Swindler or Sincere Teacher? The Apostle Paul in a Wider Field

Surely we’ve all had that awkward experience of being cornered by someone with an urgent cure or insight that simply must be imparted for our benefit—no, for our very existence, our ultimate well-being! You might be entertained to learn that this was a rampant problem in the Roman Empire, too. Yes, it’s true: scamming, swindling, miracle cures, secret insider keys to success, and so on were just as prevalent then as they are now. And as P. T. Barnum had it, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The inevitable problem with dismissing this entire class of activities, though, is that sometimes—even pretty often if you’re an optimist about human nature—the people who swear by their offerings are actually sincere. They aren’t trying to scam or swindle. Yes, they know and employ the usual techniques of persuasion, but they have a real message they think people need to hear, and they are devoted to sharing it. That is the difficult grey area traversed by Heidi Wendt in At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (Oxford UP, 2016).

If Heidi’s name sounds familiar, that’s probably because I interviewed her on the blog in August 2016 about her research. I hadn’t read the book at that point, so I was very glad to finally get a look at it over the holiday break.

I found At the Temple Gates to be an entertaining and eye-opening read. Although I encountered an overwhelming array of unfamiliar names of people, places, and practitioners, together they paint an extraordinarily diverse and lively landscape of society in the Roman period. One can’t help but laugh a little at the exasperation of their perhaps more educated or sophisticated contemporaries. After sharing a few examples, Wendt observes that this was not a new phenomenon even in Roman times but clearly was a frustration for their predecessors, too, many of whom found their own colorful language to describe the problem:

Adumbrating a theme to which Juvenal would dedicate a full satire, a confirmed bachelor in one of Plautus’s comedies defends his decision not to marry on the grounds that wives are too expensive for the money they demand each month to pay the woman who utters incantations (praecantrix), the one who interprets dreams (coniectrix), the inspired prophetess (hariola), and the female diviner of entrails (haruspica). Nor will any wife turn away empty-handed the woman who observes the heavens (qua supercilio spicit). Even Plato complains of begging priests and seers who lurk at the thresholds of the wealthy, boasting about the power of their proprietary initiations and sacrificial methods, often in conjunction with texts that somehow support such claims.

One would think that these exasperated pleas for common sense and a dose of skepticism might hurt the patronage opportunities for would-be freelance practitioners. If not words of censure, surely physical punishments ranging from expulsion to confiscation of belongings to beatings or threats of execution would suppress their activities. Not so! If the practitioners were willing to suffer for their arts and offerings, it was taken as a sign of their sincerity—and they very well might have been sincere, although of course skeptics were ready to suggest otherwise.

Juvenal quips that the most famous astrologer is he who has most often been in exile, who breeds trust in his skills if a handcuff encircles his wrist, for no one is credited with talent who has not been condemned.

What will be of great interest to biblical studies enthusiasts is Wendt’s chapter on the Apostle Paul in this wider context. As was the case with these other religious practitioners, Paul may have been entirely sincere but may have been perceived by others as somebody capitalizing on others’ gullibility. Which was the truth? Well, Wendt points out that at least with Paul we can read his side of the story. Here is one of those rare occasions when we can see both the critics’ comments and the practitioner’s self-defense side by side. If for a moment we can scrub away of the popular portrait of Paul as the founder of a religion and instead see him as an individual vying for public interest in a wide-ranging landscape of other competing individuals and loosely affiliated groups, we might read his rhetoric differently and appreciate him in a way beyond strictly his role in what would become Christianity over a century later.

Beyond Paul, though, another element affecting studies of early Christian history has to do with complicating our ideas about ethnicity in the Roman Empire: it was possible in this period for artists and satirists to use standard ethnically coded stereotypes of astrologers, diviners, prophets, and so on, and expect their audiences to recognize and appreciate the joke. If that is the case, Paul may have been able to call himself “Jewish” or “Judean” not because he actually had an ancestral tie to Judea but because signaling belonging to that particular ancestral group represented the type of offerings he was bringing into a household or community. I’m obviously phrasing that skeptically (“Paul might have been lying about who he was!”) but Wendt’s actual point was simply, again, that lines of identity and belonging don’t necessarily always follow the institutionalized “official” lines but were capable of being stretched and contested. Paul may have had an ancestral connection to Israel, or he may not have; in this particular landscape, there was room for someone like him to maneuver. Actions by individuals like Paul, in fact, were the observable agents of change, even rapid change, for institutions. As Wendt explains:

While these religious actors are a valuable object of study in their own right, I have argued that in this historical context they are integral to our understanding of the emergence and spread of what would become Christianity, although not before at least another century of negotiation, innovation, and diffusion had taken place.

This is just scratching the surface of Heidi Wendt’s work in At the Temple Gates, but I hope it gives you the flavor of the stories and anecdotes she has so thoroughly compiled to put Paul into a much richer context than simply formal political and religious institutions in competition with one another. Individuals could be enterprising and creative, and their efforts to build organic popular followings could succeed even at the highest levels of society, as even the imperial family was known to be influenced by such practitioners!

Learn more about the book on the Oxford UP website.

You can now listen to Heidi Wendt's lecture from Westar's Fall 2016 national meeting sharing some of her favorite stories and lessons from writing At the Temple Gates.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

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