Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.11

Laura Nasrallah, An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity. Harvard Theological Studies, 52.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2004.  Pp. 310; figs. 20.  ISBN 0-674-01228-3.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stephen Felder, University of California, Irvine (
Word count: 1538 words

As the subtitle suggests, this is a book that explores the relationship between the discussion of prophecy in early Christianity and struggles over identity, power, and knowledge. On one level, Nasrallah's argument revolves around the differing ways Tertullian and a contemporary source in Epiphanius' Panarion responded to Christian prophets in the early third century. But, on another level, Nasrallah is challenging one of the conventional meta-narratives of early Christian history, the idea that prophecy/charismatic experience of the early church was replaced by institutional and hierarchic forms in subsequent generations. Max Weber's model of religious development, largely based on Adolph Von Harnack's history of early Christianity which emphasized charismatic origins followed by routinization and institutionalization, is the primary target for her critique, but she also seems to want replace the role of meta-narratives in modern analyses of early Christianity. In her case, she advocates a "model of struggle" which sees the debate over prophecy as rhetorical maneuvering by specific individuals attempting to articulate a Christian identity based upon specific notions about epistemology, in particular, notions about how, and how much, we can know of the divine.

In analyzing this struggle over prophecy, Nasrallah argues that two discourses, the discourse of rationality and madness, and the discourse of the periodization of history, structure the debate. That is to say, in the sources she examined, each of the authors takes a position on "ecstasy" and madness, attempting to define the relationship between charismatic Christian experience (specifically prophecy) and "madness"/reason. Similarly, these same authors attempt to place themselves, and their community, into some sort of historical framework that articulates the role of the Spirit in that epoch. By placing Christianity within a certain position vis à vis "rationality" and by defining their present moment within a larger historical narrative, each polemicist hoped to define the source of true knowledge of the divine as a means of establishing his community's authority and constructing a self-identity identity as the "true" Christian.

In her first chapter, Nasrallah surveys the various "taxonomies" of dreams, madness, and ecstasy current in this era (1st-3rd centuries C.E.). She engages in a relatively brief survey of Artemidorus' Oneirokritikon and then moves on to a more lengthy treatment of Plato's taxonomy of "madness." According to Nasrallah, Plato saw four kinds of madness: manic-mantic, a madness that provides release in times of crisis, poetic madness, and the madness of the soul trying to ascend to God. Obviously where one places a prophetic experience in this taxonomy would have implications for the relative spiritual value of any prophetic utterance produced in such a state. She then moves on to outline the debate between Tertullian and what she calls the "Anti-Phrygian source" (Ephiphanius, Panarion 48.1.4-13.8). In the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:21 we read that the "Lord cast an ecstasy upon Adam and he slept." In a nutshell, the Anti-Phrygian source asserts that this "ecstasy" was a kind of "divine anaesthetic" to keep Adam from feeling pain, but according to Tertullian, "god brought sleep to the body but ecstasy to the soul," allowing Adam to "prophesy" upon his return to consciousness. For Tertullian prophecy arises, or at least can arise, out of ecstatic experience, but for the Anti-Phrygian source, prophecy is a more rational phenomenon.

In the second chapter she evaluates what is probably the earliest written treatise on Christian prophecy, I Corinthians. Nasrallah argues that Paul is not thinking of prophecy as irrational per se, but he does deploy the discourse of madness, albeit using the terms "wisdom" and "foolishness," to side with the foolishness of God against the wisdom of the world. This is part of his larger strategy to get the Corinthians to reevaluate their own self-assessment as "spiritual" people. He also uses the "periodization of history" to make this point, arguing that prophecy, tongues, and spiritual gifts, all of which the Corinthians possessed, are valuable but limited in this age in the knowledge of the divine they can reliably produce. While the Corinthians think of themselves as pneumatikoi, they are really psychikoi, and perhaps even sarkikoi. So Paul's treatment of prophecy is not designed to provide an overall theory of religious epistemology but to get the Corinthians to redefine their own spiritual status, which he does by siding with the "foolishness" of God against the "wisdom" of this age, devaluing the ecstatic experience of the Corinthians as a marker for spirituality, and insisting that this present age knowledge of the divine is limited ("now I know only in part ..." I Corinthians 13:12).

