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Yahwism in the Religious Field of the Achaemenid Empire: Using Bourdieu as a theorist of religious change in the Persian Empire

Dr. Jason Silverman (University of Helsinki)


The relative “autonomy” of “religion” in the Ancient Near East from other realms of society has long played a role in debates over the nature of these ancient societies. Social historians have often appealed to Marx or Weber, but both theorists wrote before the bulk of evidence now available was published. An as yet underutilized set of tools from the work of Pierre Bourdieu—though not his own analysis of religion—may help provide a more fruitful way to think about and analyze the role of “religion” in ancient society. In this paper I propose analyzing religion in the Persian Empire as an autonomous field in the Bourdieusian sense, with its structuring capital comprising “supernatural social capital.” With this frame one can then begin to think about the empire as a period of intense religious change, with the king playing a key role in providing the rules of the game. This also demands considering some ways this religious field related to other fields (especially the political and economic fields). I will then utilize this for re-considering the festivals in Nehemiah 7–8 in terms of several aspects around practices of feasting. This Bourdieusian approach could continue to be fruitful for religious change in earlier periods and well into late antiquity.

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