Early Christian amulets
Life is fraught with danger. Thus, it is not surprising that throughout the ages, people have taken safety precautions. One of the ways this was done in Coptic Egypt was through the use of amulets, protective charms believed to ward off evil.
Amulets had been known in Egypt long before the Coptic period, but during this time an interesting change took place. The old spells were often interfused and replaced with short citations of Scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In many cases, these citations took the form of a phrase or an incipit.
Meaning “it begins” in Latin, an incipit refers to the beginning of a work—be it a book, song, poem, prayer, musical piece or (in the modern world of computer science) an encryption code. With texts, an incipit usually signifies the title or opening phrase.
Amulets containing incipits of Biblical passages have been uncovered from Egypt and are the subject of a recent book by Joseph E. Sanzo. Like any good tradesman, ritual specialists who made amulets would customize them to suit their consumers’ needs. The Biblical passages they selected were often meant to address particular concerns or ailments. Common incipits include Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Septuagint), the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9) and the beginnings of the Gospels.
Below, learn more about ancient amulets with incipits in a Bible History Daily guest post by Joseph E. Sanzo.—Megan Sauter
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” You might recognize this sentence as the first verse of the Gospel of John. Did you know that in antiquity, the opening lines (a.k.a. incipits) of Biblical books and texts, including the first words of the Gospel of John, were written on strips of papyrus, parchment and other materials in order to cure bodily illnesses and/or to protect individuals from demons? Scholars have traditionally called such curative and protective objects “amulets.”1
The Greek and Coptic amulets and related artifacts that have survived from late antiquity (c. 300–700 C.E.), mostly from Egypt, demonstrate that many “magicians” (a.k.a. practitioners, ritual specialists or ritual experts) attributed special significance to scriptural incipits, especially the opening words of the Gospels, the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 91 (MT). This value that practitioners placed on the scriptural incipits, however, did not prevent them from creatively interacting with these texts or modifying them to accommodate the sizes of the material objects they were using.
In fact, ritual experts approached the incipits of scriptural texts in various ways. On some amulets, such as SIA 10, the opening lines roughly correspond to verse divisions that you would find in your Bible. On other objects, however, the opening lines extend considerably beyond such modern conventions. Thus, the gospel incipits inscribed on the walls of a chapel in Antionoopolis, Egypt (SIA 14)—and which seemed to have served a protective function—are relatively long: Matthew 1:1–3, Mark 1:1–2, Luke 1:1–3 and John 1:1–5.2
Other objects reflect the opposite tendency, citing only a few words of the opening line. For example, SIA 38 cites only the first phrase of Psalm 91 (“The one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High”). In addition, the Coptic amulets SIA 4 and 13 include only a few words from Luke 1:1 (“Inasmuch as many have undertaken”). In these abbreviated cases, it seems that the practitioner needed to provide just enough text so that the opening line would be recognized as such. This diversity in the length of the passage cited is largely reflective of the varying sizes of the artifacts that practitioners used for making amulets.
But the diversity of the scriptural incipits on amulets is not confined to the length of the passage cited. For example, the practitioners that cited the gospel incipits placed those opening lines in various orders. To be sure, most Coptic texts align with the “canonical” order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Yet, by contrast, the Greek materials that include multiple gospel incipits do not follow a consistent pattern: SIA 3 (John, Matthew, Mark, Luke); SIA 8 (John, Luke, Mark, Matthew); SIA 10 (John, Matthew, Mark, Luke); SIA 12 (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John); SIA 15 (John, Matthew); and SIA 16 (Luke, Matthew, John). This list of artifacts also illustrates another important point: Ritual specialists cited different numbers of gospel incipits. Thus, one can find amulets that include one, two, three, four or even five “gospel” incipits in sequence (see discussion below).
