Reflections on David Herman’s “Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind”

When I first purchased David Herman’s Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, I looked forward to an interdisciplinary approach to narrative, leveraging the best ideas in the humanities and sciences. As my recent thought processes went, with modern scientific capabilities, we ought to start considering what sciences of the mind can tell us about stories, their power, and more broadly, religion. Herman’s work seemed to fit the bill.

Indeed, Herman is clearly a well-informed scholar with an in-depth understanding of narratology, psychology, storytelling, the sciences of the mind, and parallel fields. Page after page, Herman’s erudite, highly technical discussion reflects this reality. However, this in-depth knowledge quickly becomes a problem. Seeing that his work aims to bridge storytelling studies (i.e., the humanities, narratology, literary analysis, etc.) with the sciences of the mind, Herman makes clear his intention to use highly technical language for all the fields he mentions. Unfortunately, his consistent use of highly technical language from disparate fields, while aiming to unite various fields with a multidisciplinary model, becomes a roadblock for scholars in either siloed field. For if you have preexisting knowledge of literary studies in the humanities, you likely do not have preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind. And vice verse, preexisting knowledge of the sciences of the mind likely means you don’t have preexisting knowledge of literary studies. But because Herman writes as if his reader already work in both fields, readers from both fields are unintentionally cut off from the fruits of his study.

Importantly, I am not the first to make an observation in this vein. Early in the book, Herman comments on one of his reviewer’s observations: “the reviewer criticized my book-plan on the grounds that it contained unnecessary jargon. As someone who has been teaching challenging narratological nomenclatures to students at all levels for nearly twenty years, I am sympathetic to the reviewer’s complaint. But these classroom experiences have also taught me that technical terms, when used judiciously, are absolutely crucial for particular descriptive and explanatory purposes, and for establishing a viable basis for collaborative scholarly work. Thus, . . . this book in turn uses those aspects as a basis for focused cross-disciplinary or rather ‘transdisciplinary’ dialogue” (5). Essentially, Herman wants to use the proper analytical terminology and tools. As he is to his reviewer, I am sympathetic to his comment (e.g., do not get me started on “innerbiblical exegesis” and its subsequent history or intertextuality). Nonetheless, where Herman may miss the reviewer’s point, and perhaps I am refining or reframing the reviewer’s point, is that the jargon is not necessary the problem but rather how Herman uses such jargon.

The analytical terms he employs throughout the work are undoubtedly valuable, but the book does not use such analytical tools in a well-thought, planned manner. Instead, the book reads more like a string of jargon, with little to no explanation of such jargon. And where explanations occur, he relies on other jargon. As a result, the only way to make sense of his writing is to 1) research each concept separately, 2) read each article he references in his discussions, and/or 3) read every endnote.

Such a stringing of jargon is further problematic because, as noted earlier, this book is written for two historically distinctive fields that do not currently have much overlap. As a result, scientists and humanities scholars are likely to lose track of his ideas because they are expected to understand both fields already. Had the book been written in two parts, from the perspective of scientists looking to understand literary studies and then from the perspective of literary scholars seeking to understand sciences of the mind, this issue could have been mitigated, but this is not the case.

As such, Herman unintentionally further complicates the possibility of cross-disciplinary work. For while scholars like Zunshine clearly construct a bridge from the humanities to the sciences and many references in Herman’s work construct a bridge from the sciences to the humanities, Herman seems to find a new chasm, an entirely different rift. But this rift is less transdisiplinary and more an an attempt to establish a distinct field of study altogether. While admirable, dispensing of previous field divisions as such is impractical at this time. Perhaps his work will find more of a place in the future, but now is not the time.

Review: “How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others” by T. M. Luhrmann

In How God Becomes Real, T. M. Luhrmann’s goal is simple: to explore and explain why and how humans “conceive of that which is not available to the senses” (xi). And while other scholars highlight imagination’s role in enabling religion, Luhrmann specifically investigates how religious behavior toward the invisible other enables “what is unseen to feel more present and alter[s] the person who performs them” (xii). Put another way, her central claim is that “god or spirit – the invisible other – must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it.” To substantiate her claim, each chapter works through a different hypothesis.

In Chapter One, Luhrmann argues that “people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits” (xii). She develops this argument first by highlighting that while the modern West has a culturally specific way of thinking about what is real, indeed all cultures do so, humans nonetheless “distinguish what counts as natural from what is beyond the natural, even though they may draw the line in different ways and come to different conclusions at different times about what is on which side of the line” (5). So, drawing on a range of psychological and anthropological literature, she highlights how people – cross-culturally – think about and behave regarding invisible others in a way distinct from how they interact with ordinary objects. Put another way, “one remembers and anticipates as if gods and spirits matter” through religious ritual. Luhrmann makes sense of this line between the material and invisible other by introducing what she calls the faith frame: “In this way of thinking and interpreting, people hold gods and spirits in their awareness as if those gods and spirits are present and engaged” (22). She explains the faith frame via the notion of serious play, wherein Luhrmann echoes previous anthropologists who observed that “the sacred has a play-like quality” in which “the play claims,” namely, claims with no clear root in reality, “are also serious claims about the world.”

In Chapter 2, Luhrmann explores the role of narrative and world building in establishing believable religion [1]. This world, or paracosm, enables religious followers “to sustain their faith frame” (26) and grips their “private imagination so powerfully that . . . they kindle the sense that they are true”: world building and the paracosm make god feel more real. Such religious narratives occurring within a paracosm, a constructed world, thereby enable “us to imagine the characters as if they were real” (29) and build a sort of relationship with characters; however, in Luhrmann’s discussion, those characters with whom we build relationships in the world are gods and spirits. Thus, she effectively and rightly leverages narrative cognitive sciences to explain aspects of religious experience. Moreover, while a religious world, a paracosm, can mirror fiction, the religious paracosm has certain rules of engagement, signs of participation, and means of interaction, and such “interaction with the invisible other is one of the central features that sets the special world of faith apart from fiction” (32). After describing her in-field experiences regarding these through requirements for a religious paracosm, Luhrmann again highlights how serious play, the faith frame, allows practitioners 1) to use narrative and ritual to imagine and represent an invisible god and 2) to create a “private-but-shared imaginative world” (56).

In Chapter 3, Luhrmann explores the central role of training and orienting imaginations for their respective paracosms: “Absorption and inner sense cultivation kindle the realness of gods and spirits” (58). That is, based on her fieldwork and academic studies, “something like talent and training facilitates the felt realness of gods and spirits and the kinds of experiences people deem spiritual” (60). This claim is justified first via her fieldwork on witchcraft in England and on Christianity in evangelical Christian communities, wherein individuals learned how to treat what would normally be considered internal phenomena as external with an invisible other. Such an observation is reinforced by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, which shows that “people who score highly in absorption are more likely to say that God speaks to them” and that they have experienced God being present and alive (71) – an invisible other. Furthermore, based on her fieldwork, Luhrmann argues that inner-sense cultivation enables people to experience an invisible other. That is, various traditions encourage practices wherein people treat words and images internally generated as if they were generated externally or developing more vivid mental imagery and explain its origin as externally based on a constructed paracosm. Simply put, developing one’s ability to imagine vividly and to blur the internal-external boundary yields perceived relationships with invisible others.

In Chapter 4, Luhrmann builds on the previous chapters by not just highlighting the inner-outer boundary in one’s mind but by showing how the boundary, or the in-between area, plays a role in the religious imagination inasmuch as the boundaries speaks to how different ideas of “the mind” impact understandings. Indeed, how one thinks about the mind directly impacts how one judges or interprets an event or experience. So, Luhrmann discusses three case studies involving Christian churches. Here, she highlights that people experienced God in different ways in these diverse contexts “because of the specific ways that they attend to their own experience” (100). Similarly, the means by which God “spoke” back differed based on local training, cultures, and other factors. Therefore, Luhrmann effectively demonstrates that how people understand mind-stuff, real-stuff, and the in-between directly impacts how God becomes real for them.

In Chapter 5, Luhrmann’s more technical approach shows how “practices of attention shape the most basic evidence people have that gods and spirits respond” (111). For example, individuals in certain contexts might have goosebumps; and such a stimulus in some contexts is taught to be indicative of divine presence. Therefore, she works to account for this sort of attention to stimuli. First, Luhrmann draws from Emil Kraedpelin’s notion of “kindling” to suggest that religious experiences attributed to a supernatural source shape how one experiences the events itself and future events; and kindling in an ongoing process becomes “more habituated and more fluent for members of that social group” (113). Such kindling comes about through building blocks and event cognition: certain bodily events are “incorporated into accounts of gods and spirits” (114) and “categories through which people identify the events” (114), respectively. With this theoretical framework, Luhrmann designates three broad kinds of events: phenomena with names but no specific bodily anchor (e.g., certain feelings, such as goosebumps, when they perceive god as speaking to them), bodily affordances (i.e., experiences that occur everywhere but can take special meaning in a religious tradition, such as “a Holy Spirit experience” after crying in a church setting), and anomalous events (e.g., sleep paralysis) that “may or may not carry culturally specific labels” (116). While heuristic in nature, these categories nonetheless enable Luhrmann to define how people relate to and perceive their bodily experiences. So, she links these categories with her theory of spiritual kindling from previous work to show that “the theory of spiritual kindling predicts that the frequency of events deemed spiritual is shaped by culture” (120). Finally, she shows the value of this framework through two case studies, one of a US-based charismatic church and the other of Thai Buddhists: both groups pay attention to different things. So, she concludes, “their attentional patterns can alter something as basic as their perceptual experience. ‘Kindling’ is a more specific account of how attentional learning unfolds for people” (135).

