Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Superstition, Magic, and the Bible

There is an unusual statement in Acts 19:11-12. It is no more than a brief aside having little connection with the narrative in which it is embedded:

And God did extraordinary miracles (dunameis) by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11-12, RSV).

The statement immediately plunges the reader into the occult world of ancient magic, superstition, and religious fetishes. The author that scholars call Luke1 describes God as performing extraordinary deeds through the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs (soudaria) or aprons (simikinthia) that touched his body (chrĊtos) were taken to the sick and demon possessed. As a result of contact with the cloth objects that had touched Paul, these people were healed and purged of evil spirits (Acts 19:12).

            The principle involved in the account seems to be that of healing and exorcism from a distance by "miraculous" power from the objects themselves rather than by an exorcist or healer or intervention by a supernatural deity. Thus it wasn't Paul who healed and exorcised. It was rather a power transferred from Paul's body that came to reside in the cloths that effectuated the cures and the exorcisms. The power, originating with God and working through Paul, passed from Paul to the cloths. The healings and exorcisms are thus not described as healing acts directly from God or from Paul, but rather from what appear to be religious fetishes having miraculous power in themselves.

            The account in Acts nineteen is similar to the woman's belief in Matt 9:20-21. She is described as believing that if she could only "touch the fringe of [Jesus'] garment," she could be made well. That is to say, she is represented as thinking that the garment touching the body of Jesus possessed that same power by which Jesus is credited with performing his mighty deeds. In this same way the author of Acts appears to believe that healing power also resided in things Paul touched. The transfer of power in the Acts account is similar to Paul's idea that holiness can be transferred from a believing partner to an unbelieving partner in a marriage, so that the children would not be "unclean" (1 Cor 7:13-14; compare 1 Cor 6:15-16 where the transference seems to work the other way).

            A kind of primitive supernatural power is described as being at work in the Acts account. Anthropologists have adopted the term mana, a Melanesian term (there are others), "as a convenient designation for the widespread belief in occult force or indwelling power as such, independent of either persons or spirits…Taken together all such terms refer to the experienced presence of a powerful but silent force in things, especially any occult force which is believed to act of itself, as an addition to the forces naturally or usually present in a thing…It is a force that is thought to be transmissible from objects in nature to man, from one person to another, or again from persons to things."2

            Broadly speaking the brief aside in Acts 19:11-12 suggests the operation of a kind of primitive magic in which the objects taken from the body of Paul themselves become the source of a supernatural power, which cures diseases and drives out evil spirits.3 Magic is defined as:

the use of means (as ceremonies, charms, spells) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result (as rain, death, healing) considered not obtainable by natural means and that also contain the arts of divination, incantation, sympathetic magic, and thaumaturgy: control of natural forces by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials or words considered supernaturally potent.4

This brief narrative aside appears to document the practice of a primitive magic in the early Jesus gatherings. If the early followers of Jesus did practice a kind of primitive magic in their communities that negatively affects the relevance of the Bible's beliefs for the modern world, and creates the problem of sorting out in a formal way the Bible's relevant ideas from the irrelevant.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This is because Acts is believed to have been written by the same author that wrote Luke.
2Noss, Man's Religions, 16. A belief in mana is one of fourteen common features of primitive religions (pages 14-31).
3Magic was pervasive in antiquity; see Betz, Greek Magical Papyri; and Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic.
4Webster's Third International Dictionary, s. v., "magic."

19 comments:

  1. Happy New Year Charlie,

    Nothing like a little magic to get the early Christian religious juices churning.

    (1)The following observations appear in the National Catholic Register.
    http://treasuresofthechurch.com/about-relics

    "Relics are physical objects that have a direct association with the saints or with Our Lord...1st class relics are the body or body fragments...2nd class relics are something that a saint personally owned...3rd class relics are those items that a saint touched or that have been touched to another relic. Scripture teaches that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing." In addition to Acts 19:11-12 and Matt 9:20-21, the following are offered as scriptural references: 2 Kings 13:20-21 and Acts 5:12-15.

    'A man was being buries...and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.'

    'They even carries the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter's shadow might fall on some of them.'

    It is very important to note that the cause of the healing is God; the relics are a means through which He acts. In other words, relics are not magic. They do not contain a power that is their own... God...wants to draw our attention to the saints as 'models and intercessors' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828)."

    (2)(a)I think that Paul's idea of the transfer of holiness in marriage may have a modern counterpart:
    In my own marriage, as well as others, I'm sure, the attitude prevails that if one spouse is present at a function means that both spouses grace the event. (b) Paul's idea also seems similar to that expressed in Mark 10 where we find the organic theory that the married partners are one flesh and thus should not divorce.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Gene,
      This is a very helpful observation!
      Do you think that the Catholic Catechism comment that the source of the healing in all cases is God? That is to ask by that comment have they have successfully proven incorrect the idea that one finds a kind of primitive magic in the biblical texts?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
  2. Hi Charlie,

    I would say that the catechism can offer no "successful proof." Once something is attributed to God, I think that the element of investigation and discovery, i.e. the possibility of proof, has been removed. Actually it seems to be rare that Jesus attributes a healing to deity. In one instance he does say to the Gerasene Demoniac, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." It would seem that "lord" here could refer to God but perhaps more likely it refers to Jesus himself as the title given to him by the early church.

