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Demons and Christians in Antiquity! Guest Post By Travis Proctor

Some readers have suggested that I have guest posts from my former PhD students describing their dissertations.  Great idea!  This is our first shot at it.  One of my most recent PhDs was Travis Proctor, who is now an Assistant Professor of Religion at  Wittenberg College in Springfield Ohio.   Travis wrote a terrifically interesting dissertation on demons in early Christianity.  It turns out, it’s not only a really intriguing topic, but unexpectedly complicated.

The dissertation was called “Rulers of the Air: Demonic Bodies and the Making of the Ancient Christian Cosmos,” completed in 2017.  And just recently it has won Travis a major international award from University of Heidelberg, German.  See:  https://religion.unc.edu/travis-proctor-phd-2017-manfred-lautenschlaeger-award-for-theological-promise/

I asked Travis to summarize the dissertation for us, and here is what he has to say!  (I will be happy to post your comments on this; Travis will not be able to respond directly.)

 

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Clement of Alexandria, one of the most famous philosophers and ethical teachers of early Christianity, was no fan of eating meat. But Clement’s rationale for avoiding animal flesh would never occur to most people today.

According to Clement, Christians ought to keep their diets simple: fruits, nuts, and vegetables were sufficient fare. But while modern vegetarians might appeal to environmental or health reasons to argue for such a diet, Clement turned to a different justification: demonic corruption. According to Clement, demons were infatuated with the blood of red meat, and so anyone who overindulged in the flesh of animals would inevitably attract evil demons, with the result that their bodies would become full of evils spirits bent on their ruin.

But why are demons so attracted to meat, and the people that eat it? To answer that question sufficiently, one must delve back into ancient Christian concepts of the demonic body. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that early Christians, despite their general agreement regarding the existence of demons, often disagreed regarding demons’ physical appearance and substance. On the one hand, several early Christian texts portray demons as disembodied entities. This is likely due to the notion, found especially in Second Temple Jewish texts, that evil demons are the lingering souls of monstrous giants who were destroyed in Noah’s flood. Thus, demons are, by definition, entities deprived of a body as part of the punishment for their primordial iniquity. On the other hand, other early Christian writers, including Clement, frequently portray demons as possessing some form of autonomous, if subtle, corporeality. We see this especially in the writings of early Christian apologists, who claim that demons possess a “pneumatic” or “airy” body that, while invisible to the human eye, is nonetheless corporeal in its own right.

Why did Christians disagree so thoroughly on this matter? My dissertation seeks to show that early Christian discordance over demonic bodies is intimately connected to related divergences concerning the makeup of the Christian (human) body. Namely, I argue that early Christian disagreements over demonic corporeality simultaneously reflect and reproduce associated Christian dissimilarities regarding the nature and performance of proper Christian embodiment.

The dissertation consists of two parts, each comprising two chapters. Part I examines early Christian traditions regarding “bodiless” demons. In Chapter 1, I focus on traditions of demonic possession and exorcism in the texts and reception histories of the New Testament gospels. I note that, as mentioned previously, the gospels collectively assume the disembodied nature of demons, in part informed by ancient Jewish traditions wherein demons are in fact the residual souls of antediluvian giants. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the primary activity of demons within several early Christian texts is the usurpation of human bodies. Contrasted with the disembodiment of the demons is the potent corporeality of the Christian exorcist, beginning with Jesus of Nazareth and extending to depictions of his followers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

In Chapter 2, I turn to another tradition of “bodiless” demons, found in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans, a text written by the 2nd century church father Ignatius of Antioch. The letter attempts to counter the idea, popular among some Christians, that Jesus only “seemed” to have a body during his earthly ministry. Ignatius claims that any Christian who believes in such a phantasmal Jesus will be “just like what they believe,” that is, they will be “bodiless and demonic.” Furthermore, Ignatius condemns his opponents to a “bodiless” and “demonic” afterlife. Ignatius is here countering a belief, found in certain Christian sources, that anticipates liberation from a fleshly body and the enjoyment of an unencumbered spiritual afterlife. The Antiochean bishop twists this eschatology into a sardonic parody: these Christians will not become benevolent spiritual beings, but evil demons! Ignatius insists that to avoid this unsavory end, his readers must recognize the “fleshly” reality of Jesus’ body by participating in the Eucharist, which, he claims, represents the “flesh and spirit” of Christ.

In Part II, I examine early Christian constructions of demonic corporeality that, unlike those traditions in the canonical gospels and letters of Ignatius, emphasize demons’ possession of subtly material bodies. In Chapter 3, I explore the function and interpretation of Paul’s exhortation to his readers in 1 Corinthians that they not mix the “body of the Lord” with the “table of demons” by participating in both the Christian Eucharist and the traditional Hellenic animal sacrifice. Paul’s statement itself, which draws on a long line of Jewish condemnation of non-Jewish sacrifice, implies that demons possessed some form of body that was nourished by the meat offerings of animal sacrifice. Later interpreters of 1 Corinthians, including Clement of Alexandria, build on Paul’s rhetoric by portraying the demonic body as one that has become “fattened” and grotesque due to its excess consumption of sacrificial fumes. Clement contrasts the demons’ corpulence with his construal of the ideal Christian body: chaste, thin, and constantly engaged in ritual contemplative practices designed to “strip away” the material body.

In the fourth chapter, I explore the entwining of demonic and Christian bodies in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage. In his On the Soul, Tertullian emphasizes the pervasive attachment of demonic spirits to the human soul that stems from inadvertent participation in demonolatry via Roman “religious” rites (i.e., worship of the Roman gods, or participation in any activities that are associated with certain deities). The only method by which Roman citizens can remove their attendant demonic spirit is through Christian baptism, a rite that Tertullian views as essential in the creation of a new, demon-free Christian body. The only way to ensure the endurance of one’s Christian corporeality, Tertullian argues, is by maintaining Christian habits in daily life and eschewing all activities infected by Roman demonolatry.

As can be seen by this brief overview, early Christians depicted the demonic body in widely divergent ways. Whether disembodied or corporeal, fattened or ethereal, depictions of demonic corporeality were as diverse as the Christians who articulated them. And yet, a consistent feature of early Christian demonologies is the way in which demonic bodies are connected with their human counterparts. On the one hand, demons served Christian writers well in articulating ideal visions of the Christian body – Ignatius’ “bodiless” demons help him articulate positive understandings of human “flesh,” while Clement’s gluttonous demons helped him make the case for more restrained diets among his readers. Thus my research shows how early Christian demonology can be enlightening not only for what ancient thinkers said about demons, but how they understood other aspects of the human experience and culture.

As an additional point, my work stresses that ideas regarding demons did not remain “merely” ideas (if there is such a thing) – rather, they formed important rationales and explanations for various early Christian rituals (e.g., exorcism, baptism, and the Eucharist). In this way, ideas regarding demonic bodies had material effects on how Christians carried out their faith.

Finally, with its attention to nonhuman entities, my project strives to situate the human body as one entity amidst a complex ecosystem of assorted things and organisms. For many ancient Christians, the human body did not exist in a discrete realm separate from and superior to “nature.” Rather, there existed only a fluid and permeable boundary between the tenuous materiality of the human body and its adjacent environments. In better appreciating this aspect of Christian embodiment and the Christian cosmos, we might not only come to a better understanding of Clement’s disdain for meat, but begin to consider how our own bodies are themselves part of the many environments that make up our world.

If you want to learn a bit more about Travis, go here to his college page:   https://www.wittenberg.edu/academics/religion/travis-proctor-phd

This post is free and open to the public.  To access all the posts on the blog, all you need to is join!  You get five interesting and informative posts a week, for a very small fee — and the entire fee goes to charity.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 5, 2020

    What a good idea to see what scholars study for their doctorates.

    My basic comment is that humans really believe a lot of weird stuff.

    Jesus casting demons into a herd of pigs always seemed weird and strange to me. Certainly not historical.

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  February 7, 2020

      One of the more interesting interpretations I´ve heard of that passage, that, like others, is allegorical and possibly of Jewish origin; the swine, who are clearly out of place in first century Israel, represent to the Roman occupancy. The banishing of the demons who occupy the man was taken as a messianic act of banishing the foreign influence from the promised land. Just as Revelation spoke of the Romans in veiled terms, it´s not surprising to see the Gospel narratives preserving some anti-Roman sentiment in this way (even if the story was passed on, without the writer taking it that way)

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  February 5, 2020

    At least some branches of modern Christianity (e.g., Catholicism) believe in demons. Do you have any sense of how they see the immaterial / material question?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      Moderns? Much like most people do, in our post-Cartesian world. it’s a dichotomy.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  February 5, 2020

    Any way to read the dissertation? Perhaps a book will be forthcoming? I’ve long been fascinated with the Enochian mythology of Watchers and giants and demons and am especially interested in ancient cosmologies.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      Yes, he’s hoping to publish it as a book! Talking to publishers now!

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 5, 2020

    Travis needs to present this in the form of a book for popular audiences. I think there would be a market for it. I keep being reminded of stuff I heard in Catholic school. I remember a visit from a priest who lectured on demons. What I recall is the statement that the power of a demon is entirely over one’s mind or spirit– that they can’t in any way directly affect anything material. Hence the need for possession in order to manipulate material things or act as material agencies. This suffers from the problem of dualism, but putting that aside, I doubt that the priest was improvising. Must have come by way of Aquinas? I think it was Father David– that’s what we called him. I also remember that he was a huge fan of Shakespeare. He liked to read us passages from the plays.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  February 5, 2020

    As a physician and (I think) rational person I have several issues: 1. Why did the (supposedly) divine Jesus leave people thinking that epilepsy (Matt.17:15 e.g.) and mental illness (Mark 5:1f) were caused by demonic possession rather than biochemical problems? The mentally ill suffered terribly for many centuries due to this kind of thinking. (and still do, with tacit consent by the Christian community that refuses to speak out against “exorcism.”). 2.If God can take Satan out, as suggested by Revelation, why would He wait until the end of the world, after all the damage is done?! If a bully next door was terrorizing your children would you wait until they were ready to die before you dealt with it? Of course not, if you’re a decent parent. The idea of Satan and demons demotes Christianity to a second-rate superstitious religion in my opinion.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  February 7, 2020

      Very well said. At the core of Christianity and every other religion there is a supernaturalism essentially the same as that of an ice age shaman shaking sticks at a campfire. Augustine and Aquinas give primitive supernaturalism a frosting of rationality– but in the end it isn’t rational at all. None of it is. A priest celebrating mass is no better than a half-naked primitive casting spells in the dirt. I would defy anyone to make a case for an alternative view.

  6. Avatar
    tadmania  February 5, 2020

    Wonderful! Thanks.

  7. Avatar
    tskorick  February 5, 2020

    That looks like a fascinating dissertation, I’d love to read it if there’s a print or digital copy somewhere available! One question (for either Bart or Travis): Jesus himself appeared to distinguish between kinds of demons that could only be dealt with in certain ways, such as in Mark 9 when he told his disciples that they failed at casting the demon from the boy because “this kind (τοῦτο τὸ γένος) can come out only through prayer.” Do you have more information on what, if any, other statements or actions of Jesus may have expressed a specific demonology of his own?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      Hes’ trying to publish it. finger’s crossed. On the question: that’s the main one I can think of. Some scribes, interesingly, made an addition to the passage “thorugh prayer and fasting”!

      • Avatar
        tskorick  February 7, 2020

        I had noticed that addition in some texts. What’s odd is that Jesus seems to do neither! He rebuked the spirit and it made a huge fuss leaving the kid. Makes me wonder if he meant to say (and based on the text this doesn’t seem likely) that his *disciples* could only cast that type of demon out through prayer (and optionally fasting), but Jesus was under no such restriction.

  8. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 5, 2020

    The dissertation sounds fascinating even to the layperson with interest in early Christian beliefs about demons, human bodies, nature of Jesus, early Christian rituals. What would you say are the exceptional qualities of the dissertation that earned it the Heidelberg award?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      I wish I could say its brilliant advisor. (1) But the reality I had almost nothing to do with it. It was extremely well research, brilliantly argued, and convincingly written.

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  February 5, 2020

    Dr. Proctor,

    As members of this blog we are obviously fans of Dr. Ehrman’s work and scholarship. Did you attend UNC specifically to work with Dr. Ehrman or did your area of study simply put you under his tutelage? If you did not seek out Dr. Ehrman as a teacher, were you aware of his prominence in the field and achievements?

    Thanks, Jay

  10. Paul94d
    Paul94d  February 6, 2020

    So, back then…if someone was a schizophrenic, or was having an epileptic seizure, the explanation was, “he/she’s possessed”?
    Professor, another question came to my mind. Is there anything in the bible that condemns suicide? I don’t know anything about that myself, I’ve been taught it’s a sin, but that would be it all.
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      1. Probably 2. No, as it turns out. There are suicides in the Bible (e.g., Saul); they are never condemend for committing suicide (Judas Iscariot is condemned for teh act that *led* him to commit suicide). James Tabor, who recently guestposted, co=authored a book that convincingly argued that suicide was not considered a Christain sin until St. Augustine in the early 5th century.

  11. Telling
    Telling  February 6, 2020

    Might be worth mentioning metaphysical view of “demons”.

    We are formless beings, developing symbolic three-dimensional “bodies” by way of a mental process. Projecting an inner formlessness outwardly, we interact and communicate through these symbols which we label “the world”.

    We are born and we die, but the entity (us) does not die. It loses some of what we call “physical reality” and consciously enters a less physical “dream state” reality, and subsequently others less “physical” yet.

    At death, then, we become less physical, “spirits” for some period of time. We may keep order with our minds, seeing a continuing existence with a purpose, particularly if we have religious beliefs or other beliefs giving us such purpose and direction. Otherwise we become lost souls having no purpose and may thus take on role of a “demon”, a bitter spirit out to create destruction, seeing no purpose himself. Demons are thus real in this sense. They can bring confusion and sickness to those they attach to. They are not evil, however, just purposeless.

    One such spirit, and of sound mind, is the entity “Seth” who enters the mind of author Jane Roberts and has written 13+ books of exceptional quality on the subject of the afterlife. Christians of past may have thought of him as high angel serving God’s purpose or as a demon, depending on who they’re listening to.

  12. Avatar
    Nathan  February 6, 2020

    I was hoping to hear how this effected their cosmology.

  13. Avatar
    Nathan  February 6, 2020

    Bart,

    Have you heard of April DeConick’s translation of John 8:44? Do you think the author of John believed Jesus was from one father and the Jews from another father?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      1. No. 2. yes.

      • Avatar
        Silver  February 7, 2020

        Please can you elaborate on John believing that Jesus had one father and the Jews another.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 9, 2020

          In John 8 Jesus is claiming that the Devil is the Jews’ father. A very harsh statemeebnt. But Jesus certainly did not think (in John!) that the Devil was his own father.

  14. Avatar
    Eric  February 6, 2020

    Fascinating!

    I guess i always though of the demons in the NT as being “Fallen Angels” (rather than the souls of Nephilim).

    Or are these the same thing?

    If not, and if my previous understanding is commonplace, where does THAT come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      Our idea of “fallen angels” comes mainly from Milton.

  15. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 6, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    Does Dr Proctor lay out how the range of early Christians’ views on possession “works” if demons are incorporeal vs. corporeal?

    To borrow (and probably misuse) what I’ve learned from you and D Martin’s Corinthian Body, it would seem if a corporeal, pneumatic demon could take over someone’s body, then the docetic view of Jesus had a very workable metaphysics…

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      I don’t recall that he goes into the actual mechanics of how it would work….

  16. Avatar
    APOCALYPSE  February 7, 2020

    Excellent post!!
    I happen to have access to the Dissertation itself and I begun to read it yesterday. I´ll be glad to read it in its published version too.
    I have a question about it, though. When Dr Proctor presents the episode in Mark of the Legion demon he goes back to the self destructive nature of the crowd of demons (as the offspring of the Giants in the Enochic literature) to explain their behaviour when they possesed the herd of swine after being expelled. Wouldn´t that contradict Jesus explanation of the exorcism he performs afterwards in Mark 3 (“If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided , he cannot stand, but his end has come”)?
    Understanding of the nature and workings of supernatural forces don´t have to be completely coherent to work. But that question came to me when I read it yestarday

  17. Avatar
    Silver  February 7, 2020

    Is it not the case that it is not just demons who are infatuated with blood but God himself? In the Bible it appears to me that God demands blood through animal sacrifice and,indeed, human blood, if he had not changed his mind about Isaac. And of course, the blood of his own son was shed

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      I don’t think Travis is basing his argument on the bible but on common views of the demonic.

  18. Avatar
    rich-ilm  February 13, 2020

    What an interesting article! And from a teacher named Proctor! I guess he didn’t have any choice in what to be when he grew up!

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