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Book Chat Series: Davis Humanities Institute

More on Naomi Janowitz's Work

Naomi Janowitz will be speaking on January 11th, Wednesday from 5:30- 7:00 pm at the I-House on her book Acts of Interpretation: Ancient Religious Semiotic Ideologies and Their Modern Echoes.This guide provides library resources related to this book. 

Book Cover Art


Note about the book from the publisher, De Gruyter: Ancient authors debated proper verbal and non-verbal signs as representations of divinity. These understanding of signs were based on ideas drawn from language and thus limited due to a their partial understanding of the multi-functionality of signs. Charles S. Peirce’s semiotics, as adapted by anthropological linguists including Michael Silverstein, better explains the contextual linkages ("performativity") of ancient religious signs such as divine names. Sign meaning is always dependent on processes of interpretation and is always open to reinterpretation. Focusing on these processes permits a more detailed analysis of the ancient evidence. Examples are drawn from ancient Israelite verbal and non-verbal divine representation, the apostle Paul’s linguistic letter/spirit model, Christian debates about the limits of language to best represent the deity, Josephus’ aniconic advertisement of Jewish rites, the multi-layered divine representations in the Dura-Europos synagogue, the diverse "performativity" of Jewish ascent liturgies, and—the single modern example—the role of art at Burning Man. Divine representation is the basis for ritual efficacy even as sign meaning is a constant source of contention.

Note about the authorNaomi Janowitz is Professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis. Her areas of interest are Judaism in the Greco-Roman context, Hellenistic religions, methods in the study of religions, and the psychoanalytic study of religion. Publications include: Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity (Penn State University Press, 2002) and Magic in the Roman World (Routledge, 2001). Her first book won the Outstanding Academic Book Award from Library/Choice Journal. She has also won an essay prize from the American Psychoanalytic Association and a teaching award from the UC Davis Academic Senate.

Related Reading

Note: To access these citations, copy and paste the italicized titles in the UC Library Search catalog.

Agha, Asif. Language and Social Relations. Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language Ser. ; v.24. Cambridge: University Press, 2006.

 Asiedu, F. B. A. Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity: History and Silence in the First Century. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019.

Bakker, Mathieu de, and Irene J. F. de Jong. Speech in Ancient Greek Literature. Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative ; Volume 5. Leiden ; Brill, 2022.

Barasch, Moshe. Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York: University Press, 1992.

Barclay, John M. G. Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. Library of Second Temple Studies 45. London ; T & T Clark International, 2004.

Bennett, Brian P. Sacred Languages of the World: An Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2018.

Corrington, Robert S. A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.

Deutsch, Nathaniel. The Gnostic Imagination: Gnosticism, Mandaeism, and Merkabah Mysticism. Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, v. 13. Leiden ; E.J. Brill, 1995.

Elledge, C. D. Life after Death in Early Judaism: The Evidence of Josephus. Mohr Siebeck, 2006.

Fisette, Jean. Introduction a la semiotique de C.S. Peirce. Collection Etudes et documents. Montreal: XYZ, 1990.

Fleming, Luke. “Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity.” Anthropological Quarterly 84, no. 1 (2011): 141–64. 

———., and Michael Lempert. “Introduction: Beyond Bad Words.” Anthropological Quarterly 84, no. 1 (2011): 5–13. 

Friis, Martin. Image and Imitation: Josephus’ Antiquities 1-11 and Greco-Roman Historiography. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 472. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.

Gal, Susan. “Multiplicity and Contention among Ideologies: A Commentary.” Pragmatics : Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association, 2022, 445–49.

Gal, Susan, and Judith T. Irvine. Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life. Cambridge: University Press, 2019.

Hobbs, Valerie. An Introduction to Religious Language: Exploring Theolinguistics in Contemporary Contexts. London ; Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York? Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Josephus, Flavius. Josephus. The Loeb Classical Library 186. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

King, Richard. Religion, Theory, Critique: Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodologies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Klutz, Todd. The Exorcism Stories in Luke-Acts: A Sociostylistic Reading. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 129. Cambridge: University Press, 2004.

Leone, Massimo. Religious Conversion and Identity: The Semiotic Analysis of Texts. Routledge Studies in Religion. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2003.

