Conference Sessions

1. Choice and Belonging
When deciding to devote one’s loyalty, trust, destiny, effort or time to a religious group or movement, like Christianity, philosophy or the mystery cults, a more or less explicit, and more or less radical, personal choice is involved.  The reasons for making that choice are multiple (e.g. psychological, social, cognitive, intellectual), and the result would differ as well; some groups would nurture certain ideals as to why people should join or have joined the group, such as redemption, knowledge, “calling”, truth or eternal life, and the personal choice would sometimes be actively presented as a choice made according to the ideals of this particular group. Sometimes, the choice is represented as a result of miracles, dreams, healing, etc. Even so, we are allowed, as scholars, to investigate what other factors may have been involved in the process. What made people choose to convert to Christianity, or to be initiated into a mystery cult, such as that of Mithras? Was it family or peer pressure, a quest for status, social welfare, belonging, or knowledge? What did the choice entail in terms of “visibility”, i.e. did the choice have to be flashed or hidden to others? Was there any necessary relation between choice and (long-term) commitment? And how does “choice” connect with “conversion” – can one exist without the other? To which degree was (social or dogmatic) education an essential part of making a choice – before and after.  Another related question is to which degree a choice was actually made. If a group consists mainly of family members or friends, or if being initiated was “the thing to do”, was joining a group ever a choice? The element of “choice” would probably differ greatly in extent and character from one group or individual to another, and also from one period and place to another. Nevertheless, we invite scholars to reflect on these matters in order to attempt a nuanced picture of the religious landscape in antiquity, and of its development from early to late antiquity.


2. Agency in initiation and conversion

Who are the agents (e.g. the convert/initiate, God/Christ/deities/daemons/angels, advocate/missionary/priest) in conversion processes, in accounts of conversion and in initiation rituals; how do the different agents relate to each other; who is active and taking the initiative? Since the 1970ies studies of conversion to modern religious groups have emphasised that converts should not primarily be seen as passive subjects being attracted by the active efforts of more or less professional advocates/propagandists/missionaries of the religious group; rather converts play an active role in their own conversion and when socialised and socialising themselves, to the religious community they influence and affect this community.


Unable to use questionnaires, conduct interviews or practise participant observations we, when studying conversion and initiation in antiquity must study literary accounts of conversion or initiation, inscriptions and material evidence. In this session based on such material we will discuss two related questions from two interacting perspectives, the perspective of the group and the perspective of the initiate or convert:

The perspective of the group:

  1. what did different religious groups in antiquity do to attract new initiates and converts? Was there a deliberate effort to attract new initiates or converts; and if yes who did the different group try to attract (e.g. as many as possible or particular kinds of people) and why?
  2. did some groups in antiquity formulate and articulate a missionary ideology (or an ideology of education)?

The perspective of the initiate or convert:

  1. what did initiates and converts do (and what were they required to do) to find acceptance with and integrate in the groups they were joining?
  2.  how did initiate and converts perceive and articulate their own role in their own initiation, conversion or socialisation relative to the role of deity/deities, co-initiates/converts or more experienced members (or even priests, missionaries or advocates).  


When addressing the issues of ideology the divine agency in conversion and initiation is of particular importance. How is the role of God/Christ/deities/daemons/angels described in accounts of conversion and perceived in initiation rituals. To answer such questions will provide results in their own right but will in addition hold perspectives for addressing issues on the relative openness, popularity, success and sustainability of different cults and movements and their relative ability to attract, socialize and adapt to the influx of new initiates and converts.


3. Expressing change -Bridge burning or bridge building?

Conversion, initiation or personal commitment to a special religious group have often been said to give convert and initiands a new status in a multi-facetted sense, in this or the next life. Implied in the terms conversion and initiation is the notion of change as a result of the choice to convert or be initiated into a specific religious group, but the degree and (expected) results of this change would differ from one group and individual to another. How, if at all, did converts and initiates express a change in e.g. identity, status, being, belonging, behaviour and/or belief etc.? Do they communicate anything regarding the causes for the change? At which time in the transformation process is the change expressed? And what was the (actual and perceived) connection between change and initiation (including baptism)? How did they evaluate and depict their life before and after the conversion and initiation; was conversion a turn-around or a progress from A to B?


