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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter 2020

Citification of Religion: A Proposal for the Historical Study of Urban Religion

  • Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli


The aim of this paper is to provide the historical research on both religion and the city with a serviceable analytical distinction between ‘urbanisation’ and ‘citification’ as two sets of socio-spatial phenomena related to the role of religion in city-spaces. Inspired by modern social and political theory, the notion of ‘citification’ has been crafted with the purpose to be tested on early Christ religion in order to better foreground its character of an ‘urban religion’. The paper ends by suggesting how the concept of ‘citification’ can be profitably applied to the historical study of other ancient constellations of religiously infused spatial practices in interaction with the urban space.

InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents


Focus, applied concepts and methods

Testing ‘Urban Religion’ on past cities and ancient religions[1]

The path to the study of urban religion has to be cleared. The urban world, […], is alive with the competing and divergent dreams projected onto it and found within it by outsiders. It is crisscrossed by discrepant narratives and fissured by incommensurable visions of what is possible and good in cities. Before we look at cases of religious engagement with the urban world, then, we have to step back and examine what converges on that world; to see what Moishe Sacks, Mama Lola, and the other religious improvisors who appear in this collection of essays made of the city for themselves, we have to consider first the broad outlines of what was being made of the city for and against them, in the plans and programs of others (Orsi 1999a: 12; emphasis mine).

These lines are taken from Robert Orsi’s introductory chapter of Gods of the City (Orsi 1999a), the collective volume on lived religion in contemporary American cities that, more twenty years ago, sparked the study of ‘urban religion’ (Garbin and Strhan 2017b: 4; see Rüpke 2020: 4-8). The epistemological barriers created by the academic division of labour probably explain why it took almost fifteen years to fully realise that Orsi’s agenda, as instantiated by the quotation above, might apply also to past cities and ancient religions: namely, to ‘cases of religious engagement with urban world(s)’ that are not ‘alive’ and out there, like in social science ethnographies (e.g., Orsi 1985; Hall 1997; McGuire 2008), but dead and nowhere but in archaeological findings and written records. Indeed, the ERC-funded project on ‘Lived Ancient Religion’ (LAR) has shown that there always existed ‘religious improvisers,’ small religious entrepreneurs, and self-styled religious experts among the urban commoners (e.g., Gasparini et al. 2020; Albrecht et al. 2018; for the initial agenda, see Rüpke 2011). An extensive body of cross-temporal and -disciplinary research spanning from Karanis to Palmyra, from Pergamum and Carthage to Pompeii and Rome, the LAR approach has demonstrated that embarking on the search of the ancient Mediterranean ‘colleagues’ of the creative protagonists of Gods of the City does make sense. Rather, the unaccomplished task is to foreground the ‘spatiality’ of these ancient local religious practices (Soja 1985) by zooming in on the city, that is, to speak with Orsi, by considering ‘what was being made of the city’ that enabled and constrained the appearance of these religious agents, facilitated and hindered their ‘job.’ The study of ancient lived religions needs an ‘urban turn’ that builds on the key achievements attained by the ‘spatial turn’ in research on religion (see Knott 2010).

Borrowing from and bringing together categories, approaches, and insights from religious studies, sociology of religion, archaeology, and spatial theory, the aim of this article is to present a particular view about how to bring specific bits of the sociological conversation on urban religion to bear on a historical enquiry of the millennia-spanning, reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity. The article builds on the assumption that both religious communication and urban life are cross-cultural, deep-rooted, and significantly related strategies of handling, enhancing, and buying into human ‘sociability’ (Simmel 1911). It moves from the observation that, however increasingly refined archaeological and historical accounts on the genesis and structuration of urban forms have become (see Yoffee 2015), religion still plays a rather standard role in the study of its intersections with urbanisation in early societies: namely, that of a driving force and stabilising factor of political integration and social stratification. The article contends that the connection between the cross-disciplinary emphasis on the ‘urbanising’ function of religion in the multiple beginnings of large-scale settled life (Rüpke 2020, 53-58), on the one hand, and the dominant focus on the integrative quality of the ‘polis/civic religion’ in historical research on Ancient Mediterranean religions, on the other, has contributed to crystallise the role of religion in the construction of stratified political communities through sanctifying the core values of the polity.

The heuristic and explanatory deficits of this main narrative do not live up to its cross-disciplinary interpretive dominance. Another story needs to be told. This article calls for a different and more articulate view of the co-evolution of religion and urban life by proposing an analytical distinction between ‘urbanisation’ and ‘citification’ of religion as two sets of processes and states of affairs concerning the role of religion in city-spaces. In order to justify this differentiation, I will first (1) embark on a brief ‘world tour’ in the deep history of the relation of religion and the urban by sifting through different narratives on the earliest cities and the role of religion in urbanisation processes. Then (2), once I have discussed a specific use of the verb ‘to citify’ in contemporary sociology of religion, I will sketch out the short and highly idiosyncratic history of the term ‘citification’ as a technical category and explain the rationale of using this formula for the study of urban religion/s in a historical perspective. Lastly (3), I will illustrate how I intend to put this concept into practice for re-writing spatially the urban genesis and patterns of transformation of a most successful religion (Ando 2013) of the Mediterranean antiquity, that is, early Christ religion. This project, which is planned as a monograph called ‘Citifying Jesus: Early Christians’ Making of an Urban Religion (1st-5th CE),’ represents my main research engagement with the International Centre for Advanced Studies on ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations’ (Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt). Some final reflections on the comparative value of the notion of ‘citification’ will conclude the paper.[2]

State of the art

Integration and differentiation: urbanisation via religion

In his positive review of James Scott’s book, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Scott 2017), archaeologist Steven Mithen levels a passing criticism: Scott ‘overlooks religious belief’ as a possible trigger for the ‘self-entrapment’ of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into a farming lifestyle (Mithen 2017: 11). A militant counter-narrative of the emergence of statehood via the mainly coercive clustering of people in walled city-states, Against the Grain passes over religion. The noun ‘religion’ appears only once in the introduction of the book, where fixed-field crops are said to be ‘the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws’ (Scott 2017: 7; emphasis mine). The adjective ‘religious’ reappears as late as in the penultimate chapter, when the ‘collapse’ of the first archaic states is said to cause the evaporation of ‘the use of literacy for administrative and religious purposes’ (Scott 2017: 185-186). Throughout Scott’s book, references to unspecified religious activities and roles are tossed around with extreme parsimony. Although religious pursuits are associated with writing and literary competences, on the one hand, and administration, on the other, as symbolic assets of a restricted literate establishment (Scott 2017: 141 and 148), religion does not seem to be held as crucial for the early states as ‘population machines’ designed to domesticate subjects in order to control labour (Scott 2017: 151). In Scott’s cereals-focused history of the civilising self-caging of Homo sapiens phenomena deemed religious play no role whatsoever.

Once quite common, ignoring the role of religion in urban genesis has now become more unusual. In order to amend Scott’s too ‘secular’ plot, Mithen mentions the famous pre-pottery Neolithic ‘sanctuary’ of Göbekli Tepe (Mithen 2017: 11; see Smith 2019: 69-75). Excavations begun in 1995 have discovered that, on this remote hilltop in south-eastern Turkey, and starting ca. 11,600 years ago (9,600 BCE), populations of foragers built a huge set (22 acre) of mainly oval buildings with concentric walls incorporating massive T-shaped monoliths. The faces of many pillars had been carved to display different species of wild and mainly predatory animals together with enigmatic non-figurative depictions and anthropomorphic figures. Due to the location and the monumentality of the complex, the architectural layout, and the rich symbolism of its ‘animate theatre (Boríc 2013: 59),’ ever since its discovery the megalithic site has been prevailingly interpreted as a the world’s oldest known example of a nondomestic communal cult centre (Schmidt 2000; contra Banning 2011). Yet the surprises did not end there. In 1997, a team of geneticists identified the wild einkorn wheat still growing on the slopes of the Karacadağ Hills, only 30 kilometres from Göbekli, as the oldest progenitor of modern cultivated varieties. Einkorn wheat was first domesticated in this area around 11,000 years ago (Heun et al. 1997). How to explain the geographical proximity between the oldest ritual complex ever discovered and the birthplace of the ancestors of the modern domesticated cereal? In the wake of Klaus Schmidt, the discoverer of Göbekli (Schmidt 2001: 48), Mithen’s hypothesis is that cereal farming was stirred by the need to provide a reliable food supply for the large number of labourers, artists, and worshippers gathering at Göbekli:

The quantities of food needed to feed the workforce and those who gathered for rituals at Göbekli must have been huge: if the Neolithic gods could persuade people to invest so much effort in construction, and to suffer the physical injuries, ailments and deaths that came along with, then perhaps expending those extra calories in the fields would have seemed quite trivial (Mithen. 2017: 11).

