Why Study Religion?

kaaba_mirror_edit_jjIn a recent post by a friend on Facebook, a deceptively simple question was posed: “What is the difference between religion and belief?” Here are a few of the answers.

“Religion you follow a guide, belief you creating your own guide. With belief, you are your own mentor.”

“A belief is something you believe in and religion requires practice.”

“Religion is the myths everyone has agreed to believe. Beliefs are the myths you personally believe.”

“Religion is the organization of a specific series of beliefs.”


“Religion is manmade and controllable. Belief is a function of the human entity to agree, believe, and trust in something. Belief is not limited to world views or faith or religion. It is a condition of our relationships with the planet, each other, and above all ourselves. Religion is just a system of control put in place to manipulate people. Everything is just a sales pitch in religion.”

“Anyone can have a belief. Religion is structured belief with processes and culture.”

These are a selection from 20+ responses to the prompt. Among the many observations about how people attempted to answer the prompt, one reality is apparent: nobody defined religion or belief in the exact same way. Some answers were similar. Yet, some answers were distinct from others.

Why does this matter, though?

Religion is a part of life, as is belief. The way we define it and understand it impacts how we choose to understand our own culture and history, world history, and life itself. In other words, the way we define these categories (religion and belief) substantially impacts how we understand the world. If any of the people who responded to this questions were to attempt to engage with each other about modern Christianity, ancient Near Eastern rituals, or 21st century culture itself, they would be unable to communicate effectively. They would be unable to communicate effectively because they would not have a mutual understanding of how they are defining the term “religion” or “belief” in their conversation. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to work towards such a goal, even if it is impossible to achieve the goal.

For this reason, religion must be studied. How we understand religion must be studied. How other people understand religion must be studied. Without it, we are unable to communicate ideas effectively. Consequently, we are unable to work towards a common goals of some sort of peace in the world.

“Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire”


Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Edited by Diana Edelman, Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, and Philippe Guillaume. Tubingen, Germany: 2016, Mohr Siebeck, pp. 390. 

Following in the footsteps of the volume entitled Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History, and Culture (click here for my review), Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire seeks to explore more broadly the question of toleration and cultural exchange. In particular, the various articles demonstrates how the popular tendency of Persian tolerance is better understood a political strategy.

The book is divided into two parts, “Trends in Emerging Judaism” and “Other Religious Trends in the Persian Empire.” Both titles are self-explanatory as to their respective content. As will become apparent throughout reviews of each contribution, the volume offers a wealth of approaches. These various approaches are important to ongoing scholarship, as they offer alternative approaches, new data, and new conclusions to old problems. In an academic atmosphere where interdisciplinary work is becoming more important, this volume is refreshing.  

James Anderson begins by positing two types of dialectics in order to account for competing perspectives of monotheism (“Yahweh alone”) and polytheism (“Yahweh… alongside other gods). These dialectical tensions are paradoxical and directional. The aforementioned were applied as rhetorical strategies by priestly-scribes in Yehud during the Persian Period, Anderson suggests. While his idea that priestly-scribes created dialectical tensions as a rhetorical strategy, his argument lacks well-developed textual analysis. Absence of this is problematic because even he carefully notes the limited evidence. When the argument is more developed, it may be more convincing.

Philip Davies applies the theory of “translatability” to monarchy. For “any presentation of a state’s patron deity as king… is a claim about the state itself and its ruler” (27). Notably, Davies is careful to recognizes the intercultural currents between regions and regional autonomy of thought. As an approach to the influence of Persian religion and empire upon Yehud, he offers an intriguing approach; however, it may be fruitful as well to consider “translatability” outside the period of Persian Yehud. Even so, Davies’ contribution is an important development and consideration in the impact of Persia upon religion in Yehud.

Russel Hobson argues “the cultural memory of the Yehudite Yahwists from the Persian period reflects a renewed interest in the ethnic divisions of the Transjordanian region” (52). Hobson approaches the issue by tracing both developments in text and archaeological evidence for regional population. Being geographically grounded, Hobson’s argument is important because it connects archaeological evidence, cultural memory, and textual evidence into a coherent theory of Yehud culture and ideas of ethnic divisions during the Persian period.

Philippe Guillaume considers the Zoroastrian calendar in order to shed light on emerging Judaisms during the Persian period. He notes, first, the relationship between the Zoroastrian calendar, which attributes the calendar and time itself to Ahura Mazda. Likewise, Genesis roots the calendar in creation and makes Yahweh the “origin of time.” Second, he argues that Mesopotamian elements in the Avestan calendar are due, in part to the the overthrowing of Nabonidus. Following Cyrus’ victory over Nabonidus, the Avestan calendar with its Mesopotamian elements reached Palestine sometime between the reign of Cambyses and Xerxes. Based on this, Guillaume asserts that the Biblical week, the “Semitic week,” is the legacy of Zoroastrianism and derived from it. One of the major issues with Guillaume’s contribution, interesting as it is, is the lack of any framework. He fails to offer any sort of clear framework for his argument in order to convey its significance. Additionally, he seems to imply that he is the first to consider that “Genesis 1 has more to do with the creation of a new calendar than with the creation of the universe” (61). He is not. Although I am unable to access them at the moment, I have read several articles and commentaries which draw out the fact that Genesis one is establishing a new calendar. In short, Guillaume’s contribution may have valuable information for understanding how the Avestan calendar influenced the Judean calendar; unfortunately, the article lacks a structure that actually helps the reader to understand what he is arguing for.

