Jennifer Eyl. Signs, Wonders, and Gifts: Divination in the Letters of Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Giovanni B. Bazzana. Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
This symposium marks a new format—thus, a novel intellectual experiment—for Syndicate. Instead of the back-and-forth between several scholars’ reviews and an author’s remarks, we instead consider two books at the same time, and their respective authors interact not only with their reviewers, but also with each other. These books share a generative synergy, their common focus on ancient pneuma combining with their authors’ radically different approaches to constructing interpretive context. Reviewing them together has made all of our various collegial interactions a wonderful exercise in thinking about interdisciplinarity and critical comparison in Religious Studies.
Signs, Wonders, and Gifts (Eyl) and Having the Spirit of Christ (Bazzana) may occupy two separate hard-copy bodies, but they are united in one spirit. Personified, that would be the spirit of Jonathan Z. Smith.1 Smith’s enduring essays sounded the summons to comparison—disciplined, deliberate explorations of sameness and of difference—when studying ancient religions. But, as both Eyl’s and Bazzana’s titles imply, and as all readers of Drudgery Divine know, when the religion in question is ancient Christianity, and the period in question so-called “Christian Origins,” particular and peculiar problems tend to arise. Their etiology is not complex: the search for “origins,” as Steve Weizmann has recently and persuasively argued, is almost invariably linked to questions of identity.2
Weizmann’s observation underscores a key distinction, for Christianists, between doing theology and doing history. Christian theology is produced by, for, and within confessional institutions, be these churches or faculties of divinity. Theology is primarily exegetical. Theologians navigate their exegesis of the New Testament (and of the Old Testament) while steering by community-specific points of doctrine: “monotheism,” “incarnation,” “resurrection,” “salvation,” “grace, not works” (a Protestant inflection), “transubstantiation” (a Catholic one), “miaphysitism” (an Ethiopian one), and so on. In this way, contemporary theology accomplishes a refamiliarization of these ancient texts. Theology infuses them with contemporary meaning. It thus stabilizes trans-temporal (though denominationally various) Christian identity.
What happens when these texts are approached comparatively, using interdisciplinary methods and models? When they are placed within interpretive contexts that owe more to Clifford Geertz than to Chalcedon? How do non-confessional interpretive contexts affect—and effect—ancient textual content? Historical thinking works to defamiliarize these too-familiar texts. It reconstructs the ancient identities of their authors and audiences, identities that have little or nothing to do with modern ones. It reimagines a social world within which people did not think about the things that we think about in the ways that we think about things.
Rereading Christian canonical texts with these issues and commitments foremost, both Eyl’s work and Bazzana’s offer dazzlingly refreshing results. Their research dismantles the huge and anachronistic identity bins that all of us, for convenience, continue (while lamenting) to pitch our data into: “Judaism,” “Hellenism,” “Paganism,” and that most anachronistic bin of all for this mid-first-century period: “Christianity.”3 The Jesus redescribed by Bazzana is eerily Other. The apostle whom both scholars conjure is more at home in the ancient Mediterranean than in sixteenth-century Wittenburg (or its many twenty-first-century iterations). And, intriguingly, though each scholar works to vanquish anachronism, they do so by deploying utterly different strategies.
Eyl’s Paul sits securely within a context of ancient and widespread divinatory practices. He claims to understand divine intentions by decoding ancient texts, by journeying through the heavens, by witnessing epiphanies. And he validates these claims in two ways. First, he appeals to his own powers: Paul himself performs “wonders,” miraculous healings and “deeds of power”; he prophesies; he speaks in celestial tongues. Second, Paul appeals to his ability to impart these very same charismata pneumatika to individuals within his assemblies: they too can do these things (though not as much or as well, says Paul, as Paul does). Paul avoids using the terms mantikē and mageia, but, to a contemporary outsider (and, perhaps, even to an insider), these acts are what he seems to perform.
