Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon edited by Todd Klutz (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series: T. & T. Clark Publishers) (Hardcover) The category `magic', long used to signify an allegedly substantive type of activity distinguishable from `religion', has nearly been dismantled by recent theoretical developments in religious studies. While recognizing and at times reinforcing those developments, the essays in this collection show that there is still much to be learned about the cultural context of early Judaism and Christianity by analyzing ancient sources which either use `magic' as a label for deviant religiosity or valorize behavior of a broadly magicoreligious variety. Through sustained engagement with texts ranging from Exodus 7-9 and 18 to the Testament of Solomon and Sefer ha-Razim, this volume focuses on materials that challenge the familiar boundaries between miracle, magic and medicine; yet it also heightens awareness of the way unsuspecting use of a sick sign (e.g. `magic') can impede critical understanding of texts and their respective contexts of reception.
Excerpt: Since several thorough treatments of the theoretical debates concerning magic have already been published by others, (For discussion that stays close to our interest in interpreting the biblical materials, see esp. Garrett, The Demise of the Devil, pp. 1-36; and S. Ricks, 'The Magician as Outsider in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament', in Meyer and Mirecki (eds.), Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 131-44. For treatments that deal at length with relevant theories and debates in the history of the social sciences, see G. Cunningham, Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories (New York: New York University Press, 1999); F. Bowie. The Anthropology of Religion (Oxfords Basil Blackwell, 2000), pp. 13-28; J. Skorupski, Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); and Smith, 'Trading Places', esp. pp. 13-20.) and with various facets of the same topic being picked up in the studies that follow here, a comprehensive overview of the matter would be superfluous in this context. Nevertheless, a couple of issues closely related to this one—namely, whether the growing scholarly reticence to continue using words like 'magic' to denote the religious beliefs of others (i.e. non-Westerners and ancient peoples) is anything more than an academic fad, inspired less by serious commitment to correcting Western images of the two-thirds world as intellectually backward than by troubled liberal consciences trying to staunch a global hemorrhage with an anthropological Band-Aid; and, if indeed it is more than that, what exactly makes it deserve our attention at this juncture, especially since the high cost of misunderstanding the religion of others has been demonstrated afresh by the leading news stories of 2001 and 2002. (See, e.g., Amy Waldman, 'How in a Little British Town Jihad Found Young Converts' (http.//www.nytimes.com/2002/04/24/international/europe/24BRIT.htm1); and Andrew Sullivan. 'This is a Religious War', New York Times, 7 October 2001, section 6) Significantly, scholarly references to `magic' and 'the magical world view' have normally been accompanied by either explicit or implicit denigration of the mental capacities of people who traffic in such stuff. (J. Fitzmyer (Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teaching [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989], pp. 150-51) for instance, after describing Luke's demonic aetiology of illness as symptomatic of 'protological thinking', asserts that `ancient folk, unable to diagnose properly an illness or discern its secondary, natural causality, ascribed it to a preternatural being, a spirit or a demon').Thus, while theoretical resources for debunking this scholarly tendency are normally sought (and sometimes found) in the writings of social anthropologists, a critique with greater power and relevance might be derived from a discipline whose interests have more to do with human mind and cognition namely, linguistics, and especially the contributions made to this field by Noam Chomsky. If for instance Chomsky is right (as I believe he is) that the ongoing slaughter of some of the world's most impoverished people on the altar of Western affluence is legitimated chiefly through a web of ethnocentric fictions and self-flattering illusions, collectively nurtured and disseminated by Western governments and their corporate and media patrons, then Western academic discourse about `primitive peoples' and their `magical' or 'superstitious' mentalities fully deserves any suspicions we might have about its sources and functions. (Although Chomsky himself, to my knowledge, nowhere addresses our particular concern explicitly, his discussion of academic inquiry into the relationship between human language, intellectual endowment, and race ('Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization', in J. Peck [ed.], The Chomsky Reader [New York: Pantheon Books, 1987]. pp. 195-202) has direct implications that are consistent with the inference I am drawing here.)
This suspicion is only intensified, moreover, by the implications of Chomsky's revolutionary theories of human language and mind. To be more precise, as Chomsky and many influenced by him strongly argue that essentially comparable levels of grammatical complexity and communicative competence are manifest in all the world's different systems of natural language, (See, e.g., N. Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, enlarged edn, 1972), pp. 112-14; and S. Pinker, The Language Instinct. The New Science of Language and Mind (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 25-31.) Chomskyan linguistic theory can easily be understood to cohere on a deep level with Chomskyan political analysis, the universalism of the former reinforcing the egalitarianism of the latter and thus dealing its own heavy blow to the use of words like `magical', `naïve' or `protological' in discussions of non-Western modes of human cognition. (On the subtle but profound unity of Chomsky's political and linguistic ideas, see J. Lyons, Chomsky (Modern Masters; London: Fontana/Collins, 1970), pp. 13-15.)
