The Jesus Story Mirrors Anthropologist’s Observations of Shamanism?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I.M. (Ioan Myrddin) Lewis

Is it possible to read the following passage from a study of shamanism and spirit possession without recalling a central theme of the gospel narratives about Jesus?

We shall find that those who, as masters of spirits, diagnose and treat illness in others, are themselves in danger of being accused as witches. For if their power over the spirits is such that they can heal the sick, why should they not also sometimes cause what they cure? Reasoning in this fashion, the manipulated establishment which reluctantly tolerates bouts of uncontrolled possession illness among its dependants, rounds on the leaders of these rebellious cults and firmly denounces them as witches. Thus, I argue, the most ambitious and pushing members of these insurgent cults are kept in check, hoist, as it were, with their own petard.

Lewis, I. M. 2003. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. 3rd edition. London ; New York: Routledge p. 28

One cannot help but be reminded of historical Jesus studies such as the one by Stevan Davies, Spirit Possession and the Origin of Christianity.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

25 thoughts on “The Jesus Story Mirrors Anthropologist’s Observations of Shamanism?”

  1. What I still can’t figure out is what Paul was talking about when he talked about “images of the crucifixion” or seeing Jesus “portrayed as crucified” or images of the resurrected Jesus. Paul doesn’t really talk about possession (I don’t think), nor did whoever wrote James or even Hebrews. Possession plays a big role in the Gospels, bu ti think that was allegorical and then only later came to be interpreted literally, but I’m not so sure possession played a role in the original cult.

    1. I’m reading your book.

      The reasoning seems to be Black and White in places. For instance, regarding the temple tantrum, you argue for a literary allusion to Hosea 9. You argue Jesus’ temple episode is invented out of whole cloth using Hosea ( and others) as a model(s). But there are other options you don’t allow for: Maybe there was some minor historical temple incident, and it was shaped according to Hosea (if you are right about Hosea’s influence) in telling over time?

      For instance, consider John Shelby Spong’s model of accepting the literary allusions and still maintaining the historicity of Jesus:

      So as it says in Acts, they would read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prohets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So followers of Jesus may have then recalled their memories of him which that Sabbath elicited. This could be where all the midrash is coming from. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41). They went through this process for about forty years before the gospels were written.

      Or, maybe Jesus wanted to fulfill scripture (fill it full of meaning) by emulating Hosea? There are any number of possibilities. I don’t mean there is evidence in favor of historicity because there are historical possibilities, just that there is nothing here to tip the scales one way or the other.

      Think analogously that Paul’s conversion story in Acts is heavily modeled on prior literary themes, but that has nothing to do with whether there is a historical core there to Paul’s experience.

      Anyway, I’ll keep reading.

      1. “Ehrman admits that the story known as the cleansing of the Temple is “completely implausible” given the vast dimensions of the area involved, but insists nonetheless that “Jesus may well have caused a small disturbance” (Did Jesus Exist, 326). I suspect that if he had written something like that in a graduate school term paper, his professor would probably have given him a C-.” —(David Chumney, 2017)

      2. I discuss that scene twice. The second time I go into much more analysis of it. The issue is not simply Mark’s scene, but the way that all the others copy from Mark. As I explain, the fact that everyone else clearly copied Mark tells us that there is no knowledge of any real event. We have a fabricated scene and 3 copies of the fabricated scene. There is no evidence of any independent knowledge of the event. If Mark’s scene were as it is, but we had other accounts that showed no relationship to Mark, then there might be a case to make that something really happened, but one fictional account and 3 copied of it don’t make such a case.

        And the other issue is that this is again not an isolated incident. Scene after scene after scene show the same pattern of development.

      3. We have evidence that the temple cleansing episode is a creative adaptation of other writings; we have no evidence that the episode is based on an actual event. The hypothesis that the scene is a midrashic type of rewriting of scripture has evidence to support it; the hypothesis that it is derived from a historical event has no supporting evidence.

