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When Christians, Muslims, and Jews Loved Magic

A silver scroll found in Jordan is a reminder of how big the market for ‘magic’ objects was in ancient Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

In 2014 a paper-thin metal scroll was discovered in the ruins of a city destroyed by an earthquake in Jerash (Jordan) in the mid-8th century. The scroll was unearthed in a battered lead case, but was too fragile to be unfurled. 

This fall, however, scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark unraveled its secrets.

Using digital imaging of the lettering inside the scientists were able to see the writing. The results appear to be gibberish, but what the discovery does do is tell us a great deal about the market for magical objects in the ancient world.

The silver scroll is visible through the break in the lead case. The scroll has a light greyish color, partly due to corrosion. The lead container is surrounded by highly corroded material of mainly iron oxide and other inorganic materials, such as small stones.

Rubina Raja/Nature

The silver scroll is visible through the break in the lead case. The scroll has a light greyish color, partly due to corrosion. The lead container is surrounded by highly corroded material of mainly iron oxide and other inorganic materials, such as small stones.

The scroll is made of silver and contains 17 lines of text that were inscribed with a fine rounded-tipped stylus (a scratchy pen).  After it was inscribed it was rolled up and placed in the small lead container and there it stayed. Scholars believe that the silver scroll is an amulet. Amulets are magical objects that are often worn on the body to ward off ill-fortune, bad luck, demonic interference, disease, and disaster. 

One of the most interesting things about the amulet is that it is written in a non-language. It resembles Arabic but many of the letter forms are formed with a vertical stroke and a number of commonly used Arabic letters are completely absent. This has led archeologists to conclude that this is pseudo-Arabic nonsense. It is made to resemble Arabic (possibly because the client was an Arab) but it doesn’t convey actual substance. This kind of pseudo-writing is common in magical texts: There are a number of incantation bowls at the British Museum, for example, that are written in pseudo-Aramaic. And, as the study points out, examples of this kind of thing are in the Muslim world as well.  

The find is fascinating for what it tells us about religious commerce in Jerash in the 8th century. Amulets like this were professionally commissioned—you needed someone with a facility in metallurgy and letters in order to produce them—and were often tailored to meet the needs of the individual customer. The production of amulets was professionalized and the role of those who made them often overlapped and competed with that of medical practitioners. 

Figure 2: Slice showing the folding of the silver sheet.

Rubina Raja/Nature

Figure 2: Slice showing the folding of the silver sheet.

Amulets were extremely popular in antiquity, especially among ancient Christians and Jews. Examples of Christian amulets, Jewish incantation bowls, and so forth can be found in museums all over the world. This was not a fringe practice. It might seem surprising that members of any of these groups (Jews, Christians, or Muslims) were using amulets at all. This is largely because all three religions decry the use of “magic” by their adherents. Sorcery is condemned in Leviticus 19:26 and sorcerers are thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 21:8. But the prohibitions against magic shouldn’t lead us to believe that Christians and Jews weren’t engaging in this kind of religion. In fact, some of our earliest fragments of the New Testament are verses of the Bible that were scratched onto papyrus and folded up to be worn on the body. Moreover, the very fact that the Bible has to condemn sorcery indicates that some people were doing it. 

Interestingly, the problem with magic is not that it doesn’t work (because it does) but rather that the supernatural powers by magic come from an unsanctioned source. In the apocryphal acts of the apostles (legends about the lives of the Apostles after the death of Jesus), the protagonists often run into difficulties when they encounter other miracle workers. These magicians aren’t as powerful as the 12 apostles but they aren’t charlatans. One, called Simon Magus, can actually fly and has a competition with the apostle Peter. From the perspective of the consumer the reason to side with Peter is that he is more powerful (he can raise the dead), but many of the miracles they perform are actually identical in nature.

The scroll rendered in VGStudio MAX 3 Beta with indication of the slice shown in Fig. 2

Rubina Raja/Nature

The scroll rendered in VGStudio MAX 3 Beta with indication of the slice shown in Fig. 2

This brings us to the larger question: What is the difference between religion and magic? Both crosses and amulets are believed to protect their owners, is there an essential difference between the two? Some anthropologists have argued that the difference is attitudinal: Magic is coercive and private whereas religion is supplicatory and public. Others, like J.G. Frazer in his seminal work the Golden Bough, have seen magic as just a more primitive form of religion. Others still have pointed out that religion is mainstream and organized while magic is marginal and ad hoc. These distinctions break down upon close examination. Are spells and prayers so different from one another when both ask deities to do things, for example? Is (to play devil’s advocate) the Rite of Exorcism in the Catholic Church not an attempt to coerce a supernatural, albeit evil, entity? 

The boundary between magic and religion is, as Graham Cunningham points out in his book Religion and Magic, very fluid. In many cases the distinction is about rhetoric. The portrayal of magic as liminal and secretive may represent the social standing of certain ancient healers but it also makes them seen shady and suspicious. Often magic is just code for “bad religion,” and calling a particular practice magic is a way to slander that group. It’s for this reason that nineteenth century Protestants regularly accused Catholics of practicing magic. 

The newly discovered scroll may well suggest that Arabs in 8th century Jerash were adopting the religious practices of their Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Roman neighbors. But it also reminds us that one woman’s magic is another woman’s religion.