Looking to the Future of the Study of Christian Origins: The Ecstatic Perception of Evolving Complexities

A culture-studies, postcolonial, lens would challenge us to focus our description of Paul’s gospel on its likely origin as a social product. In other words, the implication of my chosen lens would be that Paul’s gospel is a developing narrative shaped not so much by his scholarship, his philosophy, or his exclusive revelation, but by the immediate and changing needs and challenges Paul confronted in pursuing his mission, a proclamation shaped more by the socio-cultural circumstances in which Paul sought to be successful in propagating the new, foreign cult of the Christ. This implication would certainly set Pauline studies in a new and provocative direction.

See Also: Paul, Founder of Churches (Mohr Siebeck, 2013).

By James Constantine Hanges
Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Religion
Miami University, Oxford Ohio
December 2014

In one of those ironies of returning to one’s starting points, I now understand the work that I have been doing most recently, exemplified best in my 2012 volume, Paul, Founder of Churches, in relationship to my first New Testament seminar at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s. The seminar was led by Jonathan Z. Smith. The subject of our discussions was the typescript of what was to become Smith’s now famous, for some infamous, book Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (1990). Smith’s razor sharp point in the book is that the history of modern Euro-American study of Christian origins, and especially in the form of the application of comparison to early Christianity, was never a genuine attempt to acquire new knowledge and to more accurately describe and understand the formation of earliest Christianity. Rather, modern Euro-American biblical scholarship has been simply an exercise in apologetics, using comparison to shore up the uniqueness of Christianity against a so-called “parallelomania” for ancient polytheistic cultures.[1] Even more importantly, comparison became a strategy adopted to defend the boundaries that define group self-identity, especially Protestant group self-identification against Roman Catholic social boundary definitions. Polytheism, and especially in the form of the scholarly neologism, Greco-Roman culture, served as the foil against which early Christianity was negatively defined. Any attempt, such as the German “history of religion” approach, that assumed that early Christianity, was like all cultural forms inextricably intertwined with all other cultural forms, embedded in the historical development of those forms, and reciprocally informing and being informed by these forms, meant the destruction of Christian uniqueness. Uniqueness has come to serve as the last bastion in the defense of Christian claims, whether theological or historical.

One of the most notorious examples of this kind of defensiveness relevant to our present topic is found in the response to the work of Edwin Hatch. In his famous Bampton lectures in 1880,[2] Hatch revealed his sympathy with the fundamental assumption of the German “history of religion” school,[3] namely, that religions are cultural forms inextricably entangled in the history of social change, and as such they are shaped by the cultural forces at work in those changes. In other words, religions have a history—a certain continuity with the past that creates their present. They inherit, borrow, reuse, appropriate, and redeploy earlier religious and other cultural forms to meet their needs through time. Hatch’s major thesis was that the early Christian communities were analogous to the Greek voluntary associations that flourished throughout the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods. Evidence for this, he claimed, could be found in the weight of similarities between the churches and these associations, including terminological similarities. The affront to defenders of Christianity’s place at the top of the hierarchy of religions popular in those days was Hatch’s audacity in suggesting that early Christians were doing anything just like the pagans do. The backlash took the form of very precise terminological comparisons used to rule out the analogy on the grounds that there were, in fact, substantial differences between the two phenomena. In other words, unless Hatch could demonstrate beyond question absolutely identical terminological forms and functions, the weight of other similarities between churches and voluntary associations was irrelevant to the taxonomic task. Beyond the obvious point that Hatch’s critics were fundamentally missing his point, one could arguably conclude that the criticism was not so much driven by a serious commitment to methodological precision as it was by a desperate attempt to free Christianity from the contamination of ancient polytheistic culture.

The second formative moment in the development of my research interests came as a result of an opportunity to join the staff of the University of Chicago Isthmia excavations under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth R. Gebhard. My experience working with true “journeymen” archaeologists had a tremendous impact on the way I continue to understand the process of identifying and categorizing evidence, of mapping circumstantial, logical, and causal relationships, and in development of the restraint required when proposing such connections based on what the evidence permits one to say. Just as important to my subsequent work was the impact fieldwork had in increasing my appreciation of the embeddedness of the emerging Christian groups within the broader society—in fact, their inextricable connectedness to the dynamically evolving cultural discourse that characterized the broader society, and of their self-acknowledged dependence on their constructed past and what they presumed to be the unquestionable cultural commonplaces of that society in their ongoing process of identity construction.

