Emerging from the academic study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during the Enlightenment and Reformation, Israelite religion became a topic of study in terms of the presentation in the Bible of Israel’s worship of its God. Gradually this separated into a synthesis of biblical teachings on worship and its prescribed practices, on the one hand, and a study of the history of biblical Israel in terms of beliefs and practices toward one or more deities, on the other. The former branch evolved into biblical theology, while the latter developed into the topic of Israelite religion. Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern texts preceding and contemporaneous with the period of the Bible broadened the picture. Comparing and contrasting archaeological and textual sources with the application of anthropological models derived from comparative religious studies led to modern syntheses of the subject. Initially these were heavily based upon the biblical text, often with the application of theories of literary and historical criticism. Since the 1980s, however, a focus on texts from the same time and region, as well as interpretation of artifacts with religious significance, has challenged older models of Israelite religion. Influences and the interactions of believers and their deities appear increasingly complex. No longer is there an understanding of a mere one or two religions in Israel (e.g., worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal). It now seems clear that various religious practices and texts attest to the presence of multiple religions followed by people in the region of ancient Israel, sometimes reflecting differences in gender, culture, ethnicity, and other factors. While a form of worship as described in biblical accounts may have been followed, there were other forms which, in various ways, syncretized Yahweh with other goddesses and gods. This has led scholars to question the factors that led to, and the time of emergence of, belief in a single deity in Israel, as well as to question the nature of that deity. Answers and models remain in a state of flux; evidence remains to be reviewed and interpretations demand critical interpretation.
Richard S. Hess
Ancient Greek religion was a polytheistic religion without a book, church, creed, or a professional priestly class. Due to the extraordinarily rich regional varieties in cult, fragmentary evidence and conjectural interpretations of it, conflicting mythological accounts, and the span of time treated, not a single absolute statement can be made about any aspect of Greek religion and exceptions exist for every general rule stated here. Since Ancient Greeks perceived all aspects of nature as either divine or divinely controlled, and all aspects of individual and social life were thought to be subject to supernatural influence, paying proper respect to the gods and heroes was understood to be a fundamental necessity of life. Since no aspect of individual or social life was separate from “religion,” scholars refer to Ancient Greek religion as “embedded.”1 The closest Ancient Greek comes to the English word “religion” are the noun thrēskeia (“acts of religious worship, ritual, service of gods”) and the verb thrēskeuō (“to perform religious observances”). Basic components of religious worship were the construction and upkeep of divine precincts, statues, altars, and temples, the observance of festivals, performance of sacrifices, bloodless offerings and libations, prayer, hymning, and observance of ritual abstinences and purifications. The closest Greek equivalents to “belief” were eusebeia (“reverent piety,” “respect”) and pistis (“trust in others” or “faith”).2 Both words could qualify a relationship between humans, as well as a relationship between humans and a supernatural entity. Since the Ancient Greeks did not have authoritative or divinely sent books of revelation, there was no script telling them what or whom to believe in and outlining the reasons why. The Greeks did not have professional priests who preserved, interpreted, and disseminated religious norms.3 However, Greek literature is brimming with gods, and the stories about the gods, which they (and we) call “myths,” were not only in all their texts, but everywhere around them: depicted on their pottery, painted on their walls, chiseled on the stones of their buildings.4 In the public space, there were countless divine statues, and the temples, altars, sacred groves, and divine precincts were everywhere around them. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods by hearing, watching, and doing: by seeing their parents perform a sacrifice, by observing them as they prayed, swore an oath, or performed libations, by participating in processions, singing and dancing in the chorus, eating the sacrificial meat in the sanctuaries, and by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks had no immediate need for theodicy, for the gods could be either benevolent, or angry, and their benevolence was perceived as a sign that the worship the community offered was appropriate, whereas natural catastrophes, crippling defeats in wars, or epidemics were interpreted as manifestations of divine anger, provoked by some human error or misstep.5 Ancestral gods and heroes and the traditional way of worshipping them formed the cornerstone of Greek religiosity.
