Jesus in the Greek Magical Papyri

An email this morning asks about the probable date of the exorcism spell in the Paris magical codex (PGM IV, lines 3007-86 and 1227-64) which references Jesus, and quoting a 2006 article on Hypotyposeis by Andrew Criddle (which itself seems to have been replicated around the web).

…lines 1227-64 of this papyrus [contain] another Exorcism with the invocation Hail God of Abraham Hail God of Isaac Hail God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos the Holy Spirit the Son of the Father who is above the Seven who is within the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth may your power issue forth from him NN until you drive away this unclean daimon Satan who is in him.

 I find in Twelftree, In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians, p.263, n.172, a statement:

Although it is generally agreed that this papyrus dates from the fourth century CE, its contents are more likely to come from the second century CE.[172]

The author cites Andre Jean Festugiere, La revelation de Hermes Trismegiste, (1949-54), vol. 1, p.303, n.1 in support of this, but he also refers to Eugene N. Lane, On the date of PGM IV, Second Century 4 (1984), p.25-7, who argues from the presence of menoturanne on line 2664 that this is a reference to Attis Menotyrannus.  The title (of unknown meaning) Menotyrannus appears only in inscriptions, and these date between 374 and 390, and therefore argues that PGM IV must have been composed after ca. 380.  

My own, amateur, opinion on Lane’s argument is that since the title is of unknown meaning, we cannot say with certainty that it is intended to refer to Attis only — what if it means something like Invictus? or Almighty?

It seems to me that the magical texts are not the kind of text that is transmitted unchanged.  It is entirely possible that a copyist would lace the text with new “names of power”.  These are not literary texts, after all — the owners and copyists are people in search of concrete results.  The texts range in date from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD, and the copies we have seem to have belonged to a 4th century priest in Thebes (modern Luxor).

When would “Jesus” be considered a name of power?  The New Testament refers in Acts to Jewish magicians trying to use his name in this way, and coming unstuck!  But in general Jesus was a disreputable figure in the Roman world.  The vicious attack on him by the pagan Caecilius in the Octavius of Minucius Felix indicates that a crucified lower-class fakir was not someone that a reputable Roman took seriously.  The same attitude may be seen indirectly in the early heresies, which all invented stories that Jesus was not really crucified, but was replaced by a phantasm or something like that.  This is the heresy known as Docetism.  Indeed Tertullian in De Carne Christi 5, 4 also attests the problem, addressing Marcion — a docetist — when he says that it is precisely because the death of Christ is disreputable that  it must be true, rather than a made-up story.

This attitude wanes, however.  By the fourth century the Christians are so numerous, and their character so well known, that pagan attacks of this kind become perfunctory.  But on the other hand Christianity was so well known, and so much a solid threat to all magic and paganism, that it is a little hard to see “Jesus” being tossed into a syncretistic stew as a random power-name.

Some may remember the famous passage in the Historia Augusta (Life of Alexander Severus, 29), where syncretism is described, and the emperor has a chapel containing statues of the gods, and Moses and Jesus.  The HA is a fake; but a fake with earlier sources, and the attitude described is just that of the early 3rd century.

I would myself, therefore, tend to suggest that the text in its current form perhaps dates from that time.


8 thoughts on “Jesus in the Greek Magical Papyri

  1. Interesting question! It’s also worth recalling the passage in Origen’s Contra Celsum 1.6 (Chadwick trans.): ‘For they do not get the power which they seem to possess by any incantations but by the name of Jesus with the recital of the histories about him. For when these are pronounced they have often made daemons to be driven out of men, and especially when those who utter them speak with real sincerity and genuine belief. In fact the name of Jesus is so powerful against the daemons that sometimes it is effective even when pronounced by bad men…it is clear that Christians make no use of spells, but only of the name of Jesus with other words which are believed to be effective, taken from the divine scripture.’ So Celsus in the late second c. and Origen in early third c. seem to know the name of Jesus used as a powerful incantation, though they offer competing interpretations of it.

  2. St. Athanasius was telling nonbelievers, as a basic proof that Christianity was true, that they should just go try walking up the street to a temple or fortuneteller, say the name of Jesus nearby, and watch all the rituals and magic go poof.

  3. On the Incarnation of the Word. In the translation online (the one with the Lewis introduction), it’s in the chapter “Refutation of the Gentiles — Continued” at #48.

    “Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.”

    And here’s the old Post-Nicene Fathers translation:

    “And let him come who would test by experience what we have now said, and in the very presence of the deceit of demons and the imposture of oracles and the marvels of magic, let him use the Sign of that Cross which is laughed at among them, and he shall see how by its means demons fly, oracles cease, all magic and witchcraft is brought to nought.”

    So yeah, I may have embellished a bit, but that’s what he said. 🙂

  4. There’s a bit of difference there, but the later translation (that I listed first) may have been the result of better manuscripts or readings later. Shrug.

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