6. Magical Words


‘And he next proceeds to bring a charge against the Saviour Himself, alleging
that it was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders
which He performed; and that foreseeing that others would attain the same
knowledge, and do the same things, making a boast of doing them by help of
the power of God, He excludes such from His kingdom.’

~ Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.6 ~

By supposing that others could ‘attain the same knowledge and do the same things’ it is clear that Celsus understood that Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was dependent on his knowledge of correct procedures that were required to achieve such results and that this knowledge could be employed by the astute observer in order to recreate a miracle regardless of his standing with God. Many of the healing accounts in the Gospels certainly imply that knowledge of a particular procedure or method is essential to the success of the cure. For example, the author of Mark mentions a word of command and a sigh (Mk. 5:41; 7:34) and all three Synoptics include a physical technique such as touch or the application of materials to the body (Mt. 20:34; Mk. 7:33; Lk. 22:5; Jn. 9:6). A fine assortment of these unusual methods are found in the healing of the deaf mute in Mk. 7:31-37 in which we encounter a combination of spoken words (a sigh and the word ‘Ephphatha’), the application of material (spit) and touch (the placing of Jesus’ fingers in the man’s ears and touching his tongue). It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that if these techniques were effective in and of themselves, then they could be adopted by the keen observer who, by following the correct procedure, could recreate the healing. That similar techniques were already in circulation when Jesus began his healing ministry is suggested by the numerous reports of healers and miracle-workers during and after Jesus’ lifetime and therefore the evangelists may have simply incorporated familiar, therapeutic modus operandi used by Jesus’ contemporaries in an attempt to accommodate him to the image of a first-century healer. However, if these techniques could easily be acquired and used effectively by the common man, then why would the Gospel writers, who were keen to present Jesus as an individual of a divine nature or a ‘Son of God’, incorporate material which suggests that Jesus used commonplace and inferior methods of healing? Furthermore, if it were the intention of the Gospel authors to present Jesus as an archetypal first-century healer, then we would expect to encounter Jesus using many other popular medical procedures elsewhere in the Gospels. But this is not the case as we do not find Jesus offering medical advice to his followers or patients. Although Jesus on occasion refers to himself as a ‘physician’ (Mk. 2:17//Mt. 9:12//Lk. 4:23; 5:31), these comments do not arise directly from his healing activities and they are merely the use of a common proverb.

There are additional flaws with the theory that these techniques are a deliberate addition by the Gospel authors. A close association between physical technique and magic in the ancient world ensured that many healers who used unorthodox methods risked attracting an allegation of magical practice. For instance, Origen’s summary of Celsus’ argument above demonstrates that the application of technique was used in polemical materials to imply magical activities in the operations of opponents. If Jesus’ enemies had observed him using specific techniques then they may well have seized upon this as a prime means through which to level a charge of magic against him.

If allegations of magic were made against Jesus during or after his lifetime, then it is unlikely that the Gospel authors would consciously incorporate dubious healing techniques into their narratives, especially since many early readers would have been familiar with magical practices and perfectly capable of applying a magical interpretation to the text. That the Gospel authors were aware of the volatile nature of their material is indicated by their noticeable effort to remove reference to physical techniques from the healing accounts wherever they detect that certain words, actions or materials present in the healing accounts do not fit the framework of a first-century healer, but instead come dangerously close to describing the activities of a first-century magician.


The Gospel writer, the early Christian apologist and the modern day New Testament scholar have each attempted to distance Jesus from the activities of the magician by focusing on the single effectual ‘word’ through which Jesus is able to perform his miracles. For example, in his treatise Against Marcion (207 AD) Tertullian asserts that Jesus healed ‘by the act of his word alone’[1], likewise the Christian apologist Lactantius states in his Divine Institutes (303-311 AD) that Jesus was able to heal the sick ‘by a single word’[2] and in the eleventh-century Slavonic additions to Josephus’ Jewish War we read: ‘and all, whatsoever he wrought through an invisible power, he wrought by a word and command’ (2:9). Even the apocryphal material places great emphasis on this powerful word; for example, in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (140-170 AD) we read that the young Jesus ‘made pools of the rushing water and made it immediately pure; he ordered this by word alone’ (2:1).

