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Jonathan L. Reed

Twenty some days after the presidential election, it will be too soon to decide if Americans elected a uniter or divider. But some twenty centuries after Caesar Augustus, a special SBL panel in Boston will evaluate whether or not the Roman imperial cult united or divided the peoples of the Roman Empire. Introducing a cross-disciplinary conversation that will begin on Sunday November 23 (4:00-6:00 pm) and will continue at the 2009 International SBL in Rome and at the annual meeting in New Orleans, Karl Galinsky will discuss this perspective and others in a lecture titled The Roman Cult of the Emperor: Uniter or Divider?

Trends in academia and realities in geo-politics form a perfect storm behind the intense interest among biblical scholars in the imperial cult: the impact of post-colonial studies, debates over the “new Paul” that have broken traditional theological characterizations, the recognition of religion and politics’ interconnectedness in antiquity, the integration of archaeological and art historical evidence in historical studies. Not to mention the Bush administration’s adventurism of empire building and a spate of popular books on the topic.

Since Gustaf Adolf Deissmann wrote Light from the Ancient East in 1909, interest in the imperial cult has lain dormant for most of the century, yet it has been resurrected recently by New Testament scholars. But are there excesses and mischaracterizations? And, what happens when the imperial cult is examined not exclusively and over against the Pauline Christ cult, but within the broader context of Roman religion, the study of ancient Mediterranean culture and society generally, and the rise of Christianity in its Roman context over the long haul from the first to fifth century C.E.?

Karl Galinsky is uniquely situated to address these questions in a provocative lecture aimed at interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration between experts in various subfields. He is the Floyd Cailloux Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and is a leading authority on imperial Rome. Author of Augustan Culture (Princeton University Press, 1996), a landmark synthesis and interpretation of Augustus’ rule based on literary, artistic, and archaeological evidence, he has most recently edited The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (2005).

A prolific author and speaker, Galinsky has directed several NEH Summer Seminars at the American Academy in Rome on the topic of Roman religion and culture, which have also included and profoundly influenced several SBL members over the years. According to Byron R. McCane, a participant in the 2005 NEH seminar, “Galinsky opened my eyes to broader trends in the study of Roman religion, especially the extent to which early Christianity can be understood as a Roman religion.” McCane, who is chair of the Department of Religion at Wofford College, stresses that during the intensive six-week seminar, “the details of Galinsky’s work pushed me to approach New Testament scholarship as part of the study of religion in late antiquity.”

In the plenary session at Boston, Galinsky will review some of the main aspects of the imperial cult, critique some interpretive methodologies, and point out further directions for collaborative investigation and dialogue. “All major subjects in this discussion,” says Galinsky, “whether the administration of the Roman Empire, the cult of the emperor, and Paul’s perspectives, cannot be reduced to a single or simple matrix, and labels like ‘the gospel of Caesar’ are misplaced.” Instead of appropriating single phrases or images from the imperial cult for background to particular New Testament passages, Galinsky will expand the discussion by focusing on the embeddedness of the imperial cult in connection with other cults and the rise of religious pluralism (as defined by John North, author of Roman Religion). He will also examine the phenomenon of appropriation, by Paul and others, of imperial terms in the wider context of strategies of appropriation in Greek and Roman texts, and the continuance of the “modified” (so Arnaldo Momigliano) imperial cult in the Christian empire to ask about the extent of an alleged anti-imperial message.

“There was no such thing as the imperial cult,” Galinsky reminds us (citing Simon Price), “nor was it the dominant cult of the empire as some have suggested.” But as can be seen, for example, in coinage from local mints, it did resonate across the Mediterranean, so that communities had to continually negotiate its claims “in ways that are often remarkably akin to those of Philippians 2.5-11, ‘where Christology began’ to borrow a phrase from Ralph Martin and Brian Dodd’s book.”

Several SBL program units have joined together to sponsor this session, namely Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World, Art and Religions of Antiquity, and Greco-Roman Religions. And it is co-sponsored by the newly established Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions (SAMR), an independent scholarly association that focuses on the study of polytheistic religious traditions in Greece, Rome, and the Near East, their interaction with each other, and with the monotheistic religious traditions of the region.

According to one of its founding members, Barbette Spaeth, “SAMR is all about building bridges to link scholars who study ancient Mediterranean religions from a variety of perspectives, whether literary, archaeological, epigraphical, or theoretical.” Spaeth, who also serves as president of SAMR and has been an active member of SBL, notes that “the topic of the Roman imperial cult is an excellent place to begin a dialogue on how the various religions and cultures of the Mediterranean world were inter-related.”

The SBL groups will also join together with SAMR in subsequent sessions at the 2009 SBL International Meeting in Rome to discuss the topic in situ and then conclude the dialogue at the 2009 SBL Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

The panel assembled to respond to Galinsky’s lecture is drawn from various disciplines and will explore both theory and method in the study of texts and material culture relating to the religions of antiquity. The respondents include Steve Friesen (University of Texas; author of Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John, Oxford 2001), Robin Jensen (Vanderbilt University; author of Face to Face: The Portrait of the Divine in Early Christianity, Fortress 2005), James Hanges (Miami University; Comparing Religions: Possibilities and Perils?, Brill 2006) and Barbette Stanley Spaeth (College of William and Mary; The Roman Goddess Ceres, University of Texas 1995).

In addition to addressing the specifics of Galinsky’s lecture and the resonance of the imperial cult, respondents will also discuss the future role of interdisciplinary dialogue in the study of early Christianity. Although the focus is on the imperial cult, attendees will be asked to participate in the discussion by reflecting on the place of traditional New Testament scholarship within the broader study of ancient Mediterranean religions and using materials as diverse as epistles and epigraphy, documents, and discoveries.

Jonathan L. Reed, University of La Verne

Citation: Jonathan L. Reed, " Rome and Religion: A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:


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