As already explained in his 2003 book After the Ice, Mithen argues that cultivation of wheat might have been no more that an ‘accidental by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop’ (Mithen 2003: 67). A ‘basic factor of the origins of neolithisation’ (Schmidt 2001: 48), religion occasioned the unintended self-entrapment of humanity into and the drudgery of settled life and a farming lifestyle.

The fascinating hypothesis of agriculture as the ‘accidental by-product’ of religion cannot be easily generalised. Moreover, the domestication of animals and plants was most likely ‘a long drawn-out process with no clear beginning,’ which, as Ian Hodder put it, makes it ‘difficult to say which came first, domestication or the symbolic revolution’ associated with the emergence of religion (Hodder 2011: 112). Nevertheless, the evolutionary quandary about which human invention is to be credited with historical primacy and civilising causality is a captivating intellectual activity (see already Cauvin 1994). This academic game is even harder to resist when: (a) the scale and scope of human cooperation increases from the occasional mass gatherings at ceremonial sites of people living in small farming communities to permanent settlements close to strangers in large-scale nucleated societies; (b) the civilisational leap is associated with a competition among culturally evolved religions. In other words, when the invention of certain forms of religion is connected to the rise of the earliest cities.

In his hotly debated 2013 book Big Gods (see already Stausberg 2014), evolutionary psychologist Ara Norenzayan singles out Göbekli Tepe as a critical ‘historical record’ of his sensational argument, which is mostly based on experimental findings and supported by ethnographical data (Norenzayan 2013: 118-121 and 132). According to Norenzayan’s evolutionary thesis, the earliest experiments of large-scale cooperation among non-genetically related individuals were ‘facilitated’ by the appearance of so-called ‘prosocial religions.’ With ‘prosocial religion’ Norenzayan means a broad religious package that works to enhance cooperative behaviours on the part of believers through the combination of two elements: (a) all-monitoring moralistic gods with interventionist inclinations and (b) costly religious displays attesting credible commitment to the underlying beliefs. For Norenzayan, this type of religiosity was ‘one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture’ (Norenzayan 2013: 121; against this view see Whitehouse et al. 2019). The process is described as follows:

Prosocial religions, with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers. In turn, these expanding groups took their prosocial religious beliefs and practices with them, further ratcheting up large-scale cooperation in a runaway process of cultural evolution (Norenzayan 2013: 8).

As far as Göbekli Tepe is concerned, it is noteworthy that neither the apparent absence of signs of permanent habitation at the site as well as in the vicinity (Schmidt 2000; against this view, Banning 2011: 636), nor the lack of evidence of a religious thought-world involving moralising gods, have prevented Norenzayan from putting this alleged regional ritual centre in the service of his ‘Big Gods theory.’ Contrary to Norenzayan, archaeologist Manuel Fernández-Götz, who has applied a variant of the same model ‘from sanctuaries to town’ (see Norenzayan 2013: 118) to the Late Iron Age oppida of 2nd and 1st-century BCE Gaul, does not assume that special beliefs played any causal or enabling role for the development of urban functions out of religious aggregating activities (e.g. Fernández-Götz 2014).

Fleetingly mentioned by Norenzayan (2013: 132) is another Neolithic site that usually functions as a textbook case of the deep-historical interplay of religion, domestication of plants and animals, and nucleated large-scale cooperation leading to state formations: the 9,400-year-old settlement of Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia. This 34-acre site consists of a dense agglomeration of closely packed houses with rooftop entries containing a high concentration and elaborate nature of art, symbolic expression, and burial. Ever since its discovery in the late 1950s, Çatalhöyük has sparked a heated debate on the origins of urbanism that involved prominent archaeologists (James Mellaart and Ian Hodder), legendary urbanologists (Jane Jacobs), anarchist social theorists (Murray Bookchin), and postmodern geographers (Edward Soja). I will not dwell here on the question as to whether this settlement, which at its height might have contained up to 8,000 permanent residents, was actually non-urban, proto-urban, or fully-fledged urban. Nor will I venture into the related issue of a pre-agricultural inception of the site (Jacobs 1969: 3-48; Soja 2000: 19-70; against this view see, e.g., M.E. Smith 2009: 7-8). Rather, I will focus on what has been interpreted as the ‘religious life’ at Çatalhöyük on the basis of the rich symbolism contained in the 166 excavated houses. This portrait, too, seems to speak for a societally developing pattern of religious change.

Started in 2006, a three-phase cross-disciplinary project led by archaeologist Ian Hodder has focused on the outstanding findings of Çatalhöyük to draw an increasingly painstaking picture of how religious dynamics can account for the emergence of sedentary and complex forms of societies (Hodder 2010a, 2014, 2018). To begin with, in Çatalhöyük, contrary to other Near Eastern Neolithic sites (Göbekli Tepe, Körtik Tepe, Aşikli Höyük), ceremonial built structures seemed to be lacking. In contrast to previous assumptions about distinguishable ‘shrines’ and ‘priestly quarters’ (Mellaart 1967), more recent archaeological reconstructions point to a exclusively house-based, i.e., structurally undifferentiated (see Stausberg 2010), form of religious practice:

All buildings give abundant evidence of both ritual and mundane activity. Indeed, it has become impossible to separate these two spheres. […]. While it is still the case that there are differences between the activities and features in the southern (hearth) and northern (burial) parts of the houses, this is not a distinction between domestic and ritual. […] generally, every single act that we can observe seems to blur the boundaries between the everyday and the sacred or special (Hodder 2010b: 16).

However, interdigitation with the everyday life is only one major aspect of how religion worked in the ‘house society’ (Joyce and Gillespie 2000; González-Ruibal and Ruiz-Gálvez 2016) of Neolithic Çatalhöyük. A second one is that the symbolism interpreted as ‘transcend[ing] everyday practice’ (Hodder 2010b: 15), that is, the part of the excavated material eventually recognised as religious, had varied over time. Spanning 1,400 years of habitation, the stratigraphic sequence of the archaeological records seems to show that, in the most recent levels of the site, long-term, ‘ritually elaborated buildings’ (Düring 2006: 218), distinguishable by an outstanding amassing and staged display of objects and artworks, had become prominent. Over the generations, these so-called ‘history houses’ had acquired more memory storage of highly charged events than others; their occupants had specialised in the storing, staging, and manipulation of symbolically loaded items (such as plastered human skulls, animal installations, and adult burials); their families had presumably come to provide ancestors and rituals for a larger kin and across house-based descent groups (Hodder and Pels 2010). Moreover, as Harvey Whitehouse and Ian Hodder have contended, a ‘gradual shift’ had apparently occurred at Çatalhöyük from an ‘imagistic’ type of religiosity, which is characterised by low-frequency ritual events involving dramatic experiences, to a more ‘doctrinal’ mode of religiosity. This latter not only consists of increasingly routinised and low-arousal ritual practices but implies transmission of discursive bodies of religious knowledge, involvement of authoritative ritual leaders, and centralisation of the social structure (Whitehouse and Hodder 2010; see Whitehouse 2004).

All things considered, the Çatalhöyük Research Project has shown that religion and the social structure at Çatalhöyük can be said to be mutually transformative, entangled in one another’s growth. Yet, once again, a precise causal relationship is suggested: ‘intensif[ying] the production of “historical depth” and “attachment to place” in existing economic structures’ (Shults and Wildman 2018: 34), it is religion that ‘provides the impetus’ for the scaling-up of social complexity and the construction of larger crosscutting sodalities (Whitehouse and Hodder 2010: 142). The trajectory tested in the first phase of the project – i.e., ‘Are changes in spiritual life and religious ritual a necessary prelude to the social and economic changes that lead to “civilization”?’ (Hodder 2010: 11) – steered the research programme towards the title chosen for the third – i.e., ‘The Primary Role of Religion in the Origins of Settled Life’ (Hodder 2018: 5). Social morphology was upsized through changes in ritual performances and not the other way around.

However, applied to a nondomestic ceremonial centre like Göbekli Tepe or to a quasi-city without monumental cult buildings such as Çatalhöyük, this explanatory model of societal change via ritual-religious upgrading may sound familiar to scholars of ancient Greek and Roman religions. In fact, in broad outline, this pattern recalls the way in which, about a century and a half ago, French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) described the generative role played by religion in the growth of societies.

