In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.
Adrian Chastain Weimer
Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status. During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.
Paul F. Bradshaw
The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed. Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.
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.
R. David Nelson
The central act of Christian worship is a mystery embodied in a meal. From its earliest expressions, Christianity has practiced the celebration of the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving,” from the Greek adjective εὐχάριστος “thankful, grateful”), later and variably also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Mass (Catholic), and the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodoxy). The practice, which has taken innumerable liturgical forms and religious glosses in the course of Christianity’s history, at minimum both serves as the reiteration of Jesus’s final Passover meal and encapsulates a host of significant biblical and theological images and ideas, including fellowship and community, divine presence, creation, spiritual nourishment, participation, the eschatological celebration, embodiment, and the suffering and death of Jesus. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a central theme in Luther’s theology and literary deposit, and it played a significant role in the development of early Protestant doctrine and practice. Worked out primarily in the course of political crises and controversies among a host of interlocutors, both Catholic and Protestant, Luther’s teaching on the Supper reflects deep-seated commitments in areas such as Christology, the relationship between theology and philosophy, and the doctrine of ministry, to name but a few, and it bears important implications for a variety of dogmatic, practical, church-political, and interdisciplinary concerns.
The epics that are associated with Homer’s name, the Iliad and the Odyssey, emerge from a long tradition of oral song that extends back into the Late Bronze Age. The poems themselves, however, date from the late 8th or early 7th centuries bc. From the perspective of religious belief and religious practice, the society that is described in these epics, like the society of the 8th- and 7th-century Aegean world, is a polytheistic society: the heroes within the epics, like the audiences themselves of that epic tradition, worship not one but a number of gods. The gods of the epics, such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, and Aphrodite, are, however, remarkably vivid, in that they have not only been intensely personalized, being endowed with humanlike form and appearance, but also socialized. These gods are portrayed as a family that lives together on Mount Olympus, where they are embedded in a complex web of interpersonal relationships. And yet, despite their divine status, the gods of epic mingle with the race of heroes on earth; indeed, when they choose, they are key players in human affairs. On occasions the gods behave in ways that, to another culture, might appear undignified, ridiculous, or ungodly; but, for the most part, they presented as powerful figures and at times terrible. To turn from theology of belief, as represented in the Homeric epics, to the theology of religious practice, it will become clear from the discussion in this article that the Homeric account of religious practice is different in some respects from the religious practice of the archaic Greek world; what is observable is that the epic tradition has omitted from its account of religious practice a number of elements important to worshippers in the real world, such as divination through the consultation of entrails or rituals of fertility. And a certain poetic stylization of presentation has made some real-world practices less recognizable. More recently there have been fruitful attempts to identify elements of religious belief and practice that can be traced back in time to the wider Bronze Age world. At the same time, too, scholars have reflected on the gods’ role in the epic as participants in and observers of the action.
The Eucharist is a liturgical meal of bread and wine, which is almost always preceded by a service of reading the Scriptures. Christians attribute the origin of the Eucharist to Jesus Christ himself at the Last Supper on the night before he died. Many Christians regard the Eucharist as a sacrament and as their central ritual, and many celebrate the Eucharist weekly or even more often. This sacred meal has had various names throughout history: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Offering, the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. The most common name in the early 21st century, however, is Eucharist, which derives from the Greek word Eucharistia, a thanksgiving. What we know since the 3rd century as the basic form of the Christian Eucharist is most probably the result of a number of trajectories from the first 150 years of Christianity coming together, including: fellowship meals in remembrance of Jesus, celebrations of his passion and resurrection, and the tradition of his significant meals such as the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus (Luke 24). In the late 4th and 5th centuries, many local traditions coalesced to produce (1) a basic common form of Eucharistic liturgy consisting of entrance rite, liturgy of the word, homily, prayers, the sharing of a kiss of peace, presentation of gifts of bread and wine, Eucharistic prayer, Lord’s Prayer, fraction of the bread, distribution of communion, and dismissal; and (2) the various traditional liturgical families tied to major Christian cities: Byzantine (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch), Coptic (Alexandria), East Syrian (Edessa), and Roman. The church of the first millennium knew a common affirmation of the understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements as well as a variety of ways of expressing the notion of Eucharist as sacrifice. The first controversies over how to express Christ’s presence arose in the 9th century, and they rose to a crescendo with Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. The most sophisticated explanation of that presence (transubstantiation) was provided by Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century. The Protestant reformers of the 16th century made various criticisms of traditional Roman Catholic theology and practice. They insisted on using the language of the people, giving communion in both bread and wine, and dismissing the language of Eucharistic sacrifice. The Reformed tradition (John Calvin) and the Lutheran differed considerably, however, on how to affirm Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic celebration, with Luther taking a much more realist position and Calvin a more “spiritual” understanding. The Church of England was reluctant to take sides in this discussion and its own theological position on the Eucharist remains a matter of debate. The liturgical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, combined with renewed interest in biblical and patristic scholarship, has produced a remarkable convergence among various Christian churches, and it has led to Eucharistic liturgies among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists that bear a notable similarity to one another.
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.