Giovanni Bazzana, HDS Professor of New Testament, discussed his recent book, "Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups," on October 7, 2020. Angela Kim Harkins (Boston College) and William Arnal (University of Regina) served as respondents.
Bazzana is professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School. His research and teaching focus chiefly on the critical study of the early Christ movement and of early Christianity in the context of Second Temple Judaism and of ancient Mediterranean history, religions, and material cultures. Bazzana's latest book, Having the Spirit of Christ, approaches the study of possession from a different methodological angle by using a comparative lens that includes contemporary ethnographies of possession cross-culturally.
Possession, besides being a harmful event that should be exorcized, can also have a positive role in many cultures. Often it helps individuals and groups to reflect on and reshape their identity, to plan their moral actions, and to remember in a most vivid way their past. When read in light of these materials, these ancient documents reveal the religious, cultural, and social meaning that the experience of possession had for the early Christ groups.
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to our first faculty book event of the year on my colleague Giovanni Bazzana's latest book, Having the Spirit of Christ-- Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups, which appeared in Yale University Press's Synkrisis series.
This series of faculty book events was established by my predecessor at the Center, Frank Clooney, as an opportunity for the Divinity School community to gather, not only to celebrate faculty publications, but more importantly to learn from them by engaging with them both appreciatively and critically. To that end, we're very grateful for our two respondents, whose comments will kick off what I hope will be a very spirited conversation.
So thank you all for registering advance for this seminar. When we last checked we had over 100 people registered. We have only an hour together, so I'm going to keep my remarks very brief, in hopes that there will be time for Q&A. We're expecting that this event will spill over the 2 o'clock hour, so we're anticipating taking questions after that.
So let me introduce our author and two respondents. Giovanni Bazzana is Professor of New Testament here at Harvard Divinity School. His research and teaching focus chiefly on the critical study of the early Christ movement and of early Christianity in the context of Second Temple Judaism and, more broadly, within ancient Mediterranean history, religion and material culture. William Arnal is a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Gender, Religion and Critical Studies at the University of Regina. His work focuses on early Christianity, theories of religion, and the politics of religious studies. Angela Kim Harkins writes on the topic of prayer in antiquity and the lived experience of religion. She is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and a former Marie Curie International Incoming Fellow at the University of Birmingham in England, during which time she conducted research on the Dead Sea Scrolls and religious experience.
So here's how this event will unfold. Giovanni will first say a few words about his book. Then Bill and Angela will offer their remarks. We'll then give Giovanni a chance to respond, and then open up the discussion for your questions and comments. So without further ado, thank you again for joining us, and I would like to invite Giovanni to join us and get this conversation started.
Thanks for being here to this presentation on my book. I'm Giovanni Bazzana. I want to start by saying thanks to Charles Stang for this invitation to present and talk about my book. This is a festive and nice circumstance, to have respondents, smart people, working and thinking about what I've written, so I want to also thank Bill and Angela for being willing to do this at a time where everyone is very busy-- of course, as we all know-- and also thank the Center and the staff of the Center for making this possible at a time in which it's so difficult to connect with each other, intellectually and not only intellectually.
What I want to do as an introduction is just, since I do not expect all of you to have read the book, to just say a few words about the conception-- how this book came to be-- and the contents-- kind of summarizing them very briefly, because I'm eager to see what Bill and Angela have to say about this.
So this is a book that, as the subtitle says, deals with the themes of spirit possession and exorcists within the very early Christ groups. This is an important theme and a theme on which I've always struggled to find a good handle, as a New Testament scholar. I think that you can see that what spurred me to write this was the observation that, if you read the Gospels, for instance, and you read them throughout, you see that spirit possession and exorcists was a very big theme, continuously discussed and comes up in a lot of stories connected to the historical Jesus. And all that being said, if you read books-- older books, critical books, some of the best books written on the topic of the historical Jesus, for instance-- you see, at the same time, that these themes-- spirit possession, exorcists-- do not play almost any role. They are marginalized by scholarship. And I think this is because it's very difficult to make sense of them with the tools of our contemporary biblical and historical criticism.
So I struggled for a long time with this, today's issue, and to find a good way to approach it. And I have to say, my wife, Giovanna Parmigiani, is an anthropologist, and she kept telling me, for many years, you should read what anthropologists have written on this topic, on spirit possession. And I never listened to this wise advice. And finally, when I was searching for a new project a few years ago, I decided, you know what, let's try this. Let's read it. And I discovered that obviously, she was right.
But also this ethnographic world, the ethnographic writing on possession, is extremely rich, extremely diverse, theoretically sophisticated. It simply opened up to me an entirely new world of appreciation of what possession, what spirit possession, is. And, in particular, it revealed to me, really, that the outlook that we have on this phenomenon built on the study of New Testament, or of biblical texts, is very narrow. It does not grasp, for instance, the positive side of spirit possession that ethnographers have seen in it, in very, very many cultures and have seen and documented-- very, very, very rich.
The book is built like this-- an attempt to reread some of this New Testament text that we all know very well and that seem so familiar to us. Try to reread this text in the light of what I could learn from ethnography and anthropological writing on this topic. And this was very, very illuminating, because, like I said, it really made an effort to not-- this is not the first, of course-- I don't claim I'm the first one to use anthropological and demographic literature to read New Testament text. Even this topic, specifically, many others have done that before me. But what I try really consciously, deliberately, to do is to actually let the ethnography lead the reasoning, lead my approach to these texts, and not the biblical scholarship set the agenda in this regard. And, like I said, this led me to discover a few interesting elements in relationship to this text that I think end up giving a better or more adequate, more interesting, even, account of what's there.
