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De-Spiritualizing Pneuma

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Modernity, Religion, and Anachronism in the Study of Paul

image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

This paper is one of several presented at the 2010 sbl naasr session in Atlanta concerning anachronism and translation in the study of early Christianity. It argues that the concept of pneuma’s central importance to Paul’s thought makes it a prime candidate to remain untranslated in scholarship. Most scholarship on pneuma translates this word ‘Spirit’, which imports normative Christian theological implications. This reflects a modern, Western understanding of religion that is derived from thinkers like Kant and Descartes, which privileges dualisms of mind/body and material/spirit, and which foregrounds the importance of a private, internal, subjective religious experience anachronistic relative to Paul. I redress this through a theoretical shift toward contextualizing Paul’s understanding of pneuma as a physiological process with analogues in ancient Greco-Roman medical thought. This approach is briefly compared to other influential accounts of pneuma in New Testament studies, and subsequently treats several Pauline passages within this new lens.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies59 George St., Box #1927Brown UniversityProvidence, RI


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