Lowell K. Handy argues that Josiah is not necessarily understood as a role model for leadership in the Persian period; rather, he is understood as “peg” where good Judean religious leaders could hang their beliefs. Overall, the argument is unclear. Additionally, the significance of the argument is unclear.

Christian Frevel and Katharina Psychny evaluate E. Stern’s argument concerning the origins and functions of cuboid incense burners. Specifically, they focus on their association with foreign cults. By examining the distribution of cuboid incense burners and iconography, Frevel and Pyschny push against the claim that cuboid incense burners are of Pheonician origin (Stern’s claim) is deficient, even though the cuboid incense burners do bear a distinctive style. They suggest, then, that the absence of incense burners from Yehud may have more to do with the economic situation than religious distinctiveness. I am particularly fond of this contribution because it moves beyond the issues of religious differences; however, their conclusion should include more serious consideration of the religious distinctiveness. Even if the “depressed regional economic situation in Yehud” in archaeology yields no incense burners, the depressed situation may also explain why Yehud religion developed how it did. Thus, religious distinctiveness should be considered when comparing Yehud with coastal areas or trade routes. This minor critique, though, does not take away the value of this contribution. Without a doubt, this is one of the best contributions, and most valuable, to the volume.

Following the focus on Yehud, Part II moves onto non-Judean religious trends in the Persian Empire.

Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley argues that Persians were not more “benevolent” than Assyrians. Like the Assyrians, their “benevolence” was political. Working through a wealth of data, Fitzpatrick presents a convincing and important argument that each empire, the Persians and Assyrians, “responded to the conditions they encountered and both could be wielders of terror and destruction as well as the sophisticated creators of diplomatic relations” (164). Overall, this article is extremely valuable and pushes against stereotypical representations of Persian benevolence as a religious practice. My only criticism with her work is that the boundary between political and religious is far too clear. Perhaps future work will consider the nuances of her conclusion when a more descriptive understanding of Persian/Assyrian politics/religion is considered as part of the conclusion.

Jason Silverman offers what he called “the bare outlines of what could be called an Achaemenid theology of kingship” (188). He approaches it through three major points: the figure of Yima, the topic of Achaemenid paradise, and Achaemenid rhetoric of peace through the concept of shiyati. For the figure of Yima, Silverman draws out his association with kingship. Following, he explores how the Persian concept of paradise was a micro-empire making a statement about the king himself. Additionally, he briefly considers how royal ideology used shiyati in order to connote their roles as “bringing in the perfection of the world through their efforts” (187). In short, Silverman argues that his outline of ‘royal theology’ offers a structure for analyzing the influence of Persia on elite circles. Overall, Silverman’s contribution is fantastic. His outlined royal theology enables future scholars to do further work on the interrelations between Persia and other nations during the Persian period. Although I’d like to see a more developed and firm structure, this is a wonderful starting point.

Yannick Muller considers how textual evidence of mutilation in linked to how Achaemenid Persia thought about the body and religion. First, he links the beheading of Leonidas and Cyrus the Younger to Sassanian Persia through the cult of Anahita. After examining practices in the Northern Pontic region and Scythian practices, Muller makes a strong claim about beheading: the cult of deities comparable to Anahita and the practice of beheading are rooted in Iranian culture. Having established a geographical and historical relationship between Iranian mutilation practices and Western Europe, he probes a similar issues relating the right hand and face mutilation. For each example of mutilation, Muller presents convincing textual evidence for the religious significance of mutilation in Achaemenid Persia. Without a doubt, this is one of the better contributions to the volume. It presents a new way of thinking about mutilation in history. More importantly, Muller successfully draws out world-understanding of ancient peoples. I am particularly interested in how Muller’s analysis may unlock a more thorough understanding of Judean-Persian relations. That is, Judean-Persian relations as it regards mutilation practices.

Diana Edelman analyzes iconography of the Sidonian double shekel. She first  reviews imagery in four groups of Sidonian coinage and contextualizes the motifs of all Sidonian coins. She concludes that the figure riding the chariot on the double shekel is meant to be the Great King of Persia. Needless to say, the erudite analysis of Edelman is strong and quite convincing. While the article is not well-structured and clear, the data and conclusions speak volumes. Most significantly, Edelman’s conclusions heralds a more nuanced understanding of how people groups in the Levant related to the Achaemenid Persian empire.

