Zygmunt Bauman smokes his pipe

Seminar X: Post-Modernism and the Rise of Christianity

The texts which have been chosen for this week’s seminar illustrate the influence of post-modernism on the study of later Roman history during the 1990s. This was a period when – according to many cultural commentators and intellectuals, most notably Zygmunt Bauman (1925–) and Frederic Jameson (1934) – the consumerist societies of the West had succumbed to the so-called ‘post-modern condition’ – that is, a time when a loss of confidence in the grand theories and narratives that the West had inherited from the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century is supposed to have become a general feature of social life. Certain attitudes and practices were often identified as manifestations of this ‘condition’, including:

  1. A loss of faith in all claims to universality: there must be an exception to every moral and cultural ‘rule’.
  2. A fascination with the ambivalent and contradictory – an interest ‘paradox’, ‘dissensus’ (the opposite of consensus), and ‘the incommensurable’ – in juxtaposing irreconcilable cultural norms.
  3. A tendency to believe that we are living in the last days of this or that form of cultural expression.
  4. An exaggerated concern with ‘surfaces’, that is, a fascination with decorative detail as opposed to the underlying ideas that inform literature, art and culture.
  5. An inability to be sincere. A loss of confidence in all claims to deeper meaning which manifests itself in constant recourse to irony whenever statements of truth are being made and in a chariness or a sense of embarrassment with regard to the expression of the stronger emotions such as love, sympathy and hate.
Mary Douglas at her blackboard

Post-modernity is characterised, explains Bauman, by ‘variety, contingency, and ambivalence’, by a ‘permanent and irreducible pluralism of cultures, communal traditions, ideologies, “forms of life” or “language games”’ (In-timations of Postmodernity, 1992). Some theorists active in the 1990s argued over the roots of this shift in attitude and practice: for committed post-modernists it was an inevitable working out of the inadequacies in all ‘essentialising’ cultural systems which scarcely required explanation and which could not, in any case, be explained; for those who remained committed to the goal of emancipation it was a pernicious by-product of ‘late modernity’ – the growth of media networks and information technology having permitted unprecedented levels of access to data about activities of all kinds, the endless re-interpretation of events and the saturation of cultural life with conflicting perspectives. But no matter what their explanation of its origins, there were many who diagnosed in the late twentieth-century West a creeping ambivalence about truth claims and ‘grand narratives’.

Photos: Mary Douglas (left), Zygmunt Bauman (right).

Peter Brown’s ‘Arbiters of the Holy’

The impact of this movement – or rather, of the diagnosis and discussion of ‘post-modernity’ by academics and pundits – on the study of the later Roman Empire may be seen above all in accounts of religious change. One especially clear case in point is provided by Peter Brown’s ‘Arbiters of the Holy’, a lecture given in 1993 in which he revisited the subject of his most famous article, ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’ (1971). The existence in this example of ‘a before’ and ‘an after’, allows us to detect a telling shift in the way in which Brown approaches his subject matter.

In the earlier article Brown drew heavily on the methods developed in the 1950s and 1960s within the tradition of British social anthropology – in the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-73) and especially Mary Douglas (1921-2007). That tradition was marked by a tendency to rely on ‘functionalist’ explanations – that is, a tendency to explain the existence of a particular practice or belief by suggesting that they played a specific role in a larger social system, which is usually regarded as a coherent and unchanging entity. Thus, Brown argued that the rise of the holy man to become a major figure in the social landscape of the late antique East was due to his usefulness to the ordinary Christian. The saints’ lives in which the deeds of these men were celebrated focused on their role in obtaining intercession on behalf of their devotees – in interceding with God to obtain cures and all manner of help in this world. Brown, however, stressed their capacity to ease social tensions. The holy man of 1971 was, to quote James Howard-Johnston’s summary of the argument,

the supreme fixer, whom only the arrogant, foolish or possessed would dare oppose openly, given the super-natural firepower which he could call down. He dealt with all manner of individual grievances, but caught the attention of contemporaries above all when his clients were persons of high status or whole groups – say villagers at odds with each other or with the authorities – and he was called upon to offer advice, to mediate, to arbitrate, or to provide protection. He joined the urban and military patrons as a social force to be reckoned with.

