I have just completed reading one scholar’s work that does argue that Paul spread Christianity throughout the Greek world by means of such a movement and have begun another that argues the same with respect to Jesus.
1. James C. Hanges
James C. Hanges, author of Christ, the Image of the Church and Paul, Founder of Churches, stresses the importance of cultural theory and the evidence for cultural movements in the Greek and Roman world as vital background to understanding Paul’s letters and career.
Wandering “spirit possessed” preachers of the ancient world
One popular stereotype in the era that saw the emergence of Christianity was the “spirit possessed” traveller who would disrupt communities with his bizarre “signs” of the spirit within him, including the babbling of “tongues”, attracting women predominantly to become his followers, and thought to be introducing new gods or unconventional religious observances.
Anyone familiar with that famous fifth century Greek play Bacchae by Euripides will recognize the above character. I had always thought this play was about the conflict that resulted from the introduction of the Bacchic mysteries (or worship of Dionysus) to Thebes. Hanges, however, references scholarship that suggests this surface narrative was originally understood to be representative of the controversies that accompanied the arrival of any (and many) new religious movements to challenge the status quo.
Another common figure on the cultural landscape of the day was the person who claimed to have been commanded by a god to establish a new base for that god’s worship in the city-state. A new god would at first generally find his/her place in a new city region within a single household. The head of the household (or head of the cult, the one commanded by the god) would only attempt to make the new god open to wider public worship after a time and with care to avoid offending traditional sensibilities as much as possible. This meant the leader would stress both the venerable antiquity of the new god and how much in common there was between him/her and the traditional beliefs in the new community.
Sometimes these servants of the god attempting to widen his worship to the public would face harsh opposition as the more conservative citizens attempted to drive the new cult out or at least back within the walls of the household.
It is not hard to see the story of Paul being shadowed in these common features of the religious life of the Greco-Roman world.
Paul plays catch-up then takes the lead
But how did Paul get started? What led to him reaching out to the gentiles in the first place?
Both the cultural evidence and theory leads Hanges to believe that the “spirit possession” movement was already in existence among both Jews and gentiles before Paul took a lead. Experience shapes our thoughts. It rarely happens the other way around.
Paul struggled to reconcile with his traditional Jewish beliefs the fact that something we would call a “pentecostal” movement had already spread to gentiles. Such a movement, we know well from modern witnesses, quickly and easily crosses social, ethnic, gender, economic divides. But once Paul was forced to acknowledge that the spirit had indeed spread to gentiles he stepped in and took the lead. The theological rationalization followed.
Hanges believes that this scenario makes the best sense of a good number of passages not only in Paul’s writings but also in the book of Acts.
2. Stevan Davies
The other scholar whose newest work I have begun to read is Stevan Davies. The book is Spirit Possession and the Origin of Christianity. Davies argues a quite similar scenario as above but in relation to Jesus; however, he makes the argument from a quite different approach: while Hanges stresses the guidance of cultural theory Davies is more concerned to reconcile the narrative we find in the gospels and Acts with what we know of pentecostal or spirit possession psychology and movements.
Jesus possessed, then Pentecost
According to Davies, Jesus was possessed by “the spirit” at the baptism of John and eventually came to understand that this “possessing spirit” was from God — the Holy Spirit. Opponents, on the other hand, believed it was a spirit from the devil. Jesus used this spirit power to exorcise and to heal. He quickly acquired a sizeable following. To cut the story short (I can post more details later) after Jesus death — or 50 days afterwards to be precise, on Pentecost — Jesus’ followers who had gathered together found themselves able to experience the same spirit possession as they had witnessed in Jesus.
Since Jesus’ body had not been found about 12 hours after being placed in the temporary tomb following his crucifixion it was easy to conclude that this spirit possession experience was being sent by Jesus from heaven and that therefore Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Never before had such an experience been known to a large body of practicing Jews. Until that Pentecost the spirit power was the privilege of only the few isolated prophets, and Jesus. The novelty of it made it all the more heady an experience.
Spilling over before being tamed
Galilee, moreover, where Jesus had his largest following, was not the sort of region to be renowned for its fiercely stringent observance of Judean religious customs. The spirit possession experience as easily crossed ethnic boundaries as it did traditional gender and social divisions.
Only much later were devotees interested in attributing to Jesus some nice ethical sayings and some were concerned to place more emphasis on the meaning of his death than his spirit powers. Again, this is another story for a future post.
Davies, like Hanges, of course believes that his scenario best accounts for much of what we read in the New Testament.
Time to think
I have some questions concerning both of these theories of origins but I won’t distract others at this stage by injecting them here. I’m sure we all would like to think through some of the implications of the above for ourselves first.