Review: Magic in the Biblical World – ed. Todd E. Klutz

Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon – edited by Todd E. Klutz
T & T Clark International – Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 245. 2003. 261pp. 0567083624.

“[A]lthough the increasingly recognized shortcomings of defining ‘magic’ as a primitive form of behaviour exemplifying a type of mentality different from and inferior to that of ‘religion’ had become apparent to a handful of scholars by the 1950s, the majority of authorities continued long after this to assume that such definitions were valid and useful.” (2)

This issue is central to the text, essentially every chapter –each being an essay by a different researcher– devoted some time to trying to define magic in relationship to religion. The papers originally came from the Magic in the World of the Bible colloquium in 1999, the focus was not on the validity or reality of magic, or the question of Jesus as a magician, but instead the focus was to understand the notion of magic in the social and legal world of the historical context of the Bible.

This is an academic text, not a practical or theoretical manual, within the covers of the books it is all about history, language, and politics. Only two spells, from Sefer ha-Razim, are given in the book and only so that paper may dissect the ideology behind the spells.

It is commonly believed that to Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths the distinction between magic and miracle is that miracles are from YHWH, and magic is from other sources. The first two parts of the text, of three, grapple with this idea, is it valid and historical? To do so they provide a close reading of the mentions of magic and miracles, the Hebrew and Greek words used for them, and the names applied to the practitioners. Parts of this discussion are highly specialized, requiring an understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek grammar to follow, but if you can work through the language (or perhaps skip it all together) the conclusions are interesting, and intimate that in the Biblical world magic and miracle weren’t as definitive of categories as many people think.

The paper “Magic and Scepticism in and around the First Christian Century” was quite intriguing. In it the author analyzed the magic/miracles of the early apostles and the reactions in the texts, and begs the question did people really believe and accept magic/miracles to the extent we believe they did, or was the population they were trying to convert sceptic not just of their faith, but of faith and miracles in general. It includes some really interesting reading of the evidence.

Part III of the book was of the most interest to me, as the title “’Magic’ in Disreputable Books from Late Antiquity” may imply. In these papers the authors dealt with Sefer ha-Razim, The Testament of Solomon, and the origins and etymology of Alchemy. The focus was largely to analyze the clearly magical tradition that existed and the source and ideology behind these practices. Here we get a close reading of the Greek artifacts left in Sefer ha-Razim and the astrological implications in The Testament of Solomon.

As I said early on, this is an academic text, this is not a practical or theoretical manual. If you’re looking to practice a Biblical form of magick, this book will be of little to no use for you. If you’re a historian with a passion for the Biblical tradition and/or Biblical magick this book may be of little practical use, but will be without a doubt fascinating and insightful.

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