- Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity by David Frankfurter
Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017
Pp. xix + 314. $39.95.
David Frankfurter's new monograph offers a rich and compelling examination of processes of religious change. His petri dish is late antique Egypt, and the study is solidly tethered to the particularities of primary source material preserved by its sands and scribal traditions, but the insights and methodological approaches he presents also make hearty fare for students of religious transformation in other places and times. Profiting greatly from examination of material and textual sources through lenses of anthropology and comparative religion, Frankfurter takes pains to walk readers through the historiographic and theoretical armature of his analysis. The volume is animated by a critical shift in orientation as to how we conceptualize the phenomenon of "Christianization." Frankfurter turns away from the notion of "conversion," to embrace instead a model of ongoing processes of negotiation and syncretism. The difference is far from semantic, for a conversion model implies a change of identity, a rejection of one religious order (with its attendant narratives, forms of devotion, sets of rituals, structures of authority, etc.) for another. Frankfurter's rehabilitation of the notion of syncretism, by contrast, highlights the active selectivity and combination, what he calls "creative assemblage" (4), of institutionally-promoted Christian elements along with traditional forms and practices that have conventionally been identified by scholars (and occasionally disparaged in late antique sermons) as pagan hold-overs or "survivals." Frankfurter's syncretism, moreover, is not merely a stew-pot combination of items from different religions' "ingredients lists," some from column A and some from column B, but rather a more nuanced, complicated process of appropriation and transformation as well as a contemporary contestation over claims of religious purity (though this later point remains less deeply pursued than the former).
Frankfurter thus reorients us to consider Christianity not as something that increasing numbers of people in late antiquity "were" but as an amalgam of symbols, artifacts, words, and actions that individuals drew on, redefined, and embodied in different social settings. His wide-ranging study takes up numerous classes of sources, both textual and material, to interrogate the issue of Christianization at the local, everyday level. His stress on the situatedness of religious practice undergirds the organization of the book's core chapters around a set of social contexts in which a variety of instruments of religious syncretism were fashioned: the domestic realm, the holy man, the saint's shrine, the craft workshop, scribal practice, and landscapes of religious architecture. As is clear from this list, Frankfurter intends the notion of "sites of Christianization" not only to encompass literal places but something more abstract, closer to "social environments," that encompass people and artifacts, gestures and words, the ritual and the mundane. For example, for the author, the craft workshop need not be an archaeologically identified space—there are no architectural plans or analyses [End Page 498] of tools, facture, or spatial layouts in the "Magic of Craft" chapter. Rather, his discussion broadly encompasses the sphere of "making," whether in the home or in the monastery; the focus is on the creative act of fashioning things, such as figurines, cloth, tombstones, and panel paintings, that drew on both traditional and Christian iconography. Here as throughout the volume, there is a refreshing move away from superficial examination of objects' or places' appearance as some sort of index of the purity of their makers' or users' Christianity. Instead, the main thrust of the book's analysis lies in the ways in which individuals amalgamated elements drawn from traditions both familiar and new to tap into forms of religious authority and to achieve a perceived efficacy.
Though a superficial look at the table of contents would appear to map out a social topography of apparently discrete "spheres," productive overlaps and interrelations within and between the social contexts identified by the chapter titles abound: the domestic concerns, for example, identified by emphasis on health, family, and ancestors, are also found in interactions with holy men and actions at saints' shrines; individual classes of...