Theories which emphasise the importance of Jesus’ verbal commands in order to distance him from magical behaviour have as their fundamental basis the misguided notion that magical connotations are only present in physical technique and not in spoken technique. In the same way, methods of exorcism employed by Jesus within the Gospels are often divorced from magic on the basis that these techniques use words alone. Individuals who separate Jesus’ miracles from magic on the basis that the words of Jesus are dissimilar to the typical methods employed by the ancient magician are clearly ignoring a substantial amount of socio-historical and anthropological data. Words were considered in antiquity to be charged with a potency that was equally as powerful as, if not superior to, the physical techniques of magical ritual. A belief in the power of words to produce physical effects is demonstrated in both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, the book of Genesis begins with God creating the world through a series of pronouncements and the first verse of the Gospel of John asserts that in the beginning was ὁ λογός (‘the word’). Many ancient religious communities regarded the words of their scriptures to be imbued with a significant measure of power and sacred texts were often recited in the original language. The importance of preserving the sanctity of the original language is still advocated in contemporary religious rituals which frequently employ terms that are unfamiliar to ordinary language and deliberately isolated in such a way as to keep them sacred.

The words that were spoken in ancient rituals were often perceived as magical techniques in themselves and they were considered to be equally as important as the physical actions used in the rite. The ancient Egyptians held a fervent belief in the power of words and it is in accordance with this tradition that Moses is instructed in the operations of the Egyptians and as a result is ‘mighty in his words and deeds’ (Acts 7:22). The superior nature of magic performed by words alone in the Greek Magical papyri is indicated in PGM XXXVI. 161-77 in which the operator is told ‘no charm is greater, and it is to be performed by means of words alone’. Similarly, the instructions in PGM IV. 2081-84 state that ‘most of the magicians, who carried their instruments with them, even put them aside’.

As indicated by Tertullian, the suggestion that Jesus was able to perform miracles using words alone appears to have been the basis for the Jewish allegations that he was a magician.[3] Although a correlation between Jesus’ spoken commands and the practice of magic is clearly made in the polemical materials, there are certainly many passages in the Gospels in which the crowd or those approaching Jesus to be healed refer to a mysterious ‘word’. Consequently we might ask whether these recurrent observations refer to a specific, possibly magical, word that was used by Jesus. For example, when Jesus has exorcised the Capernaum demoniac, the crowd ask each other ‘what is this word?’ (τίς ὁ λογός , Lk. 4:36). Does the author of Luke intend the crowd’s use of λογός to be understood in the sense of ‘authority’ in this instance? Or are the crowds unfamiliar with a particular word that was used during the exorcism? Likewise, the centurion tells Jesus in Mt. 8:8//Lk. 7:7 that it is not necessary for him to attend the bedside of his servant as others will carry out the healing if Jesus would ‘only say the word’ (μόνον εἰπὲ λόγω). Once again, is the reader to understand that the centurion is aware of a specific word that could be spoken by Jesus in order to bring about the cure? Or is the request to ‘say the word’ a prompt for Jesus to grant his permission, i.e. ‘give your blessing’?

Some commentators have proposed that Jesus’ spoken words occasionally appear to have an incantational quality which suggests that they had a magical function. For example, Jesus’ words seem to have a technical application in the exorcism of the dumb spirit in Mk. 9:29 in which Jesus teaches the disciples: ‘this kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’ By referring to this ‘kind’ of demon (τουτο τὸ γένος) the reader may assume that Jesus’ is drawing attention to a specific category of demon, perhaps one that is responsible for producing this type of illness. The disciples fail to realise that prayer is the only method by which the demon can be expelled and therefore they are unable to perform the exorcism, however it is not clear whether this denotes general or a specific prayer. Since the demon is promptly exorcised by Jesus, the reader assumes that Jesus must have correctly used this prayer and yet no words of a prayer are recorded in the text. If this story is a Markan construction, then why would the author of Mark give reference to a prayer and yet fail to give the words that were supposedly spoken? Perhaps the reader is to understand that Jesus’ words to the demon in verse 25 constituted a prayer, however this is unlikely as the command is a stern rebuke rather than a request for expulsion. Or are the believing words of the child’s father in verse 24 to be understood as the prayer? Alternately, if the story and the subsequent teaching regarding the importance of prayer derive from an authentic account of an exorcism performed by Jesus, then we must ask whether the words of the prayer have been edited out by the author of Mark. If so, why was he reluctant to include them? And, more importantly, did they carry any implications of magical incantation?

