2. Magic vs Miracle


‘Elijah and Elisha, Honi and Hanina, were magicians, and also was Jesus of Nazareth. 
It is endlessly fascinating to watch Christian theologians describe Jesus as miracle worker 
rather than magician and then attempt to define the substantive difference between those two.
 There is, it would seem from the tendentiousness of such arguments, an ideological need 
to protect religion and its miracles from magic and its effects.’ 

~ John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus

The presence of the word ‘magician’ in the subtitle of this study and the hereafter application of the word ‘magic’ throughout demand that the criteria by which we are labelling an act as ‘magic’ and its practitioner as a ‘magician’ is established at the outset. Recent studies in cultural anthropology have concluded that there is no definitive model of ‘magic’ that can be applied, without exception, cross-culturally and throughout history since an all-inclusive and comprehensive title cannot be assigned to phenomena that covers such a vast historical and geographical scale and appears on the surface to vary considerably in observable behaviour and verbal discourse. The difficulty is similar to that experienced by the art historian who attempts to define ‘art’ when presented with an extensive diversity of ‘art forms’ such as books, poetry, music, theatre, dance, film and painting, all of which are generally classified as ‘art’ but differ significantly in their medium and form of expression. 

The futility of various attempts to reach an authoritative definition of ‘magic’ has led some scholars to suggest that we should abandon the term altogether. However, when the determined social anthropologist or theologian believes that a definition can be attempted, there is a tendency to either classify all cultic activity with dubious elements of magical behaviour under the evasive term ‘magico-religious’ or spend such great time and effort establishing the etymology of the word ‘magic’ that there is little room in the rest of the study for its subsequent application to a particular theory. Fortunately, to the relief of the sanity of both myself and the reader, it is not within the scope of this study to establish a ‘catch-all’ term that will encompass all forms of magical practice. Although initial preparation for this study has involved a thorough investigation into the various cultural definitions of magic that have emerged throughout history, it is not my intention to attempt to unite the strands of magical behaviour observed within the rituals of modern pagan groups with Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande tribe or I. M. Lewis’ definition of magic in an Asian or South American context. Consideration of the word ‘magic’ within this study will be restricted to popular definitions of magic in circulation within the first-century Mediterranean world, extending to those cultures and traditions that may have informed and influenced the development of these classifications. More specifically, my concern within the initial stages of this study is to establish a coherent set of characteristics that were typically associated with magical practice within the environment in which the early Christian evangelists situate the ministry of the Jesus of the Gospels. By undertaking a preliminary investigation into the central defining aspects of magic in the ancient world and drawing upon evidence of the typical behaviours associated with magicians operating within a first century environment, the emergent figure of a magician and his activities will identify a set of features that can be correctly associated with magical practices within the particular era under discussion and thereby constitute a working definition of ‘magic’ for the remainder of this study.


If the term ‘magic’ had remained a concept that was disassociated from our current society and one which could be studied within the particular context of a historical period or civilization with which it had remained closely associated, then establishing a definition would be a much simpler business. Modern developments in scientific theory and the rise of religious scepticism have led many individuals to abandon the belief systems in which ‘magic’ flourished. However, the word itself has withstood the passing of time and remnants have found their way into current twenty-first century popular culture. Magic currently bears little resemblance to its original historical designation since it has been largely distorted by our modern reinterpretations and now appears in its contemporary incarnation as a harmless and often comical notion, often restricted to forms of family entertainment such as the circus, children’s parties or as exemplified in the flurry of interest surrounding the recent Harry Potter phenomenon. 

