Summary *Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity*
by Stevan Davies, Continuum Press, New York 1995.

{In the following I will try to give an idea of what the general perspective of this book is and then what I think I accomplished in it. I gave some thought to writing a chapter by chapter summary, but it soon became obvious that the summary would be just about as long as the book.}

*Jesus the Healer* begins with an argument against the prevailing view that one should approach the question of the historical Jesus by analyzing what we can know of what he said so as to discover his message and ideology. I call this the "Jesus the Teacher" model and I do not think it has succeeded very well. The evangelists, and Paul and other sources (e.g. Thomas) by no means agree as to what Jesus' message was and/or seem not to care what his message was (e.g. Paul/Acts). Further, if we read a collection of sayings (those that are reasonably well authenticated) we do not come away with any clear picture of what the man's point was. Today we have a host of reconstructions of Jesus' intentions as a teacher: he was a peasant Jewish cynic, no! an apocalyptic eschatologist, no! a revolutionary political activist, no! a counter-cultural wisdom sage, no! a pharasaic rabbi! and so forth. The very multiplicity of these constructions and their generally equivalent competence in making use of the same body of evidence indicates to me that the view that Jesus should be understood principally to have been a teacher is a flawed paradigm.

If neither we today nor his near contemporaries represented in the surviving first century texts know for sure what his message and ideology were, it seems unlikely that "Jesus the Teacher," whose main purpose was to communicate a message and ideology, is the best way to understand the man. Surely Jesus did state his opinions on important subjects and those opinions were conveyed even after his death... but the point of view that argues we can understand the historical Jesus through those opinions alone, and that he was principally understood during his time to have been a teacher has not been a point of view that has produced either one very credible historical Jesus or an explanation of why or how it was that a successful and appealing new religious movement arose from that teacher.

How about another starting point? Spirit possession is a remarkably common phenomenon attested in cultures throughout the world. It is a particular kind of altered state of consciousness given a particular supernatural explanation. The ordinary personality of a person is replaced temporarily by another personality, accompanied usually with considerable loss of motor control and volitional behavior. When this circumstance is understood to be beneficial and to have occurred because an external supernatural entity has entered the person's body and assumed control thereof, then we have "spirit possession." It is normally the case that such persons are credited with the supernatural power to heal and when such persons speak while possessed the speech is understood to be the speech of the supernatural entity possessing them. Spirit possession is the underlying rationale for the Jewish concept of "the prophet" who speaks the words of God. Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, thought of prophecy as spirit possession and so, doubtless, did most others, especially among the non-elite population. Examples of spirit possessed prophet/healers can be seen today in many parts of the world including particularly interesting new-religious-movement founders in South Africa.

If we can manage to put aside our propensity to think of Jesus as "a man with a message" and think of him as a man who healed and exorcised and who was said to be a prophet by virtue of the spirit he received at the time of his baptism, we can understand Jesus in a way that explains not only why it might have been that he was a successful healer and a man who attracted crowds, but why it was that he was thought during and after his lifetime to have been in some sense divine.

Furthermore, we can understand how it came to be that the "pentecostal" Christian churches of Paul (and others, as attested in Acts) had their origins in Jesus' own activities. After Pentecost, if we are to believe Luke (and why not?), the altered state of consciousness we call spirit possession ceased to be uniquely accredited to Jesus and began to be a sine qua non for membership in the Christian movement. Jesus, at this point, became both an examplar of the possibility of spirit possession (in his life on earth) and was credited with being the one who brings about the state of possession in his followers (the ascended Christ who sends the spirit).

I argue that the idea that Jesus was the embodiment of the spirit of God arose not from pious belief alone but from a series of historical events: repeated occurrences of alterations in ego identity, to be classified anthropologically as possession-trance. This set of historical events received a supernatural explanation during his lifetime: that Jesus was possessed by the spirit of God. If the historical Jesus became the embodiment of the spirit of God this fact, in part, answers the question "how did Jesus heal?" for his self-presentation as one possessed by God's spirit would, were it accepted, lead to the "faith in him" necessary to believe that he could heal and exorcise.

I do not pretend to have expertise in theology, so I try not to argue for my own reflections but do relate certain pertinent ideas of the Cambridge theologian Geoffrey W. H. Lampe, including the following:

"The category of Spirit-possession was used to some extent in early Christian thought to interpret not only Christ's present relationship to believers but also his relationship to God. If believers are sons of God through the indwelling of God's Spirit, possessing their souls and reshaping their lives according to the pattern of Christ, can Christ's own sonship be interpreted in the same terms? The gospels suggest this possibility. In the synoptists Spirit-possession and messianic sonship are linked together in the narrative of Christ's baptism. The Spirit descends upon him and he receives the divine assurance that he is Son of God."

