Symposium Introduction

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.

  1. 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.

  2. The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

  3. 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”?

  4. “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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.”

  7. Struck, The Birth of the Symbol (2004) and, most recently, Divination and Human Nature (2016), both published by Princeton University Press.

  8. 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).

William Arnal


A Kind of Wildness

[EPI]Uttering a few meaningless words like Hebrew or Phoenician, he dazed the creatures, who did not know what he was saying.”



Giovanni Bazzana’s Having the Spirit of Christ and Jennifer Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts are complementary interventions that recast our understanding of the origins of Christianity, and especially our understanding of Paul.2 The books are by no means identical. Prof. Bazzana focuses rather precisely on the phenomenon of spirit possession, and argues, drawing cross-culturally from anthropological accounts of possession in the present and recent past, that the behavior and thought of the earliest Jesus people, particularly but not exclusively Paul, were deeply informed by a practice of possession. Specifically, he claims, Paul believed himself to be possessed by the spirit of Christ, with transformative effects, and further, that Paul believed that such possession of and by Christ’s spirit was something that he could mediate to the members of his ekklēsiai. Bazzana does not imagine this possession in the anemic sense of a metaphor for moral attitudes or for demythologized existential stances: as his comparative examples indicate, we are talking here about actual, tangible, possession by a nonhuman agent, a temporally extended event that requires the host to substantially reconfigure their personality or subjectivity. Indeed, Bazzana thinks it possible that, in addition to possession by the spirit of Christ, Paul also struggled with possession by a demonic entity.3 Bazzana’s sensitive appreciation of the fact that Paul lived in a world populated, even at the quotidian level, with a host of superhuman entities agents allows him to read Paul more coherently, and more literally, than is the norm in our field.

Professor Eyl’s book, by contrast, makes a broader case about Paul’s activity, namely, that his behavior, as well as his ideas, were quite typical of his cultural environment. More precisely, Eyl argues, Paul uses typical techniques shared by other religious specialists who claimed superhuman authorization. This only makes sense: Paul’s claims, to be plausible to any of his auditors, had to conform to that audience’s shared cultural expectations of how the gods communicate with and authorize mortals. Like other self-authorized religious specialists in the Roman era,4 Paul engages in divinatory and wonder-working (or “magic”) practices, thereby demonstrating his connection to the supernatural world, and thereby his authorization. He approaches deity in terms of a reciprocal relationship between God and human beings, as manifested in Paul’s language of faithfulness (pistis). He even presents his ritual of baptism as capable of producing an actual physical transformation in his initiates (Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, 129–42). Eyl’s argument, though filled with positive insights into both Paul and the general religious practices of Roman antiquity, is somewhat polemical in intent: it aims to undermine and discredit the (frankly apologetic) scholarly argument that Paul was unique, alien from his context, unlike any other religious practitioners of his period. Eyl demonstrates that Paul is very deeply embedded in the culture of the Roman world, and best understood in its terms. The cultural environment in question, moreover, is not the carefully circumscribed realm of “Judaism” (which functions in too much Christian origins scholarship, and even in Classics, as a kind of prophylaxis for “pagan influences” on canonical writings), but extends to the whole Roman world, including but not limited to Judean practices, texts, and their reception.

Notwithstanding their differences in focus and core argument, these two books are deeply convergent. Indeed, one might even say that they are necessary complements to each other. For Eyl provides the social and cultural context within which Bazzana’s claims about spirit possession actually work, while he provides something like the beating heart at the center of Paul’s agenda, its inspiration (pun definitely intended). Eyl’s study reconstructs the social place of the kind of figure that Paul was, and his conformity to that role; Bazzana’s work describes the experiential (or, dare I say, existential) motivation both for Paul himself and for those attracted to him, his genuinely religious je ne sais quoi. Eyl establishes Paul as an ancient, Roman-era religious specialist, while Bazzana offers an indication of what people stood to gain from such a figure. Indeed, we could argue that the kind of character Paul is, according to Eyl, i.e., a religious specialist lacking institutional authorization, would require something in the nature of the possession-performance to provide that otherwise-absent divine imprimatur—it is this combination of social role and specific behavior that sheds the most light on the question of the attraction Paul had for his auditors. It is not quite accurate to say that Eyl provides the form and Bazzana the content, but it is, at least, an exaggeration in the direction of truth. The same complementarity applies to context. Both books, quite rightly, share a strong concern with context, as more than mere background, as instead something more like the conditions of possibility of Paul’s (and other early Jesus people’s) action and thought. But for Eyl the contextual argument is strictly historical. For Bazzana, by contrast, the contextual element is anthropological and cross-cultural.

These are mutually affirming arguments: Eyl describes the historical practices of Roman-era religious specialists, while Bazzana describes the human plausibility of (some of) those practices. Consider baptism, for example. In Having the Spirit of Christ, Bazzana discusses Paul’s peculiar use of the phrase en Christōi, arguing that it reflects the experience of subjectivity Paul shares with Christ’s possessing spirit, which he (Paul) understands himself to be within, at the same time that it is within him. What I think is striking here is that a locus classicus for the phrase is Galatians 3:27–28,5 where it is associated with baptism—it is baptism that provides “entry” into Christ, and which alters identity so as to erase various social distinctions. Given Bazzana’s argument that the language of being “in Christ” makes sense within the framework of possession experiences,6 backed up somewhat by the Markan presentation of Jesus’ baptism as the precise moment at which Jesus comes to be possessed by a holy spirit (see Mark 1:9–12),7 it might be reasonable to understand the Pauline practice of baptism as a kind of ecstatic ritual in which the initiate comes to be possessed by the spirit of Christ. Enter, now, Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, in which Eyl argues that one of the things that Paul promises his auditors is a physical metamorphosis, specifically, transformation into a pneuma-body in consequence of baptism. But how is that transformation demonstrated, what is its mechanism, what is its immediate effect? What does it involve, tangibly, as opposed being some kind of overly-theologized inner disposition? Eyl does not say. But Bazzana, implicitly, does—it takes the form of possession by a spirit, consequent on baptism. This is just one example of how each of the two works, read in tandem, complements and fleshes out the other: Eyl identifies the Pauline claim about baptism, while Bazzana provides the information that elucidates how that claim is imagined to work, concretely.

But among the most wonderful elements shared by these two books is a transformation that they effect, namely a transformation of Paul from the utterly arid, sterile, anachronistic Christian (and specifically Protestant) theologian of too much of our field’s scholarship, a figure who appears entirely concerned with ensuring that the members of his ekklēsiai have fully assimilated Martin Luther’s doctrinal teachings. This transformation is a function of an attitudinal and methodological convergence, a genuine concern to redescribe Paul—in the strong, Jonathan Z. Smith sense of “redescription”—as a figure who makes sense both as an actual historical person living in the Early Roman period. The Christian Paul of so much scholarship is not merely an anachronism. He is also just not believable as a real human being. He has no precedents, there is nothing attractive about him, he is occupied in arid pontificating on obscure doctrinal errors to people who on the one hand seem to have decided that a unique and alien ideology is just the thing for them, and on the other hand, seem to have misunderstood it at every level. This Protestant Paul is not simply implausible—he (along with his scholarly enablers) is also mind-shatteringly boring, a pious caviller whose “religion” is a bloodless (and bodiless) abstraction.

In sharpest contrast, Paul as he emerges from Eyl’s and especially Bazzana’s book has a kind of wildness to him. He is a man living in a world populated by tangible supernatural beings (the cast provided by Bazzana) who engage in tangible ways (the mechanisms provided by Eyl) with human beings. He is an agent of some of those beings (God, a holy spirit, the spirit of Christ, the Son of God), and he struggles with others (Satan, spirits, demons). This affects, even determines, his behavior. Part of this transformation involves emphasizing practice over belief: Paul doesn’t live in his head.8 Part of it is just paying attention to how people actually behave, whether in the historical past or in a general cross-cultural sense. In any case, the Paul who results from both books is a much stranger and more alien character—a genuinely ancient figure, significantly different from us—and at the same time a much more plausible figure precisely because of that difference, a figure for whom there are actual analogues, in antiquity and today.


In the space that remains I would like to pose two questions to Eyl and Bazzana. The first proceeds from Bazzana’s injunction to “dare to take literally” language and descriptions that occur in Paul’s letters, even if—especially if—doing so produces a Paul whose worldview is alien to our own sensibilities (Having the Spirit of Christ, 154). Bazzana asserts, for example, that it was Paul’s possession by the spirit of Christ that explains his peculiar claim (Gal 3:1) that the Galatians were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion:9 they really did see Christ crucified, because they saw the spirit of Christ literally em-bodied in a possessed Paul. In this connection, Bazzana states, with his usual care, that “those scholars who have suggested a theatrical element behind these passages from Galatians are not wrong . . . as long as we do not think anachronistically of passion plays or dramatic reenactments of the Gospels,” and adds that “an element of performance is inherent in all cases of spirit possession” (158). Indeed, in several of the more modern examples of possession cited by Bazzana, props and distinctive dress play a part in such performances. And Eyl notes the possibility that the death and resurrection of Christ was reenacted in the ritual of baptism (139). In the light of these considerations, I want to draw attention to another of Paul’s terminological peculiarities: his language about “putting on” Christ. Perhaps the most famous example is Galatians 3:27: “For everyone who has been baptized into Christ has put on Christ.”10 Similar language is used in Romans and 1 Corinthians.11 The verb here—endysasthe—can mean to get into, or even to dwell in, which meshes well with Bazzana’s overall treatment of possession, but the word’s base meaning is “to wear,” as in wearing clothes.12 The very same letter where Paul describes baptism as “putting on” or “wearing” Christ is the one in which he describes Christ as having been crucified before the very eyes of Paul’s auditors (Gal 3:1, as above). As Bazzana has shown, Paul is a man possessed by the spirit of Christ, and thus, if our cross-cultural parallels can be relied on, a man who performs Christ, indeed, performs Christ crucified. Under these circumstances, might we not dare to take literally Paul’s language of dressing in Christ, and conclude that his exhibition of himself in possessed form included props—such as a mask, distinctive clothing, or whatever it is that Paul refers to when he says that he bears the marks of Christ on his body (Gal 6:17)?

Obviously, this suggestion is more than a little speculative, and I have no idea how one might go about proving it. But I think that Eyl’s book points to at least one potential avenue for reinforcing such a speculation, namely, the behaviors of Paul’s contemporaries.13On the one hand, it is easy enough to find ancient examples of the use of distinctive clothing, dramatic props, and masks in religious ritual.14 The Golden Ass for example describes a procession of Isis devotees in which one party processed, inter alia, with mirrors tied to the backs of their heads, and another carrying combs with which they pantomimed combing the goddess’s hair.15 Masks were used famously used in cult of Dionysus; also in the Spartan cult of Artemis Orthia; and animal masks in the cult of Demeter and Despoina at Lycosura.16 On the other hand, perhaps a more persuasive analogy would have to be sought among the religious specialists whom Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts identifies as the closest historical analogues we have for Paul’s activity—and even more precisely, in the repertoire of techniques those figures used when plying their wares. Alexander of Abonoteichus, one such specialist, established a set of observances around a newly-born snake deity—Glycon—whom he claimed was a new manifestation of Asklepios. Lucian of Samosata describes one of the props Alexander used in his evangelism: a puppet of his god. Says Lucian: “They had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.”17 So my question, to both Bazzana and Eyl, is this: Does the—evidently quite successful—use of an actual puppet to “incarnate” his god by Alexander (as well as other religious props and masks from the period, and the examples of props used in modern possessions) lend credence to the idea that Paul may well have “dressed in” Christ in some form when he was possessed by Christ’s spirit?

No doubt some readers will object to my use of the example of Alexander of Abonoteichus on the grounds that he was an obvious fraud, and Paul was not. It is worth bearing in mind that Lucian’s portrayal of Alexander is one-sided, and probably should not be taken as the whole story. Nonetheless, there is something decidedly sleazy about Alexander. Conversely, Bazzana’s Having the Spirit of Christ makes a sustained effort to present possession (and hence its appearance in Jesus, in Paul, and in the modern examples cited in the book) as genuinely experienced, as something not reducible to fraud, or mental illness, or some other condescending reimagination of the phenomenon, but as a real engagement with an alien subjectivity. His evidence for the sincerity and reality of the phenomenon is drawn from modern ethnographic accounts of possession.

But I would like to suggest that there is a specific instance of modern spirit-possession, much closer to home, that is ignored here, and one that casts a rather different light on the matter of fraudulence: the Spiritualism of the latter nineteenth century. In especially the Anglophone world, from about the 1840s to, eventually, the 1920s, there was a widespread practice, associated with Spiritualism, of communication with the spirits of dead, often via mediums, that is, specifically, figures who would be possessed by these spirits and “channel” them. But, as documented in the famous report of the University of Pennsylvania’s Seybert Commission in 1887, as well as other subsequent revelations, the practice was rife with fraud. Among such frauds were instances of artificial production of “ectoplasm” (a fine pneuma-like substance that allowed the spirits to manifest in physical form), via cheesecloth, gauze, potato starch, egg whites, paper, handkerchiefs, and stuffed gloves (both cloth and rubber)—Mina Crandon even used an ectoplasmic hand carved out of animal liver. Alexander of Abonoteichus’ Glycon-puppet would have felt right at home!

The analogues for fraud here are both historically contextual and cross-cultural: the Spiritualists demonstrate that the purveyors of even a remarkably popular and sincerely-believed modern religious movement formed in part around possession, were engaged in fraudulent activity. And the example of Alexander indicates that the kind of figure Paul was, in his context, was the kind of figure who was frequently (and, apparently, with some justice) accused of legerdemain at the very least. Indeed, one of Lucian’s accusations is that Alexander faked symptoms that very well could have imitated spirit-possession: “Alexander was a man of mark and note, affecting as he did to have occasional fits of madness and causing his mouth to foam. This he easily managed by chewing the root of soapwort, the plant that dyers use; but to his fellow-countrymen even the foam seemed supernatural and awe-inspiring.”18 Like Paul, as the epigram to this paper illustrates, Alexander also used foreign or nonsense words to overawe his audience. In light of all this, I am somewhat unsatisfied with Eyl’s declaration that “we need not take a position regarding Paul’s sincerity, earnestness, or authenticity” (Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, 21), nor with Bazzana’s exclusive (if entirely understandable) emphasis on the sincerity of possession. And so my final question to Eyl and Bazzana: can we be confident of the transparency of Paul’s behavior? Did he perhaps engage in some forms of theatricality and even deception as part of the practice of his trade? Just how wild a Paul are we prepared to imagine?

