We begin with a simple interrogation of our key terms. What do we mean by religion? What is a cult? How does Judaic monotheism compare with the forms of religion around the Roman world?
The first task in understanding any ancient religion is to cut away some of what we moderns assume is true about religion. Much of our thinking is shaped by a number of factors NOT in play in the ancient world; namely,
1) the assumed “triumph of Christianity,” i.e. that it necessarily overcame all other forms of religion,
2) the idea that a religion must provide comprehensive worldview,
3) that a religion holds essential truths expressed in its scriptures,
4) that there is a hard distinction between politics and the sphere of religion,
5) that religion is a matter of individual choice and conviction.
Many of these assumptions derive in the US from a peculiarly Protestant outlook, particularly as regards the centrality of scripture and a dismissive attitude towards ritual.
So the first step is to jettison whatever your assumptions are about religion—and you can have fairly elaborate assumptions without even being religious—and look at some basic facts about religion in the ancient world.
This week’s assignments are:
Make sure you fully understand the significance of the map below, which will be discussed at greater length in the lecture on January 16.