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The possessed slave girl

· ​Paul and women ·

Among the many characters whom Paul meets in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the slave girl possessed by a spirit of divination (16:16-19) stands out because of the scant attention she has always received. She gets little attention from the narrator who uses her very brief appearance in the account to justify Paul’s arrest in Philippi, but she is then completely forgotten. She also receives little attention from the Biblical scholars, who in general barely mention her in their comments, when they do not totally ignore her.

This lack of interest in the character is without a doubt encouraged by the disdainful attitude that Paul, the protagonist of the account, has in her regard. Although since her first meeting with Paul the young woman bears a constant and true witness that he and his companion Silas are servants of the Most High God and messengers of the way of salvation, the Apostle completely loses interest in her words and in her, until, weary of being constantly followed by, her he exorcises her.

The slave girl is deprived of the spirit of divination, thanks to which she obtained sizeable earnings for her owners and, furious, they report the two apostles to the authorities of Philippi, accusing them of preaching customs incompatible with the lifestyle of the Romans.

If we analyse the account from a narrative perspective, it is extremely surprising that after the denunciation no character remembers the slave girl. Although the exorcism which Paul performed on her is the immediate cause of the punishment that the two apostles receive from the authorities with a session of beating and a night in prison, her owners do not speak of her to the authorities, nor does Paul think of mentioning her to justify himself or to defend himself from the accusation.

This silence seems to indicate that in the socio-cultural context suggested by the book of the Acts of the Apostles and its readers, the life of a woman slave was so unimportant that no one, not even a follower of Jesus, would have noticed her absence in the rest of the story. Indeed, her brief intervention seems to serve no other purpose than to link Lydia’s conversion (16:131-15), from the narrative viewpoint, to that of the jailer and perhaps to introduce into the account an inappropriate note of humour.

St Paul portrayed in the Chapel of Saints Victor and Corona in Rivalta (Turin)

This conclusion contradicts not only the exemplary and merciful character which the earthly Jesus must presumably have had, but also the hopes and promises of religious and social renewal proclaimed by many of the New Testament writings. It contradicts in particular the message with which the Acts of the Apostles begins, where Peter explains the seemingly uncontrolled behaviour of the disciples at Pentecost, citing an oracle of Joel in which he proclaims the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all people. This oracle seems to have been chosen precisely because it emphasizes the ecstatic and democratic character of the spiritual intervention proclaimed, which will be manifested through dreams and visions even in socially insignificant people such as male and female slaves.

Joel of course refers to the spirit of the God of Israel and to Israelite slaves, not to pagan slave girls possessed by unknown spirits. Yet the spirit of divination which speaks through the slave girl of Philippi turns out to be a true spirit that recognizes Paul and Silas as authentic servants of the Most High God, sent to proclaim the way of salvation.

At this point it should be remembered that the ancient Jewish monotheism to which Paul and the author of the Acts of the Apostles are heirs, did not deny the existence of other spiritual or supernatural beings different from the God of Israel. This monotheism demanded only that such beings not be either worshipped or considered to be gods but seen only as powerful creatures subject nevertheless to the one God, Creator of all that exists. Although it is true that some of those spiritual or supernatural beings were presumably capable of opposing the Creator’s will, many others served him faithfully as messengers and intermediaries. Moreover, given that the prophetic spirit of the slave girl told the truth and, unlike the impure or evil spirits that appear in other episodes of the Acts of the Apostles(5:16; 19:13-16), did not harm the girl’s physical or mental integrity, there do not seem to be valid reasons to explain why Paul was unable to recognize it as a spirit loyal to the one God.

It is true that in order to avoid every deviation from this concept of divinity, Deuteronomy 13:2-6 orders the killing of any prophet who, basing himself on a correct prediction, proposes the cult of other gods, and Deuteronomy 18:10-2 forbids the presence among the Israelites of all those who practise divination, the reading of auspices or magic, or of those who question the dead. But in the case we are examining there are none of these circumstances. The slave girl does not encourage anyone to worship other gods, she herself is not an Israelite, and Paul and Silas have not consulted an oracle. This is the case of a freely given sign from the pagan world which, like the signs of heaven interpreted by the Magi from the East in Matthew 2:1-12, bears a truthful witness in favour of the one God of the Jews. Thus it is surprising that Paul himself, who went to Philippi obeying the instructions of a pagan who appeared to him in a nocturnal vision (Acts 16:9-10), fails to attribute any value to the girl’s ecstatic testimony.

Catacombs of Sts Marcellinus and Peter (Rome)

Paul’s attitude is even harder to understand if we take into account that according to the Acts of the Apostles themselves (17:23-31) the Apostle was prepared to accept that the true God not only revealed himself to Israel but also allowed himself to be discovered by the religious instinct of pagans, as is demonstrated by the altar that the Athenians had dedicated “To an unknown god”. In other words, if Paul was disposed to see in a god worshipped by the Athenians a veiled manifestation of the true God, why could he also not recognize in the proclamation of the possessed pagan girl an indirect manifestation of that same God?

