BMCR 2022.04.35

Magic in the ancient eastern Mediterranean: cognitive, historical, and material perspectives on the Bible and its contexts

, , Magic in the ancient eastern Mediterranean: cognitive, historical, and material perspectives on the Bible and its contexts. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021. Pp. 331. ISBN 9783525522189 €50,00.


This edited collection of essays constitutes a contribution to the study of magic in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean from a very specific perspective: the application of cognitive theories to the study of magic. This line of analysis, which is based on a decidedly etic perspective, is particularly suggestive. One may or may not agree on the applicability of such postulates with a view to studying of texts and studies of the Ancient World, which fundamentally are accessible only through the analysis of highly mediatized textual sources and mostly decontextualized texts and objects.  Nevertheless, the invitation that the book extends to advance our understanding of magical thought and the applicability of the categories magic and religion is of undeniable value.

The applicability of the term “magic” as an etic and analytical category is discussed in a number of the chapters of the present book. In fact, as noted in the acknowledgements, some of the studies are influenced by the research of István Czachesz, who argues for the “usefulness of the category of magic in academic discussion by claiming that magical beliefs and practices are hardwired in universal human cognition.” In this sense, the volume in general maintains consistency, although in some chapters it is clearer than in others. On the other hand, the application of this perspective does not prevent some chapters from setting out with a review of Frazer’s and other scholars’ ideas of magic , which can be somewhat repetitive for someone reading the whole book.

The volume is divided into three unequal parts. The first part is composed of chapters which discuss the category of magic, its definition and application as a notional category, mainly from the point of view of cognitive science of religion, to the study of ancient religions and its texts, specifically Greek, Roman, and Biblical texts. The second part focuses on the study of prayers and blessings as key elements in Jewish and Christian rituals and the study of magic with an archaeological and historical approach. The third part is composed of three articles that discuss various aspects of spiritual beings, such as angels and demons, and their involvement in acts of ritual power, such as exorcisms and apotropaic prayers.

The book begins with István Czachesz’s chapter in which he proposes an etic approach to the term magic, based on evolutionary and cognitive science, to better understand magical practices, especially those in Biblical literature. Czachesz reviews the pioneering studies, of evolutionary type, that endeavored to differentiate magic from religion to move on to other scholarly currents. A discussion is held on how the term magic was understood from an ethnocentric perspective, usually pejorative in contrast to the term religion, that led to it being displaced as a non-operational term when speaking of rituals in Antiquity. The author claims that the category “magic” should be applied in ancient studies, through the application of modern cognitive theories that study the behavior of human thought regarding the belief in the efficacy of rituals through the so-called “superstition conditioning”. Czachesz offers in pp. 21-22 a heuristic definition of magic that unites three conditions that must be fulfilled to consider a ritual or practice “magic”.

Czachesz further analyzes how miracle stories are a particularly useful instrument to study the cultural transmission of magical practices and theories, focusing his analysis especially on the counterintuitive elements in miracles. He establishes a distinction between “impetrative” and “oblative” magic, to avoid using a distinction between “spontaneous” miracles and “coerced” magic, which has so often been used to denigrate magic in contrast to religion.

The second chapter, by Martti Nissinen, begins with a defense of the use of magic as an analytical tool and argues for an understanding of magic, not as a category of negative otherness, but as an integral part of the religious system, stating that in the texts of the Hebrew Bible “magic is seen as another form of religious practice”. The study, focused on divination, makes a distinction between practices legitimized in the texts, that is, closer to the “normative religious practices”, and practices that are not, which are therefore typified as magic.  In this way, the author establishes that the separation of magic and divination rituals made in the texts is based mainly on the agent who performs the activity rather than on the ritual activity itself. Particularly noteworthy is the author’s study of how practices performed by women are mainly associated with witchcraft. Therefore, although Nissinen advocates seeing the similarities between magic and religion in terms of processes, he does establish a differentiation between acts of ritual power legitimized in the sources and others that are not, based on who practices them, asserting that “magic itself is not forbidden, only unauthorized magic.”

The third and fourth chapters focus on Greek texts and the analysis of the sources from a somewhat more emic perspective than the other articles in this part of the book. The study by Hanna Tervanotko analyzes the use of the terms μάγος and khartom, both translated in modern languages as “mage”, in a series of selected sources, which is not exhaustive. She concludes that both terms have a quite general meaning and that they are related in the analyzed texts to foreignness in a wide variety of contexts. The study of the term μάγος would have benefited from important existing studies for a more comprehensive analysis of the application of the term in these Greek sources, in contrast to others where the term translated as “mage” is γόης or ἐπῳδός, two terms which are not loanwords and thus inherently foreign.[1]

Chapter four, by Marika Rauhala, analyzes Greek and Latin texts in which an evolution of the notional concept of magic is explored to analyze how terms related to magic are gradually loaded with pejorative connotations based on marginality and otherness as well as contested authority (including ethnic otherness, femininity, low social status, and deviant ritual practices).[2]

Nina Nikki’s article explores the difference between magic and miracle through the analysis of Pauline texts from the perspective of the cognitive science of religion. He follows Czachesz’s three-point definition of magic detailed in chapter 1. The chapter focuses on how the narration of miraculous stories “increases in the apocryphal Acts as compared to the canonical Acts” (p. 132), which implies an attempt (conscious or not) to stimulate the “magical thinking,” very popular at the time, which, according to the author, favored the spread of Pauline Christianity.