The incipits also reflect—albeit somewhat dimly—the various ways practitioners engaged with the early Christian canon. Indeed, the Christian canon was not only a scribal invention of late antiquity, it was also a discursive site on which Christian identity was contested, defined and defended. It is not surprising, therefore, that the working out of the “proper” boundaries of the Christian canon continued throughout late antiquity and beyond and was a much messier affair on the ground than conventional wisdom would have us believe. While church fathers, such as Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373 C.E.), were busy drawing their preferred boundaries around the Bible, a wide range of material evidence testifies to the fact that other Egyptian scribes were at work composing, transcribing and translating books that Athanasius and his ilk would regard as “non-canonical” or even “heretical.”3 The codices now known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library—which contain “non-canonical” writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas—provide a useful counterexample to Athanasius’s view of scripture. These codices and their various texts—sometimes unhelpfully labeled “Gnostic”—demonstrate that late antique Egyptians, many of whom would have probably self-identified as Christian, were not always content with the documents that made it into Athanasius’s canon.4
For more on ancient amulets, read “Miniature Writing on Ancient Amulets,” “1,500-Year-Old Christian Amulet References Eucharist” and “The Shema‘ Yisrael: Monotheistic Jewish amulet discovered near Carnuntum.”
That many practitioners listed the opening lines of the Gospels, in particular, is worth noting. Given the circulation of numerous gospels during late antiquity, including those found in the Nag Hammadi Library, the defense of the four-fold Gospel canon was a priority for many early Christian leaders. For instance, as part of his argument against the competing views of other early Christian leaders, such as Marcion of Sinope (c. 85–160 C.E.) and Valentinus (c. 100–160 C.E.), Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202 C.E.) argued that Christians must only recognize four Gospels (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8). Also, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–340 C.E.) defended the four-fold Gospel corpus in part by stressing that Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–254 C.E.) only knew of four Gospels (Hist.eccl. 6.25.3). The gospels, therefore, represented a particular sub-corpus of literature that figured prominently in debates about canonicity.
It is significant, therefore, that some ritual experts did not simply list the gospel incipits, but also drew explicit attention to the four-fold Gospel collection. For example, the practitioner behind SIA 5—a sixth-century C.E. Coptic codex probably used as an amulet—prefaces his or her citation of the gospel incipits with the clause, “This is the order of the opening of the four Gospels.” This statement thus frames the incipits that follow in definitive terms. In addition, after citing the opening lines of the four canonical Gospels, SIA 2 includes the following statement: “The four beginnings of the gospel, which is holy: the Gospel according to Matthew; the Gospel according to Mark; the Gospel according to Luke; the Gospel according to John.”5 Even more than in the prior example, the scribe behind this seventh-century C.E. amulet has drawn attention to the holiness of the four-fold Gospel corpus. These practitioners were not simply citing important or sacred texts, but—at least in some capacity—were also self-consciously capitalizing upon the significance of an exclusive number of gospels and, consequently, marking the boundaries of holy writ.
But the relationship between canonicity and the use of gospel incipits on amulets must be qualified in various respects. First of all, the available evidence from late antiquity suggests that the Gospels were the only sub-corpus of Biblical literature used on amulets for which the term “canon” could even be applicable. No late antique amulet marks in this way the Pentateuch or the Psalms or the Pauline epistles or any other Biblical sub-corpus. Secondly, as I have noted above, several artifacts that deploy gospel incipits deviate from the four-fold sub-canon, whether citing one, two or three gospel incipits, or quoting from an extra-canonical incipit. In these cases, we are either witnessing the citation of a relevant text—which just so happens to correspond to the opening line of a scriptural book—or a lack of awareness of canonicity or the invocation of a canon that does not correspond to our inherited canonical parameters.
Again, in most instances it is difficult to determine which of these possibilities is at work. Yet, interestingly, there is evidence that practitioners engaged with what might be called alternative gospel canons. For instance, the practitioner behind SIA 16, a fifth- or sixth-century C.E. Greek amulet, cites the incipits of only three of the canonical Gospels—i.e., all but that of the Gospel of Mark. Since the practitioner includes requests for protection immediately after the three incipits, a lack of space cannot account for the absence of the second Gospel. The question remains: Did the practitioner intentionally use a more restrictive collection of gospels, or did he or she simply forget to include the Gospel of Mark? While a definitive answer to this question will probably forever elude us, it is important to note that the second Gospel is disproportionately underrepresented in the extant manuscript evidence from late antique Egypt. As one Bible commentator succinctly puts the matter, “Mark was not the favorite Gospel in early Christianity.”6 Thus, the practitioner behind SIA 16 might have simply appropriated a conception of Christian canon that did not include the Gospel of Mark.