Ryan P. Bonfiglio
With respect to the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the term iconography refers to the visual images produced in the ancient Near Eastern world. Various types of ancient Near East (ANE) images are attested in the archaeological record, including monumental reliefs, freestanding statues and figurines, picture-bearing coins and ivories, terracottas, amulets, and seals and their impressions. These artistic materials, which constitute an important component of ancient material culture more broadly, display a wide variety of subject matter, ranging from simple depictions of human figures, deities, divine symbols, animals, and vegetation to more complex visual portrayals of worship scenes, battles, and tribute processions. Despite the presence of legal texts in the Old Testament (OT) that ban the production of divine images, ancient Israel produced, imported, and circulated a wealth of images, mostly in the form of seals, scarabs, and amulets. The study of ANE iconography focuses primarily on the subject matter of images, as opposed to issues pertaining to materiality, technique, style, aesthetics, and provenance. Thus the goal of iconographic investigations is to describe the content of a given image and to interpret the message(s) and ideas it was intended to convey. This process often entails analyzing the development of certain motifs over time and how they were deployed in various historical, religious, and social contexts. In this sense, the study of ancient iconography approaches images not so much as decorative pieces that reflect the creative expressions of individual artists, though stylistic creativity of this sort is sometimes possible to discern. Rather, the study of ancient iconography approaches images as forms of communication that were intentionally commissioned, often by the king, to publicly disseminate specific messages, be they political or religious. At a more basic level, the study of ancient iconography can also enhance the reader’s understanding of what objects and places would have looked like in the ancient world. The relationship between ANE iconography and the OT is complex. With few exceptions (cf. Ezek 23:13), the image-text relation is not simply a matter of biblical authors describing a visual image that they had seen. Neither is it a matter of images being created to depict biblical stories or events. Rather, the connection between ANE iconography and the OT is best understood to operate at a conceptual level. Specifically, literary imagery in the OT often reflects motifs and themes that are also present in the iconographic repertoire of the ancient world. The use of ANE iconography in the study of the OT is most commonly referred to as iconographic exegesis. This method of analysis first surfaced in the early 1970s through the pioneering work of Othmar Keel, at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and has since been furthered through the work of loose network of scholars known as the “Fribourg School.” Much of this research has focused on aspects of the canon that are especially rich in literary imagery, such as the Psalms and the Prophets. ANE iconography has also proven to be a valuable primary source in the study of the history of Israelite religion. Of particular interest is the nature and development of ancient Israel’s ban on divine images and the resulting tradition of aniconism—the notion that Yahweh was not to be represented in visual or material form and/or that any divine image was an impermissible idol.
Roman society was patriarchal, which is to say that it was marked by sexual asymmetry in which males tended to have power over females. As in most ancient societies, religion contributed to a pervasive belief that such an arrangement was part of the “natural” order of things. Ritual practices allowed Romans to perform and internalize ideas about gender roles and the relation between the sexes. This was true in both civic rituals as well as in the ceremonies performed by individuals and households. The ritual sphere was an ideal space for the formation of gender roles because it was fundamentally inclusive. Numerous ancient sources testify to the communal and collective dimension of worship, and not just at births, marriages, and funerals, where women naturally performed a range of important ritual functions. Men and women worshiped the same gods and participated in many of the same civic cults and festivals. They held important public priesthoods and presided over many of the same rituals, including even blood sacrifice. Religion permeated the daily lives of men and women in ancient Rome, playing an important role in the transmission of cultural and social practices and values related to gender.
The religions of both the ancient Greeks and Romans were polytheistic (with many gods), but centered on a finite and homogenous group of deities who were worshipped through prayer, animal sacrifice, and festivals. It was believed that the gods, in turn, provided mortals with specific benefits, at the individual, family, group or state levels. Gods were anthropomorphic (in human form) and powerful but not eternal or all-powerful. New gods could be introduced into both pantheons (groups of gods), but the number of such additions was in fact fairly limited. And both Greeks and Romans concentrated on the cults of their traditional gods, whose worship they found both beneficial and satisfying for over one thousand years.
