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 (chrōtos) 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
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."