Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.15

Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History.   Cambridge, UK/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. ix, 483.  ISBN 9780521874571.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, University of New Hampshire ( )
Word count: 2445 words

This learned and thoughtful book, building on the spate of publications of Jewish magical texts over the past thirty years (as well as the refinement of the study of magic in the ancient Mediterranean world), aims first of all to replace Ludwig Blau's 1914 Das Altjüdische Zauberwesen as the essential resource on ancient Jewish magic. But Bohak, who readers might know best for his superb on-line collection of University of Michigan magical texts is also a very engaging writer. In many ways, Ancient Jewish Magic reads more like an extended essay on the place of magic in developing Jewish religion than a systematic tour of sources. With amusing metaphors and asides about contemporary Israeli politics, and at the same time little jargon, the book deserves (and rewards) a leisurely read as much as reference consultation. (Indeed, the publishers seem to have opted against reference consultation. The Table of Contents is so woefully inadequate, lacking all Bohak's critical sub-sections, that the volume can be difficult to consult for particular topics).

The overall goal of the book is to describe the development of Jewish magical practices from the Second Temple through late rabbinic eras. This development reflected an increasingly confident sense of what is foreign to Judaism, the increasing hegemony of rabbinic sages, and an increasingly textual sense of magic itself. Magic, in Bohak's perspective, was neither peripheral nor entirely central to formative Judaism.

Ancient Jewish Magic also seeks self-consciously to strike a balance between the rigorous attention to historical sources (specifically, those that actually pertain to a particular period rather than inventing a past from centuries later) and a theoretically-informed distinction between the evidence of magical practice (like amulets) and the sometimes fantastic descriptions of such practices by outsiders and detractors. In maintaining such a distinction, Bohak's approach marks a real step forward from recent works like Dickie's Magic and Magicians and Luck's Arcana Mundi, which notoriously relied on opponents' caricatures to reconstruct real magical practices.1 On the other hand, Bohak has taken a calculated risk in this book in allowing a loose, "common-sense" definition of magic that floats, not always comfortably, between documentable forms of ritual healing or verbal cursing, a kind of sorcery imputed to others, and a translation of outsiders' terms like Hebrew khesheph. In anthropological terms, "magic" alternates between emic and etic functions depending on the context to which Bohak puts it.

Chapter One, "Jewish Magic: A Contradiction in Terms?", addresses a tendency in the field of Jewish Studies to dismiss magical practices as irrational, foreign, or "folk" customs. Whereas much of the scholarship on Greco-Roman, early Christian, and medieval European magic has labored under similar prejudices stemming from Protestant anti-Catholic discourse, such attitudes in Jewish Studies stem from Maimonides. Bohak divides the chapter into five methodological areas. "Biblical Prohibitions and Biblical Paradigms" deals with the particular Deuteronomic prohibitions against certain kinds of foreign ritual procedures (Dt 18:9-15) that have led some scholars to imagine Judaism and magic as antithetical, as well as the numerous biblical scenes (Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah and Elisha) that in fact provided thaumaturgical paradigms and hopes for many centuries of Jewish clients and experts. "Magic and Rationality" offers a brief history of the discussion in anthropology and Jewish Studies about the fraudulence or efficacy of magical acts, concluding quite appropriately that, given the extensive documentation of Jewish magic, the least interesting question is "did it work?" "Magic and Monotheism" asserts that ancient Jews were often quite comfortable with coercive rituals despite declarations of the transcendent will of the supreme deity. "There Is No Such Thing as Magic . . ." tackles the current scholarly argument that "magic" exists only as an outsider's caricature and must be eliminated as a category if one is to describe actual ritual practices. Bohak asserts that, however slippery the term, it does allow a common focus of discussion. Finally, "'Religion' and 'Magic' in Jewish Culture" takes on another modern (secular) perspective, that Judaism as a religion is shot through to its core with magic so that the two can't be distinguished. Bohak responds that the study of Jewish magic must depend strategically on some distinctions between Judaism and magic, both of which were evolving, not static phenomena.

Chapter Two, "Jewish Magic in the Second Temple Period," begins with a quite important caveat -- especially useful for those involved in the perennial discussion of "Jesus the Magician": there is, in fact, exceedingly little documentation for Jewish Magical practices before late antiquity. Moroever, given the profound changes that Judaism underwent over the Roman period, it is historically inappropriate to extrapolate backwards from late antique sources to Second Temple realia. To negotiate the dearth of evidence Bohak turns first to "The Jewish Discourse of 'Magic' in the Second Temple Period," demonstrating that the various constructions of improper or foreign ritual practices in Philo, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Qumran, and Josephus hardly amount to a coherent definition of "magic" as either a legal or a social concept. More importantly, these "outsider" voices do not suggest that sorcery was ever used as an accusation--as mageia and pharmakeia were commonly invoked in the Roman world. The second part of Chapter Two examines the sporadic evidence for "Jewish Magical Technology in the Second Temple Period": exorcistic traditions (a particularly useful discussion), a few amulets, and some references to erotic and aggressive magic. The evidence shows primarily oral spell-traditions, maintained by priests and regional holy men, rather than textual formularies or spells that depended on the magic of writing, such as we find in the Greek Magical Papyri.