Mark Christian attempts to demonstrate how Phoenician religious contribution to the Persian fleet is minimized. Yet, it is still unclear exactly what Christian is arguing for. Even when he does put forth his conclusion it is problematic: “My inability to demonstrate a connection between Persian naval personnel, their gods, and their experiences at sea has proved disappointing. It also struck me as odd that so many details are missing. In spite of the danger of arguing from silence, I propose that Persian commanders and crew integrated their religious knowledge relative to weather and river gods” (312). This statement strikes me as odd, for it destabilizes any potential of his arguments. There is, though, nothing to destabilize. Most of the data from which he draws seems more than an amalgamation of incoherent data lacking cogency.

Damien Agut-Labordere briefly examines extant evidence for changes introduced by Achaemenid Persia to Egypt. Persian involvement in Egyptian temples during the reigns of Cambyses, Darius I, and Darius II, progressively increased. Cambyses abolished the donation network of Egyptian temples, only tempering it by exempting the temples from taxes to Persia. Darius I increased control over Egyptian finances through Persian administration. Darius II acted in a way which (1) confirmed Persian power and (2) maintained good political relations with the Memphite elite. His argument successfully pushes against Egyptological tendencies to understand Achaemenid religious tolerance as inadequate. Likewise, he offers strong evidence for a politically motivated “religious tolerance” within a small locale. Although it is the shortest contribution, it is one of the best written, most convincing, and most important contributions within the volume.

In a similar vein of Egyptology, Jared Krebsbach argues that Achaemenid patronage of Egyptian religious institutions (1) followed a non-interference rule and (2) allowed Persia to fulfill the proper pharaonic role as defenders of world order. Krebsbach considers hieroglyphic sources from the 27th dynasty in order to demonstrate this point. He provides additional evidence for politically driven patronage of particular Egyptian cults. His argument is important as it further the political intentions of Achaemenid Persian “religious toleration.” Like Agut-Labordere, Krebsbach provides a more localized example of Persian policies. Consequently, he offers a thoughtful argument against religious toleration and for political motivation of Persian policies.

Deniz Kaptan considers religious traditions in Achaemenid Anatolia through bullae with seal impressions and stelai fragments from Daskyleion. Daskyleion is important because it was the satrapal center of Achaemenid Anatolia. Though analysis of these artifact, Kaptan illustrates a mixture of new Anatolian cults during the period as well as active, older cults. Thus, Anatolian religious traditions during Persian rule is shown to have maintained great diversity. As with the majority of contributions to the volume, Kaptan constructs archaeological and textual data coherently in order to draw out a more localized example of how Achaemenid Persian religion impacted its various satrapies. This contribution in particular is interesting because it offers (potentially) a starting point for study of the relationship between the Levant and the Aegean region.

In conclusion, this volume, Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is a mixed bag. Some contributions contribute substantially to our understanding of the impact of Persian policies regarding religion; yet, some contributions fail to offer a coherent argument. The bad apples aside, the volume is wonderful. It offers a variety of approaches, new and renewed, to the study of the Achaemenid Persian empire and how it impacted various regions. More broadly, it is refreshing as it ushers in a renewed understanding of Achaemenid Persian empire ideology as it relates to religion. I highly recommend this work for studies on (1) emerging Judaism, (2) Achaemenid Persian studies broadly, and (3) the movement and exchange of ideas during Achaemenid Persian rule.


*I’d like to express my gratitude to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


“Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism” edited by M. Gottlieb

This review was completed by a fellow student at the University of Chicago, Joel Swanson. Joel is an MA student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, with a focus on modern Jewish thought. Joel is interested in the intersections of phenomenology and Jewish theology, and in the unique insights that the rabbinic hermeneutic tradition can contribute to our understanding of postmodern philosophy. He has also worked as a domestic violence counselor and on political campaigns. Joel is a graduate of Swarthmore College with Highest Honors, where he was awarded the Jesse H. Holmes Prize for the best work of original scholarship in religion. When he completes his MA degree, he hopes to earn a PhD.

Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism. Edited by Michah Gottlieb. CDL Press, 2016, 368 pp.

Late in his life, Moses Mendelssohn found himself forced to defend the daily Jewish prayer Aleinu in a public contretemps with the Christian community of Königsberg. Two verses in the prayer, translated as “For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save,” were widely viewed by Christians as an attack on Jesus, a reading based upon the testimony of a fourteenth century Christian convert from Judaism. As a result, in 1703 King Friedrich of Prussia signed an edict forbidding the recitation of these two verses of the Aleinu, and appointing Christian inspectors to enforce this ban. Seventy years later, David Kypke, an orientalist appointed as the inspector of the Königsberg Jewish community, filed a complaint alleging that the Jews purposely mumbled their recitations of the prayer, and therefore that he could not be sure they were not reciting the offending verses. The Jewish community of Königsberg prepared a response to these allegations, and naturally, it fell to Moses Mendelssohn to serve as the emissary to the Christian community and deliver this response.

