Jennifer Eyl. Signs, Wonders, and Gifts: Divination in the Letters of Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Giovanni B. Bazzana. Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
This symposium marks a new format—thus, a novel intellectual experiment—for Syndicate. Instead of the back-and-forth between several scholars’ reviews and an author’s remarks, we instead consider two books at the same time, and their respective authors interact not only with their reviewers, but also with each other. These books share a generative synergy, their common focus on ancient pneuma combining with their authors’ radically different approaches to constructing interpretive context. Reviewing them together has made all of our various collegial interactions a wonderful exercise in thinking about interdisciplinarity and critical comparison in Religious Studies.
Signs, Wonders, and Gifts (Eyl) and Having the Spirit of Christ (Bazzana) may occupy two separate hard-copy bodies, but they are united in one spirit. Personified, that would be the spirit of Jonathan Z. Smith.1 Smith’s enduring essays sounded the summons to comparison—disciplined, deliberate explorations of sameness and of difference—when studying ancient religions. But, as both Eyl’s and Bazzana’s titles imply, and as all readers of Drudgery Divine know, when the religion in question is ancient Christianity, and the period in question so-called “Christian Origins,” particular and peculiar problems tend to arise. Their etiology is not complex: the search for “origins,” as Steve Weizmann has recently and persuasively argued, is almost invariably linked to questions of identity.2
Weizmann’s observation underscores a key distinction, for Christianists, between doing theology and doing history. Christian theology is produced by, for, and within confessional institutions, be these churches or faculties of divinity. Theology is primarily exegetical. Theologians navigate their exegesis of the New Testament (and of the Old Testament) while steering by community-specific points of doctrine: “monotheism,” “incarnation,” “resurrection,” “salvation,” “grace, not works” (a Protestant inflection), “transubstantiation” (a Catholic one), “miaphysitism” (an Ethiopian one), and so on. In this way, contemporary theology accomplishes a refamiliarization of these ancient texts. Theology infuses them with contemporary meaning. It thus stabilizes trans-temporal (though denominationally various) Christian identity.
What happens when these texts are approached comparatively, using interdisciplinary methods and models? When they are placed within interpretive contexts that owe more to Clifford Geertz than to Chalcedon? How do non-confessional interpretive contexts affect—and effect—ancient textual content? Historical thinking works to defamiliarize these too-familiar texts. It reconstructs the ancient identities of their authors and audiences, identities that have little or nothing to do with modern ones. It reimagines a social world within which people did not think about the things that we think about in the ways that we think about things.
Rereading Christian canonical texts with these issues and commitments foremost, both Eyl’s work and Bazzana’s offer dazzlingly refreshing results. Their research dismantles the huge and anachronistic identity bins that all of us, for convenience, continue (while lamenting) to pitch our data into: “Judaism,” “Hellenism,” “Paganism,” and that most anachronistic bin of all for this mid-first-century period: “Christianity.”3 The Jesus redescribed by Bazzana is eerily Other. The apostle whom both scholars conjure is more at home in the ancient Mediterranean than in sixteenth-century Wittenburg (or its many twenty-first-century iterations). And, intriguingly, though each scholar works to vanquish anachronism, they do so by deploying utterly different strategies.
Eyl’s Paul sits securely within a context of ancient and widespread divinatory practices. He claims to understand divine intentions by decoding ancient texts, by journeying through the heavens, by witnessing epiphanies. And he validates these claims in two ways. First, he appeals to his own powers: Paul himself performs “wonders,” miraculous healings and “deeds of power”; he prophesies; he speaks in celestial tongues. Second, Paul appeals to his ability to impart these very same charismata pneumatika to individuals within his assemblies: they too can do these things (though not as much or as well, says Paul, as Paul does). Paul avoids using the terms mantikē and mageia, but, to a contemporary outsider (and, perhaps, even to an insider), these acts are what he seems to perform.
