“Magical Practices and Discourses of Magic in Early Christian Traditions: Jesus, Peter, and Paul” Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017
In 158 CE, a scandal broke out in the port town of Oea. A smart, urbane foreigner by the name of Apuleius married the wealthy widow Pudentilla. According to Apuleius, it was a standard story of Roman courtship: a compatible couple meets, courts, and marries. And all might have been well, had Pudentilla’s own son and his uncle not brought suit against Apuleius. The crime? He was accused of seducing his new wife through means of magicorum maleficiorum, i.e. evil acts of magic. Pudentilla’s family believed the newcomer coveted her money and secured it through magical means. Apuleius’ Apology contains the details of these accusations and the arguments he advanced in his defense. For scholars of Roman antiquity, this speech provides a great deal of insight into the contours of ancient magic, and the various problems attendant to its study.
While defending certain practices maligned as ‘magical’, Apuleius offers multiple understandings of magic. Consider the first: “For if a magician in the Persian language is what a priest is in ours, as I have read in many authors, what kind of crime is it to be a priest and to have the right information, knowledge and mastery of the ceremonial rules, ritual requirements, and sacred laws?” Here, the accused defines magic as an art befitting a king – an art, no less, that involves proper piety towards the gods, hallowed, brought to the Empire from ancient Persia. Apuleius also offers a second definition, claiming that Plato believed magical charms to be merely beautiful words. Here, he defines magic as a type of chanting which may or may not be efficacious. This, however, does not exhaust the defendant’s characterizations of magic. A third definition emerges when he mocks, “But if those people have the commonplace idea that ‘magician’ strictly means someone able to fulfill his every wish by spells that have some kind of extraordinary power,” In such a case, Apuleius says, it would be a dangerous thing to bring suit against such a powerful individual. He further claims that the uninitiated often confuse a magician with a philosopher, citing how Epimenides, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles were all charged with being magicians. So, magic is also a means by which individuals commune with the gods and produce marvels via incantations. It bears a passing resemblance to philosophy, too, which is why the unsophisticated masses cannot discern the difference between a good Platonist and an evil magician.
Apuleius’ Apology brings into startling clarity the problematic nature of magic. In one text alone, we have at least three understandings of ancient magic. And complications yet proliferate. Not only must the modern interpreter contend with the ways in which our author defines magic and magical practices, she must also consider the practices attendant to the charge levied against Apuleius – that of performing evil magical deeds. So what, precisely, do magicorum maleficiorum entail? According to Apulieus’ accusers, he had purchased and dissected fish – fish that looked like human genitalia, no less. In their mind, such animals could only be used for ill ends. He had also made use of a young boy, apparently as a medium in improper divinatory practices. He kept something hidden in a linen cloth at his household altar. And most alarmingly, he seduced his wife via love spells and perhaps disposed of one of her sons in the process. The Apology offers a veritable litany of Apuleius’ supposed magical misdeeds. As a result, it offers the ancient historian some insight into the complicated nature of Graeco-Roman magic. Here, we read a polemical charge of magic in the text, an individual’s multiple theorizations of magic advanced in his own defense, and depictions of the practices with which Apuleius was initially charged. How, then, might we begin to unravel the variegated and often confusing ways in which magic is constructed – both polemically, as a charge, and practically, as a series of narrated actions?
I argue one must take into account not only what magic is said to be, but also what magicians do. There is a reason, after all, that these practices are the ones against which Apuleius was compelled to mount his defense. Why did Apuleius’ accusers submit these particular activities as evidence of his status as a magician? What sets apart the dissection of fish and the preparation of potions as inherently suspect? Of course, the Apology is not the only text warranting a further examination of the interconnectedness of polemical constructions of magic and the practices implicated therein. Nevertheless, in recent intellectual discourses, the ones emphasizing the constructedness of magic, scholars have made sense of this apparent contradiction by foregrounding the polemical charge and emptying it of its content.Since the linguistic turn, magic is largely characterized as a charge levied at theological opponents. It is a term devoid of meaning itself, its precise lexical contours coalescing only when applied towards a particularly vexing individual, tradition, or practice. Magic becomes the maligned other, the suspicious obverse of proper religion. These distinctions are especially prevalent in studies of formative Christianity’s miracle traditions.
For many analysts of the first three centuries of Christian history, miracle and religion differ only in the communal attitudes they inspire: religion belongs to the realm of approved tradition while magic transgresses social norms. This is not entirely incorrect, of course. The charge of magic waslevied in polemical situations where an ideological opponent needed to be delegitimized. Likewise, a number of the practices undertaken by magicians were ambiguous in nature, their theological valences only becoming clear in context. While our modern preoccupation with polemical understandings of magic is not misdirected or useless, per se, the issue is exceedingly more complicated than such an easy resolution could convey – as is evident in my treatment of Apuleius’ Apology. Ancient magic cannot simply be understood as a charge levied in situations of religious or ideological conflict. This paradigm does not fully encompass the ways in which the magical functions in the world of the earliest Christians. If such a framework is established, then how does the modern interpreter understand Apuleius’ assertion that Persian magic is a revered tradition? Or the fact that the charge levied against him is correlated with certain activities and not others?
