In Review

Bedeviling Spirit Possession in Ancient Christian Texts

A Q&A with Giovanni B. Bazzana on his newest book

By Joseph Kimmel

Giovanni B. Bazzana is Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School. His research focuses on the critical study of the early Christ movement and early Christianity in the context of Second Temple Judaism and ancient Mediterranean history, religions, and material cultures. His latest book, Having the Spirit of Christ, approaches stories of possession and exorcism in early Christian texts from the angle of contemporary ethnographies of possession in order to reveal the religious, cultural, and social meaning that the experience of possession had for the early Christ groups. Harvard University student Joseph Kimmel sat down with Bazzana to discuss the book and what inspired him to write it.

At the very beginning of the book, you mention that the topic of possession has interested you for a long time. What drew you to study this topic in depth?

My personal formation has been as a Catholic, educated in a very traditional way in the context of Italian Catholicism. Growing up, I was quite familiar with biblical texts approached devotionally, through liturgy and catechesis, for example, but I had very little familiarity with the critical study of biblical texts.

So when I first encountered the critical study of the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, it was a traumatic encounter in one sense but also a fascinating, enriching, and personally empowering one. But even at the very beginning of my engagement with this field, I felt that some aspects of these texts were not dealt with in a satisfactory way by biblical scholars, not only in regard to possession, but also, more generally, all those aspects in the New Testament that can be encompassed under the umbrella of miracles and the supernatural—topics for which traditional historical study has not always been able to give a persuasive account. This is quite evident when you look into scholarship on the historical Jesus, even in the very best historical treatments, such as E. P. Sanders’s books and other classics of this field: scholars tend to avoid stories about the miraculous and the supernatural, which in fact occupy a significant portion of both the canonical and noncanonical Gospels.

This lacuna has been nagging at me, not only from an intellectual point of view, but also from the vantage point of the lived experience of people who call themselves Christians. It was clear to me, even 20 or more years ago, that those elements we call “miraculous” or “supernatural” have a real impact on the lived experience of many Christians—including Catholics, Pentecostals, and other groups. So the absence of critical attention to such elements in New Testament scholarship has nagged at me for a very long time, from the beginning of my professional life. With this book I have tried to find a way to reconcile the critical and the lived-experience dimensions of the topics of possession and exorcism. I don’t want to abandon the historical-critical approach, which I find rewarding, but instead I wish to improve and expand it, in order to give accounts of miraculous texts that are both intellectually credible but also intelligible to individuals who are not a part of historical-critical academic discourse.

What accounts for the lacuna in scholarship you just described?

This was an element of surprise for me in doing the research for this book. Perhaps I knew this before, but I had never really thought about it: that the lacuna in scholarship is due to the ontological and epistemological framework in biblical scholarship that has endured from the Enlightenment. On the one hand, the lacuna is due in part to scholars not having interest in the “popular elements” of religious life, such as miracles and the supernatural. This disinterest has been a persistent feature in the academic study of the Bible as it has been shaped by nineteenth-century Protestant models in which the professor was also the minister of a liberal Protestant denomination, for which religious life was a very internalized narrative lacking many externalized religious elements (at least not as much as for Catholics, who serve as a foil to this Protestant “norm”). This model is also a very intellectual one, in which the professor of New Testament has a high degree of education and pursues esoteric interests, ones far removed from externalized, “popular” elements of religious experience (e.g., miracles).


Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Early Christ Groups, by Giovanni B. Bazzana. Yale University Press, 2020, 336 pages, $65.

Giovanni Bazzana

Giovanni B. Bazzana. Photo by Justin Knight

In addition to this feature, there is also a deeper problem regarding the fundamental ontological and epistemological structure of historical-critical hermeneutics, which is inherently connected with Enlightenment assumptions from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and which continues to shape the field of New Testament studies. I do not want to reject these presuppositions in toto, but at times these assumptions can be limiting and constraining. The topic of my book is a good subject to use in an experimental way: testing whether and how the dominant assumptions of the field can handle issues like possession. This is so because this topic—possession—is one that strains the fundamental assumptions of New Testament studies to the point at which they can no longer cope, and so they fail to provide a good basis for a credible account of what is happening.

