Nasrallah and the 'Gossip Pages' of Early Christianity

Laura Nasrallah (MDiv '95, ThD '02) has been Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity since 2003. HDS staff writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Nasrallah recently to talk about her newest book (An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity), other scholarly interests, and her teaching.

In your book, you contend that dreams, prophecies, and visions haven't been treated seriously enough by modern-day scholars. How do these phenomena tend to be treated by scholars today, and why did you want to step in and handle them differently?

Dreams, prophecy, and visions are so often understood as irrational, embarrassing phenomena. Anthropologists and sociologists often say, "Well, that's what poor people or women do to act out or gain some sort of authority that's outside of the central forms of authority available in a given culture." 

So I wanted to think about that, and in doing so, I realized that in antiquity, these are not at all peripheral phenomena. Everyone uses prophecies, visions, and dreams to talk about important political and epistemological issues. How do you know what you know? Can you gain this knowledge not only through education and study, but also through other means, like prophecy or visions? These may be methods that some of us today don't take seriously, but in antiquity they were actually central—while at the same time being incredibly contested. 

I also wanted to handle this material because it's exciting and sometimes even amusing. There are great accounts about how you interpret dreams. For example, Artemidorus talks about how dreaming that you are a baby has different meanings for different people. If you're a rich, male householder, it's not such a great dream. It means that people are infantilizing you or swaddling you or considering you incompetent. But if you're a slave, it's really good, because it means that you're considered precious and taken care of. Many texts about dreams and prophecies are really interesting.

What are some other ways early Christian literature viewed these topics differently from how we do today?

There are communities today—perhaps not so much at Harvard, but elsewhere!—who still consider prophecies, dreams, and the like to be important. One difference, however, between how many of us view such phenomena and how those in antiquity viewed them is that in antiquity accounts and discussions of dreams and prophecy were considered pretty cutting-edge. For example, if you really wanted to be at the forefront of medical theory in antiquity (the way we might think of genetics today), you would want to think about dreams and how they work on the soul.

One of the texts that my research dealt with was Tertullian's De anima, a fascinating early third-century work from Carthage. Tertullian uses what we would consider to be a hodge-podge of materials to make arguments about what the soul looks like (literally, since he thinks the soul is a body!), how it can have visions and dreams from the divine, and why those can be authoritative in this community. He draws from medical literature of the time, in particular a text of the same name by a doctor named Soranus. But he also draws from a broad range of other information to make his arguments. For example, at one point he asks, "Why don't you go ask pregnant women what they feel in terms of when life starts or when the soul exists?" . 

And then he uses that material elsewhere in his writings to argue against other Christian communities, to say, "Even though you claim to be a Christian you're not truly spiritual. You claim that your people have visions and dreams but our community actually does. Our community really believes that the spirit is still active in history in a way that your community doesn't."

His argument ranges from the cutting-edge medical, philosophical realm to interviews with pregnant women, to arguments about epistemology, to the concrete identity politics of antiquity. So, dreams, visions, prophecy—that whole set of phenomena—are a venue through which you can enter into a debate in antiquity that reaches to so many different levels. I don't think that the same is true today. In general you won't find that dreams, prophecy, and oracles are the focus of critical medical attention, or cutting-edge philosophical discussion about the soul, or most people's attempts to mark their community's identity. Yet in some communities today—whether Pentecostal Christianity, oracles in Buddhism, the presence of the orishas in Santeria, or others—such phenomena are still alive and well. 

You set forth some of the ways these phenomena get tied to broader social and political issues and discussions. What is at stake in these debates?

When I first started my research, I thought that ancient texts' comments about prophecy and history were fairly straightforward and that I wouldn't need to investigate them further. But one of the things that really intrigued me as I looked more closely was that these texts were using history as a tool to argue about where their communities fit and how their ideas about knowledge were authoritative. That made me reflect on how much is at stake in certain articulations of history, then and today. 

For instance, when we talk about development in other regions, when we think about progress and label things as being "primitive," or when we look at other cultures as stuck in a certain time period, those characterizations are undergirded by ideas and measures of history and progress that aren't neutral in our own time. 

So I was able to look back at these ancient texts and think about the ways in which they argue with each other about history and about how time progresses. Take a figure like Paul. In the field of New Testament, there are many arguments about Paul and his eschatology. What does he think of the end times? When are they coming? Are people disappointed because Christ hasn't come? What sort of crisis does this create in terms of people's understanding of history? 