An even more fascinating example is SIA 4, a sixth- or seventh-century C.E. Coptic amulet. In this amulet, the practitioner cites the incipit of Jesus’ Letter to Abgar followed by the incipits of each of the four canonical Gospels in the otherwise unattested order: Matthew, Luke, John and Mark.7 The placement of the incipit of Jesus’ letter to Abgar before the incipits of the canonical Gospels suggests at the very least that—in agreement with the Syriac church—the practitioner considered Jesus’ Letter to Abgar to be scriptural. However, the text on this artifact concludes with a sufficient amount of space for additional texts. In other words, the practitioner cited a collection of texts and then stopped. Accordingly, the scribe appears to have constructed his or her ritual in dialogue with a finite textual corpus—in particular, one that deviates from the traditional Christian canon.
But an important question remains: How did practitioners think that the gospel incipits worked? In my book Scriptural Incipits, I address this issue. I call into question the prevailing assumption that the gospel incipits invoked the Gospels according to a simple part-for-whole model. This model presupposes that the practitioner cited the opening line of a Gospel (or the four Gospels) in order to get the power associated with the entire text. While I entertained the possibility that the incipits of Psalms and other relatively short units of scripture might have worked according to this part-for-whole relationship, I argue that it is quite unlikely that Biblical sub-corpora (e.g., the Gospels), which consist of numerous sayings and narratives, would have been invoked as wholes. Among other evidence, I point to the frequent use of short thematic units taken from different Biblical books in the extant amuletic record. This consistent practice demonstrates that ritual experts valued specific texts that had some kind of analogical connection to the needs of their clients (e.g., a healing or exorcism story).
Consequently, the evidence suggests that the gospel incipits allowed ritual specialists to invoke the analogical power associated with several select units from the Gospels, or more properly, Jesus’ life and ministry—presumably miracle, healing and exorcism narratives.8 The gospel incipits, therefore, operated according to a model of relevancy similar to the one that Evagrius of Pontus (c. 345–399 C.E.) promoted:
Now, the words that are required for speaking against our enemies, that is, the cruel demons, cannot be found quickly in the hour of conflict, because they are scattered throughout the Scriptures and so are difficult to find. We have, therefore, carefully selected words from the Holy Scriptures, so that we may equip ourselves with them and drive out the Philistines forcefully, standing firm in the battle, as warriors and soldiers of our victorious King, Jesus Christ.9
These words clearly demonstrate that Evagrius—like ancient practitioners—thought that only certain passages from the Bible could thwart demonic attack. Stated negatively, this view assumes that the “Bible” as a whole (and many of the passages contained therein) would simply not have worked against demons.
Some readers might be surprised that many ancient practitioners held certain Biblical texts, such as the incipits, in high esteem. After all, don’t amulets and related objects belong to the realm of “magic” and, accordingly, stand in conflict with Christian “religion”? As it turns out, many individuals from antiquity thought that the practices we would identify as “magical” and those we would identify as “Christian” complemented one another—or at least were not in tension with one another. While it is often difficult to determine with certainty the religious affiliations of the makers and users of amulets, one can reasonably presume that in many cases both were Christian. For instance, in addition to passages from the Bible, the texts of some amulets contain known or invented Christian creeds. Suppl.Mag. 31, a fifth- or sixth-century C.E. Greek amulet, cites the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (or related tradition), while Suppl.Mag. 23 and 35 arrange significant aspects of the Jesus story (e.g., his birth, crucifixion, burial and resurrection) into creedal-like formulas. In these cases, it is very likely that the practitioners and their clients were Christian.
There is even evidence that early Christian priests and monks functioned as ritual experts. Canon 36 of the fourth-century C.E. Council of Laodicea states:
They who are of the priesthood, or of the clergy, shall not be magicians, enchanters, mathematicians, or astrologers; nor shall they make what are called amulets, which are chains for their own souls. And those who wear such, we command to be cast out of the Church.10
That an ecumenical council had to condemn the making and use of amulets in this way strongly implies that Christian leaders made amulets and Christian laypersons used them. In addition to such condemnations, magical handbooks (a.k.a. grimoires) have been discovered in Egyptian monasteries, thus suggesting that monks were among the practitioners of late antique Egypt.11 The available evidence, therefore, leads one to conclude that many self-identifying Christians who lived in Egypt and elsewhere during late antiquity—clergy and laity alike—saw no conflict whatsoever between Christianity and the making or use of amulets.
