In my post yesterday I mentioned something about the importance of our surviving manuscripts for understanding practices of magic in the early Christian tradition. Several people have asked me about it, so I thought I would follow it up.
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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