Wendt, Heidi. At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016.
In recent years, scholars of antiquity have sought to reassess ritual practices often considered marginal and to integrate them into their historiographical accounts. These scholars have rightly pointed out that diviners, astrologers, dream interpreters, and the like, may be maligned in many of our extant sources, but they were by no means marginal. The ubiquity of these figures across the empire demands scholarly engagement comparable to the attention given to popular and canonical personages. Heidi Wendt’s ambitious book, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire, performs this task. Wendt brings together, in accessible prose, a series of fascinating characters that have been neglected by many classical scholars and who are largely absent in early Christian studies under the etic category of “freelance religious expert.”
The various terms ritual specialist, ritual expert, and religious expertise, as well as various notions of freelance labour, have been kicking around classics for several decades now, from Walter Burkert’s work (1982) to more recent publications by David Frankfurter (2002), James Rives (2007), Radcliffe Edmonds III (2008), and Michael Flower (2015). Wendt draws on classical scholarship’s discussions of institutionally-unaffiliated religious characters to develop a robust category. She takes as her base Stanley Stowers’ preliminary outline of a taxonomy of religion, and specifically his discussion of a mode of religion that comprises the symbolic and literary elaboration of religious ideas by “literate cultural producers” and “related entrepreneurial specialists” (2011). Wendt’s book gives form to the latter dimension of this category with a set of unifying characteristics, clear boundaries, and plenty of rich examples. In her introduction she draws out these various intellectual trajectories and makes the category her own: “the religion of freelance experts” is developed as a larger category within which she focuses on “freelance religious experts.”
Freelance religious experts are unified through their common labour: religious activity (7). They are freelance insofar as they operate independently of established institutions and their authority is derived, instead, through “demonstrations of skill and learning” (10). They are religious insofar as they interact with gods and related beings in their expert practices. They seek social benefits and profit, and traffic in “extraordinary religious services.” This is the broad outline of the category presented in Wendt’s introduction, alongside the parameters of her study and her theoretical ambitions of redescription. The next two chapters begin to refine and illustrate the ways that ‘experts’ interacted with religion, the public, and each other.
The first chapter makes the case for the extensive and growing presence of freelance experts across the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries through appeal to a wide range of classical scholarship and the data of expulsion edicts. Wendt argues for the emergence of this “distinct class of professionals in religion” (73) whose “self-authorization” relied in part on how legislative measures against them unwittingly confirmed their worth. The second chapter develops the ethnic coding of freelance experts who Wendt describes as the conflation of ethnic identity with particular skills, in this case religious skills. Building on studies that have pointed to a popular interest in “foreign” religion, she extends this argument to Judaean religion: just as Chaldaean ethnic identity became synonymous with astrology, she persuasively argues that Judaean identity was associated with dream interpretation and revelation, especially in connection with Judaean sacred writings.
The third chapter considers how more global ethnic-coding of freelance religious experts increased the need for experts to differentiate themselves from one another. Without an institutional structure to fall back on, individual authority relies, in part, on one’s competitors being less desirable. What we see in our sources is often the result of this competition in the form of literary, intellectual practices: specialists writing to dismiss their competition as illegitimate through further intellectualizing and/or dismissive accusations of magic. Much of the literary data for the religion of freelance experts therefore derives from practices deemed in this way to be “other.” While there are several lines of argumentation emerging from this chapter, it serves primarily to paint a broader picture of freelance religious experts, allowing them to fall on a spectrum of more or less intellectual. In this context, Paul’s letters become a “rare witness” to the intellectualizing side of the spectrum of the religion of freelance experts.
The fourth chapter situates Paul in the context of freelance experts, revealing him to be engaged in many of the same strategies outlined in the preceding chapters. This makes Paul potentially recognizable and appealing as a religious actor and specialist in the Roman Empire. Paul’s Judaean identity gave him credibility as a purveyor of foreign wisdom related to the Judaean God and his writings, and provides a context for Paul’s lengthy assertions of Judaean-ness to a gentile audience. His philosophically inflected musings, appeals to revelation, boasting of punishment, and hedging of economic practices, all serve to redescribe Paul as a freelance religious expert.
The fifth chapter moves into late antique Christian sources to theorize the connection between freelance religious experts and the early period of Christian institutions. Here Wendt articulates how her focus on individual experts dissolves the unhelpful dichotomy between centre and periphery, mainstream and marginal, in the study of religion. Instead, she hopes to posit intellectual writers as individuals competing to establish recognition of their expertise, thereby reframing the late antique period in terms of a different type of religious activity as opposed to in terms of cultural formation. This helpfully moves the scholarly conversation from thinking about the evolution of social formations (from “origins” to “institutionalization”) into thinking about shifts in practices.Finally, the epilogue reestablishes the way that freelance religious experts fit within a larger category of freelance experts, and how intellectual, literate producers, such as Paul, cut across this field. In critiquing certain applications of the market-model to antiquity, Wendt continues to argue for a focus on individuals instead of social formations so as to avoid the problem of creating autonomous, monolithic groups.
These last three chapters bring into focus Wendt’s larger intervention. She argues for a shift from thinking about religious change through large social formations (“The Church”) to thinking about change happening through the impetus of select individuals, namely, freelance religious experts who are competing with each other for authority: “[i]t was from this particular class of religious activity that the earliest authorities on Christ arose, and within it that Christian forms of religion, in their full range of diversity, took shape” (199). This shift circumvents problematic teleologies and the sticky heresy/orthodoxy dichotomy, but focusing on the individual has its own issues. With our social histories, systems theories, and network models, how do we responsibly reinstate the individual into our histories without falling back too heavily on “Great Men”? Wendt is aware of the light hand needed for this history; she elucidates her work through an apt metaphor: “we must imagine a kaleidoscope of potential relationships, with new patterns in the evidence crystallizing as we rotate the angles of our mirrors” (216). Wendt’s book is compelling because the particular relationships that she has brought to the foreground present a Paul that we have not considered before, but it also upholds Paul as the most salient example of a literate, intellectualizing, religious expert, only comparable in these terms to the author of the Derveni Papyrus. While we will always wrestle with how our categories emphasize and obscure, Wendt’s book provokes the fruitful reconsideration of a series of less popular actors, and reimagines an ancient landscape of religious competition where Paul and later Christian authors comfortably fit.
Walter Burkert, “Craft versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans,” in Jewish and Christian Self-Deﬁnition, ed. B. Meyer and E. P. Sanders, vol. 3 of Self-Deﬁnition in the Greco-Roman World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 1-22.
Brigidda Bell is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on the ways that spirit practitioners were assessed in the Roman Empire. She can be contacted at brigidda.bell @ utoronto.ca