Passages in which the Gospel authors have provided the healing words of Jesus are usually points of contention within New Testament scholarship since these words often have a ‘strange’ quality that raises theological eyebrows. For instance, the healing words given by Jesus generally comprise of imperative commands, a ‘strange’ word preserved in Aramaic or even a groaning noise. All of these are techniques that are repeatedly found within the ancient magical tradition and consequently their presence in the Gospels suggests that Jesus’ healing words may have had an incantational nature.


It is most often the case that an authoritative command spoken by Jesus within the Gospels is sufficient to bring about a cure or accomplish an exorcism. While the imperative commands given by Jesus in the exorcism stories are addressed to the possessing entity (cf. Mk. 1:25 ‘be silent and come out of him!’), the commands given by Jesus in the healing accounts are generally addressed directly to the patient. For example, Jesus simply orders the paralytic to ’rise, take up your bed and go home’ (Mk. 2:1-12//Mt. 9:1-8//Lk. 5:17-25) and the leper is told to ‘be clean’ (Mk. 1:40-45//Mt. 8:2-4//Lk. 5:12-16). Some scholars have proposed that these and other illnesses that are cured by Jesus in the Gospels are largely hysterical disorders. However if the cause of an individual’s illness was purely psychosomatic then Jesus’ sharp command directed to the patient could instigate or reverse a psychological process which in turn brings about the cure. While the cessation of a hysterical disorder may account for a large proportion of the healing miracles, there is a difficulty when applying this theory to the healing of the deaf-mute in Mk. 7:32-37. The command effaqa that is given by Jesus in this instance cannot be intended to produce a psychological reaction since the patient is deaf. Therefore we may conclude that the word effaqa had a function that was not dependant upon the word being audibly perceived by the patient. Furthermore, since this is one of the few occasions in which a word is transliterated into Greek (in this instance from the ethpaal imperative of the Aramaic verb ptah, ‘to open’), the patient may have been unfamiliar with the meaning of the word even if he had been of good hearing.


The word εφφαθα in Mk. 7:32-37 is not the only occurrence of a strange or foreign word creeping into a healing account. In Mk. 5:38-41 Jesus gives the Aramaic command talitha koum, which the author of Mark translates for the reader as ‘little girl, I say to you arise’ (Mk. 5:41). This phrase is constructed from the Aramaic feminine form of ţlê, meaning ‘young’ and koum or koumi, the Aramaic piel imperative singular of root qum, ‘arise’ or ‘get up’. Although the word is translated in Mark’s Gospel, the preservation of the Aramaic word jolts the reader and a sense of awkwardness regarding its inclusion is evident in the treatment of the passage by the other Synoptic authors. For example, the author of Luke provides the Greek ‘child, arise’ (ἡ παις, ἔγειρε, Lk. 8:54) and the Matthean version omits the healing word altogether (Mt. 9:18-26). Either Matthew and Luke simply considered the word talitha to be an uninteresting and superfluous element of the story that could be easily omitted, or they found the term offensive or embarrassing and consciously avoided its inclusion in their versions of the story. The author of Mark clearly has no difficulty with the inclusion of this Semitic word, but its purpose within the narrative remains a puzzle.