I'll briefly lay out the book's discussion of Jesus as a healer.

1. Rather than the overly general category "psychosomatic" I argue that Jesus was able to cure people who were, by and large, suffering from conversion disorders and somatization disorders. Such people might be expected to be cured immediately through faith in a healer's powers. Such disorders fall into the category of "dissociative disorders." Dissociation occurs when one element of a human mind is separated from the others, in the case of conversion disorders, the power of sight, or limb mobility, or hearing is separated from normal consciousness and thus dysfunction occurs.

2. People who are supposedly "possessed by demons" also fall into the category of "dissociative disorders." In this case one ego system is separated off from the normal ego system.

3. If it is understood that Jesus could heal people with faith in his powers to heal then the question must be asked why people would have such faith. I argue that they did so because of his self presentation as one who sometimes embodied the spirit of God or, in anthropological terms, was spirit-possessed. This condition is also dissociative in nature (but is is not a "disorder").

4. I think it is very likely, but not 'provable' that Jesus' followers were made up principally of people healed and exorcised by him, that those who came to him were those who went with him. It is strongly attested in anthropology that a spirit-possessed healer will use altered states of consciousness in his techniques of healing.

5. Using a dozen parables specialists as my authorities I conclude that Jesus' parables were a unique form of discourse intended to reverse "ordinary perception, functioning to jolt his hearers out of their present world, their present way of seeing reality'"(M. Borg). I then take the hypnotherapeutic psychology of Milton Erickson as a contemporary analogy to therapy using altered states of consciousness and observe that there too parable-style discourse is used to reverse 'ordinary perception, to jolt hearers out of their present world, their present way of seeing reality.' I conclude that the Kingdom of God was, for Jesus' followers, a form of a.s.c. experience induced and directed through Jesus' discourse. [It was, I believe, also an apocalyptic prediction by Jesus, the two would be mutually reinforcing, i.e. 'if you can experience the Kingdom now, this testifies to the truth of the assertion that the Kingdom will arrive soon.']

6. After Jesus' death his followers soon experienced spirit-possession and other 'pentecostal' experiences, all of which, again, would be categorized as dissociative in nature. Thus we have a pathologically dissociative clientele (conversion disorders/ demon possession) who were cured by their faith in a spirit-possessed healer and, probably, their tendencies toward dissociation were re-oriented by Jesus toward experience of the Kingdom. After his death his personal talent for induction of the Kingdom experience was no longer available. The dissociation prone group of followers then continued to experience dissociation but in what was for them a new form, spirit-possession, glossolalia, etc. This they defined as the sine qua non of Christian life (cf. Paul, Acts, John) and they deliberately went out to bring about that experience in other people by the use of techniques that may be knowable from the evidence we have in the NT.

Overall, I tried to present a comprehensive causal system whereby reported New Testament events hold together and lead from one to the other, from Jesus' baptism, to healing, to exorcism, to group formation, to antifamily strictures, to speech in parables and advice for itinerants, to execution, to Pentecost, to Pauline theory and discourse, to Johannine theory and discourse, to later Christian spirit-inspiration theory and the authoritarian churches of the Pastoral and Petrine epistles. I sought in every instance not only to show what happened but why it happened. The key to discovering the systemic and comprehensible sense to all these events is that, rather than thinking in terms of different intellectual belief systems, one should think in terms of different manifestations of a single underlying genetic potential, the ability of human minds to experience psychological dissociation.

Dissociation can be manifested as alter-persona consciousness of an affirmative or negative sort, and it can be manifested in trance states. Some members of the earliest church progressed during a period of only two years from the forms of dissociation we might call conversion disorder or negative possession, to a dissociative trance state they were encouraged to know as the kingdom of God, into a dissociative affirmative state of possession that they understood to be possession by the spirit of Jesus Christ. The healings and exorcisms and parables of Jesus, the "I am" and "Son" and rebirth discourse in John, the spirit/flesh, death/new-life dichotomies of Paul are ways of inducing and defining and re-defining those dissociative states.

If Jesus was a spirit-possessed prophet and healer, it is likely if not certain that he sometimes spoke in the voice of the spirit of God. We find in the Gospel of John, and occasionally elsewhere, self-referential speech by the spirit, i.e. "I come from the Father," "I and the Father are one," "I am the light of the world." It is likely that such things as these were spoken by the spirit through the historical Jesus and so it is likely that the Gospel of John is a much more valuable source for information about the historical Jesus than it is commonly assumed to be.

