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Reviewed by:
  • Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstracts Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton, Daniel Boyarin
  • Todd Berzon
Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin
Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstracts Hide Ancient Realities
New York: Fordham University Press, 2016
Pp. 325. $35.00.

In the introduction to their provocative new monograph, Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin describe the volume as an effort “to do the ‘impossible’ work of making an incommensurable thought world comprehensible without resorting to the pre-sorted categories produced in the scholar’s study” (6). Put simply, they want scholars of the ancient world to cease translating the words religio and thrēskeia as “religion.” They argue that using the word “religion” to classify certain practices and ideas as parts within a common whole is to graft distinctly modern associations and abstractions onto a set of far more nuanced, polyphonic, and socially embedded ancient concepts. While Barton and Boyarin stress that ancient writers thought extensively about gods, built temples, conducted rituals, etc., they are adamant, quoting Daniel Dubuisson, that these authors did not make “from this collection of attitudes and ideas an autonomous singular complex” (5). Their contention is that the word “religion” is simply too loaded, too misleading, too institutional, and too laden with Christian connotations to be usefully applied to the ancient world.

The details of their argument take shape over twelve chapters, which are arranged into two sections. The first concerns the Latin religio and culminates in a detailed discussion of the term in the writings of Tertullian, while the second [End Page 147] analyzes the Greek thrēskeia and focuses on Josephus’s oeuvre. We begin in the Roman Republic where religio demarcated “a range of emotions arising from heightened attention: hesitation, caution, anxiety, fear” (19). In this context, religio had nothing to do with cult or cultic practices; rather it served as a psychological restraint against transgressive behavior. It was only with Cicero that the gods became part and parcel of religio. In Cicero’s writings, the gods were the authors and enforcers of religio, who, in that capacity, punished lawbreakers and rewarded loyal citizens accordingly. As fear of the gods, religio was a means of achieving social order. Religio was about the production of a collective consciousness. Building off this Ciceronian innovation, Tertullian developed an understanding of religio through the framework of disciplina. Whereas religio acted as a restraint, disciplina denoted both restraint and active engagement, the cultivation of volitional behaviors and practices. With Tertullian, the authors propose, “one can see the origin of a nation of religio as occupying a distinct, separate (and privileged) dimension of life that could exist within and still be distinguished from the government of the Empire” (111).

In the thrēskeia section of the book, the authors adumbrate that the term, across the writings of Plutarch, Herodotus, Strabo, Philo, 4 Maccabees, and the New Testament, had two distinct albeit related senses. It demarcated the excessive, frenzied practices of others (thrēskeia as deisidaimonia), while also denoting “our practices” (thrēskeia as eusebeia) (134). That is to say, the word designated cultic activity in both a positive and negative sense. From there, Barton and Boyarin turn to Josephus who, they argue, sagaciously deployed both meanings of the word, in a move they call “Josephan double-speak.” The authors demonstrate how he used the double-valence of thrēskeia to convey to Judeans and Romans respectively what he thought they wanted to hear about Judean customs and habits. In this reading, Josephus emerges as a much nimbler and shrewder verbal tactician.

Barton and Boyarin explicitly acknowledge that Imagine No Religion is an amplification of Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). And although I strongly agree with Barton and Boyarin that scholars of antiquity have been far too uncritical and imprecise in their usage of the word “religion,” I find myself less persuaded that the way forward is to abandon the term altogether. At its core, the study of the past is an exercise in explanatory translation. Methodical investigation of the past requires us to be self-conscious about the limits, deficiencies, and misrepresentations of modern...


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pp. 147-149
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