“Bridge-burning” and “autobiographical reconstruction” are recurring themes in conversion stories and often considered not only characteristic, but even necessary elements of conversion in modern conversion theories. The convert looks back on his earlier life (and others like him) with sorrow, contempt, or regret and contrasts it with the happiness of his new life. The differences between the old and new are felt to be numerous and the change is often expressed in dichotomies, like true/false and light/darkness. The phenomenon is best known from Christianity and from literary sources, but in which degree can we track them in other types of sources as well, like inscriptions or funerary settings, or among other distinct groups, like mystery groups, philosophical schools, Jews, Orphics, or theurgists? Does the sense of a new status, new life, new obligations, values or meaning systems /world views always mean forsaking the old life and values? Is bridge-burning a possible element in a polytheistic environment, or is it exclusive of religions with strong notions of sin or monotheistic religions? Were some groups more focused on “bridge-building” than “bridge-burning”, meaning that the focus (or the result of the choice) was on the future rather than the past? If so, does this affect our notion of “conversion” – is it possible to speak about conversion without bridge-burning or must we re-evaluate the content of the term “conversion”? 


4. The role of education and affirmation in connection to conversion and initiation

Education in different forms seems to play a crucial role in relation to conversion in some religions but not in others. Polytheistic cults were non-dogmatic and there is little to suggest that teaching in the form of verbal, doctrinal education played any part in the processes of incorporating new members into initiatory groups in general. However, other means could serve to (attract) educate and affirm member participation and to transmit values, such as highly emotional initiatory rituals, clothing, the claim of secrecy, regulations and so on. In Judaism the question of the role of education in relation to conversion is connected to the question about to what degree Judaism was a proselytizing religion at all. Some claim that this was not the case. Accordingly we do not find any education in early Judaism which was specifically connected with proselytizing and conversion. Others claim that the Judaism was a proselytizing religion. According to this opinion education has been part of the conversion process of the proselytes. It should thus be asked to which degree proselytizing and conversion was part of Judaism. Also for people who were born as Jews education could play a role in forming their Jewish identity (cf. the opening of The Life of Flavius Josephus). Is it possible to understand such processes of identity formation as conversion? And which role did education play in such processes?


In Christianity education played an important role in conversion processes mainly as a way to educate and socialize new converts into the social and moral rules and the belief system of the new group. The education thus followed after the decision about being a Christian. In the first centuries of the history of Christianity when most new Christians / converts were adults this education took place as preparation for baptism. This so-called catechumenate could last for several years, but peaked with a series of catechetical instructions often during the Lent. After that the rite of initiation / baptism took place. We must ask whether the sources give any coherent picture of how this catechetical education took place? In some cases education also inaugurated the conversion process. This was the case when non-Christians took part in teaching by Christian philosophers like Justin, Clement from Alexandria and Origen. Finally we must ask what the similarities and the differences are in the different religious groupings attitude to education as part of conversion and initiation.


5. Global and local trajectories in ancient religions

The focus of this session is local and global trajectories in ancient religions and in particular in situations concerned with conversion and initiation. The tension but also dialogue between various cults/religions and their ways of interacting or drawing upon each other is a theme which still needs exploration. Therefore the relationship between these cults/religions is important to explore together with their relations to their surrounding world. The close connection between conversion and initiation and their complementary role in the transformation of religious identity is the primary motivation for examining these phenomena through the lens of global and local trajectories. In the Velux-project we have worked with the hypothesis that within a range of cults/religions/groups in antiquity in the period between the 2nd to the 7th century AD similar tendencies can be detected, such as a slow change from a collective towards an individual religious identity. Therefore it is crucial in this connection to detect in which ways these tendencies developed, where they might have come from and how they influenced the various cults/groups/religions in the light of the abovementioned relationships.

In processes of globalisation, as already perceivable in the ancient world, increasing supraterritorial connections confronted people with new concepts and identities which can lead to crisis and conflict, but also to chances for amalgamation and redefinition, both on a local and on a global level. Here conversion and initiation phenomena are crucial to discuss both viewed as punctual events as well as processes taking place over time. Furthermore, although ideological claims to unity or homogeneity might not reflect a diverse “reality” at the time of writing, such ideological claims may progressively contribute to the shaping of new “realities”. This dimension – the intersection between the local and the global and its impact – should be a special focus of the session. Comprehension of trajectories between the local and the global (imperial) and the tension, dynamic and transfer (of knowledge) between them is essential for the understanding of the development of ancient religions in general. The terms global and local are in this conference to be understood both as geographical (spread of religious cults and ideas across areas versus cults and ideas practiced or shared only locally) and as ideological designators (exclusiveness or particularism versus inclusiveness or universalism).