This article analyzes the story of the exorcism of the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 in light of recent studies in the field of disability. I show that the ancient world considered spirit possession to be a disability, and the slave girl is doubly vulnerable as one both possessed and enslaved. Her oracular status, however, gave her a limited amount of authority in her context, which was erased in the exorcism by Paul. The loss of this disability then increased the risk for the slave girl by angering her masters. The slave girl is a “narrative prosthesis” in the text; the story is interested primarily in her disability, and once her disability is removed, she disappears from the text. The story of the slave girl offers us insights about the power of embracing disabilities as valuable identities and sources of authority.
The New Testament book of Acts tells a brief story of the exorcism of a slave girl, a παιδίσκη (Acts 16:16-18), between the conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15) and the miraculous release of Paul from prison (Acts 16:19-40).1 This paper explores Acts 16:16-18 through the lens of disability and shows that the slave girl serves as a crucial “narrative prosthesis” in the overarching plot of the chapter.2 Two primary questions drive my interpretation of this story. What is the intersection of slavery and disability in the ancient context, and can demon possession be considered a disability in the story? I answer these questions in three parts. First, I examine the portraits of disability in the ancient world with special attention to slaves. Second, I look at demon possession in the ancient world to show how it was constructed as a disability. Third, I interpret Acts 16:16-18 to show that the slave girl serves as a narrative prosthesis in the text, defined by her disability but rendered invisible once it is removed. I conclude with some thoughts about the intersections of these discourses.
Disability and Slavery in the Ancient World
Recent models in disability studies recognize that culture shapes the definition of disability.3 Ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a fixed definition of disability, though ancient authors did make note of physical and mental conditions and illnesses. Literary sources stigmatize disabilities, but a disability did not always relegate an individual to social isolation or helplessness. In fact, the high rates of malnutrition and rudimentary medical care for accidents made acquired disabilities reasonably high, especially among the lower classes. Martha L. Edwards points out the multiple ways in which people with disabilities such as limps, lameness, and withered arms continued to work and participate in society, and Greek men with a variety of physical disabilities participated in wars, either on the battlefield or as strategists.4 I do not wish to imply that there were no social implications for people with disabilities, especially given that the Greeks and Romans conceived of the ideal person in terms of physical and mental wholeness. Rather, I follow Edwards in acknowledging that the boundary between “abled” and “disabled” was on a continuum with varying factors including social class and wealth.
Scholarship has tended to interpret physical and mental illnesses in the New Testament in light of contemporary medical knowledge without consideration of the ancient worldview by, for instance, describing the boy who shakes and foams at the mouth in Luke 9:37-43 as “epileptic.”5 Likewise, the association of disability with sinfulness in some New Testament texts is problematic and has reinforced the idea that disability is a flaw that needs correction.6 The incorporation of disability studies into recent New Testament scholarship challenges these assumptions and offers fresh ways to view disability and illness in Scripture.7 The wide range of acquired disabilities that existed in the ancient world suggests that the presentation of disability as social isolation in much of New Testament scholarship needs to be adjusted. Most of the people with disabilities in the New Testament find Jesus on their own or with the assistance within their community – not as social isolates in need of rescue.8 The Gospels still, however, cast people with disabilities in supporting roles without a full interest in them beyond their illness or disability. Unfortunately, this seems to be an enduring feature of disabled characters in literature.
The lack of interest in disabled characters beyond their disabilities may be evaluated in terms of narrative prosthesis as defined by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder.9 The short definition of narrative prosthesis is “the dependency of literary narratives upon disability.”10 Mitchell and Snyder further observe that “disability has been used throughout history as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight.”11 They assess a variety of characters across literature from antiquity through modern pop culture. The theory of narrative prosthesis is multivalent and expansive, and here I focus chiefly on the disappearance of disabled characters. Mitchell and Snyder show persuasively that disabled characters have been portrayed primarily in terms of their disability. Once this point is made, or if the character is healed, the character disappears. They use the term “prosthetic” deliberately; a prosthetic device communicates a false sense of reality, and Mitchell and Snyder articulate that prosthetics carry with them an imagined sense of what is “whole” and non-aberrant.12 In literature, a “textual prosthesis alleviates discomfort by removing the unsightly from view.”13 Mitchell and Snyder uncover the ways that literary prostheses fail, and instead make them plain and visible. In simplistic terms, when disabled characters exist only to prop up a particular point or moral, or to embody a negative societal value such as sin or failure, then scholarship is called upon to make such prostheses visible.