In Chapter 6, Luhrmann explores a simple question: why does prayer work? Fundamentally, she describes prayer as a metacognitive process that naturally involves emotion management and thus changes “the way people attend to their own mental processes” (139). Here, she explores how multiple facets function metacognitively: reorienting toward the positive (gratitude), organizing experiences (confession), the assertion of hope (asking), words meaning more when speaking to an other (even an invisible other!), and the brain treating personalized prayer to an invisible other as if a person were speaking to a friend forming a real social relationship. Of all of Luhrmann’s chapters, this was one of my favorites.

In Chapter 7, Luhrmann works to bring the various chapters together by describing more broadly how people create social relationships with gods and spirits, with invisible others. So, she shows how various field experiences of a god’s social relationship can be good for individuals but not the social whole. Such diverse parasocial experiences, Luhrmann suggests, derive from differing senses of inner other and imaginal relationships. And she also shows examples of how social relationships with gods are clearly not good for the social whole. Thus, Luhrmann fundamentally addresses not only “why people think gods and spirits are real but about how they become and are real for them” (184).

Overall, I enjoyed Luhrmann’s work. And because the Ood will undoubtedly sing Doctor Luhrmann’s praise, I will instead focus on engaging with specific aspects of How God Becomes Real.

First, although I agree with and appreciate Luhrmann’s frame for religion, the as-if frame derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, more engagement with H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: A System of Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, would have strengthened her notion of a faith frame. Although I do not have access to Huizinga’s book at the moment, Luhrmann’s representation of Homo Ludens does not consider what underlies the work. Vaihinger uses the as-if framework to explain the psyche’s logical function: everything is perceived “as if” because we can never describe reality in the truest sense. As such, the human logical function, or how we perceive things, always uses fiction by necessity. So while Luhrmann rightly draws from how play theorists use Vaihinger’s as-if framework, more engagement with Vaihinger may have enriched her discussion. For example, if we agree with Vaihinger that all human perception is filtered through this as-if framework and that this as-if framework is necessarily a fiction working toward understanding reality, how might that impact her work? After all, the as-if framework aims to describe reality, but focusing on making an invisible other become real runs contrary to this logical function, especially when people using this as-if framework fail to recognize that they are, in fact, using a fictional framework. In short, more attention to Vaihinger would have enriched this study. (Admittedly, this critique may have more to do with the play theorists than with Luhrmann.)

Second, to substantiate Luhrmann’s idea of a paracosm, we ought to turn to an outright construction of a paracosm. Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World within the Bible” explicitly argues that the Bible is not about history but rather leads readers “into a new world, into the world of God” ( This statement affirms Luhrmann’s comment that a paracosm, or in this case the Bible, enables followers to know their god through narrative. To push this point further: the fact that Barth explicitly theologized a paracosm raises another question: to what extent does intentionality in creating a religious paracosm impact how gods and spirits become real to followers? I ask not only in light of Barth but my own practices. As I reflect on my Jewish spirituality, I know that I am creating a paracosm for understanding and interpreting the world, but I also know that the paracosm is not necessarily reality. Rather, it is fictional. So, how might Luhrmann approach this matter? Put another way, we have three tiers: people who construct paracosms without realizing they are doing so; people who construct paracosms intentionally and perceive them as representing reality; and people who construct paracosms while recognizing those paracosms don’t necessarily align with reality. While I don’t have an answer, I will say that the issue of recognizing whether something is fiction (in Vaihinger’s sense) again highlights that additional consideration of Vaihinger’s philosophy on its own terms may have strengthened Luhrmann’s theoretical constructions.

Third, as much as I enjoyed Luhrmann’s discussion on prayer, her discussion about prayer as metacognition could take into consideration metarepresentation. Within Theory of Mind, metarepresentation is our ability to tag and track information. What if, though, part of the metacognition in prayer is reorienting and retagging our metarepresentations of events, people, and ideas? Indeed, Luhrmann alludes to this idea, inasmuch as she says that prayer is a reflection that attempts “to sculpt, shape, reframe, reword, and remaster thoughts and feelings” (140). Incorporating metarepresentational reconsiderations as part of prayer in some ways aligns with Luhrmann’s comment on confession in prayer, that it enables people “to organize experience” (146). Ultimately, linking metacognition with intentional metarepresentation may be a more precise, helpful way of thinking through why prayer works. Moreover, intentional metarepresentation also becomes a means by which a follower and person praying can reinforce their faith frame, which compliments her discussion from chapter 1.

Overall, I highly recommend How God Becomes real by T. M. Luhrmann. As my extensive marginal notes in the book suggest, her work is a helpful theoretical model for thinking about religious experience and related phenomena.

[1] To be clear, Luhrmann does not use the language “world building” but rather simply a world. I redescribe Luhrmann’s work with world building in light of Building Imaginary Worlds by Mark J. P. Wolf.

Reflection: “Sin: The Early History of an Idea” by Paula Fredriksen

Without a doubt, Paula Fredriksen’s Sin: The Early History of an Idea is a classic, must-read book on, well, the history of sin. Her masterful study insightfully and thoroughly explores how concepts of sin shifted in the first four centuries CE: Jesus’s focus on Jews and the ten commandments as how to avoid sin, repent, and join in the kingdom to come; Paul focusing on pagans as part of a universal redemptive plan including “celestial powers, the lower cosmic gods of pagan pantheons” (138), and their eventual submission to the god of Israel (including the cosmic force called Sin); Valentinus’s claiming that ignorance and not knowing God’s will causes sin via the inability to receive revelation; Justin Martyr’s claiming that intellectual “misapprehension of the divine” leads to sin; Origen’s somewhat sympathetic approach to sin as being caused by beings, who were contingent on God, wavering (i.e., unreason leads to sin); and Augustine’s well-known original sin as linked to Adam. While scholars have undoubtedly spilled many pixels and much ink on Fredriksen’s work and the history of sin with regard to the texts she examines, I want to focus instead on her broader methodology and framework. That is, how does Fredriksen approach sin in the first four centuries CE, and how does that approach impact her discussion?

First, Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach to sin is instructive for approaching any ancient concepts in religious studies. In the epilogue, Fredriksen notes that “ancient ideas about sin provide a point of orientation from which we can move out examine other concept clusters that defined early forms of Christianity” (135). Although she does not explicitly identify a cluster-based approach, she suggests as much by noting “other” concept clusters, implying that sin’s concept cluster serves as a helpful orientation. So, rather than simple lexical studies on specific terms, scholarship should focus more on conceptual categories and mapping those concepts. Admittedly, writing about concept clusters well can be difficult without a broader theoretical framework. While certain critical theorists may prove helpful in this regard, scholars ought to lean more into cognitive studies to map these concept clusters. To be clear, I am not suggesting scholars lean into cognitive studies when it is convenient; rather, religion scholars ought to be well-read in that field, knowledgeable about the specialty more broadly. Moreover, leaning into such a field does not necessitate abandoning theorists. Rather, as Lisa Zunshine articulates so well in Why We Read Fiction, critical and literary theory can and should inform cognitive studies and vice versa. Thus, Fredriksen’s approach is instructive but should be paired with more rigorous analytical models and theoretical frameworks.

Second, while I appreciate Fredriksen’s concept-cluster approach, she does not clearly articulate what terms and ideas function as indices for early Christian and Jewish concept clusters of sin. For example, she cites Josephus’s discussion of the Ten Commandments (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116–119) to reconstruct Jesus’s ideas on sin. In citing Josephus, she focuses primarily on the language of “justice,” “piety,” and “immersion” (i.e., tshuvah, or repentance) in relation to the Ten Commandments. From here and in conjunction with Jesus’s mention of the Ten Commandments (e.g., Mark 10:19), she concludes: “We can infer from all this that Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments; that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments” (16). But this claim is problematic on multiple fronts: Josephus’s language; Jesus’s language; and the absence of sin within these passages.

  1. In the passage that Fredriksen cites, she excludes what is arguably central to identifying Jesus’s concept cluster of sin, and this exclusion complicates her subsequent assertion that “he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments.” The problem? Antiquities of the Jews 18.117 explicitly identifies baptism and tshuvah (repentance) as not for the forgiveness of sins: “for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him [i.e., God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body” (LINK). Put another way, the Ten Commandments, namely, Josephus’s piety toward God and justice toward others (Antiquities of the Jews 18.117), are indeed linked to immersion/baptism but are importantly decoupled from the remission of sins. As such, this text is a weak foundation for claiming that Jesus’s central idea of sin was that sin meant breaking God’s commandments, especially the Ten Commandments. For while John the Baptist explicitly links baptism and confession of sins, Josephus does not link baptism with sins but rather with purification. And while Josephus links purification with the Ten Commandments, John the Baptist does not explicitly do so (Mk 4:1–6). Therefore, the disjunction between John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and John the Baptist in Josephus problematizes using the texts in conjunction to reconstruct Jesus’s concept cluster of sin because Josephus and Mark’s John (whom she uses to substantiate claims about Jesus’s perspective on sin) seem to use slightly different concept clusters for sin.