  1. Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 13. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, pp. 193, 195.

  2. Though Bazzana’s book also provides extensive exploration of materials in the synoptic tradition, and specifically the presentation of Jesus’s exorcistic activity. Alas, the constraints of this format do not permit me to engage much with this material.

  3. He also argues that Jesus—or the figure of Jesus as presented in the synoptic tradition—likewise struggled to integrate hostile or alien demonic entities, including, per the story in Mark 3:22 / Q 11:14–20, Beelzebul.

  4. As opposed to institutionally authorized, as, e.g., priests in an established temple.

  5. NRSV, emphasis added: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ (eis Christon) have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (en Christon Iēsou).”

  6. Bazzana argues that similar synoptic language about Jesus casting out demons en Beelzeboul (e.g., Luke 11:15) likewise constitutes an exploration of the identity of the agent possessing (and being possessed by) Jesus.

  7. Note, too, that it is precisely at the moment of his possession by a holy spirit that Jesus is forced to struggle with the devil (Mark 1:12–13). Bazzana argues that a possession is very often initially experienced as a struggle—a contest between the possessed and the possessing agent, one in which the possessed person must struggle to transform their subjectivity and identity, and one in which the possessing agent must, in a process that is as much social as individual, be correctly identified (which latter we also see in Jesus’ exorcisms). Paul, says Bazzana, also happens to struggle with a Satanic spirit (2 Cor 12:7). So the sequence of baptism, then possession, then a struggle with a demonic entity in Mark’s opening makes perfect sense as a reflection of the experience of spirit-possession. Using Mark to shed light on Paul is, I think, warranted (with due caution), in light of some of the recent arguments that have been offered to the effect that Mark is a Paulinist writing, e.g., Joel Marcus, “Mark—Interpreter of Paul,” New Testament Studies 46 (2000) 474–75; Willi Braun, “Christian Origins and the Gospel of Mark: Fragments of a Story,” in Willi Braun, Jesus and Addiction to Origins: Towards an Anthropocentric Study of Religion (London: Equinox, 2020).

  8. Indeed, I would argue, chapter five of Signs, Wonders, and Gifts (“Discursive Claims to Divine Authority,” 144–69) largely makes out Paul’s “theology” to be a rationalizing strategy for his social role as a mediator of divinity.

  9. Paul says that it was before their eyes that Jesus was publicly displayed as crucified, hois kat’ ophthalmous Iēsous Christos proegraphē estaurōmenos.

  10. Note too the connection with baptism in this particular passage. If Paul is talking about everyone, and not just himself, “putting on” Christ, and if this language refers to some form of possession (which I think it does), then perhaps baptism was a kind of ecstatic ritual as well, a kind of exorcism in reverse, in which the initiate comes to be possessed by the spirit of Christ (compare Mark 1:9–10). Such an understanding of baptism might also provide some context for Paul’s association of baptism with death in Rom 6:1–11, as the loss of one form of personal identity (pre-possession) in exchange for a different (post-possession) subjectivity.

  11. At Rom 13:14. Compare also 1 Cor 15:53–54, where Paul speaks of “wearing” immortality. Cf., rather differently, Col 3:10.

  12. As in, e.g., Matt 6:25; 27:31; Mark 6:9; 15:20; Luke 12:22; 15:22; etc.

  13. She also helpfully observes that “Paul and his followers engaged in numerous practices for which we have no evidence” (142).

  14. I am grateful to Esther Guillen for bringing my attention to this potential avenue of inquiry.

  15. Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass, trans. Robert Raves (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 268. It is notable that the procession (as was typical of Egyptian religion) also included effigies of various gods. This is, conceivably, another way in which the Galatians might have “seen” Christ crucified.

  16. See OCD, s.v. “masks,” 934–35.

  17. Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 12. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, pp. 191, 193.

  18. Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 12. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, p. 191.

  • Jennifer Eyl

    Jennifer Eyl


    The Banality of This Wildness: A Response to William Arnal

    For several years, I have maintained a pet habit: I collect anecdotes in the news of people who have discovered the image of Virgin Mary in their toast, the face of Michael Jackson in a tree stump, or evidence of God’s disapproval of humanity by whipping up a category-five hurricane. I will not bother to footnote them here because they are so pervasive on the internet. I tend only to keep print versions of the “stranger” stories; some of these articles even adorn the walls of my office. My students find such stories entertaining and I have often wondered, “Why are these stories funny to people?” There is a divide between those who would take the stories seriously and those who would scoff. That divide is interesting to me, because even many of those who scoff, when pressed, would concede that maybe, just maybe, the world is indeed semiotic; that it communicates larger meaning(s), that it offers guideposts or signs for those who are paying attention. So, while some people might laugh at these stories, they might not laugh at reading their own horoscope. For some who laugh at these stories, they might not laugh at the possibility that an invisible being or compassionate cosmic force may keep their airplane aloft through a terrifyingly bumpy flight. For some who would dismiss these stories, they might truly feel the communicative presence of a recently deceased loved one.

    Why these signs and not those? Why these practices and not those?

    William Arnal describes the recent books of Giovanni Bazzana and mine as “complementary interventions.” I am flattered to share company with Bazzana’s excellent book, and I think that one of the things joining the two is our insistence that we view Paul as a real person who had a context and social location. Not as an anachronism. Not a Protestant theologian. And definitely not boring (to borrow some of Arnal’s words). Both studies examine earnestly practices that have been overlooked or rejected as too wild or foreign or pagan. Too dissimilar from what Christianity is supposed to be like. When Paul is viewed as a person whose practices have vast anthropological comparanda, and as a historical person whose practices have more immediate, historical comparanda, the Paul who emerges is indeed “wild” in the eyes of those who would scoff at some of his practices. But, oh, how banal and mundane is this wildness! Indeed, we might even say “typical.”

    Paul presents himself as someone capable in the skills of performing and interpreting wonders. As Arnal writes, “Eyl establishes Paul as an ancient, Roman-era religious specialist.” I will admit, however, I am less interested in Paul as a “specialist” than in the practices he specialized in. As for emphasizing the type of specialist, I think Heidi Wendt’s 2016 At the Temple Gates does a good job of exploring that. The three books (Bazzana, Eyl, and Wendt) are, in a sense, a trio of nesting dolls that reexamine and resituate Paul. Bazzana examines one specific practice—spirit possession. My own book expands to consider a broad collection of divinatory and wonderworking practices. Wendt pans out even more to consider the types of figures who style themselves specialists at such things, including Paul.

    My own focus on divinatory practices derives from this observation: specialist or not, nearly everyone in antiquity engaged in forms of divination. That the world is a semiotic place seems so ubiquitous among us as a species that it is challenging to refrain from universalizing claims. The very title of Peter Struck’s Divination and Human Nature gestures in that direction, as do many who work in the cognitive science in religion. The widespread practical understanding that gods leave signs in the world and manifest physical changes is precisely why someone like Paul might have met with some success: everyone knew what he was talking about. The question would not have been “Do gods actually do that?” but rather, “Is Paul’s god doing that?” Even “the weirdest” practice we can associate with Paul would have been intelligible to his contemporaries.

    To extend the conversation about specialists, Arnal writes, “Like other self-authorized religious specialists in the Roman era, Paul engages in divinatory and wonder-working practices.” Indeed, I myself wrote, “Paul offers the skills of a self-authorized agent capable of channeling the healing power of a god” (128). Occasionally we see our words in print and wish we could edit them slightly. This, for me, is one such instance. After an illuminating conversation with Daniel Ullucci (Stonehill College) in 2018, I would no longer suggest that any person can be “self-authorized.” What would self-authorization entail? In a footnote, Arnal is clear to indicate that he contrasts this form of authorization to institutional authorization (“as, e.g., priests in an established temple”) and that is precisely how I meant it in my study. While Paul clearly appropriates the authorizing account of Jeremiah (1:4–10), and applies this to his own biography (which I explore in pages 158–59), we still cannot call him self-authorized without an audience that confers credibility or legitimacy upon him. Expertise and authority may be asserted by all sorts of people, but it requires an audience to accept or acknowledge that expertise. It is they who ultimately confer authority. This tangled and delicate web of claims about oneself that is met by the response of an audience results in the kind of peripheral authority that exists outside of the conventional center.


    I thought my book would help push the limits of how we view Paul. And then I read Bazzana’s book, and those limits expanded ever outward. My reading of Paul’s baptism ritual is that the physical nature of the initiate’s body is promised to transform into something deathless and divine—a ritual of material transformation which detractors would call “magic.” Bazzana’s reading is that the initiate is possessed by the pneuma of Christ. Possession does not preclude transformation, especially if the possessing pneuma “triggers” that transformation. These are not the exact same thing, but we arrive at our conclusion using a similar method: taking Paul literally, in light of comparative evidence. Which of these two options (or some synthesis of the two) is for further conversation, but what is certain is that Paul was not referring to something metaphorical, nor should we simply ignore the implications of such passages. For example, Paul’s use of “transformation” and “change” verbs (allagēsometha and metaschēmatisei in 1 Cor 15:51 and Phil 3:21, respectively) indicate that an actual transformation is promised. The “weirdness” of this is lost on us through a false sense of familiarity and a history of allegorizing Paul. Like Bazzana, I hold that taking Paul literally when it makes us most uncomfortable is probably the correct path to understanding what he is talking about.

    Arnal’s suggestion that Paul and/or his followers donned costumes or masks and reenacted a crucifixion or resurrection is entirely within the realm of possibility. And, as Arnal suggests, if we look at Paul’s contemporaries, this sort of practice would make a great deal of sense. Furthermore, if we use Bazzana’s anthropological approach, it would doubly make a great deal of sense! How countless are the rituals in which people dress up in costumes and masks to reenact myths and impersonate divine beings? Ancient comparanda aside, the scholarly resistance to taking seriously this possibility is, in itself, deserving of our attention.

    Finally, Arnal queries, “can we be confident of the transparency of Paul’s behavior? Did he perhaps engage in some forms of theatricality and even deception as part of the practice of his trade? Just how wild a Paul are we prepared to imagine?” I will be blunt: No, I do not think we can be confident of the transparency or sincerity of Paul’s claims. An abundance of evidence demonstrates that charismatic figures who have claimed to wield divine powers and channel the words of a deity have employed theater and even sleight of hand. Often, this has been for financial gain or other cynical motivations. This is why Lucian lampooned such figures, and why law enforcement pursues them today (Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was jailed on multiple occasions for charges such as conspiracy, banking fraud, and impersonation. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, lived aboard a peripatetic ship for many years as he evaded the jurisdiction of various governments). But as much as the actions and motivations of such figures have rightfully fallen suspect, what tools does the ancient historian have at her disposal to “prove” such suspicions about a charismatic founder of Christ groups? Put another way, what would the criteria be for assessing a cynical or deceptive Paul? The author of the Didachē certainly had a list of criteria (. . . any prophet who asks for food or money, or stays longer than three days . . .), but we do not.

    This returns us to the many people who see the faces of gods, of deceased loved ones, or of sainted celebrities in their toast, trees, and weather patterns. Expertise in forms of divination and the ability to channel information or power from a divine source relies on a shared practical understanding about the world and how the god(s) operate in it. As Arnal would agree, the familiarized, allegorized, and intellectualized version of Paul that post-Reformation European traditions have constructed is still in need of reexamination in light of the shared practical understandings common across ancient Mediterranean cultures.

    • Giovanni Bazzana

      Giovanni Bazzana


      A Non-boring Paul: A Response to William Arnal

      Bill Arnal’s commentary on Having the Spirit of Christ includes many praises for my book, but the one that makes me most proud is certainly that I have been able to produce a redescription of Paul that is not boring. I must be honest and confess that I have struggled for many years to find this particular subfield in New Testament studies attractive and exciting. It may well be that this is due to my upbringing as a pretty unremarkable Italian Catholic: even before I got to know and practice a critical reading of the Bible, Paul played a minor, almost nonexistent, role in my encounters with the New Testament in sermons, liturgy, or catechesis. This is a far cry from public theological and historical conversations in this country, in which Paul looms like an outsized figure against the backdrop of almost any exchange

      Since moving to the United States, I have always struggled to make sense of such a state of affairs and of my reaction to Paul. Of course, intellectually I must acknowledge the historical relevance of the reception of Paul and of the controversies around it in the coming together of modern Christianity. Likewise, as a scholar and a teacher, I must be informed about the newest publications on issues like grace and righteousness in Paul or on the various perspectives, but I cannot say that these excite me. And this may well be a reason why I never wrote on Paul before this book.

      Researching for the book and writing it, however, has truly changed my attitude towards Paul, and I am glad to see that the result has been a non-boring redescription of the apostle. I am also happy to see that the book fits well within a period, in which Pauline studies seem to be moving in new directions that I actually find quite exciting and intriguing. This is of course the case for Jennifer Eyl’s very exciting book that is discussed here together with mine, but also for several others, like Heidi Wendt’s At the Temple Gates, or those recently published or on the brink of publication by Paula Fredriksen, Joseph Marchal, Laura Nasrallah, Matthew Novenson, Jennifer Quigley, Matthew Thiessen, and Emma Wasserman. Eyl is quite right, I believe, when she associates our two books (and Wendt’s and the others I mentioned, I would add) with the project of presenting a picture of Paul reexamined and resituated in a much more sensible context, both historical and anthropological.

      I am quite happy to play a part in this process, having produced what is perhaps the “wildest” Paul of the three. Likewise, I agree with Eyl and Arnal that such “wildness” is rather banal after all. Eyl explains very well throughout her book that what Paul did would not have appeared that “wild” to his contemporaries. I would like to add that he should not appear that “wild” to us either. Spirit possession is certainly a “wild” phenomenon (often associated with trauma and painful experiences, no doubt), but, in several cultures, it is quite “ordinary,” as noted by ethnographers such as Michael Lambek. Indeed, we all know too well that trauma and pain are unfortunately “ordinary” experiences for all of us as human beings. It is only a certain modern Western set of ideological assumptions that has forced spirit possession into the “wild.” But a critical redescription can help to restore this dimension within the realm of the “banal” (or of the “ordinary”), and at that point Paul becomes more similar to us, but also paradoxically also much more interesting and non-boring.

      On this basis, I would also like to respond to the two provocative questions posed by Arnal in his commentary.

