Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles

By Hartog, Paul A. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles


Hartog, Paul A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles. By Harts-Josef Klauck. Translated by Brian McNeil. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, xii + 136 pp., $15.00 paper.

This short study originated in a lecture that was presented throughout South Africa in 1994 and was subsequently published as an English article that same year (Neot 21 [1994] 93-108). The author then published a full German monograph, entitled Magie und Heidentum in der Apostelgeschichte des Lukas (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1996). The English translation under review represents a thorough revision of the German volume and incorporates secondary literature up to 1999. The updated bibliography in this Fortress edition also includes some materials through 2002 (unlike the English edition published by T. & T. Clark in 2000).

Klauck's first chapter establishes the missionary program of the book of Acts, which is summarized in the prologue and is founded upon the Pentecost event. The body of the volume surveys Luke's descriptions of Gentile religiosity as found in the dramatic episodes, speeches, and narrative commentaries of Acts. Klauck examines Philip's encounters with Simon and the Ethiopian chamberlain, the death of Herod Agrippa I, Paul's encounter with Bar-Jesus, the Lystra episode of misidentification, the soothsaying slave-girl from Philippi, Paul's Athenian discourse, the seven sons of Sceva, the burning of magical collections and the riot of the silversmiths in Ephesus, and the shipwreck at Malta. Along the way, Klauck discusses oriental cults, astrology, oracles, exorcism, magical papyri, and devotional souvenirs. Klauck's survey portrays Luke as a largely irenic author more interested in "brilliant parodies" and "subtle irony" than in "any heavily aggressive polemic" (p. 119). Nevertheless, texts such as Acts 26:17-18 must temper Klauck's optimistic claim that Luke could not have had a "very negative view" of the Gentile pagans under consideration (and the human race in general).

According to Klauck, Luke aims "to form and stabilize the identity of the Christian readers" (p. 121) by warning them of an "all-devouring syncretism." Such an eclecticism was a continuing threat within established churches but also an obstacle to the Christian mission. Luke carefully distances the miracles of his Christian protagonists from the magic of the surrounding pagan milieu, since a certain ambiguity could accompany miraculous phenomena apart from interpretation (p. 18). The Christian missionaries recognized the necessary demarcation between the divine and human spheres-the miraculous power was not their own. Furthermore, they refused to profit from the miraculous. They consistently deflected honor and wealth, and they shunned self-aggrandizement. Perhaps most importantly, the early Christian missionaries subordinated miracles to the kerygma. "The miracle arouses astonishment, but ultimately it is the message, the gospel, the word of God . . . that is decisive" (p. 53).

This insight allows Klauck to re-investigate the case of Simon Magus. While many interpreters have spoken of the hypocritical intentions of Simon's pretended belief, Klauck concludes that his faith was sincere. However, it was also superficial and precarious, since it was not adequately founded upon the Christian kerygma. This concern for preserving the integrity of the Christian message also helps Klauck explain Paul's opposition to the Philippian soothsaying slave-girl. She proclaimed Paul's preaching as "a way of salvation," but her anarthrous statement revealed a dangerous ambiguity. Klauck's investigation of the importance of "boundaries" allows him to conclude that those who burned their magical books in Acts 19 bad already been members of the Ephesian church. Since "remnants of popular religiosity" could also threaten the Christian community from within, Luke called for resolute opposition as well as caution in dealing with lapsed members.

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