My last post on the discovery of an amulet with passages from the Bible on it brought to mind part of an essay I wrote and recently edited for the second edition of the book that I edited (with Michael Holmes), The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis. The book contains essays on every major aspect of NT textual criticism by different authors, all of them internationally known experts in the field, with articles on papyri manuscripts, majuscule manuscripts, minuscule manuscripts, lectionaries, Greek Patristic citations, Latin Patristic citations, early versions such as Syriac, Coptic, Latin, methods for studying the manuscripts, and … lots of other things. My essay is called “The Text as Window.” It is about how the manuscript tradition of the NT can tell us about the social history of early Christianity – including the use of magic. Here is the short section devoted to that question of magic (endnotes are at the bottom):
The incursion of the social sciences into the study of early Christianity at the end of the twentieth century brought with it a resurgence of interest in the role of magic in the early church. Not everyone agrees even on the most basic of questions, such as the definitions of magic and religion and how, or whether, they can be neatly differentiated.[i] Nonetheless, a number of creative and insightful studies have been produced in the past twenty years, some dealing with the role of magic in the life of Jesus, others with its portrayal in the NT narratives, yet others with its popularity among the early Christians.[ii]
No variant reading of our surviving manuscripts has been shown to arise directly out of an interest in magic or a desire to portray it in a more positive light. This is not at all surprising, as magic was considered socially deviant and theologically devilish, whereas the scribes of our surviving manuscripts, so far as we can tell, were by and large members of socially conservative (proto-) orthodox communities.[iii] Nonetheless, textual evidence of the practice does survive, evidence that relates, however, less to the transcription of the words of the text per se than to the use of the texts once they were produced.
We know from literary sources of the fourth century and later that NT manuscripts were sometimes used for apotropaic magic — for example, worn around the neck or placed under a pillow to ward off evil spirits.[iv] Among the papyri discovered and analyzed since the 1940s are several that were beyond any doubt made and used as amulets: they are small in size, often a single sheet folded over, sometimes provided with or tied together with a string, and normally inscribed with texts that could prove useful for warding off evil spirits or for effecting healings –the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, or a healing narrative.[v]
Closely connected with the question of magic is the practice of fortune-telling…
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