To sum up the book briefly: it is an exercise in rereading a few texts from the Gospels and the authentic Pauline epistles, which are well known, in a manner that defamiliarizes them, reading in a manner different from the kinds of readings of these texts we are familiar with, in order to provide insights that take this phenomena (e.g., possession, spirits) at face value to a certain extent. This is a method which takes the texts more seriously than when they are marginalized or allegorized, which is the dominant approach. After this rereading, I attempt to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions held by historical-critical New Testament scholars. A future study could push this attempt further to ask what more credible and useful paradigms and assumptions might be used. This book is a first step in this direction.

Throughout the book you appeal to anthropological studies to aid you in this “alternative” reading. Could you describe how you see the role of such studies in the defamiliarization and reimagination encompassed by your project?

Yes, the defamiliarization step is performed in the book in a way that is unusual for biblical texts but which I think is very effective. That step is performed through an exercise in comparison: comparing ancient texts about Jesus and Paul with contemporary ethnographic descriptions and accounts of possession and exorcism. This is a productive move in that all comparisons—following the famous description of Jonathan Z. Smith—involve a forced magnifying of certain traits between two comparands in order to achieve a certain result. The result in this text is defamiliarization in us as readers. This is achieved effectively, I think, by seeing what is similar and different between the ancient and contemporary sources.

Like any comparative project, it is open to a certain amount of criticism, because the comparative action is based on the very subjective choices of the scholar. It is never an “objective” operation. It is artificial, but it has to be artificial because all knowledge acquisition occurs through this necessarily artificial, though productive, process. In order to learn, we have to compare, even though comparison itself is inherently an artificial and subjective process. One has to keep in mind that such comparison is done for a certain goal, and whenever the goal is not needed or changes, then the methodology has to change. In this sense, the answer is never definitive.

Looking back now on your execution of this comparative move, do you see areas where the necessary artificiality of comparison may have incurred certain costs or produced certain limitations in your conclusions?

Two things come to mind: First, it is very important that this kind of comparison—one involving comparands as heterogeneous as ethnographies and ancient texts, which are completely different in their genre, nature, and intentions—is controlled on both sides. That is, as full and accurate as possible an account of what is behind each side of the equation needs to be provided. Because I am trained as a historian and not as an ethnographer, it is possible the ethnography side is not as robustly supported as the ancient-text side of the comparison.

Second, in terms of limitations, perhaps this book is too heavily focused on canonical texts. The book in its current form thus might be limited by giving too “monolithic” an account of possession phenomena in early Christianity and could be nuanced, and improved, through attention to noncanonical texts.

Also, the very last chapter of the book addresses the issue of performativity. While writing this chapter after the others, I realized that performativity does not figure as much as it could, or should, in previous chapters. In hindsight, I would probably like to rewrite the earlier chapters with more attention given to the role of performativity in possession rituals and exorcism rituals.

book cover for Having the Spirit of Christ

Having the Spirit of Christ

Could you say a bit more about how you see this project offering a “defamiliar,” alternative interpretation of early Christian possession accounts?

Yes, this goes to the fundamental claim of the book, which is that in early Christ groups, like those addressed in Paul’s letters, possession as a ritual was something not only to be adverted or healed (e.g., through exorcism), but that possession also was positively evaluated. That is, for early Christ groups, possession rituals were fundamental building blocks for the community’s life together, as well as for remembering and engaging their past. In other words, the past becomes present through possession in a way that is very different from how the past is made present through, for example, reading a textbook (or any book). Possession rituals also help the community to build itself through the community’s role as the audience of the possession ritual. Ethnographies describe this all the time: that for groups which practice possession, not only the people who are possessed but also those who witness the ritual are part of its interplay. Moreover, such rituals were important also for individual Christians who wished to fashion a certain identity as followers of Jesus, as being “in Christ” as Paul would say. While the possession ritual shapes the experience and communal dynamics of the group in which it occurs, the possession experience also shapes the self of the possessed person. So, the book’s main claim is that for early Christ groups, the ritual of possession had all these beneficial effects.

