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Magic in the First-Century World

In the first century C.E., the line between magic, medicine, and miracles was often blurred.

Duccio di Buoninsegna

Magic is a notoriously sticky term. Originally, the Greek term mageia was used to refer to the religion of the magi, Persian Zoroastrian priests, and by extension to any religious ritual that seemed alien and exotic from a Greek or Roman perspective. But mageia was just one of several derogatory terms used in Greek and Latin for suspicious, dangerous, or fraudulent religious practices and rituals. The Jewish world had another set of terms, most fully listed in Deut 18:10-11. But when it came to what was magic and what was not, the designation depended as much on whom you asked as on what it actually was or who practiced it. In this sense, in the first century C.E., what some observers saw as magic could be seen by others as religion or medicine.

In John 9:6, Jesus heals a blind man by mixing mud with spittle and anointing the man’s eyes. Is this magic, medicine, or healing? Whatever we call it, this was a familiar procedure for first-century Jews and very close to the actions once taken by the likes of the prophets Elijah and Elisha when they performed their miraculous healings (e.g., 2Kgs 4:34-35, 2Kgs 13:21). Some Jews were quite proud of Jewish expertise in healings and exorcisms: the apocryphal book of Tobit tells a story about the miraculous healing of a blind man by blowing the gall of a fish into his eyes, as recommended by the angel Raphael (whose name literally means “God has healed”; Tob 6:8, Tob 11:11-15). And the Jewish historian Josephus (37-ca. 100 C.E.) reports that he once saw a Jewish exorcist healing demoniacs in the presence of the Roman emperor himself (Josephus, Antiquities 8.45-49).

But other Jews, and many non-Jews, looked down upon such practices, condemning them as magic and superstition. The Jewish philosopher Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), distinguished the highbrow magic of Zoroastrian priests from the lowbrow quackery practiced by women and slaves (Philo, On the Special Laws 3.100-103). Stories of the wonders supposedly performed by various miracle mongers who claimed to heal people through means that made no medical sense whatsoever provided great comic fodder for Lucian (125-180 C.E.), a Syrian-Greek writer of satire (Lucian, The Lover of Lies 8, 12, 16). Lucian describes several friends who agree that the best remedy for rheumatic feet is to tie around them a weasel’s tooth picked up from the ground with the left hand. But they argue whether it should be wrapped with the skin of a lion (because it’s brave) or of a young deer (because it’s swift; The Lover of Lies 7). This tells us both that there were a variety of opinions concerning how magical healing worked and that these technicalities, to skeptics, could seem rather silly.

To return to Jesus’ miracle healing of John 9:6, what his followers would have seen as a miraculous demonstration of his divine powers could easily be construed by Jewish and non-Jewish opponents as a clear example of Jesus’ recourse to crass magical practices. In fact, we have some of the writings from these opponents. The pagan philosopher Celsus condemns Jesus as a sort of inferior magician, as does an ancient Jewish text known as Toledoth Yeshu, or “The History of Jesus,” an Aramaic collection of nasty stories about Jesus and his early followers that circulated in the early Middle Ages.

  • Gideon Bohak

    Gideon Bohak is a professor at the Department of Jewish Culture and the Program in Religious Studies at Tel-Aviv University. His extensive publications in the field of Jewish magic include “Catching a Thief: The Jewish Trials of a Christian Ordeal” (Jewish Studies Quarterly, 2006), Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and “Prolegomena to the Study of the Jewish Magical Tradition” (Currents in Biblical Literature, 2009).