What does the pelican have to do with Christ, or the unicorn with the Virgin Mary? Answers to such questions can be found in the Physiologus, a Greek text likely written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD. Incorporating both biblical and pagan motifs and hermeneutics, it provides, for the first time, a Christian, Christological interpretation of nature. Through medieval bestiaries, the symbolism of the Physiologus finds its way into art, literature, and heraldry. The meaning of this Christologically interpreted imagery, deeply rooted in ancient natural philosophy and biblical themes, remains mysterious to a large extent even today. The present SNF project The Gospel of Nature: The Greek Physiologus and the Roots of Early Christian Interpretations of Nature aims to uncover the origins of this ancient natural symbolism of the Physiologus and, in doing so, seeks to develop a hermeneutical key for its interpretation.
SNF-Projekt by Prof. Dr. Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, project website (only in German): www.physiologus.unibe.ch.
The Johannine understanding of the Spirit is a controversial issue in research. Thus, the history-of-religions context of the Spirit (Greek πνεῦμα) is answered differently, because of the disparate interpretation of the religion-historical context of the Fourth Gospel and the new designation as Paraclete. Is the pneuma to be understood Stoically material, or (Middle) Platonically transcendent, or is there a broader tradition of Jewish Old Testament ideas in the background? A simple dichotomy between a Hellenistic and Jewish interpretation has been rightly criticized. Nevertheless, in the interpretation of the Spirit, different concepts confront each other, which cannot be easily harmonized and therefore require a historically precise contextualization for interpretation.
In order to give new impetus to the debate, on the one hand the Spirit is located within the Johannine theology. For the Spirit in John's Gospel never stands alone. Rather, he is integrated into a divine network of relationships with Father and Son, as well as into a relationship with the believers. In this, the Spirit connects the incarnate Logos with the believers. So far, however, the connection of the two within the Gospel of John has hardly been described, precisely for the reason that incarnation and pneuma, depending on the contextualization in the history-of-religion, represent concepts that cannot be combined or have been described as a paradoxical duality.
Therefore, on the other hand, it is necessary to further develop the history-of-religions approach. This means for the present study that not isolated motifs or concepts are examined, but that coming from the conception of the Spirit in John, it is explored to what extent this was in conversation with the conceptions of spirit in philosophical and religious texts from the ancient Mediterranean area. To this end, I will focus in particular on the Daimonion in the Platonic tradition (esp. the Daimonion of Socrates), because it is precisely here that conceptually interesting parallels emerge that have not been taken into account so far in the evaluation of the history-of-religions context of the Johannine Spirit.
First results were published in Early Christianity: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/artikel/the-daimonion-of-socrates-and-the-pneuma-paraclete-of-jesus-101628ec-2023-0006?no_cache=1.
Crucial parts of the project were developed in the context of an Early Postdoctoral Mobility exchange funded by SNSF, at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge (UK), (cf. https://data.snf.ch/grants/grant/195286)
In the early Roman Imperial period, philosophy is increasingly understood as τέχνη περὶ βίον/ars vitae, the "art of living": What is true life and how does one get to it? Who can impart this "know-how"? And - last but not least - what is life's foundation?
In addition, the line between "philosophy" and "religion" in this era is not as sharp as one often assumes: there is much that is "religious" in philosophy and, conversely, much that is "philosophical" in religion. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the New Testament gospels participate in the philosophical discourse of their time, especially with regard to the theme of life. Jesus is asked "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mk 10:17 [cf. Mt 19:16; Lk 18:18]) and according to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus even claims to be life itself (John 14:6). This finds its theological foundation in the fact that Jesus presents the God of Israel not as "a God of the dead, but of the living" (Mk 12:27 [cf. Mt 22:32; Lk 20:38]).
The evangelists thus deal with the theme of life by means of an exemplary individual figure. But let us now turn the tables: are the gospels in this respect "loners" in the literature of their time? The philosopher and priest of Apollo, Plutarch of Chaeronea, not only wrote "ethical-moral" treatises on how to live a successful life (e.g., That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible), but also "life portraits" of famous Greeks and Romans. In Jewish Hellenism, too, philosophizing can be based on the descriptions of exemplary individuals, such as we find it in the writings of Philo of Alexandria on the patriarchs of Israel. What does the observation of the way the evangelists deal with the theme of life contribute to the analysis of the Plutarchean and Philonic "portraits of life"? Are they also used to think through the manifold questions concerning life and perhaps even to lead the readers towards life?
When this concern has been clarified in a first step, it will be asked in a second step to what extent the "life portraits" of these three corpora function as a means of indirect polemics. It is widely accepted in research that the gospels also served to communicate with their addressees concerning how to deal with competing religious currents. The portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses, the confrontation with the Pharisees, and the understanding of the law in Matthew's Gospel, for example, make sense under the assumption that the evangelist wanted to clarify some burning religious questions for his community in the face of competing offers. Can Philo's Patriarchal Lives also be read in this sense, namely as an instrument in the confrontation with other circles of the Jewish community in Alexandria? And does it make sense to read Plutarch's Parallel Lives as a continuation of his confrontation with Stoics and Epicureans, or even with contemporary understandings of what it means to be a ruler?