The enabling medium of charismatic performance is divine pneuma—whether the pneuma of God, of Christ, or simply “holy pneuma.” Infused through immersion, this pneuma not only heralds the impending end of the age: it ensures eschatological somatic change and life immortal, promising the transformation of fleshly bodies, whether of the quick or of the dead, into bodies of pneuma. (Roman-period gods, stars and angels, of whatever religious denomination or sectarian allegiance, often had bodies made of this same stuff.)4 In exchange for all this, Paul’s gentiles must foreswear “the works of the flesh” (defined according to the categories of Jewish anti-pagan rhetoric), the worship of their own gods, and the teachings of any other apostles of Christ if those differed from Paul’s own. Through spirit, these gentiles are enabled to remain loyal to Paul’s god, the god of Israel, alone. Through spirit, these non-Jews are enabled to fulfill those parts of Jewish law that Paul urges on them. Like the biblical Abraham, these gentiles, through spirit, are enabled to live according to trust (pistis) in this god, as also in his son.
As Eyl crisply puts it herself, “This book is largely a project of redescription, comparison, and taxonomy.” No small task, given the principled theological exceptionalism (“illusion of uniqueness”) that so many Pauline scholars have walled Paul behind.5 Patiently, provocatively, pellucidly, she builds her thick description with an impressively broad-ranging command of sources on various ancient divinatory practices, on protocols of regular divine/human exchange, and on the practices of other divinatory experts. (An admirably “interfaith” group: standing beside Paul are Apollonius, Ptolemy Soter, Dionysus of Philadelphia, and Apuleius’ Lucius.) All of these diviners lived in a semiotically structured world, decoding signaled information crucially important to maintaining ancient divine/human reciprocity. In short: Paul made sense to his contemporaries, who were his target audience, because he (as they) fit into this ancient Mediterranean context. This depiction should need neither to be defended nor to be demonstrated, if what we seek is an historical understanding of any first-century person. Yet, in fact—due to the complicated relationships between confessional theologies and Religious Studies—the case does need to be made, again and again. Eyl’s essay does so elegantly and compellingly. Though her cultural contextualization and her taxonomic redescription, Eyl in effect brings the first-century apostle back home.
If Eyl’s Signs, Wonders, and Gifts scrupulously resituates the “what” of Paul’s divinatory practices in Mediterranean antiquity, Bazzana’s Having the Spirit of Christ boldly redescribes the “how.” Eyl productively placed Paul among his (ethnicly, thus religiously, variegated) chronological peers, and they all would have made sense to each other. Bazzana, in vivid contrast, cheerfully violates temporal and cultural parameters. Modern cross-cultural anthropology; current Caribbean cults; the observed dynamics of spirit possession: these provide the timber for Bazzana’s interpretive scaffolding. The result is a powerfully reimagined view of pneuma, of its manifold muscular manifestations, and of its social and community-building power within this peculiar late Second Temple Jewish movement.
Both Jesus and Paul, as Bazzana notes, dealt with daimonia (“godlings,” translated passim a bit too diminutively as “demons”; cf. p. 25) and pneumata. Jesus’s “demons” and “unclean spirits” seem local and low-level nonhuman agents, often causing physical or mental illness. Jesus-cum-exorcist routinely bests them. But when Jesus does so, as Bazzana observes, he works with spirits within himself as well, “as an embodied and affective phenomenon” (20). “One of the major hindrances to the viability of ‘religious experience’ as a scholarly category,” Bazzana notes, “is certainly its past use to sanction essentializing and Christocentric constructions” (21; cf., on 34, his discussion of “the controversial identity of the spirit [Beezelbub] helping Jesus in his exorcisms”). Exorcists command spirits, but they do so through other spirits (cf. Mark 1:9–12).
Paul by contrast had to deal with “big” daimonia—the gods of the nations (1 Cor 10:20; cf. Ps 95:5 LXX; 2 Cor 4:4)—as well as more local varieties. But against these, Paul could marshal the pneuma of God’s own warrior-son, Christ himself. Bazzana’s anthropologically inflected insights, applied to the apostle, open up enduringly difficult passages to new and simpler, more straightforward meanings. Christ’s spirit is quite literally in Paul (e.g., Gal 1:14), in the bodies of those who trust (thus, who have been immersed into that spirit, e.g., Gal 3:27–28). To be “in Christ” and to have Christ’s spirit “in you” means exactly that. (This material locality in turn accounts for Paul’s concerns about purity, porneia and pollution, 1 Cor 6:15–20; cf. 7:12–14, moving in the other direction, on mixed marital unions achieving “sanctification.”) Paul’s assemblies have Christ in them, and have put Christ “on” them (Rom 13:14; 1 Cor 15:53–54). Further, as Bazzana explores, spirit possession also and often involves performance, once the human medium is inhabited by the other, alien subjectivity—an observation that demystifies Paul’s odd claim to his Galatian his auditors that Christ crucified had been presented “before your eyes” (Gal 3:1). Paul, with Christ “in” him, enacts and thus re-presents Christ.