I would suggest that the two Aramaic words found in Mark’s Gospel are to be understood as magical words as the use of a foreign word is a typically Hellenistic magical practice. Although some commentators would argue that the absence of physical technique and elaborate incantation in Mk. 5:41 and 7:34 suggests that magical procedures cannot be present, the ancient magician would counter this by pointing out that words alone can contain a considerable degree of mystical energy. The shape, sound and breathing of a word was considered in the ancient magical tradition to be equally as important as the meaning of the word, often to the extent that the success of an incantation was dependent upon the correct pronunciation of the words or sounds within the magical text. Therefore it was essential that the words within a magical manuscript were preserved in the original language in which they were written and translating the words into other languages was resisted as it was thought to water down their effectiveness or cause them to lose their efficacy altogether. Iamblichus warns that it is dangerous to translate powerful words or names since ‘the translated names do not keep the same sense’ and ‘some linguistic characteristics of each people cannot be expressed in the language of another people.’[4] He elaborates on this theory when discussing the problem of translating the Hermetic corpus, a set of writings deriving from the second to fifth centuries and written within a Greco-Roman context, stating: ‘for the very quality of the sounds and the [intonation] of the Egyptian words contain in itself the force of things said.’ Similarly, the theologian Origen writes in his Contra Celsum regarding the dangers of translation:

‘Thus it is not the significance of the things which the words describe that
had a certain power to do this or that, but it is the qualities and characteristics
of the sound.’[5]

Attempts to conserve the original language of certain divine names, angel names, religious terminology and liturgical formulas in the Greek magical papyri have led to the occasional preservation of the Coptic language within the predominantly Greek texts. With these concerns in mind, John Hull follows a discussion of the word effaqa with mention of the preservation of similar words in the magical papyri. Hull cites the Coptic words which translate as ‘open up for me, open up for me’ and appear immediately before ἀνοίγηθι, ἀνοίγηθι (‘be opened be opened’) in PGM XXXVI. 315 as an example of a powerful magical word that is retained in its original language.[6] Hull does not directly relate the ‘opening’ terminology in this spell to Mark. 7.34, perhaps because the spell is entitled ‘charm to open a door’ and therefore the terminology is fairly self-explanatory. I would suggest, however, that a clearer parallel to the Markan use of effaqa can be found in a ‘spell to heal an eye disease’ (PDM XIV. 1097-1103) in which the patient is required to anoint his eyes with ointment and repeat: ‘open to me, open to me, O great gods! Let my eyes open to the light’ (PDM XIV. 1124-5, cf. 1120, 1126, 1128).

A major difficulty when retaining the original language of a powerful word, or even inventing words in the case of cryptography, is that the correct interpretation of the word is lost over time and we are left with gobbledegook. A prime example of this is the magical word ‘Abracadabra’ that is still in popular usage today, although we generally do not fully understand its meaning. The lengthy unintelligible words or long chains of vowel sounds that are found within the magical papyri, commonly known as the voces magicae (literally, ‘magic words’), appear to be the product of this isolated use of language. The meanings of the voces magicae are unclear, but they are generally considered to be words of great power and the success of a spell is often dependent upon their correct pronunciation. This popular conception of an unintelligible word of magical power can trace its origins back to Egyptian magic and feature in many ancient Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, and Arabic magical texts.

If the healing words in Mk. 5:41 and 7:34 were spoken by Jesus in a language that differed from his natural language used throughout the remainder of the healing, then we could easily conclude that Jesus understood these words to have a magical efficacy which could only be achieved by speaking the word in its original language. However, if these powerful healing words were spoken by Jesus in his native dialect then this does not completely discount the possibility that they were used by Jesus as a magical incantation, however we must consider the alternative possibility that the author of these healing stories is responsible for preserving Jesus’ words in their original language and therefore it is the author who is ultimately responsible for any implications of magical technique.

