Freelance experts once wandered the ancient Roman Empire not unlike missionaries do today, peddling exotic practices and teachings from one end of the world to the other. Unlike today, however, most of these ancient experts were vying for authority without the help of a larger supporting organization like a church or temple. In this interview, Heidi Wendt of Wright State University invites us to consider how our ideas about the Apostle Paul and other early religious experts would change if we thought of them as freelance purveyors of ideas in competition with one another.

The Fall 2016 national meeting is coming in November, and I’m already looking forward to it! We’re welcoming several excellent presenters to San Antonio, including Daniel Boyarin, J. Kameron Carter, Jeffrey Robbins, and today’s guest on the blog—Heidi Wendt.

Heidi Wendt (Ph.D., Brown University) is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Wright State University. The recipient, in 2011, of the Emeline Hill Richardson Pre-Doctoral Rome Prize in Ancient Studies from the American Academy in Rome, she investigates the Greco-Roman context of earliest Christianity. Her book, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in August 2016.

I first met Heidi when she presented a paper for the Christianity Seminar’s Fall 2015 session on the Jewish Wars. I was impressed by her creative thinking and her willingness to see Christians as active participants—not just victims/martyrs and social critics—in the larger world and context of the Roman Empire.

At the Temple Gates

CF: Welcome to the Westar blog, Heidi! As I understand it, your Fall 2016 lecture will share insights from your book At the Temple Gates, which looks at Christianity as possibly emerging from the many exotic practices peddled by “freelance experts” in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. I can’t help but picture missionaries and door-to-door salesmen, or some combination of the two. Could you say more about who these freelance experts were?

HW: Thank you, Cassandra! I was grateful for your invitation and am excited to participate in this forum. In answer to your question, the modern analogies that came to mind are apropos, insofar as many 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.

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Pompeii mosaic depicting masked actors in a play: two women consult a "witch" or private diviner.

In the spring 2016 meeting of the Christianity Seminar we had an interesting conversation, prompted by Dennis Smith’s paper, about the extent to which the domestic settings of early “Christian” groups molded their character. I found myself reflecting on the evidence for freelance religious experts of all varieties inhabiting these spaces. Hence, this question might be broadened to include any number of religious phenomena first attested in the imperial period—the mysteries of Mithras, for example—and which might have conceivably arisen from the activities of such experts. Even though some of these phenomena are more visibly attested in the second or third centuries, when they have acquired more institutional features and, often, dedicated activity spaces (e.g., the well-known mithraea of the Roman world), I argue in the book that they might be traced to the activities of the many specialists known in early periods.

CF: Where did these freelance experts come from? Why were they wandering around the Empire in the first place?

HW: A number of freelance experts who appear in Roman-period sources are of some exotic stripe, whether Persian magi, Greek initiators, Chaldean astrologers, Egyptian “priests,” or Judean wisdom instructors or dream interpreters. This isn’t to say that this sort of religious activity was always exotic, however, or even limited to the Roman period. In Classical Greece authors such as Hippocrates and Plato complained about itinerant healers, initiators, and the like, and even some of Rome’s hallowed religious institutions were said to have originated with figures that might fit this category. The Sibylline Oracles, for instance, were allegedly sold to one of Rome’s legendary kings by a mysterious old woman who promised that the books she purveyed foretold the entirety of its history—alas, it took three tries, the destruction of two thirds of the books, and a consultation with the augurs before he was convinced to accept her original price for the three books that remained.

In other words, freelance experts were hardly an invention of the Roman Empire; they crop up in earlier periods and different cultural areas of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Yet there are reasons to think that the imperial period was conducive to this sort of religious activity, for reasons ranging from its connectivity (all of those Roman roads!), to the cosmopolitanism of its major cities, to the unprecedented degree of population “mixing,” for lack of a better term, that it brought about. Depictions of foreign religion—in paintings, sculpture, mosaics, and other highly accessible media—were also very common in this period, which helped to promote widely the basic recognition and appeal of self-professed experts therein. And not only did freelance experts acquire increasingly high profiles under the Romans—whether as the regular companions of emperors and other social elites, or as the enablers of seditious or otherwise disquieting plans—but they were also, judging from the many authors who complain about them and their credulous followings, extremely popular across the board. What is clear is that they were particularly diverse and influential in the empire, if not also more numerous (increases in quantity are hard to gauge since our evidence is so plentiful for the Roman period).

CF: Do you have a favorite practice (or rumor of one) that was being peddled by these freelance experts? What have been the most interesting examples in your research?

HW: Hmmm… That depends on whether you are asking about a practice that a specialist certainly offered or one ascribed to these figures by their harshest critics. The latter practices are often quite colorful since they are intended to expose the fraudulence and absurdity of the “experts” who purveyed them.