Chapter Three, "Jewish Magic in Late Antiquity: 'Insider' Evidence," examines the ever-growing corpus of Jewish magical formularies and amulets, many from the Cairo Geniza and still being edited. These materials all testify to an increasingly literary conceptualization of magic -- ritual, spell, transmission -- during the rise of rabbinic Judaism. Bohak discusses each corpus of evidence in turn. "Jewish Magical Texts in Aramaic and Hebrew" covers the growing corpus of apotropaic metal amulets, the small corpus of aggressive/erotic spells on lead and pottery, the complex evidence for Jewish production of magical gems, the new Aramaic fragments of spell collections, "literary" magic books like Sepher Ha-Razim and The Sword of Moses, and the enormous corpus of "incantation bowls" from Babylon (which notably reveal a quite different magical culture from the Egyptian and Palestinian materials). "Jewish Magical Texts from Late Antiquity in Greek" discusses the long-overstated evidence for Jewish elements in the Greek Magical Papyri, much of which is actually composed by non-Jews, while a small number of spells (e.g., PGM XXXVI) do seem to reflect authentically Jewish origins. Finally, he discusses the potential use of medieval Jewish magical texts as witnesses to late antique practices. Overall, what emerges most importantly from these late antique materials besides their great variety is their enmeshment in everyday culture -- that none reflect covert or illegitimate circumstances. (One could, of course, say the same of the late antique Christian texts in Meyer and Smith's Ancient Christian Magic.2 Perhaps magic was never as covertly performed as official edicts and pronouncements have led historians to believe).

Chapter Four, "Non-Jewish Elements in Late-Antique Jewish Magic," is devoted to the issue of whether Jewish magic is basically just a "pagan import," another traditional perspective in Jewish Studies This is perhaps the most problematic part of the book, for the simple reason that gauging "influence" when religious boundaries themselves are idiosyncratic, sporadically policed, and regional can be a self-defeating enterprise. (In this same vein, most scholars have given up the question of "pagan" influence on Christianity). To his credit, Bohak outlines a methodology for distinguishing outright ritual appropriations from other religious traditions from vaguer imitations or mere cultural sharing. He then discusses, in impressive detail: "Bilingual and Trilingual (Aramaeic/Greek/Hebrew) Magical Texts"; "Aramaic and Hebrew Recipes Translated from Greek Originals"; "Greek Words and Phrases in Jewish Magical Texts"; "Foreign Deities and Demons" (Abrasax, Helios, et al.) in Jewish magical texts; "Magic Words and Vowel Permutations and Word-Shapes" (including charaktêres); "Structure, Layout, and Technical Vocabulary and the Scribalization of the Jewish Magical Tradition"; and "The Magical Praxis: Aims, Techniques, and Materia Magica." All these important areas of spell-composition and -editing, ritual performance, and clients' expectations for efficacy clearly involved varying degrees of interaction with a broader culture of magic--sometimes oral, sometimes scribal, sometimes exotic, sometimes familiar; and Bohak's apt focus on such minute areas certainly advances the discussion of the concrete results of cultural interaction. But without a clearer sense of what religious or ritual boundaries Judaism itself could have involved or enforced in the early rabbinic period, especially in such intimate, practical areas of life as demon-protection and healing, the question of "influence" seems ill-conceived.

Chapter Five, "How Jewish was Jewish Magic?", continues the book's broader apologia to the field of Jewish Studies but also contributes to an important topic in the history of religions: the intrinsic magic of scripture, writing, and even institutional ceremony in a scriptural religion, characteristic not only of Judaism but also Egyptian religion, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. After a short summary of the increasingly textual concept of magic in Judaism over the course of the Roman period, Bohak turns to traditions of using divine and angelic names for magical purposes. The next section, on uses of the Hebrew Bible, addresses the modification of biblical verses as amulets and also historiolae, short mythic narratives invoked as precedents to resolve crises, characteristic of magical speech world-wide but in this case based in biblical legend. For Jewish ritual experts the "Bible was not a closed book, . . . [but one] to be mined for more and more useful verses, and when all the obvious candidates became too well known and well used, new verses were added, . . . [which] now acquired some very specific magical uses" (p.311-12).