Perhaps the author of the original stories believed that the commands given by Jesus had a magical function and he was also familiar with the importance of preserving words of power in their original language. The translation into Greek that follows both Aramaic transliterated words may be necessary to ensure that the Aramaic words would remain in any subsequent translations of these stories, thereby implying that the original author of the stories understood these to be magical words that must not be translated. Or perhaps the author of the story himself did not consider the words to be magical but felt compelled to include them as such due to the fact that they were well-known magical formulas that were commonly associated with Jesus’ healing ministry? If the words spoken by Jesus were unfamiliar to his audience or considered by them to have a magical efficacy, then these ‘catchphrase’ magical words may have been adopted by observers eager to perform the same miracles and hence the widespread circulation of these words may have led the author of these stories to consider it necessary to include them in his narratives. The possibility that these words were used as magical formulas following Jesus’ death is supported by Morton Smith who states that the saying talitha koum ‘circulated without translation as a magical formula’.[7] Smith draws his evidence from Acts 9:36-41 and proposes that the disciple whom Peter raises is named Tabitha (Ταβιθά) as a result of a mistranslation of the word talitha. Hence Peter’s words ‘Tabitha, get up’ (Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι, Acts 9: 40) are to be understood as the corruption or misinterpretation of a magical formula.[8]


Before giving the command εφφαθα in Mk. 7:34, the author of Mark mentions an additional verbal technique which has its parallels in the ancient magical tradition; Jesus ‘groaned’ (ἐστέναξεν) before he gave the healing command. I would suggest that interpreting the word στενάζω in this passage in terms of Jesus’ emotional response is problematic. Not only do the evangelists systematically avoid reference to Jesus’ emotions but when the term occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:2, 4; James 5:9) it is linked with an unpleasant emotional state such as anxiety or distress. [9] For example, in response to the Pharisees’ demands for a sign in Mk. 8:11, the author of Mark writes that Jesus ἀναστενάξας τω πνεύματι αὐτου (‘sighed deeply in his spirit’, Mk. 8:12) and in this instance the presence of στενάζω appears to indicate a natural sigh, particularly as the exasperated question that follows reveals that Jesus is in a frustrated or irritated state. If stena,zw is to be interpreted as referring to an emotional state in Mk. 7:34, then are we to think that Jesus was in a similar state of exasperation or anxiety during the healing? John Hull rejects an interpretation of στενάζω in Mk. 7:34 as a natural sigh or indicative of an emotional response and suggests that it should be ‘interpreted as therapeutic magic.’[10] Hull proposes that Jesus sighs in order to imitate the speech that is returning to the man and this suggestion is obviously influenced by Frazer’s law of sympathetic, or imitative, magic in which the magician imitates the effect that he wishes to produce.

The emission of strange noises was closely associated with the magicians of the ancient world, particularly those engaged in activities involving spiritual beings such as the dead. For instance, the magicians in Isaiah 8:19 who consult the dead and are in possession of a familiar spirit are particularly associated with ‘chirping and muttering’ (‘the necromancers and wizards who chirp and mutter’, Is. 8:19). Various other types of unusual noises appear within the magical papyri. For example, in PGM IV. 560 the magician is instructed to ἔπειτα σύρισον μακρὸν συριγμόν ἔπειτα πόππυσον (‘then make a long hissing sound, next make a popping sound’) and later, in verses 578-79, the magician is told: σύρισον β´ και πόππυσον β´ (‘make a hissing sound twice and a popping sound twice’). Shouting was also associated with magicians attempting to contact the dead and the broad diversity of noises employed in the magical papyri is demonstrated by the orchestral cacophony that is PGM VII. 769 – 779:

                    ‘and the first companion of your name is silence (σιγή), the second a popping sound
                     (ποππυσμός), the third groaning (stenagmo,j), the fourth hissing, the fifth
                     a cry of joy, the sixth moaning, the seventh barking, the eighth bellowing, the ninth
                     neighing, the tenth a musical sound, the eleventh a sounding wind, the twelfth a
                     wind-creating sound, the thirteenth a coercive sound, the fourteenth a coercive
                     emanation from perfection.’