In the third and fourth chapters Nasrallah examines Tertullian's arguments about prophecy, resisting the tendency to scour de anima for signs of "Montanism" and instead deploying her "model of struggle" to understand how his comments on prophecy reflect his positions on larger issues of identity and epistemology. She argues that Tertullian's model of the soul is central to his exposition of prophecy. Tertullian rejected the Platonic idea of the tripartite soul, along with Plato's preference for the intellect in the pursuit of knowledge. Tertullian argued against the opposition between body and soul, claiming instead that the soul was created at the same moment as the body. For him prophecy takes place in a kind of ecstasy, and this is positive, a sign of God's activity. He also believed that he was living in a period of spiritual gifts and prophecy, and he was not surprised that prophets were continuing to speak for God in his age; this is what he would expect in an epoch in which the Spirit's activity was at its apex.

In the fifth chapter, Nasrallah explores the critique of the "New Prophecy" propounded in Epiphanius' Panarion. In one section of Panarion (48.1.4-13.8), Nasrallah detects a source that seems to be contemporaneous with Tertullian and responds to the kind of prophetic activity Tertullian was endorsing. Nasrallah chose her monograph's title from this source, "ecstasy of folly" being a label applied by the Anti-Phrygian sources to the new Christian prophets, whose ecstatic experience seemed not only irrational but at odds with other sources of divine knowledge. Still, Nasrallah acknowledges, they are not claiming that the Christian prophets are engaged in some kind of Bacchic frenzy; rather they are people lacking in sound judgment, and it is this sound judgment, or rationality, which characterizes true prophets.

Nasrallah concludes that these texts are not interested in defining reason or "madness" or in offering a theory of the periodization of history, rather they are "using these discourses . ... to shore up their own authority and that of their community, to establish a community's identity and borders over and against others, and to delimit realms of knowledge -- to fix the boundaries of what can be known and how it can be known." (p. 198)

To sum up, Nasrallah refutes the (stereo?)typical narrative of early Christian prophecy. Instead of seeing I Corinthians as a an example of the vibrancy of first-century prophecy that will fade into "rational" institutional Christianity by the third century, Nasrallah suggests that Paul was arguing for an inferior role for prophecy in the first century and that in the third century we find a still-vibrant debate over the role of prophecy in the local church, with various parties claiming other groups' prophets are not legitimate or authoritative.

Along these lines, this book makes several important contributions to the study of early Christianity. First, and probably most important, Nasrallah demonstrates the centrality of prophecy, visions, dreams, and ecstatic experience in the epistemological debates of the ancient world. While some sociological models tend to see these experiences as marginal, in the ancient world this was not the case. Access to knowledge of the divine was mediated through such experiences, at least for many people, and discussion over which of these experiences were reliable was an important component of any identity construction.

Secondly, Nasrallah's emphasis on "periodization" in the narratives she explores helps to articulate the centrality of historical perspective in early Christian self-definition. In other words, Nasrallah demonstrates that Christians' self-understanding was (and is?) dependent on how they understood their place within a larger Christian history. Her approach serves as a critique for those Christian histories that have too readily followed Eusebius' paradigm of the inevitable growth and triumph of Christianity.

This leads me to Nasrallah's final contribution, her emphasis on "struggle" as a model for exploring Christian history. While her approach is, itself, still a "model," it overcomes some of the teleological tendencies of modern interpretations of ancient Christianity. She does this first by underscoring the role of periodization in a Christian community's self-understanding and then by exploring the nature of the struggle (for identity, authority, etc.) taking place in individual moments of history rather than trying to fit it into some grand narrative.

Nasrallah's book should be read, not only by those interested in prophecy in early Christianity, but by all those struggling to describe the nature of ancient Christianity without succumbing to the meta-narrative of Christianization. Those interested in a philosophical treatise on ancient epistemology will not find it here, but they will find an exploration of a kind of "popular" epistemology current in the ancient world and a valuable source for those interested in the social and cultural history of the ancient world.

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