Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic (and so should you) Pt. 1 of 3

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

I study ancient Christian magic. No, not [simply] because I aspire to be Harry Potter…but the reasons are as complicated as they are personal, and it is about time that I address them.

Some may think I derive perverse glee in exposing the inconsistencies in ancient Christians’ piety—that somehow their reliance on love spells, Jesus amulets, and curse tablets invalidates their legitimacy as moral actors in history. “Why,” the critic may ask, “would Christians—whose own religion denounces magic—rely on bizarre, disgusting, and often shamefully misogynistic strategies to navigate their daily lives?”

As important as it is to recognize how ancient and modern Christians differ, castigating the ancients smacks of desperate axe-grinding from a recovering fundamentalist and not serious scholarship. Not only is it unproductive but it also breaks a cardinal rule of historians: foisting modern morality onto ancient sensibilities. As the scholar Robert Orsi says, “Religious studies is not a moralizing discipline.” We refrain from condoning, defending, or passing judgment on our subjects of study in favor of exploring how religion functions in specific geographical and chronological contexts.

This, however, does not relegate religious studies to mere “knowledge production.” In my own work, I strive to highlight the relevancy of research even as arcane as “ancient Christian magic”—how, through studying the rituals and habits of  ancient Christians, we can promote empathy, exercise humility, and tear down walls of misunderstanding in the present.

My first reason for studying ancient Christian magic is that it explores the 99% of Antiquity.

“Church history” brings to mind big names like Ignatius, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome. Introductory classes often focus on major events like Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge or social changes like the rise of monasticism. However, although the Church fathers, bishops, monks, and emperors constitute the bulk of research in my field, they ironically reflect the vast minority of the ancient Christian population—the 1%, as it were.

The major heroes of ancient Christianity were, in general, wealthy politicians, statesmen (men…not women), lawyers, and scholars. Their own prestige afforded a certain level of fame to their writings even during their life time, enabling them to be copied again and again to our present age. Archaeology likewise favors the 1% as massive basilicas tend to survive 15 centuries far better than mud-brick houses in the Mediterranean countryside.

This is not because of any latent bias in academia…this simply is the nature of our evidence in a field so far removed from its subject. However, focusing on the 1% of ancient Christianity skews our understanding of how Christians thought, worshipped, and related to each other and the divine in antiquity.

It is difficult to describe just how privileged characters like Augustine and Ambrose were. Living in villas fit for kings, they had the time to wax eloquent on the nature of the Trinity that others spent on subsistence farming. Life for the masses was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Barely 15-20% of the population had any level of literacy. Archaeology moreover reveals to us a world characterized by high birth mortality rate, rampant parasites, and a near-complete lack of public health initiatives.

It is within this world we must imagine early Christian magic. Studying magic, more than any theological text, brings us face to face with the average ancient Christian and how they practiced their faith “on the ground.”

When I focus my camera on an apotropaic menorah inscribed on the threshold of an ancient house in Priene, the power that the symbol held for the original homeowner is almost palpable. When I study curse tablets found in situ, I encounter the angst and anxiety of the last person who had touched the object.

Here there is immediacy to ancient ritual far removed from the rarefied rhetoric of Paul or Pausanias. 

In short, everyone practiced magic in antiquity….not everyone (in fact, very few) wrote sweeping theological tracts or eloquent sermons. Focusing on the former is my way of exploring the nature of ancient Christianity, a field so often dominated by “big name/big event” histories.