Notwithstanding the seriousness with which Chomsky's work deserves to be considered, however, and if the reader will permit use of a more autobiographical register for a couple of paragraphs, I myself should confess to being plagued by doubts nurtured by the late Ernest Gellner, who raised a number of very awkward questions specifically in regard to Chomsky's criticism of the American social scientists who assisted their government's war effort in Vietnam. (E. Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge Universitv Press. 1985), p. 101) To be more precise, and as Gellner himself observed, Chomsky emphatically denounces the morality and politics of these academics yet `cannot refrain, at the same time, from scorning their scientific pretensions'. 20 But what if, Gellner asks, the scientific claims of Chomsky's academic opponents could be proved to be no mere pretence, but rather genuine and valid? Would America's political objectives and military strategies in Vietnam therefore have been morally less objectionable?' And more broadly, can we really expect valid science always to dovetail so conveniently with our noblest and kindest intuitions about what is moral and best for the flourishing of human beings in general? And to make explicit the connection between these questions and our present topic—is it really the case that our most valid science conclulively demonstrates the existence of something akin to universal equality in human cognitive competence, and with it the theoretical bankruptcy of intellectualist and similar traditions of writing about `magic', when this same science is by and large our science and therefore a product chiefly of particular traditions and institutions that distinguish the modem West (for better or worse) from other sociocultural formations?
Letting myself be reduced by this sort of dilemma to a state of ethical and political indecisiveness, I confess, must constitute some kind of uniquely awful (and largely Western) vice; but it is not one without a few redeeming effects: at the very least, were Ito start my academic career afresh and find myself practising one variety or another of social science, the scholars I would join ranks with would clearly not be those pictured by Gellner as strutting confidently about, `shaking their paradigm like a coxcomb, instructing the students, advising authorities'. No, almost certainly, I would find my home instead among Gellner's `more becomingly doubt-ridden' family of theorists, and quickly learn how to grumble that no Mephistopheles from CNN or the British Foreign Office had offered to buy my soul. And thus, in some very fractional but not imperceptible way, the world would become a better and nicer place.
Accordingly, readers will find no strutting in this introduction, no confident pronouncements about how, at last, the long debate concerning `magic and religion' can be brought to a universally satisfying resolution. The farthest I can go in this direction is to say, right here and very briefly, that the linguistic distinction between competence and performance may well offer us a way out of this dilemma; for although Chomsky and his heirs are almost certainly right to assert that remarkable psycholinguistic and mental competencies are equally manifest in all the world's known societies and natural language systems, this fact scarcely guarantees that these competencies will be used in any given context to produce discourse in either an intelligent or a humane fashion, as the numerous examples adduced by Chomsky himself of ill-informed and inhumane discourse in Western political propaganda well attest.' Consequently, if certain Western academics wish to perpetuate the hoary tradition of calling religious practices that from their point of view seem foolish or harmful `magic', they should by all means feel free to do so as long as they are willing to acknowledge that their own societies' amalgams of, say, Christianity and secularist capitalism could by this same definition turn out to be as 'magical' and savage as anything found in the darkest cave of their historical imagination.
Many, however, including some of the contributors to this volume, would take exception even to this relatively modest proposal. What principles of literary and thematic organization, one might therefore ask, can be found (or created) that would bring an appropriate sense of coherence to a collection like this, whose individual essayists differ from each other almost as widely as can be imagined in regard to their views of the central sign around which the volume revolves? In general, I think, something both credible and potentially useful to the reader can be said in reply to this. In the `Contents' pages of this book, most readers will recognize a combination of historical and interdiscursive logics underlying the particu¬lar groupings of articles into higher-level parts on the one hand and the relationships between these parts themselves on the other hand. More specifically, early Christian rhetoric about `magic', which is the unifying con¬cern of Part II (Marguerat, Downing, Laus, Reimer, Pietersen), cannot be properly contextualized unless it is understood at least partially in relation to its biblical antecedents and Jewish cultural resources, which Part I (Brooke, Romer, Nihan, Buhlmann) does much to illumine. At the same time, though, and unless we wish to embrace the unlikely thesis that early Christian rhetoric about `magic' was so referentially slippery that we cannot know anything about the actual practices that Christians were opposing, our attempt to understand this rhetoric will make at best only modest progress without a comparable effort being expended to understand other, now lesser known and often devalued documents that exemplify something like the allegedly `magical' point of view; hence, each of the studies in Part III (Alexander, Bain, Klutz) concentrates on a different extracanonical text whose ideas and instructions are typical of what many ancient Christians probably would have regarded as `magic'.
The ancient sources treated in Part III, however, all derive at the earliest from the Late Antique period and are therefore too late,-in origin to inform interpretation of the Jewish biblical texts treated in Part II in anything more than a very general way. Does this fact not constitute a serious break-down in the logic of the volume's organization? It would, I think, if the chief aim of this collection were to enrich interpretation of the key pas-sages specifically in the Jewish biblical canon; however, as the name of the monograph series to which this volume belongs signifies very explicitly that, on the contrary, it is the New Testament and its various contexts of production and early reception that the collection as a whole is primarily intended to illumine, its lack of a major section on comparative sources from the ancient Near East cannot be judged a grave fault. Indeed, the intense concentration on Hebrew biblical texts in Part I, with nearly all the focus in these chapters falling on the original functions and contexts of the passages in their own right rather than on their subsequent Christian reception, could well merit praise as a unique surplus of value in a volume ostensibly dedicated to New Testament scholarship. But most importantly, if this feature and the discussions in Part III stimulate students in New Testament studies and cognate disciplines to contextualize more richly and read more widely in the larger field of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern religion, the volume will have achieved one its most important aims.
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