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Book: Theorizing Religion in Antiquity

Chapter: 2. Our Language and Theirs: "Religious" Categories and Identities

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27962


Most of our historical evidence—whether literary, inscriptional, or numismatic— involves language. In order to understand it, we need to know something of how educated persons viewed their world and what categories they assumed in talking with each other. Beginning students of ancient history typically find themselves off balance in this area. They quickly realize that terms with more or less obvious meanings in English—history, democracy, state, country, city, empire, emperor, province, myth, religion, superstition, priest, philosophy, professional, law, police, army, general (as rank), economy, markets, social class, genre, geography, maps —bring with them a cart-load of connotations that are not valid for the Greek and Latin (or Hebrew or Aramaic) terms they translate. One-for-one translation of words from ancient agrarian cultures to those of our post-industrial, post-modern western democracies is bound to be hazardous. This is evident in the study of ‘ancient religion’ and begs for out attention. Before we explore the terms that are most commonly translated as ‘religion’, we must deal with a thorny issue that sparks debate and creates misunderstandings even among specialists, namely: the legitimacy and status of such “insider-language” research.

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