Elizabeth Stuart has a similar analysis of disability in the Gospels without using the term “narrative prosthesis” (her work was published the same year as Mitchell and Snyder’s):
The Gospels are populated by disabled people, [and] it is impossible to read more than a few verses without encountering someone with a paralysis, disease or some other physical impairment, or people possessed by unclean spirits … Yet even as they become visible they are rendered invisible again by the healing touch of Jesus. The disabled appear to be rendered non-disabled. The focus of the stories is either on the authority of Jesus as healer or on the faith of the person being healed.14
In a later article, Mitchell and Snyder say even more sharply regarding disabled people in the New Testament: “disabled people are characterized in mass as pushing their own cure agenda … The son of God narrates his experience as victimized by disabled peoples’ maniacal allegiance to the promise of eradication.”15 It is my suggestion that the slave girl in Acts 16 serves as a narrative prosthesis. She enters the story for a short three verses before she exits – ostensibly “healed” – but really serving as a prosthetic device to show the healing powers of Paul and the eventual salvation of Silas. Feminist scholars have pointed out that the slave girl’s exorcism is not necessarily in her best interest, something my analysis also highlights. The disability of the slave girl is intensified by her enslavement since slaves were especially vulnerable to impairment.
Discourses that highlight disability in the ancient world also intersect with those of slavery. Slaves were responsible in their bodies for not only their actions, but also the actions of others and were routinely subject to violence.16 The emphasis on the corporeal vulnerability of slaves indicates that they were more likely than others to become disabled as an indirect result of enslavement. Physical disability likely decreased the financial value of slaves and may have impeded their manumission, especially if it was granted on the basis of a particular standard of work that the slave was unable to accomplish as a result of a disability. This is particularly visible in the account by Suetonius (ca. 77-ca.121 CE) of a law passed during the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE) that forbade the exposure of ill and worn out slaves in lieu of treatment on the Island of Aesculapius near Rome.17 These slaves had become an expense due to their acquired disabilities, so some owners chose to forfeit their investment altogether. Notable exceptions to this observation are slaves whose disabilities had exotic appeal to the ancient world, including dwarves, hunchbacks, mutes, and others with unusual physiognomic or psychological features, and these disabilities often fetched a high value at slave markets.18 A strong possibility exists that these specialized disabilities and their value in the eyes of free people also made manumission less likely.
Roman law distinguished slaves with minimal defects, such as short-term injuries or conditions,19 from those with major disabilities such as blindness.20 The jurists attempt to establish the parameters of disabilities that qualified a slave to be returned to a vendor because of undisclosed defects.21 In general, the jurists agree that defects of the body were more egregious than those of the mind, though they acknowledge that corporeal defects could lead to mental ones. One category pertinent to Acts 16 that the jurists considered was whether a slave who has oracular abilities may be considered defective. A slave who “associates with religious fanatics and joins in their utterances” is not considered defective and cannot be returned to a vendor.22 Similarly, slaves who had participated in Bacchanalian festivals and “uttered responses in consonance therewith” but since have ceased are also not defective. Still, some slaves might have mental defects that the vendor should disclose.23 These legal questions indicate that some people considered spontaneous oracular pronouncements a large enough defect to return a slave to the vendor. The jurist is interested primarily in the slave’s ability to work and concludes that oracular habits do not inhibit work. The legal questions presented in the Digest offer a window into religious expressions among the lower classes, including slaves, some of which purchasers considered disabling.
The intersection of slavery and disability is visible in the New Testament. One isolated story in Luke tells about the healing of an ill slave of a centurion (7:1-10), though the story focuses more on the faith of the centurion than the healing of the slave. The bodies of slaves in the parables often suffer severe injuries, such as the slaves who are beaten and “cut into pieces” (διχοτομέω) in Luke 12:42-48.24 All four Gospels recount how a follower of Jesus disabled a slave by cutting off his ear (Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10), but only in the Gospel of Luke does Jesus heal the injury (Luke 22:51). These portraits of disabled slaves show the widespread injuries that could be inflicted on slaves in the ancient world. New Testament writers drew on this commonly accepted attitude toward slaves in its depiction of disabled slaves in healing stories, parables, and even the passion narrative.
Disabled slaves, along with free people with disabilities, served as prostheses within the Gospels. Their disabilities show the miraculous healing abilities of Jesus and the disciples, and later Paul; these disabilities are also often blended with moral deficiency or sin. Disabled slaves had the double vulnerability of not only enslavement but also impairment. Disability and slavery share the struggle of having to “resist or refuse the cultural scripts assigned to them.”25 The theory of narrative prosthesis shows that disabled characters disappear from storylines once their disability has served its purpose. I do not label slavery as a disability, but this discussion highlights the overlapping vulnerabilities of ancient slavery and disability.
