Communication with the Spirit World:
The Religious Experience of the Earliest Christians
This essay argues that the religious experience of the earliest Christians involved communication with a spirit world. Religious experience is viewed from the category of the Latin religare, “to bind fast,” in the context of “the binding of humans with spirits of the spirit world.” In earliest Christianity, Christians were “bound to the spirit world” through communication with spirits sent by God. These spirits identified themselves as “holy spirits” or “spirits of God” by their acclamation through mediums, “Jesus is Lord,” and by the messianic statement “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” This was a religio experience.
In contemporary Christian society possession by spirits is usually viewed strictly as a demonic event, and the spirit world is believed to be the door to evil spirits and Satan. Jewish and Christian texts of the first and second centuries, however, depict the activity of “holy spirits” and “divine spirits” entering into a person, taking temporary control of the vocal chords, and speaking out of the person in an intelligible language, not unlike the reports of demoniacs in the gospels and in Acts of the Apostles. The Jewish texts show that Jews of the first century were not ambivalent to the idea that good spirits possessed people for the purpose of communicating matter on behalf of God. The Christian texts show that Christians likewise believed that holy spirits communicated on behalf of God. We will explore these Jewish and Christian texts in order to show that the religious experience of the earliest Christians involved communication with the spirit world.
II. Descriptions of Speaking-Trance Mediums in the First Century: Philo and Pseudo-Philo
The religious experience of the spirit world among the earliest Christians can be highlighted by and supplemented with Jewish texts of the time, particularly the texts of Philo and Ps-Philo.
Philo gives three clear descriptions of divine spirits who enter into the bodies of prophets producing a state of ecstasy. He defines that form of ecstasy that involves “divine possession” (entheos katokoke) and “inspiration” (mania) to which prophetic types (prophetikon) are subject (Her. 249) as “the best of all.” A graphic depiction of the onset of a prophet’s trance state by the invasion of a spirit and the recovery of the prophet’s senses once the spirit has left is given by Philo: “This is what regularly befalls the fellowship of the prophets. The mind is evicted at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when that [spirit] departs the mind returns to its tenancy” (Her. 265). As the spirit enters into the prophet it “evicts” (exoikizetai) the mind (nous) of the prophet. When the spirit leaves, the mind “returns” (eisoikizetai) to the prophet who then regains consciousness as “the mind returns to its tenancy.”
The second description: “For indeed the prophet, even when he seems to be speaking, really holds his peace (is silent), and his organs of speech, mouth and tongue are wholly in the employ of Another [i.e., the divine spirit], to show forth what he wills. Unseen by us that Other beats on the chords with the skill of a master-hand and makes them instruments of sweet music, laden with every harmony” (Her. 266). Here, the prophet is clearly speaking, for the prophet’s “organs of speech” are “employed.” But Philo states that the prophet only “seems to speak” and is really “silent.” Philo is describing divine spirit possession from the perspective of a spectator: to all outward appearances, the prophet is speaking insofar as the movement and utterance of his mouth and tongue indicate. The prophet’s vocal chords, however, are being controlled by a foreign spirit and not by the prophet’s own spirit that has been temporarily jettisoned, or in Philonic terms, “his mind has been evicted.” Spirits entering the bodies of prophets and speaking through them is a phenomenon invisible to the normal human senses, hence Philo’s statement that such activity is “unseen by us.”
The third description: “For no pronouncement of a prophet is ever his own; he is an interpreter prompted by Another in all his utterances, when knowing not what he does he is filled with inspiration, as the reason withdraws and surrenders the citadel of the soul to a new visitor and tenant, the divine spirit which plays upon the vocal organism and dictates words which clearly express its prophetic message” (Spec. 4.49). Here Philo gives us another clear example of the entry of a divine spirit into the physical organism of the prophet. The prophet “knows not what he does” as the spirit possesses him and speaks through him by the use of his vocal chords. This temporary bout of unconsciousness relates to a deep-trance state that involves prophetic amnesia; descriptions of which can also be found in Ps-Philo.