The dispute is pregnant with cultural meaning, and in fact it may be seen as a synecdoche for Mendelssohn’s career as a whole. The eminent German Jewish philosopher, who spent his career arguing that there was no contradiction between Enlightenment philosophy and adherence to traditional Jewish law, was forced into an apologetic position, forced to serve as the public representative of the Jewish community before the German Christian elite. Mendelssohn responded to Kypke’s charges with an essay arguing that the offending verses of Aleinu are in fact not attacks on Christianity at all, but instead refer to the pagan peoples that the ancient Israelites encountered in Canaan. Mendelssohn’s argument in defense of Aleinu was at its core a pluralistic one. He maintained that while ancient Israelites needed to distinguish themselves from the idolaters outside, modern Jews have no such need, and in fact do not consider Christians idolaters at all, merely followers of a different religion with a different path toward truth. According to Mendelssohn, Jews continue to recite the Aleinu not to attack other religions as idolatrous, but as a warning against the temptation of idolatry that lurks within all monotheists. Mendelssohn’s defense of Aleinu is a masterful use of emerging Protestant notions of pluralism and interiority to defend a particular Jewish tradition.

There’s only one problem, according to Gideon Freudenthal in his essay “Idolatry Everywhere, Idolaters Nowhere.” Mendelssohn’s argument, as theoretically compelling as it may have been, was simply not true. As much as Mendelssohn wanted to advance a reading of Aleinu as part of a pluralist message against the idolater within us all, this is simply not how most Jews throughout history understood the prayer. Most Jews, says Freudenthal, did in fact see these two verses in the Aleinu as an attack on Christians, and no amount of creative rewriting of history on Mendelssohn’s part could change this. In order to defend Judaism before Christian authorities, Mendelssohn wound up redefining his own tradition.

Freudenthal’s essay and the twelve other pieces that comprise Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism all probe this seemingly irreconcilable division in Mendelssohn’s life and thought. Mendelssohn tried to be all things to all people, to stand as both the Enlightenment philosopher enthralled with Leibniz and the German rationalist tradition, who maintained intellectually fruitful relationships with luminaries such as Lessing and Kant, and the faithful Jew who saw himself as the corrective to Spinoza’s errors, who wanted to remain faithful to his own tradition and its own unique halakhic laws. He wanted to make a case that Jews could fully engage with the intellectual debates of their day, without abandoning their own normative religious commitments. He wanted to believe that doing Enlightenment philosophy would not inevitably lead to excommunication, as it did for Spinoza. Most of all, he wanted to argue that the choice between Jews abandoning their own Jewish law to integrate into Prussian society as equals or remaining segregated in their own self-governing shtetls was a false dichotomy, that Jewish civil emancipation and continued adherence to Jewish law could comfortably coexist.

These tensions intrinsic to Mendelssohn’s philosophical and political projects mean that many different readings of his oeuvre are possible. Indeed, Mendelssohn wrote for so many different audiences that he may even have approved of widely divergent understandings of his own works. If one wants to emphasize Mendelssohn’s Hebrew language works, to place him in a distinctly Jewish philosophical lineage dating back to Maimonides, as does David Sorkin, then his works license such a reading. Edward Breuer and Warren Zev Harvey’s essays also contribute to this project, demonstrating the uniquely rabbinic and Jewish precedents for Mendelssohn’s political thought and showing that even when Mendelssohn seemed to diverge from Jewish tradition, he always remained informed by it. If, on the other hand, one wants to see Mendelssohn as part of a secularizing Enlightenment project, which inevitably weakened the normative claims of every historical religion, as does Shmuel Feiner, then Mendelssohn’s works can license that reading, as well.

These divergent interpretations of Mendelssohn’s projects hinge upon which of Mendelssohn’s works one chooses to focus upon; he wrote Enlightenment philosophy in German for a Christian audience and Jewish commentary in Hebrew for his own community. Elias Sacks attempts to integrate these two halves of Mendelssohn’s output with an innovative argument that Mendelssohn believed wholeheartedly in both the intellectual “anarchy” created by modernity and its emphasis on the free use of reason, and in the need to maintain Jewish law as a way to ground oneself amidst this chaos. For Sacks, Mendelssohn’s famous redefinition of the Jewish law as a living script grounded in action and not in belief or doctrine allows Jews to affirm the truth or falsity of a wide array of philosophical beliefs without losing their grounding in a particular tradition. Lawrence Kaplan, on the other hand, raises the question of whether Mendelssohn’s reputed commitment to Judaism was in fact just a political tactic to hide his actual belief in the eighteenth century creed of deism. Kaplan sees Mendelssohn as a strategic thinker, who knew that he needed to maintain at least a rhetorical commitment to Judaism in order to remain effective as a spokesperson for his community. Yet Kaplan also argues that this tension remained unresolved in Mendelssohn’s work, and that the attempt to maintain his hidden deism while publicly aligning himself with Judaism led to contradictions that Mendelssohn himself knew could never be resolved.

