Volume 14 (1976-77)


Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World


Co-chairs: David Efroymson (LaSalle) and Howard Kee (Bryn Mawr)


(14.1, October 5, 1976)

John Gager, (Princeton University) The Social Place of Magic in the Graeco-Roman World


(14.2, November 28, 1976)

Howard C. Kee (Bryn Mawr College), Magic and Miracle in the Book Of Acts


(14.3, January 25, 1977)

Eugene V. Gallagher (University of Chicago), Magic As an Issue Between Origen and Celsius


(14.4, March 15, 1977)

Morton Smith (Columbia University), The Question of Jesus’ Relation to Magic


(14.5, April 26, 1977)

Alan Segal (Princeton University), The “Heavenly Ascent of the Soul” and Magic





Topic for 1976-77: Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World.

Meeting of October 5, 1976, 7 pm, Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The initial session of the 1976-77 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson David Efroymson. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by John Gager of Princeton University.


John Gager, The Social Place of Magic in the Graeco-Roman World


Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of magic is to attempt to define the term. Our ordinary use of terms like magic, sorcery, and superstition on the one hand and religion or piety on the other would suggest that there is a meaningful distinction between them. However, such terms are often the weapons of prejudices and unexamined assumptions, so that ordinary usage is perhaps not the best source of definitions in the Graeco-Roman world or in ours. I would suggest, however, that there is some real distinction between magic and religion, and that it is necessary to specify that distinction in a clear and precise way.


Among Graeco-Roman writers, there seems to be no agreement at all as to the differentia between magic and religion. This makes it difficult to formulate our own distinctions based on content or substance. But the fact remains that people did use the terms to refer to different phenomena. Ordinarily, the use of magic and magician is confined to polemical settings, deeply colored by the social context or status of the person using them and about whom they are being used, but with little disagreement as to the facts of the particular incident being described. The terms come out of specific conflict situations, such as those between people of different social class or status (“What we do is religion; what they do is magic”). They ordinarily tell us a great deal more about the relative social status of accuser and accused than about the beliefs and practices of either. So often is this the case (e.g. Origen, C. Celsus 6.41) that modern scholars are often misled into the belief that magic was exclusively characteristic of the lower classes. Although there may be good reasons for associating magic with the lower social classes in highly stratified societies (see below), there are numerous instances of magic behavior in other social groups.


Virtually all the surviving descriptions of magic in the ancient world come to us from aristocrats and out side observers, who use magic as a term of reprobation. If we look at magic from the inside, however, as in the “magical papyri” edited by Preisendanz, we find people referring to themselves as magicians and to their practices as magic without any hint of reprobation or disapproval. It would seem, then, that if we are to assess the phenomenon of magic in the Graeco-Roman world, we cannot depend on the use of the terms in literary texts.


My own definition of the term magic, which will probably not be normative for the Seminar this year, follows: (1) Magic involves the widely-accepted communal belief in the efficacy of ritual. (2) Magic is regularly directed toward the achievement of specific and immediate goals. So far, these sound very much like the beginnings of a definition of religion. In terms of goals or means, both religion and magic rely on a belief in the efficacy of ritual. I would propose that the essential difference is one of the relative social unit. (3) Magic is a matter of isolated individuals, while religion is a characteristically communal venture. (“There is no church of magic”--Emile Durkheim.)


Beyond these basic criteria, there are further ways of circumscribing the phenomenon of magic--its manifest and its latent functions. According to Peter Brown (in Witchcraft Accusations and Confessions, ed. Mary Douglas, London & N.Y.: Tavistock, 1970), magic is a function of personal relations, in the sense that it provides a means for people to attempt to manipulate power in situations of misfortune or uncertainty. Thus, the explicit and manifest goals of magic are to explain and to cope with various kinds of disasters or anxieties. In times of great uncertainty, magic seems to flourish.


As for the latent or invisible functions of magic, let me suggest two important possibilities: (1) Magic allows the expression and externalization of a whole range of human emotions which might otherwise remain unexpressed and create psychological bottlenecks. This not only helps to explain the highly emotional character of most magical language, but also gives us some insight into why magic persists -- as an outlet for inarticulate emotion. (2) The second latent function is closely related, but is social rather than personal. Magic gives a means of expressing the hostile feelings of a community which, if acted out literally, would be dysfunctional in the extreme. Symbolically, this expression becomes a safety valve for any social system, even though the individual members of the society may not be conscious of what is happening.


By way of illustration of my observations, I will cite three examples:


(1) We should recognize -- and reject -- the claim made by both ancient and modern scholars that magic is found exclusively among the lower social classes. It is true that magic as an attempt to manipulate power is attractive to those with little access to respectable or political sources of power, so that the bulk of most magicians’ clientele is “ordinary” people. However, the literature of and about magic includes a substantial number of respectable folk among both clients and practitioners, including the well-educated, literate professionals who assembled the material in the PGM. Particularly in times of profound changes and uncertainty, a whole population may be attracted toward magic, including numerous aristocrats and intellectuals.


(2) A remarkable number of practitioners of magic are women. If their activity as magicians is disproportionate, the reason is probably to be found in the nature of magic itself. Women in most cultures are powerless in general society but powerful as wives and mothers -- liminal figures ideally suited to the practice of magic, and to serve as the focal point for the expressions of hostility which characterize much of the magical literature.


(3) Peter Brown cites the 4th century CE as a time of profound changes within Roman society, and as such a time of the proliferation of magic. A remarkably similar situation obtained in Athens in the last years of the 5th century BCE. It was the end of Athenic power in the ancient world, and this collapse was accompanied by enormous uncertainties about the rules of competition for power. Out of this came the defixiones, or leaden curse-tablets, often containing the names of well-known political figures.


Such historical examples would tend to shed doubt on the evolutionary theories in which magic is said to succeed religion or vice-versa. For the Graeco-Roman world at least, magic and religion co-existed permanently and ubiquitously. As long as the beliefs in the efficacy of ritual persist, we can expect to find magic wherever (vertically in the social system) or whenever (horizontally in a time line) we find conditions or anxiety, uncertainty, or liminality.