The author known as Pseudo-Philo depicts prophetic amnesia in his rewriting of the Bible known as Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, hitherto L.A.B. L.A.B. 28.6, 10a describe an inspiration event similar to that of Philo: “And when they had sat down, a holy spirit came down upon Kenaz and dwelled in him and put him in ecstasy, and he began to prophesy, saying . . .” The inspiration event ends thusly: “And when Kenaz had spoken these words, he was awakened, and his senses came back to him. But he did not know what he had said or what he had seen.” Kenaz experiences a possession trance wherein a holy spirit operates within him for the purpose of communicating with its gathered audience. Once the spirit departs, Kenaz awakens from his trance without the knowledge of what transpired as the spirit spoke through him. The holy spirit speaking through Kenaz states, “Behold, now I see . . . . ,” which does not necessarily imply a vision, but simply that which the spirit said through Kenaz. The experience is not a vision as some scholars posit, but rather prophetic speech of a holy spirit through a passive Kenaz.
L.A.B. 62.2 is a retelling of Saul’s prophetic experience among Samuel’s guild of prophets (1 Sam
Aelius Aristides describes the priestesses of Zeus as having no knowledge of Zeus’ oracles prior to his communication through them, “nor afterwards do they know anything which they have said, but all inquirers understand it better than they” (In Defense of Oratory 43). The Sibyl is described by the second or third century Christian author Justin thusly: “As soon as the inspiration ceased, there ceased also the remembrance of all she had said”; and “ . . . the prophetess having no remembrance of what she had said, after the possession and inspiration ceased . . .” (Exhortation to the Greeks 37.2,3). Demonic possession was also described as accompanied by amnesia in the writings of John Cassian: those who “are affected by them [demons] in such a way as to have not the slightest conception of what they do and say, while others know and afterwards recollect it” (Collationes12). Amnesia, then, was a symptom of both divine and demonic possession.
If prophetic possession via deep-trance mediums was one of the ways in which Jews believed God to have communicated with humanity, then, arguably, early Christian texts for inspiration may be similarly understood. This, however, should be qualified before we proceed to the early Christian material. The descriptions of the effects of spirits entering into prophets given in the writings of Philo and Pseudo-Philo recall what is denoted by the present-day term “medium,” a term that has no clear antecedent in antiquity. English bibles and much scholarly material define a medium in the Bible as one who traffics with the dead or spirits of divination. Consulting mediums was a sin and an abomination to Yhwh in the OT (see Lev 20:6, 27; Deut
III. Descriptions of Speaking-Trance Mediums in the New Testament
In early Christian texts, descriptions of spirits that communicate through the agency of a human medium are much less elaborate than what we find in Philo and Pseudo-Philo. For instance, the prepositional phrase en pneumati, “in spirit,” does double duty: it is used for (1) spirit possession; and (2) visionary experiences. In the category of visions, the person becomes “in the spirit.” This use of en pneumati is found in the book of Revelation where John describes the onset of his visionary experience with the statement, egenomen en pneumati, “I became in spirit” or “I left my body and entered into the spirit world.”
In the category of spirit possession, the phrase en pneumati can describe the activity of either a demon or a holy spirit, for the two orders of spirit, good and evil, are identified by the same term, pneuma, in the NT, not unlike Hebrew ruach in 1 Samuel. In the gospels, demonic possession was described by the use of the prepositional phrase en pneumati, translated in this context as “with a spirit,” i.e., “possessed by a spirit.” In Mark
In 1 Cor 12:3, Paul states that nobody speaking en pneumati theou, “with a spirit of God,” can say “Jesus is cursed” and only someone speaking en pneumati hagio, “with a holy spirit,” can say “Jesus is Lord.” So often, scholars interpret the acclamation “Jesus is Lord” here as a personal acclamation of faith spoken through the power of the Holy Spirit. This interpretation is inadequate for the religious experience of the earliest Christians.
