Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena in Biblical Literature
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CitationCarlson, Reed. 2019. Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena in Biblical Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Divinity School.
AbstractThis dissertation maps the functions of spirit language, rituals, and myths in the Hebrew Bible and in Second Temple Jewish literature. Most studies of these phenomena aim to decode them using modern categories (e.g., mental health, symbolization of oppression, demonization of the ‘other’). In contrast, this project applies models from cultural anthropology and ethnography on possession, trance, and other similar practices from around the world in order to reveal functions not usually associated with spirit texts (e.g., “technologies of the self,” social commentary, therapeutic self-othering, a means to reembody the past). It argues that this literature was a crucial component for constructing conceptions of the self in early Judaism and Christianity. Further, it demonstrates how the problematization of the self in biblical literature led to the enigmatic conceptions of spirit possession and exorcism found in Second Temple Jewish Literature. Chapter one, “Unfamiliar Spirits,” positions this project at the intersection of two contemporary scholarly discussions in biblical studies that have often proceeded separately (studies on conceptions of “the self” and of “evil”). Chapter two, “What are Spirit Phenomena?” defines the terms “possession” and “spirit phenomena” as they are used in the project and lays out the underlying investigative method of the dissertation. Chapter three provides an overview of previous scholarship on spirit phenomena in both biblical studies and the study of religion. Chapter four, “The Spirit and the Self,” demonstrates how spirit-language is a common mode for articulating notions of personhood in biblical literature. This conception is labelled the “animating spirit,” because it is conceived as material-like and as a bodily organ that is imparted at birth and extracted at death. Chapter five, “Possessing Spirits,” describes those spirit possession episodes in biblical literature that are temporally limited and imparted for a specific purpose. These spirits can be characterized as good, bad, or morally neutral and their presence is signaled by possession or trance behavior. Chapter six, “Demonizing the Self,” surveys biblical literature and select examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls, showing how the animating and possessing modes of spirit phenomena are not mutually exclusive but rather exist on a spectrum.
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