The enabling medium of charismatic performance is divine pneuma—whether the pneuma of God, of Christ, or simply “holy pneuma.” Infused through immersion, this pneuma not only heralds the impending end of the age: it ensures eschatological somatic change and life immortal, promising the transformation of fleshly bodies, whether of the quick or of the dead, into bodies of pneuma. (Roman-period gods, stars and angels, of whatever religious denomination or sectarian allegiance, often had bodies made of this same stuff.)4 In exchange for all this, Paul’s gentiles must foreswear “the works of the flesh” (defined according to the categories of Jewish anti-pagan rhetoric), the worship of their own gods, and the teachings of any other apostles of Christ if those differed from Paul’s own. Through spirit, these gentiles are enabled to remain loyal to Paul’s god, the god of Israel, alone. Through spirit, these non-Jews are enabled to fulfill those parts of Jewish law that Paul urges on them. Like the biblical Abraham, these gentiles, through spirit, are enabled to live according to trust (pistis) in this god, as also in his son.
As Eyl crisply puts it herself, “This book is largely a project of redescription, comparison, and taxonomy.” No small task, given the principled theological exceptionalism (“illusion of uniqueness”) that so many Pauline scholars have walled Paul behind.5 Patiently, provocatively, pellucidly, she builds her thick description with an impressively broad-ranging command of sources on various ancient divinatory practices, on protocols of regular divine/human exchange, and on the practices of other divinatory experts. (An admirably “interfaith” group: standing beside Paul are Apollonius, Ptolemy Soter, Dionysus of Philadelphia, and Apuleius’ Lucius.) All of these diviners lived in a semiotically structured world, decoding signaled information crucially important to maintaining ancient divine/human reciprocity. In short: Paul made sense to his contemporaries, who were his target audience, because he (as they) fit into this ancient Mediterranean context. This depiction should need neither to be defended nor to be demonstrated, if what we seek is an historical understanding of any first-century person. Yet, in fact—due to the complicated relationships between confessional theologies and Religious Studies—the case does need to be made, again and again. Eyl’s essay does so elegantly and compellingly. Though her cultural contextualization and her taxonomic redescription, Eyl in effect brings the first-century apostle back home.
If Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts scrupulously resituates the “what” of Paul’s divinatory practices in Mediterranean antiquity, Bazzana’s Having the Spirit of Christ boldly redescribes the “how.” Eyl productively placed Paul among his (ethnicly, thus religiously, variegated) chronological peers, and they all would have made sense to each other. Bazzana, in vivid contrast, cheerfully violates temporal and cultural parameters. Modern cross-cultural anthropology; current Caribbean cults; the observed dynamics of spirit possession: these provide the timber for Bazzana’s interpretive scaffolding. The result is a powerfully reimagined view of pneuma, of its manifold muscular manifestations, and of its social and community-building power within this peculiar late Second Temple Jewish movement.
Both Jesus and Paul, as Bazzana notes, dealt with daimonia (“godlings,” translated passim a bit too diminutively as “demons”; cf. p. 25) and pneumata. Jesus’s “demons” and “unclean spirits” seem local and low-level nonhuman agents, often causing physical or mental illness. Jesus-cum-exorcist routinely bests them. But when Jesus does so, as Bazzana observes, he works with spirits within himself as well, “as an embodied and affective phenomenon” (20). “One of the major hindrances to the viability of ‘religious experience’ as a scholarly category,” Bazzana notes, “is certainly its past use to sanction essentializing and Christocentric constructions” (21; cf., on 34, his discussion of “the controversial identity of the spirit [Beezelbub] helping Jesus in his exorcisms”). Exorcists command spirits, but they do so through other spirits (cf. Mark 1:9–12).