This habilitation project is part of the SNF project "Resonances through History: Biographically Grounded Construals of Divine Involvement in History in the Early Roman Imperial Era", led by Prof. Dr. Rainer Hirsch-Luipold.
Over the centuries, God and history have had a complicated relationship. Today, it is a truism that history is not just a sequence of events. Instead, an account of history always means that we impose a structure and a meaning on it. This sub-project is concerned with the lexical and semantic analysis of the terms for God and the divine in the biographies of Plutarch, the Platonic philosopher and priest of Apollo at Delphi, who was writing at the time of the creation of the New Testament. Indeed, as Swain (1989, 272) has pointed out, "The difficulty in estimating Plutarch's belief of providential interference in history lies principally in his terminology".
A philological, lexical and semantic analysis is therefore a useful starting point to approach this complex question. Therefore, the main questions that move me along this path are as follows: What words does Plutarch use to refer to the intervention of the divine? Where is such intervention understood as the work of an individual deity? Where does it appear as an expression of the divine nature at all? Can we discern a distinction between θεός and δαίμων (cf., e.g., Stoffel 2005, 306-309; on Plutarch's demonology, cf. Brenk 1977), and if so, what would be the specific contours of such a distinction? Which deities intervene in history and how are they profiled by Plutarch (cf. Valgiglio 1988)? In addition, there are more functional conceptions of the divine that occasionally draw on traditional personifications, such as Tύχη, the goddess of the vicissitudes of human life (cf. Swain 1989). Πρόνοια appears less as a personification than as God's providence for the world. The discussion of terminology is important for examining the interface between religious and philosophical (i.e. metaphysical) traditions in Plutarch's thought (cf. Boys-Stones 2016).
As recent research on Plutarch's Vitae has suggested (e.g., Pérez Jiménez 2010), the intervention of the divine is always to be reckoned with in the representation of human aspirations. Viten Grethlein (2013) concludes that there is "a strongly teleological design" in the Vitae by elaborating on how Plutarch presents the development of the individual lives of his characters. VitenOn this basis, the traditional and standard interpretation of Plutarch's biographies could be problematised by showing how and why Plutarch's conception of history is grounded in his philosophical and, above all, theological thought and reflected in his language.
The Revelation of John is the loudest book of the New Testament – as nowhere else countless voices speak, shout or sing, trumpets are blown and kitharas are strummed, thunder rolls and waters rush. A good reason to examine the "soundtrack" of the Revelation of John and compare it with that of other ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses.
Along the categories of voices – noises – music, the acoustic features are described and evaluated: What is typical for the soundtrack of apocalypses in general? What distinguishes the Revelation of John in respect to acoustics from the other texts? Based on the analysis, it will be asked, on the one hand, about the contribution of the findings of this study for the exegesis of the Revelation of John and how an aesthetic approach could complement the purely cognitive approach to this (image- and) sound-rich work. On the other hand, it will be tested whether the overall result makes a contribution to the discourse on the genre apocalypse.
Supervision: Prof. Dr. Benjamin Schliesser
The significance of “religious experience” for the understanding of the development of the early Christian movement in its Greco-Roman context has often been overlooked in research, since this concept is a controversial category for various reasons. One major challenge is the difficulty of understanding experience within a rational and materialistic worldview that serves as the unquestioned framework for modern historical approaches. However, to ignore or neglect the category of “religious experience” is to miss a crucial factor that the New Testament and early Christian writings take as a given dynamic in the development of this movement.
In my postdoctoral project, I aim to explore how religious experience can be considered as a factor in historical scholarship in general and in the study of the development of early Christian communities in particular.
Although direct access to human experience itself is not possible, it is possible to examine how individuals and groups respond to experience and how these responses are reflected in direct and indirect testimony found in accessible sources. These responses include primarily physical, emotional, rational, and behavioral aspects.
Therefore, from a religious studies and historical-phenomenological perspective, my research project focuses on the study of selected dimensions of the urban environment of early Christians in Roman Corinth during the first and second centuries, with a special emphasis on its potential for religious experience. Due to the quantity of early Christian sources that can be related and compared, this specific context is well suited for investigation.
The current framework of my research includes an examination of the cults of Asclepius and Isis, domestic-private religion (also known as "lived religion"), and pilgrimage and local religious traditions. My goal is twofold: First, to describe a "spectrum of expectations" for religious experience in these areas that individuals might encounter within these phenomena. Second, to explore whether the religious practices of Jesus' followers conform to these established patterns, modify them, or break new ground.
This Habilitation project is part of the SNF project “ECCLESIAE: Early Christian Centers – Local Expressions, Social Identities & Actor Engagement,” led by Prof. Dr. Benjamin Schliesser.