It is essential that both the modern writer and reader abandon their modern-day preconceptions of ‘magic’ and adopt the Weltanschauung (‘world-view’), to use Bultmann’s terminology, of the original audience which may differ considerably from the belief-systems to which they are accustomed.An appreciation of the ‘life-world’ of the ancients is hugely significant when addressing the concepts of ‘magic’ and ‘miracle’ since the value and importance placed upon the interaction between humanity and the spiritual realm in particular has a direct impact upon how we are to understand the function of these terms in antiquity. Although both the ancient and modern world-views recognise a hierarchical structure which locates humanity on the earth and a supreme being in heaven, the ancient world-view differs from our own in that it places a greater emphasis on the existence of intermediary spirits which inhabit the middle region between the divine and man. These intermediary spirits were an important everyday encounter in the early centuries and a pervasive awareness of their existence is illustrated by the emergence of religious texts in the first century which detail the activities of these spirits and ultimately gave rise to an established structure of angelology and demonology. Furthermore, the reality of evil spirits was demonstrated in the common practice of exorcism, a procedure that was even accredited to Jesus himself by the Gospel authors, and both benevolent and malevolent spirits were commonly considered to be responsible for a variety of activities. 

Whenever a staunch belief in these angelic and demonic beings was asserted, it was often accompanied by the magical world-view which declared that the magician could harness the power of these spirits and exploit them for personal gain. Consequently, spirit manipulation came to be a major indicator of magical practice throughout antiquity. This spiritual aspect of the ancient world-view has enjoyed a revival in our present age due to a resurgence of interest in new age religions which emphasise the role of angels and other spiritual beings in our daily life. Although I am confident that many individuals would subscribe to the preservation of these attitudes to a certain extent within the modern world-view, particularly since a firm belief in the existence of demons and angels is upheld by the contemporary Christian religion, I would suggest that the genuine existence of angels, demons and other spiritual beings is largely rejected by the mainstream and when such creatures resurface in our present-day culture they are generally treated with a heavy dose of post-enlightenment scepticism and often come to form cultural clichés. A collective abandonment of the existence of these intermediary spirits situated between the divine and man in our present culture has resulted in the exclusion of these spiritual intermediaries and contributed towards the gradual degradation of our belief in the validity of the magical practices in which these spirits were an active and fundamental feature. This estrangement from the authenticity of magic was encouraged in the early twentieth-century by a series of socio-anthropological studies, particularly those conducted by Frazer and his students, which played a large role in demystifying magic for the modern audience. These studies scorned magic as a form of ‘bad science’, a misinterpretation of events that occurred by coincidence or the result of a misguided emotional reaction to situations beyond early man’s control. Consequently, magic is no longer the dangerous threat that it would have been to the ancients to whom magic was very real and something to be greatly feared. 

The New Testament scholar who has entered into the world-view of the Gospels in an attempt to give an authentic historical analysis of a text will most probably find that he or she has, at some point, inadvertently stumbled across the magical world-view. However, since the ancient and modern attitudes to spiritual intermediaries and the reality of ‘magic’ appear to differ so considerably, the modern reader of the Gospels who is unfamiliar with the ancient world-view in which the Gospels were written may unconsciously disregard elements of the text that would have carried a significant meaning for the early reader and New Testament scholarship may well suffer when such issues are ignored. 
The miracles are perhaps the most demanding element of the Gospels for those of us operating under the modern world-view to comprehend for the simple reason, as observed by Bultmann, that modern man will naturally seek an explanation for any unusual or apparently miraculous activity. Within our present study, the problem is two-fold. Not only are we required to concede that the Jesus of the Gospels was a miracle-worker, but we will transcend this assumption to ask whether he employed ‘magic’ in order to achieve the various miracles that are reported in the Gospels. If it is essential when considering issues regarding ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ that we readjust our particular worldview and situate both concepts firmly within the spiritual world-view of the environment under examination, we must therefore presuppose both the existence of spiritual bodies and the efficacy of healings and exorcisms performed by magicians and miracle-workers. Therefore an extensive debate concerning the reality of angels or demons and the authenticity of allegedly miraculous cures is largely irrelevant for our purpose due to the fact that for a first-century audience both of these phenomena would have been very real and unquestionable. What we must seek to discern, however, is the criterion by which magicians were separated from miracle-workers within the first centuries in order to avoid imposing our own Western, twenty-first century distorted definitions of ‘magic’ and ‘miracle’ onto the world of the ancient near East.