      The first one concerns baptism in the Pauline groups. I completely agree with Eyl on this point: our two perspectives on this ritual are not identical, but they can go very well together. When I speak of “spirit possession,” it is quite important to keep in mind that such terminology is rather inadequate and it is only useful because it is so well established in our common parlance. In this case, we tend to assume that “possession” is an intermittent phenomenon, since we are used to conceiving it in the way in which is presented in the gospel by way of episodic encounters between Jesus the exorcist and possessed humans. But it is worth keeping in mind that, as shown quite well by ethnographic accounts, most cultures understand “possession” as a continuing state embracing both moments when the “spirit” manifests itself and others in which it goes quiescent. In this perspective, “possession” is an evolving relationship between the “spirit” and the human host, which can span years and which shapes profoundly the personality of the human subject. I am very much convinced that this type of “possession” is what Paul has in mind when he speaks about being in Christ and that the ultimate goal is a transformation of the humans, achieving the kind of immortality described in places like 1 Corinthians 15.

      With respect to masks or special dress that could be used in the occasion of baptisms (but not only then, since such manifestation of Christ through possession might have happened in almost all the meetings of the Christ groups), that is entirely possible. As indicated by Eyl, we have plenty of supporting evidence for this both historically and cross-culturally in possession rituals. And, since Arnal mentioned very appropriately the case of Alexander, it is worth noting that he too wore a special attire: “He now wore his hair long, had falling ringlets, dressed in a parti-colored tunic of white and purple, with a white cloak over it, and carried a falchion like that of Perseus” (Lucian, Alexander, 11).

      Galatians, in particular, rewards rereading when one takes this exceptional document literally. For instance, at the end of the letter (at 6:17), Paul says that he carries in his own body the “marks” (Greek stigmata) of Jesus. This may be again my Catholic upbringing, but I was always led as a kid to think that such “marks” had to be the wounds of crucifixion as attested in more recent cases such as those of St. Francis or other saints. I am not saying that this is the best way to read 6:17 (tattoos are also an intriguing possibility), but it certainly beats other more metaphorical interpretations that one encounters often in the literature on this letter.

      What about the issue of fraud in cases of possession? I too agree with Eyl that this is perhaps the case for Paul (after all, he is not shy in his letters in stating explicitly that his message is adapted to the circumstances of the various audiences he is speaking to), but also that we will never be able to know for sure.

      That being said, I think it is worth pausing and thinking about the implications of importing language of “fraud” or “forgery” in these cases. Eyl is certainly right again in pointing to specific contemporary cases of abuses and even crimes (I am not so sure however that we should trust Lucian so much in Alexander’s case). With religious movements and groups the potential for “fraud” is no smaller than it is for all other ideological and political movements. But I am not so convinced that one should measure these matters of legality and ethics exclusively by employing the modern metrics of “fraud” and “forgery.” Once more, this is something that has been illuminated by ethnographic research on possession.

      While the “validity” of possession rituals matters for and is hotly debated in all cultural contexts wherein one encounters this phenomenon, much less attention is devoted to establishing whether the human medium is a fraud in our sense. More often, instead, practitioners and participants focus on how well a certain medium is able to fit the cultural “script” that is generally expected to support the manifestation of spirit possession. In this perspective, possession becomes quite similar to theater; and, indeed, a sympathetic anthropologist like Michael Lambek often designates the mediums whom he works with as “artists” (with absolutely no intention of diminishing or demeaning their religious experience or that of their audiences). The experience of theater is quite obviously “false,” but that does not detract from the enjoyment and the cultural benefit of audiences attending such a ritual. This might be a more productive way to look at figures like Paul, Alexander, and even the representatives of nineteenth-century Spiritism. It is certainly a non-boring perspective.

    • William Arnal

      William Arnal


      Banality and Wildness, Pretense and Novelty

      Banality and Wildness, Pretense and Novelty

      I am grateful to Profs Eyl and Bazzana — I trust that the gods of academic decorum will not be too outraged if I refer to them henceforth as Jen and Giovanni — for their substantive and thoughtful responses to my comments on their excellent books. I agree with nearly everything they say in their rejoinders, and think that they have admirably clarified some important points. Both, for instance, quite rightly insist that the “wildness” of their representations of Paul is not absolute: Paul appears in both books as someone perhaps alien from our perspective, but comprehensible — even reasonable — to his contemporaries. Indeed, while his foreignness to modernity in their books is part of what makes him interesting, so also is the realistically human (and so emphatically not foreign) actions, motives, assumptions that emerge when one allows Paul to be not-like-us. What is wild in their Paul is indeed banal, insofar as it is human, a reflection of human nature (or at least cognition). I also very much appreciated Jen’s reflections on what is meant by “self-authorized,” and her insistence that a religious specialist who operates outside of institutional structures still requires some form of authorization that will be recognized by her or his audience (whoever that audience may be); indeed, that recognition is the authorization the freelancer works with. Likewise, I was pleased by both Jen’s and Giovanni’s generous assessment of the proposal that Paul’s activity may have involved some costuming, masking, special apparel, etc.

      There are so many great things in both books that my response didn’t even touch on (as just one example, Giovanni’s brilliant rereading of the Gerasene demoniac) that it seems almost churlish to return to points already made. But there are still two threads I’d like to pull on just a little bit more. The first concerns the question of the possibility of fraudulence or at least theatricality in Paul’s practices. In light of analogies both ancient and modern, I wondered whether we could take for granted the sincerity or transparency of Paul’s claims. Jen replies, bluntly and straightforwardly, that we absolutely cannot. Deceptive practices seem to be part of the “stuff” of religion, and Jen notes that various charismatic characters have been satirized, criticized, and even prosecuted. But she asks, quite rightly, how on earth today’s historian can adjudicate the sincerity or transparency of figures twenty centuries removed: “as much as the actions and motivations of such figures have rightfully fallen suspect, what tools does the ancient historian have at her disposal to ‘prove’ such suspicions about a charismatic founder of Christ groups? Put another way, what would the criteria be for assessing a cynical or deceptive Paul?” No such criteria exist, she says. Giovanni agrees with her assessment: Paul could very well have been deceptive, but “we will never be able to know for sure.”
      While I can only agree that temporal distance, evidentiary limitations, and the absence of agreed-upon criteria make it impossible to prove (or disprove) fraudulence and deception, the very undecidability of the question, it seems to me, is part of its force. If indeed it is true (and I think it is) that we cannot demonstrate or determine with any reasonable degree of confidence that Paul was insincere, was engaged in deliberate deception, by the same token we cannot demonstrate or determine the reverse. Yet how many treatments of Paul proceed — without any evidence; indeed, ignoring the evidence of ancient and modern parallels — as if his sincerity were utterly unimpeachable? How many seek consistency and development in his “thought” (a point raised obliquely by Giovanni) on this basis? How many reconstructions of Paul’s life (including efforts at chronology), or inquiries into the circumstances behind individual letters, operate with the unstated and unexamined assumption that Paul must be telling the truth, must be saying what he is thinking, really thinks what he is saying? How many fabricated “opponents” of Paul, or “misunderstandings” behind this or that letter are a mirage of “information” that is not information at all? And what would happen to scholarship on Paul if we dispensed with the assumption of sincerity? In the case of Jen’s work, happily, I can answer that last question. Given her focus on the techniques Paul used to demonstrate supernatural authorization, it makes no difference whether Paul truly believed he had that authorization or not, whether he was sincere in appealing to it — the techniques remain the same, as does the response thereto. This is, I think, a not-immediately-obvious novelty and virtue of her approach, and among other things it demonstrates that letting go of the assumption of sincerity would not doom Pauline scholarship to sterility.
      Giovanni adds a further rejoinder to these speculations: he notes that fraudulence and theatricality are not the same thing. We can accept a theatrical Paul, he avers, without needing to conclude therefrom that Paul was deliberately deceptive, or that his auditors were any more dupes than attendees at a play or film today. In one sense, this is difficult to dispute, and I would not want to. But in another sense, it is beside the point: however much we might work to hedge Paul off from accusations of ill intent (and this is an impulse that strikes me as coming from the field’s intuitive practical understanding of its work as, to borrow Russell McCutcheon’s terminology, caretakers rather than critics), the important point would be the presence of a significant degree of theatricality to his self-presentation, in various forms: masks, costumes, deliberate adoption of the recognized indices of spirit-possession, etc. If Paul is performing a role, and adopting careful measures to make that performance as effective as possible, that would imply a degree of manipulation, a lack of transparency, no matter what he might have had in his heart. It is this lack of transparency, this calculated manipulation, regardless of its motives, that I think is so threatening to business-as-usual Pauline scholarship. It also helps account for Jen’s observation about the general scholarly failure to consider the role of costumes or masks in Paul’s practice: “the scholarly resistance to taking seriously this possibility is, in itself, deserving of our attention.” Indeed it is, and my hunch is that the animating force behind this resistance is a deeply-held (if most often unstated and unexamined) commitment to the transparency of Paul. Now, I entirely understand that Giovanni wants to defend spirit possession as a general practice from modern and Western prejudices against it, and I both agree and sympathize with that agenda. I am very happy to grant that the mere fact of spirit possession is not in itself evidence of fraud, and I agree with Giovanni that Paul probably genuinely experienced himself to be possessed by spirits, and that this conviction was neither mere delusion nor cynical manipulation. But I think that we need to allow ourselves much more room to consider that calculation, premeditation, manipulation, and unstated agenda played major parts in Paul’s behavior and his letters. I also think that it is precisely Jen’s and Giovanni’s books that have cleared the space for us to consider this possibility.

      The second thread I’d like to tug on a bit concerns novelty. Both Jen and Giovanni show Paul to be a humanly comprehensible character, someone who made use of both his own culture’s standard repertoire of authorizing techniques, and of a cross-culturally ubiquitous modality of subjective transformation (i.e., spirit possession). In these respects he is, while perhaps “wild” from our perspective, hardly incomprehensible, nor unique in any profound way. But Paul is in the process of constructing something new. Not “new” in the sense of a thunderbolt from a blue sky, or some absolute break with the past. But certainly Paul is actively engaged in the process of fabricating something, constructing something that had not existed previously, at least in that particular form, albeit with familiar techniques. That “something” is simultaneously supernatural and social — a new “god,” christos, and with him, a new set of relationships between people (even if only in their relation to that new deity). In saying this, I am not bringing the notion of “community,” so effectively dispatched by Stan Stowers, back in through the back door. Rather, I am following Stan in his observation that Paul is, in his letters, constructing a notional set of social relationships that do not (or, more cautiously, may not) currently exist “out there.”
      It is worth underscoring that this construction of something new is very far from unique. In fact, it is exactly what Lucian accuses Alexander of Abonoteichus of doing — fabricating a new deity, Glycon, and with it new social relations (in the form of Alexander’s now-exalted status as prophet of a new god). The parallel is quite exact, in that the creation of a novel supernatural agent (if we wish to avoid getting bogged down in questions of monotheism, and the status of gods as distinct from other superhuman entities) is at least partly leveraged by association with an extant deity: Asklepios in the case of Glycon, ho theos of the Judeans in the case of christos. It is the novelty of Glycon, after all, that seems most to irritate Lucian, and his argument against Alexander operates to a significant degree by treating novelty and fraud each as evidence of the other.
      Both books reflect this interesting association as it occurs in Paul; that is, both shed light on some of the ways in which the creation of new supernatural agents is accompanied by the creation or transformation of social identities and relationships. In the case of Jen’s book, the very reason that Paul has to adopt the various authorizing strategies the book so effectively describes is that he lacks institutional authorization. Why? At least partly because he the purveyor of an entity, christos, who does not at this point have any institutional apparatus. But there is no need to view this relationship as a sequential or causal one moving from theology to society. We could just as easily say that it is because Paul views himself as a social actor in the process of transformation (as he attempts to establish new kinds of relations to his auditors, in which, e.g., he is an authority to them) that he is forced to “invent” a new god. In Giovanni’s book, the nexus between social identity and religious creativity is even more explicit. Taking on — possessing and being possessed by — a spirit is, as Giovanni stresses, explicitly transformative of identity, subjectivity, and social place. Paul, of course, does not create his supernatural agents out of whole cloth — the spirits he is possessed by and the christos he claims to speak for refer to beings already present, if perhaps marginal, in the sectarian Judaism of his time. But they are new in their contexts, new in Paul’s immediate Aegean locale, new in their relation to non-Judeans, and, in the case of christos, new in the sense of being merely a handful of years old; and especially they are new insofar as Paul actively shapes and reshapes their characteristics.
      In light of all this, it seems to me that both studies point to a much broader insight than one merely confined to the historical origins of some NT writings. What they suggest is that social change is expressed by, authorized and underwritten by, motivated by, accompanied by — again, we need not draw the causal arrow in only one direction — the fabrication and transformation of superhuman agents who function as something like guarantors of novel human relations. Social change, in other words, is imagined as something that comes from outside the human world (or at least corresponds to forces outside that world). Thus in my view Jen and Giovanni have both contributed materially to our understanding of religion writ large, as an aspect of culture that operates to ground, interpret, and negotiate social change; and simultaneously to generate, inspire, and indeed create that change.

Peter Struck


A Clash of Categories in the Early Centuries of the Common Era

Both Giovanni Bazzana and Jennifer Eyl reevaluate how we should classify things. How one decides to name a phenomenon fits it into a taxonomy, and when the phenomena under scrutiny are as consequential as those attested to in the Christian New Testament, the consequences are mighty. The books speak to a clash of categories in both the evidence base and the scholarship on a period that looks, in these studies, like something I would call early Late Antiquity. One is perhaps more accustomed to seeing strenuous comparative studies like these on materials drawn from later centuries of the common era, where the most authoritative paradigms that structure scholarship have a history that stretches back decades, instead of centuries. Studies in Late Antiquity include a central place for scholars who treat topics synthetically across Christian and non-Christian cultures and for those informed by methodologies characteristic of the history of religions. That such features are central to these excellent studies on first- and second-century Christian texts makes them all the more interesting.

Further distinctive qualities emerge from a broader look at the work of comparison in recent generations. The many hard-won gains from the second half of the last century have made scholars keenly aware of the mistakes that are waiting to be made by assuming that humans exhibit cultural forms and behaviors in universal types. The impulse to map aspects of religions—in both myth and ritual—according to a kind of periodic table of human cultural forms ran into problems. They were many, but they surely included the outsized role that the categories most proximate to a scholar’s own experience played in shaping the template for all of humanity. A drive to respect and understand difference ensued.