The third major factor in shaping the direction of my research has been the influence of postcolonial critique. The value of appreciating this perspective became clear to me in dialogue with my faculty colleagues, especially with Lisa Poirier, now at DePaul University. Of course, many scholars of Mediterranean Antiquity dismiss the potential contributions of principles distilled from postcolonial criticism to our understanding of earliest Christianity because they consider postcolonial studies to be too deeply contextualized in modern realities—so tied to modern economic theory and contemporary globalization as to make it unusable for the study of the ancient world. In my view, this dismissal totally misses the point that focuses postcolonial discourse. On the one hand, the destruction of any claim to either uniqueness or enduring group “purity” is absolutely inherent in the application of postcolonial critique to the study of Christian origins. Hence, some dismissals of its use in the project of Christian origins are purely and transparently apologetic. On the other hand, I would challenge my colleagues who offer reasonable objections to the transplantation of methods deeply rooted in specific socio-historical contexts to dig a bit deeper into postcolonial critique to find the broadly applicable theoretical principles that are, in my view, quite transferrable.

One of the great benefits of applying a postcolonial perspective, or optic, to the complex and dynamic period of Christian origins is the destruction of categories so sufficiently captured by consensus that that their convenience is essentially irresistible. As Smith shows in Drudgery Divine, throughout the history of modern, “critical” scholarship these categories have served a comparative agenda designed not to deeper or nuance our understanding of the object of our study, but to isolate the earliest Christian formations from all external influence by the dominant polytheistic society, and in most cases from Judaism as well. Fixed categories such as “Jewish, Jewish Christian, monotheist, polytheist, faith, law, ritual, etc.” too readily serve an agenda designed to create a clearly defined “other” from which the first Christians can be definitively distinguished or protected.

What precisely do I mean when I refer to principles distilled from postcolonial criticism? Setting aside the specific data sets representing different geographic and temporal locations, the theoretical economic debates, and the analyses of the various modern forms of colonialism that tend to characterize contemporary postcolonial research, there are some fundamental observations in postcolonial criticism that should provoke scholars of Christian origins to reposition themselves to take advantage of the new perspectives this approach provides.

First, cultural encounters of any time period and in any geographic location are vastly more complicated than biblical scholars have allowed. Cultural encounters are always contestations, reciprocating pushing and pulling, negotiated dances in which multiple partners mirror and mimic each other’s steps, appropriating the other’s style and movements only to repurpose them in the ongoing struggle for self-definition and identity. Consciousness of this fact is even more crucial when we examine groups which face each other in a state of unequal cultural power, what I have called a condition of “anisodynamic” power relations.[4] Arguably the father of the current postcolonial discourse, Homi Bhabha describes how, in the process of constructing and articulating identity, minority communities, especially immigrant minority communities, are compelled to escape their own identity limits, to stand outside themselves to access what one might describe as a perceptual position of “ecstasy.”[5] In fact, members of all groups engaged in what is almost always a multidirectional and multidimensional anisodynamic encounter “split” themselves, or to say it another way, they objectify themselves. This stepping out of, or “distancing-from,” the self provides the shift in locus that allows group members to reinscribe themselves and their relations with the dominant other. In the contestation of the encounter, the “pointing-out” of cultural differences serves as an indicator, a sign, or a symptom of the process of community formation—what we might call the projection or articulation of a communal self-definition. Essentially, this ecstatic perception, reached by stepping out of oneself, enables a process of self-reconstruction or redefinition. To step away from oneself—to become ecstatic—vacates a space for cultural creativity that allows persons negotiating social situations of unequal cultural power to return to that situation equipped to refashion, to reshape, and to re-present the self.

Of all the conditions that obtain in the ancient world susceptible to analysis through a postcolonial lens, none is more obvious than the reality of moving people. Moving people, or the process of migration, is one of the diagnostic symptoms of the modern condition of coloniality. The process of imperial expansion, or colonialism, assumes great waves of population: the movement of colonizers, or conquerors, from their homelands to what for them is the “yet-to-be-defined,” the known but unknown. This movement is counterbalanced by the eventual movement of the colonized from their conquered homelands to the homelands of their conquerors. In the modern colonial context, the contact zones have migrated to the front doors of the colonizers – Indians and Jamaicans migrating to Great Britain; Algerians and Vietnamese to France.[6] Similarly, during the Hellenistic period and through the Roman Imperial period we see analogous waves of migrants. Greeks and Macedonians moved eastward and southward, conquering what for them was strange territory filled with strange peoples manifesting wide arrays of unfamiliar behaviors. Soon, however, these conquered peoples began migrating to what were traditionally Greek homelands, bringing their peculiar customs and gods with them. I have dealt elsewhere at length with one of the best examples of this process, the record of the migration of the Hellenized, Egyptian god Sarapis to the Greek island of Delos.[7]

The apostle Paul, the earliest, unambiguously identifiable, first-person witness to the origins of Christianity, belongs to this phenomenon. He was one of those moving conquered people. His social location was one fraught with identity deficits. As a Jew, Paul was a member of a known but not so well known minority. As a follower of Jesus the Messiah, Paul belonged to a sub-group within a minority. Even within that sub-group of a minority, the complexity increases by virtue of the fact that Paul belongs to a growing expansion of the Jesus cult among non-Jews, a phenomenon that is the cause of intense divisions within the Jesus movement. Yet, all this social complexity within the sub-group of a minority must be set within wider circles: the lingering dominance of Greek cultural forms (religion, philosophy, education, politics, economics, art, architecture, etc.), which is itself being subsumed by the political and military power of Rome.