On a more general level, this intersection of so-called magic and Christianity simply confirms what most students of the ancient world inevitably discover for themselves: that the practices we would associate with the label “magic” overlapped considerably with those we would call “religion.” In fact, the lines between known magical practices and early Christian rituals were so blurred that, within the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.), the Christian sacraments were primarily distinguished from magic according to the intentions and goals of their respective performers. For Augustine, the sacraments edify the community of Christian believers and serve the general good, while magical rituals support selfish and individual pursuits (though they ultimately reflect communion with demons).12
Augustine’s perspective on the separation between magic and Christianity hints at the great extent to which definitions of and distinctions between magic and religion are ideologically motivated. In light of the inherent biases associated with “magic” and “religion,” scholars have debated—and continue to debate—whether these terms should be removed from the vocabulary of scholarship or used with appropriate nuance.13 Such debates notwithstanding, most scholars would agree that it is often very difficult to draw clear lines between “magical” practices and “religious”—or “Christian”—practices in antiquity.
What does this blurring of magic and Christianity mean for the study of early Christianity? Most important, it means that amulets and other so-called “magical” objects need to be fully incorporated into our historical reconstructions of early Christianity (which have traditionally privileged the literary remains of Christian elites).14 Far from being a minor dimension of Christian history, the available evidence suggests that amulets and related objects played important roles in the daily lives of many Christians throughout antiquity. In fact, amulets constituted one of the primary contexts in which many individuals engaged with the Bible. Theodore de Bruyn has recently listed over 50 Greek artifacts with Biblical citations from late antiquity that were certainly or probably amulets and another 39 objects that might have been amulets.15 This number grows considerably if we take into consideration the use of Biblical texts and traditions in Coptic amulets and grimoires and in other kinds of curative or protective contexts (e.g., on the walls of monks’ cells).16 Furthermore, this material evidence confirms the testimonies of many “church fathers,” which, describe or complain about Christians using Biblical artifacts for protection or healing.17
Alongside the use of Biblical passages, numerous amulets include other idioms and symbols associated with early Christianity, including crosses, references to and stories about Jesus, and creeds.18 In addition to the Christian canon and its reception during late antiquity, therefore, amulets also offer precious insight into a wide range of subjects in early Christian studies, including gender;19 views on the relationship between word and image,20 the transmission of the Bible,21 early Jewish–Christian relations22 and demonology.23
In sum, amulets and other ostensibly magical objects figured prominently in the lives of many early Christians and thus offer important glimpses into several dimensions of Christian history.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 2, 2015.
Joseph E. Sanzo received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is a historian of early Christianity, whose research focuses on Greek and Coptic amulets from late antique Egypt. His most recent book is Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt: Text, Typology, and Theory (Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
1. Abbreviations of collections of primary sources: PGM = Karl Preisendanz, ed., Papyri Graecae magicae: Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, 2 vols., rev. ed. Albert Henrichs (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973–1974); SIA = Joseph E. Sanzo, Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt: Text, Typology, and Theory (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), pp. 74–135; Suppl.Mag. = Franco Maltomini and Robert Daniel, eds., Supplementum Magicum (Suppl. Mag.), 2 vols. (Opladen: Westdt. Verl., 1990–1992). Unless otherwise mentioned, all English translations have been taken from Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, ed., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
2. The first part of the incipit of the Gospel of John on this inscription has been reconstructed.
3. In fact, David Brakke has persuasively argued that it was precisely this lack of agreement about the boundaries of the canon in early Christian Egypt that prompted Athanasius to compile his list of approved and non-approved books in the first place. David Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria’s Thirty-Ninth ‘Festal Letter,’” The Harvard Theological Review 87 (1994), pp. 395–419.
4. On the problems with the term “Gnosticism,” see especially Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
5. Translation taken from Paul A. Mirecki, “A Seventh-Century Coptic Limestone in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Bodl. Copt. Inscr. 426),” in Paul A. Mirecki and Marvin W. Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002), pp. 47–69.
6. M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 22.
7. This document is the second letter (out of two) from an invented correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, king of Edessa. Both documents were commonly used on amulets during late antiquity.
8. I also argued that, because practitioners explored and navigated the blurred lines between canonical and extra-canonical traditions that overlap in content, the stories that were invoked through the gospel incipits might not have always corresponded to the canonical accounts (Sanzo, Scriptural Incipits, p. 160). In this vein, PGM P18, a fifth-or sixth-century C.E. Greek amulet, refers to Jesus as “the one who did both the many and ineffable healings beyond those that are discussed in the sacred gospels.” This practitioner recognized the Gospels as a “sacred” corpus of texts. Yet simultaneously he or she transgressed those scriptural boundaries by calling upon a larger cluster of Jesus traditions.