Often overlooked by archaeologists and, to a lesser extent, ancient historians (see Yoffee and Terrenato 2015: 6-10; Rüpke 2020: 31-33), Fustel’s masterpiece on La cité antique (1864) is not only the earliest reconstructive project of a comparative study of Greek and Roman cities. It represents also the first theorisation of a causal relationship between changes in ritual and dynamics of solidarity, as well as between the expansion of the ideological and moral universe and the growing complexity of social morphology. Albeit focused on the rise of political institutions in Greece and the Italian peninsula in the early 1st millennium BCE, Fustel believed that ‘the model could be applied at least to all the cultures that shared what was then called Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) religion and possibly beyond’ (Yoffee and Terrenato 2015: 7).

Sociologists have recognised Fustel’s deep and ambiguous influence on the theory of integration and the social morphology of Émile Durkheim, Fustel’s most famous pupil at the École Normale (see, e.g., Prendergast 1983-1984; Jones 1993: 31-37; Maryanaski 2014: 364-365). In Fustel’s reconstruction, ancient Greek and Roman societies developed via addition of increasingly larger segments of social organisation that were linked together through the enlargement of ritually based groups and the progressive generalisation of their religious worldviews. According to the evolutionary framework of La cite antique, the city emerged as a ritually founded and religiously integrated ‘confederation’ of minor groups (the family, the phratry/cury, the tribe), ‘which were established before it and which it permitted to remain’ (Fustel de Coulanges [1864] 1956: 128). All these prior groups, in their turn, were based on religion as original cement for both the moral order and social cohesion. Fustel summarises his civilisational narrative as follows:

Now an ancient belief commanded a man to honor his ancestor; the worship of the ancestor grouped a family around an altar. Thus arose the first religion, the first prayers, the first ideas of duty, and of morals. Thus, too, was the right of property established, and the order of succession fixed. Thus, in fine, arose all private law, and all the rules of domestic organization. Later the belief grew, and human society grew at the same time. When men begin to perceive that there are common divinities for them, they unite in larger groups. The same rules, invented and established for the family, are applied successively to the phratry, the tribe, and the city (Fustel de Coulanges [1864] 1956: 132).

The stage-model sequence of this formation process corresponds to the gradual scaling-up of the type of solidarity that Durkheim will call ‘mechanical solidarity, or solidarity by similarities’ (Durkheim [1902²] 1984: 31). Note that, in the second edition of The Division of Labor in Society, ‘Durkheim’s most materialistic work’ (Prendergast 1983-1984: 61), Durkheim first praises Fustel for recognising that ‘the primitive organization of societies was of the family type and that, moreover, the constitution of the primitive family was based upon religion’, but then criticises him for ‘mist[aking] the cause for effect’ by deriving ‘social arrangements’ from ‘the religious idea’, rather than the reverse (Durkheim [1902²] 1984: 130).

The influence of Fustel’s masterpiece has reached far beyond contemporary normaliens (i.e., member of the École normale) and their pupils (like Gustave Glotz and Jacques Gernet), founding fathers of urban studies (Max Weber), later perceptive ancient historians (such as Arnaldo Momigliano and Moses Finley), and historians of religion committed to the search of the Indo-European legacy (George Dumézil). Historical geographer Paul Wheatley espoused his own ‘ceremonial theory’ of urban genesis in a 1971-book dedicated to Fustel that extends Fustel’s core vision of a ritual centrality outside the classical world and develops it out of an ‘enquiry into the origins of the ancient Chinese city’ (Wheatley 1971). In part two of Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters, the comparative analysis of some cross-cultural regularities extracted from Chinese cities in Neolithic, Shang and Chou times generates an ‘ideal type’ of the ‘ceremonial centre’ as worldwide diffused ‘precursor[] of fully urban forms’ (Wheatley 1971: 316). Defined as settlements where ‘secular functions… were subsumed into an all-pervading religious context,’ (Wheatley 1971: 225) ceremonial centres originate from a Fustelian-like tribal altar (see Fustel de Coulanges [1864] 1956: 120):

Beginning as little more than tribal shrines, in what may be regarded as their classical phases, these centres were elaborated into complexes of public ceremonial structures, usually massive and often extensive, and including assemblages of such architectural items as pyramids, platform mounds, temples, palaces, terraces, staircases, courts, and stelae. Operationally they were instruments for the creation of political, social, economic, and sacred space, at the same time as they were symbols of cosmic, social, and moral order. Under the religious authority of organized priesthoods and divine monarchs, they elaborated the redistributive aspects of the economy to a position of institutionalized regional dominance, functioned as nodes in a web of administered (gift or treaty) trade, served as foci of craft specialization, and promoted the development of the exact and predictive sciences. Above all, they embodied the aspiration of the brittle, pyramidal societies in which, typically, a sacerdotal elite, controlling a corps of officials and perhaps a praetorian guard, ruled over a broad understratum of peasantry (Wheatley 1971: 225-226).

While considering unlikely and unprovable the hypothesis of a ‘single autonomous, causative factor’ (Wheatley 1971: 318; also 302), Wheatley nevertheless explains the ‘priority’ of religion over other possible central components in urban genesis by putting the emergence of sacerdotal elites at the beginning of the process of social differentiation. Organised priesthoods were the first specialised groups of the population to be released from the daily grind of subsistence labour, thereby both spurring and validating the development of new social institutions (Wheatley 1971: 267, 302-305). More clearly than in all the previous examples, in Wheatley’s model organised religion drives and sanctifies society’s development in scale and complexity, thus maintaining the role of ‘primary focus for social life’ played in the immediately pre-urban period (Wheatley 1971: 302).

To summarise my argument so far: it is my contention that there exists a time-honoured way of narrating the interplay of religion and urban life according to an explanatorily heterogeneous but eventually convergent cultural-evolutionary pattern of societal development. Evolutionary psychologists have mapped the urbanising force of religion onto culturally evolved, pan-human religious biases; archaeologists have derived it from the way religion knit together home-based groups by impinging on the stability of settled economic structures; ancient historians have referred it to the expansive capacity and federative quality of a shared ritual; human geographers have explained it through the centripetalising function and power of a priestly led ceremonial complex. In all these examples, the role of religion is that of an ‘organizational principle’ (Yoffee and Terrenato 2015: 17) that upgrades human settlements to the socio-spatial complexity required by urban life.

Examples from archaeology of the earliest urbanism and archaeology of religion are particularly telling. Whereas traditionally, in the former research ambit, religion is not granted a clear explanatory primacy over other components in the nexus of changes termed ‘urban revolution’ (Childe 1950), time and again the rise of an organised religious personnel has been ranged among several interacting ‘determinants’ leading to the formation of cities (Trigger 1972: 590-591; Adams 1966: 120-169); the presence of religious monumental architecture has been mentioned in changeable ‘checklists’ identifying the common ‘traits’ of urbanism (Childe 1950: 12; Renfrew 2008: 47; see Smith 2016: 159). Archaeology of religion, on the other side, has tended to be bifurcated between functionalist views emphasising social integration and Marxist perspectives stressing legitimation of power and inequality (Carballo 2016: 3; see Renfrew 1994: 50). In either case, the development of religion maps onto the scaling-up of complex societies.

One might conclude that, whatever the preferred sequence of the events, the degree of emphasis on causality, and the clarity of the focus on urban formation, religion in urbanising phases is mostly viewed as a community-building factor that produces, arranges, stabilises, and stages the crosscutting sodalities that are conducive to urban forms and life. Religion, therefore, ends up playing a standard role with regard to the rise and development of settled life from smaller scale to larger scale societies: religion contributes to introduce more and more agriculturally-based populations in an increasingly less reversible era of power centralisation and hierarchisation, class stratification, craft specialisation, and monopolisation of unifying symbols by a religiously validated elite. Quite tellingly, with the exception of the chapter designed to problematise the issue of the ‘distribution of power’ (Sinopoli et al. 2015), the comparative enterprise of ‘the earliest cities’ carried out in the third volume of the Cambridge World History does not shift perspective (Yoffee 2015; see Rüpke 2020: 40-43): religion appears as a socio-spatial organisational factor that mothers city life by producing internally differentiated and integrated societies all over the planet. To say it with archaeologist Norman Yoffee:

Differentiation’ refers to the process through which social groups become dissociated from one another, so that specific activities, roles, identities, and symbols become attached to them. ‘Integration’ denotes the political process in which differentiated social groups come to exist within an institutional framework (Yoffee 2005: 32; referencing Eisenstadt 1964: 376).