A man named Alexander of Abonoteichus is said by Lucian, who despises him and all that he represents, to have concocted a golden thigh apparatus that he wore in imitation of Pythagoras (who was said to have had a golden thigh); from this, Alexander’s followers were meant to conclude that he was the philosopher reincarnated. Among his other religious “talents,” Alexander prophesied that he would die on a certain day in the distant future, after being struck by lightning (a fortuitous death in antiquity); instead chaffing from his golden thigh speedily hastened a lethal infection. An Egyptian “priest” named Pancrates surfed the Nile on the backs of crocodiles and enchanted brooms and pestles to serve him. As James Rives notes in Religion in the Roman Empire, Pancrates was the inspiration for the sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.

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There is no shortage of details such as these in sources that are dismissive of freelance experts, but their reliability is questionable because most of the authors who supply them have an axe to grind with their subjects. Hence my “favorite” practice would have to be one from sources that offer firsthand perspectives on this sort of religious activity. I have in mind the Derveni papyrus, a fascinating text from the late Classical or Hellenistic period, or the Pauline Epistles. Both are written by authors who allege to be religious experts, albeit ones working within different frameworks—the mysteries of Greek Orpheus and the Judean god and his Christ, respectively—and who elaborate the significance of initiations that result in afterlife benefits. Both, moreover, demonstrate their expertise through the innovative interpretation of texts—an Orphic cosmogony and the “oracles of God” (that is, biblical writings)—they hold to be divinely inspired and rich in concealed secrets that only the true specialist can unlock.

The Derveni author, Paul, and highly literate experts like them fascinate me because they had the skills and freedom to construct complex, ambitious religious programs, which they scaffolded with intellectual apparatus. Their ability to articulate and reinforce elaborate schemes of religious practice and meaning was inseparable from the production of texts that demonstrated how all of these moving parts cohered. Given the rich legacy of Christian literature, it’s easy to take for granted that writings or scriptures have always been inseparable from religion. Yet texts such as these – ones that were directly implicated in religious activity – were relatively rare in antiquity. That being said, judging from the numerous intellectualizing forms of religion attested for the imperial period, I suspect that such uses of writing were on the rise in the Roman period.

CF: Would you consider Paul a freelance expert? What about Jesus and John the Baptist?

HW: I do consider Paul to be a freelance religious expert and make the case for thus situating him in At the Temple Gates, particularly chapter 4. Throughout the book I suggest that our appreciation of this particular form of religious activity has been hindered by the nature of our evidence for it: most accounts of freelance expertise occur in sources that are deeply critical of and seek to discredit would-be experts. What makes Paul’s letters so valuable, then, is that they offer a rare, insider perspective on how specialists operated on the ground, so to speak. From them we are able to glimpse how Paul made himself recognizable and appealing to his audiences, how he distinguished himself from rivals, and how he negotiated questions or pushback from followers in live time. The letters also corroborate the central dynamics of freelance expertise that I isolate and explore in earlier chapters of the book: the tendency for experts to receive, and even court, punishment; the popularity of foreign religion, including Judean religion or Judaism, in the early empire; and the intrigue that surrounded prophecies in Judean (or “biblical”) writings during the first and second centuries. Paul also traveled (or intended to travel) to particular cities where freelance experts were known to cluster, especially Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome.

John the Baptist and Jesus are trickier, since we lack for them the same quality of evidence that survives for Paul in his authentic letters. Whereas the epistles are instrumental texts that communicate or reinforce Paul’s instructions, teachings, and so forth, the canonical gospels are idealizing narratives whose intended relationship to actual religious practice is, to my mind, somewhat unclear. Of course, the canonical gospels and non-canonical writings purport to contain authentic sayings or teachings of Jesus and other reliable details about his life. These matters require so much careful consideration, however, that I made the decision early on in my research for At the Temple Gates to bracket questions about the historical Jesus, early Christian literature, and freelance religious expertise for my next major research project. That being said, Josephus famously mentions both Jesus and John (though without linking them) in a section of the Antiquities that is replete with stories about self-authorized religious experts and the problems they posed in Judea and Samaria over the course of the first century. These references are not without substantial problems, but it may be notable that Josephus and other independent witnesses to Jesus and/or John do characterize them in terms that are consistent with how they treat freelance experts on other occasions.

CF: Is there any evidence that women worked as freelance experts, too?

HW: Quite a lot of evidence, in fact, but with two caveats: First, the quantity of evidence for men’s religious activities—or for the religious activities of collective groups whose demographic composition is unclear—is disproportionately higher than for women’s in general. Freelance expertise is not radically different, but women do appear often as both purveyors and, even more so, avid consumers of specialized religious offerings, and maybe (probably) more regularly or significantly than in evidence for other forms of religious activity. Voluntary associations represent another exception in this vein.

