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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 52, 2004

H.-J. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity. (London: T. & T. Clark, 2000, reprinted 2003). Pp. Xxvii + 516. Paper 19.99.

This translation of Die Religiöse Umwelt des Urchristentums (2 vols; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1995–96) amounts to “a revised and updated edition of the original work” (p. xiv). The purpose of the book is “to give students of theology the necessary information in this field”; and the author’s procedure is “problem-and text-oriented” (p. xiii). The Introduction deals with materials and method. The six chapters cover: (1) cult in general, including associations; (2) the main mystery cults; (3) popular belief (healing miracles, oracles and signs, magic and astrology); (4) ruler cult; (5) philosophy, especially Stoicism, Epicureanism and Middle Platonism; and (6) Gnosticism. “Early Christianity” is defined as “the period in which the New Testament texts were written” (p. 302). Nevertheless, later church fathers provide evidence for some mystery cults and for Gnosticism. The relation between “Christianity” and “context” is generally seen as analogous rather than causal. For Gnosticism, a “contemporary, parallel” origin is possible (p. 459).

The book covers much the same range of topics as R. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), translated from Les Cultes Orientaux dans le monde Romain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1989; 2nd ed. 1992). Klauck’s treatment is more clinical (and longer), while Turcan’s is more impressionistic. Both books focus on the phenomena of the background of early Christianity, rather than providing a “summary of the current state of research” (Klauck. p. xiv—citing Hans-Dieter Betz’s complimentary review of the German edition). However, Klauck’s carefully selected bibliographies (general and particular) do incorporate not only ancient sources but also classic modern works and the most recent scholarly discussions.

The ancient sources are usually quoted only in translation. They are generally appropriate to their purpose. But reservations arise, for example, in relation to the use of the Bacchae of Euripides as the “guiding text” (p. 107) for the Dionysiac mysteries. Indeed, Klauck acknowledges that his “interpretation of the text … goes somewhat beyond Euripides’ own intention” (p. 108). Mythic components of a drama are too readily used to reconstruct historical cult. The dramatic action itself may be misinterpreted: the Theban women do not “like to [bevorzugt] fall into a Dionysiac rapture” (p. 109), but are involuntary Bacchants compelled by Dionysus as punishment for his rejection at Thebes. The translation of Bacc. 735–747 (p.109) strays from the German, which had already strayed from the Greek.

A detailed table of contents clearly indicates the structure of the book. There are indexes of selected biblical texts and secondary literature. The useful index of non-biblical material has been excluded from the English edition. Errors of printing, spelling or translation occasionally appear. The book ends abruptly with a brief treatment of Klauck’s favourite Gnostic text, the “Song of the Pearl.” There is no summing up of the book as a whole. This abruptness is a reminder that readers need to follow up both the primary and the secondary sources that have been introduced, and to form their own conclusions. Klauck’s balanced and wide-ranging treatment of the subject matter should enable them to do so.

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010, Australia