During the discussion following the presentation, it became obvious that the members felt some dissatisfaction with Dr. Gager’s definition of the differentia between magic and religion. The activities are so similar, and the use of the terms so dependent upon the particular occasion of their use, that any attempts to define the differentia become increasingly frustrating. Some differentia other than Dr. Gager’s were suggested. Mary Douglas, using a combination of content and context, suggests that magic is directed toward specific goals, and works by coercion, while religion is directed toward general goals, and works by petition. Also mentioned was the work of Judith Willer in The Social Determination of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971.), where sharp distinctions are made between magic, religion, mysticism, and science. These, and other definitions suggested, inevitably proved unsuccessful to the Seminar to distinguish such very similar activities.


Some complicating factors in the period under discussion are: Lucian presents Peregrinus as both a magician and as the leader of public meetings with a following. Suggesting that this, by definition, is not magic but religion is not terribly helpful. Athanasius, in writing about Anthony and other ascetics, appears to approve a policy whereby magical practices are enveloped by Christianity. It may be that he is appealing to those in the community who believe in magic. Perhaps even more to the point, Origen, in arguing against Celsus, does not claim that Christians are not magicians, but that they are better magicians because of the greater power on which they call. Note also that the “magical” papyri are, for the most part, not magic but religion in terms of Dr. Gager’s differentia.


The definition as stated is actually a very personal thing. It shows its user the social place of the phenomenon being studied, and is for him a valuable sorting tool which permits him to retain his objectivity. It may be that for other scholars the definition is not operative, and must be replaced by some other kind of sorting tool.


 Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1976-77: Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World.

Meeting of November 28, -1976, 7 pm, Goodhart Hall, Bryn Mawr College.


The second session of the 1976-77 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson David Efroymson. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by Howard C. Kee of Bryn Mawr College.


Howard C. Kee, Magic and Miracle in the Book Of Acts


The only places in the NT where the relationship between magic and Christian charismatic powers is explicitly considered are in Acts 8 and 13. In both passages, the problem is one of a contest between an agent of the Holy Spirit and a magician, indicating that there were obvious similarities in the extraordinary phenomena which apostles and magicians were able to perform. In fact, there seems to be evident correspondence between the manifestations of power attributed in Acts to the apostles and certain feats performed by a range of figures from antiquity, both Jewish and Christian.


Clearly the author of Acts considers the achievements of the apostles in healing and exorcisms to be superior to those performed by the false prophet, Elymas, or by the money-minded Simon. But, what is the ground for this evaluation? Is it merely personal preference, or is there a fundamental distinction to be made between magical and apostolic acts, which are so similar outwardly? Perhaps some insight can be gained from a comparison of the ancient literature to the distinctions concerning magic offered by modern anthropologists, folklorists, and sociologists of knowledge.


1. Bronislaw Malinowski, in Magic, Science and Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), sees magic as an enclosed process, in which the act produces the result, without appeal to any other factors. Religion, however, is not directed toward a specific purpose or event.


Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough (Abridged edition, London: Macmillan, 1922) gives a far more perceptive distinction between magic and religion. The magician believes “that the same causes will always produce the same effects, that the performance of the proper ceremony, accompanied by the appropriate spell, will inevitably be attended by the desired result”(p. 49). Religion, however, involves (1) a theoretical belief in superhuman powers who rule the world, and (2) the practical conviction that these powers can be induced or persuaded “to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they otherwise might flow”(p. 51).


This kind of distinction seems at least implicit in many writings of the Graeco-Roman period. The rabbinic stories of Honi the Circle-Drawer (m. Ta’an 3:8), and of the prayers of Hanina ben Dosa (b. Ber 34B; y. Ber 9d), and of the justification of the powers of the ashes of a heifer by Yohanan (Pesiq. Rab Kah. 40AB) all seem to imply that what is done is accomplished by appeal to a higher power who can be propitiated. Likewise, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, exorcisms are seen in a religious rather than in a magical context (cf. 4QPrNab; lQapGen 20:12-16). By contrast, the healings and exorcisms reported by Josephus take place purely by thaumaturgic techniques or by the use of substances with magical potencies (cf. Ant. 8.44-45; War 2.136).


Revealing of the differences perceived in the later Roman world between magic and religion is the controversy between Celsus and Origen, reported by the latter in his Contra Celsum. Neither doubts the reality of demons or the possibility of a human being performing supernatural feats. Celsus claims that the power of Christians along these lines is done by magical means, while Origen responds that the name of Jesus is not used as an incantation, but is employed in an association with the gospel narratives and the words of divine scriptures (1.6). Origen sharply differentiates the magi with their demonic formulae from the Christians with their use of divine power (1.60). When Celsus entertains the possibility that Jesus performed miracles as magic stunts and tricks, Origen counters that Jesus did his miracles, not to show his own powers, but “to call the spectators to moral reformation”(1.68). Origen appears to demarcate magic and religion along the lines laid down by the rabbis and the Dead Sea sectaries.


Perhaps more than any other writer on the subject, Judith Willer, in The Social Determination of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971), has brought terminological clarity into the discussion of the four major modes of knowledge: magic, mysticism, religion, and science. Willer prefers Frazer’s definition over that of Malinowski, and makes still more precise the distinction between magic and religion. In magic, knowledge rests at the level of the immediately observable; it is without theoretical component and is thoroughly practical. Religion, however, has a theoretical component (theology), and combines rational connection of concept with the abstractive connection of concept to the observable. In magic, humans possess power; in religion, powers are reserved for superior beings. In religious knowledge, the theoretical ground is the conceptualization of the higher powers (as in science, the theoretical ground is the observation of empirical events).


A corollary that we should draw from Willer’s distinction of magic and religion is that identical or similar phenomena can occur in either magical or religious frameworks of knowledge. The meaning will vary, however, since in the magical system the phenomenon will be regarded as occurring ex opere operando, while in the religious system it will be seen as the manifestation of a higher power aiming at a higher purpose. This brings us to the question of form and function of the miracles in Acts.


2. The miracles in Acts can be grouped into at least 4 categories:


(1) Visions and auditions. This list begins by looking backwards to the postresurrection appearance of Jesus (1:3), and includes the ascension (1:9), the sight and sound of the coming of the Spirit (2:1-8), and the Gentiles receiving the Spirit (10:44). There is Paul’s vision at conversion (9:3-18; 22:6-16; 26:12-18), Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8), and Peter’s vision (10:9-23). Paul twice gets a message from the Holy Spirit (13:1-2; 16:6), and at the close of the narrative is enabled to foresee the outcome (27:10, 23-24).


