The Medieval Review 16.08.11

Papaconstantinou, Arietta, Neil McLynn, and Daniel L. Schwartz, eds. Conversion in Late Antiquity: Christianity, Islam, and Beyond: Papers from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar, University of Oxford, 2009-2010. Dorchester: Ashgate, 2015. pp. xxxvii, 398. $139.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-40945-738-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Kevin Uhalde
Ohio University

Conversion in Late Antiquity: Christianity, Islam, and Beyond is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Sizgorich, who died early in 2011. He was one of the participants in a seminar convened at Oxford between October 2009 and July 2010 (proposal and programs available at The present volume collects many of the papers discussed at those meetings, including the pre-circulated version of Sizgorich's own paper with some added annotations. Beyond the warm remembrance that prefaces the collection, several contributors testify to the insight and promise of Sizgorich's work. His also is one of four essays that take up "the comparativist approach" (3) in exploring conversion among Arabs and under Islamic rule (chapters 8-10, 12). These and other interesting contributions (see the Table of Contents below) make this a worthwhile collection.

Contributors to Conversion in Late Antiquity are generally suspicious of triumphal narratives and clean breaks between the old and new lives of religious converts. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus or Augustine's epiphany at Cassiciacum are stories told retrospectively and at opportune moments. Conversion is better understood as a process, or series of processes, that happens across "fuzzy borders" and "blurry in-betweens" (xxiii, 117, et passim). Authors here approach conversion from a variety of angles, sometimes introducing their own definitions and analytical categories for their respective chapters. A number of themes recur across the book's five sections, including competition between and within religious groups, contact and competition within physical spaces, varieties of state coercion, conversion as political ideology, rising religious exclusivity, the role of "the hagiographic persona" (163), and gaps between theory and practice.

Arietta Papaconstantinou presents these fifteen chapters as a "fully comparative volume” (xvi), explaining and defending its purposeful coherence at length in the Introduction. The words in the title, except for "and Beyond," reflect a decision to restrict the volume's focus to late antique Christianity and Islam (xxiii). This focus is meant to help avoid the many faults Papaconstantiou finds with previous comparative studies, including "the evident, if passive, cultural bias of historians overwhelmingly raised in Christian countries" (xxi). As such, some of the papers delivered at the seminar but not included here--especially those on the Western Roman Empire, Sasanian Persia, and early Islamic state--are sorely missed. As for "and Beyond," including Buddhism as an "external foil that was not caught in the all-too-familiar net of the Abrahamic religions" (xv) also seems not to have gone as planned. Vesna Wallace's account of "competing religious conversions" in contemporary Mongolia (ch. 3) is an intriguing but conspicuous outlier, while Antonello Palumbo goes beyond comparison to posit a causal connection between Constantine's conversion rhetoric and that of Emperor Wudi in China a century later (Ch. 5). This is a fundamentally eclectic collection and that is fine.

The first section, entitled "Principles," is itself a hodgepodge. In "Christian Conversion in Late Antiquity: Some Issues" (ch. 1), Averil Cameron muses over the meaning of late antiquity, Christianization, and conversion. Then in chapter 2, rather than rejecting the Pauline model of conversion, Polymnia Athanassiadi claims it for Hellenistic philosophers, who were the real victims of Decius' 249 "declaration of war against free will" (29-30); Christianity later finished the job (42-43). Wallace's chapter on Mongolia concludes this section, but Decius returns in "Practice I: Raison d'État,"the first of the book's three core sections. Whereas Athanassiadi speaks of "free will" and even "spiritual promiscuity" (29), Simon Corcoran denies that a "religiously flexible" state implies any "personal freedom of religion" (ch. 4, 67). He introduces four ways a state can use law to compel conversion, then shows emperors from Decius through Justinian mixing these approaches in their legislation. Christian emperors, however, grow steadily more deliberate and less tolerant. In chapter 5, Palumbo suggests possible channels of communication by which Christian imperial ideology might have influenced an emergent Buddhist imperial ideology in China. But he also acknowledges the role local religious competition played in defining religious boundaries. Samuel Lieu addresses the state's role in conversion with regard to Manichaeism (ch. 6), which he has studied from a comparative perspective for decades. Here he identifies ingredients conducive to religions either surviving the coercive reach of unfavorable rulers, or finding and flourishing under favorable rulers. Lieu also reports on a cult site developed around a statue of Mani the Buddha of Light.

