Relations of Religion in the Graeco-Roman World: Formative Judaism and Christianity
Steve Mason [+]
University of Groningen
Contrary to presupposing a divine essence and cause, as scholars such as Van den Belt do in the theological approach, historian Steve Mason (Chapter 5) exemplifies a constructivist historical approach to religion. Mason analyses how people in the Graeco-Roman world (c.300 BCE to 300 CE) framed Jews and Christians. In line with Asad’s critique that much research in religious studies builds on conceptions that are specifically Christian rather than universal, Mason argues that the label “religion” obfuscates more than it illuminates when describing the ancient past of these two major traditions. To substantiate this claim, he begins by surveying what “shell categories” residents in the Graeco-Roman world used to communicate with each other and order their knowledge of the world. Informed by both ancient textual and material sources, Mason argues that a diverse and vibrant Judaean culture, with its own famed mother-city, law-giver and customs, temple, priesthood, sacrificial system, and a larger expatriate community was “freeze-dried” by later Christians and reduced to “Juda-ism” as a belief system. “Christianity” looked altogether different: Christians were small bands of men and women meeting secretly in members” houses to worship Christ. They refrained from animal sacrifices, and some expected imminent evacuation from the world. Mason concludes by considering how a historical understanding of these very different phenomena of a Judaean “ethnos” and what began as a kind of Christian “club” can help to explain such puzzles as the Christian polemic against and simultaneous attraction to “Judaism”, the “persecution” of Christians but not Jews, and “conversion” to Judaism or Christianity.