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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Fürst, Alfons, Ahmed, Luise, Gers-Uphaus, Christian, u. Stefan Klug [Hrsg.]


Monotheistische Denkfiguren in der Spätantike.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2013. VIII, 293 S. = Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 81. Kart. EUR 74,00. ISBN 978-3-16-152385-4.


Peter Van Nuffelen

In recent years, the concept of ›monotheism‹ has been hotly debat­ed in the field of late ancient and early Christian studies. This was triggered by general discussions about monotheism spurred by Jan Assmann’s work, the re-affirmation of the notion of pagan monotheism, and an increased reception of discussions about the emergence of Jewish monotheism. This volume is a product of the DFG-projekt ›Die Rhetorik des Monotheismus im Römischen Reich‹, directed by A. Fürst in Münster.
The volume opens with a programmatic and characteristically dense paper by Alfons Fürst. He first reviews recent debates, which he considers to have used monotheism too easily as a well-defined category without sufficiently taking into account its charged his-tory. The term ›pagan monotheism‹, which seeks to overcome the strict opposition between polytheism and monotheism, is rejected because it subsumes too varied a set of phenomena under one label and risks buying into a teleological perspective on history. As an alternative, he proposes to look at the ›rhetoric of monotheism‹, that is, the use and construction of monotheistic arguments within a specific argumentative context. This is then illustrated analysing various catalogues of philosophers in Minucius Felix, Cicero and Plutarch, to show how each rejugs the same history of philosophy to argue a different point. Belonging to the same cultural field, they exploit the ambiguity of language and concepts to appropriate the authority of the past. Readers familiar with Fürst’s earlier work will recognise his important suggestion that discussions about monotheism between pagans and Christians are fundamentally about different views on society and its past and future. Given the importance of Fürst’s chapter, I will discuss it at greater length. His methodological concerns about monotheism are correct (I only wish to signal that a definition of ›pagan monotheism‹ given by the present reviewer is inadvertently turned into a definition of monotheism generally [12]) but, as noted by those using such terms, there does not seem to be a way out: after inventorising the dangers of ›monotheism‹, Fürst is forced to rely on it in the rest of his paper. Only ›pagan monotheism‹ is ostracised, but this risks suggesting that monotheism is a strictly Judaeo-Christian term and not one of general usage in the study of religions. The focus on the ›rhetoric of monotheism‹ and the conscious limitation of the field of research to texts rather than religious practices help us to better grasp the dynamic nature of late ancient talk about the divine. Yet when considering responses to an argument, is it not too restrictive to con-sid­er the audience’s response to be merely determined by texts and not by religious practice or communal identity? The dragon of the hors-texte will raise its head sooner or later. Equally, I am not sure if one can conceive of ›monotheism‹ without considering religious praxis (as suggested on p. 17): this seems obvious for Judaeo-Chris­tian monotheism and whenever ›pagan monotheism‹ has been claimed to exist, this mostly went hand in hand with a fundamental rethinking of traditional religious praxis. This is illustrated by G. F. Chiai’s chapter on the intellectual acrobatics needed by the fifth-century author Macrobius to demonstrate that the variety in the traditional cult of Apollo actually concurs with his idea that Apollo is an instantiation of the supreme deity, the sun.
The papers in the volume take up the programme set out by Fürst. The chapters by L. Ahmed and C. Müller argue that monotheism hardly played a role as an argument in conversion narra-tives from Justin Martyr to Augustine and in martyr acts. The affirmation of monotheism is more noticeable in the context of opposition to paganism, but even then other aspects (such as ethics and Scripture) remain important. A possible additional factor which neither author seems to take into account is that Romans were fairly well acquainted with Jewish monotheism: monotheism as such may therefore not have been a sufficient identity marker for a Christian. A series of chapters then focuses on early Christian authors and the argumentative context of their discussions of monotheism (C. Gers-Uphaus on Tatian, A. Villani on Tertullian, J. Sauer on Lactantius). C. Bruns argues that Origen already anticipates the Nicene definition of the relationship between Father and Son as identical in essence. A last set of chapters focuses on non-Christian conceptions of the divine. S. Stöcklin-Kaldewey argues that Julian’s theology is articulated around the ideas of hierarchy and a division of divine competences. She suggests that Julian’s thought is more driven by the desire to save the traditional gods than by strictly philosophical considerations (one wonders if such a dichotomy is useful or detectable in his writings) and that he aims at proposing a ›better polytheism‹. N. Hömke best illustrates the text-focused approach suggested by the volume: Ausonius deploys similar literary building blocks to denote the divine in his overtly Christian works and in his ›classicising‹ works. Instead of trying to identify Ausonius’ confession, we should understand him primarily as a literary artist. T. Fuhrer shows how, in the Confessions, Augustin fashions a picture of Manichaeism which prepares his theory of how knowledge of God can be obtained (through memory and interiorisation rather than through the production of myths). P. Lötscher focuses on the use made of Varro in Tertullian and Augustine. Neither sees in Varro a real monotheist (in this chapter the Latin passage and translation at p. 206–207 have gone awry; the conclusion p. 213, suggesting that Varro wishes to show that only the Romans have a full understanding of the divine and that he cannot rely on proofs from Antiquity for this misinterprets, in my view, Varro). The last chapter, by I. Tanaseanu-Döbler, focuses on Proclus’ elementatio theologica. She shows how he seeks to reconcile unity and plurality and to vouchsafe the One from contact with the world, in particular through the introduction of mediating Henads (understood as deities). She draws attention to the fact that Proclus successfully deploys a ›rhetoric of the abstract‹, focusing attention on the immutable make-up of the divine. This can be understood as a conscious opposition to the Christian world view with its historical dimension, but it also allowed the elementatio theologica to travel into the Muslim world and hence into medieval Europe.
Although not every chapter pushes the boundaries of scholarship, this volume is a useful illustration of the importance of a close reading of texts before jumping to conclusions about an overarching importance of mono- or polytheism. At the same time, it may also show the limitations of such an approach: most contributions make brief comments about possible audiences for the tex-tual strategies their texts develop. Once one broaches the issue of audience, a major determinant of any rhetorical strategy, the kind of questions Fürst tries to avoid in his chapter return with full force. The dragon has already raised his head.