    At the same time, Fredriksen rightly highlights that Josephus presumes the immersed individuals “had previously been cleansed by right conduct” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186; italics original) or, in William Whiston’s translation, “that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” ( Put another way, Josephus’s understanding of baptism links with purification and presumes the baptized individual follows the Ten Commandments. By contrast, John baptizes individuals for the forgiveness of sin, a situation in which they confess their sins (Mk 1:4–6). Fredriksen blends these distinctive processes: “Repentance and sincere contrition before God, John and his contemporaries believed, would gain forgiveness” (Jesus of Nazareth, 186). While this generalization is not necessarily untrue, she nonetheless elides that Mark’s representation of John and Josephus’s representation of John understand and nuance the immersion process in distinctive ways: for Mark’s John, baptism is about the forgiveness of sins, although what constitutes sins is not explicit; by contrast, for Josephus’s John, baptism is about purification and presumes righteous behavior in line with the Ten Commandments, although immersion is explicitly not about remitting sin and implicitly not about confessing sin. As such, Josephus and Mark have somewhat distinct conceptual clusters around sin that ought to be discussed in more detail and recognized as unique conceptual clusters with overlap.
  2. A few pages after Fredriksen discusses how Josephus and Mark represent John in Sin, she suggests that Jesus’s mentioning the Ten Commandments in Mark 10:19 implies that he defined sin as breaking God’s commandments. Indeed, her initial step is undoubtedly correct: according to Mark 10:19, “Jesus defined living rightly as living according to the Torah, as summed up in and by the Ten Commandments” (16). However, the broader context implies that Jesus’s speech is not necessarily concerned with sin. After Jesus responds to the man’s question by affirming the value of living by the Ten Commandments, the man replies, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth” (Mk 10:19, RSV). Jesus responds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21, RSV). In the broader context of Fredriksen’s prooftext, textual absences problematize her assertion that breaking the Ten Commandments constituted sin. First, a term for sin does not appear in Mark 10. As such, to simplify Jesus’s notion of sin to breaking the Ten Commandments is untenable without additional discussion and data. Second, the apex of Jesus’s speech in Mark 10:19 links the Ten Commandments with entering the kingdom of God, not repentance or sin. Thus, while Mark 10:19 conceptually overlaps with notions of sin, ignoring how the Ten Commandments function in the broader context of Mark 10:19 is untenable and requires additional textual support.

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Fredriksen’s book; however, her work still retains a problematic trend in scholarly discussions about sin: treating sin as a universal term encompassing social transgressions in religious contexts. While the category of sin can be a helpful heuristic category, distinguishing between a philologically based approach (i.e., indexing how sin as an ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic term functions) and a philosophical approach (i.e., working with something like Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, which shapes discourse about sin) is imperative. When the philology- and philosophy-based approaches mix and we blur the borders, we quickly lose the ability to self-reflect on our methodology and the results that our scholarship yields.  

Review: “Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature” edited by Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin, eds. Documentality: New Approaches to Written Literature in Imperial Life and Literature. Trends in Classics 132. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2022.

Documents are integral in a historian’s pursuits. But what precisely constitutes a document is not always clear. To this point, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently raised the question of what constitutes a social document. Such a question is pertinent to late antique scholarship because his theory can address “fundamental questions about the status of (physical) documentary objects, their influence on reality, and the role of subjectivity and intentionality in their creation and reception” (5). As such, this volume’s contributors engage with Ferarris’s theory as a means to interrogate documentality in Rome’s Imperial period. This volume, then, “explores the implications of Ferraris’s documentality for the study of life and literature in the Roman world on its own merits” (8) in light of Ferraris and his interlocutors’ most recent critiques. 

In this review, I first offer a thorough summary of the various contributions. Subsequently, I engage with specific chapters and consistent themes based on what I deem relevant. This review aims not only to summarize the contributions accurately and thoroughly but also to encourage 1) interdisciplinary conversations about documentality and 2) further engagement with this volume and Ferraris’s theory and his interlocutors. 

As per any introduction, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Scott J. DiGiulio, and Inger N. I. Kuin (i.e., the editors) frame the volume through an overview of documentality’s history (e.g., Hayden White, John Searle, etc., up to Ferraris), examines the word “document” and analogs in ancient Greek and Latin, and outline the broad historical context of documents in the Roman Empire. After summarizing all contributions, the editors identify the various contributions’ goal: to “address the materiality, authority, use, and literary interactions of Roman documents, examining different modes of documentation from the early Empire into Late Antiquity” (27). 

In chapter 1, John Bodel examines the role of documents for identity in the early Roman Empire. Based on two example cases, Cicero, and various imperial changes of three centuries, he shows that “classical antiquity never fully emerged from the oral stage of documentary development in which written declarations depended upon witness verification for validity” (53). In doing so, he challenges documentality theorists claiming that a society’s shift toward documents is a part of a given historical, evolutionary process fluctuating through time. Instead, Rome appears not to have engaged in the process as documentality theorists outline. 

In chapter 2, Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne examines how school copying exercises in the first four centuries CE shift ultimately aim for the texts to be stored in memory. With this observation established, she highlights how defining documentation in Ferraris’ terms, that is, the modern sense, does not necessarily map clearly onto Imperial period school texts, especially since the late Roman pedagogy aimed to “eliminate the necessity of the trace [i.e., the trace being a key aspect for Ferraris’s interlocutor E. Terrone] entirely” (70). Finally, after reflecting more broadly on “the practices of copying and memorization in literary education” during the Roman period, she concludes that school copying exercises are intentional traces that “contribute to the construction of intellectual identity and social reality in the Roman Empire” (75). Therefore, “the documentary trace provides a useful model with which to analyze ancient sources that do not conform to the definition of documentation in the modern sense of the word” (59). 

In chapter 3, Karen ní Mheallaigh, a specialist in ancient fiction and the ancient scientific imagination, explores what fiction tells us about ancient documentality. To do so, she suggests that Lucian’s True Stories challenges the real–fiction divide by preoccupying his text “with the details of a document’s material nature [to increase] in direct proportion . . . anxiety about its authenticity” (82), to create “the mere whiff of a possibility that the document might actually exist” (83) and to make “these fictions all the more exciting” (83). Examining three instances of documentality in Lucian’s True Stories,  she concludes that Lucian’s treatment shows documents as a place where “the potential for deception is always lurking” (101). As such, Lucian’s representation of documents challenges the extent to which fiction can be documentary and documents can be fictitious. 

In chapter 4, Inger N. I. Kuin examines Lucian to show how “Lucian’s manipulation of epigraphic objects in his imaginary worlds indirectly shows us something about the everyday experience of living with such texts, both from the perspective of those who could read them, and from the perspective of those who could not” (110). Similarly to Mheallaigh, she suggests that Lucian shows “documents are always duplicitous and unverifiable,” thereby rendering the literate and illiterate, who trust their authority, “profoundly vulnerable” (129). 

In chapter 5, Pierre Schneider investigates the extent to which documents were building blocks for ancient geographical knowledge. From a modern perspective on documents, such knowledge was based on documents; however, from an ancient perspective, Schneider shows that ancient geographers “assigned a certain degree of truth and reliability” (149) to different sources (i.e., they did not conceptualize the “‘neutral’ conception of documents as a certain quantity of information recorded and stored” (149). 

In chapter 6, Sjoukje M. Kamphorst draws from documentality theory to show how inscriptions, in particular, monuments, served to coordinate and align cities through a monumental referencing “the decree [that] can be considered iterations of the original act” (162), “anchors of shared knowledge and practice” (164). By the Imperial period, though, Kamphorst shows that such monumental documents began to connect cities to the Roman emperor, thereby enabling cities to become “a constituent part of the new imagined community of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (170). With this addition, the original purpose of fostering city relations through monumental inscriptions became less powerful.  

In chapter 7, Scott J. DiGiulio uses Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae to understand “how at least one ancient reader approached reading different material in the Roman empire” (181). Through examining Gellius’s use of epistolaries, monuments and inscriptions, and even instances where documents’ legitimacy is problematized, Gellius aims primarily to document the Latin language. As such, DiGiulio shows that Gellius’s documentary conception differs from Ferraris and that of modern historians. 

In chapter 8, Jean-Luc Fournet challenges the line between literature and document by showing how various epistolary texts and petitions served not as documents but rather as textual exemplars, models for good writing.  

In chapter 9, Yasmine Amory how the role of orality in late-antique letters fits within Ferraris’s documentality frame. First, she highlights how some letters reflect “the unavoidable loss of the oral message that frequently accompanied the written text” (236). Second, she shows how messengers functioned as a sort of living letter accompanying the physical document. Further complicating the picture, she also demonstrates that some letters and oral messages served as small literary pieces for recipients, further blurring the boundaries between documents, literature, fictitious accounts, and the living letter accompanying letters. 

In the epilogue, Mireille Corbier examines how a particular tabula can exist in different contexts at different times. As such, the document takes on different significances, as well as how we or others classify the document.  