Though this didn’t exactly stop broad comparative work, it did change it. Jonathan Z. Smith, whom both authors cite as a touchstone of methodology, claims that the comparison of two cultural forms requires two pairs of focus: the recovery of the local context, widely understood, that invests form #1 with significance paired with an attentiveness to the contemporary scholarly context that has made it an object of interest; and an equivalent pair centered on cultural form #2. The back and forth between these pairs of inquiry yields mutual insight in both directions, informing both a redescription of the items being compared and a rectification of academic categories.1 I’ll work through a reaction to Bazzana and Eyl’s books with Smith’s structure in mind.

Both books do the work of comparison with a particularly unwieldy cultural form #1. Any comparative study that includes items drawn from Early Christianity as one component is of course vexed, on the one side, by recalcitrant sources, preserved through a complex interleaving of forces with contesting stakes and claims; and, on the other, by an overgrown array of the scholarly perspectives that has made it an object of interest. In Bazzana’s study, cultural form #2 is mostly an aggregate of the subjects of relatively recent anthropologists studying spirit possession (or perhaps “spirit possession” is better aligned with Bazzana’s thinking); Eyl’s cultural form #2 is the collection of divinatory practices exhibited by ancient Greeks and Romans, and to a lesser extent the traditions of ancient magic, such as those attested in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM).

Bazzana has redrawn a picture of the role that spirit possession and exorcism played in the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. While scholars have more typically found ways to marginalize this aspect of Jesus’ biographies, Bazzana places it at the center. Many cultures over history have understood that an individual could be inhabited and overtaken by an invisible external agency, and Bazzana picks up the categories generated for understanding such phenomena among anthropologists and directs them to his study of spirit possession in his readings of the “Beelzebul accusation” text, the exorcism narrative of Mark 5, the Shepherd of Hermas, and several much-discussed parts of the Pauline corpus. In particular, Bazzana is interested in pressing the finding that possession is a cultural form put to use in the generation of social norms and meanings, and not a disabling state of passivity. The actors involved are the possessed, the possessing spirit, religious experts, and the broader audience constituting a social context. Bazzana’s turn to anthropology is the most distinctive quality of the study. I imagine it will be a tonic to some and an astringent for others.

The provocative claims in this book, each made persuasively, are many. They include the idea that Paul’s distinctive discursive construction of being “in Christ” is an iteration of spirit possession, in which the risen Christ, as pneuma, is the possessing agent; a reading of the Beelzebul pericope that reconstructs a lost archetype that centers on the possession of Jesus as a foundational moment in a spiritual arc; and an interpretation of the exorcism of Mark 5 as an enabling parable about civic peace in Gerasa.

If there is a consistent lacuna in the moves between the anthropologists’ categories and those of the Early Christian authors, it would fall in the second of J. Z. Smith’s pairs. In Bazzana’s study, the candidates for cultural form #2—whether the modern populations of the Island of Mayotte near Madagascar, or West African and Caribbean cultures of the last four centuries, Cuban espiritismo practitioners, or the bori cults of Niger—get less attention than a person might want. The result is a tendency to put together many phenomena, rather than to investigate the social, historical, and cultural context with enough detail for them to carry the burden of comparison as fully as one might want.

Perhaps as an epiphenomenon, one sees a concurrent clump, meant to contrast this material, in the designator “modern Western,” which is applied liberally in the text, to nouns like “self,” “research,” “paradigms of interiorization and individual autonomy,” “ontological regime,” “rationalism,” “academic understanding,” etc. I couldn’t help but wonder whether each usage could be replaced by something more specific. Many of the strengths of Bazzana’s comparative work come on the other side of both of Smith’s pairs, that is, on illuminating the scholarly contexts that have made each of the compared items of cultural stuff a subject of interest. Here we see an illuminating, but still sometimes dizzying breadth of research programs that intersect in illuminating ways. In Paul Christopher Johnson’s studies of West African and Caribbean materials, for example, one sees a recuperative effort to redress one component of the systemic dehumanization of African selves in the Atlantic diaspora. Along with violence, slavers used cultural tropes to subjugate their targets, and Johnson finds that the category of “spirit possession,” thought to be a condition to which Black Africans would be naturally inclined, worked like this. The link with scholarly reluctance to deploy this category in the case of Paul takes on an additional dimension. There are many examples of gains like these in Bazzana’s study.

Eyl’s thesis, in one respect, works in the opposite direction from Bazzana’s. While Bazzana brings insights from contemporary studies back to antiquity, Eyl is asking us to stay local, at least with respect to time. Overlaying the Smithian pairs onto her analysis, we have a comparable cultural form #1, in core texts of New Testament theology, here with particular focus on the Apostle Paul as a figure, and a very different cultural form #2, which is here the group of widely attested practices of divination and magic among Greeks and Romans, and to some extent others in the Mediterranean, roughly contemporary to Paul (though dating of some of the sources is nettlesome). What is distinctive in Eyl’s work is the degree to which she aims to make the social, historical, and cultural context in which form #1 takes its meaning align with the contexts in which form #2 takes its meaning. Eyl argues that certain of Paul’s actions and practices will only yield their originary sense to us if we understand them within the context in which diviners and magicians were understood by the ancient audiences to whom Paul was aiming to appeal.

In Eyl’s study, Paul’s reading of signs and wonders, speaking in tongues, prophetic speech, healing, and rites of baptism, will have been seen by his audience as akin to the kinds of things they saw diviners and magicians do. Eyl proves thoroughly that there will be some degree to which that background will yield insight on Paul, and this is already an advance over those many who would still accord Paul an irreducible uniqueness. The next step (whether it is Eyl’s or another scholar’s), will be to discern with a bit more precision the extent of that pertinence. Among Paul’s contemporaries there is surely at least one observer who would resist—Paul himself. When Paul avoids classifying his rites by the categories of mageia, goêteia, or mantikê, do we insist that he take them on?

What I mean to ask here will be clearer in by a surprisingly apposite example from the fourth century. When Iamblichus advocated that Neoplatonists adopt an innovative set of rites, Porphyry objects that they are magic, a characterization which irks Iamblichus, who then goes on to invent a new coinage, calling his rites “theurgy” (theourgia, formed on analogy with theologia). Of course, I’m not ready to cede to Iamblichus, or to Paul, the full authority to declare the proper context for understanding their rites. But mageia and goêteia are well-formed categories in the cultural context in which each program of rites take its meanings, and are widely used by local observers as terms of opprobrium, though in slightly different ways among Christian and pagan audiences. A resistance to them, observable in both Paul and Iamblichus, ought not to be overlooked. (I’m already self-conscious that I am invoking Iamblichus to come to the defense of the Apostle Paul—c’est la guerre!)

Magic was widely stigmatized as an underhanded business, and though likely everyone would have been desperate enough at some point in their lives to invoke the services of a goês, it was not something one spoke about in polite company. Looking at Paul’s rites, Eyl makes a good case for some overlap with what the magicians do, but it’s not extent of that overlap is still a question for me. Paul’s appeals to divine power, after all, are a far cry from those of the ancient magicians of the PGM, who not only order divinities to work for them, but regularly aim to coerce them with threats and lies, in which particularly gory violence is a not uncommon feature. The term mantikê poses its own challenges. It does not carry a matching negative valence in pagan contexts—it was an unstigmatized class of religious activity, undertaken regularly by figures with impeccable claims to social authority—and Paul’s avoidance of it tells us something of additional interest about emerging Christian ideas on prophecy (prophêteia), which will aim to define themselves via sharp contrasts with pagan mantikê, as I’ve argued elsewhere.2 In these observations, I don’t believe I am exactly pushing past what Eyl herself already holds. In her conclusion, she seems positively to welcome this kind of broader discussion when she sets Paul as being squarely in a “rich middle area” conceiving of his divinity as “neither prone to bribery or coercion nor to abject indifference” (215). This final thought is somewhat more nuanced than the starker equivalences with divination and magic (or wonderworking) she argues for in her preceding chapters (on pp. 2, 86–87, 112, 115–16, 170, e.g.).

On a final note, Eyl’s interest in finding connections could perhaps be tempered a bit more than it is with a return to a more vigorous reckoning with cultural difference. When Eyl speaks of “Greeks Romans and Judeans,” for example, the coherence of the possible predicates of such a joint subject are put under strain. (See, e.g., p. 10, 159, 178, 206, 212, 214.) Speaking as a classicist, we are attuned to the dangers in lumping just the first two, let alone even using the shorthand of either one of those two terms to stand for a culture. Add a third term and the subject becomes very broad indeed.

These invigorating studies open new possibilities for comparison, which, thank goodness, is shown to be alive and well, despite the cautionary tales of the last century. Some further refinement would be welcome, as we advance our understanding of the sorting out of categories in the intellectual work of contemporary scholars, yes indeed, and also simultaneously with the presentation of the material by the ancient authorities themselves.

  1. J. Z. Smith, “The ‘End’ of Comparison,” in Kimberley C. Patton and Benjamin C. Ray, eds., A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 237–41.

  2. Peter Struck, Divination and Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 215–49.

  • Giovanni Bazzana

    Giovanni Bazzana


    The Challenges of Comparison: A Response to Peter Struck

    Comparison is a tricky business, but there is little question that it is also one of the most fun parts of our work. The academic world has become pretty effective in hiding the importance of comparison in almost any area of the Humanities and beyond. The increasing specialization of everything we do has also combined to produce a situation in which “comparativists” are more and more difficult to find, while those who dare claim such a label for themselves are often looked askance by their colleagues. But the reality of the matter is that everything we write is methodologically grounded in exercises of comparison, even though we may be reluctant to admit it. Could there be any analysis of ancient literary genres without comparison among literary productions across cultures and epochs? Could there be any study of inflation in the ancient economic world without comparison with the economic structures of more modern periods? Literary analyses or economic history are not usually seen as “comparative” in their methodological orientations, but the truth is that they could not operate without an intellectually robust comparative scaffolding.

    Of course, there is another side to this coin, and it concerns the complications and pitfalls that characterize each comparative undertaking. As Struck has observed, both Eyl’s book and mine have taken as their guide through this methodological labyrinth the studies of J. Z. Smith, a figure whose work on comparison in the study of religion remains a classic within and beyond the North American academy. Struck is very right in highlighting the demanding comparative model sketched by Smith, and in showing how my own treatment of possession falls in part short of it. Indeed, Smith rightly expects both sides of a comparison to come out transformed from this exercise. But, as I said, it is a rather demanding model, which could probably be accomplished only by producing a much bigger volume than Having the Spirit of Christ could be. (In this connection, it may be worth observing that Smith himself never produced a monograph-length synthesis of a single topic in the study of religion, but famously limited himself to composing generative, deep and delightful case studies, presented often as self-standing essays.)

    An admirable example of a study of possession in the Indian subcontinent that takes great advantage both of textual examples derived from literature and contemporary observations provided by ethnographies is Frederick Smith’s The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization, 2006. This extraordinary book leverages comparison as a means to change both the historical understanding of Indian religious classics and the anthropological study of possession in contemporary settings. But it runs up to more than seven hundred pages! Another example that, in a more manageable size, accomplishes the same comparative goal for a different subject matter is Peter Struck’s own Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, 2016. In that book, Struck manages to change both our understanding of ancient divination (escaping, in particular, the association with “magic” that, I believe, is not appropriate for possession either, and for largely the same reasons) and also to make a few important observations about cognitive studies.

    To my very partial justification, I would like to say that the matter with spirit possession in a study of early Christianity is not necessarily limited to the binary between object #1 and #2, as sketched by Struck. In fact, the study of early Christianity is a fascinating subject from a methodological point of view, because many of the concepts and taxonomies that were elaborated by theologians and thinkers in those formative centuries reappear, often after having undergone only very minor modification, in the categories of modern study of religion. This is obviously a consequence of the fact that the study of religion, conceived as a critical discipline, is a product of Western European modernity and, as such, profoundly influenced by its Christian environment. So, any time a scholar attempts to revise and redescribe a theme or a topic within early Christianity, such redescription almost necessarily results in a revision of some fundamental categories within the study of religion writ large.

    This revision happens in Eyl’s book as well. By looking at Paul through the lens of divination, Eyl also reworks some critical categories that are largely the products of Christian readings of Paul. (The clearest and most effective case in Eyl’s book is the examination of pistis in her final chapter, with the shift away from “faith” and towards something more akin to “loyalty” or “trustworthiness.”) Similarly, in Having the Spirit of Christ, the interplay is more triangular than binary, since it does not involve only object #1 (the ancient Christian texts) and #2 (the ethnographic accounts of possession), but also a third pole constituted by our own scholarly categories and taxonomies. In all this, as noted by Struck, some elements of the triangulation are necessarily deformed and disproportionate, as happens in the case of my generalizing references to “Western” and “modern” notions of the self or the subject.

    In this too, however, I believe that I have been faithful to J. Z. Smith’s description of “comparison” as an artificial deformation whose appropriateness must be measured by the adequacy of its results. Indeed, it is not correct to speak of “modern” or “Western” conceptions of the self as if these were a monolithic and atemporal “thing.” Even within Europe the situation is much more nuanced and differentiated, as soon as one moves from Protestant northern countries to the Catholic ones in the south, or even within these places across centuries. However, one must also acknowledge that European modernity has indeed produced some hegemonic concepts, even though perhaps (if one were to follow Bruno LaTour) these were mere ideological constructions: in truth, “we have never been modern.”

    • Jennifer Eyl

      Jennifer Eyl


      Degrees of Magnification: A Response to Peter Struck

      While taxonomy is a practice of categorizing, it is also a matter of the magnification of one’s view. If we borrow the taxonomic rankings of biology, in descending order, we have kingdom, phylum/division, class, order, family, genus, species. Within a species there may be many subspecies. With each step upward or outward, the “members” become increasingly numerous but less specific in how they relate to one another. Thus, the species of the grey wolf (canis lupus) is part of a larger genus canis, which includes hundreds of other types of wolves, dogs, jackals, and coyotes—both extant and extinct. There are also numerous subspecies of canis lupus, and all are linked by certain shared chromosomes and traits. This way of cataloguing or organizing beings can be usefully, if metaphorically, applied to other kinds, e.g., objects, practices, etc.

      Despite all appearances, I am not obsessed with taxonomy. On the contrary, there is something about the orderliness of taxonomy in biology, for example, that strikes me as disconcertingly cut-and-dried. It’s just so . . . neat. However, the skewed approach to how things have come to be categorized in the study of religions (“religion” itself being a complicated category), and more specifically, early Christianity (whether we are talking about practices, texts, beliefs, or even people), has captured and sustained my attention. The problem of categorization is significantly larger than how it is addressed in my book, of course. (Who is categorized as a greater threat to the state—a White someone storming the Capitol, or a Brown someone who fails to use their turning signal?) The way we put things into categories is a method not just for organizing forms of life in biology, but for constructing and navigating the social world. This latter function informs power and shapes identities.