Rachel Manekin looks at this same question of whether Mendelssohn should be seen as more naturalist or more Jew through a historical lens, reviewing Mendelssohn’s relationship to the Catholic monarch Joseph II of Austria. Manekin gives a detailed account of debates over how to integrate Jewish marital laws into Joseph II’s reforms of Prussian civil law. She concludes that Mendelssohn’s contributions to this debate may be seen as attempts to preserve Jewish particularity while still subjecting Jews to the authority of the Prussian civil state. The fact that Mendelssohn faced great opposition from both sides in this effort, from both Jewish and Prussian authorities, is perhaps the greatest testimony to the limitations of his project.

Several essays in the volume bring Mendelssohn in dialogue with other thinkers to elucidate his thought. Ursula Goldenbaum challenges the dominant reading of Mendelssohn as a weaker thinker than his interlocutors such as Jacobi and Lessing, a misreading that she attributes to the hegemony of Leo Strauss. Goldenbaum argues that it is only by understanding Mendelssohn’s true debt to Leibniz, a debt which she thinks Strauss underplays, that we can see the underlying unity in Mendelssohn’s thought. Bruce Rosenstock, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to Strauss’s critique. Rosenstock looks at Kierkegaard’s reading of the famous pantheism controversy to illuminate the difference between a paradoxical view of religion and an enlightened view. Rosenstock uses Kierkegaard’s sympathy toward Jacobi’s public challenge to Mendelssohn as a lens to examine the limits of enlightened religiosity, and the need for religious thinkers to take an untranslatable leap into a belief that can only be explained paradoxically. Michah Gottlieb compares Mendelssohn and Spinoza’s views on the legitimacy of state censorship, pointing out that Mendelssohn adopted Spinoza’s basic argument that belief is an internal state that cannot be coerced by the external state. Yet Mendelssohn was more circumspect than Spinoza about state power, and he denied that a single state religion promoted by the sovereign could ever be legitimate. Mendelssohn contradicted himself on several occasions on the question of whether censorship of certain dangerous opinions such as atheism may ever be legitimate, suggesting that he never reached a single definitive conclusion on just how far freedom of conscience should extend.

Robert Erlewine uses Hermann Cohen’s later works to examine the impact of Mendelssohn’s attempted fusion of German and Jewish cultures. Erlewine demonstrates how Cohen’s readings of Mendelssohn grew more sympathetic over time, as Cohen himself worked to maintain a mission for the Jews as a distinct, separate community that nonetheless had a significant role to play in the broader historical sweep of the German nation. Cohen, like Mendelssohn, wanted the Jews to engage with German culture without entirely assimilating to it. Of course, the tragic events that occurred just decades after Cohen’s death demonstrate the limits of Cohen’s attempted synthesis of Judaism and Germanism. Yitzhak Melamed takes this critique further, applying a postcolonial lens toward the entire Enlightenment project, which he sees as totalizing, absolutist, and denial of basic human differences. Melamed suggests that in its attempt to reduce all human knowledge to a single faculty of reason, the Enlightenment inevitably leads to creating hierarchies of more and less reasonable cultures; indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that this mindset led directly to genocides against “lower cultures” like the Maori in New Zealand. Melamed’s critique is a valuable one that deserves to be taken seriously, but in this context it feels rushed, and this essay would be more effective situated at the end of the volume, rather than as the second chapter. Melamed’s critique remains incisive and valuable nonetheless; no evaluation of Mendelssohn’s thought can ignore the tragic denouement to the German Jewish experience, and judged in hindsight, it is hard to argue that Mendelssohn’s attempted reconciliation of Judaism and Germanism could ever be wholly successful. Talal Asad argues that the only two possibilities for the minority in the face of Enlightenment subjectivity are “complete assimilation or the status of despised difference,” and the outcome of German Jewish history must be seen as lending credence to this critique.

Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism offers valuable insights on Mendelssohn’s project, and points toward new methodological lenses to approach his work and additional thinkers to bring into dialogue with his oeuvre. If, in the end, the volume provides no definitive answers to the eternal questions of whether Mendelssohn was more deist or Jewish believer, more Enlightenment universalist or Jewish particularist, more philosopher or more rabbi, then this is because Mendelssohn’s work as a whole resists such easy answers. Mendelssohn could never stand on one side or the other, because the moment he picked a side, he could no longer fulfill his mission as the emissary of the Jewish community toward the Prussian elite. Mendelssohn’s defense of the Aleinu prayer demonstrates that he himself realized this. In addition to advancing a detailed theoretical argument for why the two offending verses are not in fact attacks on Christians, he also proffered a simple denial that the Jewish community of Königsberg was in fact reciting these verses. One might think that these two points are in contradiction with each other. If the law required that the Jews not recite two verses of the Aleinu, would not a simple denial that they were in fact reciting these verses have been the most effective response? And by going through a convoluted argument that reciting these verses was not in fact an attack on Christianity, was not Mendelssohn undermining his own denial? The fact that Mendelssohn insisted on doing both – on arguing both that Jewish tradition was wholly compatible with Enlightenment pluralism and that Jews would follow Prussian civil law even when their own particular tradition conflicted with it – shows both why Mendelssohn’s synthesis could never be truly successful, and why scholars continue to debate the tensions within his thought more than two centuries after his death.

