Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Magic and the New Testament

Are there those among us who are so learned in the dark supernatural forces that they have the power to put people under magic spells? Paul seemed to think so. Obviously agitated, he wrote to the Jesus gatherings in the region of Galatia: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you…?” (Gal 3:1); or as other translations have it: Who put a spell on you?”

            Belief in magic spells and charms to counter magic spells are an acknowledged part of the ancient near east in general, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the Greco-Roman world. Magic is also mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8:9-13; 13:4-12), and even Jesus was accused of working his miracles by magic (Mark 3:22; Matt 9:34; Matt 12:24; Luke 11:15). In Rev 18:23 the City of Rome (Babylon) was accused of deceiving all nations by magic (enchantment using sorcery), and sorcerers casting spells through potions (Rev 9:21) are among those thrown into “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev 21:8) and among those not being permitted to enter the Holy City, New Jerusalem (Rev 22:15).

More to the point, Paul warns the Galatians against the practice of sorcery (enchantment using magic), as though it were an actual threat to them (Gal 5:20). Sorcery is linked with other sinful acts to avoid such as fornication, jealousy, drunkenness among other things (Gal 5:19-21). Such activities as these can disqualify one for the “kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).

            Did Paul seriously think that someone had cast a magic spell on the Galatians? That is to ask, did Paul believe in magic, a common view of antiquity? If so, Paul probably did believe that the Galatians were actually “bewitched.” It is certainly possible, for Paul had a number of strange ideas that clash with a modern scientific worldview, such as believing that one can “spirit travel” over great distances and that holiness and unholiness were physically contagious.1 In late antiquity people believed many such things out of place in the modern world.

            Of course it is always possible that Paul was only speaking metaphorically, and was not claiming that magic is an actual force in the world. Perhaps Paul only meant that the Galatians had fallen under the influence of a teacher with a charismatic personality, or that they had allowed themselves to be “brainwashed” by a competitor of Paul (as he suggests in Gal 1:6-9), or that some fast talking “religious con man” had simply misled them.

            The truth of the matter is that Paul was a child of his own day and shared many ideas belonging to a pre-critical worldview. These survivals from our pre-critical past, which one finds in Paul’s writings, serve as vivid reminders that the Bible does not belong to our age. Here is a quotation from the introduction to my new book just now coming off the press:

The Bible is a selective collection of ancient texts whose ideas are, in part, simply out of place with what is known about how things work in the physical universe. Readers of the Bible should be cautious in accepting without challenge what it says.2

In short, arcane magic is a chthonic force in the world only if you believe it to be so, and it appears that Paul did believe in the dark forces of the world (1 Cor 15:24; cf. Eph 6:12). Believing a thing to be so wills it into reality for the believer—even though it is not real.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, “Putting Paul in his Place,” The Fourth R 31/1 (2018) 5-8.
2Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 12.