Most studies attempting to ascertain how the ancients defined magic do so by comparing it against its natural foil of religion. The substantive difference, or similarities, between the terms ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ is well-trod scholarly ground and it is not easy to establish a clear distinction since the two concepts are often difficult to define within themselves. When faced with the seemingly impossible task of defining one against the other, the individual may feel that he or she is attempting to juggle with water. While the familiar Frazerian classifications used to differentiate between magic and religion are still faithfully defended by some, they have been heavily criticised in recent years by scholars keen to show that magic and religion cannot be easily divorced from one another and that ‘magic’ is a largely Western construct imposed upon cultures that are considered to be uncivilised and irrational. 

Those who believe that we cannot dichotomise between magic and religion tend to appeal to two key arguments. The first proposes that magic and religion are opposing viewpoints of the same activity and the second suggests that the distinction between magic as coercive and religion as petitionary is false as both have elements of the other. We will come to address this second distinction later but since the opinion that magic and religion are opposing viewpoints on the same phenomena can trace its source back to the etymological origin of the word ‘magic’, then this is an ideal starting point from which to assess the differences, or lack thereof, between the two. 


The word ‘magic’ and its association with all things supernatural and eclectic emerged from what is essentially a spate of school-yard name-calling. During the Greco-Persian wars (492 - 449 BC), the Greeks encountered the exotic and unfamiliar religious rites of the Persian priests known as the magi or magoi (or singular, magus or magos, the Persian word for priest). The magi were astrologers, philosophers and diviners and they are commonly thought to have been the priests of the Zoroaster cult, although Herodotus in his Histories (440 BC) states that they were one of the six tribes of the Medes (Herodotus, Histories, I and VII). The Greeks applied the word μάγος or μαγεία to the Persian rituals of the magi as they differed considerably from their own religious practices and the title μάγος rapidly became synonymous with exotic or unfamiliar behaviour. Suspicion regarding the unusual rituals of the magi was exacerbated in the fifth-century BC by both the Greek writer Xanthus of Lydus, who wrote detailing the suspicious practices of the magi to the Greeks and Heraclitus of Ephesus, who included the magi in a list of individuals accused of promoting a false view of the gods.[1] The magi were also denounced by Pliny who in his Natural History claimed to expose the ‘fraudulent lies of the magi’ whose ‘art has held complete sway throughout the world for many ages.’[2]The general contempt felt towards these individuals is demonstrated within the New Testament by the character Simon Magus who appears in Acts 8: 9-24 as the supreme example of a magus (hence his appropriate surname). Justin Martyr writes that Simon Magus was a magician who performed his miracles with the help of demons and both the Acts of Peter (Chap. V) and the Clementine Recognitions contain extensive condemnation of Simon’s activities (Book II).[3]

In addition, negative opinions regarding the magi may account for the degree of embarrassment felt by many ancient writers regarding the suspicious appearance of ‘wise men (μάγοι) from the East’ (Mt. 2:1 ) who are skilled at astronomy in the birth narrative of the Gospel of Matthew. Although the author of Matthew portrays these characters in a positive light, some early commentators identified these individuals as the magi and attempted to account for their presence in the text. A popular explanation was that Jesus’ birth had converted these magicians and freed them from their immoral practices and this interpretation was adopted by Ignatius, Augustine, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian.[4]
As the Persian magi endured increasing condemnation, they hastily defended their activities by emphasising their priestly nature and insisting that although their practices were foreign to Greek minds, this did not necessarily make them immoral or illegal. Nevertheless the title ‘magus’ rapidly came to be a term of abuse in the ancient world and an allegation of magical practice was made whenever a ritual was foreign or unfamiliar to the observer or was simply considered to be performed with deviant or evil intent. In addition to a general mistrust of strange customs or ritual, those subject to suspicion within a community, such as strangers, foreigners, or those with psychological or physical abnormalities, were particularly susceptible to malicious charges of magic. A general distrust of exotic practices extended to cultures whose religious rites and customs were considered to be strange and suspicious. With its use of hieroglyphs and mummification, Egypt was a prime target for an association with magic in the ancient world[5] and many prominent Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras and Plato, were thought to have acquired their skills while studying in Egypt.[6] It is unsurprising, then, that the first sorcerers encountered in the Old Testament are ‘the magicians of Egypt' (Exod. 7:11, 22). 