Paul by contrast had to deal with “big” daimonia—the gods of the nations (1 Cor 10:20; cf. Ps 95:5 LXX; 2 Cor 4:4)—as well as more local varieties. But against these, Paul could marshal the pneuma of God’s own warrior-son, Christ himself. Bazzana’s anthropologically inflected insights, applied to the apostle, open up enduringly difficult passages to new and simpler, more straightforward meanings. Christ’s spirit is quite literally in Paul (e.g., Gal 1:14), in the bodies of those who trust (thus, who have been immersed into that spirit, e.g., Gal 3:27–28). To be “in Christ” and to have Christ’s spirit “in you” means exactly that. (This material locality in turn accounts for Paul’s concerns about purity, porneia and pollution, 1 Cor 6:15–20; cf. 7:12–14, moving in the other direction, on mixed marital unions achieving “sanctification.”) Paul’s assemblies have Christ in them, and have put Christ “on” them (Rom 13:14; 1 Cor 15:53–54). Further, as Bazzana explores, spirit possession also and often involves performance, once the human medium is inhabited by the other, alien subjectivity—an observation that demystifies Paul’s odd claim to his Galatian his auditors that Christ crucified had been presented “before your eyes” (Gal 3:1). Paul, with Christ “in” him, enacts and thus re-presents Christ.
Finally, this pneumatic empowerment shared between Paul and his assemblies demonstrates and validates Paul’s teaching that his trans-local groups, all “in” one spirit, are also and thereby in “one body,” the trans-local, trans-personal pneumatic body of Christ. By radically utilizing cross-cultural studies, providing the lens of spirit possession through which to see Paul’s letters, Bazzana has given us an astonishingly original, provocative, and enlightening interpretation. And we gain an exegetical payoff: some of Paul’s most obscure passages make straightforward sense within their historical context.
Our four reviewers—William Arnal, Peter Struck, Emma Wasserman, and Annette Yoshiko Reed—all interact energetically with our authors, commenting on both (methodological) style and (epistemological) substance. In “A Kind of Wildness,” Arnal celebrates the refreshing coherence accomplished by these two readings, which relocate their subject(s) within “a world populated . . . with a host of superhuman entities and agents,” “deeply embedded in the culture of the Roman world.” Historical and cultural context, he observes, provides more than “background.” Rather, it also gives the “conditions of possibility” within which Paul, as his contemporaries, thought and acted.6 Thinking with possession as performance, mulling over the god Glycon (whose epiphanies were assisted by the use of puppets) as well as the devices of late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Spiritualists, Arnal closes with his own provocative question: “Just how wild a Paul are we prepared to imagine?”
Classicist Peter Struck, no stranger to ancient semiotics himself,7 also begins with Eyl’s and Bazzana’s nod to J. Z. Smith, noting the nature of “comparison” qua technique of understanding, and the ways that it demands acknowledgment of and respect for difference. In Struck’s nice phrasing, there is no “periodic table of human cultural forms.” Redescription of phenomena and “rectification of academic categories”—in Eyl’s term, “taxonomies”—are both the goal and the means by which comparison proceeds. Eyl stays culturally and historically “local”; Bazzana by contrast wanders widely. But both produce a Paul whose utter difference from the modern “us” has got to be a step in the right direction toward reading his texts in their originary sense. In a final fun romp through terms (this time ancient, not modern), Struck notes Paul’s resistance to contemporary identifiers such as mageia, goêteia, and mantikē, and suddenly brings to Paul’s rescue—Iamblichus! (Let the reader understand.) Together, both books, Struck comments in closing, demonstrate that comparison as a technique of study for ancient “religion” is, “thank goodness . . . shown to be alive and well.”
