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.

8 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    I'm thinking that reality does not change but humankind's interpretation of reality does change. For example, the Galatians were amenable to changing their minds - nothing new about that across the centuries. Interpretation of why minds change, however, in most circles today probably wouldn't include a belief of amenability to a spell being cast.

    Perhaps we overemphasize phenomena such as beliefs in casting spells found in the scriptures to the detriment of what is true across the ages. "Did you receive the spirit by doing works of the law or by believing/trusting what you heard?" (Gal 3:2) is as legitimate a question now as it was them.

    Your comment that "the Bible does not belong to our own age" is not how I would put it. The Bible seems to me to belong to our own age in the ways that matter most and does not belong to our own age in the ways that matter least.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.



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    1. "The Bible seems to me to belong to our own age in the ways that matter most and does not belong to our own age in the ways that matter least."

      Well said- and I agree wholeheartedly... Thank you Gene!! Elizabeth

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    2. Hi Gene and Elizabeth,
      The Bible is a product of the 4th century at the earliest, and Paul was a first-century human being who could not help but channel the ideas of his own day--at least in part. That the Bible enjoys a readership in the 21st century in spite of its irrelevancy (at least in part) is due to the Church as an institution that would like to convince everyone that its ancient views are normative for life.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. Good Evening Charlie,

    With regard to the Galatians three verse- I have to look at the context about which Paul is specifically pointing to... He is discussing "the law" and we all know to whom that refers... The dreaded Judaizers. It's obvious that Paul is irritated with Jewish Christians who are still Torah observant. Paul was unsuccessful in imposing his own perspective upon them, so the only explanation for such an occurrence had to be "bewitchment," right? What else could explain their hardheadedness? I see his use of the word "spell" as a synonym for "brainwashing." (as you suggested) I guess there wasn't such a term back then, so he resorted to magic spell, bewitching, etc... Do you think Paul was referring to dark magic sorcerers or to stubborn, hard-headed, Torah observant followers of "the law?"

    I wish I could have access to the Fourth R, I would love to read an article entitled "Putting Paul in his Place." He certainly had a healthy ego, that is my opinion anyway.

    Yes, Paul did definitely believe in the dark forces of the world... As do many believers today. "This Present Darkness" is a term I heard many times in churches I attended... So Paul definitely had a strong attachment to the world of demons and angels. Would you say that a belief in angels and spirit guides is also a belief in "magic," so to speak? In other words, does magic always have to be dark? Is magic always negative? In my estimation, assuming that the utterance of a few words in prayer will somehow result in divine intervention is also a belief in magic, dark or otherwise. Any thoughts? Many thanks as always... I can't wait to read your new book!! Glad to hear you still enjoy writing them. Elizabeth

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    1. Good morning Elizabeth,
      It appears to me, as I tried to show in the blog, that Paul believed some people could cast spells on others through the magical dark powers of the universe.
      And I also think that "belief in angels and spirit guides" is belief in a kind of magic, and the same goes for prayer. I do have a blog entitled "Does Prayer work--like Magic?"
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  3. As to the question of belief in magic, sorcery and so forth, sure the authors of the New Testament believed in sorcery. Many still do now, including those who are the largest Christian group in the world. Catchecism 2117 in Catechism of the Roman Church admits belief in “occult powers,” “magic,” and “sorcery,” It notes, “These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons” (p.514). Since this was Cardinal Ratzinger’s edition (he became Pope, I think it was Benedict) I presume it is part of that community's belief.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega Ga.

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  4. Charlie, have you ever seen evidence of occult powers being manifested in a person's actual life circumstances? In other words- let's say playing with a ouija board. Have you ever known someone to try to contact the dead and as a a result, they were plagued with illness and/or emotional oppression?


    Do you think that playing with dark magical rituals opens up a world of negative consequences that are unexplained by human reason, human logic? Would you be bold enough to attend a seance? Would you be brave enough to play with a ouija board? (I wouldn't.) I guess what I'm getting at is this: if one such as yourself is skeptical of "dark magic" or "sorcery," then would you open yourself up to a ritual in which those practices are performed by witches, sorcerers, or satanists? Many thanks as always! Elizabeth

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  5. Good Morning Elizabeth,
    I have never known anyone to be under the spell of what some might regard as occult powers. For example, there are no such things as demons, so how could someone be demon possessed?
    It is not a lack of boldness or bravery that keeps me from playing a Ouija Board or attending a séance; it is lack of interest. I have a similar lack of interest in attending religious services to experience speaking in tongues, or attending healing services to experience spiritual healings, or attending prophecy meetings to learn the future of the world being predicted from the Bible, or attending snake handling services. I attend funerals of friends and colleagues, but am not persuaded when the minister says such things as "there is great joy in heaven where XX is now reunited with his/her loved ones." The world is simply not populated with legions of invisible good and evil spirits that provide some people with uncanny powers. Or so it seems to me on my best days, when I am not standing in a dark room.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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