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Ecstasy (in the Bible)


Etymologically and literally the word ecstasy (from the Gr. κστασις) indicates a displacement; in the sense here intended it means a psychic displacement and designates a state in which some normal functions are suspended and in which the consciousness is absorbed in emotional or mystic experience. The noun κστασις is derived from the verb ξίστημι, to displace, drive one out of one's senses, lose one's senses. Both the verb and the noun occur in both the Septuagint translation of the OT and in the NT, though sometimes in the attenuated sense of simple amazement over some wonderful deed. However, the state of ecstasy may be present even when these words do not occur. In the OT ecstasy is sometimes indicated when it is said that the Spirit of the Lord came upon someone (Nm 11.25; 24.2; 1 Sm 10.6, 10; 19.20; 2 Kgs3.15; Ez 3.14; 11.24), when Ezechiel is "led forth" by the Spirit (Ez 11.24; 37.1), and, in some cases, when an individual is said to "behave like a prophet" (hitnabbē', as in Nm 11.25; 1 Sm 10.56, 10, 13; 19.20). It would seem that in many of the OT examples the trancelike state is induced, at least partially, through natural means, such as the rhythm of liturgical dancing and singing. Thus, the group of prophets that Saul met coming down from a high place (where worship was offered in those early days) and in whose company he fell into a trance were carrying several kinds of musical instruments (1 Sm 10.5); it is said quite explicitly that Elisae (Elisha) employed a minstrel to bring on a prophetic trance (2 Kgs 3.15). False prophets are accused of using intoxicants to induce ecstasy (Is 28.7; see also Mi 2.11). Religious frenzy is found also among non-Israelites (Nm 24.2; 16; 1 Kgs 18.2629) and may even have been introduced into Israel through foreign influence. This does not mean, however, that the phenomenon need be considered a purely natural happening when found in the authentic spokesmen of Israel; just as covenant, law, and kingship, although they originated outside of Israel, took on a unique aspect in Israel because they became the vehicle of the revelation of God's will and the accomplishment of His plan, so it was with prophetic ecstasy.

In the NT, Jesus is depicted as experiencing a kind of ecstasy at key moments such as his baptism (Mk1.911) and his transfiguration (Mk 9.28). Ecstatic visions or trances befall Zechariah (Lk 1.6769), Stephen (Acts 7.55), Peter (Acts 10.10; 11.5), and John (Rev1.10). At Pentecost the gathered disciples are dramatically possessed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.24). The most important NT ecstatic figure, however, is Paul. Luke clearly presents Paul's conversion and other key events in his life as ecstatic (Acts 9.319; 16.910; 18.910;22.1721; 26.1219). Most importantly, Paul's description in 2 Cor 12.14 of a man "caught up to the third heaven" where he "heard things that cannot be told" almost certainly refers to himself. In the latter text and elsewhere, Paul employs imagery and language strongly reminiscent of the depiction of "heavenly journeys" in the Jewish mysticism and apocalypticism of his time. This suggests that he may not have been innocent of training in practices that encouraged ecstasy. In 1 Corinthians, however, Paul exhibits a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the ecstatic phenomena that were prevalent there, making a point of distinguishing the trance-like condition of the tongues-speakers from the prophets' ability to control their expressions (1 Cor 14). In both OT and NT, then, ecstatic phenomena may or may not be signs of possession by the Spirit of the true God; a key element of discernment is whether or not they function to create holiness, good order, and loving community in the relations of the people of God among themselves and with their neighbors.

Bibliography: t. callan, "Prophecy and Ecstasy in Greco-Roman Religion and in 1 Corinthians," Novum Testamentum 27 (1985) 125140. w. grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Washington, D.C. 1982). p. michaelson, "Ecstasy and Possession in Ancient Israel: A Review of Some Recent Contributions," Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 2 (1989) 2854. a. f. segal, "Paul and Ecstasy," Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 25 (Atlanta 1986). r. r. wilson, "Prophecy and Ecstasy: A Reexamination," Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979) 321337; Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia 1980).

[m. r. e. masterman/

m. frohlich]

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