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“New Documents 10”: A Harvest of Historical Data

September 3, 2013

Over on the blog-site for our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, I’ve just posted about the latest volume in the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series (vol. 10, Eerdmans, 2012), underscoring the value of the series for scholars in NT/Christian origins for grasping more of the historical context of earliest Christianity:  here.  Illustrative of the fund of valuable discussion, I’ll mention here just one of the entries in this latest volume.

Item #3 in the volume (pp. 10-15) discusses an inscription on a cameo gem dated ca. 25-50 CE in which powerful names are invoked for protective purposes (Iao, Adonai, Abrasax).  The discussion ranges wider, however, the author of the piece (J. R. Harrison) drawing in a helpful set of other primary data and a rich bibliography of other scholarly studies to focus on apotropaic/magical practices such as reflected in this cameo inscription.

These include the use of powerful names, and the notion that by naming spirit/divine beings one could compel them to do the seeker’s will.  Harrison comments cogently on the relevance of this for various NT passages/scenes in which, e.g., demonic beings seek to coerce Jesus (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7), magicians seek to employ Jesus’ name similarly (Acts 19:13), and the sense of the Greek word “ἐπικαλέω” (“call upon”) as a typical term connoting the invocation of a deity or powerful spirit.

As Harrison notes, it is also interesting that the Gospels portray Jesus as not using these techniques in his own exorcisms and healings.  Instead, he is pictured as simply commanding the demons or ordering the healing.  This must mean that the Gospel writers sought to differentiate Jesus’ actions from the widely-known exorcistic/magical practices of the time.  And, of course, it is therefore historically plausible that this reflects Jesus’ own actual practice, exercising a distinctive sense of personal empowerment that differentiated him sharply in the ancient historical context.

There are 29 entries in volume 10 of the New Documents series, each of which amply repays reading it.  Anyone doing serious study of the NT texts cannot ignore this valuable series.


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  1. Scott Watson permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, how would you classify the pericope of John 9:1-12, where Jesus heals the man born blind from birth by making a salve of mud from his saliva and dirt? Would this fall under “magical practices” of the day, in his context?

    • In addition to the passage in John 9:1-12, there are a few other passages where Jesus is portrayed doing things in addition to speaking words of power: touching (e.g., Mark 1:41), the more elaborate actions in Mark 7:33-34 with the deaf-mute. As well, of course, Mark 7:27-30 portrays a woman thinking that merely touching Jesus’ cloak would release to her healing power.
      In some of these cases, the authors likely intend the actions to be taken as meaningful, not simply “magic”. E.g., touching the leper was touching the ritually unclean, thereby cleansing him; and the actions in Mark 7:33-34 seem to be sign-language for the deaf-mute to grasp what Jesus was doing. Mark seems to me to present Jesus as acting in ways that are more powerful than magic and distinguishable from magicians. And the other Gospels seem to me to make similar points. For the likely intended meaning of the mud in John 9, as most (?) commentators judge, there is likely some allusion to God’s creation of “the man” from the earth.

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