Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire

Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire

by Timothy Luckritz Marquis


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In a significant reevaluation of Paul’s place in the early Christian story, Timothy Luckritz Marquis explores the theme of travel in the apostle’s correspondence. He casts Paul’s rhetorical strategies against the background of Augustus’s age, when Rome’s wealth depended on conquests abroad, the international commerce they facilitated, and the incursion of foreign customs and peoples they brought about. In so doing, Luckritz Marquis provides an explanation for how Paul created, maintained, and expanded his local communities in the larger, international Jesus movement and shows how Paul was a product of the material forces of his day.

“This is the single most sophisticated book on Paul to be written within the paradigms of contemporary critical thought. By integrating its extensive, erudite, and compelling citations of the Greco-Roman world in which Paul was writing with post-colonial and post-Marxist thinking, it makes real progress in understanding Paul’s letters.”—Daniel Boyarin

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187144
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Series: Synkrisis
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Timothy Luckritz Marquis is assistant professor of New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary. He lives in Bethlehem, PA.

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Transient Apostle




Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18714-4



Traveling Leaders of the Ancient Mediterranean

As we can tell from the clues left us in his correspondence, self-presentation—the image of "apostle"—was of primary importance in Paul's preaching mission. To those who encountered him, Paul initially appeared as one of many wandering artisans taking advantage of the freer, safer, yet still risky travel afforded by the pax Romana. His claims to be God's envoy evoked tales of wandering strangers and foreigners whom people could welcome or reject, risking God's wrath if they turned away an authentic, divine messenger. Paul's success depended on his ability to control the semantic excess flowing from apostleship. He needed to arrange prevailing cultural expectations about travelers in order to define his leadership role and the international community he hoped to build around it. Rival visions of apostleship from other Christian preachers further complicated his task, as we can see from the letters contained in 2 Corinthians. In part, this evidence of suspicions and accusations directed at Paul's apostleship makes 2 Cor 1–9 a unique opportunity for studying Paul's self-presentation, the formation of the early Jesus movement as an international community, social change during the first century of the Roman Empire, and theoretical approaches toward the rhetorics of new social movements.

I contend that Paul deployed travel—more specifically, the image of the "Wandering Apostle"—as a floating signifier that traced the boundaries of his self-image and his community. The travel images he used evoked itinerant figures that in turn represented prevalent expectations among his audience. In the background summary below, I emphasize traveling "figures," famous traveling heroes or types of the legendary past, for two reasons. First, I take seriously Pauline scholarship that cautions against the bewitching force of Paul's rhetoric and the place of his letters in the New Testament canon, an effect that can lead readers to overestimate his role in the spread and formation of earliest, international Christianity. In this light, a project like mine, locating Paul's image among other ancient wandering figures, risks falling into the gravitational pull of traditional narratives of early church history. In response, my study focuses on self-fashioning in the face of a situation of marginalization. To put it simply, Paul struggles to make himself a more central facet of the worldwide movement, and he calls to mind famous travelers and the discourses they represent as a part of his rhetorical strategy. Second, throughout the following investigation, ancient meditations on the structure of society and the nature of the individual indicate the centrality for Greco-Roman thinkers of stock individual types or characters (in Greek philosophical terminology, prosopa; in Latin, personae). For ancient thinkers, people (or to be precise, upper-class men, the only true political actors for this period) filled certain personae on the basis of their natural aptitudes, a sense of divine calling or purpose, or the vicissitudes of certain situations. In constructing his vision of the role "apostle," Paul needed to engage certain common leadership types, whether the strong and open leader who suffered neither falsehood nor shame (think Ajax or Cato the Younger), the clever demagogue who would stoop to any means to achieve his desired ends (of which Odysseus was the paradigm), or any of a number of other familiar figures.

Furthermore, attention to Paul's rhetorical strategy of increasing and expanding his communities by establishing himself as the movement's coordinating signifier helps address an aporia in the study of new social movements—the role of the leader or "hegemonic actor" in assembling novel hegemonic rhetorics. Like other ancient moralists, Paul felt a divine calling to his mission and thus asserted his leadership position with a sense of divine authority. Yet he also realized that his image as apostle would need to be taken up and spread by his followers if it were to function successfully as a central signifier of the larger community. "We write you nothing except that which you can read and also recognize," he tells the Corinthians at the outset of 2 Cor 1–9. "I hope that you will recognize until the end (just as you have recognized in part), that we are your boast just as you are our boast on the Day of the Lord Jesus" (2 Cor 1:13–14). Paul's self-image would be fully fashioned only by his followers, a process concerning which he felt considerable eschatological pressure. In Paul's mind, his communities would need to attest to his fidelity and authority before other potential adherents in this age and before Christ in the next. The success of Paul's rhetoric, as we know, occurred in a slightly different manner; his followers indeed took up his image after his death, producing the many pictures of Paul that made up his diverse legacy, including the Great Apostle of catholic Christianity.

