[This review will appear in BBR]
Religion is a notoriously complicated topic that contemporary scholars have a difficult time even defining. For example, André Droogers observes, “In the social sciences of religion the task of defining religion can be characterized as a necessary, exploratory, and useful task, but also as a superfluous, impossible, and ethnocentric activity” (“Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 263). Some have gone so far as to suggest that the term, religion, should be abandoned because it is “inherently incoherent, burdened with historical associations, and theologically loaded” (David Chidester, “Darwin’s Dogs: Animals, Animism, and the Problem of Religion,” Soundings 92.1-2 , 69).
In the face of these difficulties, Daniel Snell attempts to provide a concise and easily accessible introduction to the religions of the entire ancient Near East–from Iran to Egypt (including Greece, Etruria, and Rome!) from the Neolithic period almost until the Common Era. This is a formidable task indeed. Since the book, minus the preface, index, and bibliography, is only 167 pages long, Snell is only able to provide the briefest of sketches concerning selected aspects of ancient religions. Included are vignettes on the nature of ancient deities and demons, ziggurats, the Egyptian concept of ma’at (justice and balance), Akhenanten’s ‘dream,’ funerary practices, the Mesopotamian idea of šimtu (“fate”), Jewish monotheism, Zoroastrianism, and many more. Even though Snell breezes through a dizzying array of topics he leaves out or truncates significant aspects that, in my opinion, are essential for the study of ancient religion: religious culture of women, religion in “daily life,” food and sacrifice, rituals, purity, and sin, to name a few.
Yet, Snell writes in a clear and inviting manner and he has produced a book that will be accessible to introductory students with an elementary understanding of ancient Near Eastern history. Along these lines, each chapter begins with a short narrative reflection designed to draw the reader into the subsequent discussion. Many of the narratives are fictional creations inspired by Snell’s historical reconstructions of ancient religions. For example, the second chapter begins with an account of how an individual neolithic foreigner would have felt observing a shamanistic ritual. The narratives are engaging–if sometimes fanciful–and invite the reader to think about the concrete and individual dimensions of ancient religions rather than merely analyze the topics abstractly.
It is refreshing to see a scholar creatively and concisely synthesize complicated material. This takes courage because, in this age of hyper-specialization, this approach will inevitably invite criticism. Yet, as pleased as I was at this point, there were perplexing and even off-putting comments that made me wonder how they made it through a peer-review and editing process. For instance, Snell seems to take a swipe at modern religious colonialism in his discussion of Isaiah 40-55: “He did, however, lay the framework for all later monotheists. In Christian terms, the black babies in Africa deserved to be evangelized and convinced of their role in the one God’s plans” (111). On the next page Snell likens Ezra to racist grandmothers: “It is in the mind of all grandmothers when they ask, ‘Why are you dating that _____?’ where you can fill in your own out-group. The grandmothers, like Ezra, will say that if marriage ensues, the out-group member will not understand our traditions and what about the children?” I think that Snell was trying to use contemporary analogies to make his point but I think that there are more satisfying and charitable ways of viewing these passages and certain contemporary movements inspired by them.
There are other comments that, although not offensive, are simplistic and asserted rather than proven or properly documented. For instance, Snell opines, “The attraction of monotheism was its simplicity…Health and sickness came from only one source, the Lord. This view put the problem of evil in new light” (113). It smacks of armchair psychology to say that people from a couple millennia past were attracted to monotheism because of its simplicity. Furthermore, some aspects of monotheism may have been more “simple” than the various polytheisms, yet other facets–notably the problem of evil–are more complex and even theologically troubling under monotheistic conceptions.
If one can get past the occasional unsupported assertion and passing comments regarding “black babies in Africa” and racist grandmothers, there is much to like in this volume. It certainly has significant gaps but Snell does introduce readers to a breathtakingly large swath of material regarding religions of the ancient Near East.