If Magic Played A Role In The Development of Early Christianity Is It Immoral?

If Magic Played A Role In The Development Of Early Christianity Is It Immoral? Magic fascinated and troubled early Christians as much as it does some people today. Marvel Studios

Americans are fascinated by magic. TV shows like “WandaVision” and “The Witcher,” books like the Harry Potter series, plus comics, movies and games about people with powers that can’t be explained by God, science or technology, have all been wildly popular for years. Modern pop culture is a testament to how enchanted people are by the thought of gaining special control over an uncertain world.

“Magic” is often defined in the West as evil or separate from “civilized” religions like Christianity and also from the scientific observation and study of the world. But the irony is that magic was integral to the development of Christianity and other religions – and it informed the evolution of the sciences, too.

As an expert in ancient magic and early Christianity, I study how magic helped early adherents develop a Christian identity. One part of this identity was morality: the inner sense of right and wrong that guides life decisions. Of course, the darker side of this development is the slide into supremacy: seeing one’s own tradition as morally superior and rightfully dominant.

My work tries to return magic to its proper place as a part of the Christian tradition. I show how false distinctions between magic and Christianity were created to elevate ancient Christianity and how they continue to advance Christian supremacy today.

The origins of magic

In Western culture, magic is often defined in opposition to religion and science. This is problematic because all three concepts are rooted in colonialism. For centuries, many European scholars based their definitions of religion on Christianity, while at the same time describing the practices and beliefs of non-Christians as “primitive,” “superstitious” or “magical.”

This sense of superiority helped Europe’s Christian monarchies justify conquering and exploiting Indigenous peoples around the world in a bid to “civilize” them, often through extreme brutality. Imperialist legacies still color how some people think about non-Christians as “others,” and how they label others’ rituals and religions as “magic.”

But this modern understanding of magic doesn’t map neatly onto the world of the first Christians. “Magic” has always had many meanings. From what scholars can gather, the word itself was imported from the Persian word “maguš,” which may have described a class of priests with royal connections. Sometimes, these “magi” were depicted as performing divination, ritual activities or educating young boys who would take the throne.

Greek texts retained this earlier meaning and also added new ones. The famous ancient Greek historian Herodotus writes that the Persian magi interpreted dreams, read the skies and performed sacrifices. Herodotus uses the Greek word “magos.” Sophocles, a Greek playwright, uses the same term in his tragedy “Oedipus the King,” when Oedipus berates the seer Tiresias for scheming to overthrow him.

Although these two Greek texts both date from roughly the early 400s B.C., “magician” has different connotations in each.

Starting in the first century B.C., Latin authors also adapted the Persian term into “magus.”

While defending himself at trial for performing “evil deeds of magic,” the second-century philosopher Apuleius claimed he both was and was not a “magician.” He insisted he was like a high priest or a natural philosopher rather than someone who uses unsavory means to get what they want. What’s interesting here is that Apuleius uses one idea of high philosophical magic to combat another idea of crude, self-interested magic.

Christianity and magic

The first Christians inherited these varied ideas of magic alongside their Roman neighbors. In their world, people who did “magical” deeds like exorcisms and healings were common. Such people sometimes explained religious or philosophical texts and ideas, as well.

This presented a problem for early Christian

About The Author

If wondrous deeds were fairly commonplace, how could a group looking to attract followers compete with “magicians”? After all, Christian leaders like Jesus, Peter and Paul did extraordinary deeds, too. So Christian writers made distinctions in order to elevate their heroes.

Take the biblical story of Simon the magician. In Acts 8, Simon’s magical deeds entice the Samaritans and convince them to follow him until the evangelist Philip performs even more amazing miracles, converting all the Samaritans and Simon, too. But Simon relapses when he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, prompting the Apostle Peter to rebuke him. This story is where we get the sin of simony: the purchase of religious office.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, texts like this do not depict real events. They are teaching tools aimed at showing new adherents the differences between good Christian miracle workers and evil magicians. The earliest converts needed such stories because wonder workers looked a lot alike.

Christianity and morality

To some ancient people, stories of Jesus’ miracles probably didn’t seem far removed from the deeds magicians performed for money in the marketplace. In fact, the church fathers had to shield Jesus and the Apostles against accusations of practicing magic. They include Origen of Alexandria, who in the middle of the third century A.D. defended Christianity against Celsus, a pagan philosopher who charged Jesus with being a magician.

