Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament

by L. W. Hurtado
Citation
Title:
Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament
Author:
L. W. Hurtado
Year: 
2000
Publication: 
The Journal of Religion
Volume: 
80
Issue: 
2
Start Page: 
183
End Page: 
205
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
URL: 
Select license: 
Select License
DOI: 
PMID: 
ISSN: 
Abstract:

Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament*

L. Id? Hurtado / Unioersity of Edinburgh

It is clear that earliest Christianity was characterized by a rich and varied assortment of religious experiences, ranging all along a continuum from the quiet and inward to the dramatic and outward categories. The rheto- ric of the New Testament attributes all these Christian religious experi- ences to the Spirit of God, the "Holy Spirit." The success of earliest Chris- tianity and its appeal and credibility in the eyes of converts seem to have been very heavily connected with its ability to provide religious exper- iences that corresponded to its rhetoric of being "gifted," "filled," "anointed," and "empowered" by the Spirit of God.' To cite but one ex- ample indicating the importance of the experience of the Spirit for early Christians, in Gal. 3:1-5 Paul cites the Spirit experiences of the Galatians as evidence of the validity of their conversion apart from observance of the requirements of Jewish T~rah.~

In this article, in addition to empha- sizing the general importance of religious experiences in early Christian- ity, I particularly want to argue that scholarly study of early Christianity should include the recognition that among the important chief historical factors that helped generate the religious innovations of the movement were powerful religious experiences perceived by the recipients as "reve- lations." This is not likely to be received by all without dispute, so I shall attempt to lay a case that I hope will at least provide a basic cogency for my thesis.

In the first part of this article, I shall survey attitudes toward the subject

* The 1998T W. Manson Memorial Lecture given October 29, 1998, at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

See, e.g., Luke T.Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 85-114. "The key to Christianity's success lies not in its teaching but in its experience of power" (p. 87).

'On the importance of Spirit-experiences in this epistle, see C. H. Cosgrove, The Cross and the Spirit: A Study in the Argument and Theology of Galatians (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988).

O 2000 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
0022-48 1912000/8002-000 1$02.00

of religious experience in the New Testament. Thereafter, I shall review the studies of social scientists that help us to appreciate the efficacy of revelatory religious experience as a frequent factor in generating reli- gious innovations. In the final part, I shall discuss indications in the New Testament that revelatory religious experiences were significant factors in generating perhaps the most distinctive religious innovation character- istic of early Christianity: the cultic veneration of Jesus.

The religious experiences attested in the sources for early Christianity have not always been done justice in scholarly studies. Scholarly work on the New Testament as we have come to know it has been shaped and driven mainly by theological interests and has mined the New Testament for support for and illumination of Christian beliefs and doctrines. Schol- arly study was sharpened in theological dispute between Protestant and Catholic camps and particularly within the Protestant tradition between more traditionalist and Inore modernizing versions of religious belief. In the controversies emerging in the Enlightenment and thereafter, scholars were more concerned to explore the historical bases for Christian beliefs and the influences that might have shaped them. Some sought to show that Christian beliefs and practices were very much shaped by and de- rived from non-Christian sources, particularly "pagan" religious tradi- tions, in order to argue against those beliefs' continuing validity."hose scholars more sympathetic toward traditional beliefs seem often to have accepted the premise that heavy indebtedness to non-Christian traditions would call into question the validity of Christian tradition, and so they sought to resist the idea that early Christian beliefs and practices were deeply indebted to pagan traditions.

All of these scholarly developments were very understandable in light of the historical factors that motivated and shaped them. But the schol- arly traditions, the issues, the apparatus of scholarship, and the questions and approaches were all focused on the religious thought of the New Testament, the concepts and doctrines, and comparatively less attention was given to the nature and importance of religious experience.

