of the Eucharist as its continuation. Chapter 11 discusses (the lack of) canon formation in the Constantinian era, with useful reflections on the problematic contrast between “literal” and “allegorical” readings of Scripture (235–37). Chapter 12 considers the depictions of Christ in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Demonstration of the Gospel and Juvencus’s Historia Evangelica, noting (in particular) Eusebius’s swerving of difficult christological questions (249–50) and Juvencus’s omission of recent historical events (260–61). Chapter 13 uses the common emphases of supporters and critics of Origen to illustrate the (now standard) position that Arius’s views were in the Greek Christian mainstream c. 300 c.e., before discussing aspects of the early Arian controversy loosely organized to qualify characterizations of Eusebius of Caesarea as an “Origenist.” Chapter 14 brings together summaries of the Melitian, Novatian, and Donatist schisms, Athanasius’s Against the Nations and On the Incarnation, Palladas (whose redating by Kevin Wilkinson to the...