Christian Magic and Miracles

Pagan practices paving the road to Christianity?

Christian Amulet Dating from the sixth century.

CHRISTIAN AMULET. Dating from the sixth century, this piece of parchment (P. Oxy. 8.1077) was excavated at the site of ancient Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. It contains a redacted version of Matthew 4:23–24, which reads as follows: The gospel of healing according to Matthew. And Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. And his fame spread into all of Syria, and they brought to him those who were ill, and Jesus cured them. To boost its healing powers, the sacred text is inscribed in five columns arranged in the form of crosses.Credit: Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College

In the first centuries of Christianity, Church authorities already disapproved of magic and amulets. Yet amulets, oracles, and magic among Christians survived well into the second half of the first millennium. Modern scholarship now commonly accepts that the advent of Christianity did not put an end to these pagan practices; at least not immediately. Rather, it caused their transformation. Some would further argue that this pagan-Christian connection worked the other way around, too. Namely, that the early Christian emphasis on miracle working and supernatural powers of Jesus and his followers was helpful in recruiting converts from among polytheists.

The raising of Lazarus fresco from mid-fourth century in the Catacomb of the Giordani in Rome .

LIKE A MAGICIAN, Jesus uses a wand to summon forth Lazarus from his grave, where he had been dead for four days. This mid-fourth-century mural painting from the Catacomb of the Giordani in Rome depicts Jesus in front of an aedicule (a small shrine) that holds the swaddled cadaver. Although not a magic wand à la Harry Potter, the staff that Jesus holds does insinuate a type of Christian “magic.” Utterly theatrical and visualizing the authority of the new religion, the raising of Lazarus ranked among the most popular scenes in early Christian art. Its message clearly resonated with late antique sensitivities and encouraged conversions to Christianity.
Credit: Public domain

Writing for the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Robert Knapp of the University of California, Berkeley, explains that in antiquity the responses to the pressing questions of daily life “rested on the belief in supernatural powers of all sorts surrounding and penetrating every aspect of life. There was no meaning, no problem solving, no hope, no society, unless these powers were recognized, mollified, and persuaded to do good—or at least to do no harm.” To this end, continues Knapp, “ordinary polytheists’ religious experience was a complete and seamless integration of all-important aspects of daily life,” where multiple gods and powers provided a functional context vital for social integration and survival. So why would anyone risk abandoning the inherited way of life for a new, “untested” religion?

Jesus's Miracles carved in this marble sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus

JESUS’S MIRACLEScarved in this marble sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus include (left to right) the conversion of water into wine; the multiplication of loaves and fishes; healing a man born blind; and the resurrection of Lazarus. Created c. 330–340, this early example of New Testament miracle episodes is now in the Museo Nazionale Romano.
Credit: Courtesy of the library of Lee M. Jefferson, Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville

Knapp argues that the key element of early Christianity that quickly spread the new religion across the entire Roman Empire rested in the ability to meet polytheism on its own ground—by offering to help deal with life’s contingencies and proving the superiority of their God. The ability to direct supernatural power (through signs and miracles) appealed to many Jews, too. Miracles, after all, were a long-accepted proof of Yahweh’s power.

Though it may have been an embarrassment to the philosophizing Christian elites, miracles and everyday religiosity were able to win over ordinary Jews and polytheists alike. Magic and miracles proved to be central for convincing common people to accept the new religion.

Wood panel carved doors from the Santa Sabina Chrurch in Rome, depicts miracles

SANTA SABINA CHURCHin Rome boasts one of the earliest Christian doors with carved images. Created in 432 C.E., the wood panel pictured here presents (top to bottom) Jesus curing the blind man; the multiplication of loaves and fishes; and the miracle at Cana
Credit: Photo by Jim Forest; Creative Commons attribution NC-ND 2.0

To learn about the ways emerging Christianity appealed to ordinary polytheists and made them give up their ancestral relationships to supernatural powers, read the article “How Magic and Miracles Spread Christianity” by Robert Knapp in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article “How Magic and Miracles Spread Christianity,” by Robert Knapp, in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

This article first appeared in Bible History Daily in January, 2020

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Miracles of Jesus How are we to understand the miracles Jesus performs, as related in the New Testament? BAS editors have compiled articles that explore the key sites and ancient belief systems to help you understand these miraculous events.

Israeli Archaeologists Discover Byzantine Quarry and Possible Site of Sixth Century Miracle In the sixth century C.E. history The Buildings of Justinian, the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea describes how God provided a miraculous supply of stone for the construction of the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos church.

The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan? A series of stunning mosaic floors dated to around 300 C.E. were uncovered in Lod, Israel. Plants, birds, fish and animals are depicted in the mosaics—but no human figures. Who made these mosaics?

Ancient Amulets with Incipits Ancient amulets containing incipits of Biblical passages have been uncovered in Egypt and were used as protective charms to ward off evil. Learn about early Christian amulets with incipits in this Bible History Daily guest post by Joseph E. Sanzo.

Related Posts

Cuneiform tablets from the site of Nuzi in northern Iraq. Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jun 17
The Nuzi Tablets

By: Philippe Bohström

May 21
Biblical Sidon—Jezebel’s Hometown

By: Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend