Travis Proctor, "Rulers of the Air: Demonic Bodies and the Making of the Christian Cosmos," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expected 2016.
For his part, Tertullian of Carthage was no fan of horseback riding. The early Christian theologian, whose writings were composed near the turn of the 3rd century CE, did not bear a grudge against all equines, nor against those who jockeyed them. Rather, Tertullian took issue with the creatures with which horseback riding had become associated in Roman times: evil demons. In his treatise On the Spectacles, Tertullian clarifies his reasoning: “Equestrian skill was a simple thing in the past; mere horseback riding…But when the horse was brought into the games, it passed from being God's gift into the service of demons.”
To modern readers, demonic horses may sound like something out of a science fiction film rather than a Christian theological datum. And yet, upon closer inspection of both Tertullian’s oeuvre and many other early Christian writings, it becomes clear that in the early Christian cosmos, demons infected nearly every nook and cranny of the city and countryside. Whether it be gladiatorial games, the Roman circus, theatrical performances, or civic festivals, Christian writers often agree that demonic entities are the energizing force behind myriad Roman cultural activities.
Despite their general agreement regarding demonic pervasiveness, Christian writers often disagree concerning the nature of the demonic, particularly vis-à-vis the demons’ physical appearance and substance. On the one hand, several early Christian texts portray demons as disembodied entities. This is likely due to the notion, found especially in Second Temple Jewish texts, that evil demons are the lingering souls of monstrous giants who were destroyed in Noah’s flood. Thus, demons are, by definition, entities deprived of a body as part of the punishment for their primordial iniquity. On the other hand, there exists an equally strong tradition within early Christian texts that demons possessed some form of autonomous, subtle corporeality. We see this especially in the writings of early Christian apologists, who claim that demons possess a “pneumatic” or “spiritual” body that, while invisible to the human eye, is nonetheless corporeal in its own right. Origen of Alexandria acknowledges the disagreement among Christians on this issue, but attributes the dissonance to differences in philosophical competence. Origen argues that the demonic body “does not resemble this gross and visible body of ours…[but is] naturally fine, and thin as if formed of air.” It is only “simple” or “ignorant” Christians, Origen claims, who are unable to discern the demons’ subtle corporeality.
In similar ways to Origen, I am intrigued by the ideational discord among Christians on this issue. With all due respect to the Alexandrian exegete, however, I am not so sure that this discordance can be traced entirely to differing levels of intelligence among Jesus’ early followers. Rather, my research seeks to show that early Christian disagreement over demonic bodies is intimately connected to concomitant divergences concerning the makeup of the (ideal) Christian body, and that due attention to the fallen bodies of demons and early Christians can be mutually illuminating. Ultimately, I argue that early Christian disagreements over demonic corporeality simultaneously reflect and reproduce attendant dissimilarities concerning Christian (human) incarnation.
The dissertation consists of two parts, each comprising two chapters. Part I examines early Christian traditions regarding “bodiless” demons. In Chapter 1, I focus on traditions of demonic possession and exorcism in the texts and reception histories of the New Testament gospels. I note that, as mentioned previously, the gospels collectively assume the disembodied nature of demons, in part informed by ancient Jewish traditions wherein demons are in fact the residual souls of antediluvian giants. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the primary activity of demons within several early Christian texts is the usurpation of human bodies. Contrasted with the “disabled” disembodiment of the demons is the potent corporeality of the Christian exorcist, beginning with the paradigmatic Jesus of Nazareth and extending to depictions of his followers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. I argue that early Christian exorcism narratives served as an important anti-imperial discourse wherein the subjugated bodies of Christians were repositioned as authoritative performers of therapeutic healing practices, a discursive maneuver that may have helped contribute to Christianity’s evangelistic efforts.
In Chapter 2, I turn to another tradition of “bodiless” demons, found in Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Therein, Ignatius claims any Christian who believes in a phantasmal Jesus will be “just like what they believe,” that is, they will be “bodiless and demonic.” In such a way, Ignatius caricatures his opponents’ phantasmal Christology by equating them with a “demonic” Christology. Furthermore, Ignatius condemns his opponents to a bodiless and “demonic” afterlife. Ignatius is here countering a belief, found in certain Christian sources, that anticipates liberation from a fleshly body and the enjoyment of an unencumbered spiritual afterlife. The Antiochean bishop twists this eschatology into a sardonic parody: these Christians will not become benevolent spiritual beings, but evil demons! Elsewhere in his letters, Ignatius emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ existence as a dyadic “flesh and spirit” body, as well as the continued presence of Jesus’ “flesh and spirit” in the Christian Eucharist. Ignatius’ citation of demonic immateriality, therefore, serves Ignatius well in circumscribing the Christian community by constraining proper Christian embodiment: a “docetic” Christian believes in and will become a “bodiless demon,” and will thus lack the required corporeality for proper participation in the “orthodox” Church and its unifying ritual, the Eucharist. Ultimately, Ignatius’ demonological rhetoric and policing of Christian ritual work in tandem to map out and constrain Christian ritual performance, and thus inform a particular “materialization” of the Christian body.