(2) Miracles of healing and deliverance are nearly all effected by the apostles: Peter (3:1-10-, 9:32-35, 36-42), Philip (8:7), Stephen (6:8-10), and especially Paul (14:8-10; 16:16-18; 19:11; 20:7-10; 27:23-25, 37-44; 28:7-10). Three miracles come from the direct action of God, without human agency (5:17-26; 12:6-11; 16:25-27).


(3) A third motif running through the Acts narrative is the gift to discern the meaning of miraculous events that are taking place through and on behalf of the apostles (cf. 2:16, 39, 43 in reference to Pentecost and its aftermath). The miracle-working power and the charismatic manifestations of the apostles are in no way portrayed as inherent capacities of the individuals, nor as the consequence of techniques of which they are masters. Rather, they are special enablements provided by God for the accomplishment of his purposes. Acts 3 and 4 give a number of examples of such explanations, as do Acts 14 and 15. The Acts narrative also warns against misprising the apostolic miracles; e.g. the Jewish rejection of the apostolic enterprise is represented as itself being in fulfillment of scripture (13:46). Equally negative is the repudiation of the Gentiles’ assumption that the apostles perform miracles because they are gods in disguise (14:8-18; 28:3-6). According to Acts 12:20-23, divine judgment falls on Herod Agrippa because he represents himself as, and accepts the acclaim of, the crowds as a god.


(4) The fourth motif deals more directly with magic. Miraculous acts in which there is no role for a human intermediary and which more nearly resemble magical events include the fate of Judas (1:18), the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-5), Peter’s thaumaturgic shadow (5:15-16), Paul’s healing handkerchiefs (19:-12), and Paul’s immunity to snakebite (28:3-6). The first two are placed in a religious context. The others appear in isolation to be pure magic, with no transcendent framework of meaning. There are, however, two narrative passages in which the issue of magic is raised explicitly and, except for Matthew 2, are the only places in the NT where the terms for magic and magicians are used. In Acts 8, Simon appears as a magician with the embodiment of power. His offer to purchase the apostles’ power gives the author of Acts the opportunity to show that he regards the Spirit as a gift, entirely at God’s disposal, rather than an inherent power transmissible by secret formula for a fee. In Acts 19:11-20, the Jewish exorcists assume, as would any magician, that knowledge of the appropriate formula or technique guarantees success. They discover that the name of Jesus does not function in this automatic way, and that the evil spirits were not so accommodating. The exorcists are converted and presumably burn their secret books with their formulae.


3. What conclusions can be drawn about the attitude of the author of Acts? In keeping with the mood and mode of the Hellenistic romance and the popular beliefs of his time, the author has offered miracle and magic as a pervasive dimension of his narrative. Except for a few vestiges of the magical world view, however the author has confronted the issue between magic and religion. He explicitly rejects the magical assumptions, and has sought to offer his own religious life-structure in their place; i.e. the miracles are placed in the context of God’s redemptive activity in the world.


The repudiation of magic in favor of a religious life-world seen in Acts corresponds to the shift in the socially determined change in knowledge structures noted by Judith Willer as occurring precisely in the early decades of the Roman empire. A rapid centralization of power in the emperor and other high officials left the free urban proletariat and the masses virtually powerless. These conditions of life no longer fit the ideas of magical knowledge, but did fit the ideas of religion. With no power available at the level of the masses, a knowledge system offering hope of access beyond the highest human power to transcendent power offered an almost irresistible alternative knowledge system. The challenge to authority in Acts, however, is not direct or even explicit. Christians, including Jesus, are never overtly or covertly insurrectionist. Imperial power is seen in perspective: it is God and not Caesar who is really in control. In setting forth his view of the world and of the course of history, the author of Acts feels free to draw upon the literary conventions of his time. But undergirding and overarching the literary whole of this carefully planned document are the shared assumptions about the nature of reality that are evident in the cultural and conceptual shift from a world in which magic is seen as a means of exerting power to one in which powerlessness is handled by a religious system that posits a deity who transcends the world, but whose power is at work through intermediate agents within it to achieve his purpose.




The discussion following the presentation made it clear that distinctions between magic and religion were not yet clear. Members of the Seminar sought for ways in which the Willer-inspired differentia did not apply. Questions were asked: Is there evidence for magic without a religious world view? (Not in the Graeco-Roman civilization, but certainly elsewhere.) Why must religion have within it the idea of a transcendent power? (It certainly does for Luke, and it is his approach we are studying.) What kind of theory is needed for a religion--speculative? descriptive? unified? Is it possible to operate simultaneously in two incompatible knowledge frames? i.e. where the explanation is religious, but the act is magic. (An example of such duality might be found in the religious cultic system where the practitioner appears to forget the transcendent power and is concerned chiefly with the technique of the cultus.) Even in Luke’s terms, the phenomena of magic and religion are the same; the difference is the framework of understanding of validity in terms of which it is viewed.


Some members of the Seminar brought up the question of historicity, asking what really happened behind the rabbis’ stories, what Paul and Peter really did, or what Simon Magus really thought. In answer, it was made clear that historicity is not the question at hand, but rather how Luke portrays Simon Magus and the magicians. The NT and the rabbis never admit to magic; it is a strong polemical issue. What is important in our study is that the author of Luke-Acts raised the issue and focused on it, claiming that no magical appeals can gain Christian power. Acts does not deny that magic works, but says that it is a wrong system of ideas.


The possibility was suggested that Luke is demonstrating that there are different kinds of preparation for the gospel. Magic is seen as an incomplete preparation; when the magician sees Christian power, he is converted. Or, perhaps more clearly, Acts shows that the benefits from magic are adequate under another world view, but that the Christian world view is not only better, but right.


 Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1976-77: Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World.

Meeting of January 25, 1977, 7 pm, Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The third meeting of the 1976-77 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson David Efroymson. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by Eugene V. Gallagher, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago.


Eugene V. Gallagher, Magic as an Issue Between Origen and Celsius


Although the topic of magic frequently enters the discussion in Origen’s Contra Celsum, it is not always met as an issue which divides Celsus and Origen. With few exceptions, Celsus introduces the topics of magic or sorcery in order to cast suspicion or ridicule on Christianity. In several instances, Origen is able to sidestep the issue (6.24ff; 4. 86ff), and use it as an occasion to demonstrate his superior erudition in a series of learned footnotes.


