Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Miracle and Magic: A Study in the Acts of the Apostles and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Miracle and Magic: A Study in the Acts of the Apostles and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Article excerpt

Miracle and Magic: A Study in the Acts of the Apostles and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Andy M. Reimer. JSNTSup 235. London: Sheffield Aeademic Press, 2002. Pp. xviii + 277. $110.00.

In recent years, a number of books have appeared that attempt to define or understand "magic" in the ancient world. These books tend to fall into two distinct camps, those that accept ancient descriptions of "magicians" and "sorceresses" as evidence upon which to construct a social history of magic, and those that reject understanding magic as a practice and argue instead that "magic" existed entirely as a polemical accusation: no one actually practiced magic, they were only accused of it. Andy Reimer's revised dissertation attempts to negotiate a middle course through this debate.

Reimer begins his book with a brief survey of scholarship on magic, breaking the various approaches down into two stages. The first stage treats magic in "absolute" terms (using Reimer's terminology) and represents the legacy of early anthropological work on magic. This approach tends to define "magic" in opposition to either religion or science (or both) and regards it in evolutionary terms as primitive or belonging to the uneducated classes (pp. 3-8). The second stage, according to Reimer, approaches magic in relative terms, seeing magic as part of intergroup polemics and not as a practice in and of itself. This approach, which evolved out of the sociology of knowledge, shifts its attention from understanding magic as a practice to understanding how it works as an accusation: it regards "magic" entirely as a locative term and not an absolute one (pp. 8-10). The problem with this approach, according to Reimer, is that it also becomes reductionist, treating all accusations of magic as mere intergroup polemic and ignoring the complexities of the historical reality: "With the present sociology of knowledge approach to miracle and magic, all that seems to be accomplished is that we are building a grand file of case studies which prove that 'miracle' and 'magic' are simply empty labels that competing religious groups use for their own convenience" (p. 10).

Reimer goes on to suggest a third approach, one that will move beyond what he calls "the sociology of knowledge loop" (p. 10). He proposes that the labels "magic" and "miracle" rest on "some shared ground" between the ancient writer and his audience, which would have made these labels meaningful. Miracle-workers themselves, he writes, appealed to this shared knowledge to avoid the charge of "magic." Thus, according to Reimer, these labels point toward something in reality that the historian can uncover through careful and critical reading of ancient texts: "Once we have carefully observed miracle-workers and magicians in action, we are set to look again for the definition of miracle and magic in the ancient Mediterranean context" (p. 13).

The problem with this initial position is that it already accepts the reality of the labels Reimer seeks to understand. By treating polemical accusations of magic as descriptive, Reimer not suqDrisingly discovers that "real" magicians look a lot like negative caricatures of them in stereotype. He does not address the possibility that the negative characteristics of the magician along with the label itself may be part of the polemical charge laid on religious competitors. Instead, Reimer accepts the descriptions of religious virtuosi as accurate portraits'and assumes that the characteristics ascribed to them (whether positive or negative) genuinely represent their activities. He writes that he wants to recreate the moment in which a person "associated with extraordinary phenomena first arrived on the scene and the members of these groups were forced to decide on the status of these phenomena" (p. 13). This operation assumes, however, that the label innocently follows the activity and that naming does not involve ideology and is not bound up with issues of power and authority, legitimacy and illegitimacy. …

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