Finally, this pneumatic empowerment shared between Paul and his assemblies demonstrates and validates Paul’s teaching that his trans-local groups, all “in” one spirit, are also and thereby in “one body,” the trans-local, trans-personal pneumatic body of Christ. By radically utilizing cross-cultural studies, providing the lens of spirit possession through which to see Paul’s letters, Bazzana has given us an astonishingly original, provocative, and enlightening interpretation. And we gain an exegetical payoff: some of Paul’s most obscure passages make straightforward sense within their historical context.
Our four reviewers—William Arnal, Peter Struck, Emma Wasserman, and Annette Yoshiko Reed—all interact energetically with our authors, commenting on both (methodological) style and (epistemological) substance. In “A Kind of Wildness,” Arnal celebrates the refreshing coherence accomplished by these two readings, which relocate their subject(s) within “a world populated . . . with a host of superhuman entities and agents,” “deeply embedded in the culture of the Roman world.” Historical and cultural context, he observes, provides more than “background.” Rather, it also gives the “conditions of possibility” within which Paul, as his contemporaries, thought and acted.6 Thinking with possession as performance, mulling over the god Glycon (whose epiphanies were assisted by the use of puppets) as well as the devices of late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Spiritualists, Arnal closes with his own provocative question: “Just how wild a Paul are we prepared to imagine?”
Classicist Peter Struck, no stranger to ancient semiotics himself,7 also begins with Eyl’s and Bazzana’s nod to J. Z. Smith, noting the nature of “comparison” qua technique of understanding, and the ways that it demands acknowledgment of and respect for difference. In Struck’s nice phrasing, there is no “periodic table of human cultural forms.” Redescription of phenomena and “rectification of academic categories”—in Eyl’s term, “taxonomies”—are both the goal and the means by which comparison proceeds. Eyl stays culturally and historically “local”; Bazzana by contrast wanders widely. But both produce a Paul whose utter difference from the modern “us” has got to be a step in the right direction toward reading his texts in their originary sense. In a final fun romp through terms (this time ancient, not modern), Struck notes Paul’s resistance to contemporary identifiers such as mageia, goêteia, and mantikē, and suddenly brings to Paul’s rescue—Iamblichus! (Let the reader understand.) Together, both books, Struck comments in closing, demonstrate that comparison as a technique of study for ancient “religion” is, “thank goodness . . . shown to be alive and well.”
Emma Wasserman, in “Possession, Exorcism, and Pneumatic Presence,” also lauds the “startling breadth, depth, and creativity” of these two research agendas. She observes how Eyl resituates Paul’s vocabulary of charis and of pistis out from their respective sixteenth-century theological lock boxes (“grace”; “faith”) back into a world full of nonhuman agents. These two terms are “relatively ordinary,” “shared by human and nonhuman personalities (daimonia, pneumata, kyrioi, theoi) across Jewish, Greek, and Roman traditions.” Charis as “benefaction” and pistis as “trust” or “loyalty” attest to the basic economies of exchange structuring ancient reciprocal relations between humans and their nonhuman neighbors, at whatever cosmic register. Bazzana’s work, Wasserman observes, in turn destabilizes those “modern notions of personhood” that dominate New Testament scholarship, illumining the indeterminacy of ancient “self’ in a world where personalities interpenetrate each other; where humans can host spirits, appeal to them, command them, discern them, and convey them to others. Paul’s language of identification with and imitation of Christ (Rom 6:3–4; 2 Cor 4:7–12), his claims that Christ “lives in” him (Gal 2:20), and that he visually exhibited Christ crucified to his assemblies (Gal 3:1) take on new meanings if read as Paul’s (self-fashioned) claims to authority as the ultimate arch-mediator of divine pneuma.8
Finally, in “Reading the New Testament before ‘Religion,’” Annette Reed offers nothing less than a discourse on method. She underscores the ways that our concepts of “religion” are “rooted in European efforts to universalize the values of the Reformation and Enlightenment,” most specifically, of course, those of Protestantism. Hailing Eyl’s and Bazzana’s defamiliarized Paul as a challenge to “the isolationism of New Testament Studies” with its thick theological overlay, Reed applauds, as well, their historiographical achievement, “rereading Paul as ordinary,” that is, as an identifiable type within a cultural context “in which interchange between human and divine formed part of the fabric of every day social life.” Perhaps Paul so insisted on his own uniqueness, she speculates, precisely “because he was not so unique.”