Moses Mendelssohn and Categories

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Introduction to the Study of Religion course, one of our primary focuses is Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century ‘German’-Jewish philosopher. Particularly intriguing to me is how Mendelssohn attempts to define categories. His attempt to define “enlightenment,” “culture,” and “education” demonstrate well how his notions of these concepts cast judgement upon non-‘German’-Jewish people groups and regions.



One of Mendelssohn’s arguments is that linguistic usage is indicative of a people groups “education, of its culture as well as its enlightenment, in terms of both its extent and strength.” His evidence is derived from perceived observations about said people groups: “the Nurembergers have more culture, the Berliners more enlightenment, the French more culture, the English more enlightenment, the Chinese much culture and little enlightenment. The Greeks had both culture and enlightenment” (translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom, 1997: 313-317).

How does he make such conclusions about these groups? He defines both enlightenment and culture. Consequently he is able to categorize various groups into where he perceives that they fit within the borders he provides. While this is not inherently wrong, the most important thing to consider is how Mendelssohn’s categorization essentially tells the other groups, “I understand you better than you understand  yourself.” Although every categorization does this to a certain extent, it is of the utmost importance that we be aware of it. Responsibility rests not only on scholars and academics, but also on baristas and crew members at Trader Joe’s (every human being).

We have a responsibility of respect to our fellow humans. Awareness of our own ideas and thought systems are the best place to begin if we choose to show respect for our fellow humans.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Apocalypse of Sedrach

Introduction to the Text:

The  Apocalypse of Sedrach begins with a sermon about the importance of love for Christians. The second portion of the text, the apocalypse itself, is about Sedrach’s questioning of God’s ways. Near the end of the text, Sedrach even convinces God to decrease the required amount of time for repentance from 3 years to 20 days. Because of God’s mercy, Sedrach allows God to take his spirit to heaven.

The Apocalypse of Sedrach was written between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE, ultimately receiving its final form in the 10th or 11th century CE. In terms of the content, though, the text is derived and pieced together from two different circles: the sermon developed as a product of Byzantine Christianity and the apocalypse developed as a product of Judaism.

Historical Roots and Parallel Growth: 

As I’ve demonstrated many times previously, Pseudepigrapha provide insights into the worldviews of various Jewish and Christian groups. In other words, they provide individual voices to history. This is an important point in reading the Apocalypse of Sedrach. The compiled text includes products of both both Byzantine Christianity and Judaism. Being from different traditions, each portion of text was composed at a different period of time and eventually merged into one document. This inconspicuous and essential detail, though, is important to understanding the historical relationship between Jews and Christians between the 5th and 10th/11th centuries.

In order for divergent traditions to come together in a single text, people or materials from each tradition must have been in each others presence at one time or other. While the Apocalypse of Sedrach does not clearly illuminate any specific moments of history, it more generally reflects the nature of the relationship between some Jews and Christians. The Apocalypse of Sedrach would have required conscious synchronization of Jewish and Christian ideas, indicating that religious cross-pollination was an active and important thing in some regions where both traditions were practiced. Methodologically speaking, it highlights the importance of focusing on more flexible categories of what constitutes religion and avoiding the tendency of developing rigid categories for what constitutes religion.

Although there are many primary source documents to explore the relationship between Jews and Christians during the period at hand, I intentionally did not refer to or even consider them. For my goal was to demonstrate that this particular Pseudepigraphon (singular of Pseudepigrapha) is an independent and autonomous attestation of the nature of Jewish-Christian relations during the Middle-Ages.


S. Agourides. “Apocalypse of Sedrach”. J. H. Charlesworth, editor. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume I. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.


“Before Religion” by Brent Nongbri

BrentNongbriBrent Nongbri. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, 288pp., $25.00  (paperback).

Within the field of history, modern scholars tend to project religion backwards into a pre-17th century world. They do so because religion tends to be thought of as a “natural” thing in human history, even if it expressed as “embedded religion”. Consequently artificial, non-native paradigms are applied to other cultures and times in order to interpret them. Brent Nongbri, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean world, explores the dimensions of “religion” through a representative selection of key historical moments and literature in order to demonstrate that the modern concept of religion, especially World Religions, is anachronistic. Of course, as Nongbri notes, all modern concepts applied to the ancient world are anachronistic. The issue with the term “religion” arises, though, when people are unaware of its anachronistic character in the ancient world.

