Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.
University of Notre Dame


    Bultmann reminded us that there is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis. We all necessarily view the world through some lens. In the case of the Bible, this means that we all use some method or model in reading the text, whether or not a conscious model, and whether or not a literalist or critical reading. It is the purpose of this essay to compare and contrast two specific methods or lenses used to examine the conflict described in 2 Cor 10-13. The issue of model and method is of crucial importance; for a flawed lens yields a skewed picture, and an inadequate lens does not see enough.
    The typical scholarly lens employed in reading 2 Cor 10-13 has been the historical-critical method, which in this case has attempted to understand and interpret the conflict found there in light of the history of early Christianity. The enterprise of exegesis entails history. But which model of history? For the very model of historical reconstruction is the issue I wish to address. In the case of 2 Cor 10-13, one specific pattern of historical reconstruction has long dominated critical attempts to explain the development of the New Testament, so much so that it has assumed the strength of a formal model for interpreting specific texts and issues. This historical model is that of F. C. Baur.
    Baur explained the dynamics of early church history in terms of an ideological conflict between Paul and Peter, respective spokesmen for the gentile and Jerusalem churches and their presumed conflicting theologies. Baur's reconstruction is itself influenced by Reformation politics and history, in which reformers (read Paul) confronted Rome (read Peter). Baur's historical reconstruction, moreover, found conceptual legitimation in Hegel's philosophy, which suggested a dialectical model of intellectual and social dynamics consisting of three stages: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. As applied by Baur to the New Testament, Peter and the Judaizing church of Jerusalem = thesis; Paul and the gentile churches = antithesis; and Luke-Acts a synthesis, which in this case means compromise of the key positions. In this model, Paul is cast as a protesting figure who confronted a Judaizing heresy in the mother church (Jerusalem); his opponents, then, are perceived as repressive and conservative formalists. If Paul becomes the challenging hero, the slayer of dragons, even the liberator of Jesus and the founder of Christianity, his opponents appear as benighted conservatives or heretical Judaizers. When this model of early Christian history is applied to 2 Cor 10-13, we see Paul confronted with heretical Jews--probably Jerusalem Jews and even Jews deputized by the original apostles-whose "another Jesus" and "a different gospel" are heretical doctrines of a Judaizing stamp.
    What, then, will 2 Cor 10-13 look like viewed through this lens? (a) Paul is perceived as a theologian, a systematic thinker, whose gospel is "theology," not pastoral preaching. (b) Paul presents orthodox theological positions, implying that his opponents must be heterodox. (c) Paul is Saint Paul; that is, his views are unimpeachable, his actions beyond reproach, and his motives and strategies divinely authorized. This can only lead to seeing the "super-apostles" and the "false prophets" as heretics, whose "another Jesus" and "a different gospel" must be heterodox, and whose motives and tactics must be base and illegitimate. This conclusion reduces complex cultural and religious issues to simple questions of black and white, and is, moreover, uncritically prejudiced in favor of an "intellectual" Paul.
    It is not the point of this study to inform the reader of the sustained and telling criticism which has been leveled against this model of New Testament history, but rather to suggest how a model can determine one's exegetical perception and how it leads one to view the text in certain ways. I suggest another model for assessing what is happening in 2 Cor 10-13, a model which may not settle specific historical issues, but which might allow us to read the text more accurately, less anachronistically, and without the distorting lens of continental polemics.