Many Christian weddings use 1 Corinthians 13, which is of course about love, but it's also about prophecy and history. Although this won't come up in the typical wedding sermon, I think that Paul's point is not to define love, but to argue with the Corinthian community about history and about the relative lack of importance of prophecy and speaking in tongues in the present. According to Paul, these are inadequate means of gaining knowledge; they are evidence of partial knowledge in the present—"Now I know in part," he says, deferring full knowledge to some future date. 

It was really fascinating for me to be able to look at Paul and some of his correspondence and to think about the way he makes such an argument. He doesn't make claims about love and prophecy in a vacuum. He speaks in a very specific context of arguing practically and politically to this community about what things they need to defer to the future. So when he says that only in the future will you know something clearly or truly or "face to face," he is arguing that all the prophetic gifts are inadequate to a certain extent. Paul is asserting his vision of how community could work, probably over and against the Corinthians' experiences of free-flowing spiritual activities, including prophecies and speaking in tongues. 

So, what is at stake in such a debate? One's view of history, one's understanding of how community should work, one's understanding of what kind of knowledge is possible and accessible in the present—all sorts of important things!

You've already mentioned some of the texts you used, both biblical and extra-biblical. Can you describe which texts you drew on, and maybe say a bit about what different texts tended to illuminate?

The book deals with a range of literature, but I focus on three texts. Paul's First Corinthians is a first-century text, a Jewish missionary's letter to a largely gentile audience. I also focus on other materials which date to the early third century. I look at Tertullian's works, especially De anima, and at a source that we find within Epiphanius's Panarion or The Medicine Chest Against All Heresies.

What a great title!

Isn't it? And he uses colorful language throughout, like: "And now I've squashed this heresy like a golden bug. Defeated it like a gilded snake. It's been cut in two." This is truly great rhetoric. 

The reason I picked these texts—which are from two different time periods, the middle of the first century and the beginning of the third century—is because they're so often used to argue about the beginnings and end of Christian prophecy. Often people think that 1 Corinthians shows the origins of Christian prophecy, and that the third century is when the decline of prophecy happened, when the church decided that the time for prophecy was over and it was now time to have bishops and church organization and institutional structures. 

I wanted to use the texts to say, instead, that a vibrant debate is going on in these centuries, a real struggle. The rhetoric of rationality and madness that occurs in these texts is precisely that, it's rhetoric. Accusations of madness or of crazy prophets by one Christian community toward another do not indicate the fading of so-called irrational prophecies, but instead show that groups still contest each others' claims to have Christian prophets and struggle over what sort of prophecy is true or real. They're struggling over various questions: How do you decide if what prophets say is true and authoritative? What epistemology undergirds how you make that decision? What cosmology? How do you think the divine acts in the world in that time period? And how does one community end up saying, "Well, we're Christian and you're not"? 

That's why I picked these texts. They dealt with weighty matters of philosophy and epistemology, of Christian identity and debates over history, but they are also fun and provocative. There was a lot of name-calling going on and a lot of fascinating polemics. For instance, Eusebius's History of the Church contains an earlier text that goes into an argument something like this: "Well, your prophets were made-up, and your prophets have salaries, and your prophets say they're virgins but they're not." So it's really the gossip pages of early Christian history that I got to read and enjoy!

In order to look at these texts and the time period anew, you offer critiques of other scholars' models. What particularly do you critique and what kinds of methods and models do you propose as correctives?

Some scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity have in the past decades turned to anthropologists and sociologists for models for understanding communities and rituals—thinkers like I.M. Lewis, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Max Weber. I suggest that although anthropology and sociology can be very helpful for our study of antiquity, their models can be misleading and problematic, too. In particular, anthropological and sociological studies of prophetic movements of various periods are often informed by Weber's idea of a movement's charismatic origins and its subsequent routinization and institutionalization. But as a scholar named Jonathan Draper has pointed out, Weber develops his theory in part from reading Adolf von Harnack's characterizations of early Christianity. Then Weber's ideas are used to make sense of early Christian history and its evolution with regard to prophecy and spiritual gifts. Very circular! 

Weber's model is sometimes employed to preserve a purity, authenticity, and spirit for the origins of Christianity. Some scholars want to argue: That's the time when everything was perfect. Everything was right. Their analysis resists the idea that early Christian worship was inflected by culture or history or economics or gender. One thing at stake in the traditional understanding of prophetic origins of Christianity and then routinization into church order is the preservation of earliest Christianity as the correct model, as perfect and divinely inspired, as a moment of fiery, pure, authentic religiosity.