Religion ultimately boils down to the instantiation of signs, acts, discourses, events, and tools that integrate social subgroups within a common institutionalised framework. This process demands the prior differentiation of one of these groups as the personnel responsible for the specialised management of the ‘symbols of incorporation/integration’ (Yoffee 2005: 33) and their patterned display in more or less accessible performances of communication with the superhuman beings (Baines et al. 2015). Operating the critical though problematic connection between differentiation and integration (see Eisenstadt 1964: 377-378), religion is viewed as a force that turns human beings into citizens, raises some citizens above others, and makes cities as such inevitable, legible, and manageable/controllable.

Another story, a different concept: citification of religion

By sifting through the 20th-century research on religion in urbanising phases, I aimed to show that ‘urbanisation via religion’ is a recurrent explanatory narrative. Although religion is only occasionally taken as primary causative factor in a strict Fustelian sense, it is undeniable that there exist a focus on, and a concern with, the centralised framing and ideological-ritual cementing of cross-group cohesion, on the one hand, and monopolisation of religious capital by specialised elite groups credited with ritual competences, on the other.

Thoroughly questioned by the ‘Lived Religion Approach’ to ancient Mediterranean religion/s, the scholarly popular notions of ‘polis’ or ‘civic religion’ can be viewed in substantial continuity with this predominant optic on the earliest urbanism. Insofar as it addresses the nexus of religion and city life from the documented standpoint of specialised urban elites pursuing integration and vertical differentiation, the ‘polis/civic religion paradigm’ adopts and adjusts this very same focus to the different developmental trajectories of urbanism in archaic, classical, and post-classical cities. This perspective charts, arranges, and tags local religious practices according to the centrality of the politically orchestrated ceremonial alignment of city, citizens, and city governance. A good example is François de Polignac’s study on the origins of the Greek city-state. Here ‘the elaboration of a religious citizenship’ is held as the ‘sine qua non condition for the formation of the city, or rather for the very process of redefinition of social cohesion from which the polis resulted’ (de Polignac [1984] 1995: 73-74; see Urciuoli and Rüpke 2018: 121 with bibliography). Featuring both as the modelling paradigm and the historical arrival point of the evolutionary take on religion in prior urbanising phases, ‘polis/civic religion’ stands out historiographically as the prototypical example of the intersection of religion and urban life in ancient Mediterranean urban contexts.

Set against this backdrop, the aim of the whole second part of the paper is to advance a perspective on the relationship between religious communication and city life that indexes the opposite tendency. Its research agenda has a twofold ambition: on the one hand, to look at, and account for, a dynamic engagement of religious agents with the urban environment which does not prioritise and concentrate on centralised/institutionalised collective religious belongings; on the other hand, to put emphasis on the individual and group appropriation of, capitalisation on, and empowerment via, ‘free-floating’ (Eisenstadt 1964: 386) religious resources distributed among a wider range of urban agents than the closed elite of religious specialists.

To serve this purpose, two basic lessons from Shmuel Eisenstadt’s theoretical contribution to social change can be put to good use. First, processes of differentiation and change can ‘go relatively continuously in one part or sphere of a society without yet becoming fully integrated into a stable wider framework.’ Second, ‘at any level of differentiation a given social sphere contains not one but several, often competing, possible orientation and potentialities for development’ (Eisenstadt 1964: 379 and 384). These two foci can boil down to the role played by religion in the creation and stabilisation of urban diversity at a relatively low level of integration, on the one hand, and in the production of urban heterarchy (Crumley 1995), instead and aside of hierarchy, on the other.

It is my contention that a new descriptive category could be helpful for visualising and deepening understanding of this other side of the relation between religion and urban life in ancient societies. Sometimes, indeed, favouring new conceptual options may help to think differently and disclose the potential of complementary or alternative perspectives, otherwise unperceived. My suggestion is to look at contemporary sociological and anthropological studies on ‘urban religion’ and pick up from there some key conceptual ingredients for the formula ‘citification of religion.’ By thoroughly historicising this notion, another way of religion to be urban will appear.

‘Citify’: a mapping of the word

According to online English dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins), ‘to citify’ means ‘to become urban,’ to conform to an urban environment, to adopt the customs and habits of an urban population. In its transitive form, the verb means ‘to cause the urban becoming,’ that is, to impart to something/somebody the style of a city. Concretely, a person is citified when she becomes too sophisticated to associate with her small-town friends; a way of talking, or an accent, can become citified as a consequence of the speaker’s immersion in an urban setting; the style of governance of a country can be citified as a consequence of the major-styled attitudes of its prime ministers; a small town can be citified by the opening of a McDonald; etc. Of course, purchase and consumption habits are particularly prone to be citified. It is only in the early 1930s, sociologist Robert Orsi writes,

that American, and so also global, popular culture became irrevocably citified; advertising, which became a New York industry in the 1920s, stimulated citified desires across the land (Orsi 1999: 22-23; emphasis mine).

In Orsi’s long and influential introduction to Gods of the City, the participial/adjective form of the verb ‘citify’ occurs only in the above passage. Moreover, none of the authors contributing to the book further use it. They more simply opt for ‘urbanised.’

For instance, when Karen McCarthy Brown describes the Haitians moving to New York City, she says that they ‘c[a]me to the United States already quite urbanized and Americanized,’ since in most cases their grandparents had already left the countryside and moved to Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti, where the future migrants had been ‘exposed to’ American urban life and culture: New York City simply ‘turns up the volume and intensifies these processes’ (McCarthy Brown 1999: 95).

I think Orsi’s isolated use of the form ‘citified’ is more telling than its interpretation as a mere synonym of urbanised. When he discusses, as in the passage reported above, the cross-class spread of a commoditised popular culture, imagery, and set of desires, he presumably employs ‘citified’ for a reason: such markedly cultural-aspirational process first involved US citizens and residents within American cities and then invaded American small towns and countryside. American city dwellers stayed urban and American countrymen remained rural-based, and yet, via the urban advertisement industry, they both became increasingly citified. Orsi’s equally distinctive employ of the negative form ‘de-citify’, in relation to the ‘pastoralisation campaigns’ organised by both secular and religious organisations from the early 19th into the mid-20th century, follows the same rule: ‘among the motivations for this impulse to de-citify urban population,’ says Orsi, ‘was simply the wish to provide some relief from the oppressive physical conditions of city life’. The de-citifying cures designed to heal the spiritual decay and physical distress of these urbanites required them to be sent out to farms and ranches (Orsi 1999: 19 and 18). In short, citifying trends do not necessarily draw people into cities, as much as de-citifying agendas do not need to push them physically back to the countryside. Due to the topographical sprawl of the ‘urban society’ (Lefebvre [1970] 2003), their genesis can be localised in cities but the range of their effects and implications is not place-bound.

Contrary to the study of contemporary sweeping urbanisation processes, which in most cases demand to methodologically encompass the city/countryside divide (Angelo and Wachsmuth 2015), a historical and long-term perspective on citified behaviours rather calls for a city frame and a city lens. It must zoom in on cities as ‘historical, material, socionatural assemblages’ (Angelo and Wachsmuth 2015: 19) in order to look at the way in which the human capacity to aspire engages agentically with the city as a recognisable and experienceable ‘object of social struggles and hope’ (Walker 2015: 189), as well as a spatially specific constellation of ‘elements that make it possible to achieve certain goals’ (Burchardt and Westendorp 2018: 165). The urban and the religious mutually interlace in both crafting this space and shaping these aspirations (Goh and van der Veer 2016).