Chapter One begins by addressing the core question in the modern era: what do we mean by “religion”? Thus, after presenting the popular defintion of religion as something that one knows when they see it, he provides an extremely brief review of how contemporary scholarship defines religion. These definitions, contends Nongbri, problematically assume the natural place of religion through human history. He proposes a less pragmatic approach to definitions that he explores in further chapters: “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18). From this he makes three points about the nature of religion in modern conceptualization: (1) religion is private and individualistic, (2) it tends to refer to a genus of a variety of World Religions thought to be expressing some sort of “Ultimate Concern”, (3) and in academic circles use of it as both description (describing the actual native concerns of the culture) and redescription (applying a non-native paradigm to interpret a phenomenon) is blurred. Acknowledgement of these three ways in which religion in used in modern contexts is valuable because it points to major potential and current methodological issues in academic literature. In summary, “religion” tends to imply “Ultimate Concern” that opposes politics and “secular” areas of life. Divide between “secular” and “sacred” was, after all, a false dichotomy in the ancient world.

Chapter Two reviews three representative terms that tend to be translated as “religion” as the issues in doing so: the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskea, and Arabic terms dīn, milla, and umma. Frequently these terms are translated as “religion”. Nongbri traces religio through history, from Greco-Roman uses, early Christian uses, and modern uses. Earliest usage focused on the praxis of public religio, while Christianity eventually claimed to be the truest religio amongst religiones. In the 17th century, John Locke’s religio and the religiones finally became the realm of inner self. Thrēskea is similar throughout history. The earliest use of the term in Herodotus references ritual. Even in the tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph, thrēskea references the rituals of Christianity that stand in opposition to tradition sacrifices of Indians in the tale. Dīn is most commonly translated from the Qur’an as “religion” in N. J. Daywood’s 2003 translation. Ironically, Alexander Ross’ 1649 translation, amid it’s heavy criticism, is more accurate in that it implies social transactions rather than private, internal “faith” or “religion”. This issue is present also in umma (commonly translated as “community”, but as “religion” in modern translations) and milla (Law or sect of Abraham). Based on this data, he concludes that “those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion” (45). While the coverage of terms commonly translated as “religion” is brief, the chosen terms and thoroughly explored and provide compelling support for the remainder of his work.

Chapter Three argues against three common ideas of the “premature” birth of the modern sense of religion. Regarding the revolt of the Maccabees,  Nongbri pushes against Wilfred Smith’s idea that it is the first time religion had a name; rather, Nongbri illustrates that the ioudaismos is not a title for religion but a term prioritizing Judean lifestyle over and against Hellenistic (hellēnismos) lifestyle. He then pushes against Mary Beard’s argument that Cicero’s On Divination marked the beginning of religion. Beard’s choice of terminology for religion is confusing because it applies the modern sense of internal, privatized religion to Cicero, who still focuses on Roman civic and ethnic identity. Finally, in opposition to Daniel Boyarin’s claim that Eusebius presents Judaism, Hellenism, and Christianity as religions in the modern sense of the term, Nongbri argues that this move is intended to create an ethnic map stemming from Abraham and establish a heresiological framework for Christianity. Likewise, he pushes against Lewis Bernard’s idea that Islam was the first self-recognized religion by focusing on the action of a muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys” (59)) and the inclusion of Jews and Christians in Sura 3:113-15. Nongbri emerges from discussing these four examples to demonstrate that application of “religion” to their beliefs and practices often stands in stark opposition their various ways of conceptualizing themselves and others. His arguments are descriptive, honest to the literature on hand, and do well in illustrating how “religion” often brings baggage of how practice and belief is expressed, so much so that it blurs the manners in which people have historically conceptualized their thoughts, emotions, practices, and beliefs. I especially appreciate his statement about the future of scholarship: “Students of the ancient world need to work on generating a better vocabulary for talking about the various ways that ancient peoples conceptually carved out their worlds, a better means of describing the clusters of practices and beliefs outlines by ancient authors” (53).

Chapter Four shifts to the next gear by exploring how ancient authors do conceptualize themselves and others. Drawing on Manichaeism, a practice of Eastern Christianity that drew together Buddhist belief and practice and Christian tradition, Nongbri notes that Augustine did not consider them to be of “a different religion”, but as “half-Christian” (semichristianos). Even John of Damascus (7th century C.E.), a well-known monastic, does not consider Islam a distinct religion, but “one of the many erroneous Christian sects” (75). Barlaam and Ioasaph attests to this even more because it was derived from Buddhist stories. Appropriation of the story for Christian use implies that Christians did not manage differences in Buddhist stories and practice by discussing distinct religions, but by reworking it for their own purposes. These three representative example demonstrate how pre-modern people differentiated between themselves and others outside of the framework of “religion” or World Religions. While part of me wishes that Nongbri had explored more extensively how pre-modern peoples differentiated themselves, I am aware that their would not have been space for that. Fortunately, he provides valuable end notes to enable people to move engage more deeply with variations of pre-modern differentiation.

