Very few biblical scholars are interested in studying the actual manuscripts of the New Testament. It’s an unusually rigorous and technical field, and most are interested instead in how to interpret the New Testament. That’s true of most fields. The vast majority of Shakespeare scholars are interested in figuring out what the plays *mean*, not in examining the quarto and folio editions to see in detail how they differ from each other. So too with scholars of Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, and and and.
As a result most NT scholars — really! most of them — do not know a lot about the actual manuscripts. It’s a bit of a pity, because there are a lot of very interesting things about them, unrelated to interpretation of the text. Here’s one thing that almost no one knows about, even PhDs in the field (and, as it turns out, even many (most?) scholars who do specialize in studying the manuscripts): the use of manuscripts in later Christian circles for purposes of magic.
To explain what this is all about, I need to provide some background.
There’s been a lot written about magic over the years. When talking about antiquity, “magic” is not what we think of today: we think of illusion artists who do tricks in order to make think something has happened which in fact has not. In antiquity, magic was understood to be a real thing, not a clever illusion. It involved the manipulation of the physical world through suprahuman means. The big question was then (and still is for scholars studying the phenomenon) how to differentiate between magic and miracle. The (very) short answer is that miracles were performed by those who were thought (by the observer) to be on the side of the good (or God or the gods) and magic was performed by those who were (thought by the observer to be) on the side of evil (or the wicked divinities). But in fact, what miracle workers did and what magicians did was not all that different, either in what they performed or in how they went about doing it.
Older scholarship used to claim that magic involved *forcing* the gods to do something by secret spells and other forms of manipulation, and that miracle involved simply making a humble *request* of God or the gods for the desired result. That is no longer considered to be true. Mainly because there’s no evidence of it. And all the other older differentiations that you may have heard at some point – e.g., magic brought bad or harmful results, miracle only good results – also all break down. It appears that one person’s miracle was another person’s magic. It just depended on whether you thought the person doing the spectacular deed was a good guy or not.
In any event, there has been a lot written about magic and a lot about early Christian manuscripts, but very little scholarship combining the two. In what follows I point out ways that the two fields overlap.
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