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27.4.Woolf

Guy Stroumsa has written of the ‘scriptural turn’ as a key component of the religious transformations of the late Roman empire. Indeed if we were to choose a literary signature for late antiquity, we might well choose the proliferation of texts in a new register, the sacred. Produced by Jews and Christians, Manichees and Gnostics among others, and written in a range of languages across the Old World, these texts claimed a new kind of authority, one overly closed to many of the intertextual writing strategies and critical reading modes with which other kinds of authoritative works had been challenged and recognised. Sacred literatures entailed new practices of reading and exegesis, and with this new institutionalizations of reading and ritual, including but not limited to what Brian Stock has called ‘textual communities’. Such communities resembled in many respects those earlier reading cultures recently described by William Johnson but also departed from them as much as they contrasted with the many other uses of texts and ritualized writing common in earlier religious action and from philosophical texts about religion. This paper aims to delineate this phenomenon more precisely, and to ask how those reading practices arose that set sacred literatures at the heart of so many of the religions of late antiquity.

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