So the book itself is divided into broad sections. The first two chapters deal with stories concerning Jesus, around the figure of Jesus, and chapter 1 is built as an analysis of a famous and famously puzzling story of Jesus being accused of performing his exorcism in league with Beelzebub. And the answer that Jesus gives is famous. It's also famously, notoriously puzzling, because he really doesn't deny the charge. He kind of affirms it, in a certain sense.
So this is the first chapter, and the second chapter is more focused on another famous episode from the Gospels. This is the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5 and other parallels. There's two parallels in Matthew and Luke, the famous story with a demon named Legion and being sent into the herd of pigs and so forth.
So the analysis of these two very well-known episodes results in a defamiliarization. Like I said before, we are very familiar with this text, but by reading them through the lenses of ethnography about possession, one is defamiliarized. What we thought we knew, or at least what I thought I knew about these texts, has to be changed radically. And one can see the positive work that he's done through possession-- group formation, identity formation, and the formation of a subjectivity, of an exorcist, in the case of Jesus. And also dealing with the past, dealing with politics, in the case of the Mark 5 stories, in particular, but dealing also with the mythical past, in the identities of these impure spirits that Jesus is confronted with.
So this is the first part of the book. The second part is three more chapters, which are more focused instead on the letters, of the so-called letters, of the authentic Paul. These three chapters do not have a structure that follows the first two specific perikopes, or episodes, but instead each chapter is devoted to a different theme that runs through this group of letters.
So chapter 3 is about Christology. In a kind of old fashioned way, this is a revision of Pauline Christology to affirm that, for Paul, Jesus has become a spirit. It's something that he says explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15, after his death and resurrection. Jesus, the man, has become a spirit, has become the spirit called Christ, and possesses individuals who are members of the Christ group. This is my attempt to make sense of the famously, again, puzzling formula used by Paul-- the en Christo, "in Christ" formula that Paul used so repeatedly.
Chapter 4 continues along these lines, in showing how this being, this life in Christ, this life being possessed by Christ, makes sense. Paul makes sense of this life by restructuring his own self, being subject to the possession of Christ and how that serves as an impulse, as a fundamental impulse, to shape his ethical choices, and also, as a fundamental impulse, to remember, to make present, it is spirit of Christ in himself and in these groups.
The last chapter of the book is about performance and performativity in possession. This is a very, very important topic in contemporary ethnographic writing on possession. Of course, anthropologists and ethnographers realized very clearly that possession is a performative act. It's something that is the result of a negotiation between an artist, as some anthropologists say, and his or her audience. And so that can be studied, I think, very well also, again, with reference to the Pauline epistolary, and particularly 1 Corinthians 12 to 14, which is one of the earliest and best descriptions that we have of these possession rituals within early Christ groups.
So I think my time is over. Thank you very much for listening, again, and I'll leave Bill and Angela. And I'm eager to see what they have to say.
It's a real pleasure to be here and I appreciate the invitation. For me, the appeal of academia has been the prospect and the thrill of discovery-- uncovering something new, understanding something difficult. The further down the rabbit hole of any one discipline, alas, the rarer and rarer those Eureka moments come.
In the case of Christian origins, the falling rate of profit can be even worse than in other fields, as so many scholars seem to approach the inquiry with answers already in hand. But the field continues to fascinate, because every now and then a work will appear that is so interesting, productive, and provocative that it puts everything we knew or thought we knew in a different light. John Kloppenborg's Formation of Q, Burton Mack's Myth of Innocence, and Karen King's What is Gnosticism? were just such books for me. The most recent addition to that select company is Giovanni Bazzana's Having the Spirit of Christ.
The central thesis of Giovanni's book is easily stated, that the surviving literary evidence of the Jesus movement testifies to the prominence of spirit possession as a core practice of those movements. Giovanni nowhere claims that possession is the skeleton key that will unlock every closed evidentiary door in the New Testament. Nonetheless, as he shows, it unlocks quite a few. This is a welcome departure from a body of scholarship that has expended considerable energy trying to insulate figures like Jesus and Paul from any trace of suspicious religiosity.
More than this, however, the book mounts a serious argument about spirit possession itself and how we should understand it. Central here is the assertion, backed by a body of ethnographic data, that spirit possession and its related practices represent a productive intervention in social life. People use possession to shape subjectivity, to express agency, to embody and encounter past.
Giovanni's approach recognizes that the world structure and views we modern or postmodern Westerners take for granted, and have an unfortunate tendency to regard as universal and natural, are not shared by all. As he notes, quote, "most of the methodological moves performed in biblical studies rely on fundamental categories whose genealogy goes back to European intellectuals of the modern era," end quote.
The alternative he proposes is to really listen to what the ancient writers claimed about themselves. And, I quote again, "not fall prey to the temptation to treat as metaphors those elements of their religious experience that are foreign to our Western sensibilities, but instead to dare to take them literally." When we avoid the temptation to treat every peculiar statement in the New Testament as a complicated metaphor, the effect is powerfully defamiliarized. It is defamiliarizing of texts whose liturgical and/or scholarly familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least too-easy identification.
One of the many advantages of Giovanni's approach is how many problematic texts it illuminates and how many issues it so neatly solves. Take Paul's frequent and awkward use of en Christo, "in Christ." We can now see it as a literal reference to the experience of subjectivity Paul shares with Christ's spirit, which he understands himself to be within, at the same time that it is within him.
What about Paul's notorious thorn in the flesh, which scholars have speculated refers to anything from sexual desire, on the one hand, to epilepsy, on the other? Again, why not take Paul literally and at his word when he describes this thorn specifically as an angel or messenger of Satan, and conclude that he is plagued by a demonic possession, as well as more holy spirits? Occam's razor has seldom shaved so close.