And Apuleius is not the only one who believes that certain types of magic are acceptable, or who refers to himself as a magician. There are instances of such phenomena in the Greek Magical Papyri, or the PGM – a collection of magical spellbooks and formularies ranging in date from the second to the fifth centuries. In PGM I.331, the adept will gain “magical knowledge” after he or she performs the rites for securing a divine assistant. In PGM IV.210, the user is designated as having a “magical soul.” Classical literature not only contains examples of magicians self-identifying as such and of magic being used in contexts that are not indicative of social deviance, but offers a wealth of information about the practices that were considered magical. My project considers evidence from a diverse array of Graeco-Roman sources – philosophical texts, histories, dramas, poetry, medical literature, and legal texts, as well as archaeological evidence like curse tablets, amulets, and papyri. In each instance, I attend to practices expressly termed magical in order to arrive at a full and flexible conceptualization of magic with which to understand early Christian texts.
When considering the term ‘magic’ and its cognates in such a vast corpus of evidence, both literary and “practical” it appears that no strict rule obtains for understanding magic and magicians. What one can say, however, is that there were individuals who considered themselves magicians and who did not necessarily believe their magic to be some evil obverse of proper Roman practice. This datum escapes purely polemical analyses of ancient magic which prioritize literary evidence. This is the inconvenient fact that must be considered or if we wish to grasp more fully how magic worked in the era of formative Christianity.
But magical practices themselves were likewise subject to the same ambiguity as the polemical category of magic. The Theodosian Code is a codification of earlier empire-wide laws which was ordered by emperor Theodosius II. Its precepts range from 312 CE to 429 CE and represent the political outlook of a now-Christianized empire. According to it, those with magical expertise ought to be severely punished. Despite this seemingly blanket condemnation, the same law explicitly makes exception for certain cases of healing and weather manipulation, even while practices like reanimation necromancy or amatory incantations are usually considered far more disreputable and problematic – and more susceptible to the polemical charge of magic in our literary evidence.
Herein, then, lies the problem: how might we conceive of ancient magic while attending to the above subtleties? It is not enough to say that the meaning of magic is exclusively negotiated within the immediate polemical context of any given text – that magic is created only in the charge. If we circumscribe the notion of magic thusly, we miss the broader milieu, and the fact that certain practices are more likely to be attendant to the charge than others. We cannot essentialize either, for doing so would not give due consideration to the fact that some practices retain their ambiguity and are amenable to varying interpretation.
In terms of defining magic, then, it seems that understanding how practices of magic work in dialectical relationship with rhetorical charges might give us one foothold amid the whirlwind of discourses of ancient wonder-working. If we consider activities expressly termed ‘magical’ in non-narrative texts like the PGM and others, we will find a surprisingly coherent list: secret rites performed at night; the use of deities serving as familiars; incantations, sometimes uttered in unintelligible languages; employment of mirrors, amulets, dolls, ousia (hair, clothing, and/or other items belonging to the magician and/or the target of the spell); love spells and potion-making; exorcisms and healings; and vivification and necromancy. These practices are then used to construct a discursive stereotype that is adopted by pagans, Christians, and Jews alike. Pursuant to the immediate needs of a narrative text, one or more of these practices are included in order to ‘make the magician’, as it were. Depending on which of these activities were in the wonder-worker’s repertory, he or she could be classed as more or less transgressive of socio-religious norms. Apuleius’ supposed use of a love spell made him the target of an actionable legal offense; his opponents were clearly painting him as a dangerous individual. Our early Christian texts, in contrast, never portray the apostles performing such love spells. Their magic is of the kind more readily classed in a positive light.
My dissertation establishes the above ‘magical continuum’ to modify current critical conceptions of ‘ancient magic.’ It further attends to the nuances of this continuum of practices in three early Christian texts – the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Acts of Peter. The genres of gospels and acts are particularly telling for the study of magic since these works tend to prioritize the ministry and activities of their protagonists. They are essentially stories, and very often they narrate magical practices. I chose these particular texts in order to foreground the magical practices of the major figures of the early Church: Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
The first chapter maps out the various practices associated with magic in the ancient world in order to construct a typology of magic. I treat texts in which the word ‘magic’ and its derivatives are used in explicit reference to particular activities. By enumerating the activities associated with the terms used to designate magic in the wide sampling of texts mentioned above, I offer a continuum of practices that the ancients themselves considered more or less magical depending on the context. This survey of both practical and literary texts highlights the variegated nature of ancient magic and the multiple ways in which magical discourses were employed. I argue that rather than seeing the Christian magical tradition as diverging from Graeco-Roman traditions, it is more accurate to understand Christians as participating in a large, dynamic, and extraordinarily flexible discourse of magic that pervaded the Graeco-Roman world.