Despite, or perhaps because of, his familiarity with magical beliefs and practices, Origen’s attitude was decidedly ambivalent. At one point (6.80), he notes that magic has spread to other races than the Magi, to the destruction and ruin of those who use it. But he also feels that “so-called magic” is not utterly incoherent, but rather a consistent system whose principles are known only to a very few (1.24). This consistent system, to Origen, is a theory of the inherent power of certain divine names when they are pronounced in their original languages and in a sequence which is natural to them”(1.25). This would seem to indicate that Origen was inclined to take at least some aspects of magic very seriously, as long as he could construct a “philosophical” underpinning for them.


Celsus reveals a similar ambivalence in his own attitude towards magic. He contends that magic is only effective with uneducated people and with those of depraved character, while those who have studied philosophy are impervious to its power since they are careful to lead a healthy life. Both Origen and Celsus prize the philosophical ideal; both acknowledge the power of magic to be real and attractive. Both, then, attempt to design an explanation of their appropriation of magical beliefs which would preserve their social, moral, and intellectual status. Origen, at least, found this in his philosophy of names.


Magic becomes an issue, and not just a matter of detached scholarly interest, in the way that Celsus and Origen accuse others of using it. To accuse someone of practicing magic is to impugn their morals and education. Similarly, the illiterate and immoral would most frequently be suspected of magical beliefs and practices. Magic becomes an issue in Contra Celsum when Origen responds to Celsus’ attempts to consign Christianity to inferior social, moral, and intellectual status.


That magic is an important issue for Origen is suggested by his arguments at the beginning of Book I. Within the first five chapters, Origen concedes to Celsus that Christianity, at least in part, is treasonous, barbarian in its origin, possibly foolhardy in its courting of danger, and certainly not novel in its ethical teaching. In chapter 6, however, where Celsus makes the charge of magic, Origen concedes nothing. He feels that the charge that Christians practice magic blatantly misrepresents the gospel. He is adamant in his denial that Jesus performed his miracles by magic. Origen insists on the total separation of Christianity and magic, and even tends to accuse Celsus of being beset by demons (8.63).


2. Although the discussion of magic is spread throughout the 8 books of the Contra Celsum, Celsus’ accusations cluster most densely in the first two books. Most of that discussion is provoked by the charges brought against Jesus and those who believed in him by a Jewish interlocutor introduced by Celsus in 1.28. The speech of the Jew and Origen’s response to it occupy the rest of the first book and the entire second book. In that discourse, Celsus intends to undermine the claims of the Christian religion by discrediting its founder. A primary feature of the Jew’s polemic is the charge that Jesus and his followers practiced magic.


Since both Celsus and Origen agreed that men with superhuman or divine characteristics could actually exist, it was only a question of deciding who was divine and who was a sorcerer. Through a detailed examination of the life of Jesus, Celsus’ Jew attempts to demonstrate that Jesus was only a man, and a wicked sorcerer at that. In reply, Origen supplies his own criteria for deciding the issue of who was divine and who was a sorcerer. Not unsurprisingly, he finds abundant confirmation of Jesus’ divinity. By defending Jesus against the charges that he was a sorcerer who duped the gullible multitudes and who suffered a well-deserved death, Origen intends to reclaim for Christianity and its founder social, moral, and intellectual status. Covering the virgin birth and the infancy of Jesus, Origen stresses the character of the life about which these accounts are told; i.e. that seemingly incredible stories are fittingly told about a soul who lived a more useful life than any other and who did great and miraculous works. This is put in contrast to magicians, who would not take the trouble “to teach a doctrine which persuades every man to do action as before God who judges each man for all his works....”(1.38). From his discussion, moral character emerges as the essential characteristic of a divinity. It not only distinguishes Jesus from sorcerers; it establishes him as a divinity. This moral criterion is formulated in explicit response to the charge that Jesus practiced magic.


It does not seem to be an exaggeration to claim that the charge of sorcery serves as the leitmotif of the Jew’s version of the life of Jesus in book I. It lies at the core of his denial of the divinity of Jesus. Although Origen shares the same techniques of exegesis with his adversary, he proposes that beneficial works should be the primary criterion by which sorcerers are distinguished from divinities. It was largely a question of deciding who was divine and who was a sorcerer.


The figure of the Jew is a mysterious one. Celsus’ motives for adopting the form of a fictitious dialogue are obscure. Many of the Jew’s accusations are decidedly un-Jewish in nature, a dissonance which did not pass unnoticed by Origen (1.49; 2.28, 55, 57). For whatever reason he is introduced, the figure of the Jew complicates the apologetic situation for Origen. It raises the question of the audience of the Contra Celsum; and the consideration of the audience is important if we are to discover whether magic was a major issue for anyone besides Origen and Celsus. Origen’s mention of contemporary Jews who still accused Jesus of sorcery (3.1) would seem to indicate that the issue was a live one, and of some interest to his contemporaries.


If in book I the Jew argued that the purported manifestations of Jesus’ divinity or superhuman power in his birth and early life were indications that he was a sorcerer, in book II he argues that in the crucial situation of his life, Jesus gave no indication whatever that he was a divinity. In other words, what Jesus did do shows him to be a sorcerer, and what he didn’t do shows him to be a mere man. To argue, Origen finds tales of suffering and death to be wholly compatible with the image of a superhuman benefactor, while for Celsus they are strictly incompatible.


Celsus accuses Jesus of being condemned for sorcery. Origen: “No one could suggest that it is the work of sorcerers to convert souls from the multitude of sins among mankind and from the flood of evil’? (2.44). Again, the moral argument: it is the result of Jesus’ wonder-working, the conversion of many, that distinguishes him from a sorcerer. Neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection appearances strike the Jew as evidence for the divinity of Jesus, although they could be evidence for his use of sorcery. Origen protests the difficulty of substantiating any story as historical fact, but offers some guidelines (1.42). It is interesting to note that Origen, contrary to his usual practice, very frequently stops short of an allegorical interpretation or the spiritual meaning of a given passage.


Origen cautions his readers that his “book is not written at all for true Christians, but either for those entirely without experience of faith in Christ, or for those whom the apostle calls “weak in faith”(Pref. 6). The former would be Celsus and Greeks in general, and the Jew and Jews in general. The second group, not distinguished carefully within the work, would seem to be those who are unable to understand allegorical exegesis, but who do appreciate moral evidence. This audience, it would seem, would be the most vulnerable to charges of magic in the miracles of Jesus. The apologetic task has tailored Origen’s approach, forcing him to reorder the materials he had at hand, including some of his favorite doctrines and techniques, in order to compose a response to Celsus.