Or again the baffling assertion Paul makes in Galatians 3:1, that his auditors have actually seen Jesus Christ publicly portrayed as crucified, is rendered sensible when you recognize that spirit possession is a way of making the past tangible in the present. The Galatians really do actually witness the event of the crucifixion, inasmuch as Paul literally embodies Christ.
Although Giovanni himself doesn't explicitly raise it, another Gordian Knot that can be cut with a well-placed blow of a sort of spirit possession is the matter of Paul's so-called conversion. The marked and apparently striferidden personal transformation that Paul associates with his turn to Christ can be read in much the same way that Giovanni reads the developing subjectivity of Jesus, in his struggle with Beelzebul. And I'm referring to Jesus' struggle with Beelzebul and not Giovanni's, which is another matter altogether.
Quite like Jesus, Paul is possessed by an alien other, an entity associated with the ecclesia Paul so vehemently opposed. Having been possessed by this alien other, like Jesus, Paul goes off into the desert and struggles to come to terms with the possessing agent.
The integration of that agent into Paul's own subjectivity effects, eventually, a dramatic transformation, both of selfconception and of behavior. The anachronistic, and by now surely discredited, idea that Paul converted to a new religion can be replaced with a more contextually appropriate observation, that he experienced and understood himself to experience a major personal transformation by virtue of integrating an alien personality, a spirit of otherness, Christ, into his own identity.
Transformation of subjectivity raises a larger problem, that of social change generally. The tragically and recently deceased anthropologist, David Graeber, has explored some of the ways in which religion can play a central role in change, particularly in a breathtaking 2005 article on fetishism, a concept that has proved both fecund and confounding for the field of religious studies.
Graeber critiques a tendency in the Marxist tradition to treat material production as a selfconscously creative act, but social production, seemingly, as if it unfolds of its own accord. Instead, Graeber suggests that people have always created new social forms in a fashion more or less similar to their creation of new physical objects, with the caveat that, as Marx suggests, we, people, have a tendency to misrecognize the products of our own creation as entities in themselves, invested with some mysterious force that, demystified, is actually our own creative labor.
The nexus between the two types of creation is illustrated precisely, for Graeber, by fetish-- that is, the actual West African physical manufactured creations that Portuguese merchants of the 15th century claimed were worshiped as gods. Graeber argues that these fetish objects were created as a way of representing new social realities, specifically new commercial relationships between Africans and Portuguese traders. They are literally new gods under construction, made by human work to express and endorse a new set of social relations brought about by circumstance.
It seems to me that we could argue something very similar in the case of spirit possession. How do people make something new? How do we negotiate transformations in personal and social identities? It is obvious enough that the Jesus movements were indeed engaged in efforts to do these very things. As Graeber suggests with West African fetishes, can we not argue similarly for spirit possession as practiced in ancient Christianities? The possessing spirit is at once a mechanism for negotiating shifting identities and simultaneously the fabrication of a new and creative relationship with alterity, the latter itself a force whose intrusion animates social change.
Thus, as with a fetish, a new object, more or less tangible, is created as an expression or objective manifestation of a new relationship or subjective identity. That new object then serves a mediating role among social actors whose positions are in the process of change or who desire to change. If there really is a parallel here, then it suggests an enormously important role for the kinds of things we think of as a religion, in mediating and affecting sociality.
Another feature of Giovanni's book that I think deserves some emphasis is how thoroughly and in what detail he situates the earliest writings about Jesus within a worldview that we might be tempted to describe as mythological, but which in fact forms the concrete and quotidian assumptions of people who saw themselves in perpetual interaction with semitangible supernatural forces.
In this alien worldview, we encounter spirits that are palpable physical realities. We engage with heavenly beings of an angelic sort, who represent a kind of overlap between the human and divine realms. We deal here, too, with the restless dead of Mediterranean antiquity. The ghosts of the unclean bastard nephilim haunt the ethnic borderlands of the decapolis.
Perhaps most striking to me, Giovanni suggests that behind Paul's various statements about Jesus, the Christ, sons of God, and Holy Spirits, rests a relatively complicated Christology in which Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, but, by virtue of his obedient death, is resurrected, transformed into a spirit, and becomes unified with an already extant pre-existing spirit identity, described as the Son of God, distinct from the Christ. In a sense, there are three separate identities here-- Jesus, the Christ, and Son of God. I would add, in a nod to the trinitarian resonances that Giovanni is so anxious to avoid, that there are also here two natures, flesh and spirit.
On this point, although Giovanni bases his reasoning mainly on Paul, especially the opening lines of Romans, and on the fifth similitude of the Shepherd of Hermas, I think the Gospel of Mark could have provided just as much grist for his mill. Viewed through the powerful lens Giovanni has provided us, Mark tells the story of a more or less mortal man, who, at the moment of his baptism, is possessed by a divine entity, a Holy Spirit, from the sky, after which point the man is immediately identified by God himself with the Son of God. That spirit, in turn, immediately drives him into the wilderness to struggle with demonic forces-- that is, to engage in precisely the kind of conflictual, integrative work that a possession event initiates, per Giovanni's analysis.
Throughout the Gospel, a variety of earthly and demonic forces recognize Jesus in terms allusive of the divinic Messiah, but Jesus' own reaction to these identifications is ambivalent. In the meantime, spirit voices hail him again as Son of God. This changes, however, once Jesus is crucified and died-- more particularly, gives up his spirit-- whereupon his proleptic identity with the Son of God is first recognized by a human figure. The spirit departs, Jesus dies, and, in actions alluded to but never directly described, he is resurrected and ascends to Heaven, whereupon, having integrated the spirit into his premortem fleshy identity, he is now integrated by the spirit into its Heaven identity.