        But to test a hypothesis we need to decide how it can be disproven. If we were to find evidence that the episode had a historical origin then we would conclude that our first hypothesis is wrong and that the scriptural passages merely decorate the way a historical event is told.

        Ergo, pending the discovery one day of new evidence…..

        1. I understand your point, but I still think it involves paralogistic thinking.

          Consider the example I gave of the literary coloring of Paul’s conversion in Acts. Paul’s conversion story in Acts is modeled on 2 Maccabees 3’s story of Heliodorus and Euripides’ “Bacchae.” Now, if we didn’t have the conversion story in Paul’s letters, your reasoning would seem to entail that we would have reason to believe it is more likely than not that Paul’s vision never happened. But such reasoning would lead to the wrong conclusion, since Paul actually did have such an experience.

          I stand by what I said: literary coloring is not evidence of invention out of whole cloth, and John Shelby Spong’s model I provided above provides a perfectly reasonable alternative to how the events of Jesus’ life could have acquired literary coloring from a historicist point of view.

            1. Correct. We certainly “don’t know”. But when attempting history we have to base an argument on the evidence we have and set speculation (for which by definition we have no evidence) aside. Honest historians will be painfully aware of the tentative nature and short supply of their evidence and will propose narratives that are indeed tentative, open to revision and new interpretations and new evidence. They will present their case as founded on “the evidence available and as understood at present”. Ancient history is like contemporary history in that respect.

          1. Your example illustrates my point, I believe. Where we have evidence for a historical event as an origin then we take account of that evidence.

            In the case of the Acts account of Paul’s conversion story, though, I think it is more in keeping with all the evidence to say that the author was inspired to write a fictional scene depicting Paul’s conversion by the knowledge or belief in Paul’s actual historical conversion. The Acts narrative of Paul’s conversion is without historical value because of the extent to which it is a fictionalized reworking of other sources, as you point out.

            I was amazed by Spong’s conclusion that came to him after demonstrating the mythical and literary character and origins of all the stories about Jesus — despite all of that he said he believed in a historical foundation. Total backflip. The power of belief! Belief will trump sound historical method and logical reasoning every time.

              1. Do you believe him? Knowing John Shelby Spong I believe he would believe regardless. He is a mystic and needs no physical worldly proof for anything.

                But I don’t see relevance of Spong or anyone pointing to a passage in Galatians as their proof text. That’s not how serious historical investigation or scholarship works. There is absolutely no evidence to support a link between Galatians 1:19 and any character in any of the gospels or Acts. None. Only wishful speculation. And that’s before we even take seriously the questions surrounding the provenance of the text in Galatians.

              2. Neil said:

                Do you believe him?

                Yes. A historical Jesus is presupposed by Spong for how he envisions all the Hebrew Scripture allusions got attached to the biography of Jesus. Spong describes the process as follows:

                “So as it says in Acts, they would read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prohets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So followers of Jesus may have then recalled their memories of him which that Sabbath elicited. [This could be where all the midrash is coming from]. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41). They went through this process for about forty years before the gospels were written.” (John Shelby Spong, “Reclaiming The Bible For A Non Religious World”)

              3. I know Spong believes in a historical Jesus but his writings make it clear it is because of his personal experiences with the “living Christ” today that he is convinced that Jesus was a superlative marvellous historical figure.

              4. John MacDonald, I assume you still hold the following viewpoint.

                Comment by John MacDonald (20 April 2012) per Ehrman (4 April 2012). “Latest HarperOne Book: Did Jesus Exist?”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

                Any competent scholar will tell you that haggadic midrash as a literary form in the New Testament always presents two opposing poles of interpretation. (1) On the one hand we can say the entire story was invented through midrash, (2) and on the other we can say a little bit of the story is midrash and the rest is historical fact. And there is a lot of room in between

                That’s just the way biblical hermeneutics works. Mythicists may not like it but there is no way to argue that it is more likely than not that the core of the Christian story never really happened by claiming midrash.