It seems virtually certain that one aspect of Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was his initial experience of possession by the spirit (cf. Gal. 1:2: "God revealed his Son in me. Accordingly, a principal element of the initiatory events of Jesus' career, Paul's career, and the careers of the Christians present at Pentecost appears to have been fundamentally the same. In texts concerned with the activities of these persons: Mark (et al.), Galatians, Acts, those events are presented as the cause and explanation for all that follows. From Jesus' baptism we can trace the career of a spirit-possessed healer and exorcist and prophet. From the event of Pentecost we can trace in the NT the rise of a "pentecostal" cult that owed its origin to the historical Jesus himself.

The Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul are not as unrelated as they seem to be the former, say, a gnosticized Christianity, the latter a Christ cult. John and Paul, and for that matter Mark, are theorizing about states of possession or, as they would put it, the activity of the holy spirit. Their writings are anomalies in world literature because "theorizing about" possession states is not typical of members of possession-cults, the membership of which is normally drawn from non-literate and semiliterate segments of society.

So it fits together: You can travel from the sinful Nazarene come to receive baptism to the Johannine "I and the Father are one," from Jesus the itinerant exorcist and healer to Paul's insistence that "we are all one person in Christ Jesus," from a peasant Jew casual about the Torah to Q's "No one knows the Father but the Son." These things are not due to the fits and starts of inexplicable creative impulses on the part of various individuals; they are due to a reasonable sequence of events, mainly relating to various dissociative states and the subsequent theorizing that took place about them. When we theorize about such states in the formative Christian period we should, I believe, keep in mind the following.

Pneumatology was an explanatory paradigm for altered states of consciousness.

Christology was often an explanatory paradigm for pneumatology.

Anthropology can provide explanations for the social relationships among persons who experienced the states in question.

Psychology can help us understand those states apart from the Christian language by which they are described in our texts.

Jesus' presentation of the kingdom of God as within, a form of present experience, and his concurrent announcement of the kingdom as a future objective geopolitical event, was bifurcated after his death. His personal talent for induction of the kingdom of God, a religious trance experience, was not available after his death. The kingdom therefore became for most a matter of theory, a belief rather than an experience.

From that bifurcation we have, on the one hand the Q perspective, one that is both "realist" and future oriented. By "realist" I mean that it was conceived that the kingdom of God will actually be visibly out there in the external world on some future date. On the other hand, we have the perspective of the Gospel of Thomas, both "idealist" and present-oriented. By "idealist" I mean that the kingdom of God is now potentially (for all) and now actually (for some) within the minds and experiences of people.

From the latter point of view, Jesus' sayings that refer to a future kingdom might have been understood to refer to the potential for the kingdom to occur in the immediate future for those individuals who might separately come to experience it. For the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom is not to be imagined in reference to an eschatological and apocalyptic future but conceived in terms of the initial conditions of the world in the mythic primordial past of Genesis 1. From an idealist perspective the kingdom is a form of experience and, in theory, it has always been potentially available. The potential for experience logically precedes the actualization of experience.

On the other hand, from a realist perspective the kingdom is the perception of an externally existing state of affairs, one which does not yet exist in the present. And so the logic of realism places the kingdom in the future. If Jesus brought about, induced, a dissociative religious trance experience called "kingdom of God," and also announced the imminent arrival of an objectively observable kingdom of God (for which the induced experience of kingdom served as foretaste and supporting evidence) then Jesus combined in his own discourse both idealist and realist views, indeed, New Testament evidence tells us he did. Conceptions of the realist and future-eschatological kingdom, such as are found in Q, became normative for orthodox Christianity. Conceptions of the idealist and past-primordial kingdom, such as are found in Thomas, allowed for a subsequent syncretism of Christianity and gnostic mythemes.

A realist view of divine spirit as an external divine person who comes into the minds of human persons became normative for orthodox Christianity. An idealist view of divine spirit as a potential that has been always been present within the minds of human persons by their nature became normative for gnostic Christianity.

As one must bear in mind the idealist and realist dimensions of Jesus' presentations of the kingdom of God, so one must bear in mind the idealist and realist dimensions of the present book. I have, of necessity, jumped from, first, discussing spirit-possession from a seemingly realist perspective (there is a real spirit of God out there in the external world who sometimes comes into human bodies and speaks and acts through them) to, second, an idealist perspective (the spirit of God is a label put upon a form of dissociative experience and the words and actions of that spirit are actually words and actions that arise from the unconscious of the individual supposedly possessed). The first is a level of analysis in accord with the belief structures of the people concerned. The second is a level of analysis in accord with the belief structures of contemporary anthropology, psychology, and secular scholarship generally. The difference is not in the description of the phenomena in question but in the explanatory paradigm put upon the phenomena. Both the experiences in question, and the explanatory paradigms that cultures place upon them, are historical facts.


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