    Interestingly, the gospels record at least one healing by Jesus using a "relic" (so to speak), the healing of a blind person at Mark 8:22-26 and John 9:1-7. He put spittle (the relic) on the blind man's eyes and effected a cure. There is no mention of the efficacy of the patient's trust, which is found in so many healings (including the woman with a blood-flow who touched Jesus' cloak), and there is no mention of the agency of God. So, as far a "relics" go, we have one relic with trust healing, and one relic without trust healing.

    The Jesus Seminar certainly thought of Jesus as a healer, but perhaps not in the sense of "relics" or "magic." Bob Funk writes, "Jesus probably cured one or more persons of blindness during his career. The kind of blindness he was able to cure was subject to psycho-somatic therapy; blindness that had an organic basis would have required magic for a cure and Jesus was probably not a magician." ("The Gospel of Jesus: according to the Jesus Seminar," 1999, 101).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Gene,
      Morton Smith wrote a book some years ago arguing that Jesus, had he done all these things, would have been seen as a magician. See, Jesus the Magician.

      Delete
    2. Hi Charlie,

      Although I've been in on many discussions of magic over the years and heard and read many references to Smith's book, I've never read the book itself.

      Do you have an opinion about whatever evidence Smith sets forward to argue for Jesus as a magician?

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Delete
    3. Good Morning Gene,
      I have not read his book but he no doubt gave us a survey of the prevalence of magic in the ancient world, the passages that most of us already know from the gospels reflecting a kind of magic, and vestiges of magic in Christian texts after the NT period. My library has a copy and I will check to see what he did. You might also want to consider Robert Conner, Jesus the Sorcerer. Magic in the NT.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
  3. Thank you Gene and Charlie for your very interesting observations about relics. I do wonder if the concept of healing thru the medium of a relic originated with the Catholic church and was later inserted into Acts and the Gospels? Do either of you know of any "miraculous" healing being performed in the Old Testament?

    With regard to "powers" or "forces" or spirits residing in objects and being transferred to man... I did personally know a woman who would go into people's homes and point out certain objects that contained "unclean spirits." And then you were required to throw that object away- even if it was a priceless antique. This really happened and I personally witnessed it. So for some people still alive today- that particular idea in the Bible is still very relevant. Have you ever heard of such a thing being practiced in modern times?

    Thank you both, Gene and Charlie, and Happy New Year! Elizabeth

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good afternoon Elizabeth,
      The Catholic Church did not originate the idea of fetishes. It was an idea widespread in antiquity. The ideas came into early Christianity through ancient cultural influence. There are numerous stories of miraculous healings in OT. See for example the cycle of Elisha stories in 2 Kings 2-13.
      On your comment about spiritism: It is still alive and well in the 21st century, as you can attest.
      Cordially
      Charlie

      Delete
  4. Hi Charlie,

    Wanted to call attention to these "magical" sources in case readers wanted to explore further:

    http://earlyjewishwritings.com/
    The TOBIT (250-175 B.C.E.) story has to do with a demon attached to a woman, killing off seven grooms in the wedding chamber. NRSV Tobit 8:2-3: "...he took the fish's liver and heart...put them on the embers of incense. The odor so repelled the demon that he fled to Egypt. But Raphael followed him, and at once bound him there hand and foot."
    ----------
    http://earlyjewishwritings.com/
    JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews: Book 8, 2:5: “I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was ELEAZAR, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian…He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by SOLOMON to the nostrils of the demoniac…he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into
    him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed… he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to
    overturn it…”
    -----------
    http://earlyjewishwritings.com/
    James Charlesworth, The Pseudipigrapha and Modern Research (197-199): TESTAMENT OF SOLOMON (1st to 3rd Centuries C.E.): “Solomon states that he wrote his testament before his death so that the children of Israel would know the powers and shapes of the demons, and the names of the angels who have power over them…Solomon is able to build the Temple by
    defeating demons and employing their skills by means of a ring and its seal given to him by the Archangel Michael.”
    -----------
    http://virtualreligion.net/iho/exorcism.html
    Find here Mahlon Smith’s translations of various demoniacal and exorcism texts, including APOLLONIUS’ ordering out of a demon, “speaking with anger as a master to a slave,” to an “unruly, vulgar youth, who laughed, weeped, sang, and talked to himself without
    reason, casting his eyes wildly about.” The demon knocks over a statue as evidence that he has left. (PHILOSTRATUS, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.20)
    -----------
    http://www.craigaevans.com/teaching_materials/026DSSEvans.pdf
    “Jesus and Psalm 91 In Light of the Exorcism Scrolls” by Craig Evans(2011): “…the discovery at Qumran of Psalm 91 in combination with exorcism psalms…" Note: In the Temptation story Jesus quotes
    Deut 8:36, 6:16, and 6:13 against Satan who tries to reverse roles,quoting Psalm 91:11-12 against Jesus.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Gene for gathering these magical moments from the past for us--more evidence that our human past is shrouded in the darkness of superstition!
      Most of these examples have to do with exorcisms, which prompts the following question: In your professional experience as a psychologist, have you ever had any cases that dealt with demon possession and exorcisms?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
    2. Hi Charlie,