Elements of this approach are still evident in the 1993 paper, ‘Arbiters of the Holy’. The argument is grounded, as before, in a ‘functionalist’ perspective: Brown still explains the rise of the holy man as a reflection of his utility to the communities that supported him. But whereas the 1971 article had seen his usefulness largely in terms of his role in resolving social issues, the 1993 paper sees it in terms of his role in resolving certain inner anxieties which are curiously reminiscent of ‘the post-modern condition’.

The holy man of 1993 is an ‘arbiter’, not of social disputes, but of the ‘conflicting systems of explanation that characterised the religious world of late antiquity’ (p. 59). The late antique audiences of holy men were ‘haunted’, Brown argues, ‘by ambiguity’. For them ‘belief was never an easy matter, even at the best of times’ (p. 72). ‘Deeply conscious of the ambiguity of the sacred’, contemporaries were ‘niggardly... in lavishing credulity’ (p. 73). The function of the holy man in this context was to help potential devotees to resolve the anxieties generated by living with the need to choose between so many different, competing, explanatory systems: ‘As a representative of the loving-kindness of God, [the Holy Man] embraced and validated all forms of useful knowledge’ (p. 70). It is as if Brown is saying that late antiquity was post-modern too.

Keith Hopkins’ A World Full of Gods

A portrait of Keith Hopkins Portrait

The influence of ‘post-modernity’ on the study of Roman religion is even clearer in A World Full of Gods (1999) by Keith Hopkins (1934-2004). This is a multi-faceted book: it purports, on one level, to be an attempt to set early Christianity in its Greco-Roman context, to show how Christianity grew out of and interacted with the religions that surrounded it during the first three centuries of its existence; but it is also, on another level, an investigation into the problems that confront the historian whose topic is the religious history of a distant and complex society. It is probably best to let Hopkins explain the book’s genesis in his own words:

This book... started with a research project on early Christianity at King’s College, Cambridge, comprising five scholars of different nationalities, religious outlooks and academic specialisms (American, British, German; Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic, atheist; Jewish history, Roman history, New Testament, church history, rabbinics, patristics, theology). Unsurprisingly, seen in retrospect, we couldn’t work together. We disagreed about almost everything, although (as we now claim) we all learnt a huge amount from each other. So what did I learn?
    Primarily that I didn’t know enough, and sometimes didn’t want to learn, about other faiths. Beneath the liberal veneer, there was a reluctance, a deep resistance to be open-minded, to unlearn the half-unconscious absorptions of childhood and adolescence. Put another way, my atheism was indelibly Protestant. And religious history is inevitably affected by what writers, and their readers, believe. But history is, or should be, a subtle combination of empathetic imagination and critical analysis.
    This history plays on several irreconcilable tensions. What was it like to be there? We don’t and cannot know. And yet surely empathetic imagination should play its part. We have to imagine what Romans, pagans, Jews and Christians thought, felt, experienced, believed. But, as with baroque music played on ancient instruments, we listen with twentieth-century ears. We read ancient sources with modern minds. And if we report what we do know in quasi-objective, analytical terms, then inevitably our whole language of understanding and interpretation is deeply influenced by the modern world, and who we are in it. We cannot reproduce antiquity. And in religious history there is necessarily subjectivity. We know from experience that other writers, and readers, are very likely and fully entitled to disagree.
    So why then don’t we incorporate this empathetic wonder, knowledge, pseudo-objective analysis, ignorance, competing assumptions and disagreements into the text of the book? That’s what I’ve tried to do. Successive chapters explore Roman paganism, Judaism, and early Christianity in their variety and interactions. But they also explore different methods of historical reportage, description and analysis; and some of my colleagues’ objections (Hopkins, World Full of Gods, pp. 2–3).