Disability and Demonic Possession
An examination of the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 raises the question of whether or not she can be considered disabled. The text describes the slave girl as physically able in the sense that she follows (κατακολουθέω) Paul and the other missionaries in v. 17, and she also cries out (κράζω) in a loud voice for many days. Her psychological state is not given a great deal of attention, but it should be noted that Paul is greatly annoyed (διαπονέομαι) by her constant following and shouting.26 These peculiar actions are a result of the spirit that resides within her, which the text identifies by name as a Pythian spirit (πνεῦμα πύθωνα).27
Demonic possession within the New Testament is a disabling condition with both physical and mental complications that arise as a result of the possession, and the Gospels and Acts conflate demon possession with mental illness.28 Some ancient sources dismissed the value of exorcism in favor of other means of diagnosis, including Ulpian (ca. 170-223 CE) who records that doctors should not make use of exorcism as medical practice although he acknowledges that some people report benefits from them.29 This claim reinforces the widespread belief in demon possession by the lower classes. The New Testament participates in this belief and portrays demon possession as part of the realm of Satan in contrast to the realm of God.30 Evil spirits could cause mental illnesses and self-wounding (Mark 5:1-20; Matt. 8:28-31; Luke 8:26-30), shouting (Luke 4:31-37), or demonstrations of great physical power (Acts 19:11-20).31 The cure for such possession is exorcism, a major task of Jesus and his disciples that fell outside of the sector of professionalized medicine.32
Closely related to the mental disability caused by demon possessions in the New Testament are the afflictions on human beings by deities as presented in Greek drama. Gods and goddesses routinely plague humans with insanity, such as Hera’s infliction of Io33 and Dionysus’s possession of the maenads which leads them to madness and physical symptoms, including foaming at the mouth and increased strength.34 Likewise, Cassandra becomes possessed by Apollo and is driven into madness (discussed more fully below).35 The presentation of the slave girl as possessed by the Pythian spirit in Acts 16:16-18 blends demon possession with the infliction of humans by deities as portrayed in Greek drama.36 The shouting and annoying actions of the slave girl in Acts 16 then fall into normative behavior for those plagued with unwelcome spirits found in both sets of discourses. Possession in general may be considered disabling because of its association with madness. This is true in the general Greco-Roman context and particularly in the New Testament, where authors see possession as aligned with evil forces.
Demonic possession and its accompanying mental instability have yet another layer in Luke-Acts. Elaine Wainwright has noted in her work a connection in the Gospel of Luke between women healed and demon possession.37 She theorizes that women healed through exorcism were in fact women healers, working with ancient φάρμακα and later labeled as possessed by the Gospel writer. These women would have been part of the ancient circles of healers outside of the professionalized guilds, similar to the circles in which Jesus himself operated. The label of possession suggests, as seen above, madness, and this double label of the women serves to bolster Jesus’s authority and to bring the women healers to him as his eventual followers. Wainwright does not address the book of Acts specifically, but her insights lend support to my argument regarding the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18.38 If Wainwright’s analysis is correct, then the erasure of the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 is part of a larger pattern within the Luke-Acts corpus in which gender and disability become tools to showcase the miraculous powers of Jesus, the disciples, and later the apostle Paul.39 Her work highlights the various circles of healers in the ancient world who operated outside of sanctioned medicine, including itinerant healers such as Jesus and later Paul plus circles of women healers.
Interpreting Acts 16:16-18 in Light of Disability Studies
The intersection of disability in the ancient world with both demonic possession and slavery has ramifications for the interpretation of Acts 16:16-18. The slave girl inhabits a crossroads of enslavement and possession, both states of vulnerability. Her demonic possession, however, requires a fuller examination because it stands apart from other possessions in the Gospels (especially the Gospel of Luke) in several ways. First, the agent that possesses the slave girl is not called a demon (δαιμόνιον) but a spirit, specifically a Pythian spirit (πνεῦμα πύθωνα), which requires some explanation. Second, it is unusual to find a slave with legitimate oracular abilities in ancient texts. This unusual feature of the slave girl in Acts both complicates her disability and emphasizes her vulnerability as a slave.
