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Natural and Supernatural: The New Testament

The Christian Church had grown from shamanist roots; and as described by the gospel writers, Jesus is the most accomplished diviner-magician of them all. His destiny has been marked out for him in Joseph’s precognitive dream even before he was born; his birth is heralded by many signs and wonders, notably the star in the east which the Magi - themselves shamans - correctly interpret; and his baptism represents a recognition of his vocation, prompting him to undergo the traditional apprenticeship of self-denial - forty days and forty nights in the wilderness wrestling with the temptations of the flesh for fear that they would impede his spiritual development.

After subduing sensual lusts, however, Jesus is subjected to another form of temptation. Spiritual rebirth, he finds, has endowed him with psychic powers. Having the ability to convert a stone into bread, or to translocate himself to the top of a mountain or the pinnacle of the temple, he is tempted to use them for self-satisfaction, or self-aggrandisement. At first he is hesitant about using them at all. ‘Mine hour is not yet come,’ he tells the importunate woman when drink runs out at the Cana wedding feast; but he allows himself to be persuaded to do the kindly thing, and turn the water into wine. Later he uses his powers with more abandon: calming the sea, walking on the water, feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and performing countless cures. Only in the region where he has grown up, and where his family still live, is he unsuccessful. In the face of local scepticism, ‘he can do no mighty work’.

Attracted by these powers, Jesus’s disciples had a further inducement to stay with him: the promise of a continued life after death.

In Greek mythology some humans had been carried up after death to live on in the abode of the gods; but the Greek gods had been choosy. Jesus offered the prospect of a life after death to anybody, however humble, who followed him. And he clinched this pledge by his resurrection. While he lived supernatural manifestations had continued to testify to his, or his god’s, powers. He had shown precognitive knowledge of his impending arrest and execution, and of episodes connected with it, like Judas’s treachery and Peter’s spinelessness under questioning (‘before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice’); and at the moment of his death the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from top to bottom. But such signs would hardly have sufficed to convince the disciples had Jesus not afterwards appeared in their midst, and demonstrated that he had materialised by eating broiled fish and honey, and allowing Thomas to put his finger into the wound in his side left by the spear.

At this point it has to be stated that for none of these psychic manifestations is there a shred of historical evidence. Not merely were the gospels written half a century or more after the events they recorded; they were written with a deliberate propagandist purpose, to confirm that Jesus really had been the Christ - the Messiah promised by the prophets. They consequently presented him as a miracle worker who had fufilled all the earlier expectations and forecasts. It is, of course, still possible to argue that even if the gospels cannot be accepted as an historical source, they could hardly have been written unless there had been a Jesus with some shamanist powers to create the beliefs; in which case, as the parapsychologist Louis Anspacher urged, he can and ought to be studied as a psychic personality, ‘the most powerful medium and perhaps the greatest psychic sensitive who has ever walked down the aisles of history’. Due weight has to be given, too, to the experience of the anthropologist M. J. Field, who realised from her field-work in Ghana how similar the New Testament record was to her own experience, suggesting that on a psychic level the disciples were part of ‘an age-old, worldwide pattern persistently exhibited’ - in other words, the New Testament record is not incongruous, anthropologically speaking. Nevertheless there is no way of knowing which, if any, of the supernatural manifestations recorded in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles occurred.

The belief that they had occurred, though, remains of profound historical importance. The effects of Jesus’s resurrection was to confirm disciples in the expectation that they, too, would be resurrected, as he had promised, and thereafter dwell in heaven: lending moral support of a kind that no faith had enjoyed before. Humiliations, torture and even death could be viewed with relative equanimity, granted the prospect of eternal bliss thereafter. On earth, too, disciples were given a reassurance that they were the elect of the Lord.

He had assured them that they would be able to heal the sick, cast out devils, speak with tongues, pick up serpents or drink poison without coming to any harm. And at Pentecost,

suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it lay upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance.

They were not drunk, Peter explained to the bewildered onlookers.

They were fulfilling the words of the prophet that the spirit would pour forth; ‘your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’.

St. Paul

Epidemics of psychic hysteria of this kind had been reported before; in their Bacchic frenzies Dionysius’s followers had been given to prophecy. But Pentecost appeared to offer something more; an instantaneous transition from man to shaman. Self-discipline was still required; worldly goods were to be put away, and worldly ambitions, and the lusts of the flesh. But it was no longer necessary to undergo the traditional apprenticeship of self-denial and self-mortification. By materialising on earth, and allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus had redeemed men from the sins of his forefathers, enabling them to become possessed by God through the holy spirit, and to enjoy psychic powers, simply by embracing the faith.

It was the lesson of Pentecost which gave the early Christians their sense of a common identity, and a common purpose; and in the Acts they can be seen flexing their new shamanist muscles. Natural and supernatural elements constantly overlap and interact. Ordered by an angel to go far out of his way into a desert to find and baptise an Ethiopian, Philip the Evangelist is miraculously carried back to the region of Caesarea so that he need waste no time before resuming his mission; and an angel liberates some of the disciples from prison so that they can preach in the temple, to the embarrassment of the prison officers, who find the cells still locked and guarded, but empty.