Certain exegetes seek to justify Paul’s attitude to the slave girl, maintaining that it expresses the refusal of the use of spiritual powers for commercial ends. However this explanation is barely plausible. The possessed slave girl proclaims her message concerning the Most High God and the mission of Paul and Silas outside any oracular context, in public places and without anyone having asked her to do so. In these circumstances neither she nor her owners expected any material benefit from the words which the spirit had spontaneously prompted her to speak. In addition, the text in which the episode is recounted does not even suggest that Paul knew about the trade in oracular consultations which the girl’s owners had organized.

Therefore, with the lack of any alternative explanation, the suggestion made above – according to which the cause of the contempt on the part of the author of the Acts of the Apostles and their protagonist Paul for the testimony of the spirit of divination was the possessed woman’s lack of social or cultural importance – stands out as the most plausible.

Indeed it is not unusual for a human group to reject useful and precious knowledge because of the mere fact that those who convey it belong to groups lacking in sufficient recognition or social esteem. This was very common in the agricultural and patriarchal societies of the Mediterranean Basin, where categories and evaluations linked to the social construction of gender and status were so deeply rooted that they were seen as part of the nature of things.

The categories and social evaluations with which the ancient patriarchal system constructed the concepts of men and women are distinguished for the rigidity of their differentiation, often seen in terms of opposition, and for their marked inclination in favour of the male to the detriment of the female. Patriarchal cultures characterize women as less rational than men, with less capacity for self-control, more inclined to let themselves be deceived by appearances and, in general, more vulnerable. These negative appraisals were made use of to justify women’s lack of direct political rights, their seclusion in the domestic milieu and their submission to men in the figure of the head of the family or guardian.

Another important categorization of the ancient social structure is that which set free people and slaves in opposition to one another. Even if everyone knew that wars could unexpectedly give a person autonomy, the fact that slaves were deprived of the ability to decide on the course of their own actions made them in the eyes of free men inferior beings, from whom it was impossible to expect authentically moral, and, even less, honest behaviour.

The young girl exorcized by Paul in the Acts of the Apostles is both a woman and a slave. She thus belongs to one of the most despised groups in the ancient world and it is certainly this total lack of social status which, in the eyes of the author of the book and its readers, justifies its protagonist’s negligent attitude to her.

We find ourselves facing a socio-cultural phenomenon which is constantly repeated in the trajectory of new religious movements: certain possibilities of change promoted by the movement at its origins are soon slowed down by deep-rooted cultural preconceptions which continue to carry weight in the attitudes of many of its members. This is noted especially often in movements which, like early Christianity, found a large part of their beliefs and practices on extraordinary experiences and ecstatic phenomena. The fact that it is difficult to submit this kind type of experience and phenomena to human control, together with the conviction that we have a divine origin, makes them particularly suited to conveying egalitarian and radically innovative impulses: if the god or spirit inspires who and how it wishes, no one can claim to control its revelations by appealing to job, rank or social position. Yet as long as cultural values contrary to the impulses of change persist among the movement’s members, leaders will continue to emerge who claim to slow them down, limiting access to the extraordinary or reserving for themselves the right to interpret it.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles represents a stage in the history of newborn Christianity in which extraordinary experiences and ecstatic phenomena continue to have great value and authority but the weight of certain cultural preconceptions linked to gender and status begins to obstruct their democratizing impulse.

Thus, although many initiatives and events which move the story forward originate in extraordinary experiences and ecstatic phenomena, the narrator cannot hide his interest in limiting access to the spiritual power emanating from them to certain characters, whose type of guidance it is desired in this way to confirm. We see, for example, that the community of Jerusalem sends Peter and John so that by laying their hands on those who have just been baptized in Samaria these two leaders may bring the Spirit down upon them (Acts 8:14-17). We note too that in blatant contrast with the evangelical tradition (Mark 9:38-40; Lk 9:49-50), the author of the Acts of the Apostles does not let any itinerant exorcists use Jesus’ name to liberate someone possessed by an evil spirit (19:13-17). In other words he is more interested in reserving the effective use of his name for leaders who are part of his history than in showing the benefits which the risen Jesus customarily dispenses when he is invoked.

Similarly, we may conclude that Paul’s attitude towards the young slave girl in the book of the Acts of the Apostles indicates that its author is more concerned to reserve the privilege of bearing witness to God Most High to certain Apostles, always described as free men with honest behaviour, rather than in glorifying that same God for letting himself be revealed through such a humble possessed slave girl.

Esther Miquel

The author

After a acquiring a degree in mathematics at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid and a master’s degree in Arts and Sciences at the University of Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Esther Miquel moved on to philosophical and biblical studies at the Pontifical University of Salamanca and, in Jerusalem, to the Instituto Español Biblico y Arqueológico and the École Biblique et Archéologique. Since 1999 she has reconciled work at the Spanish State Agency for Meteorology with independent research on the historicalJesus and on the origins of Christianity. 




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