The fact that the possessing agent of the girl is called a spirit rather than a demon is unusual but not problematic (cf. Luke 13:11 the bent-over woman with πνεῦμα … ἀσθενείας). While Luke-Acts focuses on the Holy Spirit as God’s enacting agent on earth, the ancient audience understood that spirits took numerous forms and that demons themselves were composed of πνεῦμα substance, which was itself light and airy and enabled demons to inhabit a human body.40 While some instances of spirit possession might be viewed positively in the Roman Empire, New Testament authors agree that all possessions are aligned with the forces of Satan.41
The Pythian spirit that possesses the slave girl is resonant with the widespread understanding that specific deities could possess or inflict individual human beings. The Pythian spirit of Acts immediately calls to mind the famous oracle at Delphi, which functioned from at least the sixth century BCE through the third century CE. The foundational myth recounts how Apollo slew the mantic python snake that guarded the oracle, giving the epithet “Pythia” to the series of women who held the oracular seat at Delphi.42 The Pythia served as the spokesperson for the god Apollo and delivered oracles to various pilgrims. The Pythian spirit that possesses the slave girl in Acts suggests that she functions similarly to the Pythia at Delphi as a spokesperson for the possessing deity.43 The identification of a Pythian spirit in Acts 16:16 does not substantiate Apollo as the specific possessing deity but rather alludes to the wider Greco-Roman world in which spirits roamed and interfered with human lives, conflating demon possession and infliction by the gods.44
The word πύθων was also a generic term for ventriloquists (ἐγγαστριμύθους) who became spokespersons for a particular deity. Plutarch mentions that ventriloquists are also known as πύθωνας in a larger discussion about the Delphic oracle, but he doubts that the deity inhabits the bodies of prophets to speak through them in his time.45 Ancient sources differ on whether a ventriloquist is a genuine mouthpiece for a deity or a fraud intent on hoodwinking clients, but most acknowledge the phenomenon as a genuine possibility.46 The double association of the πνεῦμα πύθωνα with the Delphic oracle and ventriloquists suggests that the slave girl has genuine oracular abilities.47 The slave girl speaks oralces (μαντεύομαι) through a possessing spirit in a recognizable oracular form,48 understood by the author and audience of Luke-Acts to be demonic.49
Also in the background of Acts 16:16-18 is the long line of oracular women in the ancient world, including the Pythia at Delphi, the Sibyls, and others.50 Perhaps the most famous of these is the prophetess Cassandra, especially as depicted in Aeschylus’s (ca. 525-ca. 455 BCE) Agamemnon. Apollo cursed Cassandra with divination for refusing his offer of sexual intercourse. The chorus says that Cassandra is possessed (θεοφόρητος) by the god Apollo and also crazed (φρενομανής),51 conditions that are closely linked. Cassandra’s madness is featured in a pivotal scene in the play in which the chorus becomes increasingly frightened of her visions that present the past, present, and future simultaneously.52 Cassandra becomes a literal slave as a captive of the Trojan war, an important point for comparison to the enslaved seer girl in Acts 16.53 In addition to her enslavement to Agamemnon, Aeschylus acknowledges that Cassandra is enslaved by her own prophecies.54
The overlap between Cassandra and the slave girl in Acts is striking. Both are enslaved women who prophesy and show signs of madness, a disabling condition. I do not suggest that there is a direct correlation between Cassandra and the slave girl, but rather that the two figures mirror one another in many regards. Cassandra becomes disabled as a result of her possession, unable to communicate effectively with other people and a victim of her own encroaching insanity. Such details are not given regarding the slave girl in Acts, but the model of Cassandra shows the dangers of prolonged possession by powerful spirits. The enslavement of both women also intensifies their vulnerability, separating them from society despite the legitimacy of their oracles.
The mantic abilities of both the slave girl and Cassandra are unusual since very few slaves are depicted as legitimate oracles in the ancient world.55 Occasionally a slave pretends to have oracular powers such as in the Priestess fragment from Menander, but in general slaves are not oracles.56 The rarity of slaves who are also legitimate oracles raises questions, then, about the disabling effect of the possession of the slave girl in Acts. Demon possession certainly presented itself as a disabling condition, particularly its ability to drive one insane. The story in Acts, though, disarms the disability of the slave girl in a perverse way by making the disability a source of profit that benefits her masters.
It is also possible to analyze the oracular abilities of the slave girl and Paul’s exorcism of her as part of a set of wider religious practices in the ancient world among the lower classes. While places such as Delphi are sanctioned as official sanctuaries supported by foundational myths and centuries of proclamations, elite authors show some nervousness about mantic prophecies and exorcisms that occur outside of established religious centers. Plutarch’s dismissal of ventriloquism, as discussed above, is indicative of this suspicion; he doubts bodily possession as an efficacious means of oracular pronouncement in either official sanctuaries or among common people. Lucian (ca. 125-post 180 CE) reports the elaborate ruses by Alexander of Abonouteichos as a false oracle of Asclepius to deceive the masses with complicated stunts.57
The dismissal of oracles in these sources, however, attests to their presence among the common people. Likewise, the tantalizing evidence in the Digest that some slaves engaged in temporary mantic practices (discussed above) hints at the variety of popular religious expressions for populations such as slaves. While oracular places such as Delphi had tradition and mythology to hold up their authority, a mantic oracle on the street was more difficult to control. I agree with the suggestion by J.B. Rives that the elite viewed mantic or charismatic behavior with suspicion as a threat to their own authority.58 The dangerous possibilities of an uncontrolled oracle are made evident as the story in Acts unfolds: after her oracular pronouncement, the slave girl is exorcized, and Paul is arrested on the charge of unlawful Roman practices (Acts 16:21).