Given my postcolonial optic, my fundamental suggestion is that the characteristics of the matrices of cultural encounter evident from the Hellenistic through the Roman imperial period in the eastern Mediterranean constitute patterns and structures that are in the main analogous to the kinds of encounters that have become the familiar data of modern culture studies, and especially of those framed by postcolonial critique. Applied as an operating principle, postcolonial critique predicts that in anisodynamic cultural encounters between migrating colonized groups and the dominant culture in its homelands, we should find dominant values and projections of value, or stereotypes, being resisted by the dominated group through the selective appropriation of these stereotypes, and by the mirrored and mimicked redeployment of these projected images as resistive forms of identity reinscription. To quote Ashis Nandy, the dynamically unbalanced, or colonial, encounter “creates a culture in which the ruled are constantly tempted to fight their rulers within the psychological limits set by the latter.”[8] This struggle, and its resistive strategies, is a creative project, which means that new cultural forms of resistance are constantly surfacing. It is the cultural product of this process that has come to be known as hybridity. What postcolonial theory predicts is, in my view, exactly what we find in the evidence for cult migration in Antiquity: cultural encounters characterized by intense misunderstandings, the development of innovative forms of collaboration, assimilation, and contestation—an explosion of creativity producing an array of empowering, innovative cultural forms, which, at first glance, might appear to be the unidirectional assertions of dominator’s power over dominated, but which express the variegated reciprocal reinscriptions of the identities of both the dominant and the dominated.[9]

To be more specific about my approach to Paul and his work from a culture-studies perspective, I assumed as my theoretical starting point that he was, as all human actors, embedded in a social context shaped by a matrix of “givens,” culturally transmitted notions of how certain things are done properly. These givens are not necessarily codified in writing, nor are they explicitly taught, yet, as in our own society, they simply permeate our experience whether we are fully conscious of them or not. For example, most religious groups in the United States will at some point in their history choose to build a facility dedicated to their religious purposes. These can be churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples, each with its own degree of distinctiveness, ranging from so little that it is hard for outsiders to identify the building’s function to so distinctive that its function is obvious. Nevertheless, despite these important forms of distinctiveness, all of the groups building their own place for religious functions also know that there is “a way these things are done,” which includes obtaining permits, paying for geological studies, hiring architects, obeying zoning restrictions, and following the local building code. Moreover, the construction will include many, if not most, of the same building materials (concrete, glass, steel, and wood). In this case, the proper “ways” to do a thing are rigidly codified. However, in case of my own approach to Paul, I was able to show that while the “ways to found a religious institution” in the apostle’s day were not nearly so explicit as our modern building codes, they were nonetheless cultural commonplaces. As such, Paul did not need to critique them; he merely needed to use them just as any other founder of a religious community would have done. Since the commonplace was that the founder was the authority for his foundation, so for Paul. Since the visionary call of the founder by the divine being was the commonplace, so for Paul. This means that Paul accomplished his task of founding new Christ groups in terms of cultural commonplaces which he certainly adapted to his own purposes, but nevertheless knew them as “the ways this thing is done” in his world. The theological implications of this perspective are beyond my project, but we can at least begin to realize the necessity of abandoning the notion that whatever Paul did in founding churches it must have been sui generis, or unique and completely free from the influences of the broader culture; in other words, purely and uniquely Christian. Culture-studies have completely demolished the possibility of such “pure” cultural forms.

With this said, as I think about the place of my own research in the broader flow of the study of Christian origins, I see it as a contribution to the growing recognition that critical scholars must redescribe the earliest evidence for Christianity as phenomena produced by cultural encounter. Of course, I acknowledge the obvious fact of the important differences between modern European capitalist-imperialism and colonialism and the imperialistic expansion of ancient powers such as Persia, Macedonia, and Rome.[10] Nevertheless, it is clear to me that the basic theoretical postcolonial assumptions about the nature of conqueror-conquered encounters promise to illuminate the ancient Mediterranean world of the Hellenistic through Roman imperial periods at least as well as they clarify our modern postcolonial world. The fundamental assumptions of postcolonial critique imply that Christianity, or more accurately, the innovative cultural forms it produces in the construction of the various identity-constructing strategies that will characterize its multiple forms, can no longer be insulated from the convulsive realties of cultural encounter. All attempts to do so will inevitably be shown to be methodologically obsolete, and most likely embarrassingly apologetic.

