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  • At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire by Heidi Wendt
  • Adam Serfass
Heidi Wendt
At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
Pp. x + 262. $74.00.

Paul, Josephus, Marcion, Alexander of Abonoteichus, the author of the Derveni papyrus, astrologers, dream-interpreters, Syrian exorcists, Egyptian magi. Despite their diverse backgrounds, these actors may be grouped together in an etic category devised by Heidi Wendt—that of the freelance religious expert. Such experts were entrepreneurial, in that they competed to offer innovative, specialized religious services; independent, in that their authority did not typically depend on inherited status or formal affiliation with civic cults; and self-interested, in that through their activities they sought personal benefit. Engaging with a wide range of scholarship, Wendt’s dense, original, and tenaciously argued book transcends and calls into question traditional categories—Christianity, Judaism, magic, mystery cult, paganism—used in reference to ancient Mediterranean religion. The volume deserves a broad readership.

The opening pages of the long introduction are among the liveliest in the book. Here Wendt surveys freelance religious experts as colorfully portrayed by writers like Lucian, Petronius, and Apuleius. This panorama alerts the reader to the apparent ubiquity of such figures and their frequently negative characterization, often as exotic flimflammers preying on the credulous. Wendt then defines the term freelance religious expert, meticulously treating each of its three elements. She distinguishes, for example, experts in religion from other kinds of experts, [End Page 158] such as philosophers, and indicates just what she means by “religious,” in doing so defending the applicability of the term “religion” to the classical world. Methodological care and attention to theoretical matters, as well as criticism of other studies on methodological and theoretical grounds, are characteristic of the book.

In Chapter One, Wendt argues that freelance religious experts, though present in earlier periods, became more influential from the late first century b.c.e. through the early second century c.e. She infers growing influence from a spate of legislation and other measures meant to curtail the experts’ activities. Why target the freelancers? For fear that they might threaten those in power—for example, by making ominous predictions about their political fortunes. Wendt next ties the experts’ burgeoning clout to social changes during Rome’s transition from republic to empire, including the erosion of aristocrats’ religious authority; the emperors’ reliance on experts; the manumission of slaves, who as freedmen sought prestige through religious activity; and a more cosmopolitan and mobile populace that developed a taste for foreign religion. Wendt further explores the latter subject in Chapter Two, dedicated to “ethnic coding” among freelancers. She demonstrates that the ethnonyms Egyptian and Judean were each associated with particular manifestations of religious expertise. (I follow the terminology of Wendt, who generally prefers Judean to Jewish.)

Chapter Three may be the least successful in the book, for it tries to do too much. It interweaves meditations on the categories “magic,” “religion,” and “philosophy” (the quotation marks are Wendt’s) with additional analysis of religious freelancers, especially “writer-intellectuals,” a small but influential subset of experts who proffered novel readings of authoritative texts and composed texts of their own. The author of the Derveni papyrus was one such “writer-intellectual,” as was Paul, who is the focus of Chapter Four. For Wendt’s study, Paul’s letters are precious because they provide the fullest firsthand evidence for how a freelance expert might develop and defend a complex and comprehensive religious program. Keen to quell claims of Pauline exceptionalism, Wendt demonstrates that the individual elements of Paul’s program were each employed by other freelancers. These elements include inter alia his self-presentation as a latter-day Moses; his creative, oracular exegeses of Judean texts; his use of certain philosophical tropes; his promotion of life-changing rituals such as baptism; his endurance of hardships; and his castigation of rivals. Wendt normalizes Paul, redescribing him in the religious landscape of his day.

In Chapter Five, Wendt recasts the rivalries among Christian groups in the second century c.e. as competition among religious experts seeking to distinguish themselves through...


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pp. 158-160
Launched on MUSE
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