The tension between the two distinctly dissimilar interpretations of the term ‘magus’ in the ancient world had serious consequences for the individual to whom the title was applied. Once the defendant had been identified as a ‘magus’ he was generally considered to be a charlatan who was involved in corruption and immoral activities. However, his followers would defend himself by claiming that he was essentially a decent, moral individual who had been subjected to malicious propaganda from other cultures. The difficulty of establishing a clear distinction was made increasingly difficult by certain individuals, such as Philo, who used the term ‘magus’ interchangeably to refer to both priest and magician. Although the blurring of this distinction made everyday life increasingly problematic for those wishing to distance themselves from magical activity, it also provided a great advantage for magicians seeking to legitimise their operations. For example, the Platonist Apuleius of Madaura (125-180 AD) famously exploited this etymological confusion in his Apologia sive de Magia. When accused of practicing magic, Apuleius simply asked his accusers ‘quid sit magus’[7] and presented three definitions of a magus: a priest, a teacher of magical arts and the more ‘vulgar’ definition of someone who by the use of spells can get what he wants from the gods.[8]
Deciding which miracle-working groups or individuals fitted into the categories of religion or magic was largely determined by the socio-political preferences of the observer and whether the act that they were witnessing was consistent with or foreign to their own personal religious experiences. While people experiencing misfortune in the ancient world appealed to their gods to protect them from hostile supernatural forces and considered these appeals to be religious acts, similar appeals carried out by neighbours could be viewed as magical attempts to manipulate or control supernatural spirits for personal gain. This ‘we-say-you-say’ attitude extended to prominent miracle-workers in the ancient world and their opponents and followers often engaged in bitter disputes to acquit or condemn their opposing heroes. Although the activities of both rival parties may be identical, the practitioner operating within a dominant, official and approved context would often lay claim to divine approval on his activities and condemn the socially deviant outsider as teaching a corruption of religion and colluding with demonic influences. Due to its association with demonic and malign forces, magic was deeply entangled with polemics in the ancient world and a charge of magic reared its ugly head wherever there were competitions for power, volatile social situations or the need to scapegoat a mysterious outsider. Individuals who did not fall into the social, religious and political norms of the time were often accused of practising magic and suffered severely under legal penalties that were established to eradicate such activities.

Laws prohibiting the practice of magic grew in severity throughout the ancient world and whether the behaviour of an individual was deemed to be religious or magical was often a matter of life or death. The Hebrew Bible contains a clear set of laws prohibiting the practice of magic; Leviticus 19:26 forbids augury and witchcraft, and Deuteronomy 18:10-11 outlaws divination, soothsaying, augury, sorcery, mediums, wizards and necromancers. In addition to prohibition under Jewish law, the practice of magic was a criminal offence under Roman law during Jesus’ lifetime and strict laws ensured that the magician would be severely reprimanded or even executed if his activities were discovered. The ancient Roman legislation known as the Laws of the Twelve Tables (composed in the fifth-century BC) formed an important foundation for all subsequent Roman law and laid down penalties against those who use magical incantations. For example, Table VIII forbids the singing or chanting of evil spells (malum Carmen incantare and (malum) Carmen occentare (condere) and prohibits the charming away of crops or another’s crops (fruges incantare, fruges excantare and segetem pellicere). The tablets were destroyed by invading Gauls in 390 BC and consequently the original text of these laws has been lost. However, our knowledge of these laws survives through brief quotations provided in later juridical documents and the writings of other authors (Ancient sources for quotations from the Twelve Tables include Aulus, Cicero, Festus, Gaius, Gellius, Paulus, Pliny the Elder and Ulpian. As certain individuals suspected of magic, such as Simon Magus (Acts 8:9), were allowed to roam freely then we must assume that these laws were not consistently upheld. However, since there was a widespread suspicion that magic acted as a disguise for various political groups who could undermine the authority of Roman or Jewish leaders, if a magician became exceptionally popular or involved himself with subversive politics, particularly within the Hellenistic world, then he would be swiftly dealt with and punished accordingly.

