Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity

Shifting Identities – Creating Change

by Birgitte Secher Bøgh (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 311 Pages


For decades, Arthur D. Nock’s famous definition of conversion and his distinction between conversion and adhesion have greatly influenced our understanding of individual religious transformation in the ancient world. The articles in this volume – originally presented as papers at the conference Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity (Ebeltoft, Denmark, December 2012) – aim to nuance this understanding. They do so by exploring different facets of these two phenomena in a wide range of religions in their own context and from new theoretical and empirical perspectives. The result is a compilation of many new insights into ancient initiation and conversion as well as their definitions and characteristics.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Theme 1. The choice: reasons, motivations, and results.
  • In Life and Death: Choice and Conversion in the Cult of Dionysos
  • Becoming Christian in Carthage in the Age of Tertullian
  • Conversion in the oldest Apocryphal Acts
  • Theme 2. Agency and agents: The context of decision.
  • Human and Divine Agency in Conversion in Apologetic Writings of the Second Century: To “Dance with Angels”
  • Ontological Conversion: A Description and Analysis of Two Case Studies from Tertullian’s De Baptismo and Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis
  • Agents of Apostasy, Delegates of Disaffiliation
  • Theme 3. The change: the nature of reorientation.
  • Change and Continuity: Reading Anew Augustine’s Conversion
  • ‘The Devil is in the Details’. Hellenistic Mystery Initiation Rites: Bridge-Burning or Bridge-Building?
  • Conversion, Conflict, and the Drama of Social Reproduction: Narratives of Filial Resistance in Early Christianity and Modern Britain
  • There and Back Again: Temporary Immortality in the Mithras Liturgy
  • Theme 4. Education: instructing and guiding the convert.
  • Identity Formation through Catechetical Teaching in Early Christianity
  • The Role of Religious Education in six of the Pagan Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Period
  • Educating a Mithraist
  • Observations on Late Antique Rabbinic Sources on Instruction of Would-Be Converts
  • The Role of Philosophy and Education in Apologists’ Conversion to Christianity: The Case of Justin and Tatian
  • General Index
  • Index Locorum


Abbreviations of journals are made according to S.M. Schwertner, Internationales Abkürzungsverzeichnis für Theologie und Grenzgebiete/International Glossary for Theology and Related Subjects, Berlin 21992. Abbreviations of Greek and Roman authors and works follow H.G. Liddell / H.S Jones /R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford 21996. Abbreviations of Christian sources follow A. Blaise /H. Chirat, Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiens, Turnhout 21997. Other abbreviations:

AGRWAscough, R. / Ph. Harland / J. Kloppenborg (eds. and trans.), Associations in the Greco-Roman World. A Sourcebook, Berlin 2012
BGUW. Schubart and E. Kühn (eds.), Berliner griechische Urkunden egyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin 1922
CIMRMM.J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, 2 vols., The Hague 1956–1960
IGBulgG. Mikhailov (ed.), Inscriptiones Graecae in Bulgaria Repertae, Sofia 1964
IKyzikosE. Schwertheim (ed.), Die Inschriften von Kyzikos und Umgebung, Bonn 1980
ISmyrnaG. Petzl (ed.), Die Inschriften von Smyrna, Bonn 1982
TAMP. Herrmann, Tituli Asiae Minoris, vol. 5.1 (Tituli Lydiae, linguis Graeca et Latina conscripti), Vienna 1989 ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 →