Part of the reason I think this is an important point is the recent work on the Gospel of Mark has characterized it as a polemist writing, a text composed as an articulation of the distinctively Pauline version of the Gospel. If this is so, then the evidence that Mark has an unusual and complex view of Jesus, the spirit and phenomenon of possession, would constitute important evidence in favor of Giovanni's reading of Paul.
One last thing which I, raise with tremendous trepidation. I remind you all of Giovanni's injunction to dare to take literally our text descriptions. I also remind you of his assertion that it was Paul's possession by the spirit of Christ that explains the claim that the Galatians were eyewitnesses to Jesus' crucifixion. In this connection, Giovanni states with his usual care that, and I quote, "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 he adds that, I'm quoting again, "an element of performance is inherent in all cases of spiritual possession," end quote.
In the light of these considerations, I want to draw attention to one 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." Similar language is used in Romans and 1 Corinthians. The verb here, [GREEK], can mean to get into, or even to dwell in, which meshes very well with Giovanni's overall treatment of possession.
But I would like to suggest something different. The word's base meaning is to wear, as in wearing clothes. The very same letter where Paul describes baptism as putting on, or wearing, Christ, he also describes Christ as having been crucified before the very eyes of Paul's audience. As Giovanni 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? Might we not dare to conclude that Paul's exhibition of himself in possessed form included props, such as a mask, distinctive clothing, or whatever it is that Paul means when he says that he bears the marks of Christ on his body? Obviously this suggestion is more than a little speculative, and I have no idea how one would go about proving it. Nonetheless, I believe that such a scenario is supported by Giovanni's analysis, and has at least the benefit of forcing us to think differently-- dramatically different-- about who and what Paul, and Pauline Christianity, really was. Thank you.
Hello, everyone. I wanted to also say thank you so much for this invitation to engage with your work, Giovanni. Giovanni has produced an extremely, extremely stimulating book that combines anthropological research with close textual understanding of key New Testament passages that speak about spirit possession and exorcism. His aim is, quote, "to initiate a process [AUDIO OUT] narratives," end quote.
What makes Giovanni's book so stimulating is not only what it says about the ancient world, but what it says about our experience of modern world. Giovanni carefully defamiliarizes readers of conventional understandings of keywords, such as spirit, daimon, possession-- words that appear throughout the work in quotation marks. For me, some of the most stimulating points in the book were not specific exegetical ones that Giovanni makes about particular passages from the Gospels or from Paul, but rather the points that he makes about how we as academics intellectually frame ideas and the models that we uncritically use over and over again.
The analytical templates that we as scholars use make the ancient world more palatable to us by constraining complex aspects of ancient life that the modern academy finds unpleasant. These Universalist models extend post-Enlightenment systems, familiar to the modern Western world, into the past and systematize the complexity of the ancient world by using frameworks that are foreign to it.
In large part, it is modern Western scholars who uphold and maintain the illusory divide between this world and the other world, and who labor to establish what Bruno Latour calls a purification, namely a systematic separation of different critical stances. Implicit in this division are assumptions about who inhabits these spaces. This world is a space ordered by humans, and within which they enjoy agency, whereas the other world is a consolidated space for inert angels or demons and deities.
While the spaces that we call this world and the other world are imagined to be dramatically different, we'd do well to allow them more fluidity than our usual analytical frameworks allow. Natural geographic features like mountain ranges or rivers often mark the boundaries between countries and regions in a way that differs from a solid wall that has been built brick by brick, insofar as they are porous, and they allow for movement between spaces. The precise transition between one realm and another is either more gradual, in the case of a mountain range like the Alps, or the boundary itself may be fluid, in the case of a river like the Great Mississippi, which serves as some part of the border for 10 states.
This permeability between this world and the other world is more compatible with the way individuals experience religion, highlighting the artificial nature of the division insisted by those in the modern academy, who resist hybrid or mixed systems. Laura Felt describes this hybridized way of thinking about such experiences, as being from both this world and the other world, as a movement between worlds. She writes, quote, "religious narrative does not encourage a resolution of tensions in the gap it opens between two worlds, a mundane everyday world and an extraordinary divine world. Instead, it encourages a fascination with the movement between the worlds," end quote.
Foundational religious narratives like those examined by Giovanni from the Gospels and from Paul offer the opportunity to glimpse how ancient minds conceptualized this movement between the worlds, as individuals negotiated identity in complex ways that go beyond the usual model favored by biblical scholars of a buffered self who exercises complete mastery and self-possession.
The modern privileging of the agentic self has a long genealogy that Giovanni traces back to the early modern period. Using the work of Paul Christopher Johnson, Giovanni writes the following. And here I'm going to actually read a kind of lengthy quote, but I think it's worth repeating, because I know not everybody has read Giovanni's work. "The use of possession in the ethnographic writing on the history of religions begins in earnest with the modern European encounter with possession among the peoples of West Africa. Associating possession with Africans enabled early modern European explorers and ethnographers to cast the peoples they encountered as defined by their inferior self, diminished by their lack of control, autonomy, and individual rationality. Thus in the writing of European intellectuals as influential as Locke and Hobbes, the discourse of possession did become a strong underpinning for trajectories that did eventually lead to the ideological justification of racism, colonial domination, and-- given the dire implications of understanding possession as the surrendering of the ownership of one's own body and self-- enslavement." And that quote comes from page 16 to 17.