In addition, the book seems to suggest not only that possession provided certain beneficial effects for early Christ groups but also that Jesus as an exorcist may himself have been possessed, at least as presented in texts like Mark. How do you respond to those who find the notion of Jesus as possessed spiritually threatening?

Well, I do not claim that Jesus himself was possessed, at least in terms of the historical Jesus. Personally, I don’t think we can know much about the historical Jesus. However, there is no doubt that Jesus was a powerful exorcist. But the means by which he obtained this ability is much more difficult to know with any degree of certainty or “objectivity.” Nevertheless, there are prominent texts within the Gospels which seem to hint that Jesus performed exorcisms because he was himself possessed by a spirit, which is not terribly striking. I do not know that as an “objective” historical fact, but I do know that there were writers and early readers of these Gospels who thought that was the case. This is profoundly fixed in the tradition, and it is not shocking once one begins to read ethnographic accounts about exorcism, which show that, in many cases, in order to be an effective exorcist, one must first be possessed. This also has been noted by other scholars, even in New Testament scholarship. So this should not be a shocking claim, although in the eyes of some people it is shocking, because it conflicts with certain christological assumptions about the nature of Christ, his divinity, and so on. I just don’t think that such a Christology, which emerges from the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, can be found in first- and second-century sources. As scholars, and as persons of faith, we need to be conscious that such a Christology is the result of theological debate and reflection over centuries, and that it was not present at the very beginning.

More specifically, in Mark, we seem to have two narratives that pull in different directions, and I do not know which is the “right” one. At the very beginning of Mark, there is the scene of Jesus’s baptism, where the spirit “goes into” Jesus. It is pretty telling that the spirit does not go over him or around him but “into” him. This spirit seems to be a divine spirit, or a spirit from God. To me, it is a narrative of initial possession by a “good” spirit. On the other hand, in Mark 3, there is the accusation against Jesus that he performs exorcisms by being in league with, or himself possessed by, Beelzebul, a spirit of ambiguous moral quality, a spirit which could be good or bad—Mark 3 really does not say. But in any case, Jesus’s opponents are raising this as an accusation against him, and in Mark’s account, Jesus really does not deny this. Jesus’s response is very ambiguous: rather than saying directly, “I am doing this by the holy spirit,” Jesus gives an ambiguous answer about binding a strong man and Satan’s kingdom falling, which in fact can easily be read to say, “Yes, I am using this Beelzebul to fight against Satan, the most dangerous enemy.” At the same time, Mark is a chaotic collection of stories and not a smoothly coherent narrative, so it is not so surprising to find within it narratives that suggest somewhat contradictory conclusions—namely, that Jesus is possessed both by a divine spirit and by Beelzebul.

Could you please describe your research process for this project?

What differed from my usual approach was trying to engage anthropological literature systematically, and at a mental level to give it equal standing with the ancient texts. While the end result certainly could be criticized, I feel largely satisfied that I’ve been able to let this ethnographic gaze dictate the agenda for the ancient texts, rather than the other way around. I’m not the first to do this, by the way, as there is a strong tradition of social scientific analysis of the Bible. Sometimes in this approach there is a shortcoming in that the ancient materials are made the centerpiece of the research, with anthropological insights serving the more peripheral role of background or context, rather than existing on an equal footing. Also, the central questions asked of the ancient texts remain standard theological ones. I tried not to fall prey to these shortcomings and limitations, but by contrast to let ethnography dictate the central questions for the ancient materials and thereby to expand the historical imagination brought to the texts. In other words, the ethnographic studies enable us to imagine scenarios and questions that we in the study of ancient history, and ancient texts, do not usually ask. I think I succeeded at least somewhat in stepping out of the way to let ethnographies direct my historical imagination. At the end of the day, any historical work involves an imaginative enterprise, because for the many things we don’t know, we have to extrapolate and imagine how they could have been, and so I think it helps to have an external gaze—external to the field as traditionally conceived—to lead the way, guiding the historian in different ways and directions.

Joseph Kimmel is a PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. His dissertation analyzes the use of personal names to access ritual power in early Christian texts.

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