The religious life of Graeco-Roman antiquity never ceases to attract attention. Scholars continually seek to gain a better understanding of the character and development of the religious landscape with its numerous cults and religions. Recent years in particular have witnessed a renewed interest in individual religious identity and religious experiences, and numerous studies have brought forth much knowledge and new opinions on these.1 The articles in this volume contribute to this progress by focusing specifically on the experience of the individual transformation found in initiations and conversions, by applying new theories to ancient materials (archaeological, epigraphical, and textual), and by presenting new perspectives and correctives to established “truths” in relation to initiation and conversion and their definitions, content, and characteristics. Most importantly, the conference papers question Nock’s influential concept of conversion (1933) by exploring different facets of this phenomenon through new lenses, by approaching Christianity as one among many diverse religions in antiquity, and by seeing each religion’s idea of change or reorientation or initiation in its own context. In doing so, we gain a more nuanced and differentiated view on the religious life in antiquity. The papers were originally presented at a conference held in Ebeltoft, Denmark, December 1st – 4th 2012 as the conclusion of an interdisciplinary research project at Aarhus University (conducted ← 9 | 10 → by Anders-Christian Jacobsen, Jakob Engberg, Carmen Cvetković, Rubina Raja, and Birgitte Bøgh) which aimed at investigating the significance of conversion and initiation for the formation and transformation of religious identity among pagans and Christians from 100 – 500 CE.2

Initiations are known from all cultures in different forms and refer, in short, to a formalised, secluded, once-and-for-all ceremony during which an initiand undergoes a transformation from one (e.g., social and/or religious) status to another. The term conversion cannot be so easily recapped (for which reason this phenomenon receives the most attention in this book). A classic definition is that of Arthur D. Nock (1933) who understand conversion as “a re-orientation of the soul, a deliberate turning from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another, a turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right;” it is to “abandon the old spiritual home for a new one” and results in a sense of perceiving previously unknown truths, an “ecstasy of happiness,” the removal of anxiety, and a new start, a new faith, a new life.3 However, this understanding of conversion is not just widely cited, but also disputed and is in fact under critical review in the present volume.

In the history of research, there has been a tendency to prefer the terms initiation and adhesion in relation to the Graeco-Roman mystery cults, while the term conversion has been restricted to the change found in Christianity and Judaism. To a great extent, this is due to the influence of Nock’s book on conversion in antiquity mentioned above. One of Nock’s aims was to oppose the views of some earlier scholars, like Cumont and Reitzenstein, who saw little or no difference between Christianity and the mystery cults. Nock argued against these that the character and significance of the change that people experienced when turning to Christianity and Judaism was unique compared to other religious shifts in antiquity and therefore claimed that the term conversion should be reserved for a shift of religious affiliation to monotheistic religions and philosophy while other types of lesser and insignificant changes – among them those at offer in the mystery cults – resulted in adhesion (1933, 7–14). For Nock, exclusivity was a defining feature of conversion, but there were a number of other qualitative differences between conversion and adhesion as well, e.g., in psychological impact, emotional content, and seriousness.4 ← 10 | 11 →

Nock also distinguished between Christian baptism and pagan initiation. Christian baptism was a ritual necessary for becoming a member of the Christian community, following and thus expressing a prior inner conversion (as such it was the formal rite of conversion), whereas pagan initiation was a supplementary, voluntary act and an efficient action in itself – a tool effecting, most importantly, gnosis and a happy afterlife (1933, 7–15. 58 et passim). Partly as a result of Nock’s classic book, later scholars have most often discussed initiates and the implications of initiation when talking about the personal transformation we find in the mystery cults (note that the word adhesion does not come with natural connotations of change), while the terms converts and conversion have been used in connection with the change experienced when turning to Christianity.

The distinction between conversion and baptism on the one hand, and initiation and adhesion on the other implied for Nock a fundamental difference between Christianity and the mystery cults, and this view has been quite influential; for example, Walter Burkert (the author of one of the most cited works on the mysteries still today) wholeheartedly supported Nock’s arguments, including the view that baptism is not comparable to initiation in the mystery cults.5 But it is continually up for debate – and so it should be, because the subject is central for our understanding of the nature and dynamics of different religious experiences in antiquity, and a continued debate will eventually lead to more nuances of this understanding. This volume aims at providing such nuances, among other things, by problematising Nock’s concepts of and distinction between adhesion and conversion.