What makes Documentality a notch above other edited volumes is its organization. Whereas other volumes often read like disparate academic articles, the editors carefully weaved this volume’s contributions into what feels like a coherent, consistent, well-structured volume. Each chapter references others consistently and well, thereby interacting with each other; the fundamental issue is addressed in each chapter (i.e., documentality via Ferraris and his interlocutors); each chapter clearly theorizes on notions of documentation: these various aspects result in a united, coherent volume that I enjoyed reading beginning to end. 

Additionally, while Documentality is beyond the scope of what I typically read, the volume nonetheless provides a helpful template for engaging with theories of documentality in other fields. In recent discussions with biblical and religion scholars, this book has come to the forefront of conversation precisely because the theory of documentality is playing an important role in ongoing scholarship; however, these folks have not realized that classics scholars are just now exploring this new(ish) theory of documentality. Therefore, I look forward to seeing how this volume shapes conversations in analogous scholarly fields. 

Thus, I recommend reading Documentality, at the very least the introduction and specific chapters related to your interests. And while I could quip with minor points in individual chapters (or should I say documents?), such criticisms would not take away from the volume’s overall strengths: coherency, consistency, strong engagement with an important theorist, and generally interesting, engaging discussions and arguments. 

Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.


Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.


As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” ( Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.

Review: “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf’

Mark J. P. Wolf. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012.

In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J. P. Wolf develops a framework and criteria for describing and examining imaginary worlds, subcreated worlds. Indeed, Wolf accomplishes this goal, exploring various issues related to philosophy, narratology, storytelling, readers, characters, authorship, transmedia storytelling, and more. Thus, Wolf’s volume is quite thorough. At the same time, some of Wolf’s analysis felt cut short and left me wanting more. Nonetheless, the book forms a helpful foundation for analyzing and exploring notions of world building not only in fan fiction, media, and cultural studies but in other fields as well.


In the Introduction, Wolf acknowledges that while some readers are primarily and only interested in narrative, other readers may be especially interested in the world building aspects of a book inasmuch as those elements enhance the reader’s experience (e.g., glossaries, maps, timelines). As such, imaginary worlds do not necessarily rely on narratives. Thus, the nature of imaginary worlds and reader preferences necessitate a critical approach distinct from one focusing on narrative. Moreover, building imaginary worlds, Wolf rightly contends, is a universal human behavior [1]. Additionally, Wolf provides a general overview of how previous writers and theorists explored making imaginary worlds. Much of this work was written by the world authors themselves or took a distinctly philosophical perspective of “possible worlds” and modal logic. Wolf’s book, though, continues this discourse by focusing not only on the language and text of imaginary worlds but by including the audiovisual aspects of imaginary worlds in his analysis. This shift away toward media studies for understanding world building is pertinent because, as Wolf highlights, media consumption patterns are changing with media types (i.e., more focus on world building through audiovisual elements) and “the more traditional literary criticism are not world-centered and constitute a different focus” (12).

In Chapter 1, Wolf describes various aspects of how an imaginary world, subcreated world, or Secondary World works. As a jumping-off point, he briefly explains the history of imaginary worlds within philosophy, otherwise known as possible worlds. While foundational to fictional worlds more broadly, such philosophical approaches, Wolf contends, inadequately address audiovisual-based worlds, instead focusing primarily on literature. He shifts to world-builders themselves and traces a thread regarding how those people approached fictional worlds. Beginning with the notion of imagination presented by Coleridge and George MacDonald’s considerations of such imaginative worlds necessitating internally consistent laws, Wolf leans especially on J. R. R. Tolkein’s works. Because humans are created by a god, Tolkein asserts, so human have the ability to subcreate, which Wolf describes in detail: “Subcreation . . . involves new combinations of existing concepts, which, in the building of a secondary world, become the inventions that replace or reset the Primary World defaults . . . . The more one changes these defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the Primary World. It is not surprising, then, that secondary worlds will in many way resemble the Primary World . . . . Secondary Worlds, then, have the same ddefault assumptions as does the Primary World, except where the author has indicated otherwise” (24). In light of this idea, Wolf starts to discuss to what he calls the “secondariness” of a world, namely, the degree to which it is connected to the Primary World. Secondary, imaginative worlds are best arranged “along a spectrum of attachment to, or reliance on, the Primary World (as we know it) and its defaults” (27) so that people experience different worlds in different ways.

These worlds are often more than a story, though. As Wolf comments, “A compelling story and a compelling world are very different things, and one need not require the other” (29). A text, then, can become world-building when the narrative goes beyond what is necessary to advance the story. He articulate the aspects of world-building through three categories: invention, completeness, and consistency. These categories link to three descriptions of how one experiences a world: immersion, absorption, and saturation. Speaking less about the reader’s experience and more toward how readers fill gaps, he discusses the world Gestalten of ellipsis, logic, and extrapolation, or how “a structure or configuration of details together implies the existence of an imaginary world, and causes the audiences to automatically fill in the missing pieces of that world, based on the details that are given” (52). Shifting away from perception and Gestalten, Wolf draws attention to catalysts of speculation, how certain worlds make people curious and result in people attempting “to answer questions in more etail, either by the world’s originator, by those authorized to add to it, or even by unauthorized fan additions” (61). Finally, Wolf concludes by highlighting that the framing of clear boundaries between Primary World and Secondary World has lessened overtime as people have become more used to these imaginary worlds.

In chapter 2, Wolf broadly descries the history of imaginary worlds. He begins with transnarrative characters and literary cycles, suggesting that wold build begins to take off when characters from one story appear in another, thereby causing audiences to fill the gaps of such transnarrative characters. Moving forward, and in some cases at the same time, world building happened in mythical stories, such as in the Odyssey, Herodotus, Lucian, or Plato. The next major shift occurred closer to the turn of the first millenium, which gave rise to travelers’ tales during the age of exploration (up to the nineteenth century), of which many explorations were simply fantastical stories with world building. During this time, we also see the emergence of utopias and dystopias. Beginning in the nineteenth century, and based on the various world-building groupings before, fantasy and science fiction books emerged and proliferated as a genre. Such proliferation changed how people understood such imaginary worlds: “People grew more accustomed to experiencing and forming a mental image of distant parts of the world through media representations, which often involved a wide range of sources of varying reliability. In this way, mass media helped to lessen the gap between real foreign countries which were experienced solely through media, and imaginary worlds, which could only be experienced through media” (112). So emerged new forms of world building in mediums that readers of the twenty-first century are more familiar with: early cinema and comic strips, the first world building of Oz, pulp magazines, movies and theater, radio and television, Tolkien’s work, and the rise of world-building media franchises (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Star Trek, etc.). With technology changes in the last fifty to seventy years, we have also see interactive worlds, such as video games, become a major medium for experiencing other worlds. Overall, Wolf’s outline of world-building history demonstrates the role of secondary, imaginary worlds as places where humans have been able to perform art and thought experiences.

In chapter 3, Wolf explores various aspects involved in structure imaginary worlds and the systems therein. While narrative plays an important role in world-building, he focuses more on the specific experiential elements and how those elements can overlap: maps, timelines, nature, culture, language, mythology, and philosophy. World-builders can tie together different aspects of these categories to create infrastructure for a complex, imaginary world. What makes this chapter more than a simple description the aspects involved in constructing a world is that Wolf make clear how world-builders incorporate these elements in distinct ways and in distinct contexts. Similarly, he explains how these particular elements function to form the infrastructure for a secondary work.

In chapter 4, Wolf examines how “narrative operates within a world and helps to structure it” (198). He first discusses narrative threads, braids, and fabric, drawing on narrative theory to explain how the weaving together of narrative braids can play a central role in world-building. Although Wolf does not give this example, Game of Thrones (at least the TV show, as I haven’t read the books) is a great example of how various narrative braids are woven together into a fabric to construct a broader world, each braid coming together to form a fabric. Second, and related to the issue of narratives, Wolf highlights the importance of backstory and world history, and such stories often have “low narrative resolution” (202) and involve characters different from the original stories. He also calls these “nested stories” (204), which link stories within an imaginary world. Third, he addresses sequence elements and internarrative theory, which concerns how world-building occurs through sequels and prequels, and even stories coming in between stories, which Wolf coins midquels, interquels, and intraquels, and framing stories, which he coins transquels. These various ways to think about world-building and sequencing provide helpful categories for describing the history of world building. Third, he addressing retroactive continuity (retcon) and reboots. Fourth, he identifies how crossovers, multiverses, and retroactive linkages can create larger, overarching world. Moving to a different form of media, and fifth, he addresses how certain technologies enable interactivity and alternate story lines that “raise questions regarding the status of a world and the canonicity of events in that world” (221). Finally, he discusses how “making of” documentation serve world-building by highlighting details, demonstrating world consistency, and adding new content. And narrative links all of these things together.

In chapter 5, Wolf addresses the next level after subcreations: when a subcreation creates its own subcreated world. In these contexts, words play a central role because they give rise to a sub-subcreated world. With this process in transmedia, creators often bring a degree of self-reflexivity to the table, reflecting on their own acts of subcreation. So, Wolf identifies multiple examples. Within this context, he highlights evil subcreators, who become importance to the broader narrative fabric of a story and world.

