The Bishop, the Python Girl and Paul

The recent brouhaha over a sermon preached by Katharine Jefferts Schori in Curaçao, Venezuela nicely illustrates any number of issues relating to what constitutes good or bad biblical interpretation. See the responses here, here and here, for examples of the fairly histrionic response to a sermon whose overall focus was on the need to recognize the glory of God in others. For those who haven’t seen all the fuss, a summary: Jefferts Schori is preaching on the story of Paul and Silas in Philippi (Acts 16:11–40) and the controversial passage comes in her reflections on Paul’s encounter with the slave-girl (παιδίσκη, 16:16–18). This is what she says:

Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God.  She is quite right.  She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves (see Romans 1:1)  But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.  It gets him thrown in prison.  That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!  The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.

Some observations. First, the bishop has actually spotted something that is genuinely there in the text and that demands attention. The words used by the slave-girl ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you/us the way of salvation’ (οὗτοι οἱ ἄνθρωποι δοῦλοι ⸋τοῦ θεοῦ⸌ τοῦ ὑψίστου εἰσίν, οἵτινες ⸀καταγγέλλουσιν ⸀ὑμῖν ὁδὸν σωτηρίας, Acts 16:17) are to be understood as true from a Lukan perspective. However, secondly, it is highly unlikely that the words should be attributed to the slave-girl at all, let alone her ‘spiritual awareness’. True confession is characteristic of those understood to be in a state of demonic possession (cf. Luke 8:28) and the spirit is named in such a way as to indicate that the girl is little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. The NRSV translation, ‘spirit of divination’ doesn’t really convey this adequately. W. Foerster in his TDNT article amasses evidence in support of the idea that Luke’s ‘python-spirit’ (πνεῦμα ⸀πύθωνα, 16:16) is to be explained by reference to the connection (via association with the Delphic oracle) between the python and ventriloquism (ἐγγαστριμύθοις): see Hippocrates, Epidemiae 5.63.7, Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum 9, for the equation). He gets into a few knots in his explanation of Acts 16, supposing that Luke views the girl as the ventriloquist. The point is exactly the opposite, it seems to me: although Luke seems to suggest that the girl is speaking in the voice of the spirit, it is more likely that the spirit is speaking in the voice of the girl.

Thus, Paul’s response is not one of annoyance with the girl as such, but with the spirit who possesses her and whom Paul then directly addresses (καὶ ἐπιστρέψας τῷ πνεύματι⸅ εἶπεν·, 16:18). Jefferts Schori has simply failed to understand the essential dynamics of what is happening in the text. In fact, she could have made the overall point she wanted to make in the sermon by means of a more straightforward exegetical move: the spirit holds the girl in bondage thus preventing her from finding her true identity; a freedom into which Paul delivers her.

However, I am far from sure that this makes the sermon ‘the worst ever’. There is nothing to say that Luke’s characterization of Paul makes it necessary for us always to endorse what Paul says and does in Acts. It would be possible for Luke to tell a story about a mean-spirited Paul who tries to destroy the legitimate, perhaps even holy, insights of another. I don’t think Luke does tell that story, but if he had we would deal with in much the same way as we would deal with, e.g. the story of David and Bathsheba. Neither do I think that the fact that the bishop has inclusive views about, for example, the place of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people in the church is necessarily related to the fact that she hasn’t thought her exegesis through in this instance. At the very least she is is trying to make the text speak, to say something new, and to say something that, in my own view, is actually consistent with the gospel. There would be any number of equivalent examples of misguided exegetical moves from the other end of the theological spectrum, heard in pulpits across the world on any given Sunday, and many of them directed towards much less laudable homiletic aims.

The whole debate reminds me of something that Augustine once said:

If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them. If on the other hand you have made judgments about them that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant in that place, then your mistake is not pernicious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying…

Any who understand a passage in the scriptures to mean something which the writer did not mean are mistaken… But if they are mistaken in a judgment which is intended to build up charity, which is the end of the law (1 Tm 1:5), they are mistaken in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to.

[De Doctrina Christiana 1:36:40-41]

While Bishop Jefferts Schori may have gone astray in this particular exegetical matter, the sermon overall might point others in the right direction.