      Peter Struck writes, “Eyl argues that certain of Paul’s actions and practices will only yield their originary sense to us if we understand them within the context in which diviners and magicians were understood by the ancient audiences to whom Paul was aiming to appeal.” While I generally agree, I would not say this is the only way that such practices will yield their originary sense. Drawing on the metaphor of adjusting the magnification of our lens, there are other “originary senses” to be gleaned. Practices of divination as they appear cross-culturally, for example. We might lose the specifics of Paul in first-century Corinth, but we might gain insight into our species more broadly. Indeed, as I read Bazzana’s book, I wondered about this very issue. He draws comparatively little on ancient Mediterranean examples, whereas I draw little from anthropological studies (despite countless examples of humans engaging in divinatory and wonderworking-type practices!). I would call the larger-magnification view, too, an originary sense, but one that might answer different questions and supply a much larger “context.”

      Struck suggests that a next step in thinking about Paul and the classification of his practices would be an even sharper and narrower focus: “to discern with a bit more precision the extent of that pertinence” regarding Paul’s likeness to ancient diviners and magicians. As Struck points out, Paul himself would reject associating his practices with mageia, mantikē, or goēteia. Indeed, Paul would likely shudder at the association. He generously favors the term prophecy and even “invents” his own categories (charismata pneumatika, or “spiritual gifts”). What does it tell us that Paul would reject certain ways of labeling his practices and embrace others? What do we learn about the practices, about Paul’s self-styling, and about how practices may or may not share common traits, regardless of local categories?

      Here, I appreciate greatly Struck’s use of the example of the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, who coins the term theourgia as a way to evade Porphyry’s accusations of mageia. We see a similar maneuver with Paul’s invention of “spiritual gifts” (a category that has stuck for centuries) versus mageia: in the Acts of Peter, Peter and Simon Magus (Σίμων ὁ μάγος) go toe-to-toe demonstrating their magical prowess. Peter revivifies a dead man, revivifies a smoked tunny fish, imparts a grown man’s voice through the mouth of a child, and accomplishes other wondrous, magical feats. And yet it is only Simon who is called magos. Peter is apostolos (a person who, in Paul’s letters, possesses the full repertoire of the “spiritual gifts”). Categories of persons and practices are asserted as different, even when they are similar, even sometimes exactly the same.

      There is no doubt, as Struck points out, that “mageia and goêteia are well-formed categories in the cultural context in which each program of rites takes its meanings, and are widely used by local observers as terms of opprobrium, though in slightly different ways among Christian and pagan audiences.” But I am not so convinced that Paul is a far cry from the ancient magicians of the PGM. He may be a little bit of a cry, but not a far one. I suggest this because it is so difficult for us to piece together a picture of Paul that is not formed by centuries of upright, “respectable” Christian theologizing. But if Bazzana’s book is correct—that spirit possession was a mainstay in early Christ groups—and if my redescription of Paul’s practices is correct, then it looks as though Paul claimed to be well versed in channeling wondrous powers, so-called mediumship, and a whole host of activities that the neighbors might find suspicious (partially because he was not employing more recognizable, stable terminology—not to mention a bit of showmanship!) I am not suggesting that Paul cursed people like those responsible for the PGM; but Paul did, in fact, wish curses on people (Gal 1:8; 5:12; also suggested in Acts 23:3). He also queries whether his followers have been put under a magic spell (Gal 3:1).

      Finally, again as Struck points out, the generic use of categories such as Greeks, Romans, Judeans can sorely oversimplify at best and mislead at worst. I concur enthusiastically. My use of such terms is not meant to render complex societies generic or simplified, but rather, to stake out the position that Paul is better understood, historically, among such peoples, and not as a unique figure who emerges from his world as though he were totally different from it. That model demands a dismantling. In part, my work attempts to locate Paul not within Christianity, but simply within the first century, with all of its attendant messiness and clashing historical trajectories. Its languages and ethnicities. In truth, I sometimes cringed when I lumped the three together (Greek, Roman, and Judean). Even “Greek” is too vague, depending on the scope of one’s study. But I did so, nonetheless, in order to pull at the strings that understand Paul through a later lens of Christianity and to recalibrate the taxonomic relationship. An undoing and redoing was the goal, but it resulted in what appears to be an active generic lumping together! A discernment with more precision (to borrow Struck’s words) would focus exclusively on divinatory practices in the first century with more attention to how categories for such practices were deployed even more locally, by whom, and to what end.

Emma Wasserman


Possession, Exorcism, and Pneumatic Presence

Historical scholars have lavished attention on New Testament texts for nearly two centuries, but Giovanni Bazzana’s Having the Spirit of Christ and Jennifer Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts demonstrate how much work still remains to be done. Focusing especially on the letters of Paul and (in Bazzana’s study) on the gospels, they show how critical re-theorization and interdisciplinary engagement shed light on diverse issues in the study of divine-human interactions in Roman antiquity. These studies are also rich with critical commentary on the apologetic undercurrents and parochial formulations that frustrate critical historical work on these privileged texts. In reviewing their theoretical reframing here, I would like also to suggest how their textual-historical arguments might be extended and perhaps also refined.

Eyl’s book reveals a research agenda of startling breadth, depth, and creativity. She interprets ancient divination as the interpretation of divine semiotics, whether these are mediated in the flight patterns of birds, through the disposition of animal entrails, by heavenly omens or portentious dreams, or coded in the enigmas of literary texts. This capacious theory of divination identifies diverse kinds of practices that cut across large-scale categories such as Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman religion, thereby greatly enlarging the field of possible comparanda. She pursues this comparative mandate in a series of fascinating case studies and richly critical overviews of “divinatory practices,” including oracle and dream interpretation, prophecy, necromancy, healing, and “wonder working.” As she turns to Paul, Eyl situates divination as enmeshed with pneuma, thus reframing wide-ranging aspects of Paul’s thought and practices, from his ethical teachings to his claims to religious authority, pneumatic presence, and bodily transformation at the eschaton.

Eyl conceives her work as part of a broader project that aims to reconceive Pauline Christianity as a type of ancient Mediterranean religion. In so doing, she draws on a distinctive stream of social theory that imagines persons not as heirs to some “package deal” of religious or cultural beliefs inside the head, but as operating with an ensemble of skills, interests, concepts, and practical know-how, much of which does not rise to the level of conscious reflection. Among their other virtues, these formulations resist post-Enlightenment constructions of persons as unified centers of self-consciousness, rational reflection, agency, and will, instead embedding them in social lives enacted and experienced as situationally fluid and improvisational.

For all her emphasis on embodied practical knowledge, Eyl also looks to cognitive science research to argue that what does go on “in the head”—beliefs, ideas, and intuitions—remain important, especially those thoughts that play with basic “intuitive” categories such as animate and inanimate objects, and (crucially) persons.1 This allows her to argue that divinatory practices generally involve intuitive concepts and beliefs, as gods and spirits are largely modeled on human beings, albeit with some special “minimally counter-intuitive” powers, such as mind reading and the ability to walk through walls. Interaction with these beings also involves intuitive skills learned from ordinary social interaction, including gift giving, petitioning, promising, and guessing at the thoughts and dispositions of others, human or otherwise. These beliefs and practices remain basic to religious practices of many kinds, but Eyl also draws on research that distinguishes intuitive modes of thought from more reflective, abstract, and quasi-systematic thinking and uses this to explain different types or modes of “religion.”2 Examples of intuitive thinking about sacrifice include “Did it work?” or “What does the color of the liver tell us about the disposition of Zeus?” More exceptional, reflective approaches, by contrast, might ask, “What is the meaning of sacrifice?” or “Does history display divine justice?” (43–45). Such an approach helps to account for some of the most distinctive interests and preoccupations evident in our extant literary sources, while suggesting ways to tether their abstract, generalizing claims to specific social-historical locations.

Eyl draws on such theoretical frameworks to argue that most ancient divinatory procedures involve practical, everyday skills and intuitive convictions, but that certain kinds of literate experts reimagine these as highly reflective, intellectual adventures in deciphering texts and discovering meanings alleged to be exceptional, true, and universal (43–45).3 Thus, it is the reflective inventiveness of certain (relatively rare) kinds of literate specialists that produce prophetic readings of Homer, or Paul’s interpretation of the Septuagint.

Here I can focus only on a small subset of the arguments with which Eyl advances this larger case. First, she argues that, like common, everyday conceptions of divine-human interaction, Pauline pneuma constitutes a form of divine presence that is “palpably local.” Understood in this way, Paul’s letters present and presume a form of deity (or divine substance?) that is locative, thus intuitively available for reciprocity and exchange. Second, Eyl argues that Paul’s comments about “signs” (e.g., Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12) recall specific textually-mediated instances of wonderworking and of divination derived from LXX traditions (e.g., Exod 7:9); but these “signs” are comparable to culturally broader divinatory heroics, including “statues that bleed, or spontaneously combusting objects” (91). Such comparisons dazzle, but I find it curious that Paul’s language remains so strikingly elusive and nonspecific.

Third, Eyl understands practices such as “speaking in tongues” as a mode of human-divine communication comparable to prophetic and allegorical readings of texts. Paul’s particular texts derive from the LXX, but Eyl supplies comparisons with Homeric allegories, and also points to the ways that speech and writing are central techniques at work in amulets, curse tablets, and incantations. I find these observations useful, but they might also be brought to bear on other Pauline interpretative practices, such as his penchant for textual bricolage (e.g., Rom 3:10–18), his dabbling in allegory (1 Cor 10:4 and Gal 4:21–31), and his language about written oracles ( “ta logia of God”; Rom 3:2). In her future work, Eyl might also profitably consider other Jewish literatures that play with textual and numinal authority, especially certain Qumran “commentary” traditions, and the considerable body of texts sometimes designated as “rewritten Bible.”

Finally, Eyl’s last chapter develops a provocative rereading of Paul’s language about pistis and charis, both of which she portrays as relatively ordinary, shared by human and nonhuman personalities (daimonia, pneumata, kyrioi, theoi) in Jewish, Greek, and Roman traditions. Critical of Christianizing translations of these terms as “faith” and “grace,” she argues that these obscure the standard-fare sense of charis as “gift” or “benefaction” and of pistis as “trust” or “loyalty.” Texts such as Rom 5:1–2 (cf. 1 Cor 1:4–9), she maintains, bespeak a conception of reciprocity that is, likewise, rather ordinary. Thus, charis and pistis are at the center of Paul’s thought about reciprocity, but they involve a basic economy of exchange that is quite familiar from other ethno-religious traditions. Sharply critical of confessional apologetics that set Greco-Roman models of reciprocity off against Christian ones, Eyl argues that it is precisely the uncertain (or “subjunctive”) nature of this ancient exchange that engenders the ongoing, open-ended divine-human relationships characteristic of all of these communities and traditions, so Paul’s distinctive pistis-charis formulation is in no way exceptional. Much of this work is convincing but Eyl sometimes moves rather hastily through some aspects of the historical case (as, e.g., her gestures towards Roman civic religion), and tends to draw on sources such as Plutarch, Epictetus, and Philo (here and in other chapters) without pausing to explore how their specific philosophical interests and identifications might shape their understanding of fides and pistis. Finally, I suggest that, in future elaborations of this research, she might also consider certain Epicurean and Stoic traditions that encourage participation in traditional religion, so long as it is understood in appropriately philosophical terms.4 Such traditions seem to provide rich opportunities for thinking through issues that lie right at the heart of this study.

Turning now from Eyl’s project to Bazzana’s, I note how his study boldly proposes that insights from cultural anthropology on possession and exorcism enable new interpretations of incidents rendered in NT materials, such as the gospels’ Beelzebub controversy (Mark 3:22–27; Matt 12:22–29; Luke 11:14–22), an afflicted man’s “legion” of demons (Mark 5), and the activities and effects of pneuma as rendered in the letters of Paul. To this end, Bazzana focuses a good deal of critical attention on the ways that modern notions of personhood dominate scholarly interpretation. For Bazzana, post-Enlightenment notions of self-reflective, autonomous, individual selves are implicated in distinctively ethnocentric and “cognocentric” European projects, including colonial exploitation and enslavement as well as the rise of capitalist economies and nation states. Working with these received categories uncritically, scholars imagine possession and exorcism as the loss and recovery of just such a stable, autonomous core self.

Bazzana’s alternative draws on Michael Lambeck’s work on possession in Mayottee and Madagascar, which, in turn, builds on and corrects some of functionalist excesses of the earlier ethnographic literature.5 For instance, Iaon Lewis’s seminal study of the zar cults of Sudan distinguishes between possessions that reproduce the norms and moral codes of the hegemonic social “center,” and the more aberrant expressions of marginal persons and spirits at the social “periphery,” whose expressions are at once sanctioned and contained. In contrast, Lambeck understands possession as open-ended, fluid kinds of performances with no overarching social functions organizing them. Such performances do, however, accomplish varying kinds of social work, such as reflecting on existing social structures and norms, sometimes in the form of playful, ironic commentary and critique, and providing “a way to know Otherness and the historical past through embodiment, or, finally, a source of moral action or reasoning” (12). Building on this work, Bazzana understands possession as involving some kind of initial trauma or malaise (sometimes construed as illness) that incites a kind of social dance among the affected person (or persons), their attendant audiences, and whatever mediums or specialists may hazard interventions.

In the chapters that follow, Bazzana endeavors, with remarkable clarity and creativity, to bring these insights to bear on his fine-grained literary and philological analysis of NT texts. His work on the Beelzebub controversy argues that the text’s redactional layers show signs of a fluid, sometimes ambiguous negotiation among host, invading spirit, and attendant audiences, as well as the “diversity and conflict that characterize the ‘spirit’ world” (22). Resisting dogmatic formulations of evil demons, demons/daimones emerge as capricious, potentially malevolent beings that, if properly harnessed, may yield their powers to others. Bazzana also argues that difficult locutions such as “in an unclean spirit” (or “with an unclean spirit”), and Paul’s language of being “in Christ,” reveal just this kind indeterminate relationship between hosts and spirits. Thus, Bazzana explains some difficult features of the language, especially the sense in which Jesus may at once “possess” and also “be possessed by” Beelzebub.

In later chapters, Bazzana also explores possession as a way of “embodying mythical and historical pasts,” and of forming new kinds of selves and communities. To this end, he presents a historical genealogy for the language of “unclean spirits” in the New Testament as deriving from Enochic tradition, and thus reads the Gerasene demoniac and other language about “unclean spirits” as signaling that persons “embody the mythical etiology of evil generated by giants and fallen angels” (81–82). These arguments might hold, but more richly drawn historical comparisons with non-Jewish traditions might strengthen Bazzana’s argument about the Enochic resonance here.

