Friday, January 24, 2014

Ecstatic Women Prophetesses at Corinth

Here's another reflection and post on my trip to Greece. When I was visiting the museum at Corinth, I came across this piece of a Neo-Attic relief found in the area of the Propylaia around the 1st century AD. It is a fantastic rendition of a woman prophetess with her head uncovered in an ecstatic trance. Here is the photo: 

Photo taken by Max Lee at the Corinth Museum © 2014

   In the above portrait, the woman prophetess is in ecstasy where her mind and spirit is being taken over by a daemon or deity. Generally Roman women were not allowed to speak in public. Public discourse was mostly reserved for men, especially in the town halls or theater where matters of civic concern were being debated. In fact, Valerius Maximus records an instance when a Roman noblewoman Carfania attempted to litigate her own lawsuit publicly before a Praetor and was ridiculed for her impudence (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.3.2; Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 177). 
    But there was only one time when a woman could speak in public: when she was prophecying. Why? Because the deity or daemon was one who was speaking and not the woman herself. The woman's mind was disengaged. She instead was simply a mouthpiece of the gods. Lucan in Pharasalia narrates an example of prophetic possession: "Apollo genuinely possessed her at last. He forced his way into her heart, masterful as ever, driving out her private thoughts and draining her body of all that was human, so that he could possess her wholly..." (V.120-225). 
    The relief provides several points of insight into Paul's correspondence with Corinth. For one thing, when a person was speaking in tongues, their minds needed to be engaged (1 Cor 14:14-15). When the Spirit speaks to and through a prophet, the spirits of the prophets need to be subject to the prophets (14:32). When Paul asked that some women prophetesses at Corinth to remain silent (14:33-34), he was not telling them to be silent because they were women per say. He was not mandating an eternal edict silencing women from teaching and prophecying. What Paul found problematic was that they were probably prophecying according to pagan practice, and treated the Spirit of God as something which possesses you like a daemon did. Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians that their past ways of relating to God will not do. When the Spirit inspires, unlike pagan cultic practice, their minds should remain engaged. Their spirits are subject to their own control. God does not take over the minds of the prophet or prophetess. Instead the prophet(ess) - in mind and spirit - is present and sober in the utterance. 
    If anything, this understanding of Spirit influence (not possession) was liberating for the Christian women prophetesses who acted not as ecstatic mouthpieces of the gods but as persons in deep communion with Christ through whom the Spirit spoke. Anywhere else in the Roman world, women were not allowed to speak or teach in public. But in the church, where the Spirit inspires (but not possesses), women prophetically challenged the congregation as long as they did not treat Spirit-inspiration as daemonic-possession. 
    This also offers some insight into Paul's cryptic remark that women should wear veils over their head "because of angels" (11:10). As the relief shows, an uncovered head is a ritualistic invitation for the god, daemon, or angel to seize the woman. Paul did not want Christian prophecy to be mistaken with this pagan practice and so in accordance with Roman conventions for proper dress, women kept their veils on. Women could prophesy without having to remove them.

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post.  2) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about pagan practice of prophecy beyond my post 3) Interpret 1 Cor 14:29-33 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding how prophecy was practiced in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 1 Cor 14:29-33? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section

Friday, January 17, 2014

Singing Hymns in the Theater at Epidaurus

I returned back from the travel course in Greece this past Saturday, only to launch into a wonderfully hectic first week of classes at the seminary. Whew! I finally have a chance now to catch my breath. I said that I was going to continue my discussion on competitive acculturation in ancient philosophy (and I will!), but the Greece trip was just too fantastic for me not to digress with some anecdotes. I'm not sure who is reading this blog (since I only have 3 subscribers) but thinking that at least some of my students might find themselves on this page, I going to make a shameless plug for any future participants: you must go on this trip!
   One highlight: when we were visiting the Greek amphitheater in Epidaurus, the tour guide (thanks Voula!) invited members of our party to sing at one of three designated spots to check out the amazing acoustics of the orchestra circle. One sister sang "Amazing Grace," one brother sang "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," and an international student (Swedish Brazilian) sang another hymn "How Great Thou Art" in her own native tongue. All three were outstanding singers and we were truly blessed by both the sound of worship and the sight of this ancient stage. 

