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Defining Religious Minorities in a Pre-Global World (Antiquity and Late Antiquity) (2/2)

Panel Chair: Mar Marcos | Monday, August 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

“Religious minority” as a concept is well known in the contemporary world, permanently under discussion in politics with regard to religious freedom and in scientific research concerning the establishing of a current concept of “religion” and religious identity. This panel aims at discussing some questions about the definition of “minoritarian” groups or small religious groups in relationship to the majority or main stream religions. Reflecting on the past and focusing on the Ancient Near East, the Mediterranean and the Christian world in Antiquity, it is our purpose to contribute to a critical understanding of the contemporary globalized religious dynamics as a coherent part of world history. In this panel, we aim to investigate the interplay between the global framework and the local dynamics in societies, as a historical matrix within which the religious minority as a concept has been conceived and the religious minoritarian groups self-represented. Such a poly-focused field of research aims at critically reflecting on the cultural (political, social, religious, linguistic) network within which the religious groups interacted with other groups, on the normative space within which the dynamics of inclusion and/or exclusion had been achieved, on the narrative social understanding of religious minority as concept, identity, group, and agency. Regarding religious groups as loci of cohabitation, rather than emphasizing their ideological and theological polarizations, we suggest taking into account the sources they produced as instruments of self-representation.

This panel aims to offer answers to the following questions: How do minorities or small religious groups define themselves in relation to the State or dominant/majoritarian religions? How does a State or a dominant religious group interact with those groups or communities that seem not to conform to mainstream beliefs? How does negotiation of self-definition determine conflict or facilitate cohabitation of religious groups? How does religious identity impact on ancient and modern conceptions of “religious freedom” and how may we assess our understanding of this process in a historical perspective? Eventually, how do both documentary and literary sources thematize, represent and discuss these issues?

This panel was planned in conjunction with that proposed by Marianna Ferrara, “Defining Religious Minorities in a Global World (Early Modern History)”. Both panels will be published as a theme section of the Journal Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni.

Emiliano Rubens Urcioli

Silent Majorities claiming “Minority Rights”: Weakness and Strength of Small Numbers in Tertullian’s Rhetorical Strategy

According to strongly fluctuating estimates, at the very beginning of the 4th century, Christianity is a cult practiced by the 10-15% of the total population of the Empire. It is, indeed, a minority religion. Furthermore, within this minority, most believers take Christian religious identity for a situational membership, i.e., for a not relevant system of meaning in most social contexts of everyday life. “Communitarians” like Tertullian, supporting an imperative idea of religious allegiance within a hierarchical arrangement of membership, represent the majority of the extant sources, but they were a tiny (even though influential) minority in their societies – and maybe also among the clergy. So, how can a minority of a minority pretend to be the social force that it is not? By converting its objective weakness into a virtual asset. Invisibility, which characterizes the Christian religious phenotype due to its unflashy traits and allegiance dynamics, even more than to its tricky legal status, may become an uncanny feature, if one only knows how to use it.

This paper focuses on the rhetorical strategy by which Tertullian, in as little as three chapters of his Apology (chaps. 37-39), shifts from a majority’s threat to a minority’s plea: the appalling representation of the social desertion and spatial withdrawal of Christians as an outraged “multitude of men” turns into the cheering pledge that this curia of “upright, virtuous, pious, and pure people” respects the rules of the social game and thus deserves a political guarantee for a safe religious life. At the center of the picture (chap. 38), the Christians’ alleged detachment from politics is the very core of Tertullian’s strategic reasoning: with the same argument (“we do not care about State affairs!”) a putative majority can claim to be socially harmless (“we do not declare war on you!”) and an effective minority can call for tolerance and recognition (“you have no right to harass us!”).

Maijastina Kahlos

Minority Report: ‘Minorities’ and ‘Majorities’ in Argumentation in Late Antique Inter-religious and Intra-religious Disputes

In the course of the fourth century, Christianity gradually shifted from a minority position to the majority one, or at least to a strong minority in the Roman Empire. Greco-Roman religions (called ‘paganism’ by Christian writers) were gradually shifted to the minority position or the weakened majority. It is impossible to define the proportions of religious groups in the Roman Empire; at best we can speak of guesstimates. The same applies to the proportions and power relations between the Nicene and other Christian groups (e.g., Homoians or ‘Arians’ as they were called by the Nicene Christians). In certain areas and at specific times, the Homoians held the upper hand while the Nicene Christians were at risk of being marginalized. Nevertheless, for the most part of the fourth century, the Nicene Christians were setting the boundaries for the normative orthodoxy.

This paper will discuss the argument of the majority position in the inter- and intra-religious disputes in the fourth and fifth centuries. Jerome of Stridon, for instance, rejoices at the expansion of Christianity in the city of Rome. Augustine of Hippo derides ‘pagans’ who according to him were a small minority living in fear and shame. Isidore of Pelusium and Theodoret of Cyrrhus declared that ‘paganism’ no longer existed. Furthermore, the triumph of Christianity over paganism was exulted in the imperial legislation. I will not take any stand on which religious group or sect was in the majority or minority in the Empire at a particular moment. Instead, I will look at, for instance, the reasons a majority position was argued for and the kinds of arguments and rhetorical techniques used. What was the background of these claims and who were the audience?

Alessandro Saggioro

Sine suffragio: Exclusion of Religious Minorities in the Theodosian Code

In the Sixteenth book of the Theodosian Code, dedicated to the theme of religion, we find both the definition of Christianity as a "religion", and that of “religious otherness”. Heresy, apostasy, Judaism, and paganism, are the general concepts identified as 'religious', even in the sense of otherness. In these general definitions fall then communities, groups, places, which in turn are integrated or excluded within the horizon of res publica. The concept of suffragium, well known in the field of legal studies as the “vote”, changed its meaning after the comitia had ceased to meet in the early part of Tiberius’ principate. From the political point of view, it inherited from the original significance the meaning of influence exercised by the powerful. Connected with this, suffragium means also patronage, recommendation, and the money paid to secure power to a candidate. In late antiquity, the legal term takes on meaning in relation to religious issues, to define social inclusion and exclusion. The communities are then placed within a range of possible levels of acceptability concerning the social consensus derived from the civic-religious communion.

Gian Franco Chiai

Christiani adversos Christianos in Late Antique Asia Minor

The numerous Christian inscriptions found in Asia Minor show the complexity and variety of the Christian communities in this part of the Roman Empire also after the end of the persecutions and the affirmation of Christianity as imperial religion. Particularly the epigraphic documents from Phrygia and Lydia testify – frequently in the small district of the same village community – to the presence of many Christian sects (Montanists, Novatians e.g.), who often with intolerance and exclusion refrained not only from local pagan traditions, which always remained strong, but also from the other Christians who did not follow their faith and lifestyle. Through the analysis of a select number of epigraphic documents, this paper aims on the one hand at reconstructing how the Christian communities bring out their identity as exponents of the true faith, and on the other hand at showing how the inscriptions enable us to find out the various competing forms of the Christiani adversos Christianos in the local contexts.


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