Now here is a topic I bet you’ve never heard of before. The value of what? Amulets? For what? Really?
Yup, really. Sometimes the most interesting issues are ones you haven’t heard of before. And hey, now you’ll be able to talk about it.
This is a guest post from Brice Jones, a textual specialist on this topic, who has written the definitive book about it. I’ve asked him to tell us about it in layperson’s terms. This will take him a couple of posts.
Here is a brief bio on him so you have a sense of who he is, followed by post number one, in which, among other things, he tells you what this is all about.
Brice C. Jones is an ancient historian specializing in the study of Early Christianity and papyrology. He received his Ph.D. in Religion from Concordia University (Montreal) and his M.A. in New Testament from Yale University. His research on ancient Greek and Coptic manuscripts has been published in major scholarly journals, such as Journal of Biblical Literature, Novum Testamentum, New Testament Studies, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, Archiv für Papyrusforschung, and Journal of Coptic Studies. He has been featured in various media outlets, including the The New York Times, The Telegraph, CNN, Live Science, and The Daily Beast.
His website: https://www.bricecjones.com
And here is the first post. Feel free to make comments and ask questions; Brice will be happy to answer them.
Brice C. Jones is the author of New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity, and Matthean and Lukan Special Material: A Brief Introduction with Texts in Greek and English.
In a session at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a scholar announced that he had identified an ancient Greek manuscript containing the text of the Gospel of Mark. He showed a picture of the papyrus that carried the text: it was beautifully written on an oblong piece of papyrus, tentatively dated to the 3rd/4th century C.E., and, assuming the dating was correct, would be one of the oldest manuscripts containing that portion of Marks’ Gospel. A colleague sitting in front of me raised his hand and asked, “What will be the significance of this manuscript since it is an amulet?” He was right. The manuscript would not be useful to textual criticism (I will come back to this in another post). And it was that question from my colleague that drove the research for my latest book, New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
So, what are amulets and why did Christians write scripture upon them? In antiquity, they were commonly associated with magic. Since the term “magic” has negative connotations, let me explain it.
Today, if someone is bitten by a scorpion or snake, they go to the doctor for treatment. If someone is having crazy nightmares or irrational fears, they go to a psychiatrist. In the ancient world, many people would use amulets: objects considered to be imbued with power that, when applied properly and worn on the body, would invoke the divine for some favor.
In antiquity, there were people (usually clergy of some kind) responsible for producing amulets. It should be noted that amulets were by no means unique to Christians. They came in a variety of forms and were used cross-culturally. Clients would participate in some sort of ritual, usually under the supervision of a priest, monk or other functionary, with the expectation that the necessary ritual performance would move the gods (or God) to fix the client’s physical problem. The examples listed above (scorpion and snake bits, irrational fears and nightmares) were common problems in the ancient world but there are many, many other examples: fever, shivering fits, headaches, eyesight, and so on. In the Greek Magical Papyri, a corpus of texts from Egypt comprised of charms and spells, there are even texts that were meant to help with more intimate things, like sex. One text reads, “To get an erection whenever you want: mix pepper with honey and rub it on your thing.” This was the ancient version of Viagra! There has been a lot of ink spilt on these magical texts and their function within ancient societies. And indeed, they are fascinating in their own right.
The fourth century Canon 36 of the Synod of Laodicea states that Christian clergy should “not be wizards or enchanters…or make so-called amulets, which are prisons of their souls.” Around the same time, Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians would become apostates and be banned from communion if they sought out diviners or sorcerers. (Ep. can.) However, it is very clear that amulets were popular among late antique Christians despite the religious authorities’ opposition to them. As C.H. Roberts states, “Christians in Egypt in the third and early fourth centuries were not above using amulets much as their pagan contemporaries did.” It is impossible to identify a specific moment in time when Christians began to use amulets. The practice can be seen as an extension of Greco-Roman “magic,” but the Christian practice recalls the “signs,” “miracles,” and “exorcisms” that we encounter in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Early Christian scholars have long noticed parallels between miracles in the New Testament and Greco-Roman magical practices. Even Celsus, a well-known second century opponent of Christianity, accused Jesus of preforming miracles through sorcery, clearly indicating that the ancients were aware of some similarities (Cels. 1.6).
Among the surviving protective and curative Christian amulets from Egypt, the two most common images of Jesus that emerge are healer and protector. A popular New Testament text used in several curative amulets is Matthew 4:23–24/9:35, a narrative summary that depicts Jesus as a healer of “every illness and infirmity.” The words “healing every illness and infirmity” were appealed to as a kind of blanket formula that was applicable to a variety of physical conditions. The Gospel of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is the most common New Testament passage cited in Christian amulets. We see the prayer on amulets all by itself but sometimes it is mixed in with other incantations, prayers, symbols, and so on.
Requests for protection from demons are frequently encountered in amulets. The expulsion of evil spirits from human subjects is of course a common tradition in the Gospels. According to Mark’s Gospel, one of the reasons the disciples were called was to “have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:15). Healing by exorcism continued to be performed by Christians, as evidenced by a plethora of early Christian literature. Lactantius, for example, says that demons fear righteous people and that when adjured by them they are put to flight “at the name of the true God” (Inst. 22).
To give just one example of the kinds of texts I am describing, here is the opening of a sixth-century Christian amulet (BGU 3.954):
Master, O God Almighty, The Fath[er] of our Lord and Savior [Jesus Christ], and St. Serenus: I, Silvanus, son of Serapion, give thanks and bow [my] head before you, asking and beseeching that you might chase away from me, your servant, the demon of the evil eye, the (demon) of the e[vil] deed an[d] the (demon) of unpleasantness and take away from me every illness and every infirmity so that I might be health and [able] to say the Gospel-prayer: [citation of the Lord’s Prayer].
In addition to citing the Lord’s Prayer, the opening verses of Matthew and John are cited, and the text ends thus: “O light from light, true God, grant me, your servant, the light. St. Serenus, supplicate on my behalf so that I may be perfectly healthy.”
Many Christian amulets like this one reflect textual traditions that stem from the Gospels, liturgies, creedal formulae, doxologies, as well as Christian iconography. More times than not, many of these traditions are woven together to form a patchwork of texts (and symbols) for the purpose of ritual application. These artifacts provide us with some significant information about the social and religious environments in which they were produced and used. The inherited Jesus traditions in amulets became meaningful in their own way, depending on the circumstances (e.g., a need for healing, protection). To put it another way: amulets were the carriers of tradition that encapsulated Christological expression, whose meanings were ultimately defined by the ones who wore/manufactured them.
In my next post, I will say more about how these Greek New Testament citations have been neglected in the history of New Testament textual criticism, why that neglect matters, and what we should do about it moving forward. Stay tuned!