According to this model, practitioners of African and Afro-Atlantic religions who engaged in spirit possession were generally considered as not being in full possession of their self-- their selves, I guess I should say. The 17th century view has a long reach, and also appears as recently as the 1960s, in Godfrey Lienhardt's work, Divinity and Experience-- The Religion of the Dinka, where he concludes that the Dinka people from the South Sudan had no self. Such social scientific evaluations claim to have the air of objectivity, but when they are situated in the midst of cross-cultural studies and postcolonialism, they can be seen as provincializing the premise of the autonomous modern individual.
Giovanni does well to draw our attention to Paul's frequent application of the language about slavery and enslavement to the early Christians. Such language was used by slave owners, of course, to justify, and also reinforce, the social evils of slavery in the modern world, an evil that continues to manifest itself in the pervasive racism that still plagues America today. It is notable just how often people today substitute the language of servanthood, or serving, when speaking about these passages, reflecting, perhaps their disdain or rejection of the idea of slavery, in general. But it is also just as likely, I think, that their self-understanding as agentic selves is simply deeply incompatible with the kind of subjectivity assumed in the ancient texts that are examined.
Giovanni's study highlights the inadequacy of the idea of the agentic self and proposes that other models of the self and subjectivity are better able to express the phenomenon of the possessed self that we see in these ancient texts. Valuable here is his point that the self, especially in the case of spirit possession, is best understood as a continual and ongoing negotiation. Identity flexes from the state of being possessed by a spirit to the state of hosting a spirit in the state of possession.
The idea of the self that is in flux, or that is negotiating or renegotiating its identity within the larger framework of spirit possession, offers a more capacious model for thinking about other types of experiences, in which the self is not agentic, but is afflicted by something that acts upon it-- like the lived experience of the self that is tormented by drug addiction, the self plagued by illness, the self who suffers from depression, the self that ebbs and flows as it slips into the deep and dark waters of dementia.
Spirit possession presumes a worldview in which the self is acted upon from the outside. And it understands that the ability to be an agent, or an actant, is not consolidated within a certain type of elite human person, but rather agency is something that can be possessed by other things, and that such an experience can produce a real effect on an individual.
In Giovanni's work, he relies heavily on the ethnographic studies of Michael Lambek, whose fieldwork in the anthropology of religion examines the phenomenon of spirit possession in Madagascar and in Mayotte, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the coast of Mozambique. Giovanni does well to place these self-altering experiences of possession in conversation with the New Testament, especially with the modern Western study of these texts.
This raises the following questions for me. Are we more willing to entertain the possibility of possession in these remote places-- in Madagascar, in Mayotte-- precisely because of the otherness of their cultures? Does the distance between us here and the possessed in Mayotte somehow make it easier for us to imagine possession as something that happens over there, thereby allowing us to preserve our Western cultural assumptions and to remain unchanged by the kind of intellectual analysis that is being offered in this book? In other words, I wondered if Giovanni's selection of cross-cultural studies seem to maybe artificially consolidate spirit possession experiences in faraway places or in long ago times.
To be sure, Giovanni's book does open with a description of a modern day possession at the Shroud of Turin. While he uses this scenario to note how we are given a rare glimpse of the experiences of a possessed person in her own words, he doesn't return to offer further examples from the modern West. The event illustrates well how the ordinary, everyday world and the supernatural world are permeable and overlapping realms, not just in antiquity, but also for many people and cultures today.
While the modern West may not be the locale for Lambek's fieldwork, there are other anthropologists and religious studies scholars who have conducted ethnographic studies of spiritual or ecstatic experiences in the modern West-- like Tanya Luhrmann's study of prayer from 2012, or her earlier work examining witchcraft in modern England, entitled Persuasions of the Witch's Craft, which follows specific, otherwise ordinary people who have an active and vibrant life in various witch cults in modern day England. Or Robert Orsi, who has written about spirit experiences between this world and the other world.
Orsi's opening scene in his book, Between Heaven and Earth, paints a parallel between his mother, with her fat stack of memorial cards of her deceased Jesuit friends, and Mama Lola, a medium whom Orsi will meet later that evening. Orsi describes his mother laying out her memorial cards like a kind of celestial solitaire. Orsi's mother is disturbed by his plans to go out to a Vodou celebration in honor of Papa Ghede, a spirit who will come to possess Mama Lola later that night, and who, in fact, delivers a special message to Orsi.
Of course the contrast is intended to be highly ironic, since both women, Orsi's mother and Mama Lola, attest to similar phenomena embedded in very different cultural contexts in New York City-- one, which uses the language of spirit possession, and the other, which we might describe as continuing bonds. Yet both underscore the diverse ways in which, even in the modern West, individuals experience intersubjectivity with beings who are not of this world.
Finally, the rich discussion that Giovanni offers raises one further observation for me, given our specific historical moment. He does well to remind us that the study of spirit possession today is based on close observation, but the study of the phenomenon in the ancient world relies on highly mediated texts which are not a reality TV program. Giovanni is well aware of this. Like anthropological fieldwork, Giovanni's analysis, even of ancient texts, is always focused on examining the materiality of the experience of the Spirit, in effect the way in which the otherwise barely perceptible, or invisible, spirit is made real, or made perceptible, in the bodies of the Gerasene demoniac, in Jesus himself, or in the body of Paul.
A particular historical moment illustrates how difficult it is for some today to understand otherwise imperceptible realities-- for example, like the COVID-19 virus-- as having agency in our world. Indirectly, Giovanni's provocative work speaks to a modern world's strong preference and orientation toward what is visible, what is tangible, and our reluctance to acknowledge that imperceptible realities can have real agency.
In the introductory remarks to the collection, Spirited Things, Paul Christopher Johnson offers an alternative way of imagining what it would be like to describe a spirit-infused world. He writes, quote, "presences pour into things and saturate my walk. Such formulations grant spirits a liquid form that is moving and fluid, but, at least provisionally, able to be contained or blended," end quote.