The same suspicion is likely to be true regarding women healers in the ancient world such as those that Wainwright identifies in the Gospel of Luke. While some women healers operated outside the sphere of sanctioned authority, sometimes official oracular shrines participated in the larger world of healing.59 For instance, the oracle at Delphi once advised the city of Delphi regarding a plague with advice on how to halt it.60 Numerous examples exist of male mantic oracles offering healing services, and it is reasonable to extend this service to female mantics as well.61 It is possible to see the oracular slave girl operating not only as a religious figure outside of officially sanctioned channels but also in the realm of healing (e.g., diagnosis, treatment, rituals). Oracles may have been particularly sought after for healing by the masses since they could look to the past, present, and future.62 The evidence is not quite strong enough to posit a direct correlation between the slave girl in Acts 16 and the world of healing at this time, but it is an evocative possibility.
The slave girl leverages her disability into a source of authority and status that was unusual for slaves in the ancient world, and I point out again that legitimate oracular slaves are rare in the literature. Of course, it is her owners who profit from this ability, but profitability for the masters and an increased authority for the slave are not mutually exclusive. Paul’s successful exorcism depends in part on the authenticity of the slave girl as an oracle. If she were a false oracle, then the exorcism would be meaningless. The exorcism without her consent excises the slave girl’s disability in the name of healing, yet it also leaves her vulnerable. If the slave girl included healing activities as part of her oracular duties, then the exorcism and “healing” by Paul are particularly bitter. Petterson states that Paul “silences the girl in the manner of a master,” a point that drives home the vulnerability of both enslavement and mental disability in the ancient world.63 The anger of her slave owners over the exorcism is indicative of its success, which means that her disability is removed permanently.
The wider world of oracles, enslavement, and women healers comes to focus on the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 in her brief appearance. These larger structural phenomena that inform the story, though, are obscured somewhat by the slave girl’s rapid departure from the storyline. In other words, her use as a prosthetic device partially erases her power as a mantic oracle and potentially as a healer. The slave girl’s mantic powers render her visible in a way that gains the negative attention of Paul. His exorcism of the Pythian spirit within the slave girl subsequently renders her visibility as an oracle into invisibility as a slave, an invisibility magnified by her gender. This is a quick fix, which Mitchell and Snyder suggest, “removes an audiences’ need for concern or continuing vigilance” about the disability.64 Many exegetes focus on the “healing” of the slave girl and presume that she is defective or seriously ill, when in fact it is her disability that both makes her valuable and gives her status in her particular community.65 The slave girl is a narrative prosthesis that highlights the power of Jesus made visible through Paul, and once her disability is removed from the storyline, she also disappears from the story. Some scholars have attempted to rescue the slave girl by suggesting that she converted to Christianity and was thus cared for by the community; they are, in my view, overly optimistic.66
This disappearance of the slave girl from the text is troubling. Feminist scholars have pointed out that Paul’s exorcism of the slave girl may have not been in her best interest.67 The slave girl’s masters direct their anger at Paul, suggestive that the slave girl may be next; this is a distinct possibility since slaves often suffered at the hands of their masters for far lesser reasons. Rendering her “healed” through the exorcism highlights the multiple binds of the slave girl.68 She is enslaved either with or without the demonic possession, so the question is whether or not the exorcism benefitted her. While the author of Luke-Acts is intent on the eradication of the Pythian spirit to highlight the significance of Paul’s powers, the exorcism of the slave girl merely trades one disability for another. Though the exorcism removes her mental disability, she is not “healed” but instead relegated to a life of increased invisibility. It is also unclear if Paul healed her out of deference to his conviction that a possession must be aligned with Satan or merely because he was annoyed with her mantic shouting – or perhaps because he was threatened by her mantic abilities.
Her oracular powers most likely offered the slave girl a measure of a protection; as long as she turned a healthy profit, she was less likely to suffer other acquired disabilities from her masters. The removal of her disability without her consent, however, places her in a position of increased marginalization and stigma. It also removes her as a potential competitor to Paul and places him in a position of greater prominence. As a narrative prosthesis, the slave girl literally props up Paul as she then disappears.
