Sharpening the Knife


Garden of the Augustinerkloster, Erfurt

This week scholars from three continents converged on the Augustinerkloster, where Martin Luther made his novitiate, in the Thuringian city of Erfurt. The topic for discussion was ‘lived religion’ in the ancient world, responding to Meredith B McGuire’s study of modern religious affiliiations, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life, which argues that modern conceptions or religious affiliation by ‘denomination’ are out of synch with the way human beings actually participate in religious communities.

Individuals often participate in overlapping and even clashing identity-groups at the same time because of family commitments, individual preferences, and dissatisfaction with established leadership. (For example, Linda Woodhead has recently published an article arguing that 80% of believing Anglicans do not attend liturgy or other events organized by the clergy.)

Erfurt Group Photo 2 (2)

A cabal of ancient religionists of a summer evening near the Augustinerkloster: Kate Cooper (Manchester) Vered Noam (Tel Aviv), Michal Bar-Asher Siegal (Beer Sheva), Angela Standhartinger (Marburg), Karen King (Harvard)

What the Erfurt seminar showed decisively is that ‘lived religion’ is an illuminating concept when applied to ancient cultures. For centuries, ancient religions were studied primarily though sacred texts, and in the twentieth century, under the influence of Durkheimian sociology and social anthropology, scholars became more and more interested in looking at how communities strengthened their bonds through ritual.


A modern bust of Luther, displayed in the Foyer of one of the cloister’s newly restored buildings

We were invited by the colloquium’s hosts, Professor Jörg Rüpke and the research group he hosts at the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt, to imagine what ancient texts and archaeology could tell us about the religious experience of individuals and communities if we had no larger idea of the ‘religions’ that these artefacts had formed part of.  The theme, ‘Sharpening the Knife’, was aimed at honing our imaginative skills, and the results were extremely interesting.


Toys and other objects found in a second-century AD tomb, Hawara, Egypt (source:

One of the most evocative contributions was by Lara Weiss, a post-doctoral fellow of Professor Rüpke’s ‘Lived Ancient Religion’ project at the Max-Weber-Kolleg. Dr Weiss reported on her study of clay figurines from Karanis in Roman-period Egypt, showing how difficult it is to tell which figurines were understood as ‘toys’ and which as ‘dolls’. At many sites, excavators have simply had to rely on guesswork to make the distinction, but Karanis is unusual in that the well-documented excavation makes it possible to analyse the clustering of objects as a source for understanding how they were used.  But the most interesting aspect of Dr. Weiss’s presentation was her discussion of anthropological fieldwork in modern Ghana, where female figures can be perceived differently by different members of a social group, with children seeing them as dolls while their parents and grand-parents identify them as fertility goddesses. This raises marvellously interesting questions about the contuinity and contrast between play, socialization, and performance of religious roles, as well as the ‘cultural capital’ constructed around women’s mysterious ability to create and nurture new human beings.

It goes without saying that we came away from the discussion with more questions than answers. But we were equipped with new inspiration, and food for thought for some time to come.


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