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

See also the preceding presentations by George Nickelsburg, Elaine Pagels, and David Utz.

Discussion with Nickelsburg, Pagels, and Utz

David Frankfurter opened the discussion by commenting that he saw two themes in the papers delivered on this evening: demonology as a "map for identifying wrong power and impurity," therefore defining the borders of the community and so the cosmogony and the current situation in the world go together; and demonology as about names (such as in Tobit and the Manichaeans), but even so, demons and angels can have the same names, and as Nickelsburg pointed out, angels can even do magic.

The discussion then moved to Elaine Pagels' paper. People pushed her to elaborate on her view of Justin's understanding of the right role of government, asking how she thought he would react to Constantine, for example. She replied that in principle, she thought Justin endorses the idea of human rulers, and thinks that's fine, but that is only a piece of his argument. He's so dangerous and damning on the subject of the current rulers because he could imagine a world in which the rulers exemplified God's rule, but he is confident that that is not the world in which he lives. She sees complexity and ambivalence in his view of government. She was then asked about whether Justin wouldn't have understood the emperor and government as natural and divinely established, even as he identified the current inept use of power. Pagels did not think so, she saw him as attacking the very structures of power. She said that he was trying to answer the question that would occur to any Roman citizen, "why do Christians refuse to worship the Gods or perform any acts of civic loyalty?" The Christians know that the power behind the imperial demands is demonic. They know that demons are ruling the world and innocent people are dying.

The next questioner asked her to discuss Paul, commenting that the view she just described is a far cry from Romans 13. She agreed, but didn't think Justin would disagree with Paul in principle. She was then asked to compare Epictetus and Justin, since the questioner saw the huge differences between these two as evidence of the breakdown on the fringes of the empire. Her response reiterated her view that Justin was trying to tell the emperors the truth, but also telling them that they might not be able to understand because the demons have got a hold of them. Since the discussion was so focused on this issue of relationship to government, the next questioner asked if it was possible to separate the demons on the one hand and the emperor on the other. This led another audience member to comment that until Augustine, no one really believed that human sexuality was really not a good thing. This provoked a comment from Pagels on the subversion of a good thing, to which someone replied "subversion of what's natural…," and she said that this is perhaps what Justin saw. She said that like Jews, the Christians value order and see it as an important function of government. Rulers are important, they restrain violence and are valued. But the cult of rulers, the claim of a relationship to the Gods — this is unacceptable to them. This is an inversion of power. The next questioner asked about the legitimization of power — to the Christians, the empire is a good thing, but it cannot be legitimated on divine connections between the first family and the Roman gods. The emperors, though, would say that if you take away their legitimation for power, we'll have chaos. Pagels responded that Justin had had a real conversion experience. When he talks about the demons, he admits that he used to worship these statues and now when he looks at them he sees demons. The next questioner asked, in light of the conversion experience, to what degree the "map," the existence of demons, exists autonomously — because in this discussion of the demonic nature of the imperial cult the demonology (origins of demons) is being subsumed under the historical situation of the time, so that history matters more than urzeit. Pagels replied that she sees a conversion here, that what used to look like the order of society is revealed as a demonic mask. There's a tremendous urgency and distress to what they say. She doesn't think they're at all disengaged from politics — when they talk about demons that is a part of it.

The next questioner brought up Frank Trombley's work on the demonization of the local gods in the process of Christianization, which led another audience member to ask why Justin used the idea of demons at all — why not just say those gods have no meaning, and are just clay or cloth or whatever. Pagels answered that the reason is they are not meaningless, they have power and are effective and are ruling the country. The questioner pressed this point, saying that this is still a particular way of understanding the problem. There's still an issue of human agency. Explaining a situation by saying demons can cause people to do things is a different explanation than saying they're just bad people. The question is, are they powerful beings, or is there anybody who says they're simply not real? People suggested Epicurus, who said the gods don't exist or if they do, the don't care about us; Tertullian, who comes close although this is not consistent with other things he says, and a muttered Paul.

The discussion then turned to the social critique in Justin's writing. Since the myth of the immoral gods was still operative, it was asked, couldn't the demonology be viewed as a reversal of the myth? Couldn't Justin be explaining the failure of empire, as a culture critic? Pagels responded that there is a social critique in the discussion of demons — the bad Roman social practices are evidence that demons are running the show. The next questioner asked if there is anyone out there claiming that the philosophers have misinterpreted Moses because the demons are preventing them from understanding. The answer given was that that would be an indictment of pagan culture altogether, but these people still use the structures of society. The social critique is that they are not following the rules, and ruling in a positive way, so they are letting Satan run the country.

Then Joseph and Aseneth was brought up, and the way in the story that Aseneth sees that she's wrong, and Joseph's god is the real god, she still doesn't see her old gods as demons. They are just meaningless, and she throws them out. The response was that in the story satans are after her when she throws her idols away, so a demonology does creep in there. The questioner pressed a little, saying that the gods still don't turn into demons, and there is no claim that the idols were really demons. The answer was really more questions, about why Justin thinks these demons are real powers, and why innocent people are being put to death by liars? This can only happen, Pagels said, if the minds of these people are clouded by demons, and that is Justin's best explanation of why the world can be so wrong. Then someone asked if that means that Justin can't conceive of a person doing those evil things on their own. Pagels responded that he doesn't say that, but he doesn't see people as simply mistaken but rather demonically misled.