Previous research into the relationship between Christianity and the mystery cults has often been haunted by apologetic and other subjective concerns.6 Today, many scholars try to avoid biased approaches, but nevertheless still disagree on the subject of conversion and initiation. Many regard Christian baptism and mystery initiation as similar, though not necessarily identical, rites of passage,7 but most scholars still, implicitly or explicitly, follow Nock’s differentiation between conversion and adhesion. Sometimes, the distinction (still) reflects the view that converting to Christianity was qualitatively and essentially different from being initiated into and (simply) adhering to a mystery cult. At other times, it is merely a question of using different terms for the (otherwise comparable) change found in polytheistic ← 11 | 12 → and monotheistic religions, respectively. Still others have questioned Nock’s conception of conversion as well as the validity and value of upholding the dichotomy between adhesion and conversion, and today we can hardly claim that any consensus exists on the subject.8

One reason why scholars disagree on how to approach and capture the phenomenon is that they disagree on fundamental questions related to this phenomenon: What does it mean to convert: Do we use it as an objective terminus technicus for any religious change, or do we invest it with a number of positive qualities that must be included? Is a “change of mind” (as expressed in the term metanoia) equal to a conversion, or does this have to include other changes as well?9 Does conversion have to be a radical change, and if so how radical? For example, must a convert always repent and turn away from something, like his past, or burn the bridges to outsiders (as implied in epistrophê in its specific sense of turning away), or can it also signify a supplement, e.g., that a person experiences the feeling of a new life in some sense or another? And do we want the change to include future commitment and obligations? Which areas does conversion have (to have) an effect on (theological ideas, beliefs, behaviour, emotions, world-view, habits, values, social circles, missionary tendencies) if we insist that not all religious change is a conversion? What if a person’s behaviour is changed, but not his way of thinking? Has a person necessarily converted if he or she is initiated (including baptism) and, vice versa, can a person convert without undergoing an initiation? Is conversion a moment in time or a long process? Is every religious change – monotheistic and polytheistic – a conversion? Or can a person only convert to monotheistic religions? If yes, what then of Christian converts who still acknowledged the pagan gods and continued to take part of polytheistic rituals and collegia? And how to detect and evaluate a “proper” conversion in the cases where no literary autobiographies have been preserved? Scholars working with conversion will find that there are no universally accepted answers to these ← 12 | 13 → and other questions even though numerous attempts to define conversion exist.

The aim of this volume is not to answer all these questions (although the contributions deal with many of them) or to reach consensus, but to create a platform for re-investigating and nuancing the characteristics of religious transformation found in initiations and conversions in the ancient world from new theoretical and empirical perspectives.

The contributors come from various academic fields, such as history of religions, archaeology, history, and theology, and their articles each focus on different and specific aspects of conversion and initiation, namely:

  1. The choice: reasons, motivations, and results
  2. Agency and agents: The context of the decision
  3. The change: the nature and degree of reorientation
  4. Education: instructing and guiding the converts

In the course of our research project, we came to see these themes as recurring elements in initiation and conversion processes, even if they are not found equally often in or expressed in the same way by different religious groups. The themes are of course interrelated and the papers thus supplement each other; for example, the motivations and results of the choice are intrinsically interwoven with the nature of the change, and these topics cannot be completely ignored when discussing agency or education. But the systematic division invites to reflection on specific nuances of (and thus a new and focused research on) questions related to the overall theme of religious transformation. The thematic approach allowed the invited authors to explore these elements in depth or to use each theme as an illustrative point of departure for discussing the overall topic of the conference. Below, a short introduction to the ideas behind each theme will illustrate the central problem around which the papers in the relevant theme revolve. Not all aspects mentioned in the introductions are treated in the papers. But since the articles reveal how new approaches to the subject in question can bring about a deeper understanding of the dynamics of individual religious change in antiquity, we hope that future studies will also be inspired by the questions and issues raised in the introductions.