In the years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, stud- ies appeared that were more concerned with exploring the nature of the religious experiences reflected in the New Testament. Hermann Gunkel's classic study of the Spirit in Paul is commonly regarded today as a water-

'3 On the polemical interests at work in the emergence of a modern critical approach to the New Testament, see J. Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

shed publicati~n.~

Adolf Deissmann is noted for emphasizing that the de- velopment of early Christianity was foremost a religious movement of worship and religious experience and that it should not be approached as primarily a doctrinal de~elopment.~

In English-speaking scholarship as well there were studies of this period that showed an interest in the religious experience of the early Church."ut the influence of the dialec- tical theology movement on biblical scholarship after World War I renewed a focus on the doctrines of the New Testament. The historical- critical work of this period was heavily devoted to form-criticism of the Gospels and to related attempts to trace the history of the traditions re- flected in the New Testament writing~.~

In more recent years, however, we have seen a renewal of interest among New Testament scholars in studying the religious experiences of the earliest churches. This scholarly interest appears to have been stimu- lated in part by the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, which make a great deal of the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit and seek to associate the modern experiences cultivated in these circles with the ex- periences referred to in the New Testament. J. D. G. Dunn's 1970 book, Baptism in the Holy Spzrit, is a clear example of this newer scholarly inter- e~t.~

In particular, there have been several books on the phenomenon of prophecy in the New Testament."

'Hermann Gunkel, Die Wirkungen des heligen Geistes nach derpopularen Amchauung der apos- tolischen Zeit und der I,ehre des Aposlels Paulus (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Kuprecht, 1888). The continuing significance of this study is reflected in its translation into English (The InJuence of the Holy Spirit, trans. K. A. Harrisville and R. l?Quanbeck [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19791).

Adolf Deissmann, Paul: A Study in Social and Relzpous History (191 1; English trans., 1927; reprint, New York: Harper & Bros., 1957).

P. Gardner, The Religzous Experience of' St. Paul (laondon: Williams & Norgate, 191 1); H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1909), and The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church (London: Macmillan, 1912). H. W. Kobinson, The Christian Experience of the Holy Spirit (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1928), was a more broad-ranging theological discussion but shows the interest in religious experience in the early part of this century.

It is interesting to note that there apparently was a similar lapse in social-scientific study of religious experience in the same period, indeed in the social-scientific study of religion in general. See comments to this effect in Rodney Stark, "A Taxonomy of Religious Experi- ence,"Journal for the Scientz$c Study of Relipon 5 (1965): 97-1 16, and Stark's citation of C. Y. Glock in "The Sociology of Religion," in Sociology Today, ed. R. K. Merton, L. Broom, and

L. S. Cottrell, Jr. (New York: Basic, 1959), pp. 153-77.

J. D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-examlnation of the New Estament Teaching on the Cqt of the Sfirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today, Studies in Biblical Theology, 2d ser. (laondon:SCM, 1970).

qee, e.g., David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979); W. A. Gru- dem, The Gqt of Prophecy in I Corinthians (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982); D. E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983); C. B. Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christian- ity and Its Hellenistic Environment, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament

Two books may be cited as especially valuable. Dunn's Jesus and the Spid ambitiously attempts a portrayal of the religious experience of Jesus and the earliest Christian communities.1° This study must be regarded as es- sential reading for anyone interested in a broad-ranging, sympathetic, but scholarly discussion of religious experience in the New Testament. More recently, Gordon Fee's massive work on the Holy Spirit in the epis- tles of Paul (967 pages!) combines detailed exegetical treatment of all ref- erences to the Spirit in Paul's letters and an enthusiastic synthesis of PaulS understanding of the Spirit.]'

There has also been a spate of studies in recent years approaching New Testament references to powerful "mystical" experiences in the light of ancient Jewish mystical traditions.12 These studies have tended to focus on references in Paul to visionary experiences, with particular attention given to 2 Cor. 12:l-10, where Paul seems to give an autobiographical account of an ascent into the heavens. But there has also been significant recent scholarly attention given to Paul's "conversion" experience, which he refers to as a "revelation" of Christ that changed him from a persecu- tor of Jewish-Christian groups to a dedicated promulgator of the Chris- tian message.'"^ mention one notable publication, Kim's forcefully ar- gued study portrayed PaulS Damascus road experience as a christophany, a visionary revelation of Christ in glorious form, that also conveyed to Paul his sense of mission and the basics of his distinctive message.I4