    Baur's historical model took as its starting point Paul's designation of his opponents as "super-apostles" and their "another Jesus" as heresy. In the text, Paul labelled his opponents as "false apostles" who disguise themselves just as Satan disguised himself as an angel of light to seduce Eve (2 Cor 11:13-15; see 11:2-3). According to an anthropological model which takes historical questions into account, such descriptions of one's rivals may be labelled as "witchcraft accusations," indicating a characteristic dynamic of rivalry and competition in certain societies. I propose to assess 2 Cor 10-13 according to the cross-cultural model of "witchcraft" developed by anthropologists, especially by Mary Douglas, whose works are increasingly and successfully employed by New Testament scholars vis-a-vis the biblical text.
    Douglas' study of witchcraft accusations in diverse cultures has been synthesized into a model which seeks to describe and predict the cosmology of a given social unit and to explain how accusations of witchcraft or demonic possession function within it. As Douglas notes, witchcraft accusations indicate a certain cultural view of the world, and reflect an important mode of social behavior within that cultural context. Douglas investigates certain regular features of all social groups, which she calls "explorations in cosmology." Naturally, not all societies give the same importance to authority, roles, rituals, etc., so Douglas has been careful to sketch a typical witchcraft cosmology which encompasses specific social attitudes toward seven areas characteristic of social life: (1) purity (order/system), (2) ritual, (3) identity, (4) body, (5) sin, (6) cosmology and (7) suffering/misfortune.


    Let us briefly set out the typical features of a witchcraft cosmology as described by Douglas:

1. Purity. This refers to a group's sense of right social structure, and is heavily stressed: Persons, places, things, and times are strongly classified, i.e., "a place for everything and everything in its place." Yet despite this sense of and a desire for an ordered cosmos, people feel evil attacking the borders of their structures; a pollution threatens to corrupt order and integrity.

2. Ritual. A central and characteristic activity here is boundary making and maintenance, i.e., determining who is "in" and who is "out" of the group. The threat to boundaries indicates that social energy is focused there, trying to determine where a break might have occurred and how to expel the polluting invader. Identifying the invader, however, constitutes a major problem because the group's internal classification--especially the lines defining the authority structure of the group and the social ranking of its members--are chronically ambiguous.

3. Personal Identity is dyadic; the individual's identity is basically that of a member of a group, e.g., family, clan, or village. Since the lines of internal classification are blurred, socially defined roles and social location are confused. Members of the group sense an important distinction between external appearance and internal states; things are not what they seem; deceit (witchcraft) may be at work.

4. Body. As the social body experiences controlling structures, so this is mirrored in the strong social control of the individual physical body, especially its boundaries, i.e. its surfaces and orifices. Group members sense that pollutants are attacking these boundaries, threatening corruption and evil.

5. Sin. A group with a strong sense of "purity" is also concerned with formal rules, the violation of which constitutes sin. Yet sin is perceived here primarily as a pollution which enters both individuals and the group like a disease. And since external appearances are deceitfully misleading, sin tends to be located in internal states and attitudes.

6. Cosmology. The world is perceived anthropomorphically, as causality is predicated of personal forces ("Who did this to me?"). A witchcraft cosmology sees warring forces in the cosmos, indicating a dualistic conflict of good and evil. The threatening pollution is the attack of evil "personal" forces on the good, ordered world.

7. Suffering and Misfortune. Because of cosmic, warring forces, the universe is considered unjust: the good do not necessarily prosper, and the wicked are not automatically punished. In fact, suffering is regularly attributed to these invading malevolent forces. A witchcraft cosmology, then, views the world as under seige in a dualistic and ambiguous cosmos.


    To this general description of a witchcraft cosmology, let us add Douglas' specific features of a witchcraft society: (1) specific characteristics of witchcraft societies (2) an anthropological definition of a "witch," and (3) the social function of witchcraft accusations.

