A Closer Look: Magic

Resort to malevolent forms of sorcery was common in Paul’s era. (In various forms, it is, contrary to naive popular Western assumptions, also practiced in many societies today.) Curse invocations were central to ancient magic. Virtually anything harmful could be attributed to magic. Both genders utilized erotic charms in attempts to secure others’ sexual attentions. Some used spells to curse adversaries in sports-for example, a spell to overturn and wreck chariots. Tombstones sometimes invoked divine vengeance against those thought to have killed through sorcery. Others employed spells defensively for protection-for example, in childbirth. Often in Greco-Roman antiquity magicians were thought to manipulate spirits, hence (from a strict monotheistic perspective) to traffic in demons.

Magical ideas in the wider world impacted Jewish people as well. Jewish sources recognized the dangerous efficacy of courses. Greco-Egyptian magical practices influenced Jewish magic and possibly even Hekhalot texts. Jews in fact became well known for producing some adept practitioners of magic (cf. Acts 13:6; 19:13-14). Ancients often associated Moses with powerful magic. Jewish angels are invoked in some magical texts, especially prevalent after the third century.

Nevertheless, in general Jewish practitioners themselves apparently remained monotheistic and did not claim to manipulate God. Many public sources in early Judaism also condemned magic, not suprisngly, given the death penalty assigned to its practitioners in the Torah (Exod. 22:18; cf. Deut. 13:10; 18:10). Seeking to reduce capital offenses, rabbis assigned this penalty only to genuine sorcerers, not just performers of tricks. Given the frequent association between magic and spirits in paganism, however, it is not surprising that Jewish sources sometimes associate it with fallen angels or Satan.

Although the forms differ from one culture to the next, persons in many cultures do seek to manipulate spirits or nature to harm others. Practitioners typically believe that their spiritual activity is effective, although some are also known to kill others by natural means to secure more spiritual power. Even missionaries, importing modern Western assumptions, have sometimes been insensitive to abuses or dangers locally associated with malevolent witchcraft. In many societies, African traditional religion opposes witchcraft as harmful rather than helpful. Some cultures employ divination to identify sorcery or witchcraft, and many traditional African healing practices are directed against them.

One of the harmful consequences of such curse practices today, however, is the flourishing of false witchcraft accusations and suspicions. Voodoo deaths, associated with spirits, are a real phenomenon, although Western observers, usually seeking psychological rather than spiritual explanations, typically associate them with terror.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more on the book of Galatians, please check out Galatians: A Commentary.

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