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.

Peter Struck


June 29, 2021, 1:00 am

Emma Wasserman


July 6, 2021, 1:00 am

Annette Yoshiko Reed


July 20, 2021, 1:00 am