In sum, this paper has explored disability and slavery in order to show the multiple intersections they shared in the ancient world. Slaves were likely to experience disability due to violence, and disabled slaves were at an elevated risk. The slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 is in a peculiar bind. She is a slave possessed by a demon, and she occupies a unique place of enslavement but with an unusual oracular power. Her oracular visions make the slave girl desirable, not dissimilar to slaves with unusual physiognomic features that also had a high value for Roman entertainment. As a narrative prosthesis, the slave girl makes an appearance, showcases her disability, and then disappears. Once her disability is removed, she vanishes from the text.
In the case of the slave girl, her disability defines her and is a source of potential authority since it identifies her as a visible mantic oracle and possibly a healer. This disability was a part of her and gave her a place within the text. This does not mean that the disability was without difficulties. The ancient sources indicate that possession could lead to madness and social isolation, yet the slave girl does not ask Paul to “heal” or exorcize her. I have argued that demonic possession and its accompanying madness should be considered disabling in the ancient world, particularly in the New Testament. The slave girl does not, however, seek out healing. Her disability is not something to be healed or discarded. The loss of her disability then places the slave girl not only out of her profession, but also outside of the story.
Mitchell and Snyder remind us that disabilities studies should not seek to find a “positive” narration of disability but instead to offer “a thoroughgoing challenge to the undergirding authorization to interpret that disability invites.”69 Many conventional interpretations of the slave girl have focused solely on her intent to deceive – a mistaken interpretation – or on how her “healing” shows the miraculous power of God through Paul. Challenging the undergirding authorization that Mitchell and Snyder urge includes a challenge to the character of Paul and the author of Luke-Acts as well as the exegetical presumption that all disabilities should be healed. My hope is that this interpretation, with focus on the intersections of her disability and slavery, may add to the new ways to tell the story of the slave girl, building on those brought forth in feminist scholarship in recent years.
My interpretation here leaves the slave girl in a place of seeming powerlessness and erasure. It is not my wish to conclude with another interpretation about the disappearance of marginalized people in the biblical text. While such erasures are often true, I also see the overarching story of Luke-Acts as one of redemption and care for the marginalized. Even though the Gospel writer missed the mark and does not allow for a full rendering of the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18, the spirit of the Gospel propels me to tell her story in a new way. The slave girl is a powerful figure. Her possession by a πνεῦμα πύθωνα places the slave girl in a long line of oracular women – influential, future-telling, and operating against the mainstream authorities of the day. She stands not only as an oracular girl but also as a slave – a highly unusual combination in the ancient world. Though enslaved, this παιδίσκη participates in a powerful form of mantic prophecy for a time in her life, giving her not only a type of limited authority within her sphere but also perhaps enabling her to resist her own enslavement. Who would doubt the words that come from a woman with a πνεῦμα πύθωνα? Paul certainly did not. Her genuine oracular abilities gave her the ability to speak words that people needed to hear. I invite the reader with myself to see the slave girl in Acts 16:16-18 as a character who stands on the shoulders of generations of oracular women, wielding powerful words and operating with authority in her world.
Scholarship has pointed out that the slave girl is contrasted to Lydia, and whereas Lydia is the model of a “good” woman in Luke-Acts, the slave girl is the “bad” one. My paper rejects this paradigm. See J.L. Staley, “Changing Women: Postcolonial Reflections on Acts 16:6-40,” JSNT 73 (1999), pp. 113-135 (127).
D.T. Mitchell and S.L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Corporealities; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).
The social and community models, among others. A succinct overview with pertinence to biblical studies is available in J. Schipper, Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story (Library of Hebrew Bible/OTS, 441; London: T&T Clark, 2006), pp. 15-24. See also C.R. Moss and J. Schipper, “Introduction,” in C.R. Moss and J. Schipper (eds.), Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), pp. 1-11.
See the discussion in M.L. Edwards, “Constructions of Physical Disability in the Ancient Greek World: The Community Concept,” in D.T. Mitchell and S.L. Snyder (eds.) The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 38-41.
See the caution against this in J.J. Pilch, “Sickness and Healing in Luke-Acts,” in Jerome H. Neyrey (ed.), Social World of Luke-Acts (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), pp. 181-209.
N.L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), pp. 70-73.
New Testament scholarship is making strides in disability studies in general; see Moss and Schipper, Disability Studies and Biblical Literature and L.A. Gosbell, “The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind, and the Lame”: Physical and Sensory Disability in the Gospels of the New Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018).