In chapter 6, Wolf describes how worlds grow not just in books (e.g., Baum’s Wizard of Oz) but in different media forms (i.e., transmedia) either via adaption or growth. Key to this matter is transmediality, which is “the state of being represented in multiple media” (247). And while acknowledging that exploring how each media form transfers to another would be valuable, it would also be repetitive and lengthy. So, he focuses mainly on looking “at each of the properties present in different media, their capabilities and peculiarities, and the process of using each as a window that reveals an imaginary world” (248). He focuses, then, on five elements: description, something often originating with words on a page and relates to “describing the experience of perception as much as the object being perceived” (252); visualization, which uses a certain vantage point “to further comment on the scene, enhance aspects of it, and suggest a certain attitude towards what is portrayed” (253); auralization, which uses sound to create a world; interactivation, combining various forms of media into an interactive media (e.g., video games); and deinteractivation, fixed forms of media such as turning Super Mario Bros. into a movies and dispensing of the interactive elements. For these various media windows, Wolf highlights they can be experienced in a variety of ways as follows, and not always in the same order, thereby changing the viewer’s experience: “order of public appearance, order of creation, internal chronological order, canonical order, order of media preference, and age-appropriate order” (265).

In chapter 7, Wolf discusses the circles of authorship and how the relationship between various stakeholders involved in the world-building process, or recipients of it, maintain a degree of authorship, depending on the media. To address this matter, Wolf first distinguishes between closed world and open world, though he recognizes the role that things like merchandise and fan fiction can play in expanding even a closed world. Based on these categories, he also identifies how different worlds can have different levels of canonicity. When it comes to canonicity, many folks are involved, each with a different type of stake in the media or product: the originator and main author; estates, heirs, and torchbearers; employees and freelancers; approved, derivative, and ancillary products, and elaborationists and fan productions. He discusses nuances for each of these groups. In a somewhat secondary category, he discusses participatory worlds as places where authorship also plays a role, such as in MMORPGs. He concludes the chapter, and indeed the book, by highlighting how subcreation “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice with the default assumptions we make about reality” (287).

In the appendix, Wolf includes an appendix of imaginary worlds.


In this section, I lay out a range of criticisms, engage constructively with Wolf’s work, and push the boundaries of where Wolf’s method and approach to world building might help fields outside media studies.

First, though media in the modern world is undoubtedly more diverse than it was seven hundred years ago, Wolf may have missed an important opportunity to consider world building in light of diverse, historically contingent frameworks for what constitutes different types of media. Indeed, he is right that “books, drawings, photographs, film, radio, television, video games, websites, and other media,” as well as their proliferation, “have opened portals through which these world grow in clarity and detail” (1-2). Likewise, such world building through these new media forms is undoubtedly historically unique due to the role that sound and images often play in the process. But in describing the history of world building, he should have considered how different societies perceived and enacted world building with their various media forms. For example, although we of view pamphlets, printed manuscripts, hand-written manuscripts, and scrolls as similar things, namely, some form of parchment or paper on which people wrote, the art, physical texture, creation process, general appearance, and general assumptions differed. As such, people would have different experiences reading the various media forms, comparable to the difference between watching movie on a small laptop as opposed to in a movie theater.

Second, one major weakness Wolf’s discussion of world-building history regard transnarrative characters. In particular, Wolf comments that “the simplest literary indication that a world exists beyond the details needed [. . .] is a transnarrative character. A character who appears in more than one story links the stories’ world together by being present in them” (66). He then mentions King Nebuchadnezzar II as an example of a historical, transnarrative character because he appears or is mentioned in 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Josephus. This perspective, though, fails to consider these texts and Nebuchadnezzar’s representation in each text. Moreover, since his representation in these various texts did not collectively aim to construct a complex, nuanced world (i.e., world-building), how Nebuchadnezzar is somehow a transnarrative character related to world-building is unclear.

Third, although beyond the scope of Wolf’s work, his discussion of Bibles is pertinent to tracking how the Christian religious imagination developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries through books. In particular, he highlights that “during the 1500s, maps were already appearing in printed Bibles, which may have encouraged the inclusion of more maps of imaginary worlds” (156). Admittedly, I would have liked if Wolf demonstrated how maps in printed Bibles and maps for imaginary worlds were (or were not) historically related to each other, the former giving rise to the latter. Nonetheless, if we accept Wolf’s assertion, we can make some preliminary observations on the nature of imaginary worlds and world building regarding conceptions of religion in the 1500s. First, I wonder to what extent world-building and religion overlap cognitively to the effect that some world-building groups become perceived as so-called religious. Indeed, some folks in the 1500s perceived the world of the Bible as something to be expanded upon, something that needed world-building in its own right. And we see this trend continuing today, to a degree, through new study Bibles, replete with essays, maps, historical context, and more. That is, religious practitioners build out and seek to better understand the Bible’s historical contexts in order to expand its universe. And fandoms perform such intellectual endeavors as well for fictional books. Therefore, this overlap in creating an imaginative world may explain, in part, why some scholars have looked at fandoms and viewed them as a sort of quasi-religious group.

Fourth, Wolf’s work would have been stronger if he had identified alternative ways of framing world-building. In the boo, he frames world-building as a form of subcreation, an idea from Tolkien’s work about humans being created by God and thus subcreating other things. Even at the end of the volume, while he rightly points out that world-building “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice within the default assumptions we make about reality” (287), Wolf nonetheless brings everything back around to appreciating “the Divine design of Creation.” One alternative to simply wrapping his conclusion back to a sort of theological conclusion would be to explore the notion of world-building through an interdisciplinary lens, to show how anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology might shed light on the phenomenon of world-building.


Overall, Mark Wolf’s book is worth reading and offers a helpful way to approach, frame, describe, and think about world-building, a important skill in a world wherein world-building is becoming more important than the narrative itself, where franchise trumps story. And while the book has a few shortcoming, it offers a range of avenues for future scholarship.

[1] Vulcans might not be interested in building imaginary worlds, but they are part of an imaginary world. In facts, Vulcans in this light may be an imaginative opposite of what constitutes a human being.

Review: “The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch” edited by Joel S. Baden and Jeffrey Stackert

With resources on Pentateuchal studies spread out and difficult to access in a single location, save for The Formation of the Pentateuch (Mohr Siebeck), Joel Baden and Jeffrey Stackert’s The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch is a welcome addition to biblical scholarship. Indeed, the information this volume covers is extensive, and the contributions are thorough. As with any review of an Oxford handbook, a review can be voluminous (i.e., interacting with every chapter) or brief (i.e., providing a stamp of approval or denial). In this review, I aim to be brief.

First, this volume is pedagogically beneficial because it provides a wealth of accessible introductions to various aspects of pentateuchal studies. Such material may be helpful especially for upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and non-specialists interested in pentateuchal studies. Such benefit is true especially for the chapters that summarize and synthesize scholarship history and provide simple, approachable examples source criticism. Even so, some aspects of the volume are less helpful pedagogically and may be helpful mainly to scholars. For example, Ehud ben Zvi’s chapter on social memory, while valuable for scholarship more broadly, reads more like a call to a particular approach than an introduction and scholarship overview. That is, the extent to which Ehud ben Zvi’s would be helpful in a classroom is questionable.

Second, though an unavoidable problem and not necessarily the editors’ fault, the handbook does not capture or represent key scholarship from recent years. One such example is Liane Feldman’s The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source. (Click here for a summary of her work.) Similarly, Sara Milstein’s Making a case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law is not referenced, a work arguing that we view biblical law are rooted not in law collections but rather in legal-pedagogical texts. Although this book has not had sufficient time to experience academia’s crucible of innovative ideas that push against traditional scholarship and dearly held positions, such an addition would have been welcome. In any case, these works are not referenced. Thus, readers should know that other approaches not discussed in the handbook are emerging. These chapters have their limitations.

Indeed, folks immersed in pentateuchal studies will like take issue with representations of scholarship, as is the case in any Oxford handbook. Even so, aside from these two comments on the volume, the handbook is a welcome, helpful, and accessible contribution to the sometimes convoluted, complex, and dense subject that is pentateuchal studies.

Review: “Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law” by Sara J. Milstein

Sarah Milstein’s goal in Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law is straightforward: to show why a range of biblical texts in the Pentateuch likely originated as pedagogical texts written by scribes. As such, Milstein’s discussion provides a fresh, well-reasoned alternative to more traditional historical-, form-, and redaction-critical approaches to the Pentateuch. Within this review, I will summarize Milstein’s work, highlight my criticisms, and identify places where she could push the ideas further.

In the Introduction, Milstein provides a broad overview of law collections in the ancient Near East, the genre typically used to explain the Pentateuch’s laws. Rather than using Mesopotamian law collections as an analogue for explaining texts like the Covenant Code or Deuteronomy 19-25, she instead proposes these biblical texts “are closer in form and function to the Mesopotamian corpus of legal-pedagogical texts” (15), a relatively difficult-to-access corpus due to resources “scattered in various journals and volumes” (16). As such, biblical scholarship using such material is relatively rare.