                • Yes, it is possible that a “little bit of the story is midrash and the rest is historical fact” but with no reliable evidence supporting any historical fact (per the historicity of Jesus) it is speculative.

                Surely there is nothing wrong in presenting a speculative argument, for example:

                • In several places Josephus has Essaios (Ἐσσαίος), e.g. “John the Essaios” (”The Wars of the Jews”. 2.567; 3.11).

                • The “Panarion” (sect. 29) of Epiphanius, has Iessaious (Ἰεσσαίους), which may be a mis-spelling of Essaios (Ἐσσαίος).

                Making the Essaios–Iessaious spelling argument without noting that it is purely speculative is problematic.

              5. @db:


                As for where my thinking is today (for what it’s worthy as my being an amateur internet Religious Studies enthusiast), I think the example I gave elsewhere on this blog stands. There are some NT stories that may not have a historical core. For instance, as all agree, Matthew’s Jesus infancy narrative recapitulates the story of Moses. On the other hand, some stories have heavy theological literary coloring but still have an historical core we can corroborate through other evidence – my example of this being the intertextual conversion story of Paul in Acts. In this case we have Paul’s letters to show there is a small historical core to the legendary story in acts (which is largely literary allusion).

                And that’s how it stands with the New Testament generally. The pericopes are often laden with intertextuality, but there are two poles of interpretation with a lot of room between as to whether there is any historical core or not. And the connection might be indirect. The story of Jesus’ temple tantrum may go back to the fact that the historical Jesus used to complain about the temple in sermons.

                My point I was trying to make on Ehrman’s blog is that literary coloring is not evidence of inventing out of whole cloth, as the example of Paul’s legendary conversion story in Acts demonstrates. My position today is that, for the most part, these intertextual stories may or may not have a historical core. We simply don’t know.

        2. To add to this. The scene includes supernatural elements that are reasonable to conclude couldn’t have happened, cursing of the fig tree, and the scene follows the same pattern of development of other supernatural scenes, e.g. walking on water.

          And again, we have confirmed evidence that whoever wrote the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John had no knowledge of a real event.

          So, and the evidence we have:

          Against having a historical basis:
          1) The scene is derived from a literary reference
          2) The scene contains supernatural elements
          3) The scene fits the pattern of how other clearly fabricated scenes are developed in the story (on literary references)
          4) The only other attestations to the event clear copy from the first account, there are no independent accounts of the event

          In favor of having a historical basis:
          0) Nothing

          1. I don’t think you’re following my point.

            The most direct reason to think the temple tantrum incident isn’t historical is that it has no historical verisimilitude. Jesus couldn’t have started a major scene at the temple because there would have been guards there to prevent such an incident.

            Carrier reasons that the first Christians were an anti-temple sect like the Qumran sect, the early Christians believing Jesus’ sacrifice did away with the need for the temple and its sacrifices. But, as I said, it is just as likely as not that there some historical core to the temple incident. We don’t know. Maybe the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the destruction of the temple, so Mark turned this into the temple story and was the impetus for writing his gospel when the temple actually was destroyed. Elaine Pagels hypothesizes in her book “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation,” that Jesus may have in fact predicted the destruction of the temple, which would follow from him being an apocalyptic prophet.

            As for your points, you assume too much. In order:

            “According to you”: Against having a historical basis:
            1) The scene is “derived” from a literary reference
            – The scene HAS literary references, as does the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts. You are “assuming” the entire thing is DERIVED whole cloth.
            2) The scene contains supernatural elements
            -So do legendary embellishments of historical figures like Alexander The Great
            3) The scene fits the pattern of how other clearly fabricated scenes are developed in the story (on literary references)
            -See my response to (1)
            4) The only other attestations to the event clear copy from the first account, there are no independent accounts of the event
            – Irrelevant as to whether the temple tantrum had a historical core, such as perhaps the historical Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the destruction of the temple, as Elaine Pagels hypothesized in her book “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

            Anyway, it is entirely plausible that Mark knew of Jesus as an anti-temple apocalyptic prophet, and so invented the temple and fig pericope based on that. If that is the case, then the temple pericope is invented, but still goes back to the historical Jesus.