During the discussion following the presentation, a number of related issues were covered:


Celsus and Origen, for the most part, seem to agree about magic. They feel that it is real and valid. Each, however, uses the idea to his own advantage, without any actual communication. For instance, Celsus claims that Christians are low class people and therefore practice magic (or is it the other way around?); Origen replies-that Christians may not be high class people, but they are morally better than others.


Origen’s ideas about the use of divine names seems to create a problem. He carefully avoids calling it magic, but he certainly is fascinated by the powers which can be triggered by the use of God’s name and other divine epithets. Perhaps this is a transitional period for Origen and his culture, in which magic, with perhaps a different name and with philosophical underpinnings, is becoming respectable.


The function of the Jewish interlocutor for Celsus seems rather puzzling. It appears to add nothing to the arguments about magic, since all three (Origen, Celsus, the Jew) are against it. However, the Jew serves well to undermine the Christian claim to antiquity, since he can accuse Christianity on the basis of its origins. Besides, it is more likely that a Jew would know about Christianity than would a pagan. Although using a Jewish interlocutor does not forward the arguments about magic, it may be saying something about the Jewish use of magic in Celsus’ day. Particularly in Egypt, sorcery and magic were becoming widespread and popular, even among Jews. This is reflected in the Talmudic literature and other literary evidence. When the Jews saw Jesus doing in the NT what they themselves did in Celsus’ day, they could certainly call it magic.


The question was raised as to whether there really was a Celsus, or was he a straw man invented for the sake of the book? The consensus appeared to be that at least 75% of Celsus’ arguments are genuine. They make a real problem for Christianity; e.g. how Christians can claim antiquity when they have departed from their roots; the Christian relationship to the OT; the issue of keeping the Law. Origen would hardly invent arguments like these against his own faith. It could even be said that one hardly goes to all that trouble to answer an obscure book, much less a nonexistent one, despite the presence of a patron to foot the bill.


 Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1976-77. Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World.

Meeting of March 15, 1977, 7 pm, Houston Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The fourth meeting of the 1976-77 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson Howard Kee. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard Morton Smith of Columbia University present excerpts from a chapter of his forthcoming book, Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row, fall 1977).


Morton Smith, The Question of Jesus’ Relation to Magic


The idea that Jesus was a magician is ordinarily dismissed out of hand by scholars and churchmen alike. Scholars, with good reason, feel that after 2000 years it is unlikely that such a “new” idea could be correct. Churchmen, although not often inclined in these modern days to reject the idea as blasphemy, nevertheless tend to dismiss it out of their need to discover an edifying, and not a mystifying, Jesus. However, the notion that Jesus practiced magic is very old, and traces back to his own lifetime. It is found in the gospels in passages which are not assigned to later accretions by the form critics. Examples are found in Mark 3:22-27 and parallels; Matt 10:25; John 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20, among other places. Sometimes the claim is subtle, as in Mark 6:14 and parallels, where Herod claims that John the Baptist has risen from the dead and that Jesus has his powers. This sort of thing could be done by necromancy and would be very dangerous, since according to the magical papyri the demon of a man killed violently is very powerful and easy to control. Mark 6:14d could be translated, “the inferior powers work by his orders,” implying that Jesus now possessed John.


It is often overlooked that of the synoptic gospels, only one specifies under what charge Jesus was brought before Pilate. Matthew and Mark appear to suppress the accusation, which would not have been necessary if the charge given by Luke, “King of the Jews,” were in fact the actual one. Perhaps a clue to the historical accusation comes from John 18:30, where Pilate’s question as to a charge is answered, “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over.” Evildoer, kakon poiwn is apparently taken by Pilate as a specific accusation. The term is translated into Latin by Theodotion and Tertullian as malethicus, a technical term for magician. The term is also used in I Pet 4:15 as one in a list of specific crimes which carry a capital penalty. Mischief-maker, the usual translation, is not a capital crime, but magician is. If such was the charge against Jesus, it is not at all surprising that Matthew and Mark chose to suppress it. Another term used about Jesus, planos (deceiver) in Matt 27:63 can also be a technical term for magician.


From the accumulated evidence, it seems clear that Jesus was accused during his lifetime of being a magician. The charge comes in the peculiar section of Matthew, in Mark, and in John -- three separate sources. It is not derived from the resurrection experience or from the early church.


These early ideas of Jesus as a magician show that it seems to have been a relatively common charge in the early C.E., and not merely the accusations of his enemies. What we have discovered is the social type to which Jesus’ enemies and some of his friends thought he belonged, that of magos (vz. A. D. Nock, “Beginnings of Christianity,” reprinted in Essays on Religion in the Ancient World, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972, I, 308ff.). It would seem that such an accusation at least had plausibility; i.e. it reflected the sort of person he really was externally. To test the charge, it will be necessary to look in the gospels, seeking those materials which are compatible with or reflect the notion. This is not easy, since the evidence will be minimized, as something in need of repression.


The birth narratives themselves reflect the notion of Jesus as a magician in that they appear to be deliberate arguments against the idea. That Jesus was fathered by a god indicates that his power is not that of a magician. That the magi came to see him shows that he needed no initiation, and that magicians should do him homage. the accusation seems to have preceded the birth narratives.


The story of the descent of the spirit as a dove and of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism are common to many accounts of magicians. A rather full example is found in the Berlin papyrus (PGM 1), from line 54 through the next two pages. The social types behind the myths of Jesus and of the magician are similar. The myth reflects the thought and real psychological experience of the time, if not objective fact; i.e. similar mythological thought tends to produce corresponding experiences. Other rites to obtain the spirit’s assistance can be found in PGM 1la; 4.17-18; 70; 12.14-95; 1.1-42. In these other stories, the spirit becomes the assistant of or identical with the magician, but in the gospels, it is followed by the voice of God: “My beloved son.”


