Book Note | Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches

by Sarah Porter in


Teresa Morgan. Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches. Oxford University Press, 2015.

In Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches, Morgan identifies and bridges a gap between approaches to faith taken by classicists and biblical scholars. Classicists, she says, tend to focus on the social functions of pistis/fides (usually translated as faith or trust); in contrast, multiple biblical scholars have attempted to understand the theological valences of faith as an internal impulse (Morgan p. 14, p. 444). Morgan’s own methodology is “a particular form of l’histoire des mentalités: one which seeks to locate the mindsets of individuals and small communities in their larger context while revealing how and where, however subtly, they deviate from it” (pp. 34-35). This is not a word study, Morgan insists; instead, it is a case study of how the widely used concept of pistis/fides is picked up by one particular sect. Morgan finds a concept that is expansive and flexible, that holds communities together through links of reciprocal accountability, but that is always freighted with risk and doubt (p. 6). Pistis/fides operates at all levels of society: between the divine and humans; in law, governance, and military campaigns; in friendship and families; and even a person’s most intimate relationship: the one with herself.

In chapters 1-4, Morgan’s careful description of the choreographies of Roman pistis/fides in various kinds of relationships is exhaustive, examining configurations of people from multiple angles to see where trust is assumed, bulwarked, or doubted. Or, to move from a stage metaphor to an ecological one – while her analysis could read like a sort of Linnaean delineation of rules and results, it’s better to read it as a description of a moving ecosystem at its most minute levels. When Morgan turns her attention to pistis/fides in divine-human relationships, she finds that “pistis towards the gods stands at the apex of a ladder of social relations” (p. 138). Though she acknowledges that “no one would begin a study of Greek or Roman religiosity by looking at pistis/fides: It does not play a large enough role,” she finds that the faithful relationship between the gods and humans is foundational for all others, such that “divine-human and intra-human pistis/fides are interlocked in a shared circle of reasoning” (p. 123, p. 169). In the Roman Empire, pistis/fides is not a passive internal state, but a functional, transformative dynamic that forms and sustains relationships (p. 175).

In chapter 5, Morgan treats the Septuagint as a crucial comparandum for both established Roman pistis and nascent Christian ones. Translators used pistis to translate some instances of the Hebrew ‘emunah in most of its lexical range (encompassing “firmness, refuge, and saying ‘Amen’ to God” [p. 177]) – but crucially not all of it. She finds that pistis is used at fulcrum-moments of the divine-human relationship, when crisis or change transpires. Although pistis is used in different ways throughout the Septuagint –signaling a shift in relationship or polity (Abram), referring to God’s regulation of Creation (Job), or enabling the maintenance of the covenant (Sirach) – Morgan concludes, “there are enough parallels between Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas about divine-human pistis in Hellenistic and Roman worlds to make them intelligible to each other” (p. 196). Morgan finds the ongoing, dynamic negotiation of pistis here as well: “Even in steeply unequal relationships of pistis or fides – even in divine-human relationships – both sides […] need to gain and keep the confidence of the other” (p. 198).

In chapters 6-10, Morgan turns to the Christian Scriptures. In these works, she finds that pistis continues to figure largely as a relational force embodied by God, Christ, and/or the pisteuontes (the faithful ones), not as a posture of intellectual assent or avowal. In the undisputed Paulines, Morgan senses an evolution between I Thessalonians and the Corinthian correspondence, on one hand, and Galatians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon, on the other. In the former, the role of the preacher as a steward of pistis is emphasized; a cascade of pistis falls from God, to God’s designated apostles, to the community. In I/II Thess and I Cor, “Paul’s main interest is in pistis as relationship-forming and power-mediating” (p. 261). In the other letters, Paul relies on a more robust Christology in which Christ is the “Janus-faced” mediator who is faithful to God and trustworthy to humans. Noticeably absent in these letters is any role for intra-human pistis, “without which,” Morgan notes, “human communities cannot develop or sustain themselves” (p. 306). In the non-Paulines, Morgan traces how pistis is deployed to address a wide range of concerns: pre-election (Ephesians), eschatology (II Thessalonians), social status and ethics (Titus, I/II Timothy), rituals and purity (Hebrews), and endurance (James).

In the Gospels and Acts, Morgan finds that pistis language marks nascent christologies and apologetics. In the synoptic Gospels and Acts, people develop pistis based on the evidence of miracles, but “the pistis that his followers put in Christ is typically ambiguous [... Pistis] thus captures not so much Christ’s unique and distinctive location in the divine-human relationship as the complexity and, in his lifetime, the mystery of his identity” (p. 393). Morgan notes that the Gospels themselves are a library of miracles, thus becoming themselves “pisteis – arguments or proofs of the validity of pistis” (p. 393). This is quite different from John’s gospel, in which pistis is used “to emphasize at once the unity of Christ with God and is faithful subordination with God” (p. 436).

In chapter 11, Morgan examines the interiority of pistis/fides by dissecting its relationship to other inward impulses or states like emotions, virtues, or cognition. She finds that pistis/fides sits at the nexus of all of these in Roman literature, the Septuagint, and early Christian writings; it dwells in the heart or chest like emotions, fortifies courage and reason like virtue, and relies on the mind or memory like cognition. Yet she insists that its interiority is never considered to be separate from relationality and action; “pistis/fides […] is one of those qualities that can only be practiced socially” (p. 472). Finally, in chapter 12, Morgan considers how pistis/fides is an ethical stance and a practice that structures communities, particularly divine-human communities. Early Christians, she says, made pistis part of the scaffolding of their “politeia structured by virtues,” a community “both earthly and eschatological” (p. 499).

Morgan finds that certain themes resound throughout Roman, Jewish, and early Christian use of pistis/fides: it creates and sustains networks; it is “never unproblematic: never uncut with fear, doubt, and skepticism”; and “at times of crisis it can transcend and even reverse other social structures” (p. 502). Yet simultaneously, early Christians play with and alter the concept. In the New Testament, Morgan finds pistis/fides sliding toward new meanings – “the ‘bond’ created by trust in God, the ‘community’ formed by that bond, and even the ‘new covenant’” (pp. 503-4). Crucially, however (and contra Bultmann), this expanded lexicon does not yet include something as innovative as “The Faith,” or a designation of a religious movement as a whole. This is the theoretical point Morgan is interested in proving with this volume – that in the endless growth of language into new meanings, there are very few grand leaps and very many infinitesimal steps. The earliest Christians did not (yet) redefine faith, Morgan insists, but changed its focus – toward God and Christ alone, rather than that “shared circle of reasoning” that pistis/fides spun among gods and humans (p. 123).

Sarah Porter is a Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University 
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