A perennial problem in the study of religion is navigating the intersecting axes of belief and knowledge, which sometimes spindle awkwardly outwards, and other times collide and overlap, leaving the researcher the riddle of untangling their merging threads, and other times leaving the impression that they were never meant to be disentangled. My research focuses on loosening the threads around a particular knot: the anxiety produced by the threat of false prophets in early Christianity. In matters where the gods are involved, how can one know who has true access to the divine?
On Jesus’ lips we find predictions of false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15); “false prophets will appear,” Jesus says, “and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Mark 13:22). The stakes are high; how could one know the true from the false?
To avoid the folly of being swept up by someone filled with the wrong spirit, followers of Christ are asked to ‘discern’ the spirits to determine if they are from God. The Greek word used, diakrinō, means to distinguish, interpret, question, and decide. In short, our earliest texts ask their audiences to judge the spirits before trusting their bearers. My research examines what this process of spirit discernment entails. What signs did a truthful prophet, one purporting to be possessed by the right spirit, evince to pass the test of discernment? New Testament scholarship has been interested in the doctrinal basis of this distinction: prophets had to espouse right teaching, right doctrine, to be deemed true. Our sources, however, point to a much more robust catalogue of behavioural signs, belying a rich Mediterranean cultural tradition of interpreting action and behaviour as revelatory of the truth hidden within. Visible amidst the intellectual discussions and lay practices of physiognomy, culturally appropriate scripts for the performance of possession-trance, and even in legal accounts of torture, reading bodies was key to discerning truth.
My rereading of early Christian discernment practices is based in evolutionarily-grounded research on human judgment that investigates the embodied and affective components of human decision making and animal signalling. Human and other-than-human animals communicate by means of subtle and overt, simple and complex, patterns of signs that are received and interpreted within specific environmental, contextual, and social frameworks. Some signs contribute more to our knowledge than others. This body of biological research informs my reading of the New Testament and apocryphal Christian texts, pushing me to more carefully consider the weight of signs of the body, and how behaviour shapes our interpretation of human intention.
Reading bodies was key to discerning the provenance of spirits. We see this play out in contemporary Greek and Latin literary accounts where prophetic ability is scrutinized. In his mid first century CE epic, Lucan describes the pythia of Delphi possessed by Apollo, and how the petitioner discerns the presence of the god based on the movements of her body (Luc. 5.67-236). In Lucan’s narrative, true possession has a distinct bodily script, and the petitioner can tell by watching her when the pythia is faking her trance. Lucan suggests that you know true possession when you see it.
Lucian of Samosata, writing in the second century CE, also points to the body as a site for the discernment of truth. In his account of Alexander the False Prophet, Lucian describes Alexander running half-naked through the streets tossing his head of loose hair “as a devotee of the Great Mother in a frenzy,” and shouting incomprehensible words. The crowd, in Lucian’s account, is drawn in by this bodily performance of possession, as they “marvelled, prayed, and made obeisance” (Alex. 13). In order to portray Alexander as a fraud, Lucian needs to subvert this compelling bodily performance, and he does so by introducing anxieties about the manipulation of bodily truth. He tells us, for instance, that Alexander’s perfect hair is in part artificially enhanced. Alexander may appear perfect, says Lucian, but that is because he is a master manipulator of appearances: if we cannot trust his hair to be his own, why should we trust anything else we think we know of him?
In discussing discernment, early Christian sources follow their Graeco-Roman contemporaries in demonstrating concern for a prophet’s behaviour. The Shepherd of Hermas describes the righteous character of the true prophet, and the self-importance and greed of the false prophet, as demonstrated through his actions (Mand. 11). Within the context of the importance of bodily signs, the more enigmatic statements of the Gospel of Matthew, “you will know [the false prophet] by their fruits” (Matt 7:16), and the Didache, “the false prophet and the prophet shall be known by their habits” (Did. 11:8), become clearer: we should look to prophets’ actions, their behaviour, their bodies, to know their spirits.