Magical practices also revolved around the synagogue space, as readers familiar with Jesus traditions know well, and Bohak supplements outsiders' testimony by, e.g., John Chrysostom, with some important archaeological discoveries: binding spells and amulet troves found in synagogue remains. Uses of erotic/aggressive magic in and around the synagogue indicate a view of the building as a social gathering place, where intended victims would tend to congregate. A section on the magical aspects of Jewish mystical texts like Shiur Qomah and the Hekhalot corpus--a burgeoning field in Jewish Studies ever since Gershom Scholem-- prompts Bohak (somewhat tendentiously) to distinguish self-oriented "mystics" and client-oriented "magicians." A more flexible sense of religious expertise and the ritual applications to which individuals could put that expertise might have offered a more promising overview of the different spheres of Jewish magic. In the final section of this chapter, "Philters and Filters: The Limits of Cultural Receptivity," Bohak argues that certain boundary-making strategies on the part of ritual experts, excluding most Christian, polytheistic, and iconographic elements, allowed a self-consciously Jewish magic to develop. And yet, he points out this magic was not understood as some special, covert type of ritual but rather as a vague area of "actions" or "deeds."

If Jewish magic did not exist in the eyes of its practitioners but simply involved a great range of popular, scribal, and verbal ritual practices thoroughly woven into Jewish religious culture, then what position had the rabbis, either as ritual experts themselves or as policers of the margins of ritual? The final chapter, "Magic and Magicians in Rabbinic Literature," shows that rabbis maintained a very inconsistent sense of kesheph, sorcery or illegitimate magic, even while showing considerable knowledge of popular spell traditions as well as thaumaturgical powers they themselves ought to wield. A section on "Magic in Rabbinic Halakhah" analyzes rabbinic witnesses to practices both sanctioned (amuletic, apotropaic, even creative) and illegitimate (misuses of sacred objects and angels' names). As Bohak describes it, the rabbis' flexibility on a great range of practices is quite astounding. A new term that emerged in the literature to label illegitimate practices, "the ways of the Amorites," paradoxically allowed quite foreign ritual techniques into rabbinic lore, for-- unlike the death sentence decreed for the mekhasheph or sorcerer--the practitioner of "the ways of the Amorites" was consigned merely to God's justice. Rabbis thus came to be strategically familiar with magical procedures deemed foreign.

The following sections of this important chapter address: the rabbinic construction of the wizard-, sorcerer-, or witch-figure (incarnate predominantly in women and minim, religious deviants); the legendary thaumaturge-rabbis like Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer, as well as the magical powers of more central rabbis like Simeon bar Yohai; and magical spells, especially for healing, credited to rabbis, which (Bohak incisively observes) neither implied familiarity with spell collections nor seem to have had much basis in actual practices.

An Epilogue assembles the book's primary historical-theoretical arguments: A) that Jewish magic is rooted in biblical tradition; B) that magic served, as elsewhere in antiquity, as a means of social control, resolving crises, tensions, and boundary maintenance; and yet C) in no case can we see "magic"--whether kesheph or "ways of the Amorites"--functioning in the service of sorcery accusation; D) that Jewish magic does show an ideological selectivity in its relationship to other magical traditions in the ancient world, like the Greco-Egyptian tradition depicted in the Greek Magical Papyri; E) that "magic" actually breaks down into a range of different, often discrete magical traditions in Jewish culture; and F) that Jewish magic was not static but changing, both in its range of techniques and its relationship to writing. Ancient Jewish Magic then provides an excellent bibliography, followed by a quite poor index.

In all, this is a lively, exhaustively researched, theoretically mature, and always informative book. It should certainly be required reading of anyone delving into the question of magic in earliest Christianity or the status of the rabbi, and in its resolute refusal to consign "magic" to some cultural démi-monde peripheral to religion it should help move the field from the study of ancient exotica to a fuller appreciation of ancient religious cultures. As for the slippery use of "magic" and "magician," sometimes to signify real ritual practices, sometimes to translate kesheph or mekhasheph, and sometimes to cover a vague sphere of odd or illegitimate "deeds" as imagined by authors and rabbis, Bohak defends this inconsistency as justified in order to maintain "magic" as the subject of discussion (pp.61-63). And yet one might reasonably query, at the end of this rich and fascinating book, whether such an ambiguous term as "magic"really ought to be the focus at all, rather than ritual, or religious roles, or constuctions of supernatural danger and sorcery, or the relationship of ritual expertise to scribality. Bohak's materials and analysis may in the end have fractured his governing category.


1.   Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001) , on which see BMCR 2002.02.26, and Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2nd ed.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
2.   Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (San Francisco: Harper, 1994).

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