The early Christian world that Giovanni describes in his provocative book is spirit-infused. It demands that we all become accustomed to thinking about how imperceptible realities like the COVID-19 virus, or like the spirit, could have each agency and impact in this world. So too, the challenge is to imagine a world in which these spirits could be present all around us, even when they are not in dwelling in human hosts and materially perceptible.
So, in closing, there are three aspects, just to sum up, of Giovanni's work that, in my view, are particularly provocative and challenging for modern scholars to think about. The first, what it says about the genealogy of the agentic self. Two, the pervasiveness of spirit experiences of possession and cross-cultural studies, which highlights the peculiar way we in the modern West imagine the idea of the self. And three, the way Giovanni's study forces us to reimagine the ancient world as spirit-infused, a world in which spirits are not artificially consolidated and inert in a remote faraway place. That's it.
Thank you, Angela. Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Giovanni. I'm going to invite all three of you actually, if you wouldn't mind, to come back to us, because I think the next portion is easier if you three are all visible. So, Giovanni, why don't you first take a moment to respond to any portion of their remarks.
So thank you both, Bill and Angela. This was great. It's difficult to respond to everything, because you've offered so many interesting suggestions and also challenges. I want to highlight a couple of things, so that this may also generate more of a chat among us or with others. And I'm sorry, if I leave out something, you remind me.
So, Bill, first. This shows how interesting it is to do this, because you have smarter people reading my work, and so they see things that I would never think about. And this is great. I mean, the point about fetish-- the fetish and social changes, I think is so great and could be enormously productive. I'll keep thinking about that.
The point about Mark, as well, and the connection with Paul-- definitely one limitation of this book that I have no problem acknowledging is that this treatment of Jesus before Paul kind of follows the canonical order of the materials, but it's not really historical. And, in this case, you have good-- but it doesn't even make much sense. I see that connection. I mean, I don't know much, I want to push it to say. Mark definitely shares this with Paul.
I feel like the other Gospels are trying already to patch this up somehow, though Luke particularly has a very different agenda. Luke is invested throughout the Gospel and Acts-- is invested in making the spirit less personal and kind of distancing it from-- his spirit is still very important for Luke, I mean, hugely important. But it's more an impersonal thing and certainly not seen as Christ. So there is a push back there.
And your point about Galatians at the end-- so this is also something that Angela raised. I mean, it's true. One of the things that kind of became very evident to me when I was writing this book, which I never thought about before, was exactly what Angela said-- how constrained our disciplinary training is, and how that's shaped by some fundamental assumptions that sometimes we don't, even if we come from a certain background-- we assume them when we are trained. And it's difficult to question them. Doing this research, for me, was certainly helpful to rethink many of these things, many of these assumptions. And Angela's named some of them-- relationship to where possession is coming from as a genealogy, from modernity.
But your point about Galatians and the props there-- you know, this is a thing that should be natural for me. Like, I'm a Catholic from Italy, right? So we know these kind of things are done all the time, but obviously when you step into biblical criticism, or New Testament scholarship, these are not things you should do, because it's more of a world that is informed by a Protestant Lutheran agenda. And so these things are wildly unnatural, really.
And the final point-- one little thing about Angela's very good observation concerning the ethnography I relied on in writing this. There's no question that this material was very helpful, but while reading a lot of ethnographic work, it also became very clear to me that they are shaped by their own interest. Ethnography, anthropology, as a discipline, is this heavy colonial past.
And, certainly, as you said, Angela, it becomes easier to see these things in a place that's far away, than somewhere closer to us. And, in that sense, I think you see a little bit of a struggle in terms of ethnography of-- not ethnography of contemporary Europe, but traditional ethnography of Europe do not have any. Europe seems to be the only place in the world in which there is no possession.
And you can see funny cases, because my wife works on the southern tip of Italy, the southern tip of the boot. It was already identified in the 17th century as the India in Europe-- our own India, because it was considered a place where Jesuit missionaries were sent to kind of convert people who were already Christian. But because their religiosity was not-- one of the manifestations of that it was a cult-- some sort of ritual or possession that people used to do. This has been studied a lot, but it is one of the unique cases where actually the European continent is being looked at in this way, but in this very marginal place. So it is a very good point, and certainly something that needs to be utilized.
All right, well, I have two questions from the audience-- one joining us, one question actually came before the presentation, someone who knows your work. But maybe, Angela and Bill, you want to say anything in response, before we open it up to Q&A?
Giovanni's response to my response was too irenic for me to--
Not combative enough?
Yeah, yeah. So, I suppose, I'm not even sure this is worth blogging, but the observations about Luke and the spirit interest me. And I would say one of the reasons that Luke is so transformative of the view of spirit possession that may appear in sources is precisely because it's so important. So I worry a little bit about positing too much discontinuity as we move from, say, historical Jesus to whatever, Mark and Q to later revisions of Mark and Q and Matthew and Luke. I think that our field has trained us to look for the discontinuity-- and they're there, for sure-- but at the expense of glossing over the continuity.
Yeah, absolutely, no doubt. Yeah, that's a very good corrective. I want to be a radical again. But, yeah, it is, definitely. If you read Acts, there's possession. It happens regularly. It's kind of very regulated in Acts. Every time someone converts, in Pentecost, in chapter 2, and then Cornelius, and every time, it's kind of an automatic sanction. It's definitely very important for him. He needs to have it at certain key points, but regulated.
I wanted to ask you, too, Giovanni. Again, it's a really stimulating book, and I really enjoyed the discussion of Paul that you offer in the book. But, really, my question is about some of the things that you didn't discuss, and just to hear your thoughts about why there are no exorcisms in John. You know, it seems like the Johannine tradition has so much there about what you're talking about-- 1 John, but even the Gospel of John has language about dwelling and the spirit. I was convinced, in some ways, that yes, this is an integral and pervasive aspect of the earliest experience of Christ for these communities, but then why is there that silence?
