Into the Wilderness

Wednesday, 21 April

Leonard and I were eating lunch during our portrait session yesterday afternoon when Leonard fired a question at me that was entirely unexpected and caught me completely unawares. The question that he asked was this:

“You claim that you do not possess any strong religious faith and yet you accept the accounts of Jesus’ miracles without question and exactly as you read them in the New Testament. Why is that?”

I was taken aback by the directness of his question because - aside from the fact that it came somewhat unexpectedly off the back of a rather dull conversation about the overgrown state of the hedge in the back garden at Elmfield House - my personal religious beliefs have not entered into our discussions for some time, not since Leonard's initial enquiry into why I had chosen theology as a subject for undergraduate study. It transpired that his question arose from an exchange that took place between us upon my first visit to Elmfield House during which I said that I believed that Jesus was able to perform miracles because he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Leonard had clearly been troubled by this statement and he had been waiting for an opportunity to question me further about it.

I told Leonard that I – like many others - have read the Gospels and the possibility that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit seems to be an entirely plausible explanation for his miracle-working powers. I had no reason to believe otherwise and besides, no alternative theories had been presented to me. Midway through my response I realised that I had hit a raw nerve because Leonard became visibly agitated and he told me quite forcefully that “there is always an alternative explanation!” 

He asked me to think rationally about the relationship that exists between Jesus and his miracle-working powers in the Gospels and then to explain to him, sensibly and coherently, exactly how the Holy Spirit bestows upon Jesus the ability to perform healings and exorcisms. Picking up on Leonard’s ‘bestowment’ terminology, I flailed around wildly with concepts relating to spirit possession, charismata and ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ and I finally settled on a divine possession model; that the Holy Spirit had possessed Jesus and it was using him as a conduit through which it performed good works. Leonard snorted at my answer and he said that if I could convincingly explain how the Holy Spirit used Jesus as a passive medium through which it acted in the world then he would ‘be converted to Christianity and start going to church this very Sunday’. My heart sank upon hearing his stubborn resolve but I accepted the challenge and began to present evidence to support my possession theory.

My first piece of evidence came from the crowd’s observation in Mark 3:21 that Jesus is ‘beside himself’ or he is ‘out of his mind’. Since being absent or disconnected from oneself is a major indicator of spirit possession, I argued that this passage implies that Jesus’ soul had been somehow displaced and replaced by a new spiritual entity. Leonard answered that he seriously doubted that the crowd had carried out an in-depth psychological analysis of Jesus’ mental state and they had arrived at the conclusion that he was spirit-possessed. Furthermore he added that the Greek verb ‘existemi’ that I had translated as ‘to be out of one’s mind’ is used elsewhere in the Gospels to simply express a sense of wonderment upon witnessing a miracle and it appears in other Gospel passages that are entirely devoid of any connotations of spirit possession. 

I then offered a second piece of evidence: how about Mark 13:11: ‘for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit’? Surely this is indisputable proof that Jesus and his disciples were spirit possessed? And what about the strange sound that Jesus emits during the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter eleven of the Gospel of John? Could this be evidence that a spirit was speaking through him? Leonard dismissed my line of reasoning and he said that magicians who sought to control spiritual powers would often make wild physical gestures and adopt strange voices (hence the close association between magic and madness in the ancient world) and alter-persona speech was closely linked to this kind of magical activity. 

Reaching up to a shelf above his chair, he fetched down his bible, flicked frantically through the pages and then presented me with a verse from the Book of Isaiah which describes the effect that a magically acquired spirit has upon the voice of a magician:

‘Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall be as one that has a familiar spirit out of the ground
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.’

Leonard said that the translation of the Hebrew word ‘ob’ in this instance as ‘one that has a familiar spirit’ is a nod to the Latin familiaris (meaning ‘household servant’) and it is intended to convey the notion of an obedient spirit behaving like a servant to a magician. However he pointed out that the word ‘ob’ is more commonly translated as ‘skin-bottle’ and this popular translation refers to the practice of commanding a spiritual being to enter into the magician in a form of controlled possession whereby the magician’s body acts as the vessel for the incoming spirit. A possessing spirit would often distort the voice of the magician, hence in the classical period these magicians were known as ‘ventriloquists’ or ‘engastrimuthoi’ (‘belly-talkers’) in view of the deep guttural voices that appeared to come from within their stomachs. Leonard argued that since these spirits were believed to transform the speech of the magician, we cannot assume that a variation in speech is indicative of passive possession and, on the contrary, it may well signify that the individual is a magician who has acquired possession of a spirit.

Seeing that I was deflated by my failed attempts to defend my spirit-possession theory, Leonard became sympathetic to my argument for a moment and he even offered some of his own evidence to support my case. He agreed that the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove during Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River is reminiscent of a possession experience, particularly since spiritual beings and the souls of the deceased are commonly depicted as birds in biblical, classical and modern literature. He also pointed out that the forceful nature of Jesus’ expulsion into the wilderness immediately following his baptism is typical of the impulsive behaviours that are associated with spirit possession. But just when I was beginning to be convinced by my own argument, Leonard laid waste to my theory of divine-possession and his counter evidence came thick and fast...

Apologies but I must log off the computer now - I have a mountain of revision to get through tonight and Alex is due home at any second. I promise that I will write more tomorrow…