In Chapter 1, Milstein provides a broad overview of the role of legal texts in Mesopotamian scribal education. To accomplish this task, she walks through the centrality of model contracts, which overlap and parallel “in content, format, and terminology with functional contracts, legal phrasebooks, and precepts from the law collections” (26). Additionally, Milstein highlights fictional cases. Like model contracts, fictional cases overlap with some Mesopotamian laws. Equally important were legal-pedagogical texts in which scribes copied short series of laws. Notably, Milstein draws upon Canaanite parallels from the Middle Bronze Age, indicative that legal-pedagogical textual reproduction has a precedent in the Levant. (Notably, Milstein does not adequately address the problem of these Canaanite legal-pedagogical scribal texts being in the Middle Bronze Age as opposed to Israelite and Judean texts being from the Iron Age.) Finally, Milstein identifies legal phrasebooks and sequences of contractual clauses as important because these texts reflect combinations of contractual phrases and model contracts. Ultimately, Milstein effectively shows that legal-pedagogical texts, as opposed to solely Mesopotamian law collections, provide a more helpful explanatory model for explaining the roots of biblical law.

NB: This has implications attesting to the practical value of redaction. That is, redaction of biblical texts may have been far more than simply “religion” but rather was associated with everyday scribal education. We see this even in my work with Quanta Technology, where I have edited SOPs as a new employee. Indeed, these are perhaps my own “scribal exercises,” but then my manager reviews them to create a final version. As such, we can start to think beyond even a simple model of a single scribe and instead expand our thinking to account for different hands redacting and editing legal-pedagogical texts in their Sitz im Lebens.

In Chapter 2, Milstein uses the framework of legal-pedagogical texts to explain Deuteronomy’s development as a Hebrew Legal Fiction (HLF). After identifying problems with viewing Deuteronomy 12-26 as a “family law collection,” she highlights two particular case collections (Deut 22:13-21 and 22:23-29) reflecting law clusters. Rather than being real law clusters, though, she argues that these groupings in light of their redaction additions give the “illusion of a cluster of law,” a repurposed “old ‘private’ case concerning false accusations for use in a cluster of law that recast adultery as a public offense, consisting of a case and a counter-case.” She highlights similar texts: Deut 19:3-14 and Deut 22:23-29. The root for each of these cases, Milstein contends, exemplify characteristics similar the Mesopotamian legal fictions: colorful features and unusual legal situations; resonance with contracts; overlapping terminology; abundant social roles; variations on roots; and exchanges of money and pecuniary penalties. Because such themes overlap with Mesopotamian fictional cases, terms with phrasebooks, and root variation with legal-pedagogical texts, Milstein suggests that we should view such texts as being rooted in legal-scribal education. Only after these HLFs were incorporated into Deuteronomy and later scribes addended these texts did they begin to look like law collections, hence Milstein’s claim that “we have instead [. . .] the illusion of a law collection, facilitated by the later scribes’ employment of the same methods of composition and format that are present in the collections” (88).

Milstein’s line of thought is well thought out and provides a helpful alternative to thinking of biblical law solely as law collection, instead suggesting a more historically grounded origin through Mesopotamian legal fictions as an analogue. Her argument, though, may have implications beyond the Pentateuch. In particular, her argument and reframing of some biblical laws’ roots as Hebrew legal fictions may be applicable to the book of Ruth. After all, recent scholarship has explored the legal aspects of Ruth (e.g., Simeon Chavel’s recent article, as well as Brad Embry’s work). Moreover, Ruth is often used for Hebrew reading courses due to its seeming simplicity (based on my experience). Perhaps this is in part because Ruth was written as an amalgam multiple genres as a sort of scribal exercise: historiography, novella, and Hebrew legal fiction.

In Chapter 3, Milstein identifies how certain HLFs in the Hebrew Bible don’t reflect the illusion of law collections, as identified in Chapter 2, but rather reflect HLFs modeled after contracts. After providing an overview of ancient Near Eastern contracts, Milstein analyzes Deuteronomy 25:5-10 to show how the text “echoes the format of contracts” (109) and may use general terminology because the text is meant to form a fictional case. Exodus 21:7-11 and Deut 21:15-17, Milstein contends, equally function as Hebrew legal fictions in contract forms based on ancient Near Eastern parallels. As such, she suggests these texts are “rooted in knowledge of a comparable body of Israelite/Judahite contracts and/or lists of standard contractual clauses” (115).

Throughout Chapter 3, Milstein draws from Nuzi, OB, and Emar contracts to justify her approach. While utilizing such sources is by no means problematic and is methodologically justifiable, her argument would be strengthened by drawing on more Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian, and Neo-Assyrian contracts. And in light of the greater Mediterranean connections with the Sea Peoples in the eleventh century, Phoenicians, and even Philistines, greater evidence could perhaps be found with an eye to Greek and Macedonian contracts, as well as others that I may be missing.

In Chapter 4, Milstein argues that the casuistic provisions in Exodus 21:18-22:16 were initially scribal exercises. Although this textual corpus indeed appears most frequently in discussions exploring the extent to which ancient Israelite/Judahite scribes reused other ancient Near Eastern law codes, Milstein instead highlights that the nature of ancient Near Eastern law codes was that they were used for law-oriented scribal training. Turning to Exodus 21:18-22:16, she shows how the biblical text is limited in nature, similar to how other law-training scribal texts are limited in nature. Additionally, the disjointed incoherence of the text, a well-established idea among scholars, indicates this text as a possible law-training scribal text. Finally, various other ambiguities may indicate scribal errors, which themselves indicate this text was possibly a school exercise.

In Chapter 5, Milstein brings the threads of Chapters 1-4 together and reflects more broadly on the benefits of approaching biblical law in terms of legal-pedagogical material. In particular, approaching biblical law through the lens of legal-pedagogical texts not only gives “us a sense as to how law functioned in a Near Eastern educational context, but the text-types themselves illuminate aspects of ‘biblical law’ that would otherwise not be visible” (154). Thus, the purported distinctiveness of biblical law in the early 1900s remains true, not because it reflected an old law collection or an Israelite/Judahite genre but “because its building blocks are rooted in legal-pedagogical exercises that originated in the sphere of scribal education” (157). Biblical law framed through legal-pedagogical exercises, as a result, no longer fits neatly into the stream of law collections but rather has “practical roots” so that “we can begin to reconstruct both the impetus for its emergence and the uniqueness of its trajectory” (157).

Overall, Milstein’s thesis is innovative and deserve further attention. Indeed, her approach challenges deeply traditional approaches to biblical scholarship. Even so, tradition does not mean something is correct, especially as she brings imperative textual data to the fore that biblical scholars often were not aware of. I highly recommend this book for any studies on biblical law. Ignoring such an engaging and innovative work (and one that is so well written!) would be a disservice to Milstein’s contribution to the field.

Review: “Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple in Babylonian Context” by Tova Ganzel

Tova Ganzel. Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple in Babylonian Context. BZAW 539. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021.

Tova Ganzel’s Ezekiel’s Visionary temple in Babylonian Context is particularly refreshing as it incorporates key texts, history, and information about Neo-Babylonian temples as a means of articulating and clarifying aspects of Ezekiel’s Temple Vision. The monograph is replete with helpful introductions to those not familiar with Neo-Babylonian materials and a range of intriguing arguments that make sense of (or offer potential solutions to) religious aspects of the Temple Vision. For how Ganzel utilizes Neo-Babylonian material to make sense of Ezekiel’s Temple Vision, this volume should have relatively wide readership for folks studying Neo-Babylonia and Judeans, Ezekiel 40–48, ancient Judean religious imagination, and other related areas. Regarding this review, while I typically prefer to engage with monographs akin to an essay, time was too short for this review (I recently began working as a senior technical editor in the electrical power industry); however, I plan to reference Ganzel’s work in the future for an essay discussing oft-ignored matters in ancient Israelite and Judean scribalism, putting Ganzel’s work into conversation with Baden and Stackert’s edited volume on the Pentateuch, Milstein’s Making a Case, and other works.

Ganzel begins by thoroughly describing the narrative flow of Ezekiel 40–48. The Temple Vision (TV), she establishes, requires a two-pronged approach: Ezekiel’s TV in light of other ancient Israelite traditions and in light of the broader Neo-Babylonian (NB) milieu, textually and archaeologically. But to be clear, she argues that the NB context did not necessarily influence Ezekiel; rather, NB temples serve to contextualize Ezekiel’s vision. As such, the material may be helpful for making sense of passages that differ from other ancient Israelite legal and religious traditions. Central to her methodology, she views Ezekiel 40–48 as a single, coherent text, though she readily admits a redactional process that engendered the TV.

In chapter two, Ganzel addresses previous scholarship on the study of Judeans, especially via Ezekiel in a NB context. Surprisingly, none examine Ezekiel in light of NB. As such, Ganzel situates her works as part of this stream of scholarship while also opening a new avenue for exploration. Likewise, Ganzel offers an overview of NB archives and data for non-specialists. She then offers an overview of Judeans in Babylonian texts. Finally, she clarifies that her study is important because although the TV was not necessarily inspired by NB temples, “an ancient audience was likely to have imagined the envisioned temple construction along the lines of the temples with which it was most familiar” (29).