Emma Wasserman, in “Possession, Exorcism, and Pneumatic Presence,” also lauds the “startling breadth, depth, and creativity” of these two research agendas. She observes how Eyl resituates Paul’s vocabulary of charis and of pistis out from their respective sixteenth-century theological lock boxes (“grace”; “faith”) back into a world full of nonhuman agents. These two terms are “relatively ordinary,” “shared by human and nonhuman personalities (daimonia, pneumata, kyrioi, theoi) across Jewish, Greek, and Roman traditions.” Charis as “benefaction” and pistis as “trust” or “loyalty” attest to the basic economies of exchange structuring ancient reciprocal relations between humans and their nonhuman neighbors, at whatever cosmic register. Bazzana’s work, Wasserman observes, in turn destabilizes those “modern notions of personhood” that dominate New Testament scholarship, illumining the indeterminacy of ancient “self’ in a world where personalities interpenetrate each other; where humans can host spirits, appeal to them, command them, discern them, and convey them to others. Paul’s language of identification with and imitation of Christ (Rom 6:3–4; 2 Cor 4:7–12), his claims that Christ “lives in” him (Gal 2:20), and that he visually exhibited Christ crucified to his assemblies (Gal 3:1) take on new meanings if read as Paul’s (self-fashioned) claims to authority as the ultimate arch-mediator of divine pneuma.8
Finally, in “Reading the New Testament before ‘Religion,’” Annette Reed offers nothing less than a discourse on method. She underscores the ways that our concepts of “religion” are “rooted in European efforts to universalize the values of the Reformation and Enlightenment,” most specifically, of course, those of Protestantism. Hailing Eyl’s and Bazzana’s defamiliarized Paul as a challenge to “the isolationism of New Testament Studies” with its thick theological overlay, Reed applauds, as well, their historiographical achievement, “rereading Paul as ordinary,” that is, as an identifiable type within a cultural context “in which interchange between human and divine formed part of the fabric of every day social life.” Perhaps Paul so insisted on his own uniqueness, she speculates, precisely “because he was not so unique.”
Anthropological comparanda, as Reed notes in closing, “will surely inspire some discomfort.” “What might it look like,” she asks finally, if, following the lead of Eyl and Bazzana, “we reconfigured our approaches to ancient ideas about divinity to decenter monotheism, and to focus instead on mapping a multiplicity of spirits in reciprocity with humankind?”
What, indeed? I think that we students of ancient religions would discover that we do not, in fact, study “religion.” Rather, we seek to reimagine, reconstruct and narratively re-present the many different relationships—all variously organized, maintained, and enacted—between two broad (and graduated, and sometimes overlapping) species of ancient social agents: humans, and their gods.
Smith’s pneuma currently resides as well within the lithe and lively recent essay by Matthew V. Novenson, “Beyond Compare; or, Some Recent Strategies for Not Comparing Early Christianity with Other Things,” in J. Barclay and B. White, eds., The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Tradition, Library of New Testament Studies (London: T. & T. Clark, 2020), 79–94.↩
The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).↩
As soon as we have evidence of the post-crucifixion Christ-movements—which is to say, Paul’s letters—we have evidence of vigorous variety and internal dispute. And as time went on, Constantine’s frustration and ire notwithstanding, that variety only increased. Why, then, does my spell check warn me off of writing “Christianities”?↩
“Spirit” is “stuff”: it is material (though very fine matter), not immaterial. See esp. Troels Engeberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).↩
For a recent example, claiming that Paul’s use of the language of ethnicity actually expresses his “irreducibly theological” meanings of peoplehood and identity, all configured around “grace” and “belief in Christ,” John M. G. Barclay, “An Identity Received from God: The Theological Configuration of Paul’s Kinship Discourse,” Early Christianity 8 (2017) 354–72, here at 369. When one recalls that Paul’s audiences are recently pagan mid-first-century gentiles, it is difficult to imagine how well they could have followed (aurally!) such a sophisticated and clearly Protestant theology as Barclay’s interpretation seems to represent.↩
As Arnal notes, “The Christian Paul of so much scholarship is not merely an anachronism. He is also just not believable as a real human being.”↩
Struck, The Birth of the Symbol (2004) and, most recently, Divination and Human Nature (2016), both published by Princeton University Press.↩
In this connection—Paul’s self-fashioning—many of our discussants cite the important work of Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Early Roman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).↩