Groaning was also typically related to the magical manipulation of the dead and the common, albeit often derogatory, title of γοής that was applied to lower class magicians in antiquity is believed to derive from the verb form of γοής (‘to groan’) in view of the loud cries and groans that were used by these magicians to contact the dead. Therefore we cannot ignore the parallels between groaning as a magical technique and the presence of a groan in Jesus’ healing ministry. Although the term στενάζω is commonly translated as ‘sigh’ in popular bible versions of Mk. 7:34, the force of the term is more clearly expressed by ‘groan’ and this is how it is translated by Betz in the Greek magical papyri (for example, PGM IV. 2491 instructs the magician to ‘raise loud groans (ἀναστενάξας)’). Many prophets or miracle-workers would use breathing techniques before engaging in prophecy or miracle-working in order to demonstrate that they are possessed by a spirit. Similar breathing techniques are also employed in the magical papyri and often incorporate mention of a sigh. For instance, precise instructions for a rite requiring breathing techniques, which include a groan (στενάξας), are found in PGM XIII. 941-945:

              ‘(Breath out, in. Fill up); “EI AI OAI” (pushing more, bellow-howling.) “Come to me,
               god of gods, AEOEI EI IAO AE OIOTK” (Pull in, fill up, / shutting your eyes. Bellow
               as much as you can, then, sighing, give out [what air remains] in a hiss.)’

Similarly, in the Mithras Liturgy the operator is told to ‘draw in breath from the rays, drawing up 3 times as much as you can’ (PGM IV 539).

I would suggest that the presence of a sigh in the lengthy sequence of unusual behaviour in Mk. 7:34 suggests that it is an equally functional part of the healing process and therefore the sigh should be granted the status of a magical healing method, particularly in light of the extensive use of sighing and breathing techniques within the ancient magical tradition.

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] Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV. 9.
[2] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 4. 15. 1.
[3] Tertullian, Apol. 21.17.
[4] Iamblichus, De Myst. VII. 257, 10-15.
[5] Origen, Con. Cels. 1.25.
[6] Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition, p. 85.
[7] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 95.
[8] The disciple’s name is given in Aramaic and Greek in Acts 9: 36 and both these names have the identical translation ‘gazelle’ (this is a footnoted in the RSV at Acts. 9:36: ‘The name Tabitha in Aramaic and the name Dorcas in Greek mean gazelle’).
[9] For example, John Hull comments: ‘in general the accounts of the miracles are remarkable for the lack of interest shown in the emotions of Jesus and his patients.’ (Hull, Hellenistic Magic, p. 84).
[10] Hull, Hellenistic Magic, p. 85.
[11] The translation of ‘chirp’ is in accordance with the BDB translation of ‘chirp’ (this is further supported by the note in the BDB that the term is onomatopoeic, p. 861).


  1. Two short comments, which are not intended as criticism of your thesis as a whole:

    If the author of Mark's gospel was not embarrassed by the traces of magical practices which he put in some of his stories, it is unclear how embarrassment apparently shown by Matthew and Luke would have any bearing on the historical Jesus. As far as Mark is concerned, either he was not aware that his indications of magical practice might be used against Christianity, or he thought the presentation of Jesus as a miracle worker would be more credible if the stories included features like touching, anointing and spittle.

    The 'common to friend and foe' argument seems rather weak in this context. In regard to Mark's gospel, if the author composed the magic/miracle stories himself, then it is very likely that the composition included the characters depicted as foes. In regard to historically-attested early anti-Christian foes who were critical of the magical practices of Jesus, they were most probably dependent (directly or indirectly) on Mark's gospel's witness to Jesus as a miracle worker, and if so then obviously the 'friend and foe' argument would be invalid here.

  2. Interesting reading, but the real reason why his words had effect, was that he was the son of God, practically God himself, speaking to the creation.

  3. Jesus' detractors credited satan as the spirit by which Jesus was empowered to work miracles and heal and cast out the demons. Jesus warned them that this was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. God in the Messiah Jesus and the devil are entirely and eternally separated from each other. Satan could not tempt Jesus in the wilderness, and as His crucifixion approached He said to the disciples Jesus declared "Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." John 14:30

    Magic is the false religion of the Magi, pagan astrologers and worshipers of false gods and idols. It has no place in God's realm and Kingdom.