It is the methods which Hopkins uses to raise and explore these issues that comprise the most radical feature of the book. Four of its chapters follow a conventional, scholarly, format (nos. 3, 4, 7 and 8), but the other four mix fact and fiction (nos 1, 2, 5 and 6). In these chapters Hopkins uses his research – all of them are grounded in extensive research – to fashion fictional narratives which purport to be attempts to convey with freshness and immediacy the complex religious landscape in which Christianity emerged, but which are actually explorations of the problems that confront attempts to describe and explain what was going on. The first of these radical chapters is the second of the set texts for this week’s class.

Professor Mary Beard in the 1970s

It is normal for general histories of Roman religion to begin with an overview of the period, the society, and the religious landscape, but with this chapter Hopkins plunges his readers into the complexities of the topic by re-counting an alleged visit to a first-century Roman city by ‘Martha and James’, a pair of late twentieth-century time-travellers. By making Pompeii on the eve of eruption of AD 79 the site of their visit Hopkins is able to invest his narrative with a wealth of circumstantial detail drawn from the archaeological record, but it soon becomes clear that providing a plausible account of what things were like is not his true aim. Martha’s and James’s constant references to the problems they are having understanding what they encounter suggests that one of Hopkins’s aims was to show that the modern observer, no matter how privileged, no matter how advanced the technologies to which they have access, cannot avoid the problem of ‘the other’ – the problem of the ‘incommensurability’ of their own ‘thought worlds’ with those of the persons they are attempting to investigate. That is, Hopkins seems to be saying that even with the help of time-travel and brain implants for instant Latin and Greek, the historian’s efforts to understand the religious world of the Roman devotee will still fall short of what is needed.

However, as a crucial passage in the introduction reveals, Hopkins also means to say that invented post-modern narratives of this kind are themselves problematic:

We start in ancient Pompeii. Two modern time-travellers report what they’ve seen during a brief stay, timed just before the eruption of Vesuvius. By this tactic, I wanted to share the liveliness, pervasiveness and passion of paganism through texts and artefacts. But inevitably, we see the Roman world only through modern eyes; the alien culture of ancient Rome has to be interpreted by us. Time-travellers stand for one version of history, fictionalised in order to expose the difficulties which all historians face in recreating the past. But time-travellers have a restricted view; they can report only what we already know. I’m far too inhibited an academic to make things up. This is not a novel, even if it has a few novel-like characteristics. And in a letter incorporated into the text of the book, one of my liberal colleagues [Mary Beard] roundly criticises the whole experiment: innovative perhaps, rumbustious, but from an intellectual standpoint fatally flawed. Even the end notes, which cautiously document every step and most words, can’t fend off her criticism. (Hopkins, World Full of Gods, p. 3).

Yet none of these problems prevents Hopkins taking his time-travellers to other destinations in later chapters: to the late second century, to Tebtunis in Egypt (famous for its temple dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed deity) and to Hierapolis in Syria (a centre of the cult of Atargatis/Cybele), and then to Ephesus (the centre of the cult of the huntress Diana). Other semi-fictional elements used by Hopkins include: a television drama documentary about the Essenes, an ascetic sect of Jews who may have been responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls; a meditation on Jesus’s apocryphal twin brother; and an account of a dialogue between a young early Christian, unsettled by attacks on his religion, and his worldly-wise superior. He also seems to have invented most, if not all, of the letters between himself and various academics which are used to define and debate the issues raised by each chapter.

Hopkins’ World Full of Gods was an attempt, in short, to set out a late 90s, relativist, view of the issues involved in doing religious history: it is post-modernist in both its conception of the problems involved, and in its methods for expounding them. Not surprisingly few of the book’s reviewers seem to have known quite what to make of it (e.g. T. M. Banchich, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2000.06.28). Many suggested that its scholarly value was obscured by the ‘racy framework’, but the method is cleverer than first appears. By setting out the issues in a ‘dialogic’ fashion – that is, by pitching diverse voices against one another without ever quite defining his own position – Hopkins avoids two weaknesses to which post-modernist scholarship is prone: he avoids burdening his readers with ponderous expositions of theory, and he avoids falling into the trap of having to make self-contradictory claims for the universal applicability of cultural relativism.