Vojtěch Kaše’s chapter develops a cognitive study on the ritualization of Christian meals and focuses on the Last Supper tradition as a case study. Working from the idea of ritual-efficacy and applying cognitive theories about magic, Kaše analyzes the gradual ritualization of early Christian meals and how the eucharistic elements of the Lord’s Supper tradition gradually gained supernatural significance and supported beliefs regarding the magical efficacy of the Eucharist.

Part II starts with the study by Elisa Uusimäki on blessings and curses in a selected group of Jewish and early Christian literary texts and their relation with magic. The chapter offers an exhaustive list of sources from the Hebrew tradition, including the Qumran texts as well as some evidence from the New Testament. The author argues for an understanding of both acts of ritual power as magical acts, distancing herself from earlier studies that sought to strip any relationship to magic, understood in a negative way, from the Jewish or Christian religion.

Following the research on blessings and curses, the chapter by Kirsi Valkama centers on the analysis of epigraphic finds from Iron Age Judean burial caves that have been interpreted as having an apotropaic function. The author analyzes funerary inscriptions as well as amulets to conclude that prayers, blessings, and curses should not be understood as separate categories, as they offer consolation and protection in uncertain situations, especially death.

Mika S. Pajunen’s chapter focusses on the prominence of exorcism narratives in the Late Second Temple period and how incantation prayers and apotropaic prayers – a distinction explained on p. 198 – were used for protection against evil spirits. Taking a historical approach to the texts, she analyzes the process of ritualization of these psalms as well as how these rituals disengage from institutional religious practices and are more and more associated with folklore and non-institutional practices.

Prayers in 2 Maccabees are the object of analysis in Anna-Liisa Rafael’s chapter devoted to arguing that prayers can be understood, under specific conditions, as magic, by understanding these prayers as efficacious rituals.

Nils H. Korsvol in his chapter examines the biblical references and quotations in amulets, first discussing what he understands by amulet. The author focuses on the use of these texts as historiolae intended to metaphorically re-actualize the Biblical text in the present and highlights its inherent agency. He focuses on three case studies: verbatim quotation of Biblical texts in incantation bowls, the use of Matt 4:23 and Ps 91 (90 LXX) in Greek Egyptian papyri, and The Prayer of Mary and Ps 91 (90 LXX) in Coptic materials to discuss the different purposes and functions these texts have in apotropaic practices and asserts that these Biblical citations were “simply another such context wherein Biblical texts and traditions circulated” (pg. 253).

The third part begins with the chapter by Elisa Uusimäki and Hanne von Weissenberg devoted to the study of spiritual beings (angels and demons) in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the distinction between good and evil beings, especially from the late Second Temple period onwards.

The following chapter, by Izaak J. de Hulster and Sanna Saaari, offers an overview of the iconography of winged beings in different cultures of the Ancient Near East and then focuses on the study of the description of similar beings in the Bible. Thus, as a case study, they deal with the winged forms of Yahweh in the Psalms and the Seraphim in the vision of Isaiah, and they interpret the vision of Isaiah 6 as “a subtle and skillfully formulated critique of idols and amulets.” The authors stress the importance of understanding the visual culture in which these texts were composed.

The book ends with a chapter devoted to the iconography of the sun and the zodiac circle in synagogues of the Byzantine period. Rick Bonnie reviews the different theories put forward by scholars to explain its popularity and its use after context.

The book, therefore, constitutes a contribution of great interest for the study of magic in Antiquity in general and the Biblical tradition in particular. The study of magic in the Bible has been deeply anchored in a dichotomous and strongly negative comparison with religion. Studies such as those developed in this book, especially those based on cognitive theories of the study of magic, are extremely suggestive and contribute to advancing a better understanding of the ritual practices of ancient cultures.


[1] E.g. J.N. Bremmer, (1999), “The birth of the term ‘Magic’”, ZPE 126, pp. 1-12, or Janowitz (2001) 9-26. It would have been interesting to have analyzed the term μάγος in texts such as the Derveni Papyrus to contrast with the pejorative uses of the term.

[2] Although the whole article has an extensive, accurate, and up-to-date bibliography, the study would have benefited from J. Rüpke’s theses for the discussion on magic and deviance; J. Rüpke, Religious deviance in the Roman World, Superstition or Individuality?, (Cambridge University Press, 2016).