But your book counters that interpretation from the very beginning? 

Right, from the very beginning. A better model is a model of struggle, which acknowledges that prophecy and visions and the very idea of history are all contested from the get-go, and continue to be contested, and that's not a bad thing. It's exciting. It's the way communities make arguments and try to establish authority for their viewpoints and for multiple ways of talking about how the divine can communicate or can be alive in community. Is the divine active through prophecy and vision, for instance? Through scriptures that are interpreted in a certain way? Through rituals that are enacted again and again? Communities still struggle with these questions.

You also propose a different take on the so-called "Montanist" controversy. How has it usually been interpreted and how do you interpret it?

For the most part, scholars can only reconstruct Montanists through heresiological literature, through people who are calling them aberrant. So obviously you take all that with a grain of salt, or a hermeneutic of suspicion. Montanists are usually characterized as a liminal prophetic renewal movement that arose in the late second century, with the prophet Montanus and the prophetesses Maximilla and Priscilla. But to call them Montanists is to do exactly what these heresiologists do, which is to say, "Oh, they're not Christians. Let's call them after the name of their founder." The Montanists are said to have thought that the New Jerusalem was going to come in these tiny villages in Asia Minor; they are said to have had prophetesses, one of whom saw a vision of Christ as a woman coming to her. So ancient writers often characterize them as strange because they have women in leadership and because they think the end times are near, at a time when scholars usually argue that most of Christianity agreed that the end times weren't coming. But women's leadership and apocalyptic thought are not really odd for early Christianity—it's just that heresiologists pick up on these elements as problematic. Ancient writers also accuse so-called Montanists of ritually piercing babies with needles and drinking their blood—typical polemic (which still occurs!) by which communities cast doubts on each other's religiosity. 

The heresiologists also say of this movement: "You're barbarian, you're fringe, you come from this crazy backwater in Asia Minor. No one can possibly take you seriously, you're not part of the mainstream philosophical traditions of the day, and not part of the mainstream of Christianity." Some writers accuse their prophets of being mad. But I think these so-called Montanists are just Christians who happen to think that prophecy is really, really important. They may have thought that the end times were near, but so did a lot of early Christian groups. And everyone at that time period wanted to be a spiritual person—having prophecy or other spiritual gifts as key to community identity is not unique to the so-called Montanists. The fact that they thought prophecy was especially vibrant in the present may have been a special characteristic of their community, because other Christian communities seem to have been arguing that prophecy was more vibrant in the time of Christ or in the time of the apostles and now that things had faded, things were structured differently. As you can see, this question persists today among historians of early Christianity and New Testament scholars. 

That brings me to two major discourses around which you structure your argument: rationality and madness, and history. You indicate that you came up with these after reading the literature, and that they were a bit of a surprise to you.

At the very beginning of the project, I thought that because rationality is such a big object of philosophical conversation in antiquity, maybe these texts would offer solid treatises on how Christian rationality really functions or how rationality and prophecy fit together. But instead, the terminology of madness and rationality comes to mark difference, to say, "You are not what we are."

There aren't the explanations and definitions I would have expected. These texts deal with epistemology and identity but don't actually talk about what rationality or madness look like in antiquity. And, similarly, since we who are scholars today have an idea of a linear history which progresses in a certain way, we are seduced by early Christian texts which reduplicate that understanding of history and often don't notice the ways in which history is also being used as a tool. 

So we take a side by just being drawn to texts that are closer to our interpretation?

Right. And you don't notice the polemic because it sounds so much like what we think of as common sense in our own period. But our own ideas of history need to be interrogated, since they manage to leave a lot of people on the margins, to characterize them as undeveloped or primitive.

Do you see these debates playing out in the political realm today, as well as among and between Christian communities?

Obviously, some Christian communities today violently disagree about whether tongues and prophecies are still possible in the present or whether those are delusions on the part of other Christians. So even today we find rhetoric of madness and accusations of misunderstanding God's plan for history.

In terms of contemporary politics, even on NPR and in other news media since September 11, 2001, you hear a lot of language that characterizes Islam or Arabs (certainly problematic categories, which aren't synonymous!) as stuck in a certain time period, as underdeveloped, as needing help. And today's widespread rhetoric of introducing people to democracy is undergirded by a certain understanding of history and the inevitability of historical progress; it can function covertly as a critique of Arabs or of Muslims as people who need to modernize, who need to "get with the program" of globalization. 