Celsus argued that the miracles of Jesus were no different from the magic performed by marketplace sorcerers. Origen agreed the two shared superficial similarities, but claimed they were fundamentally different because magicians cavorted with demons while Jesus’ wonders led to moral reformation. Like the story of Simon the magician, Origen’s disagreement with Celsus was a means of teaching his audience how to tell the difference between morally suspect magicians who sought personal gain and miracle workers who acted for the benefit of others.

If Magic Played A Role In The Development Of Early Christianity Is It Immoral? 
In early Christian stories, the magician Simon uses magic immorally to try and gain power and influence. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient authors invented the idea that the miracles of Christians possessed inherent moral superiority over non-Christian magic because ancient audiences were as enticed by magic as modern ones. But in elevating Christianity above magic, these writers created false distinctions that linger even today.

About The Author

Shaily Shashikant Patel, Assistant Professor of Early Christianity, Virginia Tech

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

You May Also Like

INNERSELF VOICES

How To Ensure That "Luck" Is On Your Side
How To Ensure That "Luck" Is On Your Side
by Marie T. Russell
"He's so lucky! She always wins! I'm just not lucky!" Do these statements sound familiar? Have they…
face of woman floating in water
How To Develop Courage and Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
by Peter Ruppert
Courage is not about being fearless in the face of a scary situation. It is the willingness to move…
chamomile plants in bloom
Horoscope Current Week: July 26 - August 1, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want.
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want
by Amy Fish
You need to have the courage to live life. This includes learn­ing to ask for what you need or…
man passed out on a table with an empty bottle of alcohol with child looking on
Can LSD Cure the 'Spiritual Disease' of Alcoholism?
by Thomas Hatsis
Beginning in the late 1950s, five hospitals (in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada) offered a…
pregnant woman sitting with her hands on her belly
Essential Tips for the Journey: Release Fear and Take Care of Yourself
by Bailey Gaddis
Suppressing fear-induced emotions infuses life into them, often causing a manifestation of…
person radiating love and light from their heart out into the universe
Being A Light unto this World: Healing the World by Being Present
by William Yang
A bodhisattva brings healing into this world not out of fear of sickness and death, but out of…
full moon over a hot air balloon
Fear Unceasing or Life Abundant? Blue Moon Cycle in Aquarius
by Sarah Varcas
The period beginning with this first full moon (24 July 2021) and ending with the blue moon (22…

Marie T. Russell's Daily Inspiration

MOST READ

hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil image of children
Death Denial: Is No News Good News?
by Margaret Coberly, Ph.D., R.N.
Most people are so strongly habituated to death denial that when death appears they are caught…
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want.
Having The Courage To Live Life and Ask For What You Need Or Want
by Amy Fish
You need to have the courage to live life. This includes learn­ing to ask for what you need or…
Writing letters by hand is the best way to learn to read
Writing letters by hand is the best way to learn to read
by Jill Rosen, Johns Hopkins University
Handwriting helps people learn reading skills surprisingly faster and significantly better than…
spraying for mosquito 07 20
This new pesticide-free clothing prevents 100% of mosquito bites
by Laura Oleniacz, NC State
New insecticide-free, mosquito-resistant clothing is made from materials researchers have confirmed…
image of the planet Jupiter on the skyline of a rocky ocean shore
Is Jupiter a Planet of Hope or a Planet of Discontent?
by Steven Forrest and Jeffrey Wolf Green
In the American dream as it's currently dished up, we try to do two things: make money and lose…
test your creativity
Here's how to test your creativity potential
by Frederique Mazerolle, McGill University
A simple exercise of naming unrelated words and then measuring the semantic distance between them…
Digital Distraction and Depression: The 21st Century Scourges
Digital Distraction and Depression: The 21st Century Scourges
by Amit Goswami, Ph.D.
We now have ever-expanding ways to distract and consume attention through the new digital opiate of…
two children reading a book with their father
Empathy Starts Early: 5 Australian Picture Books That Celebrate Diversity
by Ping Tian, University of Sydney and Helen Caple, UNSW
Early exposure to diverse story characters, including in ethnicity, gender and ability, helps young…

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

AVAILABLE LANGUAGES

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeeliwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptroruesswsvthtrukurvi

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.