“Lived ancient religion” offers a new perspective on ancient religion. It shares the priority on ritual of many studies from the late 19th century onward but reconstructs ancient religion not as a set of rules or coherent system but a dynamic field of change and tradition. The central notion is taken from contemporary religious studies. The concept of “lived religion” was developed in the late 1990s and has gained a growing reception ever since. Rather than analyzing expert theologies, dogma, or the institutional setting and history of organized religion, the focus of lived religion is on what people actually do: the everyday experience, practices, expressions, and interactions that are related to and constitute religion. In this way, religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications hinging on human interaction with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), usually conceptualized by the ancient Mediterraneans as gods. Material symbols, elaborate forms of representation, and ritualization are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees. The concept of lived religion has only recently been applied to the analysis of ancient religion. With a view to the dynamics of religion in the making, research based on this new concept critically engages with the notions of civic religion and (elective) cults as clearly defined rule- or belief-based systems. It stresses the similarity of practices and techniques of creating meaning and knowledge across a whole range of addressees of religious communication and in light of a high degree of local innovation. The emphasis is not on competing religions or cults but on symbols that are assuming ever-new configurations within a broad cultural space. The central notion of religious agency offers extended possibilities of imagination and intervention—of imagined, invoked, and even experienced divine support in real situations. In this way, the attribution of agency to divine actors provides appropriately creative strategies for the human agents (and sometimes even their audiences) to transcend the situation in question, whether by leading a ritual, casting a person as possessed, invoking means not yet available (as through a vow), or bolstering one’s own party with the favor of divine members. Religions, as seen from below, are the attempt—often by just a few individuals—to at least occasionally create order and boundaries through means other than a normative system imperfectly reproduced by humans. Such boundaries would include the notions of sacred and profane, pure and impure, public and private, as well as gendered conceptions of deities. Institutions such as professional priesthoods and the reformulation of religion as knowledge that is kept and elaborated by such professionals could constitute further features of crucial importance for sketching a history of such systems. This is religion in the making, though it casts itself as religion made forever. Acknowledging the individual appropriation and the production of meaning at play in these situations excludes the employment of only cultural interpretations, drawing on other parts of a dense and coherent web of meaning.
While ancient Egyptians had no conception of religion as a distinct sphere of life, modern scholars have identified a wide range of Egyptian beliefs and practices relating to the divine. Egyptian religion can be traced back to predynastic times, and it developed continuously until the decline of temple religion in the Roman Period. Three mythic cycles are key to its understanding: the creation of the world, and the related solar cycle, which describe the origin and maintenance of the world, and the Osiris cycle, which provides a justification for the human institutions of kingship and funerary rites. Egyptian religion may be seen as being centered on its temples, which functioned both as sites for the worship of the resident gods and the elaboration of their theologies and as important economic and political centers. In addition to gods, three other categories of divine beings played important roles in Egyptian religious practice: kings, sacred and divine animals, and the dead. The king was intimately involved in the temple religion, as the mediator between the divine and human spheres, the patron of the temples, and the beneficiary of his own rituals, while divine and sacred animals seem to have been likewise understood as living embodiments of divine power. Death was understood through a range of metaphors, to which the ritual response was to link the deceased to one or more of the cosmic cycles through practices aimed at translating them into the divine sphere and thus ensuring their continued existence. As with all aspects of the religion, these rituals changed over time but show remarkable consistency throughout recorded history. Alongside these rituals centered on temple, royal, and funerary cults, a number of personal religious practices have been reconstructed as well as one major break in continuity, the “Amarna Revolution,” in which the ruling king seems to have briefly instituted a form of monotheism.