Accusations against and literary representations of women alleged to practice “magic” in the Greek and Roman period were typically more exaggerated and hyperbolic than for male “magicians.”

The second caveat is that, just as many of our ancient descriptions of freelance experts are biased against them and likely quite distortive, so too are many representations of women’s religious activities prone to source problems. You can imagine, then, how the evidence for women acting as freelance experts might compound these dynamic, resulting in depictions of women as grotesque, libidinous witches and the like. Indeed, the scholar Kimberly Stratton has shown that accusations against and literary representations of women alleged to practice “magic” in the Greek and Roman period were typically more exaggerated and hyperbolic than for male “magicians.”

Nevertheless, women do appear as freelance experts in sources that either raise fewer interpretive problems—for instance, Paul’s references in Romans 16 to Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, women whom he describes in terms that are or might be suggestive of this sort of activity—or else caricature these religious actors without a particular interest in female examples thereof. Juvenal includes a Judean “priestess and law interpreter” among the aforementioned exotic experts who try to solicit female followers while their husbands are out of the house. That a not insignificant number of these examples survive—and in evidence capturing a variety of perspectives (the letters of Paul, inscriptions, poetry, historical writings, satires, etc.)—points to a notable presence of female experts within the wider phenomenon of freelance expertise. Furthermore, at least some women comprised collective categories of experts that are only mentioned in the masculine plural. That is, references to magi, haruspices, or even apostoloi might, and likely did, capture both male and female figures (this is why English translators of the Pauline Epistles often render “brothers” or adelphoi as “brothers and sisters”).

CF: What do you think is the most important message of your book for Christians? What about for people of other religions (or none)?

HW: Let me begin with your second question and then narrow my focus to matters that are of particular concern to Christians. 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.

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.

CF: When you presented a paper on this subject for the Christianity Seminar, I found it especially interesting that the question of who counted as an “authentic” or “authoritative” expert on practices associated with Judea became a concern because of tensions between Judea and Rome. I found myself naturally grasping for modern parallels, like who gets to speak for Black concerns around police brutality. Is that a fair comparison? Or is there a better way to understand this struggle for authority?

HW: That’s an interesting comparison, and one that works, I think, with respect to how authority and legitimacy are constructed and maintained in the absence of strong traditions, regulatory bodies, or existing institutional frameworks. My students often ask what made someone a real apostle or prophet versus a false one in the ancient world, as though there were fixed and largely shared criteria for adjudicating these labels. My response is that one’s status as a religious expert had everything to do with one’s ability to gain recognition as such among particular audiences, at a time when what it meant to be an “apostle,” a credible prophet, etc. was largely up for grabs.

Of course, with time we see texts—the Pastoral Epistles, the Didache, and so forth—beginning to take positions on these questions, for instance, by outlining structures of religious authority, determining the qualifications attached to particular offices, championing particular teachings or texts, and warning of “false” teachers, apostles, and prophets who might violate these norms. Here too, however, it is not entirely self-evident what lent authority to these voices and not others, if they were even recognized as being authoritative, and for whom. I think you’re right that we see analogous issues arising within nascent social movements and religious groups that have yet to coalesce around a broadly recognized leadership or to acquire institutional regularity, however this might look in a given context. In such situations there are often opportunities for new voices to emerge and gain influence, and for tensions to arise between institutionalizing and self-authorizing interests. What makes the second century interesting to me is that these tensions are very pronounced among Christian writers, in part because “Christianity” held the potential to diversify in lockstep with any would-be expert claiming a new revelation, composing a new “authoritative” text, and managing to convince others of his or her legitimacy.

CF: A book is definitely a labor of love, and I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing At the Temple Gates in print. Is it too soon to ask what topics you’re hoping to explore next?

HW: Not at all. Since At the Temple Gates grew out of my doctoral dissertation, I already began to feel the itch for a new project a few years ago. There have been some exciting developments recently in the study of gospel literature—the canonical gospels individually, as well as gospel composition as a general practice—and I became interested in how the methodology of my first project might be brought to bear on thinking about the composition of gospel literature in the service of authority and legitimacy. It has always irked me that we don’t have a great sense of why gospels was written; the standard wisdom long held that pious communities of Christ-believers orally curated stories about Jesus that were eventually set to writing as the gospels we know today. And yet this narrative doesn’t square with the interests and settings that produced comparable and contemporaneous non-Christian literature: for instance, traditions about or sayings attributed to esteemed ancient philosophers such as Pythagoras that served to legitimate a present-day teacher, and often at the expense of rival teachers and groups. Building on the last chapter of the book, which projects the framework of freelance expertise into second-century Rome in order to examine dynamics between rival Christian writer-intellectuals—e.g., Justin Martyr, Marcion, Valentinus, Ptolemy, and Irenaeus—the next book will consider how the composition and interpretation of writings participated in the construction of religious authority among would-be Christ authorities in the generations after Paul. The Bar Kokhba paper I presented last fall moved in this direction, and I am currently finishing a few articles, one on Christians among other writer-intellectuals in second-century Rome and another on Marcion, that expand the foundation for this project.