The term son of God is not a customary messianic title. It occurs in the gospels usually in connection with miracles. These miracles are rarely attributed to Jesus’ spirit or the Holy Spirit -- no explanation at all is given. This is because son of God implies its own conceptual type -- a supernatural being in human form who performs miracles by his own divine power. In Semitic thought patterns, it is clear that son of God is equivalent to the term God. If this is so, it would seem that the gospel of Mark gives a strong argument for the Monophysite point of view, at least in the story line, overlaid by nomenclature which is decidedly Jewish. For the sake of Jewish piety, Jesus is never called a god, but a son of God. Nevertheless, the story shows a man made a god by the rite of purification, followed by the opening of the heavens and the coming of the spirit.


Parallels to this can be found in PGM 4.475-830 (the “Mithras Liturgy”), where the adept is deified by the spirit, becomes the sun, and accomplishes the miracle of ascending into heaven. In the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden, col. 20, lines 31ff., it is stated, “I am the son of the living god,” in which case the living god, in an Egyptian context, is Osiris. See also PGM 4.142-221, which concludes with union with the deity in form, a gift of power in the deity’s name, and the believer achieving a nature like the god.


Because of the time factor, we must skip over a number of similar clues to the contemporary perception of Jesus as magician, and proceed immediately to the conclusion of the chapter:


Most of Jesus’ miracles have parallels in the magical papyri. Except for ideas about the kingdom, much of his teaching has parallels also. The magical papyri were directed entirely toward the individual, and so did not promise to bring in a kingdom. In contrast to a few examples in the gospels, the papyri have very little about miracles involving power over external inanimate objects. Neither Jesus nor the magicians do major surgery (restoring limbs, etc.). The gospels and the papyri have many close parallels involving miracle stories and teaching material, including details of wording and liturgical procedures.


Note in particular the parallels which run all the way through the stories of Jesus and of Apollonius. Both were: itinerant miracle workers and teachers; rejected by townspeople and brothers who later became more favorable toward them; accompanied by an inner circle of disciples; credited with prophecy, exorcisms, healings, raising of the dead; makers of severe moral demands on their hearers; speakers in oracular style, teaching with authority; in conflict with the established clergy at temples they visited to try to reform; accused of practicing magic; charged and tried by Romans for sedition (and magic); subject to legend as children of god, with precocious childhoods, demons in the wilderness, miracles, escape from actual or expected death, ascent to heaven, appearances for the conversion of unbelievers.


Even when the parallels to Apollonius run out, there are many other parallels concerning other magicians in the magical papyri which also fit the gospel accounts: baptism to purge from sin; making of a magician by the descent of the spirit; hearing self declared a god; visionary experiences and shamanic phenomena in the wilderness; exorcism and cures of certain types in Galilee; teaching with authority; calling of disciples who left with him as though enchanted; traveling as master and holy man, with disciples; successful and famous as an exorcist and healer, so that other magicians use his name; opposition developing regarding his neglect of Jewish laws, especially concerning fasting, Sabbath keeping, associating with the tax collectors and sinners, so that stories were spread about his evil magic; initiation of the disciples into his own magical experience (only hints in both gospels and papyri); twelve given the power to exorcise; several seeing him in a vision with supernatural beings. The Eucharist is easily seen as a familiar type of magical rite of union between Christ and his disciples in love and in body; i.e. the identification of the magician with the deity, in which food becomes the body and blood of the deity.


Bultmann argues against a magical interpretation of the Eucharist, but does so by determining that such a rite was inconsistent with the synoptic framework; i.e. it is not a Passover meal, but is a rite which the Hellenistic church inserted in place of the Passover. This is wrong on both counts. The Eucharist is no more or no less Hellenistic than is Jesus himself. Its magic is international, with its earliest forms in Egypt. The cultic emphasis of the eucharistic story is certainly secondary, showing that the story is older than even Paul and James, who connected it with the Passover and other Jewish ideas in a clearly midrashic manner. It does not fit the stories of Jesus, and is not even primitive, since it has different forms in different gospels (i.e. the Passover in the synoptics and crucifixion in John). The gospel writers are not trying to contradict each other, but are straining to find similarities in the Judaization of Jesus. The whole gospel seems to be an attempt to convert a miracle worker/magician into an acceptable Jew of Jerusalem in the time of the Christian church under James.


Note: The picture above is not based on material hostile to Jesus, but on the stories that Jesus’ disciples preserved about him, in spite of their tendencies to minimize the things that made him look like a magician. Also, after Jesus the Magician was completed, it was noted that it was completely in accord with the picture of the leader and his gang, a psychological type involving the psychoanalytic stories of transference, cited by Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (N.Y.: Free Press, 1973). See especially the chapter on “The Spell Cast by Persons--the Nexus of Unfreedom.” The picture is consistent and credible, which can be evidence of historicity.




During the discussion, a number of questions were asked concerning various aspects of the presentation:


Q. What pagan Semitic materials give us the background for assuming that son of God means God?


A. There are parallels in the OT and in Semitic linguistic usage. There are, however, no texts of Semitic speaking paganism in the first century CE. There was, certainly, such a paganism, which spoke a Semitic language, so that son of God = God is a very possible expression. See the work of J. Teixidor in Syria over the past 7 or 8 years.


Q. If the one major difference between Jesus and the magicians was the stress on the kingdom of God rather than on individual successes, how did these ideas of the kingdom come to be correlated with Jesus’ message and activity?


A. Jesus probably did come to think of himself as the Messiah, since he was open to the ideas of the world. However, this was not his starting point; it perhaps came from suggestions of those around him. Ideas of the kingdom do not explain Jesus’ following, and were not the main point of his teaching.


Please clarify the nature of your claim of Jesus as magician. Does it mean: (1) Jesus thought of himself as a magician; (2) Jesus thought of himself as a magician and other things; or (3) the nature of Jesus’ public activity led others to call him a magician.


A. Certainly the latter. The book is on how Jesus is seen as a magician, although not necessarily even by his followers or himself. However, when a person does the things that a magician does, using magical techniques, and has magical experiences, he may certainly be thought of as a magician. Magic must be socially defined, since there is no essential difference between magic and religion. Magic is a large collection of ways of dealing with a special group of deities in special ways for special purposes, not all bad. A magician thinks he has established communication with such a deity, is identified with the deity, is made divine by virtue of the indwelling deity, and has consciously adopted techniques of magic. We cannot pin Jesus down on all these aspects. We do not know his intent, his attitude toward magic, or his felt relationship to God. But for his purposes he adopted technique known in society as magical, with many parallels to details of stories about magicians.