1.  The choice: reasons, motivations, and results

When deciding to devote one’s loyalty, trust, or time to a religious group or movement, a more or less explicit, and more or less radical, personal choice is involved. Some groups would nurture certain ideals as to why people should join a group, such as redemption, knowledge, or “calling”; sometimes the personal choice would be presented as a choice made ← 13 | 14 → according to such collective ideals, at other times as a result of miracles, dreams, healing, etc. In earlier scholarship, there was a tendency to seek the motivation to become initiated into a mystery cult in the hope for eschatological or mundane salvation or social prestige, and to investigate Christian conversion from a purely theological or “Pauline” perspective. Later scholars have increasingly added alterations and nuances to this picture by stressing other reasons for and results of the choice (such as communal and emotional concerns), both in relation to antiquity and in studies of modern changes of religious affiliation. Nonetheless, the topic still needs further exploration, especially in a comparative framework, and there are further questions to be asked of the ancient materials in regard to the choice. What made people choose to convert to Christianity or be initiated into a mystery cult, and how is it represented in the sources? Was it family or peer pressure, a quest for status, social welfare, eschatological salvation, belonging, or knowledge? If a local group consists mainly of family members or friends, or if being initiated was “the thing to do,” was joining a group ever a choice? What did the choice entail in terms of “visibility”, i.e., did it have to be (and was it) advertised to others, or was it a purely private or “inner” matter? And should it be expressed in all aspects of the converts’ lives? What was the connection between the choice and future commitment? And what are the (temporal) relations between choice, initiation and conversion? This theme thus investigates what factors may have been involved in the transformation process, and what characteristics defined the choice in different religious groups.

The first paper by Birgitte Bøgh is In life and death: choice and conversion in the cult of Dionysos. Its main goal is to question the assumption that the choice to be initiated into the Bacchic cult primarily originated in and was focused on eschatological concerns or was an excuse to get drunk, and to posit that Bacchic initiation need not be distinguished from the question of conversion. The article first explores how the choice to be initiated in this cult is represented from different insider and outsider perspectives. There are great differences, not least in regard to the portrayal of the seriousness surrounding the choice to be initiated, but there are also notable similarities, especially the importance of the choice in this life, and the weight put on ritual participation. The author finally addresses the question of conversion and concludes with a characterisation of Bacchic conversion as soft, revivalist and affectional – terms inspired by modern conversion theories.

In the next paper, Becoming Christian in Carthage in the age of Tertullian, Éric Rebillard focuses on the aftermath of choice and conversion. Thus, the author considers what the choice of becoming Christian entails in terms of visibility and commitment in second-century Carthage. In the first part of the paper, he reviews the Christian identity markers (such as ← 14 | 15 → the kiss or making the sign of the cross) and contexts in which Christians could express their religious choice. Next, the author analyses a second aspect of the choice, namely how much relevance Christians gave to their new religion. In contrast to what Tertullian wished and claimed, many Christians did not consider, e.g., occupation to be determined by religion, and they usually operated with a multiplicity of identities, not just one (namely “Christian”). Rebillard calls this the intermittency of Christianness, but emphasises that this should not be interpreted as a measure of the importance or significance of the choice.

Finally, in Jan Bremmer’s Conversion in the oldest Apocryphal acts, the author challenges Nock’s individual and psychological approach to the phenomenon of conversion in antiquity by investigating the conversions found in the often overlooked Apocryphal acts. In many ways, these differ from other ancient texts, e.g., in regard to their portrayal of the converts’ gender and status. In the Acts, conversions are most often spurred by miracles and are mediated through other Christians, and the texts repeatedly stress the fact that the newly converted have yet to be further educated in the faith, i.e., that there was a long process of integration into a Christian community. Nock’s definition thus neglects the social factor in conversion, which plays a role both before and after conversion. The conclusion sums up the results, situates and evaluates the sources in their broader context, and poses some final questions to be taken into consideration when studying conversion and converts in the ancient world.