Like a person, a religion migrating with/through its worshippers to a foreign city can be more or less ‘urbanised’ in its symbols, narratives, practices, and institutions. Let us consider again McCarthy Brown’s study of the Haitians ‘serving the spirits’ in their living quarters in Brooklyn. Here we read about Voodoo priestesses hauling a garbage pail full of earth up to their apartment on the thirty-seventh floor of a low-income building, or, like the ingenious Mama Lola, deciding to pour the libation into several small bottles and parcelling them out to devotees who will directly wash their bodies with it. In all these cases, Voodoo can be said to be ‘urbanised,’ since, due to the trans(p)l(ant)ation of the ritual setting, the traditional contact with the Haitian earth in this pristine agricultural cult is lost and people end up feeding the sprits through the skin of their displaced, urbanised bodies (McCarthy Brown 1999: 85-86). Yet such a refashioned Haitian Voodoo can equally be said to be ‘citified,’ insofar as the ritual must creatively ‘stretch[] and strain[] to accommodate’ (McCarthy Brown 1999: 99) to the urban space in ways that are largely contingent upon both the characteristics of the city site at a given time and the social-existential trajectory of the practitioners. Herein lies the second main aspect connected to the formula: fuelled by aspirations as forward-looking hopes of achievement, citified religious practices appropriate bits and strips of city activities and places that would otherwise remain anonymous or ‘daily and indefinitely other’ (de Certeau [1980] 1984: 93, see esp. 91-110; on the ‘work of appropriation’ see also Carrier 1995: 107-126)

By taking these two aspects together, namely, aspiration and appropriation, I am suggesting that whatever spatial practice we decide to identify as religion can get citified by both adopting and adapting city features. Take, for instance, two other ethnographic case studies from Gods of the City: the catholic Cuban Americans remapping and recasting a city, Miami, in the image of another city, Havana (Tweed 1999), and the second- and third-generation Italian Americans being engaged in policing and selectively boundary-marking the streets of Harlem during the midsummer festa of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Orsi 1999). I argue that describing these religious-and-spatial behaviours as citified, rather than ‘urbanised’ (Rüpke 2020: 58-61), will help shift the focus from the issue of the geographic provenance and mobility of both cult and practitioners, with regard to the city/countryside divide, to the analysis of the rationale and the distinctive quality of religious-and-spatial practices that aim at creatively recasting the real-and-imagined space of a city in which they are compellingly nested. The qualifying citified traits of these phenomena are expounded by Orsi as follows:

By turning apartments into abattoirs (as the practitioners of Santería do), the basements of housing projects into venues of the spirits, the streets into penitential pilgrimage routes, city water flows into receptacles for sins or the resting places of Hindu gods, and intersecting street corners into vectors of spiritual power, immigrants and migrants dramatically re-placed themselves on cityscapes that had been explicitly designed to exclude them or to render them invisible or docile (Orsi 1999: 41).

Both enabling and constraining ‘forms of densification’ (Berking 2008: 19-24), cities affect religions, and are affected by them in a dialectic of reciprocal formation (Rau and Rüpke 2018; Day 2017: 1-4; Lanz 2014: 25) that eventually allows for the possibility to discern ‘distinctly urban religious experiences and practices’ (Orsi 1999: 43). What is ultimately distinctive of this constellation of experiences and practices is that the way in which they relate to the arrangement of authorities and powers in the city does not map onto the nexus of political integration and social differentiation. Rather, not infrequently, they stand in the way of it. Research dedicated to urban religious phenomena has initially and preferably focused on transnational migrants, descendants of migrants, and ethnic minorities in general that face and react to conditions of diaspora, marginality, and exclusion (e.g., Orsi 1999; Garbin 2013; Garbin and Strhan 2017a). Insofar as constrains trigger religious-ritual creativity, these urban religious agents engage in bottom-up transformative projects of place-m/taking and resource appropriation through which ‘religious aspirations and urban visions are conjoined’ (Burchardt and Becci 2013: 15). However, research in anthropology and sociology of religion has also shown that long-standing residents and sectors of a home-grown population are not immune to problems, and less exposed to opportunities, that city-space distinctively raises, when it comes to the learning, teaching, practice, and communication of their religious thought-world (see, e.g., partly Berking, Steets, and Schwenk 2018; Strhan 2015; van der Veer 2015; partly Becci, Burchardt, and Casanova 2013).

In general, all these studies have evidenced the distinctive capacity of specific contemporary religious engagements with the urban world to generate visible, invisible, and immaterial (see Burchardt and Westendorp 2018) facets and forces that work to multiply, relocate, and re-allocate material and symbolic resources. New hierarchies of people, spaces, and problems are produced. Power is distributed in a way that challenges, undercuts, and complicates existing power-laden structurations of agencies in urban environments. These are the dynamics that the category of ‘citification’ should encapsulate and single out from more routinised practices and forms of participation in religious activities in cities. By departing from the ‘presentist’ focus of ethnographies of religions in so-called global/ised, post-secular, super-diverse cities (Urciuoli and Rüpke 2018: 121-122), I set out to bring these dynamics and practices to bear on the study of religion in ancient cities – potentially all the way down along the history of cities.

Citification: a short history of the term and some instructions for use

A technical term derived from the verb ‘citify’ and denoting both the process and the state of affairs resulting from it, ‘citification’ has a short, largely unknown, and idiosyncratic intellectual history. This story is external to the social science conversation on urban religion and rather relates to a specific philosophical-political theory of urbanisation. Such a conceptual vicissitude, I argue, ended up alienating the meaning of the noun from that of the verb, whereas my aim is to reconcile them.

An analytical category infused with political normativity, ‘citification’ was used by the American anarchist activist and social theorist Murray Bookchin in his 1987 book The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship. The book was first revised in 1992 and renamed Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship and then re-edited in 1995 with the title From Urbanization to Cities: Toward a New Politics of Citizenship. Bookchin employs citification to denote the cherished aspects of a bygone polity, municipal liberty, and humanly scaled viable city life that first the rise of the nation state and then the planetary spread of capitalism have destroyed. The following passage elucidates Bookchin’s use of the term:

My reasons for making such an unorthodox distinction between urbanization and citification are not intended to be semantic word juggling. The contradiction forms the very rationale for writing this book. ‘Urbanization against cities’ [which is the title of the first chapter if the book] is meant to focus as sharply as possible on a human and ecological crisis so deep-seated that we are hardly aware of its existence, much less its grave impact on social freedom and personal autonomy. I refer to the historic decline of the city as an authentic arena of political life (that once lived in some balance with the natural world) and, perhaps no less significantly, the decline of the very notion of citizenship (Bookchin 19922: 1).

Apart from the fundamental idea that cities shape humanity (Bookchin 19922: XIII), Bookchin’s use of the notion of citification as something to be distinguished from urbanisation is substantially different from mine. The main divergences rest on three points: (1) the referent of the word; (2) the role of religion in processes of citification; (3) the relation between urbanisation and citification.

(1) Bookchin sees citification as ‘a processual noun for the city in history’ (Bookchin 19922: XV). Just like urbanisation in its standard meaning, the primary referent of citification is the city form itself as historically developing ‘ecocommunity’ (Bookchin 19922: IX). The story of this ecological community spans a rather linear trajectory along which it underwent periodic and context-dependent ups and downs until the current generalised disastrous condition (see point 2 below). In Bookchin’s account, citification designates the ‘cumulative development of important human social potentialities’ (Bookchin 19922: XV) as instantiated in the formation, upgrading, and spread of the city form, as well as in the qualities assigned to individuals and groups manufacturing and being affected by it. In my theorisation, instead, the preferred referent of citification is religion, understood and analysed as a spatial practice that is affected by, and reacts back to, its urban emplacements.

(2) The role of religion in Bookchin’s narrative of citification is, once again, a fully-fledged integrative one. This comes as little surprise when considering that, in his view, the millennia-long history of citification starts with the civic ‘break of the biological spell’ (Bookchin 19922: 30) of blood-based tribalism and terminates with the industrialist-commercial atomisation of social identities. Religious beliefs, rituals, festivals, loyalties, and obligations back up this story by supplying social glue all the way through (Bookchin 19922: 7, 22, 58, 68, 73, 74, 129 etc.). After all, the same integrative function that archaeologists, religious scholars, and city historians preferably assign to religion, when they account for urbanisation processes and the rise of the earliest states, is associated by Bookchin to the entire trajectory of citification and the emergence of ‘civic life,’ which is disrupted by the early modern state formation. The origins of Çatalhöyük, Bookchin explains, ‘seem primarily to have been religious’ (Bookchin 19922:18):

The shrines so evident at Çatal [Bookchin’s description of Çatalhöyük’s ‘civic life’ builds on Mellaart’s first interpretation of the site; see Mellaart 1967] suggest that the population of the city was committed to the performance of religious rituals, that cultic and priestly functions do more to explain why this city arose in Anatolia many millennia ago than do economic or military functions. [….]. Initially, if the city had a pronounced function at all, it was a religious one. The strong emphasis that many anthropologists now place on political and centralized governmental forms as institutions for efficiently redistributing produce from ecologically different areas may be overstated (Bookchin 19922: 21).