And the most influential of the new-style shamans emerges: Saul. His conversion is attended by the traditional signs: a great radiance; a voice-‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’; a trance; and the appearance of the Lord in a vision to a disciple, Ananias, telling him to go to the street called Straight in order to welcome Saul (who himself would see what was to happen in a precognitive vision) into the Christian fold. Paul, as he was henceforth known, needed no apprenticeship: he soon found he had psychic powers, worsting a hostile magician in combat by depriving him for a time of his sight, and performing miracles - including, apparently, materialisations (‘from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs, or aprons, and the diseases departed from them’). When Paul and Timothy tried to depart from Bythinia, ‘the spirit suffered them not’; and he was later reluctantly compelled to obey the spirit’s insistence that he must stay on in Corinth, and risk the consequences of stirring up the wrath of the Jews there by testifying in their synagogue.

The Acts, like the gospels, were a propaganda exercise, so that what is related in them of Paul’s early career cannot be relied upon. The Epistles, though, and particularly those to the Corinthians, describe his own experiences, and give his own views, revealing him to be a dedicated spiritist, relying on his daemon. He thought of it not as a spirit, but as the spirit - the holy spirit, revealing the word of God to him. When he went to Jerusalem in the middle of the first century A.D. to tell Jesus’s followers there that they were wrong to insist that converts must submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision, Paul did not argue with them: according to his account in the Epistle to the Galatians he simply told them that he knew they were wrong. ‘I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, nor was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.’

For Paul, then, Christianity was shamanist, relying on inspiration rather than doctrine: ‘if you are led by the spirit you are not under the law’. But thanks to Jesus’s intervention, there was no longer any need to rely on shamans: any Christian could take advantage of the holy spirit’s gifts. To some, Paul explained, the spirit might bring wisdom, or faith; to some, the gift of healing: ‘to another, the working of miracles; to another, discerning of spirits; to another, divers kinds of tongues; to another, the interpretations of tongues’. Some individuals might even begin to live a spiritual existence: Paul described one of his acquaintances as having so much spirituality that he had attained to the third heaven while still on earth; ‘whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell,’ Paul remarked, ‘God knoweth’. But all such manifestations were to be valued. When somebody received the gift of tongues, what emerged might sound unintelligible, but it could still be meaningful if it were interpreted. Above all, Paul added - anticipating the neo-Platonists - what mattered was the attitude in which the spirit was invoked, and utilised. Its gifts would serve no good purpose unless suffused with love for others; ‘though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have faith, so I could move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’. That being understood, Paul felt, it was right to welcome spirit possession; ‘wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues’.

Paul’s advice revealed the existence of a problem. Suppose the voices were not endowed with charity? He and Timothy had already suffered as a consequence of the jealousy of rivals, as on the occasion in Thyatira when ‘a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination’ followed them around; her employers, who had been making a lot of money out of her, hauled Paul and Timothy before the magistrates, and they were flogged and imprisoned. Yet what she had been saying was not inherently diabolic; ‘these men are the servants of the most high God, and show unto us the way of salvation’.

It was at this point that a growing conviction began to harden among Christians into a certainty; that there was an anti-Christ - Satan, or the devil - with a contingent of evil spirits capable of masquerading as the holy spirit, and performing the full repertory of miracles. In Greek mythology it had been the gods themselves who had given lying advice to humans, or materialised for their own lascivious purposes; and in the Old Testament, Satan had needed the Lord’s permission to play Job’s tempter. But the notion had grown that Satan and his spirits were acting in their own right. When Jesus reminded Peter, ‘Satan hath desired to have you’ he went on to say not that he had refused the request, but that he had managed to stop Satan by prayer.

Jesus had dealt with Satan’s evil spirits by a kind of psychic shock treatment; and Paul followed his example by exorcising the evil spirit in the woman of Thyatira. It could be identified as an evil spirit because of the woman’s profession; as a paid clairvoyant, she was obviously not eligible to receive her information from the holy spirit.

Satan, in other words, was crafty enough to make those he possessed utter the most impeccably Christian sentiments, if it suited his purpose. ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit,’ John the Evangelist warned in his first Epistle General: ‘But try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’ As a simple test John suggested that the holy spirit could be distinguished from a false prophet by putting a simple doctrinal question: ‘Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; and this is that spirit of anti-Christ.’ But Satan, being crafty, could surely answer such questions to the satisfaction of the listeners. ‘The sin against the holy spirit’ had initially been the sin of refusing to listen to its promptings; but how could any ordinary Christian be sure he was being prompted by the holy spirit, when it might be the devil in disguise?

Natural and Supernatural: The New Testament is an Extract from Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914 by Brian Inglis, published by White Crow Books, and is available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Natural and Supernatural by Brian Inglis

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