Marketing Religion in the Roman Empire

MRB September 14, 2017 0

Sarah E. Rollens reviews At the Temple Gates by Heidi Wendt

Wendt, Heidi. At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2016, 280 pp., $78.00.

In her new book At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire, Heidi Wendt examines sociology of religion in the Roman Empire and attempts to discern how figures such as Paul marketed their religious ideas in urban spaces. Wendt explores popular religions’ key players in the Roman Empire (primary the first three centuries CE), and in doing so reflects a broad trend that examines religious competition within ancient cities and civic life.

At the Temple Gates takes its title from the location where numerous philosophers and religious specialists gathered in city to peddle their services. Wendt observes that ancient authors frequently discuss matters of cultic practice, piety, and belief, and that they are also intensely preoccupied with distinguishing between “authentic” and fraudulent religious practitioners. Wendt is aware of various theoretical problems that are posed when one studies religion in an ancient context.

For example, the modern category of religion (with its strong Protestant legacy) can not merely be transported into the past. For another, simply jettisoning the category of religion also threatens to occlude important dimensions of ancient beliefs and practices. For Wendt, religion is not a rigid category but rather, “a range of practices or bundles of practices” that involve divine agents and dictate human relationships with those divine agents. Therefore, Wendt argues that critical, scholarly reflection on the category can still render it a useful analytical concept.

Beneath this discourse, Wendt detects a series of behaviors, including the practices and posturing associated with individuals who styled themselves as experts in mediating religious activity. In particular, she is curious about how these figures affected the development and profile of religion across the Roman Empire.

Her study proposes to “theorize all self-authorized or ‘freelance’ experts in religion as participants in a common type or class of religious activity.”

She defines “self-authorized” or “freelance” individuals as those who are disconnected from a formal religious institution such as a church or temple but who offer various services that channel divine power, such as divination or healing. Evidence for this social actor is mainly drawn from ancient literature, as opposed to documentary sources such as papyri or epigraphy.

In one of Juvenal’s satires, for instance, Wendt observes the specialist who pretends to be Anubis moving from house to house, hawking his ability to intercede (for a fee) on behalf of those who offended the god. Not only do these sorts of traveling specialists show up in fictional writings, but legislative texts witness to their existence as well. Wendt cites inter alia, the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, which records legal action taken against “astrologers” and “magicians” during the reign of Tiberius. Ancient authors categorize and treat these freelance experts differently than they treat institutionalized religious figures, such as priests or prophets associated with a temple or cultic site.

Freelance religious experts as distinct individuals in relation to figures like civic religious officials or hereditary priests is not, to specify, a divide between “orthodox” religious practices and “heretical” (or sectarian) ones.; the practices under question often look the same. Wendt’s distinction has to do with questions of power: who is authorized to present themselves as an “expert” on a practice and from where does that authorization stem? “The contrast between ‘authorized’ and ‘unauthorized,’” she explains, “was not self-evident or strict but involved different sources of legitimacy, levels of skill, and status.”

Based on the frequent mentions of self-authorized practitioners, Wendt maintains that “the first century witnessed a steady expansion of the religion of freelance experts.” The social, historical, and political conditions of this period contributed to this expansion because it helped create the conditions in which their authority would be recognized. This latter point is crucial: anyone can propose a myriad of reasons as to why religious ideas attract followers, but Wendt uses concrete historical evidence to show why the ideas that freelance specialists disseminated had traction. In particular, she highlights the increasing level of “cosmopolitanism” that urban areas enjoyed in the first century due to the influx of trade and wealth and the migration of people from different regions of the empire.

In all of this cultural blossoming, civic religion and the imperial cult catered toward the aristocracy and offered few opportunities for average people’s involvement in their ritual practices.