Note: Epidaurus has one of the most well-preserved amphitheaters. The full circle for the orchestra and stage signals that the theater is a Greek-styled amphitheater (vs. a half-circle which signals a Roman theater). Since this was a winter trip (vs. the crowded summers), there were no other people and we had the amphitheater to ourselves. Our group consisted of 19 North Park students, faculty and alumni, our Greek hosts, and 16 other international participants from the IFFEC schools representing the countries of Sweden, Norway, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Germany, and China. More about Greece in future posts!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Live with Paul, the Stoics, and the Epicureans on Mars Hill

Well, this post has nothing to do with Greco-Roman allusions, nor competitive acculturation, but I had to make a comment at how awestruck I was today on Day 4 of the North Park travel course to Greece. Today I was standing on top of Mar's Hill (literally "Ares' [the god of war] hill" in Greek: Ἀρείου πάγος; Act 17:22) and my colleague Klyne Snodgrass asks one of our students to read Paul's sermon on the Areopagus to the Epicureans and Stoics. When we get to verse 24 ("The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands"), I and everyone else there were just blown away.
      From the Areopagus, you can clearly see the Temple of Nike and the Parthenon which houses the Temple of Athena on top of the acropolis. If I use my mind's imagination, I can picture the Apostle Paul preaching to the Epicureans and Stoics and pointing to the shrines on the acropolis saying: "God, the one true God, he does not dwell in temples made by human hands. I'm here to tell you about the true nature of God in the person of Jesus Christ..."
      It was truly a holy moment! Klyne had this experience years before on an earlier trip, and I'm so thankful he shared this with us today.
(on Mars Hill with the acropolis in the background)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Category: Competitive Acculturation

I did not expect such a gap between posts, but once I finished grading, there was Christmas, a family getaway, and now I'm frantically preparing for a travel course to Greece this January 3-11... only 2 days away.

But I did want to follow up on the first category of Greco-Roman allusions in Paul's letters.

When I was doing my post-doctoral studies at Durham University in England back in 2010, my patron and supervisor, Prof. John Barclay, suggested reading what Gerd Theissen had to say about "competitive syncretism" among religions. He pulled off the shelf of his office a copy of Theissen's A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion (1999) and read to me this excerpt:

"Rivals in the marketplace in part resemble one another when they are struggling to meet the same needs. The same is true of religions in a pluralistic situation. They have to 'imitate' one another in order to outdo one another in the imitation. And the imitation comes about by shaping their own tradition as the counterpart of others. I call such an indirect way of reciprocal influence 'competitive syncreticism.' " (p. 49)

Theissen then goes on to apply this category to the use of the term kyrios in Christian and imperial cult discourse and definitely thinks that Paul articulates his gospel in antithesis to the claims of lordship by Caesar in the cult.

He says: "In my view, the outdoing of power by a competitive contrast and the demonization of devalued 'rivals' can best be observed in the relationship between belief in Christ and the emperor cult." (p. 50)

'Syncretism' is loaded-word, however, and too nebulous and slippery a term to be of much use. There is also the conceptual baggage of an older Religionsgeschichtliche Schule or comparative religions approach that is associated with the language of syncreticism from which I would prefer to disengage my work.

In Barclay's Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (1996), he provides more technically precise definitions and terms for the processes of assimilation, acculturation, and accomodation, against which he judges the level of adaptation by various Jews in the Diaspora contemporary with Paul such as Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and others. Without going into too much detail, Barclay's use of sociological categories to describe acculturation as "the linguistic, educational, and ideological aspects of a given cultural matrix" (p. 92) is a much more preferable term to describe competitive traditions than "syncretism."

I myself am not completely convinced, however, that Theissen's example of Paul's counter-imperial gospel is indeed the best instantiation of this category. I wrote to this effect in my review of Seyoon Kim's book Christ and Caesar for the Horizons in Biblical Theology 33 (2011), 90-92. I think what would be interesting is to look at some of the examples in ancient philosophy where competitive acculturation takes place between Stoics and Academics who use philosophical terms indicative of their rival schools to argue that their philosophy outdoes the other at their own epistemological game.

But I think blogging on an example of competitive acculturation in ancient philosophical discourse will have to wait until I come back from my trip to Greece.