In the light of these stringent laws prohibiting the practice of magic, the loyal followers of miracle-workers were faced with a problem; how to convince the populace that their miracle-worker derived his powers from authorised, approved sources. Even if a clear distinction between magic and religion did not originally exist in the ancient world, there were certainly many individuals busy constructing a distinction in order to avoid persecution and it is these points of contention that separate the behaviours typically associated with the magician from that of the miracle-worker. Certain groups and individuals proposed definitions of ‘magic’ that were undoubtedly weak attempts to redefine the word in order to allow them to continue with activities that were otherwise strictly forbidden. For example, the rabbinic leaders in early Judaism were fully aware that their ritual techniques suggested to observers that they had control over supernatural powers and that this practice was explicitly condemned by the Hebrew bible. Therefore, in order to guard their activities against a charge of magic, the Rabbis simply reinvented a definition of magic that allowed them to indulge in their rituals while still condemning the practice of magic by the outsider. The Sanhedrin stated that performing magic is punishable, while simply appearing to perform magic, or creating an illusion of magic, is not an offence (bSanh. 67-68). Furthermore, the Sanhedrin claimed that any act which benefited others could not be considered to be magic (bSanh. 67b) and finally, in order to eradicate any suspicions regarding their activities, they added that anyone wishing to join them must be able to perform magic (bSanh. 17).

Miracle-workers seeking to distance themselves from a charge of magic would often establish a set of characteristics that were typically associated with magical practice in order to demonstrate that their behaviour differed from that of the magician. Although the definitions of magic that were popular in the first centuries may well have derived from these attempts by miracle-workers to entangle their own operations from a charge of magic, three key indicators of magical practice reoccur through antiquity which appear to be crucial factors in how the early magicians defined themselves. These three points of separation are as follows:

These three key areas, which we will now address in greater detail below, demonstrate that certain forms of ‘magical’ behaviour were deliberately fostered by the magician himself rather than imposed upon him by the disapproving and suspicious society in which he operates. Therefore, although the original magi-cians may have been innocent priests who were the unfortunate victims of malicious gossip, contemporary scholarship must appreciate that the word ‘magic’ has since been applied to individuals who clearly exhibit behaviour that is contrary to the pious and prayer-like nature of these Persian figures. We should not readily assume that the confusion surrounding the term magi-cians from practicing anything contrary to the central principles of religion.



The first point upon which ancient magic appears to define itself is in its inclination towards secretive and private behaviour. We have previously considered that magicians were forced to remain solitary and secretive figures within a society as they were subjected to torment and persecution by the dominant religious and socio-political movements of the time. However, this theory is turned on its head by evidence which reveals that in many cases the magicians of the ancient world deliberately isolated themselves from mainstream religion and exhibited anti-social, deviant behaviour entirely through personal choice. While the religious individual is content to participate in public worship en masse, the magician is often identified by his rejection of conventional religious activities and his tendency to carry out his activities away from public speculation.
The motivations driving a magician to maintain secrecy concerning his operations are commonly accounted for by four main theories. First is the Durkeheimian theory which assumes that whereas the religious person engages in continual acts of devotion focusing on long-term aims that benefit the community as a whole, the magician aims to achieve specific goals for the immediate needs of the individual and therefore he has no need of a communal worship group. A second possible explanation is that commitment to an established belief system is difficult for the magician since if his spell fails to work he will modify his technique and alter the names of the gods that he is addressing in order to discover a more effective way of achieving instant success. Thus the efficacy of the method takes precedence over loyalty to a specific deity and this is evident in the numerous combinations of names of Jewish, Christian, Egyptian, Greek divinities found within the magical papyri. A third possibility is that secrecy was imperative to the magician in order to conceal magical techniques or incantations which, if heard by others, would evidently incur a charge of magic and risk the ensuing legal penalties. Finally, secrecy may have been maintained by the magician in order to imbue his activities with a general air of mystery and thereby make his knowledge attractive to potential initiates.