This created a desire among average people for a more personal religious encounter—or at the very least, more direct access to the tangible benefits that religion supposedly provided. Many people started to develop a fascination with the “exotic” religious practices connected with migrant peoples, which made access to these practices all the more alluring. Freelance specialists, with their easily accessible, piecemeal services such as one-off healings, fertility rites, apotropaic spells, or the interpretation of animal entrails catered to specific concerns. Freelancers were the ideal people to capitalize on these circumstances in order to market their skills.

Many of these freelance experts were “foreigners” who were frequently “ethnically coded” by the authors writing about them. Ethnic coding refers to the correlation of certain practices or traditions with distinct ethnic groups. The result of this discursive process was that many assumed people from certain regions were “naturally disposed [to some skills] due to their ancestry or provenance.” Cicero, for example, discusses the innate divinatory skills of Egyptians and Babylonians. The attention to foreign religious experts was so conventional that they appear to make up “a common class of religious activity even if they differed with respect to ethnicity, particular skills and practices, and representations.” Wendt observes that Judeans were considered some of these exotic foreigners whose religious skills ranged from interpreting portents, oracles, and dreams to banishing demons and performing purification rites is important for Wendt’s theorizing of key figures within the Christian tradition.  For example, Vespasian’s easy acceptance of the prophecy that Josephus made about his future reign shows how Judean specialists were received by Romans who were interested in their exotic, premonitory wisdom.

“The presence of freelance experts, reveals ‘Judean religion’ to be both more varied and more comparable in its variety to Greek, Egyptian, or Persian religion…”

The diverse practices of freelance experts and the ways that authors represent them are indicative of widespread religious competition. In her earlier discussion of legislative dealings with such freelance experts, Wendt indicates how legal categories (and the threat of punishment for transgressing them) provide the ideal occasion for competitive rhetoric, especially for those who self-identify as “apologetic writers, entrepreneurial competitors, and informants.” Writing itself furthered the space to engage in competition: “the ability to commit a religious program to writing allowed for considerably more ambitiousness, more elaboration, and an exchange of ideas among the relatively few specialist capable of producing such writings in the first place.” She theorizes on the role that writing plays in religious competition and offers new ways to think about the long-problematic categories of magic, religion, and philosophy. Not only are these categories polemical in the literary sources (and hence should not be adopted by scholars as analytical categories), but they also are themselves the product of religious competition.

This theory has serious ramifications for the study of early Christianity. Paul, in particular, self-authorizes his own missionizing activity in the eastern Mediterranean in the numerous letters to the groups he encountered. Thus, he emerges through the comparative process as an archetypal religious specialist, or in Wendt’s words, “a rare witness to the religion of freelance experts.” As Wendt argues, Paul presents himself to his audiences as a purveyor and interpreter of a distinct kind of Judean religion. He emphasizes his special training when he situates his intellectual heritage among the Pharisees (Philippians 3:5); he occasionally speaks of his abilities to perform special skills such as speaking in tongues or prophesying (1 Corinthians 14:18-19); and he consistently displays his expertise in interpreting the scriptural traditions of the Judeans (for example, Galatians 3:6-18 and Romans 9:1-33). There are many debates over Paul’s Jewish identity, but Wendt suggests that the matter of his ethnic or religious identity is far more complicated:

Appeals to ethnicity served as confirmation that Paul possessed the requisite background…to claim expertise in Judean religion…. For the sake of his own recognition, then, the apostle to the gentiles had a considerable stake in confirming the special status of the Judeans.… [which led to him] maintaining, even exaggerating, his Judean-ness for the sake of being intelligible (and credible) to his audiences.

Much of Paul’s letters make sense when one considers his writing in the context of freelance specialists.

