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
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
- Bohak, Gideon. Ancient Jewish Magic: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Hogan, Larry P. Healing in the Second Temple Period. Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 21. Freiburg: Universitätsverlag, 1992.
- Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.