Bazzana’s three chapters on Paul are thick with critical interventions and creative reinterpretations. He reads Romans 8 as displaying the ambiguous relationship between possessing spirits and human hosts (112–17); he argues that language about incorporation into “the body of Christ” uses possession to weave together the hybrid, trans-local identities of Christ followers (134–40); and he imagines that possession of (or by) the spirit of Christ invites persons to inhabit/embody a foreign identity, that of a convicted Jewish criminal, whose mythical past they enact, including his possession of/by the pneuma (140–60). Bazzana also contends that possession performances could explain why Paul virtually ignores the life and teachings of Jesus in the letters, and that they shed light on Paul’s language about identification with, and imitation of, Christ (e.g., Rom 6:3–4; 2 Cor 4:7–12) as well as other intriguing claims, such as that Christ “lives in me”(Gal 2:20) and that the crucifixion was exhibited “before your eyes” (Gal 3:1). He also gives sustained attention to 1 Cor 12–14, especially Paul’s self-fashioning as arch-mediator of the pneuma with particular rights to adjudicate legitimate “possession” (12:3) and to organize pneumatic gifts.

Bazzana’s daring and carefully wrought study draws much-needed attention to the ambiguous relationships between spirits and hosts, and to the varied kinds of social improvisations that possession may incite. I note, however, that most of Bazzana’s ethnographic comparisons seem to envision the possessing spirit as having a distinct, usually singular, kind of personality and that some of the New Testament materials seems to complicate that model. For instance, in Mark 5, we find multiple spirits operating with some kind of low-level intentionality (they cooperate, speak, perceive threats, form plans, present requests), which seems to imply that they overpower only as a large band of malevolents (cf. Q 11:24–26). This multiplicity could be understood as the evangelists’ literary conceit to magnify Jesus’ power, but it would be helpful to see other ethnographic comparisons that could shed light on this multiplicity.

Some aspects of Paul’s pneuma, to my mind, do not fit easily within Bazzana’s model of possession, especially because he generally envisions transitory events and invasions by a distinct personality of some kind. On the surface, at least, this seems not to fit Christ’s pneumatic resurrection (which Bazzana treats as a form of possession, 121–24), nor the basically permanent occupation by the spirit envisioned for Paul’s Christ-followers throughout the letters. Paul’s arguments are often difficult, but it does not seem to me that he generally treats the pneuma as a distinct kind of personality, though he sometimes attributes to it qualities of mind, as in 1 Cor 2 “we have the mind of Christ,” in Romans 8:16, where the pneuma “cries Abba, father,” and in 8:6–27, where pneuma enables divine surveillance of some kind. From another angle, possession promises to explain how the pneuma “gets into” persons and groups, but precisely how Paul conceives of what it “does” once it’s “in” continues to beguile.

Finally, I suggest that Bazzana might find that other kinds of traditions, such as moral discourses about self-mastery, link up with his arguments about possession in interesting ways. For instance, I have argued that Romans 8 describes pneuma as a divine substance that occupies and empowers the “good part” of the person (see esp. the “phronema of the flesh” versus the “phronema of the spirit”).6 On this reading, Romans 8 celebrates a moral-psychological restoration by the pneuma so that the gentiles, formerly dominated by their sinful passions (7:7–25; cf. 1:18–32 and 6:12–14) can “win the war within.” Understood in this way, Paul recasts certain discourses about self-mastery as a kind of “God-mastery.” If this reading has substantial merit, it hints at some of the ways that Bazzana’s path-breaking work might interact with other ideas about persons and divine-human comingling.

Bazzana and Eyl’s studies are to be celebrated for moving out of the narrow, theologically congested worlds of much New Testament scholarship and for demonstrating how comparative work can inspire fresh historical interpretations. The preceding sketch suggests a range of ways that their research might productively interact going forward, but I can only gesture at a few areas here. I would especially like to see Bazzana engage with Eyl’s cognitive science framing, particularly because this could help to explain the cross-cultural prevalence of possession and exorcism which is so generative for his work on Mediterranean antiquity.7 Eyl might fruitfully consider possession as at least analogous to some forms of divination, including oracular speech, inspired writing, and “wonder working,” and perhaps also find that that Bazzana’s work helps to fill out the “palpably local” presence of the pneuma in Paul’s Christ followers, embedded as it seems to be in their present and future selves. Both books, however, constitute major achievements as they stand. Researchers will pour over the intricacies of their arguments for many years to come as they labor to develop novel interpretations of their own.

  1. This also supplies a concept of “belief” that plausibly resists European Protestant and other powerful Christian legacies; see Eyl’s helpful comments (Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, 23).

  2. See esp. Stanley Stowers, “The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries,” in Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice, ed. Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsussana Varhelyi (Oxford, 2016), 35–56; Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001).

  3. See also Stowers, “Plant and Animal Offerings”; Peter Struck, Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 2016).

  4. Especially relevant here is Runar Thorsteinsson, “Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 in Contemporary Stoic Ethics,” JSNT 29.2 (2006) 139–61.

  5. Bazzana has also spent enough time in the literature to rehearse some of the most important objections, such as the ways that Lewis’s work on center/periphery reproduce the norms and ideologies of the center; and the varied ways that Geertz’s “textualism” has influenced Lambeck’s work (12–14).

  6. The Death of the Soul in Romans 7: Sin, Death, and the Law in Light of Hellenistic Moral Psychology (Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

  7. On possession, see esp. Emma Cohen, The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2007).

  • Giovanni Bazzana

    Giovanni Bazzana


    On Spirit “Occupation”: A Response to Emma Wasserman

    The New Testament accounts of what we call “spirit possession” have profoundly shaped the ways in which we conceive of this phenomenon. Most significant, in this perspective, is the impression that possessing spirits manifest themselves out of an absence and, after having accomplished their harmful tasks, they recede again into hiding. This impression is in all likelihood a product of the arrangement of Jesus’ exorcisms in relatively self-contained episodes in the Gospels, but it may also depend on modern European discussions around possession and freewill (described in an admirably compelling way by Moshe Sluhovsky in Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism, 2007).

    In any event, this “episodic” way of imagining possession is directly contradicted by ethnographic accounts of the phenomenon. Possession is far from “episodic,” and not only because exorcisms are regularly very different from the speedy affairs attributed to Jesus in the gospel. Many anthropologists, taking advantage of their fieldworks as opportunities to spend extended periods of time with possessed mediums, have been able to show that spirits are always “present” in their mediums’ consciousness, even outside those moments that are more traditionally associated with “possession.” Such observations provide the grounds for the claim (advanced in Having the Spirit of Christ) that the persistent presence of the pneuma within those who are “in Christ” (to use the language favored by Paul) shapes their subjectivity and their morality in a profound way. Again, ethnographers like Diana Espirito Santo or Adeline Masquelier have illustrated the same process in mediums they have been in contact with for years in the Caribbean and in Western Africa, respectively.

    Emma Wasserman offers a very appropriate critique of my argument along these very same lines. I could not agree more that, if one approaches some crucial Pauline passages with the image of “episodic” possession in mind, these texts are not going to make good sense. In fact, even several of the cases of possession that are described in the gospel are clearly not “episodes,” even though they appear like that to the reader because of the generic constraints of the narratives. For example, a long-term presence of a good (“divine”?) spirit in Jesus seem to be presupposed in the Gospel of Mark, at least on the basis of the story of Jesus’ baptism in chapter 1. However, the same gospel (in its characteristically unsystematic way) adumbrates also the presence of another, more ambiguous entity in Jesus—Beelzebul—in chapter 3.

    Finally, even in the colorful case of the Gerasene man of Mark 5, nothing compels a reader to imagine that the demon Legion will not come back and will not perhaps establish a more fruitful relationship with the unnamed man. Indeed, it is worth keeping in mind that the plunge of the herd of pigs in the lake of Galilee does not necessarily imply the destruction of the spirits (or even of the pigs, since, as is often noted by commentators, these animals are fortunately very good swimmers). Finally, there are good reasons to suspect that the extended coda of this story (Mark 5:15–20) may contain the remains of an investiture of the Gerasene man to continue a possession cult in the area after Jesus’ departure.

    In regard to this point, I consider Wasserman’s suggestion to use the term “occupation” instead of “possession” a remarkably good one. “Possession” is indeed a highly contested term among anthropologists, because its use (as noted by Paul Christopher Johnson) is deeply implicated in the problematic legacy of European colonialism and racism. “Possession” does emphasize the loss of subjective autonomy that European intellectuals ascribed to colonized people and then mobilized to justify their views on the inherent inferiority of the colonized. But it is easy to see in ethnographic literature both that “possession” does not always entail such a radical loss of autonomy and, most importantly, that Europeans are far from free from “possession” themselves. Wasserman’s terminological suggestion can be a very effective means to escape such fraught legacy.

    To speak of “occupation” instead of “possession” does indeed capture a dimension of the phenomenon that has been described above and that is crucial for an adequate understanding of Christ-pneuma “occupation” in the Pauline groups. Two distinct entities (with their distinct personalities) here “occupy” the same body, and the human mediums who experience such a state of affairs must also build their own selves through a complicated and protracted negotiation with the Christ-pneuma. It is this process that is so productive for Paul in generating myths of origin, ethical choices, and even ritual practices for his groups. To answer Wasserman’s question, if one wants to see what this spirit “does” when it gets “into” these Christ followers, one can do well in looking, for instance, at Eyl’s book: the Christ-pneuma produces divination, miracles, and gifts.

    Wasserman is also quite right in suggesting that one should look at ancient discourses about self-mastery, like the ones that she has analyzed so well. Definitely, Paul uses them and adapts them to the circumstances of “occupation.” That is the reason why for him it is so crucial (and for modern readers so problematic, both hermeneutically and ethically) to present the relationship between the Christ-pneuma and the human mediums via the terminology of (ancient) slavery. It is certainly “God-mastery” which Paul finds useful to represent by casting this divine power as a master enslaver/dominus (a move not uncommon cross-culturally in cases of possession).

    • Jennifer Eyl

      Jennifer Eyl


      The Gods Without: A Response to Emma Wasserman

      Why does Paul refrain from naming many of the wonders he claimed to perform? When he writes of signs and wonders, even if drawing the terminology from the LXX, what is he talking about, specifically? He does identify some accomplishments: miracle healing, for example, and the transformation of his followers’ flesh bodies into pneumatic bodies. And after reading Bazzana’s book, I now have rethought what Paul could have meant when claiming that his Galatian followers saw Christ crucified before their very eyes. But the reader suspects there are more wonders and signs that Paul simply does not stop to recount. Wasserman queries “why Paul would avoid pausing to describe such feats in the extant letters.” Why, indeed! I have wondered (perhaps even bemoaned) this myself.

      I suspect it may be helpful to think if the nature of our evidence. When looking for accounts of people in the first century who do what Paul does (which I would describe as a mix of ethical/moral/philosophical teachings combined tied to textual exegesis and the performance of divinatory-wonderworking acts, in a group setting), we have virtually no first-person accounts besides Paul’s. I say “virtually” because I want to leave room open for evidence that I may be unaware of. We have a stunning array of evidence for divination and claims about wonderworking, but nearly all of that is third person description. Additionally, we have divinatory handbooks and the recovered remains of objects used in so-called magical spells and in rituals. But we simply lack such specific comparanda for the letters of Paul. (We have scores of letters from antiquity, but not these kinds of letters.)1

      Lacking that very narrowed scope of comparanda, we are left to ask, “Would someone like this detail the signs and the wonders?” Would someone like this, when writing a letter, remind his readers in detail: “Remember the time I did X? Remember when it thundered suddenly when I was speaking, and we all agreed it meant X? Recall when X had that terrible accident and was paralyzed, but I made him walk again?” When it comes to divinatory and wonderworking claims, what is the habit of people like Paul, in writing letters to others? Is he typical? Is he more or less restrained in his recollections? Would it have been risky to make more specific and clearer claims about himself, similar to those that will later be portrayed in texts like the Acts of Paul, or even Acts of the Apostles? I argue against the notion that Paul is strangely unique, but I do see that the nature of our evidence (first-person letters of this sort) offer us unusually rare evidence for this type of figure.2

      As for Paul’s divinations, we have the examples before our eyes; they occur in every letter save Philemon. Wasserman recommends that I consider Paul’s “textual bricolage,” allegory, and references of oracles (ta logia). I do, in fact, consider these things, but perhaps if one blinks, one misses it! Part of the challenge in writing this kind of book is that the evidence is so abundant that I could allot only a moderate amount of space to each practice I identified. Indeed, I found this problem to be one of the greatest challenges because each practice is worthy and wont of deeper and more sustained attention. Between pages 102 and 115, I explore issues of allegory and metaphor in divination and in texual divination, more briskly. However, the textual bricolage is an issue that I wish I had had more space for.

      The patchwork repurposing and reinterpreting of bits of LXX is simply one of the most creative and habitual ways that Paul uses other texts. I consider only three examples in my book (Rom 9:25–33; 1 Cor 15:54–55; and 2 Cor 6:16–18), but there are many more to choose from. Wasserman’s suggestion of Romans 3:10–18 could certainly be added to the list; in fact that passage is a coup de grace for anyone arguing to the contrary. I limited my analysis to one example from three letters simply out of consideration for space and to demonstrate that this happens across multiple letters. Romans 9:25–33 draws from Hos 1:10 and 2:23; Isa 10:22–23 and 1:9; and a combination of Isa 28:16 with 8:14. That is truly an impressive number of textual references to cobble together into nine “verses”! Likewise, in 1 Cor 15:54–55 Paul mixes and matches imagery and terminology from Isa 25:8 and Hos 13:14. Second Corinthians 6:16–18 repurposes and reinterprets Lev 26:11–12; Ezek 37:27; Isa 52:11 and Ezek 20:34; 2 Sam 7:14; and Isa 43:6 (see Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, 111–12).

      Paul’s apparent ease and facility at referring to LXX passages and then repurposing them is impressive. Taking up the recommendation of Wasserman, however, I would suggest that Paul’s “penchant for textual bricolage” is so extensive that the practice deserves a much closer examination in and of itself (*ahem* if anyone reading this is looking for a good dissertation topic . . .). Such an examination would push beyond the intertextual or text-critical approach of Richard Hays’s 1989 Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, and look at the divinatory role of repurposed texts cobbled together in a way that would be incoherent to any “original” authors. Paul does not simply repurpose earlier texts. He slices and dices, producing tiny fragments—a word here, and phrase there—that he seamlessly recombines to produce something else.