His frequent references to the challenges and hardships that he has managed to overcome, for instance, act to underscore his legitimacy in the eyes of his audiences. Moreover, his awkward oscillating between bragging about his expertise and feigning humility (as in 1 Cor. 1:14-17; 9; 14:18-19; Gal. 6:11-16; Rom. 15:14-21; 2 Cor. 12) walk a fine line between his need to present himself as an expert to establish his authority and the equally pressing desire to not come off as a fraudulent or exploitative specialist. Thus, Paul’s missionizing activities and rhetorical demeanor are entirely ordinary tactics to cultivate authority when set alongside other similar figures. Moreover, situating him among this class of freelance figures helps explain why Paul, whose ideas about his revered deity were by no means unique in the ancient context, appealed to Gentile audiences. His behaviors tapped into their cultural expectations for how a religious specialist would appear.

Within the context of early Christianity, Wendt briefly considers the relationship between freelance specialists and “groups or institutions that might owe their genesis to this class of religious activity.” She considers the rival groups, such as Valentinian Christians, that would congeal around different theological opinions promoted by certain experts. Much scholarship  focuses on nebulous groups in their entirety, but Wendt proposes that we need to focus the lens on the competition among “writer-intellectuals” who are striving to authorize particular sets of beliefs and practices. She explains:

To begin from groups is to posit a platform of regularity with which all subsequent evidence of ‘diversity’ must then be reconciled. The advantage of reframing these sources as evidence for the religion of freelance experts is that doing so restores all would-be Christian experts to an equal footing when what it meant to be such an expert was still largely, if not entirely up for grabs.

In particular, discussions over proper scriptural interpretations are a legacy of freelance Judean experts, which became hived-off of the ethnic group. Intellectuals claimed the “exegesis of Judean writings seems to have become a thing unto itself, irrespective of the interpreter’s own ethnic credentials, so to speak.” For instance, Tertullian’s prolific writings witness how a gentile could present themselves as experts in traditions that were once considered the sole property of ethnic Judeans. If the freelance skill of interpretation became entangled in competitive practices among specialists, then it is a small step from there for such self-authorized textual interpreters to teach others in order to bolster their authority and group formation would quickly follow from likeminded people with a common teacher. In short, “our earliest evidence for Christian experts maps on to a prior and more capacious class of religious activity that is not specific to Christians, or to Jews and Christians.”


While I am both intrigued and impressed by Wendt’s meticulous social theorizing, I remain uncomfortable with the language of self-authorized experts. The “self-authorized” detail seems potentially problematic because anyone could, in theory, authorize themselves to do anything. Indeed, what kind of author is not, in some way or another, a self-authorized expert? What Wendt seems to mean with the idea of “self-authorized” is that the individual is acting outside of an organized civic or institutional network. At the same time, though, the distinction between individual and institutional religion is often more discursive than real: she readily admits that such “freelance” figures are themselves the products of social structures and conditions.

Such theorizing also implies a strong market place for religious practices and a certain dimension of rationality in a social actor as they pursue various practitioners and their remedies. This requires an individualized understanding of religion at the heart of her proposal, which is evident in her hesitance to treat vaguely-defined groups as objects of analysis or social agents. As Wendt herself notes, once her framework is taken seriously, “the seemingly intractable dichotomy of mainstream versus sectarian groups dissolves into a sea of individual agents.” This model loosely resembles Max Weber’s ideas of charismatic religious leaders and their subsequent taming into “institutions.” Where Wendt differs and improves upon the Weberian model is by her close attention to social conditions that make the authority of freelance specialists possible in the ancient context.

Unlike others who struggled to figure out why early Christian ideas were appealing, Wendt shows that it was the teacher’s behaviors and discursive strategies were often the real attraction for people. In other words, individuals in the Roman Empire would have been socially conditioned to look for certain signals in the rhetorical posturing of people such as Paul, which would lead them to recognize their legitimacy as religious experts. Therefore, when Paul appeared in a city and proffered his teachings about the miracle-working Judean, his strategies would not have seemed out of place at all. At the Temple Gates leaves behind hackneyed theological assumptions in favor of sociological theorizing, and will undoubtedly stimulate vigorous and much needed discussion about the nature of religious activity in antiquity.