Lightstone, Jack N. Ritual and Ethnic Identity: A Comparative Study of the Social Meaning of Liturgical Ritual in Synagogues. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995.

May, G. “Creatio Ex Nihilo.” Theological Studies 56, no. 3 (1995): 605.

Mertz, Elizabeth. “Semiotic Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36, no. 1 (2007): 337–53. 

Mizrahi, Noam. “Priests of Qoreb: Linguistic Enigma and Social Code in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” In Hebrew of the Late Second Temple Period, 37–64. Brill, 2015.

Niditch, Susan. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. The Wiley Blackwell Companions to Religion. Chichester, West Sussex, UK ; John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2016.

Olupona, Jacob K. “Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity.” New York: Routledge, 2004.

Olyan, Saul M. Rites and Rank Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult. Course Book. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Orlov, Andrei A., and Daphna Arbel. With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic and Mysticism in Honor of Rachel Elior. Ekstasis, Religious Experience from Antiquity to the Middle Ages ; v. 2. Berlin ; De Gruyter, 2011.

Parmentier, Richard J. Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Indiana University Press, 1994.

Pathak, Shubha. Figuring Religions: Comparing Ideas, Images, and Activities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.

Peirce, Charles S. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Rajak, Tessa. Josephus: The Historian and His Society. 2nd ed., pbk. Ed. London: Duckworth, 2002.

Rappaport, Roy A. “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology).” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press 72 (1999): 79.

Scholem, Gershom. Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition. Second, Improved edition. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1965.

———. Origins of the Kabbalah. 1st English ed. Princeton Paperbacks. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1987.

Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Senft, Gunter, and Ellen B. Basso. Ritual Communication. English ed. Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series. Oxford ; Berg Publishers, 2009.

Silverstein, Michael. “‘Cultural’ Concepts and the Language-Culture Nexus.” Current Anthropology 45, no. 5 (2004): 621–52.

———. “Private Ritual Encounters, Public Ritual Indexes.” In Ritual Communication, 271–92. Routledge, 2020.

———. “The Uses and Utility of Ideology: Some Reflections.” Pragmatics 2, no. 3 (1992): 311–23.

———. “Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology. I P. Clyne, WF Hanks, & CL Hofbauer (Red.).” The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistiv Units and Levels, 1979, 79–53852.

Silverstein, Michael, and Greg Urban. Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Yelle, Robert A. Semiotics of Religion Signs of the Sacred in History. Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics. London ; Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Related Articles by Naomi Janowitz

Note: To access these citations, copy and paste the italicized titles in the UC Library Search catalog.


Janowitz, Naomi. “Ancient Ideologies of Ineffability and Their Echoes.” Signs and Society (Chicago, Ill.) 6, no. 1 (2018): 45–63. 

———. “Dayna S. Kalleres. City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity.” The American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): 339–40. 

———. Envy of Maternal Functions in Sacrific Rituals. eScholarship, University of California, 2008.

———. “Framing the Intentions of Suicide Bombers.” Religions (Basel, Switzerland ) 13, no. 9 (2022): 864-. 

———. “Freud’s Legacy and Modern Theories of Ineffable Trauma.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 79, no. 2 (2019): 212–29. 

———. “Good Jews Don’t: Historical and Philosophical Constructions of Idolatry.” History of Religions 47, no. 2 (2007): 239–52. 

———. Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity. Magic in History. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002.

———. “Inventing the Scapegoat: Theories of Sacrifice and Ritual.” Journal of Ritual Studies 25, no. 1 (2011): 15–24.

———. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. London: Routledge, 2001.

———. “Rabbis and Their Opponents: The Construction of the ‘Min’ in Rabbinic Anecdotes.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6, no. 3 (1998): 449–62. 

———. “Rereading Sacrifice: The Semiosis of Blood.” Signs and Society (Chicago, Ill.) 3, no. 2 (2015): 193–208.

———. The Poetics of Ascent: Theories of Language in a Rabbinic Ascent Text. SUNY Series in Judaica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

———. “The Talking Cure as Action: Freud’s Theory of Ritual Revisited.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 71, no. 3 (2011): 217–37.