Monday, June 06, 2016

Review of Rebillard and Rüpke (eds.), Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity

Éric Rebillard, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity. CUA studies in early Christianity. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 331. ISBN 9780813227436. $65.00.

Reviewed by Kendra Eshleman, Boston College (


Late antique religious identity has been a fertile site of scholarship in recent decades, with the three-volume Jewish and Christian Self-Definition as an early landmark.1 Such studies have done much to elucidate the contingent, contested, often artificial nature of the categories “Jewish,” “Christian,” and “pagan.” Yet describing the identities of groups and individuals precisely, without lapsing into essentialism or exaggerated dichotomies, remains devilishly difficult. That is the challenge taken up by the volume under consideration, which originates in a 2011 conference held by the research group “Religious Individualization in Historical Perspective.” In their introduction, Rebillard and Rüpke observe that studies of interactions among pagans, Jews, and Christians, even when they acknowledge the fluidity of group identities, tend to reify those identities by attributing them to groups, and treating those groups as internally homogenous or divided simply into “elite” and “popular.” They propose that employing the “instrument of ‘individualization’” will yield a more nuanced, dynamic picture (4); reading evidence of group life “with individuals as the focal point” reveals “the profound complexity of the interactions between group identity and religious individuality” (6). Following that prompt, the papers collected here offer illuminating meditations on ways that individual religious expression shaped, was constrained by, and eluded the demands of emerging group identities in late antiquity (here, late second to sixth centuries).