Bill Long 12/01/04
Parrhesia and Earliest Christianity
The way that Foucault "wanted" the evidence of earliest Christianity to read, based on his lectures on parrhesia in ancient Greek thought, was that earliest Christianity also desired to link bios, truth and logos, as had Socrates, to emphasize the personal and truth-telling nature of parrhesia. While this will be true for the way in which I will read the Apostle Paul's portrait in the Acts of the Apostles, it doesn't ring true for Jesus. Close attention to the literary function of parrhesia in the context of these two major figures of early Christianity shows, however, that it has more to do with logos than bios, more to do with contrasting the earliest Christians with secret groups (proto-Gnostics?) or trying to gain acceptance before the Roman emperors than with integrating logos and bios in a harmonic person.
In contrast to the relatively few appearances of parrhesia in classical Greek, parrhesia is used extensively with reference to Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John. One non-Johannine use should be mentioned however, because it has played such a role in the debate over the "Messianic Secret" in Mark, first proposed by William Wrede about 100 years ago. His thesis was that Jesus was portrayed secretely in Mark because the true recognition of him as Messiah only occurred after his death. Mark has Jesus urge secrecy among his followers because, in fact, no one had recogized him as Messiah in his lifetime. Secrecy, therefore, is the way to handle the later church embarrassment over failure to recognize Jesus as Messiah during his lifetime.
As if to confirm the thesis about Jesus' secrecy in Mark, the Gospel has Jesus speak "plainly" (with parrhesia) about his upcoming rejection, crucifixion and resurrection (Mk. 8:32). This "plain speaking," according to Wrede, is a projection back into Jesus' life from the perspective of the Marcan community later in the first century. Thus, nothing here will help Foucault on parrhesia.
There are considerably more references to parrhesia in the Gospel of John. The disciples beg for Jesus to tell them "plainly" (with parrhesia) whether he is the Messiah (10:24). Jesus' somewhat evasive answer (10:25) is later interpreted as follows, when he says: "I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly (parrhesia) of the Father (16:25)." Here parrhesia is to be understood as clarification of obscure, hidden or enigmatic statements that Jesus might formerly have taught. In this regard, the Fourth Evangelist might have had Jesus use the word parrhesia to contrast him with groups of (proto) Gnostics, who were committed to the secret teachings of Jesus. Jesus is a public teacher, who did, in fact, speak in riddles but would clarify all things.
Parrhesia and the Apostle Paul
My focus in this point will only be on the portrait of Paul in the Book of Acts (actually, this was the title of my doctoral disssertation in 1982). One of the significant things about Luke's portrait of Paul is that he preaches with parrhesia. I think this "freedom of speech" is actually one of the crucial things that Luke is trying to communicate to a (Roman) reader: that the earliest generation of Roman officials had not found anything evil in the proclamation of Christ and that, therefore, the Christians in the present-day (end of the first century) ought to be able to speak with parrhesia. Two brief references will establish the case.
1) Most people, even avid students of the Bible, are unaware that Paul spends 1/4 of the book of Acts under arrest. He is arrested in Jerusalem in Acts 21 and spends the rest of the book in trial, speaking in his defense or under restrictions. Yet, it is precisely in the context of these restrictions that the message of parrhesia comes out. First, when Paul is taken to King Agrippa in Acts 26 to defend his preaching of the message of Jesus, he says, "Indeed, the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner (26:26)." The Christian Gospel has been spoken freely (with parrhesia) in public. It was no danger; it ought to be allowed to continue this parrhesiastic speech.
2) The last picture we get of Paul in Acts 28 is when he has arrived in Rome. He is ostensibly sent to Rome because he is a Roman citizen and has appealed to the emperor for a hearing in his case. The text says, "He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness (parrhesia) and without hindrance (28:30-31)." Parrhesia is the penultimate word of the Book of Acts. Paul speaks freely even while under house arrest; he welcomes all who come to him; he lives on his own resources. He is a model not only for the Christian community which reads the Acts of the Apostles but for the Roman officials who should want to know how to treat these Christians.
We would have to go far beyond the time of the New Testament to be able to substantiate Foucault's thesis with respect to early Christianity. By the end of the second century CE, some Christian philosophers were talking about a Christian "way of life," and the third century saw the beginnings of the anchorite/hermit movement in the Eqyptian desert, where life and word might be seen as inextricably intertwined. Yet the story of parrhesia in earliest Christianity is not as simple as Foucault would probably want us to find. Too bad. It is a great point from a great scholar. Too bad it doesn't hold up. And, but this takes us far beyond the scope of what I can here prove, perhaps Foucault himself has "overread" the concept of parrhesia in ancient Greek literature. It did work very well for him in his lectures, however...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long