Although the private and secretive nature of the magician implied to his audience that he was engaging in deviant behaviour, most often the magician was willing to impose this suspicion upon himself and risk speculation in order to conceal his activities from the authorities or even feed his own ego by implying that his knowledge was too exclusive to be shared publicly.


A failure to recognise the variety of different methods incorporated into the operations of the single magician in antiquity has been responsible for a great deal of confusion in countless studies of ancient magic. The presence of an address directed towards a spiritual being in a magical text has led many a scholar to follow Frazer’s misguided assumption that the text in question cannot be describing a magical ritual as such procedures require the application of technique alone and disregard any need for spiritual aid. As a result, magic is often classified as the employment of physical technique and religion is defined as an appeal to the spiritual power of the gods and an inaccurate distinction is proposed on this basis. Although this distinction is often vehemently defended in anthropological thought, it is very difficult to apply this theory to the magical texts which comprise the larger part of our understanding of magical ritual in the ancient Hellenistic world.

Since spells detailing the technical application of materials exist alongside lengthy petitions to gods in the Greek magical papyri, I would urge the student of ancient magic to appreciate that although the precise use of physical techniques may on occasion suggest that spiritual elements are not present in certain magical rituals, it is incorrect to conclude that spirits or gods are absent from all magical ritual and propose a dissimilarity with religion on this basis alone. Whenever spiritual bodies can be discerned within a magical text they are most often addressed with a strong element of manipulation and magical intent, therefore the presence of a spiritual being is entirely consistent, rather than incompatible, with magical practice. To highlight these two parallel forms of magical methodologies it is useful to distinguish between natural magic, in which the magician uses techniques that are applied independently of supernatural aid, and spiritual magic, which exploits the gods and inferior supernatural powers. However it is essential that both methods are recognised as equally fundamental aspects of ancient magic.


Miracle workers in the early centuries attempted to distance themselves from a charge of magic by emphasising their dependence on prayer, underlining the role of God’s will in their wonderworking and accusing the magicians of sidelining the will of God by using techniques that were effective ex opere operato. The magician’s occasional reliance upon physical technique, rather than spiritual petition, is demonstrated by the numerous magical texts from antiquity which require the operator to possess knowledge of a specific procedure and/or materials which must be applied precisely in order to produce an automatically successful result. Many spells in the Greek magical papyri instruct the magician to carry out the instructions of the rite precisely; if it is performed correctly then instantaneous results are guaranteed but if the procedure is carried out improperly then the act will be unsuccessful. Furthermore, as the intermediary presence of a deity or powerful spiritual being is not required, the performer’s standing with God is unimportant and anyone who masters the instructions described within a magical text can potentially recreate the outcome. A staunch confidence in the immediate effectiveness of a procedure was therefore considered to be a major indicator of magical practice and the immediacy of results ensured that many magicians throughout history generated a monetary profit from selling their services, especially those who had cleverly restricted the exclusiveness of their services by maintaining secrecy regarding their precise techniques. Since a major catalyst for the successful completion of the procedure was the performer’s ability to employ his various techniques correctly, the magician would often exhibit a tendency to amass knowledge of techniques from various sources in an attempt to swell his repertoire of successful methods.

The absence of a supernatural influence within these procedures raises an important question for the study of natural magic; what is the power-source behind these operations if it is not spiritual? An answer to this question was proposed by anthropologists in the first quarter of the twentieth-century who had observed that the magical techniques of certain cultures were evidently effective by the will of the magician alone and independently of any spiritual intervention. Studies revealed that these techniques were successful due to an impersonal and natural power thought to reside within the physical environment or even within the magician himself and this power-source was classified as mana. We will explore the origins and applications of mana later, however the presence of this impersonal, in-dwelling type of energy within ancient magic demonstrates that the source of the magician’s ability to perform magic was not inevitably drawn from the spiritual or godly realm, but also from his skilful employment of natural energies.