      I have to say that I've never had any case that dealt with demon possession and exorcism.
      If I had, my approach would have been further evaluation by referral for longer term observation.

      http://psychology.news/news/2016/04/28/is-speaking-out-against-exorcism-taboo-for-us/
      Here is an April 2016 article, a call for dialogue, by a prominent psychologist with a negative view toward exorcism and other controversial interventions.

      www.e-mjm.org/1987/v42n4/psychiatric-illness.pdf
      Here is an article where two cases, depression and schizophrenia, were treated for demonic components by prayer and other benign religious interventions. Note that success correlates with world-view and belief system rather than any magical object.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Delete
    3. Hi Charlie,

      Here's some follow up from fellow psychologists in my state psychological association:

      (1)There were several: ages 40, 55, 32, 65.
      They were all Christian and would classify as evangelical. They requested intervention from a local group of ministers--"the God squad".
      They all reported improvement, but all had residual psychological symptoms which continued to be treatment resistant.

      (2) I witnessed Brad Hess (http://intuitiveenergy.com/) (claim to) heal a woman's migraine headaches by removing "an entity" from her energy body.

      (3) (decades ago) A patient with advanced AIDS from a country I do not remember repeatedly asked to be exorcised. My Chief approved him going to a healer from his native country. She lived in Brooklyn. I only remember that he was bathed in a tub that had the blood of a chicken in it. Sadly, he died...as a result of AIDS

      (4)I have a limited experience with cult survivors with dissociative disorders having parts within them that are demonic. They bark and make animal sounds etc.

      If I get more responses I'll send them along. I've asked for more detail about diagnosis, methodology, and belief system.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Delete
  5. Hi Charlie, I have a quick question for Gene if that’s ok... Gene, is it your understanding that schizophrenia is the only mental illness associated with having hallucinations? Is there anything else (other than drugs) that can cause a human being to hear voices and/or hallucinate? There seemed to be a lot of it going on back in ancient times. Any theories as to why? I haven’t clicked on the links you’ve provided yet so maybe there’s some answers there. Many thanks, Elizabeth

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      It is my understanding that hallucination in the broad sense is any distortion of normal reality in any experience of sensory perception: vision, hearing, smell, touch, etc. These experiences do occur in a range of the more severe diagnostic conditions: schizophrenia, severe depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders usually rooted in early life trauma, PTSD, and no doubt a number of others. Hallucinations may also be associated with intense normal experience such as might occur after the death of a loved one, or possibly also in sustained conditions of fear or anger or possibly hopelessness.

      You may also want to read Kris Komartitsky's book, Doubting Jesus' Resurrection. He concludes that post-death sightings of Jesus are due to the cognitive dissonance associated with his follower's despair over losing the one that they thought was the Messiah.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Delete
  6. Thank you Gene! I've never read that book but it sounds very interesting, and probably contains a lot of true insights.

    I did not know that people suffering from severe depression can experience hallucinations. That sheds some light on the experiences of people I know. It's kind of mind-boggling to consider that an entire religion was established upon the hallucinations of two women and a few men who claim to have seen a resurrected savior.

    Thank you very much! Elizabeth

    PS: Do you think that cult survivors who bark and make animal sounds did of because of brainwashing and/or hypnosis?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Elizabeth,

    My guess is that such symptoms are related to a dissociative condition rooted in childhood trauma. Parts of the young fragile self "break off" from one another, so to speak. Dissociative disorder was probably one of the reasons that they were susceptible to cult influence. Cults, of course, what they do is micro-manage a person's identity. A very severe type of dissociative disorder is known in lay terms as "multiple personality."

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for pointing out the fact that dissociative disorder was probably one of the reasons they were susceptible to cult influence... that is an interesting insight.

      Delete
    2. Good afternoon Gene,
      You use the word "cult" as though it were a clandestine group that has nefarious purposes--doing something different from other organized religious groups. My question would be what is it that "cults" do that you think is so different from what other more mainstream religious groups do?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

      Delete
  8. Hi Charlie,

    In my view, it's not so much what the "cult" does on its own, its what it does as a reflection of its usually personality disordered leader.

    For example:
    "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." (Jan 2016) Cult members are unwavering followers of their leader.

    I assume that most organized religious groups are followers of those who advocate a transcendent set of principles that stand for loving all human beings as equal before God.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    ReplyDelete