As “cultic citizens,” women participated in state festivals at Athens alongside men and celebrated their own rituals apart from them, at shrines within the house and in cults outside the house in the company of other women. Their association with fertility made them indispensable performers of rites connected with the agricultural year. Women also served as priestesses, as dedicators, and as euergetai (benefactors). At home, their rituals accompanied nuptial preparations, the laying out of the dead, and the departure of soldiers for war. Female religious activity was considered so critical to the welfare of the community that it was sanctioned by law and financed by the polis. Religion further allowed women’s widespread movement throughout the city as they left their homes to participate in processions and festivals, visit shrines, sanctuaries, and cemeteries. By performing rituals on behalf of the city, Athenian women distinguished themselves from female foreigners and slaves as rightful citizens of the polis. Women-only festivals further offered opportunities to build and strengthen female social networks, to act autonomously, and perhaps even to subvert social norms. Domestic rituals accomplished by women in turn helped to mark the life stages and strengthen familial identity. The difficulties of reconstructing the ancient Greek religious system are well known, even for the period for which there is the most evidence, classical Athens. Even more challenging is the task of recovering the religious activities of women within this structure, given that men served as the primary religious agents within both the polis and household. The prevailing view that the polis mediated all religious activity, including domestic, encompassed by the concept of “polis religion,” has further obscured our understanding women’s ritual activities. Influenced by feminist and social-network theories, recent research has argued for a more nuanced model of religious activity that takes into account the varieties of individual religious experience, particularly those of members of marginal groups, such as slaves and women. It dismantles the traditional binary model of public and private by showing how polis and household were intricately interconnected and interdependent at all levels. These new approaches allow us to consider the ways in which women’s ritual activities intersected with and reinforced polis ideology, allowing women a significant presence and agency in the civic sphere, despite their exclusion from politics, commerce, and certain public spaces. It can also help us understand their engagement with noncivic celebrations and domestic ritual.
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah. By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies. The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt. There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.
Historians of antiquity used to argue that, from the 6th century bce onwards, the religious traditions of Greek and Roman pagans became an empty shell maintained by elites who no longer had any belief in them except as a device for keeping the masses subservient. In recent decades this theory, always highly speculative and over-dependent on the views of ancient philosophers, has been largely abandoned. In fact, down to the 2nd, even the 3rd century ce, pagan worship still seems to have been an important element in the way cities and communities of the Roman Empire worked, sustaining the power of ruling elites, but also defining the way individuals expressed their private concerns and problems. For the overwhelming majority, the old deities kept their hold, and there is a strong tradition of dedications, in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses, that bears witness to a continued tradition of individual piety. At the same time, although the Empire was successful from the 1st century bce onwards in maintaining widespread order and prosperity, the nature of city life was changing in fundamental respects. With stability came a high degree of mobility, and cities of both East and West came to find themselves with religious groups living in tense proximity, first of Jews, then of Christians, Manichaeans, and others. To those with a taste for broad generalizations, it has been appealing to interpret these developments as a great conflict between polytheism and monotheism, some rating monotheism as so superior that it could be treated as an inevitable step up in the evolutionary progression of the human race. Paganism was therefore doomed in advance. What is certain is that pagan religion and its many deities became the target of a concentrated attack by the Christian Fathers; but that alone can hardly explain why traditional worship lost its appeal to so many of its adherents in quite a short period of the 4th century ce: pagans suddenly began to abandon age-old practices and join new cults that they had once despised. Efforts at resistance to Christianity, in particular, once thought very important, prove to have been evanescent at best in the light of recent research. To find a new understanding of these very profound changes in religious history, analysis is needed: first, what were the fundamental differences between pagan traditionalism and the competing religions, and, second, how did relations between religious groups change over time. Answers cannot lie in studying only Christians, or only Jews, or only pagans, as is still too often the practice, but rather in the nature of their interactions with one another. The kind of religious competition for members that characterized this situation was quite a new phenomenon to the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire. They were not accustomed to dealing with competing religious groups each with their own ideas and doctrines. Pagan deities had always needed to attract worshippers to their sanctuaries; but they were defined by myths, rituals, and the functions they performed, not by having distinct theologies or creeds. It was the coming of competition and conflict that radically changed the religious landscape and generated new elements in religious life. Meanwhile, once the Emperors had adopted Christianity, paganism, which had always been involved in the exercise of central power, retreated to the margins.