I don't think it's not there. On the one hand, I don't want to do what I'm happy to see that Bill has noted. I don't want to make possession the thing that solves everything in terms of early Christianity. I think Bill said the skeleton key. I don't have that. That would be too much.
But on the other hand, I think it's all over the place, and not necessarily the ground foundational element for everything, but it's almost everywhere. And I don't think it's not there in John, but John is doing something that I actually am writing about. I'm trying to find time to write an article on this, because this is kind of a nice spinoff, Angela, you're right. It's a nice spinoff of this book to go to all the places where I haven't visited with this possession. A lot of apocryphal acts and other materials should be here, or The Sherpherd of Hermas , like you mentioned before.
For John, I think John has it. For instance, John has all this language, continuously, of abiding, being in the famous image parable of divine, but also elsewhere. That's key for the religious experience of John as a foundational thing that connects to Christ's followers, Christ's believers to Christ. And I think that's actually the way John speaks about possession, this abiding images which is meno in Greek. It's just these old fashioned English words, but it means to be in. It's the same language of the being in Christ, or being in the pneumati in a spirit that one finds in the other Gospels and in Paul. It's only inflective in that way, because I think also-- in that, I'm old fashioned-- I think John wants a cosmic solution for the exorcism. That's why it doesn't have stories, because, in that, I think many exegents are right in saying he wants a cosmic exorcism of cosmic proportions.
Can I jump in now? I think it's time for us to bring in some questions from the audience. So a question for all three of you-- if, in fact, Giovanni, you're quite right that the conventions of scholarship have blinded us to the ambivalence, the ambiguity, in spirit possession in the New Testament, I wonder two things. One is, how does that relate to the way other adjacent traditions think about spirit possession? This is a question that came from the audiences. Specifically in the Platonic tradition, the daimon is valued very differently. And that's wrapped up in the transition from the daimon to the demon, in which Judaism and Christianity have some crucial part. But I want to tag on a version of a question of my own to that, which is if we have missed this in the New Testament, as you have suggested, then where else do we see it in early Christianity? Because presumably second and third century Christian sources would not have those same ideological blinders. They would still be participating in a milieu in which spirit possession was something to be performed. So where do you see this tradition play out? I have my own suspicion about where it might be, but I think you three probably know that second or third century landscape much better than I.
It was sort of with that in the back of my head that I made the comment about Luke. I'm one of these people who dates Luke-Acts to the second century. And so it seems to me that we have in Luke-Acts really good evidence for a sort of developing institutionalizing tendency that is trying to make its own sense of a broad phenomenon of spirit possession. There's one other place that I can see this emerging in the second or third centuries, and that is in some of the Nag Hammadi writings, and particularly Sethian literature. When I read in Giovanni's book the discussion of tongues as language of angels, it immediately brought to mind some of the liturgical texts in Sethian literature, in the Nag Hammadi library, which seemed to envision people participating in liturgy-- basically engaging in a kind of formalized version of tongues and experiencing mystical visions and so forth. So I'd say Sethian Gnosticism of the second and third centuries.
Charlie, you've written a book on this, on the double. The Thomasine tradition is all permeated by this, I always say. You know when you go down to the Mani codex, Mani case. I don't know if you're thinking about that when you said you had something in mind. But, to me, that seems to be a trajectory in which these kind of-- not the possession in the form you see that, I don't know, in Mark or in the exorcism of Jesus, but this kind of negotiating the presence of a spirit within the self, that constructed subjectivity through that-- it's definitely very much present here, as it is, I think, in all the others Platonizing or close to Platonic traditions that one can find in the second century or third century.
Angela, did you want to say anything to that, or you want to pass?
I think in later traditions, one of the things that I think about with, especially the Gospels or the Gnostics, is the reference to son of David or Solomonic exorcistic traditions that you have all over the Second Temple Period. And people rarely connect Solomon or that tradition of Solomon as an exorcister, as a kind of spiritual virtuoso in later Solomonic pseudepigrapha, like the Odes of Solomon. But there's some very interesting images, just to think about those traditions that oftentimes, I think, Solomon-- our tendency is to either ignore that connection, which was very old. It's there in all of the early references to the Odes of Solomon, that Solomonic identification. But we sort of neglect some of those earlier exorcistic aspects of those traditions, and maybe overlook some of those spiritual, prophetic dimensions of those later writings, as a result. Josephus describes Solomon's exorcistic powers, so he was well known as an exorcist. And Testament of Solomon, even later, also speaks to some of those references.
It also occurs to me that there's a trope within-- and I can't remember who the author is, but there appears to be a trope in Greek literature in the first or second centuries about exorcists coming from Syria or Judea. So that may be--
Lucian, Lucian. Lucian.
Ah, that's what I was-- yeah.
Yeah, Giovanni, I think you're quite right. It would be interesting to consider Mani in this lineage, or someone like that, who was visited by the sitsi ghost or whatnot. But in light of what everyone was speaking, I was actually thinking about Egyptian monasticism, which tends to regard, of course, the demons as malevolent forces that you have to hold at bay.
But in the Origenian version of Egyptian monasticism, of course, demons and angels are our siblings. They are on the spectrum of fallen minds. And specifically, Evagrius has this idea that when you are beset by one demon, you actually solicit another demon to help push out the other demon. He calls it advanced technique, driving a nail out with a nail, but it's kind of like spirit possession jujitsu. But, at the very least, it means you're playing with demons, even if ultimately the aim is to get them out. But of course you're also trying to solicit the indwelling of angels, so even if you make all the demons malevolent, and you want to cast them out, you're also trying to essentially populate yourself with angelics. So your subjectivity is plural either way, I guess.