Whenever a spiritual agency was considered to be the power-source behind an individual’s magical operations, his opponents would predictably declare that this underlying power was demonic or that the magician had somehow coerced his god into performing impossible acts at his request. Most often this latter allegation was well-founded since the magician’s impersonal relationship with the gods and his expectation of immediate results ensured that a demanding and coercive tone was typically employed by magicians practicing spiritual magic in the ancient world. The fear and obedience with which the gods responded to a magician’s incantations is evident in Lucan’s portrait of the witch Erichtho - a typical example of the coercive behaviour of the magician and the subsequent fearful response from the gods. In his description of the witch’s ritual, Lucan states that ‘no sooner had she stated her demands than the gods granted them, for fear of being subjected to a second spell’[11] Threatening the gods is particularly associated with ancient Egyptian magical practice and in his study of ancient Egyptian magic, E. A. Wallis Budge states: ‘the object of Egyptian magic was to endow man with the means of compelling both friendly and hostile powers…even God Himself, to do what he wishes, whether they were willing or not.’[12]
Accordingly, miracle-workers who were eager to separate their activities from those of the magicians countered allegations of magic by drawing attention to the coercive behaviour of the magician and emphasising the functional aspect of their prayers in order to illustrate that their results were ultimately reliant on God’s will. Hence the rabbinic tradition was quick to distinguish Honi and Hanina from their contemporary magicians by indicating that their results were dependent upon prayers which were heard and subsequently answered by God and therefore their moral standing with God was the efficacious element in their operations. Similarly, although Apollonius of Tyana, a Neo-Pythagorean miracle-worker and contemporary of Jesus, was accused by his enemies of being a magician and twice arrested under suspicion of practicing magic, his biographer Flavius Philostratus (170-247 AD) recorded that Apollonius was a pious man who prayed to God and did not perform acts by his own personal power (although incidentally, the Greek magical text PGM. XIa 1-40 is entitled ‘Apollonius of Tyana’s old serving woman’ and provides the magician with instructions to summon the spirit thought to have served Apollonius).[13]

In view of this defensive emphasis on prayer and the miracle-workers’ forthright condemnation of manipulative magical techniques, a distinction is proposed by some, notably by James Frazer, between the religious man who accepts that his fate is at the mercy of spiritual powers that are beyond his persuasion and henceforth supplicates the divine through respectful prayers in order to request the god’s compliance in undertaking a task, and the magician who believes that the will of the gods can be manipulated by adopting coercive, demanding behaviour and engaging in protracted speeches, most often employing threats, to force the gods to perform a task or even work under his command. Certainly this is the most controversial case for a distinction between religion and magic and it has been heavily criticised by scholars keen to demonstrate that certain magical texts contain prayer-like imprecations and religious texts occasionally veer towards a coercive nature. 

In defence of a distinction between prayer and incantation, others suggest that the presence of isolated prayer forms or sentences of a subservient nature in a spell do not necessarily indicate that the overall intention of the spell was supplicatory. This is due to the fact that although both forms of address may share the same verbal channels to communicate with supernatural forces, they remain clearly separated on the basis of the performer’s intention, i.e. whether the performer is placing him/herself at God’s mercy and allowing that deity the discretion to do as it chooses, or whether he or she is expecting to receive immediate results and seeking to restrict the manoeuvrability and autonomy that God has in performing the act. 

To judge whether a spoken address to a god is essentially a prayer or incantation, the words themselves must be separated from the intent behind them, much in the same way that Jewish prayer distinguishes between keva, the spoken words, and kavanah, the intention or emotion underlying the words. We must appreciate that although the line of communication may be opened up in the same way, the message may be different. For example, consider the image of two people playing a piano. The first plays ragtime and the second plays a Chopin nocturne. The instrument that is played and the printed notation that is read are similar, but it is the pianist’s intention to utilise a specific technique of musical genre that determines the difference in the resulting sounds. Certain texts within the Greek magical papyri which appear to incorporate prayer-like imprecations to the gods often betray the magician’s underlying intent to coerce the god or further his own personal power. For example, two lines in a bowl divination in PGM IV. 198-199 begin by suggesting a prayer-like approach: 

                ‘O grant me power, I beg, and give to me
                 This favour - ’ 

However the immediately subsequent lines reveal that this initially submissive address conceals the underlying intention of the magician to persuade the god to grant the magician the ability to call on the gods whenever he wills: 