In chapter three, Ganzel establishes linguistic links between the TV and its NB context. Beginning broadly, Ganzel shows the linguistic overlap between Judeans and Aramaic/Akkadian, drawing on broader historical questions of Judean cuneiform texts and the lingua franc for Ezekiel’s audience. Subsequently, Ganzel identifies specific Aramaic and Akkadian influences in Ezekiel, broad but also with specific regard to temple names. Finally, by parallel with Nippur (written EN.LILki), she suggests reading יהוה שׁמה as a geographical location with Yahweh’s name + שׁמה. The second element, she suggests, functions like the determinative ki. With these linguistic links indicating Ezekiel in a NB context, she proceeds to situate the TV in NB temple.

In chapter four, Ganzel draws on NB temple architecture and mythology as a framework for understanding aspects of the TV. On the temple layout, she initially suggests that Levantine temples in Israel do not adequately match the TV; NB temples do. So, she offers a brief introduction to major NB temples (E-gig-par, Esgala, Ezida, and Temple A in Kish). She then compares them to the TV and identifies mythical elements the TV shares with NB temples. Thus, she concludes: “Ezekiel’s visionary temple, then, reflected the temples that the exiles would have seen in Babylonia in design, vessels, and kitchens, and the springs describes as emerging from it can be seen to relate to the world around them, rife as it was with water. Much of the design seems to be intended to safeguard the temple, restricting access to a select few. Thus, while access inside the temple is restricted, its effects radiate outward to all” (92).

In chapter five, Ganzel explores how the NB hierarchy sheds light on the functionaries in the TV. She initially offers a brief overview of NB functionaries, highlighting especially how the system protected a temple’s sanctity. Priest in the TV, she suggests, reflect a similar structure, although the hierarchy of functionaries in the TV mainly answer to God as opposed to the king. To further substantiate these similarities, Ganzel lays out a wide range of possible parallels between NB functionaries and priests in the TV. These functions hereby point to Ezekiel’s theocentric doctrine, “seeking to prevent desecration of the divine name” (126). Finally, she suggest the nasi in Ezekiel is a combination of the NB shatammu and qipu, functioning more as a temple administrator than a priest or king-like figure.

In chapter six, Ganzel briefly compares temple rituals in the TV with NB rituals. While referencing similarities sand difference with other biblical traditions, Ganzel quickly moves to describe the NB Akitu ritual and draws parallels with the TV. Of central importance is that the rituals in the TV are akin to the NB Akitu in terms of the focus on sanctity.

Review: “The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History” by Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart. 2020. The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western Civilization, Jon Stewart draws from philosophical anthropology (“the study of what it is to be human” [10]) and the philosophy of history (“a field that attempts to find patterns or regularities in history” [10]) “to trace the various self-conceptions of different cultures as they developed historically” (11). In particular, following Charles Taylor, he focuses on inwardness, subjectivity, and individual freedom. But whereas Taylor discusses the modern world, Stewart explores inwardness and subjectivity in the ancient world, or rather its development. He defines inwardness and subjectivity broadly, involving moral sensibilities, feeling about right and wrong, one’s role in the universe, relationships to nature and gods, conceptions of the soul and afterlife, and human freedom and culpability. Exploring such ideas, Stewart suggests, help us “better understand our own modern views about what it is to be human” (18).

Indeed, the introduction offers an important and admirable goal. Within various fields, notions of interiority are a hot topic. Likewise, the problem of what being human means is central and particularly relevant in the twenty-first century, a period fraught with competing ideas about how to understand our role in the world as humans. But Stewart’s introduction does not adequately discuss his method and various assumptions. Methodologically, for instance, he suggests that folks in the humanities “study different cultural products in their original context” (7). Stewart is correct to a degree. But reality and practice are different. Though we try to understand texts in their original context, whether the period somebody wrote them or in their reception history, we still read such texts in our own contexts. As such, we interpret cultural products in light of how we perceive the world to function, our assumptions about logic, materiality, and language inputted into the text. As such, that Stewart does not mention or discuss the problem of the reader’s situatedness strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Equally equivocal is his designation of what constitutes a canonical Western text. He refers to “the canonical texts of the Western tradition” (9). At no point does he explain what texts constitute this supposed tradition, why they matter, or how one decides what texts to include. Moreover, as a brief overview of twentieth-century critical theorists illuminates, canon is not self-evident. Thus, Stewart perpetuates the false idea that we can objectively identify a Western canon.

What’s more, the assumption of canon is the symptom of a broader problem: Stewart’s work orientalizes non-Western texts. As Edward Said suggests, orientalizing is not so much about understand the Other than it is about constructing a Western identity at the expense of the Other. (In Said’s words, “Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” [Edward Said, “From Orientalism,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1793]). Stewart does this, in a way, by subsuming all the texts that he examines, including the Hebrew Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works, the Gospel of Matthew, and Latin works, as texts that allow an “overview of Western civilization” (10). That is, Stewart’s use and organization of these texts effectively categorizes them as Western, using them to construct a history of the West.

In chapter 1, Stewart explores the Epic of Gilgamesh. To discuss the broad notion of inwardness and subjectivity, he introduces the text, identifies multiple key passages to discuss various themes, and provides some other, general discussion. Although my role as a reviewer is to include a summary reflective of the book’s central claims, such a task is remarkably difficult because the chapter is haphazardly composed, without any clear central claim and reading more like a series of short, unrelated essays. This problem is consistent throughout the book. As I noted, Stewart’s definition of inwardness and subjectivity is too broad. So, in trying to cover all the matters in his definition, the chapters become convoluted and difficult to follow, with no clear line of continuity.

Additionally, the chapter is unnecessarily long. Although summaries and the history of scholarship are interesting, they take the bulk of space. As a result, the chapter, and most chapters, are mostly summaries rather than nuanced analysis. And while he offers interesting thoughts, he does not usually substantiate them with secondary literature or the primary text. By reducing the summaries and including more detailed analysis throughout, the book could be better and shorter.

In chapter 2, he explores Genesis 1–11 and Job. Like chapter 1, he briefly discusses the history of scholarship, followed by snippets and themes in Genesis 1–11 and Job. As with his discussion about Gilgamesh, his interaction with primary or secondary literature is minimal. And as a person in the field of biblical studies, I see how problematic the absence is. It results in many false, dubious, and unsubstantiated statements [1].

In chapters 3–10, he discusses a wide range of Greek and Latin texts. Since I am not an expert of Greek or Latin literature, I group these chapters together. They follow the same structure as chapters 1–2: an introduction followed by a range of texts and themes. Similarly, he rarely engages with secondary or primary materials. On account of this, I am skeptical about many of his interpretations. One chapter stood out in particular—Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.

In this chapter, Stewart argues that Oedipus’s self-knowledge is a sort of hubris that leads to his downfall, and he makes comparisons with Genesis 2–3 and 11. This reading struck me as odd. Indeed, Oedipus seeks knowledge, but he seeks it so as to lift the curse, not trying “to be like the god Apollo” (148), as Stewart suggests. Such a claim, as far as I can tell, misrepresents the play. Investigating further, I realized another issue: that Oedipus’s problem is the hubris of knowledge is not an original idea. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche comments on knowledge and hubris in Oedipus Rex: “It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysiac wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration” (1956 translation by Francis Golffing). That knowledge leads to destruction is precisely how Nietzsche and Stewart read Oedipus Rex, but for all Stewart writes about knowledge as hubris he never references Nietzsche. While I cannot explain why Stewart does not refer to Nietzsche, his claims about Oedipus as reflecting Nietzsche’s reading bring two things to my mind. First, Nietzsche was not a classicist or historian. As far as I can tell from a cursory overview, classicists took issue with his readings. As such, Stewart’s discussion is problematic, issues of citations and ethical standards aside. Second, this section raises a deeper issue: How often does Stewart elide citations and pass them off as his own? Just as the chapters on the Hebrew Bible and Gilgamesh include dubious claims that I could identify because I know those texts and the scholarship, I wonder how many claims in his discussion of Greek and Latin texts likewise are based on weak grounds, or even other people’s arguments without a citation or reference.

Beyond matters of citation, how Stewart puts different traditions into conversation is questionable. While cross-cultural comparisons are valuable, how he compares Jewish, Christian, and Greek concepts is overly simplistic. While discussing natural law versus relativism, he puts forth problematic claims. First, he invokes the concept of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” (149). (For the history and discussion of why this category is unhelpful, see James Loeffler’s “The Problem With the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ ” in The Atlantic.) He then makes the dubious claim that Judeo-Christian tradition believes that “laws of ethics are absolutes that are non-negotiable” (149). As such, “it would be absurd for individual human beings to rebel against these laws” (149–50). Here Stewart is simply wrong. Regarding negotiability, we see a wide range of ethical norms in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, and Christian traditions. Sometimes these ethics are rooted in divine authority, other times more akin to natural law. And in some texts, we see ethical tensions with no clear ethical norm. And, third-century BCE through first-century CE Jewish and Christian texts pick up on the idea of natural law! In short, then, Stewart constructs a misrepresentation of Jewish and Christian traditions so they can neatly and easily contrast with Greek traditions. (See, for example, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Josephus’s histories, and John Barton’s Ethics in Ancient Israel.)

In chapter 11, he explores subjectivity in Matthew. In addition to the previous criticisms, this chapter is surprising because he draws from Kierkegaard rather than biblical scholars to explain the notion of offense. Why draw from a nineteenth-century philosopher rather than biblical scholars when discussing the Gospel of Matthew? Even if his goal is a philosophical history, he misses a wealth of scholarship that would speak to his research interest.