The starting point for the journey of the apostle as wandering signifier can be found in Paul's epistolary interactions with his communities. Evoking traveling gods and their proclaimers, epic heroes, foreign moralists, famous exiles, and sages contemplating death as a final journey, Paul cleared new space for his communities through the image of the Wandering Apostle.

Dionysus (the Traveling God)

In Euripides's Bacchae (504–631), the Theban king Pentheus receives a visitor, a prophet of the god Dionysus. Poor, wandering, long-haired, and effeminate, the prophet is arrested on sight and brought before the king as a charlatan bringing corruption to the city and, in particular, its women, who are already under the hypnotic sway of Bacchic devotions. Little does the king know that, beyond being a legitimate envoy of the god, the prophet is actually Dionysus disguised. The literary conceit encapsulates the anxiety with which "foreign" deities and their itinerant preachers were regarded in the ancient world. Famously called "beggars and sorcerers" by Plato (Resp. 364B–365A), the wandering practitioners of Bacchic rites exemplify a wider, complex phenomenon in Greek and Roman cultic devotions: the notion of gods as "travelers" and the proper way in which to receive them as visitors.

Insofar as mythmakers and cultic practitioners could easily construe immortals as foreign to the human realm, tales of gods and goddesses interacting with people could also be interpreted as instances of divine travel. Most prominent among the itinerant gods was Hermes, who conveyed divine messages throughout the cosmos. Apollo also traveled—most notably, according to ancient depictions, in the precivilized world, an era characterized by wandering. Tales of the gods traveling in disguise often lay behind ancient injunctions concerning the virtue of hospitality toward strangers. Stories of Zeus and Hermes traveling as emissaries may even stand as the background of some early Christian tales, as when the Lycaonians in Acts mistake Paul and Barnabas for the gods Hermes and Zeus (14:8–13).

Various ritual performances reinforced the notion of gods as travelers. Observing the presence of couches, tables, and decorations in various offerings, scholars have identified a specific cultic tendency among the Greeks termed theoxenia, or "hospitality for the gods." Other rituals welcomed gods not from heaven but from other geographic locales, as when Greek cities celebrated the arrivals (katagogiai) of deities. Katagogia festivals tended to coalesce around certain deities characterized by their mythic travels, including Dionysus, Apollo, and Demeter and Persephone. The Athenian "City Dionysia" or "Great Dionysia," a festival featuring a procession and the performance of tragedies, commemorated the arrival of "Dionysus Eleuthereus" (the god's particular manifestation that originated in the city of Eleutherai). According to the legend, the Athenians had once rejected an Eleutherian statesman who arrived with a cult statue of the god. In retribution, Dionysus struck male Athenians with an unspecified malady of the genitals. An oracle from Apollo advised them to welcome the god with a periodic rite featuring sacred phalluses. The ritual served to appease the once angered deity. Other katagogiai across Greece and Asia Minor celebrated local institutions of Dionysus's cult. In each case, he was regarded as an outsider welcomed into the community.

Writers emphasized the foreignness of arriving deities. Cybele was always Phrygian, Syrian, or generically Asian, and Isis always retained the trappings of Egyptian culture. Apuleius's Metamorphoses witnesses to the continued Egyptianness of Isis while expressing her accrued universality. After appearing to Lucius, an impetuous adventurer turned into an ass by a magic spell, Isis explains her many names and guises in various cultures but asserts that "those who are enlightened by the earliest rays of that divinity the sun, the Ethiopians, the Arii, and the Egyptians who excel in antique lore, all worship me with their ancestral ceremonies and call me by my true name, Queen Isis" (11.5). The Isis procession in the city (Corinth, no less) the next day commemorates the beginning of the navigation season, a fact that may contain a historical kernel of Isis's Mediterranean migrations. The goddess who arrived in various towns with foreign merchants comes to express her universality through her divine patronage of all maritime activity. In some contexts, Isis retained her geographic particularity—for example, in one of Propertius's Elegies (2.33a), in which he humorously laments his lover's participation in a multiday feast to Isis, a rite requiring celibacy. Out of his resulting deprivation, the poet curses Isis's decision to take the long and uncomfortable trip from Egypt to Rome.