The second chapter establishes the paradigmatic magical discourse that early Christians invoked—that concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ abilities as a wonderworker are a means by which his message is legitimated. Because Jesus’ magical activities are invariably successful, his gospel must be true. I articulate how healings, exorcisms, and other types of magical activity are predicated upon the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Luke’s Jesus subordinates his magical tradition to his eschatology. This, then, serves as the springboard for the subsequent analyses of magic in the dissertation.
My third chapter, similarly, describes the contours of the magical discourse found in the Acts of the Apostles and then establishes the function of that discourse. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ magic portends the eschatological age and legitimates his ministry. In Acts, that of the apostles is directed towards two new ends: (1) inculcating proper behavior and belief; (2) and bringing about reconciliation between Peter and Paul. For example, in Acts5, Ananias and Sapphira are felled by Peter because they held back a portion of the income from selling their property. In this instance, the use of magic is aimed at punishing those who deviate from the social norms espoused by the author. In terms of bringing about a consensus between Peter and Paul, I foreground the many similarities between their respective wonderworking activities. By tracing a similar set of magical deeds for Peter and Paul, the author of Acts places them squarely within the same lineage, mitigating tensions between Petrine and Pauline factions of early Christianity.
The fourth chapter pursues the same two aims as the preceding chapters, but with a different text. The first aim is dedicated to delineating the tenor of the magical discourse in the Acts of Peter. Perhaps more than any other text I consider, the Acts of Peter is rife with magical activity, conforming more closely to stereotypes of magical practices than either of the previous texts. The goals of this construction of magic are two-fold: (1) to demonstrate the superiority of Peter over and against Simon Magus, and (2) to generate conversion and bring lapsed Christians back into the fold. By demonstrating the supernatural superiority of Peter, the author of the Acts of Peter simultaneously legitimates his message and diminishes the veracity of every competing religious claim. Furthermore, in the text, Peter’s shows of power often result in the conversion of new believers or those seduced away by Simon’s magical prowess. Through detailed exegesis, I highlight the primary concern of the author—that Christianity has a monopoly on truth against any and all so-called heresies.
In each of these texts, the discourse of magic has at least two facets: (1) the polemical charges of magic levied against theological outsiders (such as Simon in the Acts of Peter); and (2) the discourse generated through the narration of practices typically associated with magic in the Graeco-Roman world. Many scholars have attended to the first of these facets – the polemical charge of magic against outsiders. In contrast to these studies, my dissertation prioritizes the analysis of the practices involved in these texts and demonstrates how these practices nuance the polemical charge of magic. We must remember that many of the practices undertaken by our Christian heroes are deemed ‘magical’ in the larger Graeco-Roman literary corpus. Yet, several Christian authors include magical practices among the Church founders’ great deeds, ascribing to them theological significance. They are used to legitimate Jesus’ ministry, to bring about rapprochement between competing factions of Christianity, to inculcate proper behavior, and to solidify the faith of lapsed Christians. As a result, the narration of magical practices serves as type of magical discourse itself, one that complicates the easy picture of magic as a mere polemical charge. Simply attending to the inflammatory function of magic in persuasive discourse – of its use as a means of delegitimating theological opponents – prevents us from seeing the robust, dynamic nature of the discourse of magic in the ancient world. It is my hope that my dissertation makes inroads into reconfiguring our modern notions of ancient magic by foregrounding the function and nature of early Christian magical practices alongside rhetorical charges of magic.
 See, for example James Rives, “Magic in Roman Law: The Reconstruction of a Crime,” Classical Antiquity 22, no. 2 (October 2003): 313-339; Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997; and Fritz Graf, “Theories of Magic in Antiquity,” in Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, edited by Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer (Leiden: Brill, 2002).
 Apology 25, translated by Christopher P. Jones. Loeb Classical Library 534. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.
 Apology 26, trans. Jones.
 See Alan F. Segal, “Hellenistic Magic: Some Questions of Definition,” in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellensitic Religions, eds. M. J. Vermaseren and Roel B. Broek (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 349-375; David Aune, “Magic in Early Christianity,” ANRW II.32.2 (1980): 1507-1557; Sue Garrett, The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990)
Shaily Patel is Assistant Professor of Early Christianity at Virginia Tech