      Paul fits his divinations and wonderworking within a larger framework of declaring and demonstrating pistis to the Judean deity alone. Loyalty and obedience are human offerings. Wasserman observes that I move “rather hastily through some aspects of the historical context,” and that I do not fully account for how the “specific philosophical interests and identifications” of figures such as Philo, Plutarch, or Epictetus might shape their particular understandings of fides and pistis. She recommends that in future work I extend such considerations. She will be happy to know that I am doing precisely that (!). My new book project examines pistis in the letters of Paul, and his attempts to shape loyal followers by harnessing the rhetorical power and philosophical/moral virtue of fidelity. Deeper and closer consideration of the investments in pistis/fides among Paul’s (near) contemporaries is part of this project.

      In the introduction and conclusion of Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, I am clear that Paul is not just engaging in practices of divination and wonderworking: these are tied to his larger ethical-moral program. However, the book does not dwell on that “program”—an approach that could leave the impression that such concerns and influences (Platonism, Stoicism, Judeanness, etc.) are negligible, when they most certainly are not. My next project, which zeroes in on Paul’s use of pistis, will look at that larger ethical-moral agenda.

      1. For example, Christopher Forbes (who is not even focused on the divinatory content of the letters) writes, “Paul’s congregational letters . . . are a remarkably isolated phenomemon in their cultural context.” See Christopher Forbes, “Ancient Rhetoric and Ancient Letters: Models for Reading Paul, and Their Limits,” in Paul and Rhetoric, edited by J. Paul Sampley and Peter Lampe (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2010),143–60, esp. 159.

      2. The closest examples would be the letters of Apollonius, which are most likely written after Paul.

Annette Yoshiko Reed


Reading the New Testament before “Religion”

In popular parlance, it remains common to treat “religion” as a universal category of human experience that is essentially distinct from other domains (e.g., “magic,” science,” politics, economics). Since the 1960s, however, scholars of Religious Studies have emphasized the ethnocentric particularity of its history. On the one hand, the taxonomy of “religions” reflects the demarcations of knowledge specific to the European Enlightenment. On the other hand, much of what now seems natural about “religion” reinscribes Protestant Christian values—including the privileging of spirit over body, individual over institution, faith over works, belief over practice, and grace over the righteousness of deeds. Far from universal, our concepts of “religion” are rooted in European efforts to universalize the values of the Reformation and Enlightenment.

Specialists in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam have long pointed to the distortions that can result from imposing modern concepts of “religion” on non-Christian texts and traditions. Far too little has been done, however, to ask how such concepts have skewed our histories of Christianity too. New books by Jennifer Eyl and Giovanni Bazzana masterfully take up this task, each in their different ways but both to dazzling effect. Both seek to defamiliarize texts in the New Testament through their choice of analytical frames—divination and wonderworking, in the case of Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, and spirit possession, in the case of Bazzana’s Having the Spirit in Christ. Both challenge the isolationism of New Testament Studies, resist the theological abstractions that artificially distance New Testament texts from their own ancient settings, and unsettle the assumption of uniqueness that undergirds most research on Christian origins. For both, the main aim is a better understanding of specific texts—Pauline Epistles in the case of Eyl, as well as Q and the Gospel of Mark, in the case of Bazzana. Taken together, I suggest that both also recover the value of these texts as data useful for Religious Studies more broadly—including as comparanda for other approaches to the cosmos, before and beyond what we are accustomed to reading as “religion.”

Central to Eyl’s intervention in Signs, Wonders, and Gifts is her rereading of Paul as ordinary. What Paul claims as prophetic and apostolic, Eyl treats as akin to divinatory practices across the Mediterranean world. What he lauds as uniquely transformative mysteries like baptism, she redescribes in terms of wonderworking. Perhaps most powerfully, she takes the proclamations about grace that have been treated as his landmark spiritual achievement and rereads them as social reciprocity. To be sure, Eyl’s commits to retaining the term “religion” in the narrow sense of practices and discourses pertaining to the divine (13–14). By reading Paul as part of a world in which such practices and discourses were anything but disembedded, however, her book dismantles precisely those modern notions of “religion” that undergird his lionization as a founder of Christianity.

To do so, Eyl synthetizes a vast array of ancient data (esp. 48–85, 116–18), focusing on materials in Greek and Latin, and thus limiting her engagement with Jewish materials largely to the LXX, Philo, and Josephus. One might question the effects of looking more to Homer, Plato, and Cicero than to the Dead Sea Scrolls—especially since the latter has yielded striking new evidence for divination, ranging from physiognomy to pesher. Even if a broader scope of comparanda might have enhanced her argument, the sheer force of her point remains. Eyl deftly recovers a world in which interchange between human and divine formed part of the fabric of everyday social life—a world in which Paul promoted himself with rhetoric of uniqueness (7) perhaps because he was not so unique at all.

As much as Signs, Wonders, and Gifts is a book about Paul, however, it is also a book about us—and especially about those of us who study Christianity. To question Paul’s uniqueness is also to remind ourselves that the seeming uniqueness of the New Testament is an optical illusion produced by the myopic isolationism of New Testament Studies. Eyl’s point is most powerful when she questions our habit of rendering charis as “grace” when translating Pauline epistles (198–206, 216–18). This rendering underpins the traditional understanding of Paul’s references to pistis as interiorized individual “faith.” Eyl makes a persuasive case for the emphasis on relationality in ancient usage of both pistis and charis, which instead evoke a “mutual trust and faithfulness in relationships of reciprocity” (180). This example, thus, powerfully proves her broader point: here as elsewhere, the crypto-theological contention of Paul’s close connection to Protestant Christian theology results from the hermeneutical habit of misreading his acts and assertions as if totally new in his own time. What Eyl models, instead, is how choices of alternate taxonomy can permit us to see Paul anew, as a stranger to our world but no longer estranged from his own.

Just as Eyl attempts to remove Paul from a “silo of uniqueness” (20) by reframing his practices as divination and wonderworking, so Bazzana similarly “initiates a process of defamiliarization from current mainstream readings of early Christian possession and exorcism narratives” (Spirit, 25). Whereas Eyl looks to ancient Greek and Roman comparanda, Bazzana engages ethnographical studies of practices from Africa, Asia, and the Americas—first to reconsider Gospel narratives about Jesus as exorcist (chs. 1–2) and second to revisit Pauline references to being “in Christ” (chs. 3–5). Careful engagement with such comparanda is what enables us to see the two as part of the same phenomenon, rejecting the demonization of the former and the abstractification of the latter.

Bazzana’s choices of category and comparanda will surely inspire some discomfort. Not only is the allegorization of references to exorcism naturalized in New Testament Studies, but much of the resistance towards Religious Studies within New Testament Studies stems from a suspicion of comparative efforts that might risk conflation into ahistoricity. At the outset, Bazzana addresses the allegorizing approach (5–9), attributing its prominence both to the isolationism of New Testament Studies and to the selective retrojection of modern Western “constructions of personhood, agency, and the self” (6). With respect to comparison, potential objections are answered throughout. Part what makes Having the Spirit of Christ such a pleasure to read, in fact, are the self-conscious comments that pepper its analyses, pointing to the power of comparison when pursued with equal parts humility and vigilance.

To mine anthropology for comparanda for the New Testament might seem to run the risk of universalizing the phenomenon of spirit possession, conflating ethnographical and textual evidence, and collapsing the specificities of examples from far-flung eras and locales. In Bazzana’s careful hands, however, each of these potential pitfalls becomes an opportunity to hone his fine-grained philological analyses. In practice, his argument typically progresses from the text outward: the Greek of a passage like Mark 3:22–27 or Mark 5:1–20 leads him to note a seeming problem or paradox, and the appeal to ethnographical data enables the mapping of a broader range of possible solutions, beyond the options possible from within modern Western ideas of the self. A “modern western ontological regime” (55), for instance, tends to bifurcate internal and external aspects of the self but also to see the individual as autonomous from community and cosmos. But cross-cultural comparanda make clear that the ideal self is not always or everywhere presumed to be impermeable. To “have” a spirit or be “in” a spirit is not necessarily negative (106–11). Sometimes a person possessed by a spirit might simultaneously possess it, as more host than hostage, more adjurer than abductee. And possession is not only an interiorized drama, but more often a dynamic triangulation of spirit, self, and community—which can sometimes even serve as a vehicle for historical reflection (145–60).

Bazzana emphasizes throughout how his aim is a “controlled” comparison held in check by close attention to the Greek (28, 173). But if anything, anthropological insights enable this close attention by virtue of controlling for Eurocentrism. Like Eyl, Bazzana upends the contention of the uniqueness of Christian Origins—in his case, even resisting the “heroization” that centers Paul in readings of Pauline Epistles (167, 209). Yet he pushes the task of comparison well beyond the aim of contextualization. His engagement with Anthropology serves to relativize those acts of comparison that historical research (and research on Christian Origins in particular) tends to undertheorize—namely, comparison with our world and what we take for granted as normal, natural, and “religious.” Having the Spirit of Christ brims with acts of comparison that destabilize the modern Western gaze and its parochial claim of neutral objectivity. Against rationalized readings of the New Testament as the prehistory of Christianity, “religion,” and the modern West, Bazzana culls this literature for the opposite, using a focus on spirit possession to look before and beyond “those conceptions of rationalism and individualism . . . foundational for the last three centuries of European and North American intellectual history” (6–7). Consequently, the ramifications ripple beyond New Testament Studies, even as he shows how “taking spirit possession seriously in its ontological and ethical implications can contribute substantially to restore biblical criticism to its original status as a ‘troublesome’ discipline capable of challenging and unsettling deeply engrained paradigms” (9).

Both books exemplify what J. Z. Smith posits the doubled task of redescription—namely, to engage in “comparison across difference, taking advantage of the cognitive distortion” for the analysis of specific examples, while also leveraging these examples “in service of . . . redescribing the categories used in the study of religion” (quoted after Bazzana, Spirit, 15). Both also show how New Testament texts can prove especially powerful for the latter aim, due to the centrality of Christianity in shaping modern concepts of “religion.” As much as such redescription contributes to less anachronistic readings of certain texts in the New Testament, however, it might be worth attending to the danger of unintentionally reinscribing the exceptionalism of canonical sources. This is part of the danger, in my view, of Bazzana’s above-quoted emphasis on the value of “restor[ing] biblical criticism” but also of Eyl’s concern “to extract Paul from the Christianity that unfolded in his wake” (Signs, 2). What I found exciting about the findings in both books, in fact, was their potential to inspire the opposite—to rethink the significance of New Testament data beyond traditional disciplinary bounds (or, alternately, with a radically reoriented vision of what is “biblical” about “biblical criticism”) and to rewrite our histories of Christianity, after and beyond texts like Mark or 1 Corinthians.

Our archive for late antique Christianity abounds in sources that speak to the perceived pervasiveness of spirits in dynamic reciprocity with human agents and sometimes interpenetrating human bodies. Modern scholars have tended to explain this away—albeit selectively. Research on so-called “apocryphal,” “gnostic,” and “magical” sources tends to take seriously their interests in spirits. But this is not the case for Patristics. There is ample evidence that church fathers from Justin Martyr to John Chrysostom shared such concerns, but it tends to be neglected. The insights of Bazzana and Eyl, however, invite us to look at these materials anew, asking how selectively rationalizing approaches may have skewed our sense of what counts as “mainstream” and what can be sidelined as “popular” or “marginal.”

What Eyl notes as “special categorization that distinguishes [New Testament texts] from ancient comparanda” (Sign, 7) has arguably also skewed our understanding of their reception and transformation, precisely by virtue of the isolationist illusion that these canonical sources are uniquely close to modern European varieties of Christianity. But if the Paul whom Eyl and Bazzana recover is far from the Lutheran Paul, he is closer to the Paul of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Pauline prayer at the beginning of Nag Hammadi Codex I. He is closer to the dangerous Paul whom Ireneaus and Tertullian saw in need of domestication, than to the Paul whom Augustine honored as “The Apostle.” He is the Paul whom the Pseudo-Clementines could seemingly conflate with Simon Magus—the wonderworker, the one who roots his authority in visions, the one who claims commerce with spirits of the dead.

To reveal the spirit-infused strangeness of the Pauline Epistles and of the Synoptic Gospels is thus also to recover the potential of telling the history of Christianity as something other than “a myth of ‘rational’ Christian beginnings” with its presumed telos in the modern West (Eyl, Signs, 3). Bazzana hints at this potential in his intriguing references to texts like the Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of John, and the Pseudo-Clementines (Spirit, 35–36, 124–33, 140). The ramifications are striking. My own research on the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, for instance, has focused on its treatment of Judaism as “counter-history” to the book of Acts. With respect to spirits, however, it speaks precisely to the concerns discussed by Bazzana and Eyl. This fourth-century Syrian text attests continued debate over the questions which Bazzana highlights in relation to the spirit of Christ and which Eyl flags with respect to divination. What is the identity of the spirit with which Paul communicates? In what ways does Christ’s spirit continue to operate among humankind, and who can claim the succession of his prophetic knowledge? How can one tell the difference between true prophecy and divination? Not only does the Homilies maintain the migration of the “true prophet” into different bodies, from Adam to Jesus, but it explains the condition of non-Jews as the result of possession by polluting spirits—the disembodied spirits of the monstrous sons of the fallen angels, who crave the taste of blood and thus enter the bodies of those who sacrifice meat to idols, sickening their bodies and adulterating their souls. Baptism, there as elsewhere, is framed as exorcism. And if such ideas sound strange to us now, it is perhaps not because they depart from the New Testament but rather because of our taxonomies.

Modern notions of “religion” naturalize the marginalization of some practices related to the divine that were pervasive in the ancient Mediterranean world, such as divination, spirit possession, exorcism, and wonderworking. Bazzana and Eyl show how a focus on these very practices thus opens a window onto the past that is more than a mirror onto the present. Consequently, they also inspire us to imagine alternative paths ahead. What might it look like, for instance, if 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?

Especially promising, in this regard, is Bazzana’s refusal to reduce the daimonia of the Synoptic Gospels to the demonized half of a cosmic dualism (Spirit, 25–26). He shows, rather, how Mark’s exorcism narratives and Pauline claims about pneumata make more sense when read against the depolarized presumption of a cosmos sprawling with spirits (144–75). To reread Paul and Mark from this perspective, in turn, is to dispel the mirage of their departure from Judaism. Early Enochic writings, for instance, do not just tell the origin of evil spirits in a manner that resonates with Mark 5:1 (Bazzana, 67–72); they help us to recover the epistemology of the world in which this cosmology made sense.

