Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

3

THE EVIL EYE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

J. Duncan M. Derrett

THE EVIL EYE AS A CAUSE OF ILLNESS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

George P. Murdock summarizes a quantity of anthropological data on the causes which pre-scientific peoples have attributed to illness, and he attempts to account for the major causes so imagined (Murdock 1980). 1 It is known that the perception and diagnosis of illness differs even in Western Europe from territory to territory (Payer 1990). To Murdock it was clear that witchcraft and the Evil Eye were recognized as the prime cause of illness in Babylonia (Murdock 1980:38, 58, 62) and that the latter was and is a witchcraft technique in the circum-Mediterranean region (Murdock 1980:40). Not rare elsewhere, this technique for causing illness in others is significantly perceived in the very region to which our New Testament authors belonged. The Evil Eye is attested in 88 per cent of the societies of the region, but witchcraft is outranked by spirit aggression, which rates as important in 96 per cent of the constituent societies, the imaginary supernatural aggressors being major deities and gods (Murdock 1980:49; cf. Derrett 1985:99-103, Gerasenes/Girgashites). Spirit aggression figures even more largely in East Asia (Murdock 1980:51, Table 3). Mystical retribution as a cause of illness, if found in the Mediterranean region (Murdock 1980:52, 90), is proportionately less well represented there than in North America, where the native societies provide the largest number of instances.

Murdock does not examine ancient Jewish sources exhaustively, nor does he use the New Testament as an anthropological source. Since the New Testament authors knew that Greek was understood from Spain and North Africa in the West to the eastern extremities of Afghanistan, to the Oxus and north-western India in one direction and to Ceylon in another, we can be sure they expected their own style and its implications to be grasped by the most diverse social groups, manifesting the widest variety of theories of illness. They were as well informed as Murdock.

There is no reason to surmise that Mediterranean societies have undergone fundamental changes, removing or replacing superstitions within the relatively short interval of two millennia. The ubiquity of the superstition of the Evil Eye

-65-

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