            We simply don’t know if the temple incident has an historical or not.

            Anyway, those are my thoughts. Maybe someone else will weigh-in?

            1. It would be ironic if the historical Jesus, as an apocalyptic prophet, predicted the destruction of the temple, and years later the temple was actually destroyed, and so this was the impetus for Mark writing his gospel, thinking the destruction vindicated Jesus as the chosen one of God. lol

  2. “Possession” is a major motif in Paul’s theology, but it is “possession” of the Anointing — a powerful and “inspired” and powerful creatiave spirit” or “mind” (quite Jewish and Stoic) in many respects. Paul does not know of any exorcism or healing store of Paul(a very serious lacuna!) and Luke’s tale of the exorcistic activities may be true in Acts,, but highly questionable still.

    Romans 8 is quite instructive and explicit about such things. The Corinthian essays are in many ways as well. As a a “mythicist” W. B Smith addresses exorcistic texts with much acumen ( See his The Birth of the Gospel)– a book in my view which corrects many curious and unlearned mythicists as well! )

    In the words of my old and still common way…you will have your socks “Blessed” off by reading it Mr. R. G. Price I find that many of your readings of NT texts have not taken his work into consideration. Plus I would encourage and challenge you to learn NT Greek to strengthen many of your readings. Hebrew too— as well–so you don’t get bullied around needlessly by so-called scholars of the languages and theology. You are to be highly commended for your work. But you must go farther and deeper so all of us can benefit.

    Also the book by Davies is highly insightful and contains info and interpretation of an extremely helpful nature. Paul is certainly someone against “the flesh” in all ways. Presently I am working on a book dealing with “the satan”. One of my main theses is that the satan is a minister of God’s “righteousness” ..testing, proving, etc. etc. and Paul says that while he was ascending to Paradise he was attacked by a “satan” or “satanic adversary).. the phrase is anarthrous and so does not demand indefiniteness but the nature or qualitative aspect of the encounter when Paul was ascending. In Gnostic lit. “ascenders” to God met “hindrances” or “opposition” on the way up and according to Gnostics as well that God’s “apostles” — Jesus, etc were attacked on the way down as well. Note,the satan sent from God was concerned about Paul’s “flesh” (btw the dative there can be translated–against the flesh, not in the flesh. Moreover, the attack and problem Paul experienced was not after his ascension but during it!!! if you look carefullat the text…just observing,not interpreting the text per se. Paul was getting pride ridden on the way up… like all ministers!!!!!!! BTW if you are looking for a parallel read the Gk story of Bellerophon!!!!

    Heh, I am just giving tidbits of my own research that I am willing to discus or defend as appropriate as I can.

    Cheers and good investigations my friends

    Martin Lewadny
    Director- Investigator- Educator
    A.S.I.S (soon coming website -utube education)
    Ancient Scriptures Investigation Services

    1. Sorry folks I made a few grammatical mistakes. I intended to say.. Paul does not know of any story of one of Jesus’ exorcisms. ” This is quite serious given Mark’s major motif regarding this… Unless Paul interpreted demons as Powers, Principalities, etc. and not as personal demon problems. It was not a “demon” that attacked Paul as well in 2 Cor. 12.

      Please forgive me for some of grammatical errors elsewhere or ask me clarification.


  3. Paul describes personal mystic experiences that sound very much like what we know of spirit-possession related experiences. He speaks of performing miracles. (Jesus or the Spirit performed the miracles through him, having “possessed his flesh”, I suspect.)

    By the time we get to the gospels, especially Luke, we reach the stage when the movement has become established enough for leaders to bring such spirit visions and possessions under control. They become stories of the past and modified greatly in the retelling.

    The Galatians, Paul says, were converted through the spirit and faith in what they heard. He blames their wandering from that start to alternative spirits — a common enough claim made among competing leaders against one another in such movements.

