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The Religion of Paul the Apostle, by John Ashton

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The Religion of Paul the Apostle, by John Ashton

The Religion of Paul the Apostle, by John Ashton

Paul is best known as the man who probably had more to do with the creation of Christianity than did Jesus, but was Paul a shaman? This is a very interesting and unusual question, and the issues it raises lie at the center of John Ashton's penetrating new look at the origins of Christianity and religious experiences of Paul the Apostle.


Title: The Religion of Paul the Apostle
Author: John Ashton
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300084412

• Provides an interesting and unusual perspective on early Christianity
• Refocuses attention on otherwise neglected aspects of Paul
• Explores the nature of shamanistic religion

• Says surprisingly little about Jesus

• Argues that Paul's mystical experiences may be more important than his theology
• Explains the shamanistic aspects of Paul's writings and teachings
• Argues that Paul's command of spiritual talk is key to understanding his popularity

Book Review

Traditionally, Paul is treated and viewed as if he were a theologian — which is to say, it is his thoughts on religion and God which are the focus of attention. His writings are systematized and categorized and treated as though they were part of an organized theology. But Ashton tackles his subject from a different perspective, arguing that it is Paul’s mystical experiences, and his reactions to them, which should receive greater attention.

What is a shaman, anyway? Shamans can be people of either gender who, according to tradition, have acquired the ability to master and control spirits. Shamans can introduce spirits into themselves at will and use the spirits’ power for their own goals — for example, by helping other people who are afflicted by different spirits.

Normally the shaman works with just one spirit who becomes that shaman’s guide and partner. But before this happens, the shaman usually endures an extended period of internal turmoil and even physical illness. All of this disappears at a critical and sometimes even violent moment of spiritual awakening which often takes the form of a powerful vision, directing the shaman to their new path in life.

Certainly there is more involved, but it is interesting how similar shamanism is around the world, cutting across vastly divergent cultures and religious traditions. What is the reason for that? Is there a genetic link, or is this an example of convergent development? If the former is true, then it should be possible to trace them all back to a single source. If the latter is true, then this is evidence of just how alike humans really are, producing such remarkably similar religious ideas.

Ashton explores this question, but not too deeply as it does not bear directly upon his primary thesis. In the end he is unable to come to any firm conclusions, but seems to lean toward the idea that the diverse examples of shamanism in the world are ultimately a result of coincidence and human similarity.

Was Jesus a shaman? The resemblance between the reports of Jesus’ life and the archetypical shaman’s life are remarkable — indeed, it is easier to argue that Jesus was a shaman than that Paul was a shaman. Jesus spent a lot of time among the people, healing them as though they were afflicted with spirits and claiming as his source of power the Spirit of God, his Father.

The Religion of Paul the Apostle, by John Ashton

The Religion of Paul the Apostle, by John Ashton

It is curious, however, that his work as an exorcist tends to receive the least amount of attention among scholars writing about him, even though one of his first recorded public acts is an exorcism. Perhaps because, in today’s “enlightened” age, the work of an exorcist seems embarrassing and primitive. By the same token, calling Jesus a shaman may seem derogatory, but it isn’t really.

Was Muhammad a shaman? This isn’t a question Ashton addresses, which is understandable since his topic is the origins of Christianity, and he doesn’t even spend that much time on Jesus. But I think it is worth bringing up as a parallel. Muhammad also went through a time of intense spiritual introspection and crisis, eventually leading to an intense vision and communication with a spirit (an angel of God). These communications continued through his life, helping him to lead his people.

Now, to the central question: was Paul a shaman? The answer he gives is “No, not really” — but it depends upon how strictly you define the term shaman. And even if you disagree with the categorization, it is undeniable that there are very strong similarities.

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