Especially at places like Harvard, this world of dreams, visions, and prophecy is only considered to be the realm of psychics and, as you put it, the extremely religious, emphasis on extreme. Do you see that attitude embedded in the political debate?

I think that certain sectors of the academy are surprised that religion hasn't died out. Everyone's noticing that religious discourse is actually alive and well, and violently affecting politics. There's a new urgency to learning about and discussing religion. We need to be able to respect the fact that people who have deeply held convictions and practices might speak in terms that don't match ours. They might speak in terms of having had a visionary experience or having understood something as a message that's coming from God. Such assertions need to be respected as a different format for expressing very serious and deeply held convictions about how the world should be, what it should look like.

Your point seems to be that these phenomena and issues are very much alive and well, in some communities at least, and that they continue to be contested, as they were in antiquity.

Yes. And I got to learn even more about this from my students in a course I gave in the fall called "Prophecy, Ecstasy, and Dreams in Early Christian History." In their final papers, the students wrote on all different phenomena, picked from various time periods and from around the globe. Some studied recent and not-so-recent claims of visionary experiences in Roman Catholicism or in Buddhism. So the topic of prophecy, dreams, and visions allows all sorts of students to enter the conversation. I learned a lot from them—and that kind of learning from students is why I came here.

What can we learn today from the ancient debates around these issues, and what surprised you most when you read the texts?

For me, one of the implications of what I wrote about is that sometimes it's easier to think about present-day conflicts and events if you can look at something that happened in an ancient time period or somewhere far, far away. It allows you to get some clarity. Looking at these ancient texts and analyzing their arguments allowed me to think a lot about today's rhetoric and the discourses that communities today use against each other. I've learned how to look very carefully at their language rhetorically, which isn't to say that it's mere rhetoric or unimportant or just posturing, but to look at the ways in which they use certain terminology, certain themes, in order to construct their own religious identity over and against other communities. My ancient sources often argue, "We're Christians and these other people are on the margins." There's a constant debate about who's at the center, who has the authority to define what a given religion really looks like. So I bring the tools that I used to analyze these ancient texts into how I think about modern-day debates around religion and politics.

When you wrote this book did you find yourself facing larger issues about the field of religious studies?

Definitely. In antiquity, if you asked someone, "Is that a religious or a political statement?" that question wouldn't have made sense, because in general people wouldn't have made that distinction. Today, we have a different discourse around church and state and secular versus sacred, and different categories for organizing things. But in antiquity, you have state-sponsored oracles. You have prophets who comment in the courts. So it's a very different framework from the United States today, for example. I had to address how to take prophecy and politics seriously without arguing reductively that their religion only operated as a covert politics. Part of what I was trying to do in the book was to come up with a method to take the phenomena surrounding prophecy seriously.

What are you working on now?

At this very moment, I am working on a paper looking at the late fourth- or early fifth-century architectural reuse of an earlier Roman building complex, which was the Palace of Galerius. Galerius was an emperor who persecuted Christians, and within probably 100 years or so from when this structure was built, it was converted for Christian use. The early Christian structure has gorgeous mosaics, which unfortunately aren't all preserved: a frieze of martyrs around the bottom register in mosaics and then probably either elders or apostles and an image of Christ's second coming in the apex of the dome. I've been trying to think about the meaning of that conversion for two possible projects. 

The first is a larger project on the rhetoric of the politics of conversion in early Christianity. I'm pushing myself not just to look at literary or documentary sources but also to think, "Is architectural reuse a form of conversion? What would it mean to think about it theoretically in that way?" What does it mean that this structure, which was maybe even a temple to Jupiter, maybe some sort of throne room or maybe intended as a mausoleum for this Roman emperor, was reused for Christians? Did people in Thessaloniki think of this transformation of an important civic monument as strange, as continuous with Christians coming to power in the Roman empire? 

A second and related avenue of research is to think about writing a brief biography of a city. Thessaloniki is particularly interesting to me. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, in part about what would happen to those who had died at Christ's parousia or appearance. I think that Thessaloniki is a city thinking about apocalypse in different time periods and different ways. In the fourth century some community within the city represents Christ as this kind of imperial figure in a structure tied to a Roman imperial palace, whereas Paul's letter to the Thessalonians actually uses rhetoric of the Roman Empire and says: "They may tell you there will be peace and security. There is no peace and security. You would be deluded to think that."