In Part II, I examine early Christian constructions of demonic corporeality that, unlike those traditions in the canonical gospels and letters of Ignatius, emphasize demons’ possession of subtly-material bodies. In Chapter 3, I explore the function and interpretation of Paul’s exhortation to his readers in 1 Corinthians that they not mix the “body of the Lord” with the “table of demons” by participating in both the Christian Eucharist and the traditional Hellenic animal sacrifice. Paul’s statement itself, which draws on a long line of Jewish condemnation of non-Jewish sacrifice, implies that demons possessed some form of body that was nourished by the meat offerings of animal sacrifice. Later interpreters of 1 Corinthians make this even more explicit by reading Paul’s rhetoric in light of wider Hellenic traditions regarding demonic consumption of sacrificial “vapors.” Clement of Alexandria, for example, portrays the demonic body as one that has become “fattened” and grotesque due to its excess consumption of sacrificial fumes. Clement contrasts the demons’ corpulence with his construal of the ideal Christian body: chaste, thin, and constantly engaged in ritual contemplative practices designed to “strip away” the material body. The demonic body, then, informs and undergirds Clement’s ritual program by providing a negative stereotype of those bodily attributes that Clement calls his readers to eschew.
In the fourth chapter, I explore the entwining of demonic and Christian bodies in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage. I begin by exploring Tertullian’s construction of humanity’s dual flesh-and-spirit body in On the Soul, wherein he emphasizes the pervasive attachment of demonic spirits to the human soul that stems, Tertullian claims, from inadvertent participation in demonolatry via Roman “religious” rites (such as horseback riding!). The only method by which Roman citizens can remove their attendant demonic spirit is through Christian baptism, a rite that Tertullian views as essential in the creation of a new, demon-free Christian body. Incorporating theoretical insights from cultural theorists Judith Butler and Elizabeth Grosz, I argue that the demonic body functions within Tertullian's writings as a kind of abject entity - one that is foreclosed as part of the ritualized construction of the Christian body and yet loiters as a threatening epitome of those elements unbecoming of Christian corporeality. The lingering threat of the abject demon is best evidenced in Tertullian’s On the Shows, a treatise that warns Christians of the myriad activities contaminated by demons, which therefore threaten to pollute the body and undo the salvific work of Christian baptism. The only way to ensure the endurance of one’s Christian corporeality, Tertullian argues, is by maintaining Christian habits in daily life and eschewing all activities infected by Roman demonolatry.
As can be seen by this brief overview, early Christians depicted the demonic body in widely divergent ways. Whether disembodied or corporeal, fattened or ephemeral, depictions of demonic corporeality were as diverse as the Christians who articulated them. And yet, a consistent feature of early Christian demonologies is the way in which demonic bodies are interimplicated with their human counterparts. On the one hand, Christian descriptions of demonic corporeality reflect shifts and differences in early Christian anthropology insofar as they inversely correlate to articulations of the ideal human body. In all the instances surveyed above, for example, the attributes that characterize idyllic human embodiment are inverted or deficient in the composition of demons. Thus, my research demonstrates that due attention to demonic bodies can help analyze the shifts and discrepancies in Christian understandings of the human body, and thus gain a broader appreciation for the nuanced differences among early Christian authors in their expression of Christian subjectivity.
Christian discourses surrounding demonic bodies do not only reflect, but reproduce particular forms of embodiment. That is, by aiding in the articulation of a particular form of Christian corporeality, demonologies played a significant role in constructing, constraining, and empowering certain Christian bodily performances. As evidenced by the citation of the demonic in discussions regarding exorcism, the Eucharist, ritual contemplation, and Roman cultural activities, Christian writers the bodily dispositions required for proper Christian practice by citing the threat of demonic corruption that would result from the improper performance of or non-participation in Christian rituals. Thus, the demonological differences of early Christians “materialize” in the diverse range of ritual practices they performed, many of which are informed by the desire to expel and hold at bay hostile demonic forces.
With its focus on cultural constructions of the human corporeality, my research builds upon previous humanistic scholarship on the social construction of the human body. And yet, with its attention to nonhuman entities, my project strives to decenter and resituate the human body as one entity amidst a complex ecosystem of assorted things and organisms. In doing so, my research draws on strands of ecological posthumanism, a theoretical position that eschews any a priori accordance of unique superiority to humanity over other entities. For many ancient Christians, the human body did not exist in a discrete realm separate from and superior to “nature.” Rather, there existed only a fluid and permeable boundary between the tenuous materiality of the human body and its adjacent environments. In better appreciating this aspect of Christian embodiment and the Christian cosmos, we might come to a better understanding of Tertullian’s disdain for horseback riding. As to the existence of demonic horses, well…that’s a demon of a different color.
Travis Proctor is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Northland College.
 On the Shows 9; LCL, Glover .
 On First Principles, Preface; tr. Butterworth.