R.S. BOUSTAN & A.Y. REED (eds.), Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004. Pp. ix + 335. ISBN 0-521-83102-4. STG £50 (Hb).
Review by Brendan McConvery C.Ss.R.
This collection of fifteen articles with an introductory survey is the outcome of a collaborative project in the Department of Religion at Princeton University during the academic year 2000-1. While the majority of the papers are the work of graduate students approaching the term of their research in the area of religion in late antiquity, several contributions are from established scholars in the field such as Fritz Graf, Martha Himmelfarb and Peter Schäfer, the promoter of the project.
Why was late antique culture apparently so obsessed with the heavenly realm ? A common explanation, reflected in the title of E.R. Dodd?s classic Pagan and Christian in a Age of Anxiety (1963), was that, as the great majority of people in the period saw themselves as powerless in a despotic, anonymous, cruel society, they turned for comfort and hope of a world beyond the present. The editors of this collection question the easiness of such a sweeping assumption and suggest that some currents of the period used images of heaven to articulate their abiding commitment to this worldly-life and worship. The sources studied here reinforce the perception that ?no single or disposition captures the disparate, often contradictory, aims of this literature? (p 4). Boundaries between the religious realms of late antiquity were probably more fluid than has been traditionally assumed and so this collection draws upon sources from late paganism, Judeo-Christian apocalyptic, Qumran, and the Patristic era.
The contributions are grouped in three sections reflecting the argument of the book. The first, ?Between Heaven and Earth?, deals with texts that envisage the possibility of movement between the heavenly and earthly realms. Fritz Graf explores the various images of passage from earth to heaven, drawing especially on the Christian images of bridge and ladder, which replaced the classical images of Charon?s ferryboat or the descent into the underworld through an opening in the ground. As the tradition develops, the heavenly ladder will provide a common image for the programme by which the ascetic hopes to enter heaven. Marcus Manlius in first century Rome had aspired in his poem to build ?heavenly steps in a certain order which are able to lead the suspended poet to the stars on a curved path.? This brief three-line reference is subjected to a close reading by Katherina Volk. Sarah Iles Johnson, in ?Working Overtime in the After-life, or, No Rest for the Virtuous?, explores the question of post-mortem reward as presented in the Chaldean Oracles, a Greek text from a second century esoteric brand of Neoplatonism known as theurgism. According to the beliefs of this school, the souls of the virtuous dead became angels but were permitted to return to earth to help others as teachers or to share in the unfinished perfecting of the world. We are not far here from what will later become in Christianity the role of the saints as intercessors and heavenly helpers.
The second section, ?Institutionalising Heaven?, considers the depiction of heaven across the range of traditions. Martha Himmelfarb shows how the laws relating to sacrifice in two early Jewish texts from outside the canon, Aramaic Levi and the Book of Jubilees, reflect images of heaven based on the earthly realities of the Jerusalem Temple, John W. Marshall offers an intertextual reading of some texts from the Book of Revelation and others from the Roman historians. The results are interesting, but I need more convincing of his assumption that Revelation is ?properly interpreted as a Jewish document responding to the questions that pressed on diaspora Judaism during the Jewish War of 66-70 CE.? Two offerings in this section consider how early Christian communities in North Africa appropriated scriptural imagery of heaven and applied it to their own cultural situation. Kirsti Copeland suggests that the emerging Egyptian monastic movement appropriated traditional language of the heavenly city and applied it to the monastery in which the monks were already beginning to live on earth the ideals of the heavenly home. Jan Bremer explores the metaphorical language for heaven as a garden of delights in a visionary account drawn from a third century Latin martyrdom text Passio Sanctorum Mariani et Iacobi. If North Africa was connecting heaven with the monastery and the garden, some Christians of the Syrian tradition like Theodore of Mopsuestia, drawing on similar ideas in Jewish literature, presented it as the divine classroom. His suggestion that social interaction between Christians and Jews in the Syrian world continued well into the medieval period and that their boundaries were relatively porous is now on the way to becoming almost the common assumption.
The final section, ?Tradition and Innovation?, sets out to consider how some sources of the period, ranging from Qumran to Gregory of Nazianzus, attempt to generate meaning through the deconstruction of the familiar world. Somewhat surprisingly, the underworld receives comparatively little attention in this volume, but Peter Schäfer includes it in his lengthy study of the late rabbinical text Seder Rabbah di-Bereshit. Studies of the Mithras Liturgy and the ?Apollonian Invocation? also feature in this section.
This is an impressive collection of studies on an absorbing topic, even if some of the source texts will be comparatively unknown to non-specialists and since the material ranges so widely, there will be few who can claim familiarity with all of them. As will be expected from Cambridge Press, it is well produced, though I noticed a number of small misprints, e.g. ?narratting? for ?narrating? on p. 30, ?de paradise? for ?de paradiso? on p. 172. The index and short bibliography are useful, though those with no access to SBL style handbook will regret the absence of a table of abbreviations.