1. Specific Characteristics:
(a) External boundaries are clearly marked; there is a clear sense of who belongs to the group and who does not.
(b) Yet internal relations are confused: internal lines which classify, rank, and locate people (especially hierarchical lines of authority and status) are confused.
(c) A witchcraft society is a small group, living in close and unavoidable interaction, e.g., drawing from the same well, foraging in the same forest, or shopping in the same marketsquare.
(d) Within this group, tension-relieving techniques are underdeveloped; there are no, or very weak, procedures for distancing, regulating, or reconciling conflicts.
(e) Weak authority characterizes this type of group. Access to power or status is ambiguous because the routes of access are unclear, as are the factors which legitimate acquisition of power and authority.
(f) Intense and disorderly competition best characterizes this group.
2. Anthropological Definition of a "Witch"
    The cosmos is perceived in dualistic terms as an arena of warring forces. In a milieu in which pollution is attacking, there is a painful ambiguity between what is external and internal: the attacking evil is disguised as a wolf in sheep's clothing. In this context of ambiguity and deception, a "witch" may be defined as someone:
(a) whose inside is corrupt,
(b) who is a perverted figure, a reversal of the way things should be, a deceiver whose normal appearance masks a corrupt interior,
(c) who attacks either by poisoning or soul-sucking.
3. The Social Function of Witchcraft Accusations
    From the group's point of view, pollutants which have deceptively and secretly crept into a pure body should be identified by an accusation of pollution and expelled (see 1 Cor 5: 1-13). But when such a situation is viewed from an anthropologist's point of view, a witchcraft accusation serves a different sort of function. Douglas indicates that witchcraft accusations function in terms of the intense and disorderly competition within this group. The accusation serves as an idiom of control, denigrating rivals and pulling them down in the competition for leadership. Accusations made against rivals label what appears to be a successful person as a disguised deceiver or agent of evil who is attacking the group. If successful, the accusation would force the expulsion of the alleged witch. Often, however, the label does not stick, and the rivalrous factions continue their disorderly competition for leadership in the group.
    From the native's point of view, a witchcraft society is a threatening place where deceit reigns and attack is the order of the day. Seen through an anthropologist's lens, however, such a society is really a place of disorderly rivalry and competition on a grand scale. Hence, in 2 Cor. 10-13, Paul may be using the coded language of witchcraft accusation to describe the situation as he perceives it. This code, however, can be interpreted in anthropological terms to describe the inner dynamics of a social world which employs witchcraft accusations as a functional device in the competition for power and authority within the group which employs them.


    The first step in applying Douglas' model to 2 Cor 10-13 requires searching the text for clues which might provide a fuller description of its cosmology.

1. Purity. Evidence of a strong purity system can be found in Paul's remark about "the gospel of Christ" (10:14; see 10:16), a remark which presupposes an extensive, articulated kerygma about Jesus. On one hand, Paul's use of Jer 9:24 in 10:17 suggests the continuing value of the Hebrew Scriptures as normative for Paul's world, as do the allusions to the Genesis story of Satan and Eve in 11:14. On the other hand, Christian structures are assumed in the typical reference to financial support of apostolic preachers (11:7-9; see 1 Cor 9:3-12). Paul, then, senses an orderly, structured Christian cosmos. Yet, despite his desire for an ordered world, Paul speaks of threats to it and of pollutants attacking it. He speaks, for example, of a state of warfare in which he is engaged, referring to his "weapons of warfare," his attempts to "destroy strongholds" and his "taking captive" opposing thoughts (10:4-5). The threat disturbing him most is the pollutant of heresy, i.e., the preaching of "another Jesus. ..a different gospel" (11:4), which he claims the false apostles preach to seduce the pure bride of Christ (11 :2, 13-15). Pollution threatens the physical as well as the social body. Just as the social body's unity is attacked by "quarreling, jealousy, slander," etc. (12:20), so the individual's physical body is correspondingly polluted by "impurity, immorality and licentiousness" (12:21). Paul sees the Christian world seriously imperiled by insidious forces on the attack.