9. Antirrhêtikos, Prol. 3. Translation taken from David Brakke, ed. and trans., Talking Back, Antirrhêtikos: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons, CSS 229 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009), p. 50.
11. See especially P. Cairo 45060, a magical handbook, which was discovered in a jar that was buried in a monk’s cell. For discussion of this object (and other data suggesting that monks served as ritual experts), see David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 251–264, esp. p. 258.
12. For discussions of Augustine’s approach to magic and Christianity, see Robert A. Markus, “Augustine on Magic: A Neglected Semiotic Theory,” Revue des Études Augustiniennes 40 (1994), pp. 375–388; Olivier Dufault, “Magic and Religion in Augustine and Iamblichus,” in E. Depalma Digeser and R. M. Frakes, eds., Religious Identity in Late Antiquity (Toronto: Edgar Kent, 2006), pp. 59–83.
13. On this debate, see especially David E. Aune, “‘Magic’ in Early Christianity and Its Ancient Mediterranean Context: A Survey of Some Recent Scholarship,” Annali di storia dell’esegesi 24 (2007), pp. 229–294; Bernd-Christian Otto, “Towards Historicizing ‘Magic’ in Antiquity,” Numen 60 (2013), pp. 308–347; Henk S. Versnel, “Some Reflections on the Relationship Magic—Religion,” Numen 38 (1991), pp. 177–197.
14. Of course, several scholars have stressed the importance of amulets and the like for Christian history. See, for instance, Thomas J. Kraus, “Manuscripts with the Lord’s Prayer—They Are More Than Simply Witnesses to That Text Itself,” in Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas, eds., New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their Worlds (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 227–266, esp. pp. 227–232. On the need to incorporate magic into Jewish history, see Gideon Bohak, “Prolegomena to the Study of the Jewish Magical Tradition,” Currents in Biblical Research 8 (2009), pp. 107–150.
15. Theodore de Bruyn, “Papyri, Parchments, Ostraca, and Tablets Written with Biblical Texts in Greek and Used as Amulets: A Preliminary List,” in Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas, eds., Early Christian Manuscripts: Examples of Applied Method and Approach (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 145–90, at pp. 166–81.
16. The Coptic amulets and handbooks have yet to be collected, but my research has shown that Biblical elements played a considerable role in the texts of such artifacts. Jacques van der Vliet and Adam Łajtar have usefully edited Biblical inscriptions on monks’ cells from late antique Nubia, some of which probably served a protective function. See, for instance, Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet, Qasr Ibrim: The Greek and Coptic Inscriptions Published on Behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (Warsaw: Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Warsaw et al., 2010).
17. See especially the writings of John Chrysostom (Hom. de statuis 19.14; In 1 Cor. hom. 16.9.7; In Matth. hom. 72) and Augustine of Hippo (In Io. tra. 7:12).
18. E.g., Theodore S. De Bruyn and Jitse H. F. Dijkstra, “Greek Amulets and Formularies Containing Christian Elements: A Checklist of Papyri, Parchments, Ostraka, and Tablets,” BASP 48 (2011), pp.159–214.
19. E.g., AnneMarie Luijendijk, “A Gospel Amulet for Joannia (P.Oxy. VIII 1151),” in Kimberly B. Stratton and Dayna S. Kalleres, eds., Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 418–443.
20. E.g., Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, “The Interplay between Image and Text on Greek Amulets Containing Christian Elements from Late Antique Egypt,” in Dietrich Boschung and Jan N. Bremmer, eds., The Materiality of Magic (Munich: Wilhelf Fink, 2015), pp. 271–292; Joseph E. Sanzo, “The Innovative Use of Biblical Traditions for Ritual Power: The Crucifixion of Jesus on a Coptic Exorcistic Spell (Brit. Lib. Or. 6796, 6796) as a Test Case,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 16 (2015), pp. 67–98.
21. For the use of amulets in the transmission history of the New Testament, see Brice C. Jones, New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity (London: T&T Clark, forthcoming).
22. Ra‘anan Boustan and Joseph E. Sanzo, “Christian Magicians, Jewish Magical Idioms, and the Shared Magical Culture of Late Antiquity,” Harvard Theological Review (forthcoming).
23. E.g., David Frankfurter, Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
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