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G 2312: A Greek papyrus amulet citing Romans 12:1

Public Understanding of Religion

CF: Westar’s mission is “advancing religious literacy,” but of course the phrase religious literacy can mean different things to different people. Out of curiosity, how would you define it?

HW: As you note, how one defines religious literacy depends on one’s positioning in the conversation, among other factors. As a professor of early Christianity at a public institution, my definition of religious literacy goes beyond being basically informed about the history and central characteristics of particular religions, to the extent these can be distilled. Equally if not more important is the ability to think critically and analogically about the myriad social practices that involve god(s) and similar beings whenever and wherever they occur. This entails being able to adduce patterns and differences within and across specific “traditions” or phenomena: in the nature of religious authority; in the development and character of religious institutions (if they exist at all); in the status of texts and doctrines (if they are even relevant in a particular example, often they are not); in the social conditions that promote and sustain particular forms of religious activity; and so on and so forth. Of course, how to define “religion,” or whether it can be defined at all, is hotly debated in the academic study of religion. Hence, a large part of my task is to acquaint students with the contours and stakes of this debate, while also teaching them to interrogate the meanings that they attach to “religion” intuitively and implicitly. The importance of information is not to be underestimated—I’m a historian after all—but honing an analytical mindset allows for a degree of “literacy,” even if that simply means knowing which questions to ask, when information is lacking.

Religious literacy ... [includes] the ability to think critically and analogically about the myriad social practices that involve god(s) and similar beings whenever and wherever they occur.

CF: What sort of role do you think scholars should have in public conversations about religion?

HW: To be honest, I am still trying to figure that out. Having seen well-respected scholars in my field enter public conversations bravely and with the best intentions only to endure criticism from their colleagues and the public alike, I am a bit wary. That being said, I feel strongly that scholars have a responsibility to make their work accessible and relevant to audiences broader than their own intellectual circles, whether by giving public lectures and interviews, by maintaining blogs, or by writing books and articles intended for a more general audience. Although my next projects will be “scholarly” ones, I have a few ideas for books down the road that would be more broadly appealing.

CF: If you could correct one popular misconception about religion, what would it be?

HW: That religion is not only a singular and self-evident entity, but also an agent unto its own: it does things, it has a certain character (inherently bad or good), and it’s responsible for x mishap or y historical event.

CF: What’s one thing you appreciate about religion in the public sphere? Where do you see people doing a good job handling this often difficult topic?

HW: Since I teach a number of religion courses at the gen-ed level, I try to incorporate a number of newspaper and magazine articles, general-audience books, podcasts, and other popular media into my syllabi. Few of my students are likely to go on to study religion professionally, so one of my objectives is to teach them how to seek out and read, watch, or listen to public discourses about religion with a critical eye (or ear). Pieces from the New Yorker and The Atlantic have proven especially useful in this context, and many scholars in my field now contribute regularly to periodicals. My students have also enjoyed listening to religion-themed courses through iTunes University, the Great Courses, and related platforms.

Heidi, thank you for sharing so many fascinating insights with us from your work! At the Temple Gates comes out from Oxford University Press in August 2016.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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3 replies
  1. Clifford says:

    All very interesting, but intended only for the cognoscenti. It is well and good for scholars to contend with one another, but it is quite another for their ideas to speak to a larger audience – and to have the influence that their authors seem to want. I did read the interview with Ms. Wendt with interest, but I wished that she would speak more plainly. Way too much verbiage that tends to obscure the argument she attempts to make. Like so many of her peers she seems to have sprung from the womb writing erudite pedagogical prose. She does allude to desiring to write in future for a much wider audience and I hope she does. There is so much scholarly effort that just ends up on dusty shelves, some deservedly so, but some not so much. Heidi Wendt’s effort falls into the latter category I believe.

    • Cassandra says:

      Clifford, thanks for your comments. Writing for the public and writing for the scholarly community are different skills, to be sure, and I recall learning that a number of the Jesus Seminar scholars who went on to achieve the role of public intellectual attended training on how to write for the public.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] 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. […]

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