2. Ritual. Belief in Jesus as God's Son, Christ, and agent of the true covenant constitutes the main boundary distinguishing Christian insiders from all others. Yet the crisis resides not at these boundaries since all parties to the dispute are "Christians." Rather, the pollution has already breached this boundary; so, the conflict resides in the ambiguous internal relationships, viz., the question of legitimated leadership. As founder of the church at Corinth, Paul repeatedly claims to be the group's head and "father" (12:14; see 1 Thess 2:11), as well as the parent who betrothed it to Christ (11: 2). The legitimacy of Paul's claims rests partly on his: (1) initial, but past, apostolic actions (2) claims of pedigree (11:22), and (3) claims to have suffered like Jesus (11:23-33; 13:3-4). (4) Covering other bases, Paul claims legitimation through heavenly revelations (12:1-4; see 1 Cor 2:6-16; Gal 1:15-16), suggesting that his role is that of a prophet, since "apostle" is a disputed role or title for him. Yet Paul has been, is, and will remain absent from this group over which he claims absolute and enduring authority. Other leaders, however, have moved into this vacuum to preach in and administer the Corinthian church. Paul denigrates these rivals in highly polemical terms, calling them "super-apostles" (11:5), "false apostles, deceitful workmen" (11:13), "boastful persons" (10:12-13; 11:16-19,22), and "seductive suitors" (11:3, 12-15). He speaks from a sense of Corinth as his turf. These rival preachers have crossed into that turf: "We are not overextending ourselves...we do not boast beyond limit in another's labors ...our field...we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another's field" (10:14-16; see Rom 15:20 and 1 Cor 3:10-15). Paul, moreover, interprets the presence of rivals on his turf as a pollutant which has breached the social and individual bodies' boundaries and threatens a fatal corruption. Paul vs. "super-apostles"--the critical issue rests in the confused roles and ambiguous status of the rival preachers at Corinth, including Paul himself.

3. Personal Identity. Both Paul and his rivals are dyadic personalities, taking their identity as members of Christ's church and as servants of his gospel. More importantly, Paul readily makes keen distinctions between exterior and interior, and between appearances and reality. Paul repeats the invaders' own accusations against him, i.e., that he is duplicitous: "I 'who am humble when face to face with you, but bold when I am away'..." (10:1), and "They say 'his letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account' " (10:10). Paul, then, has many faces (see 1 Cor 9: 19-23). For his own part, Paul accuses his accusers of duplicity, calling them "deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (11:13). Having compared their tactics with Satan's deceit in his seduction of Eve, Paul concludes: "It is not strange if his [Satan's] servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" (11:15).
    Under the rubric of personal identity, we should examine the numerous claims of Paul to be "weak." Paul occasionally claims legitimacy through boasts of charismatic strength and power (Gal 3:3-5; 1 Thess 1:5; 1 Cor 14:18); yet on the whole it would seem that his presentation of himself and his gospel was, as 2 Corinthians indicates, "weak...of no account" (2 Cor 10:10; see 1 Cor 2:1-5; Gal 4:13-14). Paul, however, boasts that appearances may be deceiving, for "weakness is strength," just as "foolishness is wisdom" (13:3-4; see 1 Cor 1:18-25). The boast of physical sufferings for the gospel in 11:23-33 is a further example of the ambiguity of appearances (see 6:4-10 and 1 Cor 4:8-13). Paul's sufferings, humiliations, and weakness become in his eyes signs of his legitimation, not of his disqualification, as seems to have been thought at Corinth (see 1 Cor 1:17; 2:3-5; 2 Cor 4:7-11). The plausible explanation for the confusion of appearance and reality most likely stems from Paul's preaching of the Crucified Christ as God's power and wisdom against the celebration of pneumatic power as the source of legitimation of authority (1 Cor 1:18-25). Yet, as Paul clearly proclaimed even of himself, things are not as they seem. Thus, Paul's own world remains fundamentally ambiguous.
4. Body. In 1 Cor 6 and 12, Paul compared the church to a physical body, a metaphor which yields in 2 Cor 11 to the church as the spotless bride of Christ. Stringent bodily control is an appropriate defensive strategy for a holy body or a spotless bride. Control takes the form of guarding the bodily orifices, especially ears (against seductive flattery, 11:4, 13-15) and genitals (where sexual pollution symbolizes doctrinal pollution). Yet Paul charges that this body is already being seduced and polluted (11:13-15).

5. Sin. Although Paul acknowledges in 1 Cor 6:9-10 that sin is the formal violation of the Ten Commandments, in 2 Cor sin is perceived primarily as pollution, seduction, and heresy (see Paul's remarks on "leaven" in 1 Cor 5:8).