Unsurprisingly, at the beginning of the chapter dedicated to the Athenians’ unrivalled embodiment of citification in the self-governed polis (‘The Ideal of Citizenship’), Bookchin pays tribute to Fustel de Coulanges. As the French historian has argued, religion might have ‘play[ed] a very important role’ in fabricating the extended fictive kin relationships that formed ‘the social tissue of the governing body’ (Bookchin 1992²: 58). In the end, as in all narratives of urbanisation via religion previously discussed, citification via religion produces a religion that eventually propounds the scholarly popular notion of ‘civic religion’ (Bookchin 19922: 73).

My idea of citification of religion diverges radically. It sets out to take precisely the opposite direction than the one that potentially starts with ‘temple towns’ and leads to priestly performed and politically supervised local religious practice producing ‘a collective sense of solidarity’ among citizens endeared to their city (Bookchin 19922: 73). In order to flesh out a different urban role for religion than a driving force of political integration and vertical differentiation, the processes labelled as citification of religion are not meant to provide the primary focus for social life. Moreover, they do not work to equalise religious memberships and political groupings. Lastly, they do not aim to symbolically underpin, periodically display, and spatially instantiate the socio-political order – whatever that is.

(3) Bookchin’s notion of citification serves a militant narrative of progress and decline that is congenial to his decades-long political program for the decentralisation of political society, the (re-)creation of an integrative relation with the non-human world, and the removal of hierarchical relationships of domination (see Bookchin 1982). In this narrative, citification and urbanisation are both normatively contrasted and chronologically arranged as follows: citification comes first, urbanisation later, citification is good, urbanisation is bad; most importantly, urbanisation has triumphantly plotted and marched against citification. Therefore ‘to redeem the city’ (Bookchin 19922: XIV) means to stop urbanisation and bring citification back.

Bookchin clearly explains when this drama has started, how it has unfolded, and how we should rapidly operate to reverse its end. Citification archeologically surfaces with the hunter-gatherers’ clustering at Çatalhöyük (Bookchin 19922: 17-29) and then largely overlaps with civilisation. Urbanisation is the general ‘effect of capitalism on the city’ (Bookchin 19922: 202) and thus the pathological twist of citification that followed up on the degeneration of civic politics into nation-based statecraft (Bookchin 19922: 123-193). Recalling Lefebvre’s characterisation of the ‘urban society’ as a society that results from industrialisation and whose culmination has exploded the traditional space of the city (e.g. Lefebvre [1970] 2003: 2), Bookchin’s urbanisation is the latest, most dramatic industry-driven stretch of a process that has devoured and disfigured the city, and made it, ultimately, unrecognisable (Bookchin 19922: 203). This nice product can be brought back to life only via gradual implementation of confederated municipalist polities and political agendas (Bookchin 19922: 201-269).

Contrary to this normative arrangement, in my proposal the two terms are enfranchised from overtly value-laden nuances and rather used in a descriptive manner. In consequence, urbanisation is to be classically intended as the interlocked, chronologically spaced-out, reversible, and historically replicable set of (demographic, ecological, technological, economic, governmental, and religious) stimuli-events that ‘involves the increased density of population on a landscape and its differential nucleation in certain settlements’ (Carballo 2016: 8). Urbanisation emerged millennia ago at time periods and in regions that differ according to the approach being used (Carballo 2016: 9), but certainly in areas way too far apart to assume direct influences via cultural diffusion. Over the millennia, urbanisation processes have periodically revolutionised human society and sociality on a global scale (Soja 2000). Only in the present era of so-called ‘planetary urbanisation,’ the dimensions of such processes and resulting states of affairs are said to ‘exceed the confines of the traditional city’ (Angelo and Wachsmuth 2015: 16) to the point that ‘the urban is no longer… coherently anchored’ to it (Brenner and Schmid 2015: 155; for a critique see Walker 2015).

By traditionally producing cities on former non-city sites and out of non-urban conditions, urbanisation represents the geographically and historically shape-shifting a priori of citification rather than its impure product gone crazy. The transformations in human settlement and distribution towards densification and differential nucleation are the processes and states of affairs that make possible other processes and states of affairs concerning religion, which I describe as citification. A viable definition might sound as follows: citification of religion refers to the processes whereby (permanently or temporarily) urban-based religious agents from all social stations carry out religiously infused actions that succeed in appropriating city-space at least for some time, in relation to a certain audience, and in manners that dynamically and deliberately engage with the urban quality of their contexts at particular moments in their histories. Citification defines also the religious state of affairs that results from such processes and produces, in turn, new urban spaces. These consequences, therefore, should be viewed more as the outcome of specific uses of, and action on, spaces by religious agents than of some intrinsic characteristics of a specific religion (Urciuoli and Rüpke 2018: 120).

To summarise this part: designed for historical research, the noun ‘citification’ is detached from its idiosyncratic and normative meaning and use in a specific theory of civilisation. Its meaning has been reconciled with the general sense of the verb ‘citify’ and its use builds on social science research on urban religion that focuses on the aspirations of religious agents and their transformative appropriation of the urban in the presence of established spatial blueprints of resource allocation, power distribution, social organisation and behaviour. In a historical perspective, too, citifying religion in ancient Mediterranean societies implies drawing on a much wider range of possibility of religious agency than taking one’s place in the religious scenarisation of the city order.

Historical and spatial exposition, agents

Citifying Jesus: early Christ religion as a case study

Some of the newest historical studies on Christ religion in ancient Mediterranean cities finally allow that cities were ‘more than scenery’ (Walton, Trebilco, and Gill 2017: XII), that is, more than inert settings where religious beliefs, practices, and experiences happened to take place, circulate, and sometimes be commemorated as a temporary or permanent element of the cityscape. A critical living habitat of religious communication, however, the city itself as driving force of religious creativity and change is still under-theorised and under-researched. Past religions featuring distinctive and contingent urban religious constellations (Rüpke 2020: 6), and thus expected to work as sets of case studies, are needed in order to fill this lacuna. The last part of this paper sets out to show that early Christ religion is a most suitable example.

Methodological considerations of the problem of uneven documentation and concerns about the use of a near-exclusive analytical city lens (Harrison 2015: 7) have led to a recent reassessment of some early evidence of a ‘rural Christianity’ (Robinson 2017). Yet the fact remains that the early Christ religion that emerged within, and spread across, a particularly well-integrated ancient agrarian empire can be said to show an urban character from the outset. To start with, the Pauline ‘First Urban Christians’ (originally Meeks 1983) are also the earliest Christ believers of which we happen to know something in a historiographically sound sense of the term. The only earliest Christian ‘document’ that might suggest a rural socio-cultural placement of both authors and audience is the so-called Sayings Gospel Q (Robinson, Hoffmann, and Kloppenborg 2000). Traditionally taken as common source of both Matthew and Luke, Q, however, is at the centre of so many substantive controversies – from the hypothesis behind its very existence to its internal stratigraphy, from the dating possibilities to the socio-cultural profile of the authorship (e.g., Rollens 2014; Bazzana 2015) – that it can hardly serve as solid counter-evidence.

Furthermore, it is only in the mid-2nd century that two Christian authors, Papias of Hierapolis (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III 39:15-16) and the Rome-based philosopher Justin of Neapolis (Dialogue with Trypho 103:8), first inform us that some biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, later canonised as ‘gospels’ and characterised by a predominant rural setting replete with agricultural-pastoralist imageries, have finally reached their cities. Almost at the same time, the Roman seer Hermas, a small religious entrepreneur possibly engaged also in the salt business (Rüpke 1999), sketches out a stereotyped rural landscape as recurring scenario of his suburban visions (Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 1:3; 2:1; 4:1; 6:5; etc.). Although a few scattered references to rural-based texts in early Christian literature (Robinson 2017: 131-180) document that Christ religion was practiced in a wide range of non-urban social and geographical milieux (Mitchell 1993; Tabbernee 2014), all these scripts can be said to belong to a Greek and Roman intellectual tradition ‘that uses rusticity to theorise ethical behaviour and the formation of moral subjects’ (Brown 2019; see Kronenberg 2009). In other words, they are representative of a ‘polis-based movement’ whose textual products use to depict the chōra ‘through the eyes of the polis’ (Boer and Petterson 2017: 101).

