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Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity Paperback – 10 Nov 2014
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Davies states that his theory about the mundane, mortal nature of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal beginnings of Christianity is 'informed by cross-cultural anthropology and psychology'. With regards to anthropology, Davies quotes from a couple of anthropologists, including Erika Bourguignon, on the nature of possession and trance. He draws parallels between early Christianity and the modern Pentecostal movement started by William Seymour in America in the early 20th century He mentions cases of demonic possession in India. And that's about it. Its hardly an in-depth application of anthropological ideas. But it suffices to get his point across - that early Christianity featured spirit-possession has a fundamental component.
As regards his application of psychology, things are a lot less rosy. He focuses solely on the work of mountebank hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Personally, I'd never heard of Erickson before. It seems he wasn't a qualified psychologist. His ideas centered around the creativity and healing power of the unconscious and how to facilitate access to this via trance induction techniques. Davies covers many pages in his attempt at convincing readers that Jesus Christ was using similar techniques to Erickson in order to induce trance states in his patients. His main evidence for this seems to boil down, in the end, to how confusing and nonsensical Jesus's parables were. He claims that Jesus was using his parables as means to shock his listener's out of established beliefs and thereby open access to their unconscious minds. It's just not believable though. Did the concept of an unconscious aspect to the mind actually exist in Palestine in the 1st century AD? Was Jesus Christ knowingly using advanced/sophisticated psychological dissociation techniques in order to initiate altered states of consciousness in people? It seems somewhat far-fetched to me. And Davies' attempts to pass Erickson's speculative and vague ideas off as hard science are bordering on silly. Neuroscience hasn't even managed to reach a consensus on what consciousness is, or even whether or not it exists - giving rise to the ridiculous assertion by some neuroscientists that we just think we're conscious but we aren't really etc. And if consciousness has a quantum aspect then all bets are off. So for Davies to state so unquestioningly/dogmatically that spirit-possession experiences are solely explainable in terms of inner psychological processes, and that there is absolutely no external agency involved at all, seems a bit presumptuous. Ultimately Davies' discussion of Erickson's hypnotherapy is interesting but unconvincing when applied to the conjectured beliefs and intentions of a 1st century Palestinian exorcist.
As you would expect from a professor of biblical studies, Davies is on much firmer ground when he discusses the New Testament texts and quotes passages that support his thesis. He gives plenty of examples from Luke and Paul in particular which do seem to strongly suggest that spirit-possession was a fundamental aspect of early Christianity. If he had stuck to that approach, the book would have been a lot more convincing. His attempt to use psychology as a means of strengthening his theories just served to weaken them. The real clanger he drops though is to base his theory around the fact that the spirit-possession experience, which he asserts was so central to the rapid spread of early Christianity, is 'transferable' from person to person. But Davies admits he doesn't know how the spirit-possession experience is transferred. He digs himself a nice big hole by huffing that it must be possible because plenty of Pentecostal ministers are doing exactly that today. So, why didn't he go and ask one of them how they do it? The fact that he didn't significantly undermines the credibility of his thesis, which is a pity.
As a non-Christian, I enjoyed this book and believe that spirit-possession did play a part in the nascent Christian church. But I can't say that Stevan Davies proved his case sufficiently to nail it shut once and for all. He shouldn't have made Erickson's inductive hypno-whatever system such a central part of his theory and he should have held his nose and spoken to some modern day Pentecostals about the practicalities of what they claim to do - to determine if spirit-possession is transferable or not, and, if so, what's the actual process involved. Basically, a cross-disciplinary approach to explaining the origins of Christianity that includes psychology, is probably the wrong approach for a biblical scholar to take.
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Davies' thesis is that the original impetus behind early Christianity, prior to the mid 2nd century CE, was neither the specific personality of Jesus, nor the reports of his resurrection from the dead, but rather the experience of spirit possession. Jesus receives the Holy Spirit at the beginning of Mark. Luke's 12 apostles receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Gospel of John presents the Paraclete as an abiding presence of the Christ after the Son returns to the Father. And so forth. Particularly central in the early decades are Paul's letters, in which believers participate in a risen Christ whose spirit they receive at baptism, and which dwells within them both at the individual and at the group level. Davies grounds his account of spirit possession in cross-cultural anthropology, and relates the spirit-filled early Church to modern expressions such as Pentecostalism.