                  ‘- so that, whensoe’r I tell
                  One of the gods to come, he is seen coming/
                  Swiftly to me in answer to my chants.’[14]
The reader of the magical texts produced in antiquity must be aware that not only do these texts demonstrate a high degree of syncretism by combining the names of numerous gods from various religious traditions, but there is also an extensive variety of speech styles and manners of address that have been incorporated into the texts in a bid to determine which forms of incantation are more effective. The overall portrait of the magician which emerges, from the study of Hellenistic magic in particular, is of an individual scrabbling around on the religious and magical scrapheap of various cultures for the mention of materials, techniques or the names of gods that will add power to his spell. Therefore, these seemingly prayer-like elements may have been incorporated into the text by individuals who considered a subtle approach to manipulating their gods to be more effective than the clearly coercive language otherwise used to achieve their goals, much like a child learns that she can smile at her mother to get sweets rather than throw a tantrum. This is precisely why it is necessary to refer to spirit manipulation rather than spirit control when examining the treatment of gods or spirits within ancient magic. 

Due to the negativity that the term ‘magician’ carried in the ancient world, it was almost invariably a third person designation applied by one’s enemies and therefore we should not expect to find the title as a means of self-identification. On the contrary, when determining whether a miracle-worker was considered to be a magician it is useful to examine the materials produced by his opponents since, although these writings may be tainted by polemical discourse, they may also include valuable information that was not recorded by his followers for fear of humiliation or persecution...

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.




[1][22] Xanthus: See Diogenes Laertes, Lives 1.2. Xanthus accuses the magi of practicing incest (see frag. 28, reproduced in C. Müller (ed.), Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum I (Paris, 1841-51)). Heraclitus associated the magi with ‘night-wanderers, bacchants, Lenaeans, mystery-initiates.’ (Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 22.2). 
[2][23] Pliny, Nat. Hist. 30.1. However Pliny is heavily criticised for his inconsistent views on magic. For example, he condemns the use of magic but advocates the use of bizarre healing methods and admits that magic contains ‘shadows of the truth.’ (Nat. Hist. 30.6).

[3][24] Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 26.2.
[4][25] Ignatius accounts for Jesus’ triumph over the activities of the magi as follows: ‘a star shone forth in the heaven above every other star…every sorcery and every spell was dissolved’ (Ignatius, Eph. 19. 3). See also Augustine, Sermons 20. 3-4; Origen, Con. Cels. 1.60; Justin, Dial. 78.1,7, 9; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3. 9. 2; Tertullian, De Idol 9.
[5][30] Origen declares that Egypt contains many practitioners of magic (Con. Cels. 1.22, 28, 38, 68).
[6][31] Pythagoras was considered to have acquired the ability to predict the future, heal the sick, command the weather while in Egypt (See Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras III). Similarly, Plato studied mathematics in Egypt following the death of Socrates. Indeed the word ‘mathematicus’ is usually translated as ‘astrologer’. For example, the Latin word mathematicus is used in this sense by St. Augustine in Book 2 of De Genesi ad litteram: ‘Quapropter bono christiano, sive mathematici, sive quilibet impie divinantium, maxime dicentes vera, cavendi sunt, ne consortio daemoniorum irretiant.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the translation of mathematicus as atrologer remained in popular usage until the early 18th century.
[7][32] Apuleius, Apology 25. 10.
[8][33] Apuleius, Apology 25, 26.
[11][62] Lucan, Pharsalia 6. 527-528.
[12][65] E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (New York: Bell, 1991) p. xiii.
[13][67] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, iv. 44.
[14][72] The combination of subservient prayer and an underlying persuasive request is also present in PGM III 107: ‘Hearken to me as I pray to you, that you may perform the NN [deed], because I invoke you by your names’.

1 comment:

  1. Concerning the motivations driving secrecy, there's also another occasional explanation. We can postulate that for the magician efficiency of the magic act was linked to outside people not knowing it being performed, in term maybe of what we could nowaday call a sort of "psychological process" of self intoxication. From this point of view, the efficiency itself of the act would have to do with secrecy.