Q. Why did not Jesus or the church call him magos?


A. A magos is a member of the Persian para-priestly class. Not being Persian, to use such a title is to declare oneself an inferior imitator and not the real thing. Besides, as the church became Jewish, it became obvious that Jesus could not be tolerated as a god, so that the idea was dismissed, but not systematically eliminated from the literature.


Q. You make your case synchronically clear, but in doing so you go back and forth between the picture and the reality of Jesus; i.e. you are making diachronic critical judgments. At what point do you make your critical judgment? It seems that if it agrees with a magical text, it is acceptable. What is your methodological starting point?


A. My methodological starting point is that of common sense; e.g. since miracles concerning the movement of external objects are not possible, and since there is no supernatural population, therefore any story involving such items is historically false. Miraculous cures involving psychosomatic symptoms are another matter. With no asylums or hospitals in the first century, there was a large number of lunatics in the streets, leading to the possibility of many cures of hysterical illnesses. The need for such cures was great, and a large crowd could gather under such circumstances. Therefore, these stories are quite credible. Stories which go beyond what is credible reflect what was believed to have occurred -- not real in fact, but believed by those experiencing them.


Q. It seems puzzling that James could have found Jesus and his ideas attractive unless they were put into an apocalyptic millenarian context, in which case magic becomes quite secondary.


A. We read that his brothers did not believe in the widespread notion that Jesus was the Messiah. However, when Jesus was executed as a Messianic pretender, his family was involved almost involuntarily. Note the contradictions in Jesus, teaching about the law: (1) the law is abrogated; (2) his followers were released from some obligations, but not all; (3) the law is in force and binding. This contradiction can be resolved by applying the various ideas to different groups. Some of Jesus’ followers could get into the kingdom now, and were thus free from the law (1). Others were only partly free (2); this included most followers. For outsiders, however, the law was still binding (3). When Jesus died, there was only a small circle of (1) and (2), but many more (3). In this new situation, Jesus’ family, because of the idea of hereditary kingship, had to be members of the group. James, the successor to the Messiah until he returned, was not in (1) or even (2). He had to make the whole thing over to suit his own ideas. Under Herodian persecution, Peter left and James, with Jewish ideas, stayed. This seems to be a probable scenario.


 Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary





Topic for 1976-77; Magic, the Phenomenon and the Issue in the Graeco-Roman World.

Meeting of April 26, 1977, 7 pm, Williams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.


The final meeting of the 1976-77 Seminar was convened by co-chairperson David Efroymson. After customary introductions and announcements, the Seminar heard a presentation by Alan Segal of Princeton University.


Alan Segal, The “Heavenly Ascent of the Soul” and Magic


Although many definitions of magic have been offered in the Seminar this year, none has been wholly satisfactory. I suggest that this is the case because magic is not a properly scientific term. Its meaning changes as the context in which it is used changes. All definitions are relative to the culture, sub-culture, and belief system under discussion.


Howard Kee, for instance, has relied on the book by Judith Willer (The Social Determination of Knowledge; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971), which is partially about the sociology of knowledge, and partially a philosophical attempt to make definitions of magic, science, and religion. It is not a descriptive or ethnographic exercise at all, but an attempt to construct a definition of magic consistent with our own culture and society. While this may clarify the systematic issue for her, an historian could scarcely adopt her definition of magic in an a priori fashion. By Willer’s kind of definition, it is possible to maintain that the act is either religious or magical, depending on the explanation given. While we might agree that this observation is useful and appropriate in the study of Hellenistic religions, we still must specify what a magical situation is.


The same is partially true of John Gager’s observations if they are taken systematically. He suggested that whatever else one says about magic, it is always an individual act. Obvious problems arise, for this does not differentiate adequately between magic and other kinds of personal piety in the Hellenistic world. Gager’s observations help us to locate occurrences and characteristics of magic in Graeco-Roman times only if we take them as descriptive rather than definitive. I am suggesting that we cannot have a strict definition of the phenomenon of magic for the moment; but we can often be sure we are dealing with it without knowledge of exactly which characteristics define it.


Let us go to the documents to see how the Hellenistic world defined the term. The best starting point is the magical papyri (PGM) themselves. They use the term magic, and the practicioners call themselves magicians. However, scholars quickly discovered that this usage makes a definition harder, not easier. A. D. Nock (“Greek Magical Papyri,” JEA 15 (1929), 219-235) thought of the papyri as having a Graeco-Egyptian character, with an overlay of Persian features but basically similar to the reports of magic in classical Greece. Martin Nilsson (“Die Religion in den griechischen Zauberpapyri,” Opuscula Selecta III: Lund, 1960, 129-166) found that although the papyri described a radically individualistic ritual, the hymnody seems to have been copied from some other source; i:e. Hellenistic religion. Nock and Nilsson explained both the magical qualities and the religious qualities of the writing, but the elaboration of their theory is based on the assumption that magic and religion are totally different and separate phenomena. However, no direct literary connections between the magical hymns and earlier Greek religious hymns can be detected, leading us to believe that the magicians may have been more creative than either Nock or Nilsson thought. The religious and magical traits were taken from a variety of different sources, but in a new, imaginative, and coherent way, evincing a central, informing mythical structure underneath.


Another view of the papyri may prove more helpful to us. E.R. Goodenough (Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period 2, 164) and Gershom Scholem have seen the hymns and charms in the context of sectarian Judaism and late Hellenistic syncretism. Goodenough noted that only one god is worshiped; the other deities are reduced to the level of angels and demons. This reflects a sectarian Judaism, syncretisms are possible -- some Jewish, most neither Christian nor Jewish but combining aspects of both. The PGM may combine many different themes into a comprehensive syncretism, but for Goodenough and Scholem, the religious character is unmistakable.


While some of the practices mentioned in the Egyptian papyri are sorcery in any context, the insights of Goodenough and Scholem can be applied profitably to significant hymns, many of which are too sophisticated to be labeled in the same category with charms and amulets. E. Peterson (“La Liberation d’Adam de l’Anagke,” RB 55 (1948), 199-214) has analyzed several of the hymns, and has seen in them a celebrant who longs to escape from Fate to return to the spiritual state from which he has fallen. He does this by mystically identifying himself with the primal man, Adam. This identification of celebrant and primal man is found in other texts as well. In the “Mithras Liturgy” of the PGM (ed. and tr. Marvin Meyer: Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), the celebrant refers to himself as the first man, having a perfect body and rising to the right hand of God, and addressing himself to an intermediary divinity who himself has been exalted through the heavens. Such texts appear to presuppose a myth of an ascending and descending redeemer, the vice-regent of God, whose function is to grant absolution from the bonds of Fate. One purpose of the texts appears to be to assist the adept to gain immortality by appeasing the various tutelary divinities, rising in a an ecstatic heavenly journey through the heavens, and restoring his soul. In short, the papyri contain a kind of religiosity which we have been calling the gnostic salvation myth. We have a body of material which is nominally magical, yet which is religious in character.