6. Cosmology. Recalling Paul's sense of war in the cosmos (10:1-6), we note his thoroughly dualistic view of the cosmos completely as polarized into opposing forces of good and evil. Two warring camps are locked in mortal combat: Paul the Apostle...vs...Super Apostles/False Apostles; The Gospel of Christ...vs ...Another Jesus/ A Different Gospel; Authorized Preacher from God...vs...Unauthorized Agents from Satan; Paul vs. rival preachers; he is legitimate, they are not; his doctrine is authentic, theirs is not; his spirit is pure, theirs is demonic and polluted. He is spiritual, they are worldly; he is God's representative, they are Satan's henchmen.

7. Suffering and Misfortune. Paul sees the world as unjust. After all, God's authorized agent, Paul, suffers terribly as he preaches the gospel, while the "super-apostles" are legitimated by worldly recommendations (10:17-18), boasts (11:18), and mighty works (12:11-12).  Suffering is unfair: God's agent, Paul, even on the occasion of his great revelations, was given a thorn in the flesh, a painful experience which was not suffering merited by sin (12:7-10).
    The various details provided by Paul in 2 Cor 10-13 correspond quite closely to the general profile of a witchcraft society. The net impression is that of (a) a system threatened and under siege (b) a sense of pollution infiltrating boundaries (c) a cosmos where ambiguity and deceit reign, and (d) a world where evil is pervasive and of cosmic proportions. In short, Paul's is a dualistic world characterized by conflict and threat.


    Applying Douglas' model more precisely, let us test to see if 2 Cor 10-13 displays any of the specific characteristics of a witchcraft society. In these terms, it may be said that (a) Paul addresses a small group whose external boundaries are tightly drawn: they are the church of Christ at Corinth. (b) Although all are Christians, the internal relations are confused, as the issues of role, office, and authority surface. Legitimation has become the overarching problem! Paul seems always to be intensely self-conscious of this issue (see 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:8-10; Gal 1:1). He seems to live in a state of rivalry with other preachers (see Phil 1:15-18; I Cor 1:12; 3:4; Gal 1:6-9), indicating a persistent problem with legitimation. (c) Paul is absent from the churches to which he writes, an absence quite permanent despite his protestations of an imminent return (see 1:16-17; 13:2, 10). Yet he stays in close, unavoidable conflict through letters and emissaries to and from Corinth (I Cor 1:11; 11:18 and 16:10). (d) We have scant information about any tension-relieving techniques for the conflicts described in his letters. How is authority legitimated? Paul does not appeal to Jerusalem and its apostolic leadership to validate the legitimacy of his claims (Gal 1:16-17). Paul occasionally claims Jesus' direct designation of him as an "apostle" (I Cor 9: 1); but, when faced with pneumatic rivals, he claims legitimation through spiritual credentials (I Cor 2:6-16; 14:18; see 2 Cor 12:1-4). At other times, he presents himself as a "prophet" (Gal I:15). Considerable evidence suggests that Paul was not readily accepted as a true "apostle" on a par with the pillars of the church (see I Cor 9:2). In I Cor 15:8-9, he speaks of himself as the "runt of the litter," not worthy to be called an apostle. From this we learn that Paul's identity as an apostle and legitimation of his apostolic authority remained a continual problem. There seems to have been no definitive criterion in Corinth (or elsewhere) for determining the legitimacy either of the absent Paul or his present rivals. (e) Paul speaks openly of authority: either God's authority, Christ's authority, or that of husbands (I Cor 11:3; 15:22-28); yet authority is weak in the Pauline churches. First of all, Paul himself is absent; apparently he did not name successors, except Stephanus (I Cor 16:15-18). Into this vacuum moved other leaders, persons who appear to have been pneumatic, eloquent, powerful figures, and whom Paul refused to acknowledge as legitimate, but whom he seems unable to unseat or discredit. (f) Evidence of intense and disorderly competition surfaces as a palpable feature of Paul's correspondence. He battles constantly with other preachers: pneumatics, Judaizers, super-apostles, rival preachers, Apollos, etc.
    Paul regularly describes his rivals in accord with the characteristics of a witch listed by anthropologists: (a) Their inside is corrupt; they are "false" apostles (11:13) and act out of perverse motives (11:20; see Phil 1:15). (b) They are perverted figures, deceivers who mask their corruption in a show of wisdom and power: "Such men are...deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (11: 13). They are compared with Satan who "disguised himself as an angel of light" (11: 15). They are, in effect, Satan's very agents. Paul's charges against his rivals in 11:3, 13-15 are classic examples of "witchcraft accusations" in form and function. (c) As secret witches, the rival preachers are said to attack by poisoning their victims with heresy ("another Jesus...a different gospel," 11:4). They seduce their victims, offering tainted doctrine for the truth, thus corrupting the church's "pure and sincere devotion to Christ" (11:3). From an anthropological perspective, then, Paul perceives his rivals as "witches," and labels them as such with "witchcraft accusations."
    The social function of typical witchcraft accusations applies to the charges made in 2 Cor 10-13. By calling public attention to the "pollutions" of his rivals, Paul expects them to be discredited and dismissed from the church. His accusations function as an idiom of control in the competition for leadership of the Corinthian church. In the intense and disorderly competition, Paul's labeling of his rivals, if successful, would destroy them, and leave him in the field to face successive new challenges to his authority.