2.  Agency and agents: The context of decision

Related to the aspect of choice and religious change is the question of agency. Some research has already been conducted in regard to one obvious expression of agency, namely missionaries and other active agents of cults in antiquity. But there are more aspects to this topic, for example, the role of divine beings, the culture, the group’s ideology, or the converts themselves in shaping the process. These aspects of agency have yet to gain in-depth investigations in relation to antiquity, albeit many scholars have more or less implicitly touched upon the role of the converts by viewing them as passive. Thus, some models of conversion – especially those built on the experiences of Paul and Augustine – see the (Christian) convert as being passively influenced or transformed by god or other superhuman agents. In earlier sociological studies on modern converts, he or she was also regarded as passive, but now in the sense that he or she had been brainwashed by a religious group. In contrast, starting in the 1970s, many later sociological and anthropological studies have focused on the active role played by the converts ← 15 | 16 → themselves,10 by asserting that they not only play an active role in their own conversion, but also affect the religious community they are socialised into. Inspired by such tendencies, the second theme revolves around the question of agency involved in situations of religious change in antiquity. Who are the agents 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, and how is this presented in the sources? What inhibits and supports a person’s decision to convert, to remain in a group, or disaffiliate? How is the role of divine beings described in accounts of conversion? And why is it that converts are sometimes presented as passive objects in the sources rather than active decisions-makers?

First, Jakob Engberg discusses the roles assigned to divine and human agents in a number of Christian apologies in his paper, Human and divine agency in conversion in apologetic writings of the second century: To “dance with angels.” His aim is to study the normative conversion ideals of the apologists through the aspect of agency, but also to demonstrate that they portray conversion as a process, and to argue that such ideals shaped the actual conversion experience of converts. The texts show that the apologists ascribed important agency in conversion to both human and divine agents, that the apologists perceived the agency of the convert to be important (thus confirming the view of converts as active agents found in modern scholarship), and finally that they strived to become agents in the conversion processes of their readers as well. Thus, by focusing on agency, this article builds a bridge between modern and ancient conversion patterns and between a normative and a descriptive approach to conversion, a dichotomy found both in patristic scholarship and in the study of modern conversion.

The next contribution similarly suggests a new way to conceive conversion based on an exploration of the role that different agents play in conversions, but from a pagan point of view. In Ontological conversion: A description and analysis of two case studies from Tertullian’s De baptismo and Iamblichus’ De mysteriis, Nicholas Marshall suggests that the concept of “ontological conversion” provides a fruitful entry into the issue of agency in conversion because it defines the religious group and its ideology as central agents in the conversion process; thus it can help us understand why people convert even in those cases where we have no first-hand attests to the change. The author focuses his study on the theurgical work De mysteriis by Iamblichus and compares postulated features of conversion in Iamblichus’ text to those drawn from Tertullian’s De baptismo. After a textual analysis, ← 16 | 17 → the conclusion detects aspects of coercion in circles operating with this type of conversion, in that the worldview created by such a community seems to leave the convert no choice but to convert.

The last paper in this theme, Agents of apostasy, delegates of disaffiliation by Zeba Crook, illuminates the importance of agency in another, related context, namely by analysing the problem of apostasy among Jews and Christians in antiquity. With the outset in a methodological focus on allocentric and idiocentric behaviour, the author first argues that agency will operate very differently in collectivistic and individualistic cultures, and that this fact has implications for our understanding of apostasy in the ancient and profoundly collectivistic world. Analysing the language of apostasy (or disaffiliation as a more precise term) he then shows that the charge of apostasy is a collectivistic act, because it is essentially about loyalty to the group and thus of social control; Apostates exercise agency by rejecting the collectivistic pressure to uphold tradition and express loyalty to the old community. The collectivism-individualism construct also nuances earlier scholarly assumptions that apostasy was relatively common in antiquity. More likely, disaffiliation was in fact rare because it is inconsistent with a collectivistic setting.

3.  The change: the nature of reorientation.

Biographical notes

Birgitte Secher Bøgh (Volume editor)

Birgitte Secher Bøgh studied Science of Religion and Classics at Aarhus University (Denmark). At the moment she is doing research in the field of ancient mystery cults. Her work focuses on the mysteries of Cybele, Mithras, Dionysus and Isis, their connection to other ancient religions as well as on different phenomena related to these cults.


Title: Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity