Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins

an Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar
in its twenty-fifth year under the auspices of
The University of Pennsylvania
Department of Religious Studies
Philadelphia PA

PSCO Minutes: February 4, 1988

Discussion with Alan Segal

(See the preceeding presentation by Alan Segal.)

Question: Are you saying because of angels that worship the Lord that believers become like angels?

Response: I'm saying that from Daniel 11 and 12 forward, believers in a group become angels.

Question: And that's what angels do?

Response: Angels happen to worship the Lord. They worship the Lord in His throne room like people worship on earth.

Question: So what you're saying is that this is clear in Judaisms and that the problem comes with Christianity and that Jesus is the object of it all. What is difficult, then, is not the transformations but that Jesus is the object of it?

Response: That's right. It's not the transformation itself that turns out to be difficult for Jews looking at Christianity. It's the fact that Jesus is worshiped as an angel or as a very important angel.

Question: So Jesus is a type of transformation extraordinare? I mean in terms of transformation, is what happened to Jesus what happens to believers?

Response: What I'm trying to say is that early Christianity is another variety of apocalyptic hype and mystical Judaism running around in the first century. What makes it different is they identify this angelic being as the Messiah, which is unique, and they offer praise and prayer to this angel as the Lord. That is the essential difference between them and other groups. I am not prepared to say, as Hurdato is, that they are the only group that did that. I think it is the case that the Qumran did it, at least occasionally. And there might have been other groups that are now known as Christian heresies that might have been independent Jewish groups who offered prayers to angels. But it was clearly characteristic of Christians in the first century more centrist aspects that were closer to Pharisaism.

Question: My question has to deal with the term metanoia. In the beginning you said that Paul is shying away from that language because it has a conversion dislocation. Is that what you're saying?

Response: The term metanoia and epistrepsein are conventionally translated by the word conversion in English. Paul doesn't use them very often and what I was suggesting is the reason that Paul doesn't use them very often is that they have a heavy connotations of the word repentance in Greek, as they do in Hebrew, and that Paul had no reason to repent for anything he did because he was a good Pharisee. So he uses it occasionally to describe ungodly Gentiles as they enter Christian communities who have to repent.

Question: The text that you did not talk about is Joseph and Aseneth, because all of the motifs that you are talking about exist in it. When Aseneth has this discussion with the angel about metanoia and who is metanoia, metanoia is the daughter of God and metanoia spends all of her time beseeching God for all those who, like Aseneth, repent. Even there the figure metanoia should not be called conversion, it should be repentance or something like it. My question is does metanoia ever get used to signify conversion? Does it ever get in a conversion sense? Clearly, it is not this notion of repentance, it is not something ambiguous. It is part of the conversion vocabulary if there is such a vocabulary.

Response: In Hellenistic Judaism the term means convert as well as repent. Well, I would use the same example in that it part of the vocabulary of Hellenistic Judaism for repentance. As for it meaning conversion in the sense of becoming a rabbinic Jew (which is what Aseneth does) is something else. In other cases it means nothing more than giving up your immoral ways which are usually the list of pagan vices: adultery, idolatry, and homosexuality. And that’s what becoming a God-fearer means--recognizing God. Now, whether all Jews wanted all Gentiles to become Jews is another question. I think there is good evidence to show that a good number Jews were satisfied with just that and in fact didn't want them to go any further because it caused breakups in the Gentile families and backlash in the Jewish communities. So I'm not sure whether it means conversion in the sense that the rabbis meant it. I'm not sure whether conversion has that implication. The point is that you're really hard-pressed to find that term in Paul and I want to use the term to describe Paul. So the question is, what terms in Paul do seem to mean conversion. And the ones people pick most often are metanoia and epistrepsein, which means to turn. What I would suggest is that this is an example of an outside term applied to Paul because the word conversion does not seem to figure centrally in Paul's discussion of what being in Christ is. Rather, the term transformation occurs, and I think the term transformation means very much what we mean by conversion, except that it means a great deal more than we want it to mean.

Question: What about the term apostatizes? It means convert in Judaism, so I was wondering if there was a difference in context?

Response: I think there are multiple definitions. The rabbinic community had a very serious and important definition and I think they felt circumcision was universally necessary. But I don't think the rest of the Jewish community felt the same way.

Question: What I wanted to address was that I was losing the distinction between mysticism and conversion. We have Paul converting whatever that means. Generally, the converting texts that I have seen in this period have entailed somebody else acting on the convert to promote either a systematic conversion or a psychological conversion. Mysticism, especially when it involves texts, either records experiences with some degree of accuracy for the person in it, or they aim for both deep experiences. In both cases they have more or less authentic relationship to the actual experiences and I think the distinctions can be made between something like Books of Enoch which are very literary texts and from Nag Hammadi where the ecstasies are taken down verbatim. So you have the question when analyzing it in terms of mystical texts about what relationship it actually has to a mystical experience.

Response: Are you asking me whether Paul indulged in any type of mystical practices?

Question: I'm wondering where the angels came in? Did he consider himself when he became converted, was he identifying himself with this principal angel man and then suddenly came to Christ or did the conversion experience lead to a predisposition or a desire to integrate his experience with conversion?

Response: Basically what I'm claiming is that Paul had an experience that was like other apocalyptic Jews of his day with one exception, that he identified the figure on the throne that he saw as the Christ. That's the unique aspect. Now he called that experience the transformation using mystical apocalyptic literature having to do with Daniel and the like. Now I'm ready to call that a conversion. Why? Because it meant he entered a whole new community. In his case, he left the Pharisaic community and he entered a Christian community with the purpose of converting Gentiles. He says that this mission began at that moment. I'm not sure that he realized at that moment that he could only deal with Gentiles because he seems to report many problems with Jews. But he sees that as a prophetic mission that came out of that experience. So conversion is my term and I use it to describe somebody who as a result of an experience goes from one religious community to another. And that's what he did. It doesn't have to be from one religion to another. I don't think Paul ever understood that he was leaving Judaism but he certainly understood that he was leaving Pharsiaism. I don't buy any of this material that Paul kept the Jewish laws until the day he died. There is nothing in Paul's letters that leads anybody to believe that other than a romantic idea. Conversion is a term that I use, it's an anthropological term, it's an edic term. Paul doesn't use it. Paul uses the term transformation, which is an apocalyptic term. Paul's Christian experience is powerful evidence that these experiences existed in the first century.

Question: I thought that at some points you were trying to make some type of connection between the type of transformation that some Christians believe Jesus had undergone with some type of transformation that Paul experiences? How do those two work out?

Response: I have been relying on Don Juels among others to show that it is less likely to understand the Daniel passages, the Son of Man passages in Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, 2, and 80, without understanding some type of experience of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as the Christ. You can't get those passages together unless you have that understood as an event. And that follows the apocalyptic event. If there was anyone you would believe to resurrect in the first century, it would be a martyr. In 2 Maccabees 7, it is the martyrs, the seven sons that are resurrected on the account that they died fulfilling God's laws. It is the martyrs that are resurrected in Daniel because they died fulfilling God's law. It seems to be a normal expectation for any group of Jews whose leader would be martyred.

For related materials, consult other PSCO presentations and discussions on the topic for the 1987-1988 seminar, "Principalities and Powers: Demons and Angels in the World of Late Antiquity".