The Enochic Astronomical Book and Book of the Watchers use spirits to theorize the cosmos and the human condition, moving from the winds in the gates of the heavens to the antediluvian descent of angels to the postmortem fate of humankind at the ends of the earth. Such sources, thus, further confirm what Bazzana and Eyl demonstrate from Paul and the Gospels—namely, that the perceived pervasiveness of spirits was matched by a diversity of ancient claims to expertise about them. Taking knowledge about spirits seriously as knowledge thus challenges us to follow Eyl’s lead in seeing what is hidden by our own taxonomies and what experimentation with different categories might reveal (Signs, 20–45). In the process, we might also further follow Bazzana’s call for “provincialization of western notions of God” (Spirit, 207), resisting the temptation to cast the drama of Christian Origins against the backdrop of a world emptied of its spirits.

  • Giovanni Bazzana

    Giovanni Bazzana


    New Testament Studies within the Study of Religion: A Response to Annette Reed

    Annette Reed, with her usual insightfulness, identifies quite well the main historiographical and methodological focus of both mine and (I believe) Eyl’s interventions on spirit possession and divination respectively. Actually, in my own case, I am particularly grateful because Reed has been able to put this in elegant and concise terms that are much better than my own in the book.

    This is great specifically in Reed’s ability to highlight a few themes that are crucial for the survival of the academic study of early Christianity in the changing environment of the Humanities. We all know or have heard about this crisis and there is little doubt that a sub-discipline focusing on early Christianity (or on the Bible, for that matter) runs the serious risk of disappearing or being pushed into marginal irrelevance. There are many causes behind these emerging problems, ranging from the strong currents of presentism and anti-intellectualism that pervade the academic world these days to the deeply engrained isolationism which early Christian studies seem structurally unable to leave behind.

    Becoming irrelevant for early Christian studies is a risk that has great ramifications beyond the world of academia. Of course, we can mourn the disappearance of certain types of technical expertise or the intimate knowledge of specific texts, but the consequences are much more serious than that. Whether they are studied in the halls of academia or not, biblical and early Christian texts clearly remain powerful and widely read in most places in the world that surrounds us. Not to study them critically equals leaving them under the full control of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and plain ignorance.

    When it appeared for the first time in Europe roughly three centuries ago, biblical criticism was a subversive and ideologically dangerous enterprise, designed to tear down not only theological dogmas, but also moral blind spots and sociopolitical inequalities. In the course of the following three hundred years this impulse achieved some significant goals, but it also lost much of its intellectual integrity (most importantly because of some horrific and very problematic elements inherent in the societies wherein it originated: colonialism, antisemitism, and patriarchy, to mention just a few of them). A glaring sign of this loss of steam is without any question the growing isolation and self-referentiality of the discipline. First of all, isolation from the other branches of the study of the ancient world and then also within the very study of early Christianity, with the proliferation of labels (such as “apocryphal,” “Gnosticism,” and so on, as noted by Reed) whose very existence serves primarily the function of cordoning the “canonical” New Testament off from difficult conversations. These are the kind of conversations that are elicited by a comparison with the full range of phenomena that surrounded these early Christ groups in the ancient Mediterranean, as exemplified admirably by Eyl for the case of divination, a pervasive practice if there was ever one in antiquity. This is the dangerous ideological work performed by the category of “uniqueness” that Eyl describes quite well in her response too.

    Personally, I think that the way forward must have the primary goal of recuperating the original subversive and critical spirit of these studies. This goal can only be achieved first of all by breaking down the partitions that Reed identifies so well in her comments. Eyl definitely displays perfectly how this can be done by showing that Paul must be studied within the broad context of the entire ancient Mediterranean. I have taken a path that is not radically different, even if perhaps a tad more radical. Having the Spirit of Christ hopefully demonstrates that early Christian “spirit possession” must be studied in comparison with the similar phenomena encountered in cultures and religions that have been too often sidelined as “inferior” to Western and Christian traditions. I find this an extremely rewarding way to expose the weaknesses and parochialism of our taxonomies. What if the comparison between Jesus’ struggle with Beelzebul and the history of possession of a Nigerien girl can help us to understand that our “selves” are porous and not “buffered” from the external world of objects and spirits? What if the contrast between Jesus’ encounter with the demon Legion and the rituals surrounding Sri Lankan exorcisms can help us seeing better the subtle irony and parody of cultural and political relations that undergirds possession?

    Finally, Reed offers a very appropriate challenge and criticism in her commentary on Having the Spirit of Christ. Indeed, one must admit that the book is surely limited to materials that have become part of the New Testament canon. This is in part due to the overflowing richness of intriguing materials that one can come across when looking for places to study early Christian possession in a new light and within a new context. I ended up cutting off several avenues for further developments that would have led me outside canonical boundaries. This opportunity is not entirely lost, of course, and from time to time I have returned to those roads not taken, and I will do so again in the future. In this perspective, I have published essays on Hermas, on the Second Letter of Clement, and on the Pseudo-Clementines, a very appropriate target for this kind of analysis, as Reed illustrates.

    That being said, I think that Reed is after something more substantial with this criticism, and rightly so. Too often still, even when our scholarly agendas are informed by the desire to tear down traditional taxonomies (as it is the case for my book and certainly for Eyl’s as well), the structure of our analysis and of its presentation are dictated still by traditional paradigms. I am sure that this has been the case for the conception of Having the Spirit of Christ, since I did start thinking about the issue of possession and exorcism in the New Testament, even though the later developments spans beyond it. I agree that a real break from traditional molds will happen only when the change will be even more radical.

    Fortunately, Reed herself has modeled something like that perfectly in her most recent book, Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2020). There, Reed deals with Jewish Aramaic writings of the third century CE and topics that are quite close to those addressed in Having the Spirit of Christ. The third century BCE is a rather neglected period in the history of early Judaism, often relegated to the “intertestamental” transition between Jewish Bible and New Testament. Reed’s treatment pushes firmly against such historiographical habits and instead demonstrates how rewarding the study of this period and its literatures on their own terms can be. Hers is not a book about the (however delightful) themes of angelology and demonology, but a volume that shows how deeply intertwined these concepts and their transformations were with the cultural conflicts, changes, and challenges of the early Hellenistic age. She thereby cuts another new pathway through the thicket of ancient religious phenomena, showing the way for other students of comparative religious studies.

    • Jennifer Eyl

      Jennifer Eyl


      Taxonomy and Monotheism: A Response to Annette Yoshiko Reed

      As inexact a comparison this may be, when I think of Paul, I often think of L. Ron Hubbard. Lest a reader find the comparison irreverent (How could Paul be anything like the founder of Scientology?), let us remember that early Jesus followers were as maligned as modern Scientologists are, and that, as Bruce Lincoln enjoins, reverence is not one of the scholarly virtues in the study of religion.1 Hubbard was outstandingly imaginative and generally successful at drawing people into his orbit. The Church of Scientology is an example par excellence of religion in mid-twentieth and early twenty-first century America. It is so . . . quintessentially American: the Hollywood celebrity bling, the miracle of self-help, the pyramid schemes under capitalism, the inventive science fiction, the quasi-prosperity gospel, the promotional video productions that so resembles late-night infomercials, the hair-trigger litigiousness, the bottomless quest for more and more money. Hubbard himself was itinerant, claimed the ability to heal himself miraculously, and to discern profound hidden Truths and Mysteries about the cosmos. He wrote of divine beings inhabiting the human body (he called them Thetans). He invented new taxonomies. He marshalled both the fidelity and the money of his followers. I could go on. I often do.

      An in-depth comparison would underscore significant differences, of course, but here is where a comparison is perfectly aligned: one simply cannot understand the finer details of L. Ron Hubbard and early Scientology outside of the context of mid-twentieth-century American culture. Why was Hubbard’s Dianetics subtitled The Modern Science of Mental Health? Because he was claiming superiority to the burgeoning fields of psychoanalysis and psychology. Why did Scientologists declare their social formation a “religion,” but for American tax law? If “religions” were not tax exempt in the United States, Scientology would not be a “religion.”2

      Even Hubbard’s wildly imaginative cosmology must be viewed in light of the American-Soviet space race and the twentieth century’s obsession with UFOs. In the future, if historians do not understand these realities which constituted Hubbard and Scientology, the historians’ understanding of Scientology itself will be anemic. L. Ron Hubbard is not to be viewed as radically unlike his contemporaries, although Scientology propaganda unequivocally paints him so. Rather, he is a product of American culture. Hubbard exemplifies things quintessentially twentieth-century American, just as Paul’s divinatory practices and discourse about ethics and ethnicity exemplify widespread aspects of life during the first century of the common era. Our understanding of historical Paul is not deepened by studying post-Reformation Christian theology or by finding a comfortable likeness of ourselves in his practices, but by looking at the first century of which he was a product. (In the case of Bazzana’s book, this “context” is not strictly historical, but more broadly anthropological.)

      I call attention to this because, as Annette Yoshiko Reed points out in her generous treatment of my book, Signs, Wonders, and Gifts, the taxonomies we use to understand and to situate much of our evidence for early Christianity are often about us. This is so much the case that Bill Arnal’s review sees the book’s redescription agenda as polemical. He is not wrong. But in what other historically-oriented field would it be considered polemical to assert, “To better understand X, we need first to look at its historical context”?3 Historically, we in New Testament studies have inherited categories, some evidently invented by Paul, and recycled them in our scholarship in ways that presuppose sharp divisions between Jesus followers and everyone else. Between Christianity and everything else. But would an ancient observer have viewed Paul’s charismata pneumatika as wholly new and unlike the many other divinatory practices encountered daily in that world? It is extremely unlikely. Put comparatively but less eloquently: Do we study L. Ron Hubbard as a uniquely magical unicorn because Scientologists want us to see him that way, or do we study him within some kind of context?

      I also call attention to this example because Reed points to the problems of prioritizing a canon, and subsequently encountering texts (or practices) based on proximity or distance to that canon. This road has been doubly misleading for our field. The dissolution of boundaries around the texts eventually included in the New Testament allows us to see how strange they are, but also how not strange they are compared to other practices and texts, including the pseudo-Clementine Homilies, which explain “the condition of non-Jews as the result of possession by polluting spirits—the disembodied spirits of the monstrous sons of the fallen angels, who crave the taste of blood and thus enter the bodies of those who sacrifice meat to idols, sickening their bodies and adulterating their souls.” As Reed suggests, “if such ideas sound strange to us now, it is perhaps not because they depart from the New Testament but rather because of our taxonomies.” Indeed. What if the taxonomies were less about us? What would it look like to use different categories, which better match the data we analyze? My book is an endeavor in that direction (as is Bazzana’s), and Reed presses that need even more.

      Until reading Reed’s response I had never actually wondered, “What is the actual value of being unique?” What would it matter if Paul were, or were not, completely unlike his peers? Paul himself does not claim absolute uniqueness; he employs innovative terminology for some things (“spiritual gifts”), but not absolute uniqueness. He avoids terms like mageia, of course, but enthusiastically claims prophecy. I suspect that Pauline Studies’ resolute defense of Paul’s uniqueness is tied, in part, to claims about monotheism. And the vast set of religious practices and traditions that existed across the ancient Mediterranean and Near East are often classified all together as “paganism.” All their differences are erased, their rich and varied landscapes flattened. This multitude-as-sameness is juxtaposed to the singularity of the unique, in other words, the singularity of The Truth. Yet, even this narrative does not exist in the earliest documents of the Jesus groups. Enter Bazzana’s book, for example. Only through imagining that Jesus and his subsequent followers were “monotheists” does it become near impossible to imagine that Jesus wrestled with a possessing pneuma, not to mention the likelihood that Jesus understood himself with work with Beelzebul (31–59). As Bazzana points out, this would have made perfect sense in the first century, but blasphemous centuries later.

      Reed queries, “What might it look like . . . if 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?” I take this to be a most excellent recommendation, both in our scholarship and in our pedagogy. If I had my own graduate students, I would sound this as a clarion call. In fact, I have long built into my teaching an exercise that does precisely that: we map out the invisible worlds of both “polytheism” and “monotheism” in antiquity, which end up looking suspiciously similar.4 If such similarity is the case, what work is the claim of “monotheism” accomplishing, and for whom? The sheer number of possible pneumata/spirits and divinities assumed to be at work in antiquity, not to mention Bazzana’s reading of Christ as a possessing pneuma, throws the most delightful wrench into the works of this category (as do the Enochic Astronomical Book and Book of the Watchers, as Reed points out).

      Several years ago, SBL was hosted in my hometown of Atlanta. My parents were excited to see me give a paper and to finally encounter what it is that I do for a living. Afterward, my father puzzled, “The New Testament is two thousand years old [sic]—how do people still have new things to say about it?” Are not the simplest questions sometimes the most revealing? What he did not know, of course, is that for centuries, the only people qualified (or permitted) to analyze or interpret the contents of the New Testament were certain classes of specialists: clergy, theologians, and philosophers, predominantly. As a result, scholars of early Christianity today inherit the legacy of that intellectual work, which was centuries in the making. It is only in the past few decades that NT scholars have taken seriously the work of detailed comparative efforts that redescribe and resituate early Christ groups within their native historical milieux. The two books under discussion here stand on the shoulders of those more recent scholars whose work has altered the course of our discipline.5 But the legacy of these taxonomies, frames, lenses, and perspectives can be devilishly difficult to change. Thus, there remains an extraordinary amount of exciting work yet to be done in our field, both in terms of redescription and in terms of decentering notions of “canon.”

      1. I paraphrase Lincoln’s fuller thesis: “Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.” Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996) 225–27.

      2. Hugh Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

      3. There is a danger, of course, in suggesting that historians are “objective.” The important work of Hayden White helped dispel that notion in the 1980s, with his observations that even historians write history as a story—with character development, emplotment, and a teleological arc. See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). Reed, too, cautions against this when she refers to “the modern Western gaze and its parochial claim of neutral objectivity.”

      4. “Rethinking Monotheism in the Classroom: How to Illustrate a Problem,” Journal of Religious Competition in Antiquity, special issue, Teaching Ancient Mediterranean Religions: Best Practices (forthcoming).

      5. In my view, the SBL seminar most unwaveringly dedicated to the project of redescription is the (appropriately named) Redescribing Christian Origins group. Founded in 1995 by Ron Cameron and Merrill Miller, it is currently chaired by Robyn Walsh and Matthew Baldwin.

Verified by ExactMetrics