So persistent was the "foreignness" of these deities—especially that of Cybele and Dionysus—that their rites and mythologies were often confused and combined. This syncretism is reflected in ancient literature: Euripides's Bacchae describes Dionysiac rites as being similar in nature and origin to those of the Great Mother, and Strabo picks up on these descriptions (as well as more oblique evidence in Pindar's Hymn to Dionysus) to explain the common "Asiatic" character of the rites of each deity, as well as those celebrated in Orphic devotion (10.3.10–18). The same sense of "foreignness" or "Easternness" was often attributed to the God of Israel and Judean cultic practices. Even some Jewish authors seemed to see similarities between Jewish and Dionysiac rites. For example, Jdt 15:12 and 2 Macc 10:7 describe among the Jewish worshippers the use of thyrsoi, a ritual prop best known for its role in Bacchic celebrations. Bacchic (and even Euripidean) connotations would certainly fit the plot of Judith: a female devotee of a foreign cult kills a king with her own hands and then celebrates her victory "with all the women of Israel ... and some of them performed a dance for her, and she took thyrsoi in her hands and gave them to the women with her" (15:12). In the following hymn, Judith exhorts the crowd to praise God with "drums" and "cymbals"; to a certain extent, all percussive music was considered "Asiatic" and "Bacchic" (see, for example, Strabo 10.3.15–16). The passage in 2 Maccabees, in fact, describes Judas Maccabaeus's rededication of the Jerusalem Temple by referring to his use of thyrsoi. Outsiders sometimes confused Yahweh with Dionysus: Ptolemy IV Philopator's decree that Alexandrian Jews worship Dionysus may be partly due to this perception, while 2 Maccabees claims that Antiochus IV Epiphanes instituted Bacchic rites in Jerusalem. The Ptolemaic ruler Ptolemy IV Philopater is portrayed in 3 Macc 2:29 as forcing Jews in Alexandria to brand themselves with "the ivy-leaf mark of Dionysus." Plutarch explains the general confusion of the two deities with reference to the harvest feast of Sukhoth and its resemblance to Dionysiac rites. In Greco-Roman discourse, then, the lumping together of Eastern deities shows that their foreignness was a crucial aspect of their ideological function, worth distilling through the rhetorical act of conflation.

Katagogia celebrations honored and reperformed specific, legendary instances of the arrival of a foreign deity and its wandering preacher. On an everyday basis, however, itinerant cultic practitioners must have received more varied receptions. Plato's accusation that Bacchic advocates were con artists preying on the rich with false cures and promises of eternal life echoes through antiquity. Suspicions of falsifying cultic knowledge for petty gain characterized non-Bacchic rites as well. In an earlier exploit in the Metamorphoses, Lucius-turned-ass is bought by traveling "Syrian" priests of Magna Mater. The head priest is introduced as "one of the most common and impure of all people, who, through streets and towns, playing cymbals and castanets, carries around the Syrian Goddess and compels her to be a beggar" (mendicare compellunt; 8.24). The band of eunuchs who force Lucius to carry a statue of the goddess fits nearly every Asiatic stereotype: they are effeminate, play percussive music, and are susceptible to manic frenzy in their spiritual ecstasy to the point of self-mutilation. The priests carry out their performances to their fullest extent in front of the house of a rich man, the inhabitants responding by tossing hoards of money and food to the "greedy souls" (8.28). For Apuleius, their only motive is to "plunder" the towns they visit (8.29). To this end, they "devise a new money-making method for themselves" by composing an intentionally ambiguous oracle, a suitable response to anyone who queries the goddess for advice (9.8). Eventually, angered townspeople track down the priests and arrest them for "stealing a golden cup ... secretly from the sacred seats of the very Mother of the Gods" (9.9). The eunuch priests of Metamorphoses 8 and 9 are stereotypical examples of hucksters of Eastern cults.

Conflation and stereotyping of foreign devotions can in part be attributed to fear of cultural novelty. For example, despite the official admission of the cult of Magna Mater into Rome in 204 B.C.E., her priests, who were imported from Asia to spare Romans the shame of castration and Asiatic behavior, were allowed to leave the sacred precinct of the temple only once a year. Such fear of the foreign also characterized Roman reactions to Bacchic devotions outside of the official worship of Liber (the god's Latin identification). Livy offers a highly reactionary account of the Senate's decision to crack down on Bacchic mysteries in 186 B.C.E., reportedly begun by a "sacrificer and sorcerer" (sacrificulus et vates) who came to Etruria from Greece. An inscription found in southern Italy records the senatorial decree regulating and limiting the growth of the mysteries.

