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Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity

Shifting Identities – Creating Change


Birgitte Secher Bøgh

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.
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Conversion in the oldest Apocryphal Acts


Abstract: Bremmer 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 the Acts, conversions are most often spurred by miracles and are mediated through other Christians. Nock’s definition thus neglects the social factor in conversion, which plays a role both before and after conversion.

In that fateful year 1933, the Harvard Frothingham Professor of the History of Religions, Arthur Darby Nock (1902–1963) published his study Conversion with the subtitle The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo.1 The book is rightly considered a classic and, together with William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from 1902, it may be considered the only book from before the Second World War that people still read on the topic, certainly the only ancient history book. Yet, if we want to have a good idea of what conversion meant in antiquity, should we still turn to Nock? There are several ways of answering this question, and I will try to do so here by looking at conversion in the Apocryphal acts. Their illustration of the reasons and motivations for the choice to convert, namely mostly miracles and social aspects, will serve as a starting point to make some observations on the phenomenon of conversion in second-century Christianity.

In his book, Nock supplies us with a wide ranging survey of conversion in the ancient world, but...

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