In the final chapter, Stewart offers a range of concluding thoughts of his history of so-called Western civilization and subjectivity. The heightened version of subjectivity in the modern world—something that would have been progressive in the ancient world—creates a problem. Whereas in the ancient world one “enjoyed a sense of immediate belonging in their world with traditional values and customs, we moderns, wallowing in alienation, can never hope to re-establish this” (358). So, while the modern world was able to develop legal institutions and individual freedom, it developed simultaneously increasing alienation and isolation. Such alienation and “breakdown of traditional values and institutions” (359), he suggests, engenders a societal challenge to self-identity formation. To deal with this problem, social media emerged as a tool for identity formation, albeit one “constantly on him- or herself and not on the external world” (364). This self-obsession on social media he calls narcissism. And since social media is not the “real world,” he doubts social media can solve the problem of alienation. He links this issue to the rise of relativism and the disappearance of truth, a world in which a fictional self-image answers the problem of alienation. So, Stewart claims, it appears we live in a post-truth world. The rise of relativism, alienation, and extreme subjectivity thus yields more people seeking group identity, such as nationalism. Therefore, Stewart suggests a balance between extreme subjectivity and communal identity. We should seek this balance via reflection on the history of Western civilization.

Now, the acute reader will see that I spent more time summarizing this chapter, the conclusion, than any other chapter. The reasons are threefold. First, unlike the other chapters, the conclusion provides a clear through line and coherent, cogent claims. As such, I can effectively engage with his arguments, observations, conclusions, and logic. Additionally, his take on subjectivity is thoughtful and interesting and could stand apart from the book, as it does not rely heavily on the discussion in chapters 2–13. Therefore, I do not suspect it is rooted in nonfactual information, as much of the other chapters either are or may be. Lastly, the final chapter is worth engaging with because the ideas are interesting. So, in the next few paragraphs I analyze Stewart’s logic and conclusions. Admittedly, I disagree with most of his logic and conclusions, but they are not entirely wrong. Instead, I interact with his arguments to refine and nuance his ideas.

Stewart first highlights how shifts toward extreme individualism engender individual alienation. Indeed, extreme individualism can engender and increase isolation. Where I take issue is the strong distinction he makes between communalism and individualism. While individuals may no longer turn toward the government or authority figures since they do not always represent the individual, the implication is not that people necessarily turn inward, diminishing “the traditional sense of solidarity, community, and civic obligation” (358). Rather, people seek different communities and solidarity groups. Such groups, though, are not as apparent, perhaps because they are smaller, more localized, disconnected from powerful institutions, and less public. So, while folks may turn inward, Stewart’s grim picture of communal externalism versus individual inwardness seems to focus on the spectrum’s extremes, not tapping into the grey zone. Taking the extremes as a clear dichotomy appears yet again in his contrasting the ancient with the modern. While ancients may have been more communal and relied on tradition in a way that we might call uncritical, it is not as if ancient people never felt alienation, as is evident in various Mesopotamian literary texts, Job, Psalms, and, I suspect, other ancient literature from around the world.

Furthermore, if we accept that modern people struggle more with self-identity than ancient people—itself a dubious claim—social media, Stewart argues, enables self-identity construction but also gives rise to highly internalized, individualistic, and narcissistic people, since he perceives social media as mainly for constructing a self. On a few fronts, Stewart is undoubtedly correct. Social media can increase isolation and alienation; it is a tool for self-identity construction. But his representation of social media and self-identity formation is far too simplistic. For instance, his suggestion that the rapid development of social media is a “testimony to the important need that it fills” (364), namely, to be part of something and not alienated, fails to interrogate the why. That is, did social media emerge because it purportedly solved the modern alienation and self-identity problem? Or did social media create the problem of alienation and self-identity formation so that it could then offer a solution? Or is another explanation possible?

Equally in need of nuance is his representation of social media as primarily a narcissistic, self-identity platform. While he is correct that social media is about identity formation and can (but not always!) lead to narcissism, this representation is not always true. In my experiences with Twitter, for example, my constructing a self-identity via the platform is also a means to network—or rather socialize—with others in my field of study. Likewise, my wife has found many social groups on Facebook that make her part of a community, of something larger. Therefore, social media is not all about the individual; social media also involves socializing, networking, and engaging with others, albeit digitally.

With this nuanced understanding of social media, I can thus interrogate what Stewart calls the external, real world and the inward, online world. If we understand social media as a real social interaction, then the boundaries between the online and real world become less clear. For even if people stare at their phones, they also discuss content. And as my wife noted, people used to interact with file cabinets, multiple notepads, newspapers, magazines, books, media, and crossword puzzles; however, those tools and activities are now available via a single material object. As such, how we engage with the single material object frequently is just as “inward” as how people used tools and materials 30 years ago. So, if anything, social media is a place where people create content, discuss real life, and engage with the same things they did 30 years ago, albeit via a single material object, such as a phone or computer. Thus, Stewart should further nuance the connection between the virtual world and the nonvirtual world instead of viewing them as a dichotomy.

He continues by suggesting social media leads to a fictional version of one’s self online. As such, whereas in what he calls real life one is special by “verifiable skills, talents, personal qualities, experiences” (368), and more, the online world is about persuading others that you are special. Fictional selves then give rise to relativism and the idea that factual bases do not exist. Of all Stewart’s arguments in this chapter, this section is the most problematic. For from his sharp distinction between the real world and the online world arises the distinction between an online fictional self and a real-world self. These categories are highly problematic, especially the idea that the online and real worlds function differently. Consider, for instance, the role of speech. Even if an individual has no experience or knowledge in a field, people often perceive loud and intense speakers as bearing more authority than a soft-spoken expert. Consider the COVID-19 world, for instance: people frequently turn to congress people as authorities on infectious diseases because said congress people speak from a position of authority and power. Yet, those people often have no training, skills, experiences, or expertise with infectious diseases! Instead, people perceive them as authoritative because of their self-representation as (fictional) experts. And social media is the same! Via careful rhetoric individuals can represent themselves as critical and knowledgeable without a lick of criticism or knowledge. In both cases, an individual self-represents via persuasion, not skills or knowledge. Thus, to distinguish strongly between real life and social media in terms of real skills versus fictional skills strikes me as short sighted. And though I will not discuss this point ad nauseam, many parallels between real life and social media are evident: representing one’s self as an artist via Instagram versus an art gallery or as a rhetorically witty person via Twitter versus in debates; emphasizing different aspects of once identity based on their location is social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook group, private chat, etc.) versus the real world (public meeting; home with family; out with a friend; etc.). In both the real world and online world, people select and front aspects of their selves to construct an identity. Thus, the claim that the real world is about being and the online world is about persuading does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we always persuade others about our identities.

As such, his argument that fictional selves or social media give rise to absolute relativism is on weak grounds. Even if we accept his claim about relativism—which seems overly simplified to me—that the construction of fictional selves necessarily engenders this relativism does not logically follow, especially since his understanding of social media and self-representation is fraught with misunderstandings about how it functions. Moreover, his description of relativism yet again falls into a framework he uses regularly. Rather than identify the nuance and describe a spectrum, he focuses on the extremes of the spectrum: modern versus ancient, internal versus external, fact versus nonfact, relativism versus objectivity.

He concludes by suggesting that we must strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. While I do not disagree, I cannot help but wonder, “Is this idea not what many others have already said in different words, what humanities scholars do on a daily basis?” In other words, he develops what may be a recycled conclusion through a series of extremes. Rather than claiming a broad unity between objectivity and subjectivity, his argument would be more effective pedagogically had he demonstrated how to function within that framework. (Recall that he envisions undergraduates using this book in a classroom.)

As the reader may have guessed, I was not a fan of this book. The idea is interesting and important, but Stewart does not execute it well. And the book is not coherent or cogent, save for the last chapter. And even this chapter was chock-full of overly simplified paradigms and misunderstandings of how social media works. So, folks researching issues of subjectivity should engage with this book if they seek specific content. But on account of the lack of coherent and cogency, use of outdated scholarship, wrong facts, and overly simplified discussions, I do not recommend this book for courses or casual reading. And while Stewart is clearly an accomplished scholar, it seems best that he continue to focus and work on Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other philosophers, not ancient literature. Unless another book comes along or Stewart writes a more critical and academically rigorous volume on subjectivity in the ancient world, folks are better off reading older works on subjectivity.

[1] The following are examples of the incorrect information that Stewart offers: he claims that Abraham would have know the flood narrative because he was from Ur (38), but biblical scholars view Genesis as a myth and etiology, not history; he describes prayer as a form of sorcery (45); he frames Genesis 1–3 as describing the Fall, which is more of a Christian tradition than a close reading of the text; he describes Noah as the first patriarch (61), which is problematic; he mentions sin in Gen 1–3 even though sin does not appear until Genesis 4; his references for Job are outdated; he appears to read the Hebrew Bible as representing a monolithic religious tradition, though he does not explore much outside of Genesis 1–11 and Job. While I saw more examples in other chapters, I do not care to list all problematic claims here and instead focus on the broad, systemic issues that I identify I the review.