(WUNT), ser. 2, no. 75 (Tiibingen: Mohr, 1995); T W. Gillespie, The First Theologzans: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

'O J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religzow and Charismatic Experience ofJesus and the First Christians as Rejected in the New Testament (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Westmin- ster, 1975).

l1 G. D. Fee, GodS Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994). Fee includes a good deal of exhortation to the modern churches to seek renewal along the lines of the place of the Spirit reflected in Paul's letters.

l2 See, e.g., John Bowker, "'Merkabah Visions' and the Visions of Paul," Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971): 57-73; Peter Schafer, "The New Testament and Hekhalot Literature: The Journey into Heaven in Paul and in Merkabah Mysticism," Journal of Jewish Studies 35 (1984): 19-35; A. F. Segal, "Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and Their Environment," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der romzcchen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and

W. Haase (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1980). 23, pt. 2: 1333-94, and Paul the Convert: The Aposto- late and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990); J. D. Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul? Ascent to Paradice in Its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986).

I have surveyed the relevant publications in an earlier essay: "Convert, Apostate or Apostle to the Nations? The 'Conversion' of Paul in Kecent Scholarship," Studies in Religion/ Sciences religzezlses 22 (1993): 273-84.

"Seyoon Kim, The Origin of PaulS Gospel, WUNT, ser. 2, no. 4 (Tiibingen: Mohr, 1981). In my view, however, Kim's attempt to make the one Damascus road experience the source event of all the basics of Paul's theology places too much weight on this one visionary experi- ence of Paul and does not adequately allow for Paul's references to having had many visions and revelations (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:1, 7). Compare J. D. G. Dunn, "'A Light to the Gentiles':

Nevertheless, it is still the case that New Testament scholarship tends to ignore or give little attention to religious experiences in describing and analyzing the features of Jesus and earliest Christianity. Even the recent attention given to the social and cultural characteristics of the early

-

churches has tended to focus on other aspects and other questions, such as the economic levels of early Christians, the roles exercised by women, or organizational structures or rituals.lThis reluctance or inability to come to terms with the religious experiences reflected in the New Testa- ment is the main complaint issued by Luke Johnson in a very recent study,

Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Esta- ment Studies.'"ohnson advocates a phenomenological approach, which employs comparisons with religious experiences in other times and cul- tures and, without assenting to the faith claims of those whose religious experiences are studied, accepts that religious devotees see their experi- ences as an encounter with divine realities. He offers stimulating analyses of early Christian baptism, glossolalia, and sacred meal practices to illus- trate the gains of the general approach he advocates.

More specifically, among New Testament scholars there seems to be a widespread reluctance to attribute much causative significance to reli-

-

gious experiences in the innovations that mark the development of early Christianity. Having argued that "revelatory" religious experiences such as visions and prophetic inspiration were an important factor in the ap- pearance of innovative insights, beliefs, and devotional practices in the earliest Christian period, I have experienced the reluctance of some scholars to grant this view.I7 Paul Rainbow, for example, has rejected my view, asserting that religious experiences can only confirm previously de- rived beliefs and convictions and are not themselves causative factors in the emergence of new or altered beliefs and devotional practice.IR To cite

-

another instance, an anonymous assessor of one of my research grant

The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul," in The Glory of' Christ in the New Testament: Studies in Christology in Memory of' George Bradford Caird, ed. I.. D. Hurst and

N. T. Wright (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), pp. 251-66.

'Tor example, the justly praised study by W. A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), has no sig- nificant treatment of the religious experiences that characterized early Christian groups. See also the survey of scholarship by Bengt Holmberg, Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

'Xuke T. Johnson, Religzow Experience in Earliest Chrirtianity: A Missing Dimension in Neu~ Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

I' I.. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Anci~nt Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; London: SCM, 1988). esp. pp. 117-22; see also my interaction with critics of my view in "Christ-Devotion in the First livo Centuries: Reflections and a Proposal,"Toronto Journal of Theology 12 (1996): 17-33, esp. 25-26.

