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Mediterranean piety: Religious practice and the creation of Jewish and Christian societyDavid Levinsky
This dissertation explores the relationship between religious practice and religious identity by analyzing representations of the nazirite vow created in one social context--the Eastern Mediterranean in the first six centuries of the Common Era. A nazirite vow, as described in the Hebrew Bible in chapter six of the Book of Numbers, involves making a vow for a period of time during which one abstains from three things: drinking wine, hair-cutting and contact with the ritual impurity associated with corpses. If the vowmaker comes in contact with corpse impurity during the vow, then they must undergo a purification ritual that involves making sacrifices at the Temple. She then begins the full period of the vow anew. At the completion of the vow, the maker of the vow goes to the Temple, shaves her head, and burns the hair. She then offers a number of sacrifices. I choose this practice because its three discreet elements cross over religious boundaries. Jews, Christians, and Polytheists all discuss the various parts of this practice, even if they do not always unite them into a discreet vow. These shared aspects allow me to ask further questions about how and why cultural interaction produces changes in religious practice and identity. If these three groups share religious practices, then how do they create differences in how they understand them? Further, how do they create differences in the religious identities associated with them? In this environment of pervasive but far from total cultural interaction, the question also arises as to how and why religious practices and identities continue in a changing environment. The nazirite vow is no different. Because the practice requires offering sacrifices at the Temple, either if one acquires corpse impurity during the vow or at the completion of the vow, this form of nazirite practice becomes impossible with the destruction of the Temple. Despite the seeming impossibility of performing this practice, representations of nazirite vows in the form of stories, legal discussions, and passing references continue to proliferate in the first six centuries of the Common Era. A full tractate of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and both Talmuds discuss the nazirite vow in detail. Texts written by Gentile and Jewish disciples of Jesus also discuss elements of the nazirite vow. Why do Jews, Christians, and Jewish disciples of Jesus continue to discuss this impossible practice? Another literary phenomenon points towards an answer to this question. Representations of nazirite vows often intersect with discussions of three pietistic practices--martyrdom, euergetism, and asceticism. We are left with another question: Why do writers associate nazirite vows with these expressions of piety? The answer to both of these questions arises at the intersection of nazirite practice and piety. This dissertation addresses how representations of religious practices and identities change when religious groups come in contact with one another. My case study analyzes representations of nazirite vows, or discreet elements of the nazirite vow, in the first six centuries of the Common Era in the Eastern Mediterranean and one of its major orbits--the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These representations come from a number of sources, including rabbis, Jews writing in Greek, Jewish disciples of Jesus, Gentile disciples of Jesus and Greco-Roman polytheists. My argument is that the combination of a close synchronic and diachronic analysis of the representation of nazirite practice reveals a shifting sense of proper religious practice and a range of identity formations, and that both of these show signs of stabilizing in mid-fourth century Sasanian Persia.
Philosophy, religion and theology; Religious practice; Religious identity; Nazirite vows; Nazir; Aphrahat; Didascalia Apostolorum; Jewish; Christian; Polytheism; Religion; Religious history; 0320:Religious history; 0318:Religion
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