Chapter Five traces developments in  the 16th and 17th centuries that contribute to the development of the modern idea of “religion” in two respects: academic and political. Beginning with Marsilio Ficino, he traces a through line  with the works of Giordano Bruno to Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Originally the best religion of many with Ficino, Herbert first considered Christianity to be one of many religions. Though, even in the works of the scholars in developing the modern construct of religion, Protestant Christian bias is apparent because what constitutes “good” religion in their works is based on Protestant Christianity and anti-Catholic polemics, thus reminding the reader of Nongbri’s earlier comment that “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity” (18). Proceeding, Nongbri examines how the political environment, especially during the reformation, destabilized the governing authority of the Church. So, the 16th century did not see Wars of Religion so much as it saws wars that contributed to the development of the modern notion of religion. Jean Bodin and John Locke, two characters who grew up that environment, addressed the issue by creating a distinction between the religion and government, thereby creating “a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world” (104).

With such significant development marked by Locke, Chapter Six engages with European academia categorization of peoples in the midst of colonialism and how it sharpened the modern concept of religion. Evident through Max Müller’s work, European critique of foreign practices, namely his “disdain for the inability of Parsis to understand their own “sacred writings””, European colonialism effectively shaped Indian practices in “Indian religion” (113). Similarly, Peter Kolb’s interactions with southern African natives and his appropriation of the Hottentot behaviors like Jews and Catholics shaped perceptions of the “Hottentot religion” into the mental mapping established by John Locke, raising the questions of who chooses what constitutes religion and for what reasons. Further east, imperial Meiji government attempted to appropriate Shinto as Japan’s “ancient religion”. In 1945, Allied powers declared Shinto the official religion of Japan, even though Shinto is about “the way of the kami“, or being in a state of kami, which had rites not distinct from Buddhist ritual. Thus, Nongbri’s paramount examples illustrate that the classification of a World Religions framework is by no means neutral or natural but explicitly results of colonial influences and actions.

Chapter Seven steps back to focus more on issue relevant to ancient history and the advent of “ancient religions”. To put it succinctly, as the modern era and notion of religion took place, academia applied the newly discovered framework to analysis of ancient material. After discussing how Greek and Roman scholars are beginning to move away from “ancient religion”, Nongbri notes that Assyriology’s foundation of “ancient religion” too quickly applies a framework to the ancient authors in ways foreign to them. On this statement, I am surprised that he did not venture into, or even mention, the Protestant Christian bias of Julius Wellhausen who unfortunately argued that the Hebrew Bible sees a move from agricultural religion, prophetic religion, to a more legalistic religion in Exodus through Deuteronomy. For the field of biblical studies, this is a prime representative example of how modern notions of religion are detrimental to reconstruction of ancient historical developments. Additionally, even the more recent idea of “embedded religion” has become a sort of rhetoric by which scholars “can continue speaking as if [religion] were” an ancient concept (152).  As Nongbri writes, if we bring “religion” baggage into ancient authors, “we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions” (153). This quote is the most poignant quote of his whole  book as it provokes thought about how we conceptualize others through time and space, and challenges the triumphal attitude in which we tend hold ourselves as scholars in the 21st century.

To be clear, Nongbri is not calling for the abandonment of the term “religion” as a strictly redescriptive term. Such a framework holds potential to yield valuable analysis. Yet, he calls for scholars and students to avoid using the term descriptively and, even more so, as a rhetoric by which one applies their own standards without taking into serious consideration the world of the ancient author and how he conceptualizes his practices in comparison to others. As he explores, “embedded religion”, a sort of redescriptive application of “religion”, tends to operate more as a descriptive method. Moreover, he encourages not a new version, or replacement of, “religion”; rather, he calls for an entirely new system that “appeals to ancestral tradition, Roman ethnicity, Mesopotamian scribal praxis, Christian and Muslim heresiological discourses, and other topics” (159).

Nongbri’s arguments are not a novel. His approach, though, is unique. Throughout fields of academic study, various people have explored the issue of how one applies the framework of “religion” to non-western peoples. He takes the arguments and disparate discussions from various fields and synthesizes them into one argument and book. For doing this, Nongbri’s Before Religion is an extremely valuable contribution to academia from various fields, whether Anthropology, Biblical Studies, Assyriology, Classical Studies, or any other field. His selection of paramount moments representative of historical meaning for terms commonly translated as “religion” and clear trajectory of how European colonialism, along with internal socio-political conflicts, contributed to the development of “religion” justifies Before Religion as a stand-alone and groundbreaking study. Beyond being merely academic, and restricted that audience therein, Nongbri’s ability to write to a wide variety of people like students, scholars, and non-professionals enables his arguments and discussion to operate within the realm of non-scholars, effectively opening up the world of learning to every person.

More than most books I have reviewed, which are valuable for a small number of people, I highly recommend Before Religion to all readers for its innovative and thought provoking arguments.