Anthropological comparanda, as Reed notes in closing, “will surely inspire some discomfort.” “What might it look like,” she asks finally, if, following the lead of Eyl and Bazzana, “we reconfigured our approaches to ancient ideas about divinity to decenter monotheism, and to focus instead on mapping a multiplicity of spirits in reciprocity with humankind?”
What, indeed? I think that we students of ancient religions would discover that we do not, in fact, study “religion.” Rather, we seek to reimagine, reconstruct and narratively re-present the many different relationships—all variously organized, maintained, and enacted—between two broad (and graduated, and sometimes overlapping) species of ancient social agents: humans, and their gods.
Smith’s pneuma currently resides as well within the lithe and lively recent essay by Matthew V. Novenson, “Beyond Compare; or, Some Recent Strategies for Not Comparing Early Christianity with Other Things,” in J. Barclay and B. White, eds., The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Tradition, Library of New Testament Studies (London: T. & T. Clark, 2020), 79–94.↩
The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).↩
As soon as we have evidence of the post-crucifixion Christ-movements—which is to say, Paul’s letters—we have evidence of vigorous variety and internal dispute. And as time went on, Constantine’s frustration and ire notwithstanding, that variety only increased. Why, then, does my spell check warn me off of writing “Christianities”?↩
“Spirit” is “stuff”: it is material (though very fine matter), not immaterial. See esp. Troels Engeberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).↩
For a recent example, claiming that Paul’s use of the language of ethnicity actually expresses his “irreducibly theological” meanings of peoplehood and identity, all configured around “grace” and “belief in Christ,” John M. G. Barclay, “An Identity Received from God: The Theological Configuration of Paul’s Kinship Discourse,” Early Christianity 8 (2017) 354–72, here at 369. When one recalls that Paul’s audiences are recently pagan mid-first-century gentiles, it is difficult to imagine how well they could have followed (aurally!) such a sophisticated and clearly Protestant theology as Barclay’s interpretation seems to represent.↩
As Arnal notes, “The Christian Paul of so much scholarship is not merely an anachronism. He is also just not believable as a real human being.”↩
Struck, The Birth of the Symbol (2004) and, most recently, Divination and Human Nature (2016), both published by Princeton University Press.↩
In this connection—Paul’s self-fashioning—many of our discussants cite the important work of Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Early Roman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).↩
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.
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.↩
Peter Struck, Divination and Human Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 215–49.↩
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.
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).↩
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).↩
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).↩
Especially relevant here is Runar Thorsteinsson, “Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 in Contemporary Stoic Ethics,” JSNT 29.2 (2006) 139–61.↩
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).↩
The Death of the Soul in Romans 7: Sin, Death, and the Law in Light of Hellenistic Moral Psychology (Mohr Siebeck, 2008).↩
On possession, see esp. Emma Cohen, The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2007).↩
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.
A Kind of Wildness
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?
Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 13. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, pp. 193, 195.↩
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.↩
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.↩
As opposed to institutionally authorized, as, e.g., priests in an established temple.↩
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).”↩
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.↩
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).↩
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.↩
Paul says that it was before their eyes that Jesus was publicly displayed as crucified, hois kat’ ophthalmous Iēsous Christos proegraphē estaurōmenos.↩
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.↩
At Rom 13:14. Compare also 1 Cor 15:53–54, where Paul speaks of “wearing” immortality. Cf., rather differently, Col 3:10.↩
As in, e.g., Matt 6:25; 27:31; Mark 6:9; 15:20; Luke 12:22; 15:22; etc.↩
She also helpfully observes that “Paul and his followers engaged in numerous practices for which we have no evidence” (142).↩
I am grateful to Esther Guillen for bringing my attention to this potential avenue of inquiry.↩
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.↩
See OCD, s.v. “masks,” 934–35.↩
Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 12. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, pp. 191, 193.↩
Lucian, “Alexander the False Prophet,” 12. Translation, LCL Lucian v. 4, p. 191.↩
6.22.21 | 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.