In closing, if I might suggest one possible implication of a culture-studies approach for future study of Paul, it would be the redescription of Paul’s “gospel.” Paul’s “law-free,” faith-based gospel to the non-Jews has been traditionally assumed by the Church, and with most scholars associated with the Church, to be the product of specific revelation, in not that explicitly then of the insight of a religious genius, or at worst as the studied conclusion of a seminal scholar, even lay philosopher. That is, Paul’s gospel is the result of an individual experience or derived from individual qualities. Moreover, for many of these scholars, this moment of revelation/insight is associated with Paul’s famous “Damascus Road” experience.[11] A culture-studies, postcolonial, lens would challenge us to focus our description of Paul’s gospel on its likely origin as a social product. In other words, the implication of my chosen lens would be that Paul’s gospel is a developing narrative shaped not so much by his scholarship, his philosophy, or his exclusive revelation, but by the immediate and changing needs and challenges Paul confronted in pursuing his mission, a proclamation shaped more by the socio-cultural circumstances in which Paul sought to be successful in propagating the new, foreign cult of the Christ. This implication would certainly set Pauline studies in a new and provocative direction.


[1] Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81.1 (1962) 1-13, his 1961 SBL Presidential Address.

[2] Published as The Organization of the Early Christian Churches: Eight Lectures Delivered before the University of Oxford in 1880 (London; New York; Bombay: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901).

[3 The “Religionsgeschichtliche Schule.”

[4] Paul, Founder of Churches: A Study in Light of the Evidence for the Role of “Founder-Figures” in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, WUNT 292 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), VII, 8-9.

[5] I used this concept in my paper, “Mirroring the Self in the Other: Negotiating Cult Relocation,” Society of Biblical Literature, Greco-Roman Religions Section, New Orleans, November 21, 2009.

[6] See, Frances Gouda, “Immigration and Identity Politics in a Postcolonial World: Review of Recalling the Indies: Colonial Culture & Postcolonial Identities,” The Asian Pacific Journal of Anthropology 9, no. 4 (2008): 363–71; Paul A. Silverstein, “Immigrant Racialization and the New Savage Slot: Race, Migration, and Immigration in the New Europe,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2005): 363–84; Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat: The Integration of Old and New Immigrants in Western Europe Since 1850, Studies of World Migrations (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005), esp. 171–96; Françoise Lionnet and Ronnie Scharfman, eds., Post/Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations, and Nomadisms, 2 volumes, Yale French Studies 82–83 (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 1993); Michelle Keown, David Murphy, and James Procter, eds., Comparing Postcolonial Diasporas (Basingstoke, England; New York: Palgrave, 2009).

[7] Paul, Founder of Churches, 140-224. The main source for this example is the inscription containing the so-called Delian Aretalogy of Sarapis (Inscriptiones Graecae XI, 4 1299).

[8] The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983): 3.

[9] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 2–3,10,41,49–50.

[10] See, e.g., Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism’,” Social Text 31/32 (1992): 84–98.

[11] E.g., Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel, 2nd rev. ed., WUNT 2.4 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Siebeck], 1984.

Comments (4)

I really enjoyed this article. Have you thought about connecting this idea of "The way things are done" to Bourdieu's notions of habitus and doxa? Specifically, it seems to fall somewhere in between habitus (that which remains unarticulated), and doxa (that which is articulated, but remains uncontested).

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/01/2015 - 20:26

One tentative response to 'Paul, Founder' - is it worth thinking about the possibility that the customs of foundation, to which you refer, actually called 'Paul' into being? That is, might churches which really sprang up as a spontaneous response in each locality to the spread of 'Christian' ideas have sought 'Founding Letters' and might whoever wrote a letter in response to this demand have used 'Paul' as a code-name? That need not preclude the existence of a well-regarded preacher whose real name it was.
I was listening in church this very morning with some discomfort to our pastors' lack of any idea of questioning Ephesians, which looks so like a compilation of Pauline ideas for the benefit of a church important enough to need - but not yet having - an Epistle, as a work of the same Paul as did everything else attributed to that person. But maybe we should get beyond the genuine/pseudonymous and disputed/undisputed classifications?

#2 - Martin Hughes - 01/04/2015 - 17:25

This is a really great article. A shame it doesn't get much discussion started.

One additional factor to consider for the context of Paul's ministry: philosophy, namely Stoicism and Epicureanism.

#3 - Mark Erickson - 01/11/2015 - 17:10

I finished comment #3 at Vridar, which has a post (hopefully more coming) on this article. Still a shame it hasn't generated much discussion.


#4 - Mark Erickson - 01/17/2015 - 01:43

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