OK, here's a question from our very own Michael Tate from Princeton, who was a fellow here at the Center last year. He says, "Professor Bazzana, I deeply appreciate your work. Thank you. In the spirit of daring to take the language of early Christianity literally, might we conceive of the history of Christianity as a, quote unquote, 'ghost story'? And, if so, do histories of the Holy Ghost that make this ghost a friendly ghost cover over other scarier tellings of the ghost's haunting?"
No doubt. Yeah, Michael. Hi, and thank you for the question. Yes, I think it's great. I think, yeah. I mean, it would be nice, and it's definitely a good idea to see this. And I think this is actually an underappreciated aspect of the long trajectory of early Christianity, the kind of history of how people came to the Holy Spirit as a concept, or Holy Ghost. I mean, in mainstream reconstructions, you get this question coming up in the fourth century around the Trinity, and what's the third person of the Trinity at the end of the fourth century? And it's kind of popping up, almost. There's no one expecting it. A lot of these reconstructions focus on the figure of Christ and Christology and Isaiah. Then you get to the issue of pneumatology as if from nowhere. But I think there, there is space for an enormous work to be made about filling up the gap between the first and second century, where there are studies about the spirits in Acts and Luke, spirits in the New Testament. But then nothing, or nothing that well done, for the intervening centuries, even. And I know that that's definitely a trajectory that should be revised.
Yeah, I have to say that I thought that was a great question, too. And it reminded me of one of the things that I really, really liked about this book, which was the treatment of the Legion story. I have long felt that is a deeply spooky story. And I think that the way that Giovanni unpacked its implications really underscores that we are, in fact, reading a story dealing with a ghost story.
Giovanni, could you pick up this question, as to whether you think this prejudice against spirit possession, taking it seriously, extends to scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean more broadly, or is this, the peculiar legacy of New Testament studies, overdetermined by Protestant categories? Which, by the way, Protestant categories aren't limited to the study of Christianity. How pervasive is the problem, I suppose?
I think the problem is pervasive, and I don't think Protestants have to be blamed all, to be fair here, because the problem is more pervasive, because I don't think it's only a problem with Protestant categories. That may have more of a reflection on biblical and New Testament studies, how they were built in the 19th century to mostly Protestant scholars, which is understandable. But actually, as Angela has shown, with reference to Paul Christopher Johnson's work, for instance, the problem, the bias, goes back further, to truly European, in general, colonialism, and the concerns there and the problems raising there. It's there where you see the categorical birth of those categories, so that can be seen also in the study of Mediterranean antiquity, more in general.
I mean, when you asked before, Charlie, the question about, for instance, you were mentioning the presence of daemonia in Platonic traditions. There, too, I think, there is a little bit of a hesitancy in speaking about possession for some of the theological things, for instance, which it should be otherwise. You encounter that a lot in Pauline scholarship, right now. Stoic influence on Paul is a great idea, and I think it explains a lot of things about Paul. But the way in which stoicism itself is conceptualized, it is as if distinct. There's pneuma everywhere in stoicism, right? It actually, literally permeates everything, but it doesn't possess things.
Yeah, that reminds me of some of the scholarship on Socrates, on daimonion, and funded by a very different set of prejudices. I think there it's the ancient philosophy, as a discipline, very wary of this idea that Socrates is actually speaking about an entity that is guiding him, even if only negatively. And so, there, too, there's pressure to make that Plato's irony or Socrates' grand metaphor, even though the Platonic tradition itself goes on to take them quite literally and place that daimonion in a much richer-- it's placed in a rich cosmos of beings. But if you look at scholarship on the apology and the daimonion, they've stripped that down to be a purely rational-- sometimes it's just a rational conscience that's operating in Socrates, which I find completely unbelievable.
On this point, with this spirit possession being a neglected area, a kind of oversight of New Testament scholarship, you could say also, just to backtrack a little bit, a similar thing with respect to the study of prayer, which, for people who study early Judaism, really didn't become a topic of study, a scholarly area of study, until the Dead Sea Scrolls. You have some 20% of the manuscripts are actually prayer texts-- hymns, prayers, incantations, all sorts of things. And so there's a kind of scholarly desire to focus on intellectual, reasonable topics. And, even in the case of prayer, which we would imagine to be ritual experiences, religious texts, there is a longstanding tradition of reading them just strictly as liturgy, as literary texts. So you have that kind of tension in other areas in, I would say, biblical studies, where there's a kind of reluctance to maybe engage topics that, I think, just present themselves as more ritual texts or religious texts, so to speak-- like possession, rituals for possession, or incantations, or apotropaic texts. There's just not the kind of depth and scholarly engagement as you find in other types of texts. That's just kind of observation.
Well, we're approaching 2:15. I think that seems like a good-- we've already spilled over, but we had to. This was so rich. Giovanni, do you have anything you want to add before we conclude?
No, I just want to thank you, Charlie, and the Center for hosting this, and Angela and Bill, in particular, for two wonderful sets of remarks that I'm going to think about.
Well, you beat me to it. I was going to thank Angela and Bill. Once again, both of you really brought wonderful comments to bear on this book. And I want to thank you, Giovanni, for writing it. I'm going to hold it up one last time. Those of you who have not followed the link to purchase your copy, it's there in the chat. It's in the chat function. So, those of you who are interested in these faculty book events or the Center's programming, you might want to register for a mailing list, so that future events come to you by way of your inbox. And you can do that on our website. But, once again, thank you all, and have a wonderful day.