Jesus: Great Physician or Magical Civic Defender?

Christ RedeemerJesus wore many vocational hats in the New Testament:

Carpenter…

Rabbi…

Physician…

Exorcist…

But civic protector? That’s a new one.

Plenty of Greco-Roman cities had patron deities. Athens had Athena. Ephesus had Artemis. But where did Jesus fit into this role as polytheism declined in Late Antiquity?

A little-known artifact from Philippi suggests that Late Antique Christians came to view Jesus as exactly this—an anti-demon civic protector—by the 6th century CE.

About a century ago, archaeologists discovered two marble blocks that formerly adorned the city gates of Philippi. Inscribed on these blocks in compact, Byzantine script was the apocryphal correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus described by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastica Historia.

Abgar, who is wasting away from a disease, petitions Jesus to visit Edessa and heal him. He lauds Jesus’ fame and expresses vaguely anti-Semitic pity that the Jews are mistreating him, offering Edessa as a place of refuge if Jesus so desires to leave Jerusalem. In a short response, Jesus sends his regrets…apparently being too busy with his whole crucifixion thing to trouble himself with a trip to Edessa.

What would impel the Philippians to inscribe these words on their wall? Judging by the epigraphy’s professional hand and its prominent position overlooking the city’s main thoroughfare, the inscription certainly isn’t graffiti. Instead, a wealthy patron apparently saw this as an effective defensive weapon against potential enemies. Later copies of the correspondence—including the Philippian inscription—have a protective blessing added to the end of Jesus’ letter: “Your city shall be blessed and no enemy shall ever be master of it.” Eusebius’ version, which scholars assume is the earliest attestation of the document, completely lacks this addendum.

Because of this addendum, the Jesus/Abgar correspondence apparently gained traction as a magical strategy in Late Antiquity. Not only have archaeologists discovered similar artifacts in Ephesus, Euchaita, and Edessa, but a few magic books in antiquity invoke the Abgar correspondence as a potent spell. What better way to harness and channel ritual power than Jesus’ own written words?

In a forthcoming paper, I suggest that this Philippian inscription demonstrates how Late Antique Christians appropriated an existing tradition and invested it with new meaning—essentially re-branding Jesus as a magical civic defender rather than a Great Physician. The purpose of this study is to illustrate that religious traditions have a lifecycle and are not created in a cultural vacuum. The symbolic function and value of stories changes as individuals and communities adopt them for their own specific needs. In the case of Philippi, they apparently felt safer with the words of Christ carved onto their city gates.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Andrea D. says:

    This is interesting. I didn’t know people did this. Do you think this was a widespread thing or just in/around Philippi? It would be interesting to study more about the change from polytheism to Christianity back then…

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Almost identical artifacts have been found in at least 5 cities…all in the Eastern Mediterranean. But the Abgar legend was just as popular in the West too.

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