"Practice II: Human Ambiguities" begins with Christopher Kelly testing the use and effect of conversion rhetoric, so far addressed at the imperial level, closer to the ground (ch. 7). Carefully examining Augustine's Sermon 24 on conflict surrounding a pagan statue, Kelly argues that the bishop skillfully employed the "(sometimes bloody) narrative frame" of violence and unity (148) in order to mitigate actual violence and conceal real disunity. The next three chapters fit together neatly. Sizgorich addresses what he calls "accidental conversion" to Islam in seventh- through tenth-century literary sources (ch. 8). From Baghdad to Cordoba, he finds zones of contact where markers of religious difference themselves are unreliable and apostasy is more feared than persecution. Elizabeth Key Fowden then examines how Christian attempts at converting Arabs helped create and sustain such zones of "convergence" during the late fourth and fifth centuries (ch. 9). Drawing on contemporary as well as later Christian and Islamic sources, she argues that monasteries were effective "facilitators" as much for their social and topographic features as for the charismatic devotion of their inhabitants. In chapter 10, Uriel Simonsohn investigates the significance of a juridical tradition allowing converts to Islam who subsequently re-converted away from Islam a small window for repenting their apostasy, while Muslim apostates who had always been Muslims were condemned to death immediately.

"Practice III: Symbols and Institutions" is another hodgepodge. Moshe Lavee argues in chapter 11 that the Babylonian Talmud's "invention" of a court for converting to Judaism represents a profound shift away from personal autonomy to institutional authority--an argument whose proper context in this volume seems to fall between Athanassiadi's chapter on Hellenistic free will and Corcoran's on normative sources. Konstantin Klein's essay on the conversion of Elusa (modern al-Khalasa in the Negev) uses a short passage in Jerome's Life of Hilarion as the point of departure for examining "cultural continuity" around a specific site (ch. 12). The argument is nuanced and the range of evidence compelling, although there is significant overlap with Fowden's essay. In chapter 13, Max Deeg argues that Chinese language and state structures prohibited Buddhism from ever "converting the complete society" (278). It would be helpful to know more about the "eager discussion" generated by his and Palumbo's papers at the seminar sessions (xxiv), and for the editor to have reconciled Deeg's references to the original names of those sessions with the revised structure of the present collection (cf. 267).

The final section is "Building Jerusalem," characterized in the Introduction as a "topographical coda" (xxiv). In its two chapters on the conversion of the city--to Christianity in the fourth century and at least partially to Islam under the Umayyads--fuzziness suddenly disappears. For example, although Fowden refers to Constantine's violent attempt to destroy the ancient cult site at Mamre (north of Hebron) by building a church in its stead (181-182 with 289), her earlier chapter is interested primarily in spaces of "convergence" (195-196). Jan Willem Drijvers describes a very different situation in Jerusalem (ch. 14): "The history of the conversion of fourth-century Aelia Capitolina is very much a triumphant narrative of Christianization in which a sharp line is drawn between Christians and non-Christians" (294). Although Christians and their buildings in western Jerusalem were left mostly alone until the later Fatimid period, Robert Schick sees an "aggressive challenge" (318) in the pattern and design of Muslim buildings under the Umayyads, especially on and around the Temple Mount (ch. 15). Of course, Jerusalem is as exceptional a city as Paul is a convert.

Copyright (c) 2016 Kevin Uhalde

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