In reaction to the simultaneous popularity and scandal of foreign rites, practitioners and municipalities alike conceived of strategies for deploying traveling gods in socially productive ways. As already described, city festivals enacting the rejection and acceptance of wandering deities enshrined the dual nature of the gods as strange but welcome, potentially destructive but ultimately life-giving. The rise of Alexander the Great, moreover, would usher in a new era of Dionysian fervor at a political level, as Hellenistic propaganda portrayed the conqueror of the world from Greece to India as a new Dionysus, traveling the earth and taking captive each city he encountered. As I discuss more fully in Chapter 3, succeeding Hellenistic and Roman leaders would avail themselves of Dionysian imagery (in particular, the god as head of the triumphal procession) both to secure a connection to Alexander and to justify the novelty of their proposed power. Such rulers would rely on existing groups of mystery devotees (groups called thiasoi) to support their new reigns. The trend of kings appealing to Dionysus would halt briefly with Augustus, who foreclosed on such rhetoric in response to the Bacchic pretensions of his rival, Mark Antony. No Roman emperor would don the garb of Dionysus until Nero, just years after Paul's correspondence to the Corinthians.

Given the complex matrix of reactions to traveling gods, it would be surprising, then, if Paul's initial audiences did not understand him in light of wandering practitioners of Eastern divinities. After all, he spoke of a god who had interacted with a people, the Judeans, whose rites were often conflated with those of other "Eastern" nations. He promised either eternal life or judgment and death, depending on the reception his god received. And he presented this god (despite the god's ethnic roots) as a universal king who should be welcomed in advance of the final revelation of his power. The decision over whether to welcome the Wandering Apostle hinged on factors entirely comparable to those pertaining to prophets of Cybele or Dionysus.

Odysseus (the Wandering Hero)

While traveling gods served to demarcate the boundaries between a city's native values and foreignness (and later, between a new king and old regimes), the myths told in antiquity also deployed human travelers to explore the outer reaches of what it meant to be Greek, Roman, a citizen of a particular city, or generally "human." The wanderers of Greek and Roman epic, of which Odysseus was the paradigmatic forerunner, traced ideological paths and borders through and around the self-understandings of various ancient societies.

Scholars have long observed that behind the mythic journeys of Greek epic, depicted in verse and on vase, lay the experiences of the first Greek explorers and colonists. In functioning as collective self-representations, the epic tales of the nostoi—those "returning home" from the Trojan War—were a curious means through which to reflect on colonization, as François Hartog notes. Those who set out to establish a new city, after all, had no intention of returning. The repeated returns of Odysseus and the other nostoi, according to Hartog, express the eternal process of communal self-understanding, of philosophical "anthropology." The returns can be explained in less existential and more social-constructivist terms, however: that the nostoi always return to their homelands not only reflects the Greek colonial mercantile experience, but reinforces the connection and stability of the culture in colonial diaspora despite the separation of distance and the novelty of social creation.

Excerpted from Transient Apostle by TIMOTHY LUCKRITZ MARQUIS. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

List of Abbreviations xi

Introduction 1

1 Traveling Leaders of the Ancient Mediterranean 22

2 Travel, Suicide, and Self-Construction 47

3 The Wandering, Foreign God of Israel 70

4 Delivering the Spirit 87

5 Whether Home or Away 112

6 Ambassadors of God's Empire 127

Conclusion 148

Notes 154

Index 185

What People are Saying About This

Karen L. King

This brilliant and beautifully written book masterfully shows how Paul’s rhetoric about himself as a travelling apostle created the new social movement we call “Christianity.” Through his repeated talk about surviving the dangers of ancient travel, Paul exemplified how power shines forth in weakness, even as Christ’s cross points to the glorious resurrection. An illuminating must-read for all interested in Paul and empire.—Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School

Daniel Boyarin

This is the single most sophisticated book on Paul to be written within the paradigms of contemporary critical thought. By integrating its extensive, erudite, and compelling citations of the Greco-Roman world in which Paul was writing with post-colonial and post-Marxist thinking, it makes real progress in understanding Paul’s letters.—Daniel Boyarin

Brigitte Kahl

This ambitious, well-researched and illuminating study makes a significant and original contribution to the study of Paul and of first-century socio-historical and rhetorical contexts pertinent to the exploration of the New Testament. Impressively fluent with ancient sources and secondary literature, Luckritz Marquis analyzes Paul's discursive strategies with remarkable linguistic and conceptual proficiency.—Brigitte Kahl, Union Theological Seminary

John T. Fitzgerald

A lucid and illuminating discussion of Paul’s prominent use of travel motifs and their role in the apostle’s self-depiction and rhetorical strategy.  Luckritz Marquis deftly situates Paul’s itinerancy and his variegated travel rhetoric within the enhanced physical mobility of the Roman empire.— John T. Fitzgerald, University of Notre Dame

Benjamin H. Dunning

Timothy Luckritz Marquis makes a compelling intervention in Pauline studies, bringing to light the full rhetorical complexity of the apostle’s self-presentation in 2 Corinthians as an itinerant, both cosmopolitan and marginalized.  Erudite, layered, and theoretically sophisticated, The Transient Apostle is original in its approach and persuasive in its conclusions.—Benjamin H. Dunning, author of Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity.

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