See also P. Bruce, “Constructions of Disability (Ancient and Modern): The Impact of Religious Beliefs on the Experience of Disability,” Neot 44.2 (2010), pp. 253-81. Bruce contests the assumptions of disability in her analysis of the bent-over woman in Luke 13:10-17.
New Testament scholarship has not incorporated the work of Mitchell and Snyder as much as Hebrew Bible scholarship. Works that have engaged specifically with narrative prosthesis and the Hebrew Bible include primarily Schipper, Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible; R. Raphael, Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Literature (Library of Hebrew Bible/OTS, 445; New York: T&T Clark, 2008). Mitchell and Snyder do have an article on the New Testament, though it does not engage narrative prosthesis specifically; see their “‘Jesus Throws Everything Off Balance’: Disability and Redemption in Biblical Literature,” in H. Avalos, S.J. Melcher and J. Schipper(eds.), This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), pp. 173-83. To my knowledge, New Testament scholars have not yet engaged the work of Mitchell and Snyder at length.
E. Stuart, “Disruptive Bodies: Disability, Embodiment and Sexuality” in Lisa Isherwood (ed.), The Good News of the Body: Sexual Theology and Feminism (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 169.
This issue has been studied widely in recent decades; see K.R. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
See the discussion in R. Garland, The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 46-47. Some of the helpful references discussed in Garland include Martial (ca.38-ca.104 CE), Ep. 7.38, 8.13; Pliny (23-79 CE), NH 7.5; Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), Ep. 50.2. On the high price of such slaves, see Quintilian (ca. 35-ca. 100 CE), Instit. 2.5.11.
Such as a stammer, a mild fever, or any temporary illness; see Dig. 21.1.7-8. All translations from the Digest are found in A. Watson (ed.), The Digest of Justinian (4 vols.; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).
Briefly discussed in L. Nasrallah, “‘You Were Bought with a Price’: Freedpersons and Things in 1 Corinthians,” in S.J. Friesen, S.A. James, and D.N. Schowalter (eds.), Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality (NovTSup, 155; Leiden: Brill, 2014), p. 70.
The jurists list numerous defects that qualified a slave to be returned, including skin diseases that result in the loss of use of a limb; see Dig. 126.96.36.199.
Dig. 21.1.9. Both Dig. 21.1.9 and 21.1.10 stem from Ulpian who records the late first- to early second-century CE Vivian.
She shouts, “These men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim a way to salvation.” See the discussion of in P. Trebilco, “Paul and Silas: ‘Servants of the Most High God’ (Acts 16:16-18),” JSNT 36 (1989), pp. 51-73.
There are two issues here. The first is the function of πύθων. Both the genitive πύθωνος and the accusative πύθωνα are supported in textual variants, with the latter having greater weight and being the more difficult choice. Πύθωνα may then be appositional to πνεῦμα or to the phrase παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα, or it could be adjectival, qualifying πνεῦμα. I agree with T. Klutz that the adjectival usage is correct. I modify his translation of “a pythian spirit” to “a Pythian spirit” to emphasize the origins of the spirit from the Delphic myths. See Klutz, The Exorcism Stories in Luke-Acts: A Sociostylistic Reading (SNTSMS, 129; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 214 nn. 24-25. Second, the meaning of πύθων varies in ancient texts. It may refer directly to the Python serpent killed by Apollo at Delphi, a general term for a spirit of divination, or a ventriloquist. See BGAD, “πύθων,” pp. 896-97 for a list of references.
R.M. Grant, “Views of Mental Illness among Greeks, Romans, and Christians,” in J. Fotopoulos (ed.), New Testament and Early Christian Literature in the Greco-Roman Context (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 389-95.
Regarding Luke-Acts, see G.H. Twelftree, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 129-55.
E. Sorensen, Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity (WUNT, 2; Reihe, 157; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 124-25.
On the differentiation between possession and being driven mad as a result of external forces delivered by a god, see W.D. Smith, “So-Called Possession in Pre-Christian Greece,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 96 (1965), pp. 403-426 (esp. pp. 423-25).
Richter Reimer contrasts demon possession and oracular spirits in I. Richter Reimer, Women in the Acts of Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), pp. 171-74. She correctly assesses that Acts 16:18 shows a battle between Jesus and another deity, most likely Apollo. She distinguishes between demonic forces and other possessing spirits, though I believe that Acts 16:16-18 shows a conflation of these two spiritual realms. Similarly, see R.I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), p. 405.
E. Wainwright, Women Healing/Healing Women: The Genderization of Healing in Early Christianity (London: Equinox, 2006), pp. 160-85. Wainwright explores passages such as Luke 4:38; 8:1-3; and 13:10-17.
