CFP Religious Knowledge & Authoritative Texts (CCC Panel, Coimbra)

Religious Knowledge and Authoritative Texts in Judaic, Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonist and Other Polytheistic Traditions (1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

Whether as the starting point of an argument or as a way to stop theological speculation, ‘what the ancients said’ is often marshalled as a source of legitimacy and power in debates over religious knowledge. This holds in many times and places, but it was true in particularly interesting ways for the highly interconnected ancient Mediterranean from the first century BCE onwards, as an increasing number of philosophical and religious schools used their (developing) textual canons to stake out their competing claims to metaphysical truth. Specific writings were invested with the authority to resolve debates about a group’s legitimacy, hierarchy, integrity, antiquity, and way of life. But scholars divided by identitarian allegiances – and hence by their choice of canon – went to work on their chosen texts in remarkably similar ways. The tools forged by the Homeric scholars of Alexandria were soon applied to the writings of Moses by the city’s Judean philosophers. The art of allegorical exegesis, refined by Philo, was applied to a fresh crop of holy texts by Origen, and would in turn inform how later scholars, like Porphyry, approached Homer.

            The art of finding new meanings between the lines of authoritative texts was the collective achievement of many centuries of scholarship, spread between friends and enemies through inspiration, borrowing, and thankless pillaging. The rules and conventions which were adopted across a range of schools and sects for this purpose reflect the intellectual entanglement of the ancient Mediterranean and the strategies by which diverse groups negotiated their place within it. There are equally striking similarities in how scholars from competing schools set about comparing their canonical texts and proclaiming their own to be superior in originality, antiquity, pedagogical value, and philosophical insight. The interpretative traditions of the early Roman Empire have long been studied in isolation, but over the last decade a series of cross-cultural studies has revealed close parallels between scholarship on the writings of Homer, Moses, Orpheus, Plato, and others (see e.g. Niehoff, Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters). This panel seeks to build on this work by bringing ca. 10-15 scholars together to examine how ancient groups used authoritative texts and narratives to legitimize their knowledge – practices found in various forms of Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and ‘pagan’ polytheism. Possible topics and questions include (but are by no means limited to):

·       What types of interpretative practices were used to generate meaning in authoritative texts across different traditions (e.g. allegory, rationalization, euhemerism, exegesis)?

·       Were such creative interpretations an inevitable response to the evolution of a fixed canon, or are there meaningful differences between traditions that would necessitate an alternative analysis?

·       How was authenticity affirmed or contested through the use of authoritative texts, and through competition over the comparative merits of canons?

·       What role did political, social, and economic factors play in negotiating the legitimacy and authority of canons? How did subject or minority communities use and adapt their authoritative texts in the face of foreign cultural and political domination (esp. Greek and Roman)? Who wrote the rules of the games which evolved?

·       How did new ways of reading authoritative texts and the competition between canons shape the development of new religious ideas? How did the (de)contextualization of canonical texts affect their impact?

·       What opposing voices do we find in antiquity about interpretative practices? Do we find a developed conceptual opposition between historicizing and ahistorical readings of ancient texts?

Ancient authors and texts particularly relevant to the discussion include (but are by no means limited to): Philo, Paul, Heraclitus’ Homeric Problems, Josephus, Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, the Gospels, New Testament Apocrypha, Seneca, Irenaeus, the Hermetic corpus, Tatian, Justin Martyr, Origen, Minucius Felix, Clement of Alexandria, Lucian, Aelius Aristides, Apuleius.

This panel will consist of a combination of invited speakers and speakers chosen from abstracts submitted in response to this call for papers. If you are interested in presenting a paper (ca. 40 minutes) please submit a 300-400 word abstract to the organizers by February 1, 2023. Papers are welcome in English, French, Portuguese, and German. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us!

Anthony Ellis (University of Bern,

Inger Kuin (University of Virginia,