On Trances and Ecstasies: Thanks for Nothing, Bernini

One of the objections I received from a couple of people who read the pre-publication manuscript of A Conspiracy of Breath (and praised it otherwise) had to do with the way I portrayed Priscilla receiving revelation.

In her first contact with the Holy Spirit, He overwhelmed her with words that were recorded at the time,  but with which she had little other interaction.

Later, I depict Priscilla in a deepening, and more interactive, relationship with the Holy Spirit who not only gives her words but allows her to wrestle with them.

The people who objected to this kind of process described in my manuscript had two comments. One did not believe that verbal inspiration happened this way—with literal trances that resulted in literary results. I responded that it certainly had been the case with Old Testament prophets and with the apostle John, who were given words and told to record them.

Another objection had to do with the idea of being overcome physically and caused to view something beyond earthly reality. But…

There is no doubt that men in the Old Testament went into trances. Adam and Job experienced deep sleeps in which extraordinary things happened. There’s Abraham, in his “horror of great darkness”; Balaam’s vision in which he was falling down yet having his eyes open; the ravings of buck-naked King Saul; Ezekiel and Jeremiah whose ecstasies made people think they were crazy.

But after the Pentecost promise of prophesies and dreams and visions, trances become standard procedure for men in the young church. Saul’s pileup with Jesus on the road to Damascus qualifies (because only he saw what he saw); Peter fell into a trance and saw the celestial sheet and the vile victuals; Paul’s trance in the temple where Jesus told him to pack up and leave. And then there’s John’s whole trip in the Revelation.

The Greek word for trance is ekstasis: literally, being out of (oneself). It’s used of a condition of bewilderment and amazement, as in the pre-Pentecost experience of the women encountering the risen Lord and the reaction of the crowd to the beggar’s healing in Acts 3.

But more often, it applies to what happened to Peter and Paul and John: They became entranced, literally, by the Pentecost Spirit.

And yet while we have three nearly-nameless cases of women who prophesied in the New Testament, it might be asserted that we have no record of any women entering such trances. See: Where are the Voices of the Acts 2 Women?

Culturally, we’re fine with envisioning (sorry for the pun) a man in a trance, but why would someone object to the idea of a woman being in a trance?

I wonder if it’s because of some enduring imagery in Western culture, the picture of an entranced woman might make someone uneasy.

Such is certainly the case in the most famous artwork in the world of a woman entranced, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini created in the mid 1600s. Its deliberately theatrical presentation (part of the sculpture group actually includes a box seat with observers) and nearly-erotic quality are baroque, and to the biblical mind, certainly mildly disturbing.


Nobody today would think that’s a scene they’d like to replicate personally, I’d imagine.

However, if as reputable scholars and I believe, Priscilla was the author of Hebrews, it would be perfectly reasonable to think of her sharing a trance experience as did her colleagues and fellow-writers of the New Testament.

Part of re-imagining scenes of events of the Bible involve a mental sweeping away of cultural trappings. Bernini’s trance imagery was an obstacle I had to mentally ignore when writing A Conspiracy of Breath, in order to portray a strong, resilient and stubborn woman, who like her friend Paul had been bruised by encounters with a strong-armed God, and lived to tell the story.

And in Priscilla’s case, to literally tell the story, which became the Epistle to the Hebrews.

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