Unlike the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts depicts exorcisms apart from diagnosed illnesses; see A. Weissenrieder, Images of Illness in the Gospel of Luke (WUNT, 2. Reihe, 164; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 2003), p. 338. Weissenrieder does not define the slave girl in Acts 16 as ill; I attempt to show here that the slave girl is disabled through her demon possession and its incumbent madness.
Wainwright correctly notes that “women’s healing has been colonized and the Lukan health care system is being gendered” in Wainwright, Women Healing/Healing Women, p. 170. Some of Wainwright’s analysis stretches the boundaries of what may be considered demonic possession (such as Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4:38-39), but her material on women healers in the ancient world is persuasive.
Another noteworthy observation is that the story of Cassandra and the legacy of the Delphic Oracle emphasize sexual purity for the woman in the role of the oracle. As a slave, it is unlikely that the slave girl herself would have been able to be celibate since slaves did not have control over their own sexuality. Unless it was important to her masters, the slave girl most likely did perform sex acts as part of her enslavement though this is not mentioned in the text. I point it out here as a way to show the additional vulnerabilities of the slave girl but also to suggest that this lack of insistence of sexual purity may have operated in the slave girl’s favor among the masses, who may not have cared about this particular restriction for a mantic slave girl.
Scholarship had identified the πνεῦμα πύθωνα in a variety of ways. For a ventriloquist interpretation, see Foerster, “πύθων,” TDNT 6, pp. 918-19. Contra is J.W. van Henten, “Python,” in Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter van der Horst Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2nd edn, 1999),p.670. Van Henten sees the spirit as a “predicting demon,” similar to Pseudo-Clement (fourth century CE), Hom. 9.16.3 and Vg. Lev. 20:27.
Contra is the interpretation that the oracular business of the slave girl is comparable to an “urban dog-and-pony show” in L.T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (SP Series, 5; Collegeville: Liturgical, 1992), p. 298. Similarly is Pervo, Acts, p. 404. These commentaries correctly point out the exploitation of the slave girl by her owners, but they devalue her oracular gifts. More positive assessments of the slave girl’s oracular abilities are found in F.S. Spencer, “Out of Mind, Out of Voice : Slave Girls and Prophetic Daughters in Luke-Acts,” BibInt 7.2 (1999), pp. 133-55; M.B. Kartzow, Destabilizing the Margins: An Intersectional Approach to Early Christian Memory (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012), pp. 122-34.
D.E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 268-69.
This is the only instance of μαντεύομαι in the New Testament, though it has uniformly negative connotations in the LXX (cf. Deut. 18:10; 2 Kgs 17:17; Mic. 3:11; Jer. 34:9).
The Sibyls were also important female oracles in the Roman Empire and later incorporated into Judeo-Christian writings. For a brief overview, see D.S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius (Revealing Antiquity, 7; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 137-145.
Aeschylus, Ag. 1072-1330. See the discussion in S.L. Schein, “The Cassandra Scene in Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon,’” Greece & Rome 29.1 Second Series (1982), pp. 11-16.
See also the papyrological evidence in BGU III 87 and its brief discussion in H.C. Youtie, “Sambathis,” HTR 37.3 (1944), pp. 209-218 (212 n. 17). Sometimes young girls were found to make oracular pronouncements in times of need; see the discussion in Potter, Prophets and Emperors, pp. 172-73. Potter directs attention to Suetonius, Galba 9.2, but at least one of the two girls mentioned is of noble birth and neither are slaves. On a slave consulting the Delphic oracle, see Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 4.2, 565P (English translation in J. Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations with a Catalogue of Responses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 411.
See Menander, Hier. Fragment (POxy 1235) and its discussion in B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part X (London: London Egypt Exploration Society, 1898), pp. 81-88.
J.B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell Ancient Religions; Malden: Blackwell Pub, 2007), pp. 186-200.
See the helpful discussion by S.I. Johnson on this point; see Johnson, Ancient Greek Divination (Blackwell Ancient Religions; Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
C. Petterson, Acts of Empire: The Acts of the Apostles and Imperial Ideology (Sino-Christian Studies Supplement Series, 4; Chung Li, Taiwan: Chung Yuan Christian University, 2012), p. 52.
C.J. Martin, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in S. Matthews and E. Schüssler Fiorenza (eds.), Searching the Scriptures. Vol. 2: A Feminist Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1994), pp. 763-99; G. O’Day, “Acts,” in C.A. Newsom, S.H. Ringe, and J.E. Lapsley (eds.), Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, exp. edn., 2012), pp. 394-402.