All this suggests that in the Hellenistic world, the definition of magic was not firmly fixed. Sometimes magic and religion could be viewed as antagonistic, while at other times magic could be viewed as a kind of religion. When an accusation of magic is made, it is obvious that the accuser is distinguishing between magic and legitimate forms of religion, but it is not obvious that the accuser would say that magic is not religion at all; only that it was aggressive or primitive. The defendant in such an accusation would have different views.


Remember also that magic was sometimes assumed to be worship of demons, while religion was defined as worship of the gods. Since both gods and demons were invisible, it has hard to tell which was at work. In the context of Jewish or Christian orthodoxy, worship of demons was considered evil; by others it was simply inferior worship. It seems more and more that the accusation of magic was a social classifier, with no universal definition.


It is in this context that we should put the disputes about Jesus in Mark 2 and 3, Acts 10, John 7, etc., as well as the other evidence Morton Smith has given us. Smith has not really given us proof that Jesus was a magician, but has shown clear examples of the social manipulation of the charge of magic in relation to Jesus as a miracle worker. There is no evidence that Jesus wished to claim the title of magician. Quite to the contrary, the gospels present us teachings as well as titles of divine favor as a defense against the accusation. Smith shows well that there are no clear criteria separating Jesus’ works from magic, and that the ambiguity of his actions are subject to different interpretation by different social and political perspectives. Morton Smith is siding too heavily with Jesus’ opponents. Instead of picking sides, we should concentrate on discovering the conditions and situations under which accusations of magic will be levied. It seems likely that such charges are likely to be made against people who are viewed as threatening the social order.


If religion and magic are not precisely differentiated, even when an accusation is made, in the few cases where social acceptability is not relevant magic attains to a kind of religion, as in the magical papyri. We must, then, find an explanation for all of the differences between the magical papyri and the great religions of the Hellenistic world which makes no absolute distinctions between magic and religion, and which addresses the problem of the social context of unbelief.


Perhaps a helpful way of understanding some Hellenistic magic as religion is offered by the anthropological study of the Aladura cult in Africa by Robin Horton (Africa, 34 (1965), 219-235, 373-398; 41 (1971), 85-107). Horton sees a cosmology of two tiers, the first that of the lesser spirits and the second that of the supreme being. The former is involved in the microcosm of the local community; the latter in the macrocosm of the world as a whole. It appears likely that the celebrants of the rites described in PGM had a similar concept of the world. For small things, in the microcosm, the demons would do; but for the meaning of processes in the macrocosm, a greater kind of deity was needed. A rich plethora of spirits and techniques sufficed for the everyday affairs of the local community, while in the higher tier we find beliefs about the ultimate meaning of life.


This avowedly intellectualist understanding of religion does have its social consequences. We ought to be able to define when magic will be acceptable (i.e. under local micro-political pressures) and when it will be necessary to rely on one of the established religious ideologies (i.e. among those who rule or sought to rule the Empire). Most of the rites in the PGM are important to the local community, but as individuals find themselves in the larger world of the Empire, they begin to evolve a higher moral code and spirituality for the governance of the wider life.


However, there is no great similarity between the otiose African High God and the upper tier of the Hellenistic magical system. The upper tier of the papyri contains the “gnostic redeemer myth,” with its idea of ecstatic heavenly ascent. We do not have to think that there is a single gnostic salvation myth to realize how fundamental the theme of the heavenly journey of the soul is in late Hellenistic religion. It seems sure that the religious experience of the magical papyri is dependent on such a myth in two ways: (1) there is a variety of stories about ascent and descent motifs, and (2) an ecstatic trance is involved. Such an ecstatic journey is, among other things, the anticipation of the heavenly journey of the soul after death, and the angel or divine hypostasis which descends and ascends is often an explicit psychopomp. Even when it is not so, the journey of the intermediary creature becomes the pattern or guarantor of the immortality of the believer. Besides being found in Jewish and Christian magical syncretism, such a myth is implied in the mysteries of Mithras, Persian religion, apocalyptic literature, and the traditions of the Mandeans.


I am not suggesting that the heavenly journey means the same thing in every group. It may confer immortality or simply confirm the cosmos of the believer. What is similar in every case is the structure of the myth. Since we have a dominant myth, it ought to be amenable to structural study. In late Hellenistic culture, we get a characteristic form of high religion involving the astral journey and its meaning for overcoming Fate. All of the versions represent in their way a powerful religious intuition into the meaning of life in the late Empire.




The discussion following the presentation brought out several aspects of the study of Graeco-Roman magic which had not been considered earlier in the Seminar. One, of course, is the possible tie to the myth of the heavenly ascent. This myth would seen to be in two versions, which are mirror images of each other. In one, the adept achieves mystical salvation by ascending and returning. In the other, a deity or intermediary creates or is otherwise involved in the cosmos by descending and then returning. It was noted, however, that while in the first century CE these two myths were considered separate, by the third century they had been largely combined. Their structure is the same, and they became one phenomenon.


We tend to prejudge the phenomena we have been discussing by the very title we have given them: the magical papyri (PGM). This title shows a definite western, Christian religious point of view. Although the documents do contain what we might call magic, they use the technical term relatively infrequently, and then often proudly. The PGM appear to reflect a religious viewpoint to a great extent. It is our presuppositions which have created difficulty for us in definition.


On the problem of defining magic, perhaps little progress was made in this meeting of the Seminar, although the consensus appeared to be that its social aspects are more important than hard, “scientific” definitions. Like many modern anthropologists, we tend to confuse social determinants with absolute definitions. Our minds boggle at a phenomenon which the Egyptians would call religion and not magic, and which the Romans would call magic and then proscribe it as a threat to the general social stability. A list of the characteristics of magic do not define it, so that the temptation is to provide what is ultimately a value judgment instead.


 Respectfully submitted, Robert V. Hotchkiss, Recording Secretary