Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Marx-Wolf, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority

Heidi Marx-Wolf, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 216. ISBN 9780812247893. $55.00.

Reviewed by Heidi Wendt, Wright State University (


Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority offers a textured account of third-century intellectuals, defined broadly, and makes several productive contributions to the study of late ancient religion. Exploring how Platonically-inclined writers both known and anonymous staked out positions about the ontology and cosmic order of spirits, Heidi Marx-Wolf situates these figures and the “spiritual taxonomies” they produced within a common intellectual milieu characterized by regular discursive exchange. Her detailed literary analysis gestures far beyond the particular texts she examines, however, toward rivalries among would-be religious experts that paid little heed to the boundaries of putative ancient groups and continue to resist modern scholarly categories.

The book consists of four main chapters that align evidence ranging from the writings of Origen and philosophers in the lineage of Plotinus to certain “Gnostic” tractates and “magical” handbooks. Marx-Wolf argues that the spiritual taxonomies undergirding these texts were “one strategy in more global attempts to establish various kinds of authority, garner social capital, and wrest these from other contemporary cultural entrepreneurs and experts” (2). Her methodology collapses distinctions between the intellectuals she considers along two axes: horizontally, between Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, as well as the authors of select Nag Hammadi tractates and Greek and Coptic ritual papyri; and vertically, between literate experts of differential skill-levels and the popular audiences above which they sought to elevate themselves. The resulting picture is of an intellectual climate more integrated than factional, and far from the cultural nadir implied in much previous scholarship. Hence, hers joins other voices seeking to recast the third century as a period not of cultural decline or mayhem—a dark ages between the evanescence of the Second Sophistic and the triumph of Christianity —but of exchange, creativity, and innovation, particularly in the religious domain.

The book was noted earlier this year here. Some past posts on Platonism and Gnosticism are here, here (briefly and tangentially), here, here, here, and here. And this post is probably relevant too.