I? A. Rainbow, "Jewish Monotheism as the Matrix for New Testament Christology: A Review Article," Novum Estamentum 33 (1991): 78-91, esp. 86-87.

applications in Canada described as "problematic" my view that there are religious experiences that help generate modifications in belief systems, suggesting instead that "such religious experiences are themselves gen- erated by socio-religious changes and so function as legitimating devices to ease the transition from the old to the new" and proposing that it thus made more sense to "inquire into the social and cultural situation to which such supernatural experiences might be regarded as a response."

In taking the "problematic" view I hold, I am not, however, alone. One prominent New Testament scholar (Dunn) lists tendencies that might bias our view of religious experience and issued a warning about "discounting the creative force of religious experience." Citing the Apostle Paul as an impor- tant case, Dunn insisted that along with recognizing Paul's "debt to both Jew and Greek for the great bulk of his language and concepts," we also have to grant "the creative power of his own religious experience-a furnace which melted many concepts in its fires and poured them forth into new moulds. . . . Nothing should be allowed to obscure that fact."'"n his study of scholarship on mystical experiences, Philip Almond noted that there is a connection between the nature of one's religious experience and "the content that informs it" but also emphasized that we must allow for "those experiences which go beyond or are at odds with the received context."20 He specifically pointed to powerful religious experiences that "may lead too to the creative transformation of a religious tradition" and that are "capable of generating new interpretations of the traditi~n."~' Later in this study he observed that though previously held religious be- liefs may well shape the nature of mystical experiences, it is also true that "such experiences may be decisive in the formulation or revision of doctrinal frameworks.""

Similarly, Carl Rashke has proposed that revelation experiences involve "not the acquisition of an insider's perspective so much as an insight ac- cruing from the transposition of certain meaning systems" and that this tran- spires "as part of a novel perceptual context within which the 'sense' of a host of related notions or the implications of certain common experiences can be rec~nstituted."~~

That is, the cognitive content of religious "revela-

'Wunn, Jesus and the Spirit (n. 10 above), pp. 3-4, quote on p. 4. We might also note Hermann Gunkel's comments against attempts during his day to make Paul's religious thought simply a borrowing from other sources: "The theology of the great apostle is the expression of his experience, not of his reading" (The Influence ofthe Holy Spirit [n. 4 above],

p. 100)."' Philip C. Almond, Myctical Experience and Relzgzow\ Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of

Mysticzsm in World Religions (Berlin: Mouton, 1982), pp. 166-67.

" Ibid., p.168.

"Ibid., p. 183.

"j Carl Raschke, "Revelation and Conversion: A Semantic Appraisal," Anglican Theological

Review 60 (1978): 420-36, quotes on pp. 424 and 422, respectively.

tions" is often, perhaps characteristically, a reformulation or reconfigur- ing of religious convictions.

In his recent study of Paul, Terence Donaldson draws upon Thomas Kuhn's now well-known analysis of "paradigm shifts," major reorienta- tions that revolutionize scientific work, as a conceptual model for under- standing how Paul's Damascus road experience could have conveyed a fundamentally altered conviction about the significance of Jesus, which required and drove a "remapping7' of Paul's whole "convictional In Paul's case, this fundamental change in view about Jesus was not the disclosure of a totally new belief, for prior to his "conversion" Paul had been involved in combating Jewish Christians whose exalted views of Je- sus were likely a major reason for Paul's opposition to these groups. But it also appears that Paul's experience either conveyed or led to a convic- tion that he was personally commissioned to a mission to the Gentiles, which involved enfranchizing them as members of God's elect on the basis of faith in Christ and without full conversion to Torah observance. The sense of this particular mission seems to have been a new "revelation" without true precedent in either the Jewish tradition or the emerging Christian movement.