Nickelsburg commented that this is an apocalyptic text triggered by oppression combined with claims to divinity. This is what triggers Justin and what triggers the author of Enoch. He asked whether this ever gets mixed up with Justin's views of incarnation. Pagels replied that she didn't see that much, but it might be there. Then someone said that Enoch has a sort of diffuse oppression — and that is what is nice about demons as an explanation, they can explain almost anything. Nickelsburg responded that he reads this differently, and sees these authors really thinking that the world is about to collapse. It becomes a question of the theodicy. The world they feel themselves experiencing is in total destruction. He was then asked about Maccabees, whether in light of the persecution there you see a corresponding demonization of the powers. He replied that chapter 9 of 2 Macc depicts Antiochus storming heaving and being shot down to earth, so again we have pretensions to deity. The audience supplied similar examples from Revelation, and Daniel.

A questioner then asked if things continued in this vein in Manichaean sources. Utz answered that things there were quite different. He objected to the use of the term "myth" in the discussion, saying that for example, the people at Qumran really viewed themselves as soldiers in the army of Michael at the endtime, and myth is not a strong enough word to reflect that. The audience clarified that the quote from Peter Brown said that the demonology is not a distant myth, but a map. Nickelsburg questioned how literally they took it. He brought of the Testament of Reuben, which explains that the angels transformed themselves into the form of the women's husbands in order to sleep with them and conceive the giants — so that's a pretty determined effort to explain how this happened. The myth is a way of explaining reality, explaining the existence of real evil in the world. Utz said that the Manichaeans would have viewed that as a historical explanation, and Nickelsburg said that he didn't see where they disagreed, to which Utz agreed.

The next question asked for a comparison between the human power structures under demonic control and the demon spirits, especially with reference to 1 Corinthians, which has the idea of spirits hovering around the women in church, who must be veiled to protect themselves. Pagels responded that Justin has in mind specific spirits whom he names (Bacchus, Zeus, etc.) and envisions them all around. Then magic incantations were raised: spells provide ways to control the demons through appropriate ritual, so perhaps Justin's problem was that he had no way to control the demons. This led to a variety of responses — that Justin escaped demonic trouble in his martyr's death, that Egyptian Christianity had recourse to lots of magic for controlling demons, and that many martyrs were "stillborn," defending themselves by giving up and agreeing to sacrifice or do what the powers required.

The next questions turned to the issue of sexuality. Pagels brought up in her talk Justin's demonological explanation of the origin of sexual behavior. The questioner wanted to know if this was a special interest or concern of Justin's, since this was not an obvious threat to Christians. Pagels countered that this was indeed an obvious element of a culture he thinks is perverted. She asked if there weren't rabbinic texts on the Watchers that say the behavior of the Watchers was the origin of incest and adultery. She thought (in Genesis Rabbah, maybe) that the typical rabbinic view that pederasty was what was wrong with Rome was expressed.

Then the discussion turned back to Paul, and it was asked why Paul doesn't link bad human behavior in Romans to demons. The response was that he has personified evil as sin. In his view, it is bred from generation to generation, and the law cannot get at it, so the incarnation is needed. The demonic has become anthropologized. You need God as a person to let the spirit loose among humanity. Humanity is rotten to the core. Paul doesn't have the idea of a demon as such, he has sin, which must be supplanted by spirit. Sin functions is Paul as demons do in Enoch. A questioner asked whether Paul in Romans 2 is different from Paul in Romans 7, which led someone to say that yes, in these passages he's working both sides of the street.

Nickelsburg was then asked what the author of 1 Enoch would say about Justin. At first, he joked "What author?" but then he replied that he had read Justin many times and the material Pagels had been commenting on had not jumped out at him until he read her paper. Nickelsburg said that he thought the author of 1 Enoch would say that yes, the rulers were acting out of their boundaries. In both cases, there is a combination of violence and claims to divinity. An audience member suggested that the difference was in the historical use in Enoch, versus the contemporary claims in Justin. Nickelsburg said that the bottom line is what is there is important, as is providing an explanation of how it got there. Utz was asked whether he thought that Mani would agree that what was wrong was people pretending to be the embodiment of gods. Utz said that he did not think so, since as he saw it Manichaeans were not especially interested in these issues. Their counter-organizations were what mattered to them, and these social/political issues were only significant if they meant that the Manichaeans were run out of town. For Manichaeans, the importance of the demonic stuff was in the past, explaining how we got here. Utz was then asked if the Manichaeans thought everything was bad here because of the giants. He answered that the giants were a subplot in the Manichaean mythology. This was their theory of prophecy. In the Mani codex, there are apocalypses ending with Paul's. Alan Segal's talk on Paul and Enoch helped explain to Utz a lot about Mani, who saw himself as a successor to Paul.

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".