Contrary to Voodoo as practiced by contemporary New York-based Haitians, we have then no compelling evidence that rural world-thoughts, traditions, rituals, and social formations had to be accommodated to urban settings. Therefore, it is even more the case that ‘citifying Jesus’, from this perspective, does not mean that urban Christ believers deliberately added a level of urban/e sophistication onto a supposedly rural Jesus they met either in stories preserved and circulated by rural congregations or in actual encounters with migrant rural religious fellows (Downing 1992: 93; Robinson 2017: 127). Most presumably, such encounters did happen but left no conclusive traces in the multifarious ways and styles in which the religious communication of Christ believers was fashioned in Greco-Roman cities. Furthermore, I argue that three main historical characteristics make early Christ religion an optimal ‘fieldwork’ for testing the analytical capacity of the notion of citification.

Firstly, as carriers of information and hubs of relevant communications centred on the superhuman figure of Christ (Kloppenborg 2019), as well as interconnected practitioners of a new elective cult, Christ-believing groups and networks were a religious ‘new entry’ that appeared and spread at a time when the Eastern Mediterranean, the Italian Peninsula, and North Africa were long and thoroughly urbanised. Around the mid-1st century, the Roman government and administration were in the process of transforming a historically dense and unevenly urbanised set of territorially contiguous socio-geographical spheres, domains, and places into a potentially ‘smooth’ imperial space (Meyer, Rau, and Waldner 2017). Scattered around this smoothened space, urban centres were connected with each other and with Rome via a combination of overland roads and water networks.

Secondly, Christian religious communication sprang up in an era of profound changes in both the social location and organisational dimension of religious symbols, practices, and groups. These transformations, which Rüpke has called ‘religionization’ (Rüpke 2014b: 28), are associated with the genesis of a politically and, to a certain extent, also infrastructurally and linguistically integrated Mediterranean religious field cut across by different cultural producers (Stowers 2011). Endowed with more variegated and instable resources than those coming from land ownership, an increased number of sedentary, expatriated, and travelling literate religious specialists benefited from, and contributed to, the collective making of this sheer transnational arena of cultural production. It is noteworthy that literate Christ believers, time and again, transcribed the awareness of these favourable spatiotemporal conditions into theological-political term: retrospective reflections on the temporal overlap between the beginnings of the gospel and the pacification of the empire by Augustus (see, e.g., Luke 2:1-3; Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel III 7:30-35) evidence that these Christian writers fully grasped the ‘timeliness’ of Christ religion. Competing with other ‘self-styled’ ‘freelance’ religious experts (Wendt 2016), the first producers, carriers, and consumers of Christ religion happened to be in the right places at the right time to citify Jesus.

Thirdly, over the 4th century, the legal status of Christ religion underwent an abrupt shift from a precarious juridical existence to universal legalisation, imperial favouritism, and eventually official recognition as state religion. Traditionally narrated as ‘Christianisation’ of the empire, along with several other dynamics of impingement on non-urban environments (rural and desert areas), this process marked a clear change in what we can designate – with Henri Lefebvre – as the Christians’ ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1968; for its religious qualification, see Lanz 2014; for its application to Christian origins, see Sleeman 2017). Indeed, compared to the past centuries, late antique Christ believers enjoyed a maximisation of their opportunities to produce urban life on new terms and, more specifically, increased their capacities for the management over the urban production of religious surplus (Harvey 2008). This newly recognised Christians’ right to the city started fuelling Christian religious communication in a way that, without necessarily impacting on the cityscape via seizure, destruction, and dispossession of other religions’ built environments (Leone 2013), nevertheless contributed to escalate competition over physical and imagined space (Lander 2016). Confronted with epoch-making events like Constantine’s turn to Christ religion and Theodosius’ legal catholicisation of the empire, a perspective on the ‘citification of Jesus’ should stress two changing aspects: on the one hand, the extremely mutable conditions under which Christ-believing individuals and groups opted for avoiding, imposing, and negotiating religious actions openly accessible to other city dwellers; on the other hand, the extremely different resources, means, media, and techniques to which Christian religious communication resorted in order to navigate city-spaces throughout the first centuries of the Christian era.

Encouraged by these very favourable historical characteristics of the subject matter, my ambition is to bring the notion of citification to bear on a historical study of early Christ religion viewed and re-written as an urban religion. Surveying the Mediterranean for almost four centuries (from about 50 CE to the early 5th century CE) and with the help of an extraordinarily generous amount of literary materials compared to other religious traditions, such research aims to outline a body of seven interlaced trajectories of citification of Christ religion on the part of differently empowered Christian religious agents. To date, these trajectories have been either overlooked or, more often, approached separately and investigated without an eye on the urban as enabling and constraining factor. They represent seven lines of enquiry to be developed in dedicated case studies. Here I will limit myself to listing and briefly describing them.

(1) The first trajectory corresponds, quite predictably, to the Christians’ literary engagement in ‘cityscaping’ (Fuhrer, Mundt, and Stenger 2015) understood as the process of constructing a Christian image of a city by drawing on culturally distributed urban semantics, images, and tropes. From John of Patmos’ detailed description of the ‘New Jerusalem’ (Revelation 21-22) to Augustine’s snapshots of different Mediterranean urban spaces in the City of God, the process of evoking a city inevitably demands the recasting of a selection of urban props functioning as ‘starting points of a topographical reference system’ (Fuhrer, Mundt, and Stenger 2015, 4, following Lynch 1960).

(2) A second trajectory can be seen in the way in which the integration of Christ believers into the web of different inner-city networks and network intersections leads to the formation of personal religious topographies according to the individuals’ work or residence location and their spatial patterns of movements and activities. In particular, as already shown by a few articles sifting through a rather scanty body of literary evidence (Snyder 2007; Billings 2011; Last 2016), a focus on neighbouring relationship may help re-imagine religious recruitment to Christ religion by thinking housing differently and, therefore, shifting the gaze from the interior of the buildings to the nearby streets.

(3) Another key trajectory of citification is the management (through reinforcement or violation) of the spatial bases of social power (Perkins 2002). At the centre is the way in which Christian urban religious agents materially and narratively tinkered with crucial ‘interfaces’ such as the heavily charged boundaries of domestic spaces (widows), carceral spaces (prisoners), and street spaces (poor). These strategies are to be reexamined by foregrounding ‘interspatiality’ as a structural characteristic of urban spaces. In cities, past and present, multifarious spatial arrangements coexist. Their extensions can face each other (interface), be nested into one another (interlocking), or totally overlap (co-spatiality). A single place can thus mean different things to different spatial actors and arrange several logics of action (Lévy 2003: 213-214). The city street, in particular, is a layered territory of superposed plan(e)s of existence with only a few passages in-between – whether these are visual, olfactory, or interactional contact zones. Attention is to be paid to the urban street as the place where the difference between holy-professional and real-material poverty (Brown 2016) is produced and made visible by Christian urban religious agents, sometimes with the aim of refiguring power structures within the Roman imperial society (Holman 2001).

(4) The fourth trajectory corresponds to the spectacularisation of short-term performances in situations of high visibility, such as the martyrs’ use of public city venues like courtrooms and arenas as reported by ancient martyrdom literature. Especially the grand settings for mass entertainment were dense, differentiated, and hierarchically arranged spaces that were fully nested in the urban fabric. Accommodating large crowds, these places were also the outdoor stages where largely fictional narratives about Christians’ fortitude towards pain and death have challenged and inverted socio-spatial relations of power (Maier 2017; Perkins 2001), along with cultural patterns of gendered domination, and established moral codes.

(5) Cities’ ‘culture industry’ was a tantalising opportunity for would-be religious specialists. Urban spaces provided facilities and opportunities such as a ramified commercial production and distribution of books; a sizeable concentration of (relatively) high literacy, basic reading capabilities, and networks of textual exchange; contiguity of intersecting social formations based on, or potentially including, intellectual relationships (master–disciple, patron–client); physical and social accessibility of religious ‘group scenes’ and ‘settings’ (Lichterman 2012) beyond, on the one hand, kinship-based domestic rituals and, on the other, communal ceremonies in monumental buildings. As the best representatives of the ‘intellectualizing religious experts’ (Wendt 2016) flourishing in an increasingly textualised religious world (Rüpke [2016] 2018: 329-339), specialists of Christ religion managed to capitalise on all these urban features. More specifically, the fifth trajectory aims to investigate how religious empowerment in Christian local and translocal networks was affected by the interplay of two urban phenomena: the rampant intellectualising and textualising trend in the production of religious knowledge, authority, and allegiance, on the one hand, and the capacity of urban spaces to distribute power ‘heterarchically,’ that its, to generate, value, and rank different types of power according to different criteria, on the other.

(6) The six trajectory opens a further insight into the religiously fractionised landscapes of urban Christians. Different strategies of theological and ritual distinction corresponded to diverse ways of grouping and achieving religious goals: via breaking off and proselytising against others (Marcion of Sinope); via classifying, excluding, and policing the religious borders (Justin of Neapolis); or via joining and recruiting people from within a broader in-group than the small circle of the doctrinal fellows (the disciples of Valentinus). Along with personal theologies, city-spaces contributed a great deal to these differentiated outcomes. Apart from close proximity and concentration of heterogeneous groups of people, ideas, and medias, cities, especially the big ones, produced also spatial fragmentation and offered possibilities of isolation (see Vinzent 2019: 147-148). Such spatialised perspective allows us to take a fresh look at opposite dynamics of religious grouping and identity construction, such as multiple religious affiliations and normative ‘confessional’ allegiances, as alternative ways to navigate the interplay between urban density and urban sprawl, urban connectivity and urban segmentation, urban overstimulation and urban seclusion.

(7) The seventh trajectory is, at once, the most obvious and under-researched stream of citification. (Religious) theories are urban by definition, since they demand the transformation of agricultural surplus into urban-based institutions and are intellectually produced by specialised sectors of the population released from farming. Yet some of them can be said to be especially urban, even paradigmatically urbane in the way they interact with the special quality, rhythms, and contradictions of urban life. I especially think of theoretical endeavours such as sophisticated dialectical moves (e.g., Paul’s ‘neither/nor’ soteriology), hyper-transcendentalist theogonies and cosmogonies (e.g., worldviews from the Gnostic spectrum), fine doctrines of ontological change (e.g., Cyprian’s theology of the Eucharist), subtle theologisations of foreignness and mimic identities (To Diognetus 5-6), holistic theories of environmental idolatry (Tertullian’s On Idolatry), and guidelines for producing and enacting a Christian value-system in the midst of the ‘secular city’ (Shepherd of Hermas). All these bodies of knowledge are urban-elicited intellectual performances that need to be reassessed in the light of their distinctive socio-spatial conditions of emergence.

Explanatory hypotheses, potential generalisations, possible relations to other factors

Citification beyond and before early Christ religion (i.e., how does religion work in growing nucleated settlements)?

It would be hardly justified to end this paper without raising the question of the comparative scope of the notion of citification beyond the elected case study of early Christ religion. I can see two different issues of a more general order that are related, respectively, (1) to the production of urban religions more or less contemporary to early Christ religion and (2) to the entangled emergence of urban forms and structurally differentiated domains of activities classifiable as religious:

  1. How many other ancient Mediterranean religions are so extensively and diachronically well-documented to permit a substantial validation of this perspective beyond early Christ religion? Otherwise said, to what extent and in how many cases can the concept of citification effectively contribute to show that the state of this religion or that religion in any spatiotemporal context is distinctively urban?

  2. To what extent can the perspective opened up by citification be profitably applied to the study of urban religion before early Christ religion, including the early period of the world history of cities? Most importantly, how can it successfully be brought to bear on the urbanising phases of human nucleated settlements in order to supplement (or question) the dominant interpretive approach focused on political integration and social stratification? We have enough evidence, present and past, for claiming that religion in cities, again past and present, is not only incorporation/entrapment in the city-wide social orders and the institutional empowerment of a city’s religious specialists. Yet can we prove it when it comes to the deep history of urbanism?

Concerning the first issue, of course, the possibility to demonstrate the broad analytical capacity of the concept rests on a compelling evaluation of the state of the documentation concerning other ancient Mediterranean religious traditions, that is, other constellations of religiously infused spatial practices in interaction with the urban space. Interdisciplinary teamwork bringing together different expertise and specialisations is clearly needed in order to establish whether there exist sufficient (and sufficiently good) literary and material evidence to propose ‘citification of religion’ as a valuable cross-cultural and -religious analytical tool for spatially informed enquiries on past Mediterranean religions.

As for the second and thornier question, recent interpretations of archaeological evidence are finally providing a less unilineal pattern of cultural evolution and a more diversified view of the earliest intersections of religion and urban life. For instance, David Carballo’s work on urbanisation in Ancient Central Mexico has shown that the manners in which religion was symbolically materialised and spatially performed in different urban settlements indicates both ‘collective/cooperative’ and ‘individualizing-competitive behavioral dynamics,’ all pursued within the religious tradition (Carballo 2016: 120):

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that strategies covered a spectrum from segmented confederations of semiautonomous groups, bound together by lineage and/or concerned with defense, to highly centralized and hierarchical polities. Variability in strategies would have also characterized domestic spheres… (Carballo 2016: 157).

At the inception of urbanism, too, perspectives promoted by the powerful happened to be ‘altered, or challenged by those with less power.’ In consequence, an ‘equal consideration is advocated for ‘what is shared and what is not in the religious practices of urban elites, urban commoners, and rural or intermediate elites and commoners’ (Carballo 2016: 6). The same agenda can be found in the common concluding chapter of the fourth part of the third volume of the Cambridge World History – dedicated to the rise of urbanism in different regions of independent development. Examining the distribution of power in cities traditionally grouped together as ‘Greek,’ ‘South Asian,’ or ‘African,’ the authors of the section share the following understanding:

Here, we merely end where we began this chapter, arguing that the comparative study of early cities must take into account ancient cities that look different and were organized differently than our standard (and problematic) inherited model: cities that may have consisted of dispersed settlement mounds without a central core; cities that lacked kings, courts, palaces, and state religions; cities whose residents created systems and structures for leadership, administration, and international relations that were dispersed among diverse interlocking groups, rather than under singular linear systems of rule (Sinopoli et al. 2015: 393).

Moreover, as far as the very origins of settled life go, far-reaching research on late Epipaleolithic and Neolithic in the Middle East and Anatolia has suggested a ‘long-term tension’ between ‘house-based’ and ‘sodality-based’ forms of religion allowing for ‘a wider collaboration within segments of the community as a whole’ (Hodder 2018: 25). To date, these competitive processes have been largely overlooked by the predominant focus on public buildings, the diffuse assumption that a single monumental complex served one single function for one crosscutting sodality, and the general understanding of these non-domestic cult centres as architectural hubs bringing cohesion to societal subgroups. Yet, as Ian Hodder has most recently summarised,

[w]hile it is certainly possible that public buildings brought social cohesion to subgroups within society, they also suggest in-groups versus out-groups. Their architectural structure, inward-looking and closed off, indicates more the participation of individuals in secret societies, men’s houses, and other exclusive sodalities (Hodder 2018: 24).

To conclude: speaking of urban religion before urban life and of citification without cities is surely a contradiction in terms. However, even at a time when the world was dotted with sparse ceremonial centres and lacked an interconnected network of urban places (Smith 2019: 67-87), human investment in the communication with special beings brought about a variety of uses and functions and worked to arrange societies along different, sometimes loosely integrated, and competing lines of ordering. By looking at how ritualisation worked in growing nucleated settlements, further enquiries into the deep history of the interface between religion and urbanity may contribute to back up the main argument: urban religion, past and present, is always more – and more interesting – than the sum of big public cult structures and a restricted pool of urban actors functioning as city leaders.


  1. 1

    Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – FOR 2779. I am especially grateful to David Garbin for his suggestions and critiques

  2. 2

    A few preliminary terminological clarifications are needed: (1) religion. My notion of religion is derived from Jörg Rüpke and conceptualized in a way which is hardly troubled by anachronism: ‘religion [is] the temporary and situational enlargement of the environment – judged as relevant by one or several of the actors – beyond the unquestionably plausible social environment inhabited by co-existing humans who are in communication (and hence observable)’ (Rüpke 2015: 348); (2) urbanity. Although Louis Wirth’s seminal article calls the city ‘way of life’ ‘urbanism’ (Wirth 1938), the Anglo-Saxon urbanological discourse has been increasingly resorting to the notion of ‘urbanity’ especially to refer to the cultural-symbolic dimension of cities – contrary to the German ‘Urbanität’, which tends to include also the architectural-functional aspects (Rau 2011). I will adopt ‘urbanity’ when emphasis is put on the former; 3) early Christ religion. Following Harry O. Maier, I employ the phrase ‘Christ religion’ to designate a still inchoate reality in which ‘Christianity’ was not the distinct religious tradition we immediately think of and tend to misleadingly project onto the past (Maier 2018).


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