A student of A. H. M. Jones and Moses Finley at King’s College Cambridge, Hopkins was a lecturer in sociology at Leicester University (1961–63), and then at the London School of Economics (1963–67 and 1970–72); he held chairs in sociology at the University of Hong Kong (1967–70) and at Brunel (1972–85); he was later professor of ancient history at Cambridge (1985–2000).

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photos: Keith Hopkins (right), Mary Beard, one of his 'correspondents' (left).

Set Texts

  1. Brown, Peter R. L., ‘Arbiters of the Holy: The Christian Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, in his Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 55–78 and 85–87. LTU. [The other two lectures that make up this book are entitled ‘Christianisation: Narratives and Process’ (pp. 1–26), and ‘The Limits of Intolerance’ (pp. 27–54). They also illustrate the growing concern the ambiguities of the textual evidence.]
  2. Hopkins, Keith, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire (London, 1999), chp. 1, ‘A World Full of Gods’ (pp. 7–45). See also chp. 4, ‘Jesus and his Twin Brother’, pp.  138–56, especially the exchange of letters between Hopkins and ‘Hartmut’ at pp. 150–6. LV.K.*

Worksheet Questions

  1. What was Peter Brown trying to do when he wrote ‘Arbiters of the Holy’?
  2. Critically evaluate the argument of Brown’s ‘Arbiters of the Holy’. Is the ‘Holy Man’ of 1993 a more convincing figure than the ‘Holy Man’ of 1971?
  3. What was Keith Hopkins trying to do when he wrote A World Full of Gods?
  4. What does Hopkins mean when he says that ‘to understand the world in which Christianity grew, you have to go both inside and outside religion’ (p. 43)?
  5. Suppose that you are one of the scholars to whom Keith Hopkins has written for comments and advice on the sections you have read from his book. How would you respond to chapter one and its experiment in literary time travel?

Strongly Recommended Reading

Peter Brown on Holy Men

  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies, 61 (1971), 80–101. Journals XD6. JSTOR. Rpt. in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982), pp. 103–52. LVL.H.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘Holy Men’, in A. M. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, M. Whitby (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 14, Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425–600 (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 781–810. LI.*
  • Brown, P. R. L., The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, 1981). PN.B.* Mostly concerned with the West, which Brown differentiated from East as being more concerned posthumous cults – with the deceased as opposed to the living holy man.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity’, Representations, 2 (1983), 1–25. Journals X6. JSTOR. An abbreviated version of this paper (that is, without the autobiographical digression) appears under the same title in J. S. Hawley (ed.), Saints and Virtues (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987), pp. 3-14. PDQ.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘Town, Village and Holy Man: The Case of Syria’, in D. M. Pippidi (ed.), Assimilation et résistance à la culture gréco-romaine dans le monde ancien (Bucharest, 1976), pp. 213–20; rpt. in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982), pp. 153–65. LVL.H.

Other Historians on Holy Men

Post-Modernism and Social Constructivism

  • Baghramian, M., Relativism, The Problems of Philosophy (London, 2004).
  • Bertens, J. W., The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (London, 1995). KDW.
  • Boghossian, P., Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford, 2006). Some clear-thinking on the topic.
  • Harvey, D., The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, 1989). KDE.
  • Southgate, B., Postmodernism in History: Fear or Freedom? (London, 2003). Available as an electronic resource: see the Library Catalogue.
  • Spiegel, G. M. (ed.), Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (London, 2005). L4B.
  • Thompson, W., Postmodernism and History (Basingstoke, 2004). L4A.
  • Williams, B., Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton, NJ, 2002). AHT.

Some Syriac and Latin Terms and Phrases Used by Brown and Hopkins

  • hnana = a mixture of oil and dust that Syrian saints dispensed (Brown, ‘Arbiters’, pp. 66, 77).
  • mundus = the physical world/universe (pp. 67, 78).
  • principi munerariorum feliciter = ‘Good luck to the foremost giver of gladiatorial games!’ (Hopkins, World Full of Gods, p. 41).

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