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Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity

Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad

Readers seeking a speculative and sensational exposé of intimate and hitherto secret links between phantasmal circles of Orphic adepts and the first Christians will not find one in this book. Instead Herrero de Jáuregui has offered the scholarly world a sober and substantial contribution which is sure to stand the test of time in the form of a philological examination of the testimonies of Orphic texts and practice found in early Christian apologetic literature. This material (the most important examples of which are offered in translation as appendices to the volume) is not only among our best evidence for the phenomenon of Orphism in antiquity, it also represents a telling case-study of the early Christian engagement with the religious and philosophical discourse of the Greek culture which surrounded it, as the early Christians might have said, of which it was a part as contemporary scholars, like Herrero de Jáuregui might say. All those interested in the religious life, both pagan and Christian, of the Imperial centuries should be grateful that this translation has made Herrero de Jáuregui’s 2007 book Tradición órfica y cristianismo antiguo accessible to a wider audience.

Herrero de Jáuregui begins with a survey of the prejudices and consequent trends in previous scholarship on the ties between Orphism and Christianity. If he does not start his study with a clean slate, at least we know we are following a guide unlikely to stumble into the traps and pitfalls of his predecessors. This ‘state of the scholarship’ is followed by a set of careful definitions for the seemingly straightforward terms which will recur in the text: Christians, Pagans, and ‘Orphics’. Herrero de Jáuregui thoroughly problematizes the last term. He considers ‘Orphic’ an appropriate label for “attempts to create an abstract and non-local language departing from traditional cultural forms … in order to express speculative insights arising from the religious experiences of the traditional Greek mysteries” (p. 25). While Herrero de Jáuregui insists upon ‘Orphic’ as a useful descriptor for the elements of an observable, unified phenomenon, he doubts that there is any evidence for ritual uniformity or even the primacy of ritual in Orphism. Herrero de Jáuregui rejects ‘Orphic’ as a label for groups or individuals, and he follows Burkert in visualizing Orphism as a circle superimposed over the three different fields of Pythagoreans, initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, and devotees of Dionysiac cult.

Read the original article at: Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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