In the social sciences there is recognition of the importance of religious experiences in defining and understanding religious movement^.'^ There is also a comparatively greater recognition that "revelatory" religious ex- periences are often involved in the emergence of religious innovations. But the tendency among social scientists has been to regard such experi- ences as derivative phenomena, as the (dysfunctional) outcome of stress- ful social circumstances and the manifestation of psychopathology in the recipients.'Thus, sociologists and anthropologists tend to focus on the social and cultural conditions that may be associated with religious expe- riences, and psychologists tend to look for personal psychological condi- tions that may be associated with them. It is very difficult to find social

24 Terence L. Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle? Convictzonal World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), esp. pp. 43-49, 293-305.

'The social science literature on religious experience is now vast. Only a few items need be cited here as illustrative and heuristically useful. The classic pioneering study is of course William James, The Varieties of Religzous Experience (1902; reprint, New York: Mentor Books, 1962). More indicative of recent work are the following: W. H. Clark, H. N. Malony,

J. Daane, and A. R. Tippett, Relzgaous Experience: Its Nature and Function in the Human Psyche (SprFgfield, 111.: C. C. Thomas, 1973); Rodney Stark, 'A Taxonomy of Religious Experi- ence (n. 7 above).

26 See, e.g., the forthright critique of this by Rodney Stark, "Normal Revelations: A Rational Model of 'Mystical' Experiences," Relzgzon and Social Order 1 (1991): 239-51.

science studies that approach religious experiences sympathetically and that address the questions of whether and how powerful religious experi- ences may themselves be causative factors in religious innovations.

Characteristically, social science approaches assume one or another form of "deprivation theory," whether the deprivation is regarded as de- riving from social and cultural conditions or individual conditions (e.g., extreme stress, sexual frustration, and so on)." Lying behind all such ap- proaches, either explicitly or implicitly, is the outlook that religious expe- riences are "false consciousness" and dysfunctional responses to life. Pow- erful "revelatory" experiences are quite often taken as "hallucinatory" and delusional and, therefore, not of much significance in them~elves.'~

But there are a few scholars who have questioned this rather negative view of religious experiences and offer us some resources for understand- ing that there are religious experiences that seem to serve as the occasion for the emergence of sometimes significant innovations in religious tradi- tions. That some kinds of religious experiences can have this effect is of course the repeated claim of prophet and founder figures throughout the centuries. The scholars whom I have in mind offer reasons for taking this sort of claim seriously and suggest theoretical models for under- standing in general how religious experiences can be granted a causative role in religious innovations. To do so does not necessarily or always grant the validity of the religious claim being made (e.g., that the beliefs in- voked are to be subscribed to). All that is required for historical purposes is to grant that powerful religious experiences can themselves contribute significantly, sometimes crucially, to religious innovations and are not lim- ited to serving as "legitimizing devices" for previously formed beliefs and practices. That is, we are concerned here primarily with the function and efficacy of revelatory religious experiences, not with their religious va- lidity.

In his now classic essay, "Revitalization Movements," Anthony Wallace attempted a model of the processes involved in the emergence of major

27 For a classic statement of "relative deprivation theory," see David Aberle, "A Note on Relative Deprivation Theory as Applied to Millenarian and Other Cult Movements," in Reader in Co7nparative Religion: An Anthropologtcal Approach, ed. W.A. Lessa and E. A. Vogt, 3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 527-31. Note that Aberle himself admits that in fact deprivation theory is unable to "predict either the types of deprivations that lead to certain ideological formations, or the degree of deprivation which crystallizes a cult move- ment" (p. 530). See also the critical comments by Holmberg (n. 15 above), pp. 66-67.

See Stark, "Normal Revelations," esp. pp. 239-41,248-49, for criticisms of this bias by an eminent social scientist who has specialized in the study of religion. In an earlier essay as well, Stark criticized the simplistic assumptions governing much social-scientific study of religion, especially studies of religious innovation (e.g., new religious movements): see

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, "Three Models of Cult Formation," in their The Future of Religzon: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 17 1-88.

religious innovations such as new sects. In what he called "mazeway re- formulation," Wallace described the restructuring of elements such as re- ligious beliefs, which, he noted, usually happens in the mind of a prophet figure abruptly and dramatically as "a moment of insight" that is "often called inspiration or revelation." He observed, "With few exceptions, ev- ery religious revitalization movement with which I am acquainted has been originally conceived in one or several hallucinatory visions by a single indi~idual."'~

