Antonia Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. 165 pp., paperback. ISBN: 0-8028-4913-X. $16.00.
Recent interest in the social, political and religious milieu of the New Testament has spawned a new approach in New Testament criticism called "social-scientific criticism." Using materials (written and in situ) from Greco-Roman localities, significant new insights into the culture of the Mediterranean Basin during the rise of Christianity have emerged. As religion was an integral part of that world, Tripolitis offers a primer in the varieties available. She surveys the history of the era (too briefly), then the Mystery Cults, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Middle Platonism, Mithraism, Hellenistic Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism (arguments for pre-Christian Gnosticism are "conjectural," p. 120). She has chosen the "major players" as her focus, which means the reader will not find a discussion of the cult of Diana (Ephesus), the Cabiri (?Thessalonica) or the Vestal Virgins. Her organizing principle is the oikoumene of Alexander the Great, i.e., his world-changing Hellenism which produced a universal cosmology. From this cosmopolitan shift (away from indigenous nationalisms and tribalisms) a truly universal impetus was given to politics, culture and religion. The religions of the Hellenistic-Roman age are varieties of coping deviceshow to cope with a large, fast-changing world. Each of these cults and philosophies is an attempt to guide the soul through the cosmos to "safe harbor" elsewhere. For some, "salvation" consists of knowledge (gnosis); others find refuge in secret rites (mysteries and Mithraism); still others resort to tradition (Philonic Judaism); while many resort to philosophy. Tripolitis regards Christianity as essentially a socio-religious movement born from apocalyptic Judaism. In her description (pp. 91-98), the creed of the followers of Jesus is an application of certain propositions to a new-found sense of community ("Christianity's most important benefit was its sense of community . . .", p. 147). This, of course, reduces Christianity to a contemporary form of horizontalism, as if in the 21st century we have not moved beyond analysis of Christianity in terms of 19th century religionsgeschichte. Certainly the absence of a discussion of the centrality of the incarnation and atoning death of Christ leaves the reader disappointed and Christianity less than adequately defined.
Thus, as a primer, the volume is useful. But our readers will be better served by the volume by Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions (T & T Clark, 2000).
James T. Dennison