This all amounts to a fascinating interpretation. But it was not until I reached the end of the book that I realized how explosive Davies' thesis really is. He provides a translation of a seldom read and poorly understood text, the Odes of Solomon, which falls under the category of "apocrypha" (literally, things hidden away). The Odes of Solomon is traditionally categorized by scholars such as James Charlesworth as a late 1st or 2nd century Christian hymnal, even though it contains ZERO mentions of Jesus, and even though it was transmitted alongside a more traditionally Jewish text from the 1st century BCE called the Psalms of Solomon. What it does contain are extensive and moving expressions of personal transformation by the spirit into "sons of God" and "messiahs." This may have been the original Christ cult that Paul first persecuted and then joined, which he only later (Galatians 1:17!) associated with the Jesus movement led by James and Peter and the other apostles. Both Paul and John combine an Odes-of-Solomon-style spirituality of Christ/Spirit possession with a Jesus faith handed down from the disciples, and it is only with the triumph of the bishop system of the emerging Rome-friendly Church of the 2nd century that the spirit-led energy of primitive Christianity is snuffed out. The "Holy Spirit" is converted by the Church into a person of the Trinity, an extrinsic concept rather than a vital experience. Those who persisted in being one with the spirit and receiving new revelations were simply condemned as heretics, along with what we today would call the Gnostics.
A great and original book that deserves attention.
Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity represents Stevan Davies’s revamping of his 1995 work, Jesus the Healer, featuring new articles on the Pentecostal origins of Christianity and a study on the Odes of Solomon as evidence for a “pre-Christian” form of early Christianity. For the most part, Davies’s view is that the figure of the historical Jesus had little to nothing to do with the foundation of Christianity. As suggested by the title, Davies suggests that it was rather the experience of “spirit possession” that played the more influential role within the beginnings of Christianity, not the life and teachings of the historical Jesus
Davies begins the work by establishing that despite the debates and differences produced by the Quest for the Historical Jesus over the last century, the vast majority of scholars all agreed that the Historical Jesus was some kind of great and profound teacher. Davies describes his model as the “Jesus the Teacher” and it is this school of thought that continues to dominate scholarship. From Davies’s point of view, despite how scholars reconstruct the historical Jesus, whether as a Torah-rebellious magician or as a peasant social reformer or as a violent revolutionary Zealot; the life and teachings of Jesus remain crucial to the birth of Christianity. However Davies obverses that the opposite seems to be the case. Given how little is revealed about the life of Jesus within the letters of Paul and even within the Gospel accounts, Davies views that the life and teachings of Jesus could not have been the central tenant to early Christianity, but rather to the development of the faith. For Davies, “The question is not what was it about the life of the historical Jesus that gave rise to the Christian movement, but what was it about the Christian movement that gave rise to narratives of the life of Jesus (pg. 22).”
What Davies offers instead is the model of “Jesus the Healer.” In this view, Jesus was primarily an exorcist, healer, and casual-prophet, who believed he had experienced possession by the Holy Spirit of the God of Israel and invited others to share in this experience. For Davies, Jesus had no set program nor formula to his teachings, but was rather casual and informal. In short, Jesus did not have a central aim, idea, or message, but rather a core activity, namely exorcising demons and healing the sick. In making this reconstruct viable, Davies relies heavily on a mixture of Biblical, psychological, and anthropological studies and the result for him is a figure and movement that all demonstrate the typical traits of “possession behavior.” What is important to Davies, is that this thesis offers a secular, sociological, psychological, and anthropological account for the birth of Christianity, and does not need any appeal to “the supernatural” to account for Christianity’s early popularity and growth.
While Davies’s endeavors and originality should be commended, there are several major problems with his thesis. The biggest issue with his Davies’s work his is disregard for the political climate of Palestine within the early first century and views these poor social and political conditions would have had little to no affect on the Christian faith. It is for this reasons I am highly skeptical about Davies’s attempted comparisons between the Christian movement of the 1st century and the Pentecostal movements of the 20th century within South America, Africa, and China. Davies also does not supply a clear methodological approach to his studies, and while he stresses the dating of Mark over against Matthew, Luke, and John, he freely quotes from them all to illustrate his arguments. The other problem is Davies’s lack of study on the life of Jesus has presented by the Apostle Paul, while there certainly is a lot of mystery surrounding the life of Jesus, for Paul, the “figure” or “being” of Jesus is absolutely paramount and that is stressed time and time again by Paul’s references to Jesus’s death and resurrection. However it should be stressed that Davies’s criticisms of the current state of the Quest for the historical Jesus are completely on point and he presents his thesis in a way that is easy to process and utterly engaging.
Overall, while Davies’s thesis is very thought provoking and original, it is simply unconvincing but still well worth the read.