Although Wallace operated with a Freudian outlook on religion, as illustrated in his use of the adjective "hallucinatory," he noted clear differences between revelatory religious experiences and the religious delusions of those suf'fering genuine mental disorders, and he acknowledged that "the religious vision experience per se is not psycho- pathological but rather the reverse, being a synthesizing and often ther- apeutic process."" Wallace went on to propose a process model for under- standing how the revelatory experiences of prophetic individuals can lead to the formation of new religious movements through the communica- tion of the revelations, the organization of converts, adaptation to cultural patterns, and routinization." In this article we cannot explore further this social process, as we are primarily concerned with the initial "revela- tory" experience.

Rodney Stark has categorized various types of religious experiences into four main types; his fourth "and least common" type is the "revela- tional."" For our purposes it is very interesting to note Stark's recognition of the capacity of such experiences to generate religious innovations, even to "contradict and challenge prevailing theological 'truths."'" He also pointed to the capacity of such experiences to generate in the recipi- ent a sense of personal divine commission and also to generate messages taken as directed to a wide public, "such as in the case of new theologies, eschatological prophecies, or commissions to launch social reforms."34

In a more recent article, Stark focused on religious experiences of "rev- elation," positing as "the most fundamental question confronting the so- cial scientific study of religion: How does new religious culture arise?'lS5 Lamenting a common social scientific bias against revelatory experiences as psychopathology, Stark also expressed growing discomfort with his own earlier attempts to classify the emergence of new religious move-

'%. F. C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologzst 58 (1956): 264-81; these citations are from p. 270.

'+O Ibid., pp. 272-73.

3' Ibid., pp. 273-75.

"2 Stark, "Taxonomy," pp. 107-12.

33 Ibid., p. 108.

'+4 Ibid., pp. 110-11.

""Stark, "Normal Revelations" (n. 26 above), p. 239.

ments, acknowledging that these attempts had not allowed for "normal people" (Stark means mentally healthy people) to have "revelations suf- ficiently profound to serve as the basis of new religion^.''^^

Noting that reports of religious experiences that convey new "revela- tion" are comparatively infrequent in comparison to lower-intensity reli- gious experience, Stark proposed that "unusually creative individuals" might "create profound revelations" and attribute them to divine disclo- sure, likening the experiences of revelation attributed to Muhammad to the way in which some composers (e.g., Mozart, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington) are said to have "heard" complete musical melody lines, experiencing the tunes as having come to them from "out there."37 Although he granted the possibility that revelations actually occur and that there is "an active supernatural realm closed to scientific exploration," Stark obviously was attempting to develop a theoretical model for the experience of revelation that did not require a prior acceptance of a su- pernatural agency behind the experience^.^^ The important points for my topic are (1) that Stark defends the idea that certain powerful reli- gious experiences themselves can produce significant innovations in re- ligious traditions, and (2) that such experiences, though shaped by so- cial and cultural forces, are not merely confirmations of religious ideas otherwise generated and are also not necessarily merely manifestations of psychopathology.

As with Wallace, Stark sketched a model of the process through which revelatory experiences of individuals might become the basis of religious movements or reformations of religious traditions. He proposed cogently that revelatory experiences are more likely to happen to "persons of deep religious concerns who perceive shortcomings in the conventional faith(s)," that persons are more likely to perceive shortcomings in conven- tional faith(s) during times of increased social crisis, that during such pe- riods there is a greater likelihood of people being willing to accept claims of revelations, and that it is crucial to the success of the revelation that some others accept it.3g

Just as it is a mistake to dismiss all revelatory experiences as psycho- pathology, so is it a mistake to ignore such experiences in explaining reli- gious innovations in favor of social and cultural factors. For example, in describing indigenous Christian movements in Japan, Mark Mullins notes that cultural change and stress alone are not adequate explanation

3Vbid., pp. 240-41. The earlier study Stark refers to is W. S. Bainbridge and R. Stark, "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models," Sociologzcal Analysis 40 (1979): 283-95.

Stark, "Normal Revelations," pp. 243-44.

38 Ibid., p. 241.

3"bid., pp. 244-46.

'7

for these movements and agrees with Byron Earhart's judgment that "the innovative decision of the founder cannot be completely subsumed by either social factors or the influence of prior religious factors."40 In a great many cases, the most significant "innovative decisions" of founder and reformer figures are attributed by them to powerful revelatory experi- ences.

In some cases, the revelation is so at odds with the conventional reli- gious system(s) that what results is a new religion that cannot be accom- modated within whatever variety is tolerated by the dominant religious system(s). Muhammad may be an example of this, with his fervent mono- theistic stance over against the polytheistic traditions of his culture. But perhaps more often the revelation is (or is initially intended as) a major reformation or innovation within a dominant religious system. Mullins draws upon the "minor founder" category formulated by Werner Stark to deal with "innovations within a religious traditi~n."~' The "minor founder" figure is "a charismatic individual who gives birth to a new reli- gious movement in an effort to address the needs of a new type of mem- ber, while at the same time conceptualizing the movement as an exten- sion, elaboration, or fulfillment of an existing religious traditi~n."~' Of course, those who may have seen themselves as seeking reformation or innovations within their religious tradition-and thus can be thought of as "minor founder" figures-can be so rejected by the tradition that their innovations eventuate in new religious traditions. This is likely the way we should understand the process by which the earliest revelations con- cerning Jesus issued into what eventuated as a new religion, Christianity.

If I may summarize the discussion to this point, I hope to have shown that it appears to be either ideological bias or insufficiently examined assumptions that prevent some scholars from taking seriously the idea that there are revelatory religious experiences that can directly contribute to religious innovations, sometimes even quite significant innovations.

.4" Mark R. Mullins, "Christianity as a New Religion: Charisma, Minor Founders, and Indigenous Movements," in Religion and Society in Modem Japan, ed. Mark R. Mullins, Shima- zono Susumu, and Paul Swanson (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1993), pp. 257-72, esp. p. 264, citing H. Byron Earhart, Gedatsu-kai and Religion in Contemporary Japan: Return- ing to the Center (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 236. See also Earhart, "Toward a Theory of the Formation of the Japanese New Religions: The Case of Gedatsu-Kai," History ofReligzons 20, nos. 1 and 2 (1980): 175-97.

" Mullins, p. 265. Mullins cites here Werner Stark, The Sociology of Religzon: A Study of Christendom (New York: Fordham University Press, 1970), 4:84.

"Mullins, p. 265. Interestingly, Anthony Blasi has used the "minor founder" category to describe the Apostle Paul. See Blasi, Making Charisma: The Soczal Construction of Paul? Public Image (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1991), pp. 14-15, as cited in Mullins. See also Marilyn Robinson Waldman and Robert M. Braun, "Innovation as Renovation: The 'Prophet' as an Agent ofsocial Change," in Innovation in Religzous Traditions, ed. M. A. Wil- liams, C. Cox, and M. S. Jaffe (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992), pp. 241-84.

There are both religions scholars and social scientists who agree with this idea, which is based on historical examples and empirical study of recent and contemporary religious developments. That is, it is by no means idio- syncratic to attribute to powerful revelatory religious experiences the ef- ficacy to generate significant religious innovations. Moreover, social sci- entists have proposed models for understanding the basics of how revelations issue in religious innovations, which in turn can become the basis of new religious movements within traditions or even new religions.

In the remaining portion of this article, I wish to look further at indica- tions that revelatory experiences were crucial contributing factors in im- portant religious innovations that mark early Christianity. It is neither possible nor necessary here to attempt anything approaching a compre- hensive coverage of the relevant evidence. I shall restrict the discussion to one particular religious innovation that undeniably distinguishes early Christianity, the cultic veneration of Jesus Christ, and shall consider key indications in the New Testament that revelatory experiences were cru- cial in generating this remarkable innovation. As mentioned earlier in this article, I have elsewhere drawn attention to the apparently singular nature of this innovation and have argued that powerful revelatory reli- gious experiences must be reckoned with as one of the crucial causative factors behind it.43 Here I will attempt to reinforce the argument by giv- ing more detailed attention to the evidence of such experiences.

For our purposes, the earliest step in the phenomenon we are investi- gating was the emergence of the conviction that the crucified Jesus had been raised from death and exalted to heavenly glory and rule. This con- viction appears already in the very earliest Christian writings extant, and in these sources the conviction is already treated as a sacred tradition that goes back to the very originating moments of the Christian movement. Moreover, this conviction is attributed primarily to the experiences of in- dividuals who encountered the risen and gloried Christ.

In 1 Cor. 15: 1-1 1, in a letter written in the early 50s (scarcely twenty years into the Christian movement), the Apostle Paul recites as a sacred tradition the claim that Jesus died redemptively for sins and that he was "raised on the third day according to the scriptures" (verse 4). There fol- lows a series of resurrection appearances to various people, and it is com- monly recognized that these appearances are listed here as the basis for the traditional conviction that Jesus was resurrected. In the larger context

43 L. W. Hurtado (n. 17 above), One Lord, One God, esp. pp. 93-128, on "The Christian Mutation" in Jewish monotheistic devotion and its probable causes.

4H On Paul's Gentile mission, see esp. Donaldson (n. 24 above).

revelatory experiences may have conveyed or stimulated it, is difficult to say with confidence. Kim has recently proposed that Paul arrived at the conviction that he was called to a Gentile mission through the Damascus road vision of the glorified Christ and of the divine heavenly council (shaped by Paul's familiarity with the vision call in Isaiah 6), which in- cluded the experience of being summoned by God (after the fashion of Old Testament prophets) to proclaim the enfranchisement of the Gen- tile~.~~

Such a suggestion at the very least reflects the witness of numerous figures who claim to have heard a divine instruction to do this or that mission in the middle of a revelatory religious experience. It is certainly the case that Paul both saw himself and was seen by contemporaries, whether allies or critics, as conducting a distinctive mission to convert Gentiles to the Christian message.

Paul refers to the "mystery" (mysterion) that includes the "hardening" of "part of Israel" in unbelief, the ingathering of Gentile converts through his mission, and the subsequent salvation of all Israel through the banish- ment of their disbelief in the Gospel (Rom. 11:25-32). In Paul's usage, the term "mystery" is consistently used to refer to divinely disclosed infor- mation about the redemptive plan of That is, in Paul the term "mystery" signifies the cognitive content received through revelatory ex- periences, ideas not previously disclosed or known, cognitive content that included the innovative conviction that he was to spearhead a wholly new and eschatological mission to the Gentiles.

Scholars have tended to focus on Paul's Damascus road vision of Christ, but it is well to remember that Paul mentions multiple "visions and reve- lations of the Lord" (2 Cor. 12:l). His most extended reference to such an experience is in 2 Cor. 12:2-10, in which he speaks of being "caught up into Paradise," where he "heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat" (verse 4). Indeed, Paul claims that God has permitted him to be afflicted by Satan in his body to keep him humble, lest he become too worked up about "the exceptional character of the revelations" he received in his visions (verses 7-9). In Gal. 2:2, Paul refers to a trip to Jerusalem he took "in response to a revelation," which likely means that through some vision or prophecy he was directed to make the

journey to confer with the Jerusalem leadership.

""eyoon Kim, "The 'Mystery' of Rom. 11.25-26 Once More," New Zstament Studies 43 (1997): 412-29. On the likelihood that Paul's religious experience was shaped by his famil- iarity with Old Testament prophet traditions, see also Karl 0.Sandnes, Paul-One ofthe Prophets? WUNT, vol. 2,no. 43;(Tiibingen: Mohr, 1991).

5" See 1 Cor. 2:1,7;4:l; 13:2; 14:2; and 15:51for examples. Note, esp., 1 Cor. 13:2and 14:2,where "mysteries" are referred to as disclosed and spoken through the experiential power of the divine Spirit.

Comments
  • Recommend Us