In a new interview with Cassandra Farrin on the Westar Institute blog, Heidi Wendt discusses her forthcoming book At the Temple Gates. I for one–not that anyone asked–am intrigued. Wendt suggests a a new category, that of freelance religious expert, which cuts across the diverse and novel religious traditions and practices of the Roman Empire, and into which the earliest Christian missionary apostles, like Paul, may be placed. I look forward to exploring this in more depth when the book is released, but what I find in the interview has got me thinking–which is where that squeaking noise and smoke is coming from.
(M)any of our ancient sources for these religious experts depict them going door-to-door, purveying novel, often exotic religious skills and practices: special initiations, purifications, methods of divination, and the like. That being said, modern missionaries often, although not always, act on behalf an established religious entity, for example, a particular church or denomination. My use of the language “freelance” is intended to convey that many of the religious actors I include in my study were unaffiliated with any existing religious institution or well-defined tradition; rather, some sources depict them trying desperately to persuade would-be clients of their need for proprietary rites and other benefits that would not have been apparent prior to these interactions. While there are reasons to be skeptical of elements of these accounts—for instance, the Roman satirist Juvenal describes a litany of these figures preying on the “superstitions” of women while their husbands are out—sources such as the Pauline Epistles confirm that households were, in fact, a prominent venue for self-authorized specialists of many varieties.
This language caught my eye both because of its similarity to the intentionally non-institutional organization and rejection of a sponsoring-church model of the faith community I grew up with–who, by the way, I’m having the great joy of worshiping with again all summer after nearly 20 years–and because, albeit only for a few more weeks, I once again find myself, if not an expert, rather freelance, a minister without any defined ministees. (Full disclosure as regards my deep and abiding dorkdom: While reading this interview, I had “They Call Me the Wanderer” playing over and over in my head, only the word “wanderer” was replaced with “gyrovague.” Remind me to send that one in to Weird Al.)
Later she continues:
I imagine that a major point of interest the book raises will be the interactivity between early “Christian” experts and non-Christian contemporaries who also fit my definition of freelance expertise: magi, astrologers, diviners, initiators, and so forth, many of whom worked within particular ethnic or geographic idioms (Persian, Chaldean, Egyptian, Armenian, Greek, Judean, and so forth). Whereas there is a tendency among lay audiences and scholars alike to imagine Judaism and Christianity as somewhat exceptional in their ancient context, imagining some Judeans and Christians as freelance experts working within a broader class of religious activity that was not specific to either allows us to appreciate both the messiness of these categories, such as they existed in the first and second centuries, and also how much cross-pollination occurred among specialists of all varieties who competed for followers in part through the exchange or cooptation of ideas, discourses, techniques, and practices. This jack-of-all-trades ambition that many freelance experts pursued—to distinguish themselves from rivals while also satisfying in their own persons any number of sought-after religious benefits—helps to make sense of how heterogeneous, creative, and also mutually influential their respective religious programs might be.
Regarding the book’s importance for Christian audiences in particular, I would begin by saying that it offers a deep historicization of Christian origins that renders Paul, Justin, Irenaeus, and other “Christian” figures all the more intelligible in their Greco-Roman context. My experiences both in the classroom and, more recently, as a participant in Westar meetings have indicated that such a picture not only fascinates contemporary Christians, but also, for its indeterminacy, offers a welcome counter-narrative to overly rigid or dogmatic presentations of this history. A better appreciation of these religious actors in their historical context—really, a particular setting of religious activity within that context—might also result in an improved understanding of and new interpretive possibilities for problematic or discomfiting features of New Testament and other early Christian literature. Viewing Paul as a freelance expert among many such experts in Judean and other forms of religion reorients our picture of his activities, and also some of the content of his letters. His at times critical statements about Israel, the law, and notable Judean practices such as circumcision, for example, ring differently if we imagine Paul staking out positions vis-à-vis rival experts in Judean religion rather than re-negotiating a complicated relationship to Judaism. The same logic can be extended to second century figures such as Justin, who writes more forcefully against Judeans (or Judean experts) as he forges a concept of “Christian” religion that is distinct from Judea, and on the heels of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. As I argued in the paper I presented last fall, placing the composition of gospel literature in this general context—which will be the topic of my next book (see below for more)—may have similar consequences for the negative images of Jews/Judeans that occur in these writings.