The acclamation “Jesus is Lord” as a Christian’s declaration of personal faith and devotion to Jesus is indeed found in the NT, specifically Rom 10:9. There, “Jesus is Lord” is confessed en to stomati, “with the mouth,” and en te kardia, “in the heart.” In 1 Cor 12:3, “Jesus is Lord” is confessed en pneumati hagio, “with a holy spirit.” In both passages the forms of the acclamation “Jesus is Lord” are nearly identical in the Greek. The critical difference, however, is this: Rom 10:9 indicates a personal confession of faith made “with the mouth” and "in the heart" of a Christian while 1 Cor 12:3 indicates that the confession is made “with a holy spirit,” i.e., a spirit makes the confession. Just as in Mark 1:23 and 5:2 a man is “with an unclean spirit,” so too in 1 Cor 12:3 someone speaks “with a holy spirit,” i.e., speaks while “possessed by a holy spirit.” As Morton Smith states, “if anyone speaking ‘with a spirit’ says ‘Jesus is anathema,’ that spirit is not ‘of God” (“Pauline Worship as seen by Pagans” HTR 73  241-49, 245). It follows then, as Paul states, that if anyone speaking “with a spirit” says “Jesus is Lord,” that spirit is “of God.”
The phrase “Jesus is Lord” is an intelligible phrase spoken en pneumati, and this describes prophecy in Paul: inspired intelligible speech. Glossolalia, or inspired unintelligible speech, is also indicated by the phrase en pneumati in 1 Cor 14:16. There, someone gives a blessing “with a spirit” in a tongue, i.e., in a foreign language, for the spectators are unable to know when they should respond with the “Amen.” A spirit who speaks a foreign language through a prophet cannot be understood by the spectators. In any event, the phrase en pneumati denotes both intelligible and unintelligible speech uttered by a spirit through a prophet.
Whereas Mark 5:2 shows a performance of the involuntary function of spirit mediumship, 1 Cor 12:3 and 14:16 give evidence for a performance of the voluntary function of spirit mediumship within an established Christian congregation that communicates with the spirit world. Willem Berends explains the difference between the two: “We have to distinguish between a demoniac and a medium. In the first case the possessed is an involuntary victim, in the second case the medium voluntarily allows another party to take over his vocal organs” (“The Biblical Criteria for Demon-Possession,” WTJ 37  342-65, 357). The first case appears in Mark 5:2; the second case appears in 1 Cor 12:3. In both of these texts the prepositional phrase en pneumati indicates that a foreign spirit is speaking from within the person: in Mark 5:2 an unclean spirit to be exorcized, and in 1 Cor 12:3 a spirit of God or a holy spirit to be heeded.
Paul does not use terms for inspiration found in his Hellenistic environment, e.g., ecstasy, mania, entheos, enthousiasmos, and divine possession. This has led some scholars to argue that similar phenomena could not have occurred in Christian circles. Paul does use the phrase en pneumati which describes the same kind of phenomenon that the Hellenistic terms denote in prophetic contexts. Often times scholars differentiate between non-ecstatic prophecy because of its intelligibility and ecstatic glossolalia because of its unintelligibility. But it was shown above that ecstatic speech could also be intelligible speech. As David Aune noted, “Ecstasy and rationality . . . should not be regarded as two mutually exclusive states of consciousness” (Prophecy in Early Christianity, 33). If “ecstasy” is used in a prophetic context it merely describes the psychic condition of the prophet, not the manner of his or her speech, whether it be intelligible or unintelligible; ecstasy denotes that the prophet’s spirit is “jettisoned” while another spirit enters into the prophet. The manner of speech and behavior is determined by the way in which the spirit expresses itself through the prophet.
In the Didache, a late first or early second century manual for church order, directives for the acceptance of mediums who exhibit the behavior of the Lord are given (Did. 11.8). As in 1 Cor 12 and 14, the prepositional phrase “speaking en pneumati” occurs in the Didache for prophetic activity. Cyril C. Richardson notes that lalounta en pneumati in the Didache means “literally, ‘speaking in a spirit,’ i.e., speaking while possessed by a divine or demonic spirit” (Early Christian Fathers, 176 n.64). In Did. 11.7 a true prophet is one “who is speaking with a spirit,” i.e., “speaking while possessed by a spirit.” Three qualities that distinguish a true prophet from a false one are said to occur while the prophet “speaks with a spirit” (11.8), “orders a meal with a spirit” (11.9), and “says with a spirit, ‘Give me money’” (11.12). All of these statements are uttered by a prophet en pneumati, indicating, as in 1 Cor 12:3 and 14:2,16, that a foreign spirit is speaking through the prophet.
In the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11, two types of spirits are described as potential visitors among Christians who have gathered for the purpose of communicating with the spirit world. These spirits are the divine spirits of God (11.5) and the spirits of the earth who belong to the devil. This gathering resembles a prayer meeting in which a medium is present and who serves as the instrument through which a spirit addresses the congregation: “When the man who has the divine spirit enters among righteous persons who have faith in a divine spirit, and prayers are made to God by those gathered, then the angel of the prophetic spirit comes upon him and fills the man, and the man, being filled with the holy spirit, speaks just as the Lord wills” (11.9). Such activity is not unlike what Paul describes in 1 Cor 14:26: “When you come together, each has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, and a translation of the tongue.” All five of these activities are performed in the context of a gathered assembly who communicates with spirits; the spirits sing, teach, reveal, speak a foreign language, and translate that language through Christian mediums for the “building up of the church.”
In Mandate 11.16, both true and false prophets speak while pneumatophoron, “moved by a spirit.” This is the same term used by the opponents of Montanism, a second-century Christian prophetic movement. Whereas Montanus and his followers believed that a holy spirit “moved” him to speak, the catholic church of the time charged him as being “moved” by an evil spirit; the phenomenon of spirit possession is at the root of both sides–on the one hand, the possessing spirit is a holy spirit, the Montanist side; on the other hand, the possessing spirit is a demon, the catholic side.
In the Montanist controversy, discernment of spirits was seen as an effective way to unmask the true identity of the spirits speaking through Montanus and his prophetesses. The third to fourth century church historian Eusebius records that two catholic bishops, Zoticus of Cumana and Julian of Apamea, attempt to converse with a spirit that speaks through the Montanist prophetess Maximilla: they “tried to refute the spirit that was in Maximilla,” and they were “present for the purpose of testing and conversing with the spirit as it spoke.” Their purpose in conversing with the spirit as it spoke is given by Eusebius: the two bishops were attempting “to silence the lying spirit which was leading the people astray” (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.16-17). The spirits who moved among the Montanists were demonized by their opponents. Thus, Eusebius records that the Montanists “welcomed a spirit that injured and deluded the mind and led the people astray;” and that Montanus was “a demoniac in the grip of a spirit of error.” The obvious reason for the opposition against the Montanists by the catholic church was that of the reputation of Montanist communications with the spirit world, as Eusebius records: “They were taught by this arrogant spirit to denigrate the entire Catholic Church throughout the world, because the spirit of false prophecy received neither honor nor admission into it.” The Montanists were also accused of the neglect of careful discernment: “The spirit bestowed favors on those who were elated and exultant about him, swelling their heads with his extravagant promises. Sometimes it reproved them pointedly and convincingly to their faces, to avoid appearing uncritical–though few of the Phrygians [i.e. Montanists] were deceived.” Despite this lambasting of Montanism, the prophetic activity recorded here by Eusebius is identical to that which Paul records in 1 Cor 12 and 14: spirits communicated with Christians through mediums.
IV. The Spirit World: The Problem of Ambiguity
Whether a spirit was a truthful spirit sent by God or a deceptive spirit sent by the devil was sometimes a matter of perception, for both types of spirits communicated identically through a medium and an evil spirit might have had the ability to imitate the presence of a good spirit. To make matters more complicated, Christians believed and taught that even deceptive spirits might speak some truth. In 2 Cor 11:4 Paul warns of “a different spirit” that might impart “a different gospel”; in 2 Thess 2:2 the Thessalonians are warned of “a spirit allegedly from us”; Hermas, Mand. 11.3 states, “But he [the false prophet] also speaks some true words for the devil fills him with his spirit”; Clement, The Stromata 1.17, “But among the lies, the false prophets also told some true things . . . they prophesied ‘in an ecstasy’ as the servants of the apostate”; Cyprian, Treatise 6.7, wrote, “. . . these spirits . . . are always mixing up falsehood with truth”; and Tertullian, Apol. 47, explained, “Everything opposed to the truth has been got up from the truth itself, the spirits of error carrying on this system of opposition.” Hence the institution of “discerning” or “testing the spirits” was a Christian innovation that implies two realities: (1) the knowledge of the ambiguity involved in communicating specifically with the spirit world; and (2) the attempts to circumvent this ambiguity by recognizing the “Christian” nature of the spirits by their utterances and behavior through a prophet.
Thus, one might posit that the belief that evil spirits were capable of masquerading as good spirits may have destroyed confidence among Christians in the prospect of receiving divine guidance from the spirit world. The possibility of being deceived by an evil spirit was a reality too risky for some Christians. Deception by spirits is found in early Christian writings. Clement observes that “it is possible that he [a spirit] be an evil demon or a deceptive spirit pretending in his speeches to be what he is not” (Homilies 17.14); and further comments on Paul’s observation that “‘the devil is transformed into an angel of light.’ When about to do what? Plainly, when about to prophesy” (The Stromata, 6.8). Hence, the possibility of being deceived by spirits may have discouraged Christians from dealing with the spirit world, a scenario that, arguably, would have served the evil spirits who wished to suppress communication with good spirits. In this respect, the spirit world as a legitimate source for divine instruction may have become taboo for many Christians.
But if deception had the potential to sever ties with the holy spirit world, then would deceptive spirits be allowed among Christians who were already firmly established as followers of God and Christ and, as a consequence, receiving communication from holy spirits? The answer is yes. A possible reason might be found in the early Christian belief that God allowed demons in the presence of Christians in order that they may be strengthened through the tests (if passed) of demons. If this is applied to the context of gathered Christians who seek communication with the spirit world, then the presence of deceptive spirits, if allowed by God, may have served an educational purpose for Christians. Christians then could experience the activity of a spirit who masquerades as a holy spirit or else who pretends to be that which it is not. Thus, the discernment of spirits would be refined once a Christian knows, from experience, the types of activities and impressions that are to be expected from deceptive spirits. In this sense spirit communication would be disciplined to a very high degree, as in the words of the early church father Commodianus: "Thus it has pleased the Lord of lords Himself in the heavens, that demons should wander in the world for our discipline" (Instructions, 22 [ANF 4.206]). Such a scenario would improve communication with the spirit world by providing Christians with criteria to unmask and circumvent the deceptiveness of unholy spirits.
In the first- and second-century church, prophetic possession of a kind that was beneficial, i.e., that which we find in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Didache 11, and Hermas, Mandate 11, rapidly declined. By the time of Origen, possession was considered to be the primary sign that the spirit was evil (see De. princip. 3.3.3 for two types of demonic possession). Origen notes that “the possessed”(energumenos) are to be identified with the demoniacs in the gospels who were “cured by the Savior” (De. princip. 3.3.3). According to Origen good spirits did not “possess.” Their influence on human beings was from without. Origen stated that prophetic activity was necessary for the church in the beginning, but it ceased to be necessary later (Contra Celsus 7.11).
The result of this research prompts the following question: Why would early Christians communicate with spirits? According to the NT, spirit communication of a Christian nature had only one goal in mind: the duty of spirits sent by God was for the continued spread of the gospel message and Christ’s continued presence on earth through the manifestation of these spirits. The spirits were meant to cultivate in their congregations a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christ’s birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection and the significance this had for Christians. This duty of the spirit world of God is implied throughout the NT.
In John 16:12-14 the spirit world, called here by the generic phrase “the spirit of truth,” is said to act as a teacher who continues the educational agenda that Jesus began in his ministry. In 1 Cor 2:6-16 Paul states that “the wisdom of God” is revealed not “with words taught by human wisdom,” but with “words taught by a spirit.” As we come to find out, this “wisdom of God” is none other than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) which is elaborated by Paul at length in 1 Cor 15:1-16, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The “wisdom of God” is the gospel message, revealed with “words taught by a spirit.” In Eph 3:4-5 the “mystery of Christ” is “revealed . . . en pneumati,” i.e., “with a spirit.”
Thus, 1 Cor