    To say the least, Baur's historical model and Douglas' witchcraft model yield quite different readings of2 Cor 10-13. The strengths of Douglas' model are that it is cross-cultural, based on wide-ranging anthropological data, and of sufficient complexity and flexibility that it has been successfully used for analyses of witchcraft accusations past and present. It can be applied with considerable accuracy to the accusations of demonic possession in Matthew, John and 1 John as well as in early Christianity. It can explain more of the text than Baur's model; in addition, it can yield a coherent sense of the cultural dynamics of Paul's world which is not available from Baur's model. Although the word "witchcraft" may initially sound disturbing, the model reveals typical mythological codes of perception, and allows us to glimpse the inner social dynamics of a group which employs such language and symbols. The model's significance for Paul, moreover, finds support in more traditional, contemporary Pauline scholarship: (a) instead of considering him a systematic theologian, Paul is better viewed as a pastoral preacher with a flexible message (1 Cor 9: 19-23); (b) his letters are not so much systematic theological tracts as occasional pieces written in response to a wide range of specific situations and issues; (c) he often expresses himself in hyperbole, exaggerating and overstating issues; (d) he was by no means the enemy of Peter or the Jerusalem church, as his collection for the poor in Jerusalem clearly indicates. Even if it cannot solve specific historical problems, Douglas' model allows us to see more accurately into the social dynamics of Paul's world, and so should be a welcome contribution to the quest for the historical Paul.

Works Consulted

Barrett, C.K.
1982 Essays on Paul. Philadelphia: Westminster 60-207.

Douglas, Mary
1963 "Techniques in Sorcery Control," Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa (ed. J. F. M. Middleton and E. H. Winter). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 123-41.
1967 "Witch Beliefs in Central Africa," Africa 37 72-80.
1970 "Thirty Years after Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic," Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. New York: Tavistock xiii-xxxviii.
1982 Natural Symbols. Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon.

Douglas, Mary and Wildavsky, Aaron
1983 Risk and Culture. Berkeley: U. California Press.

Furnish, Victor Paul
1984 II Corinthians. Anchor Bible 32A; Garden City: Doubleday.

Georgi, Dieter
1964 Die Gegner des Paulus im 2. Korinthcrbrief. Neukirchen- Vluyn.

Gunther, JohnJ.
1973 St. Paul's Opponents and Their Background. Leiden: Brill.

Isenberg, Sheldon and Owen, Dennis
1977 "Bodies Natural and Contrived: The Works of Mary Douglas," RSR 31-16. Kee, Doyle
1980 "Who Were the 'Super-Apostles' of2 Corinthians 10-13?" RQ 2365-76. Mair, Lucy
1969 Witchcraft. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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