    It’s just a side of the picture I’m currently exploring. I am trying to step back for a moment from the texts and get a broader understanding of the nature of religion and how new religious movements are known to begin and evolve.

    1. No better example to investigate than the LDS Church. Joseph Smith’s visions to start the process, with the main theme that “don’t join any current churches, because they all are messed up!” (My translation, not his.) Start your own. Whether delusion, vision, or scam. LDS is full of visions and possessions. I particularly found the patriarchal blessing (a designated member projects into the future your “future”), and anointing with oil (two elders attempt in vain the healing of a person), a rather uncomfortable reach in vain. But, as far as I know, they still do it. But, my experience is that they don’t work very well. So the entire process has to be put under the category of scam. Which reaches back to Joseph Smith’s original visions. Must be scam. Then there’s the whole translation process of the Golden Plates with an Urim and Thummim. When he translated the Egyptian papyrus much later as the Book of Abraham, which proved to be a scam, it would seem to also invalidate the Golden Plates translation. Using these analogies, it would certainly indicate that Shamanism and Jesus has much in common. I tend to believe Jesus was historical, but whether he generated the Shamanism events, or others just attached the stories to him to expand the legend, no one can tell.

      1. By using the LDS model we are beginning with the assumption that Christianity started out the same way but we don’t know that it did. Our LDS model assumes from the outset what we need to prove.

        The advantage of more general anthropological studies is that universals in human culture are potentially identified. No one practice or historical event is used as the basis of our investigation, so we avoid circularity.

        The studies I am looking at do not presume religious cults start in any one particular way, not even with possession or hallucinatory experiences. They look at a range of social contexts and how practices vary or are consistent with each of these. The results seek to explain experiences that are found in past and contemporary times, whether in Africa, the Arctic, South America or east Asia — as well as in modern western societies.

        I do not see any need to assume that Jesus was an excorcist or deemed possessed by a spirit. My post was addressing the narrative, not the or a historical Jesus.

        The source of that narrative is another question entirely.

  4. May I add a note to this interesting interaction. Like Neil, I do not think the Mormon church provides a parallel model, perhaps only in that both claim
    supernatural revelations of various kinds. It is also not helpful to make accusations of “scam” when you are looking at such sources. “Scams” imply conspiracy and branch out into other areas and influences. And you can’t scream “scam” by superficial relationships regarding any religion.

    The Bible, as I view it is a fully human book and it is full of human reflections, even so-called revelations and many factors, without suggesting any necessary or conscious scam.

    I think some aspects come across as scams eg. Forgeries (2 Pet, et al) but even these still reflect more human polemics among alternative “spirits’ or “persons” or “cults”. We must be very careful to distinguish our attitude towards the Bible as an authoritative book many are claiming, and many of us who react to that claim. I don’t have a set attitude toward any religious ancient text . The Bible nowhere claims it is conscious of its authoritative status as this or that religion. We must attempt to understand them as Spinoza said: the naturalization of two books – Nature and Scripture. The same inductive and deductive procedure we apply to the study of Nature has parallels with Scripture. The world is Text and we must use every method we can to understand it and make sense of it as best as we can.

    I don’t like any ancient text being used to control me or others.But I don’t write them off…I can’t. I committed myself long ago (over 47 years now) to study them with seriousness. I fell in love with the Bible when I was 16. Never stopped despite I am now one of those so-called Biblical scholars who doesn’t believe like they used to anymore but still can’t give up their interest and a whole lot more. I love the Bible for reasons far beyond what many believers could stomach, and even atheists. Most hard core atheists I have heard and met simply want to destroy the Bible’s influence over the world. To a large degree I concur, yet things have gone a little too far in my opinion.

    Let’s all be careful of anachronistic hermeneutics as well, which are often imposed upon very alien, strange texts, which we are beginning to understand with increasing clarity what they really are and how they worked back then and perhaps they might work today when we engage them at deeper level of our life.

    Take care all


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading