The First Christians in Their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Reading the Mediterranean social script

BRIDGING A CULTURAL DIVIDE

Some time ago a friend of mine and one of his colleagues, while touring archeological sites in Turkey, were walking along a road near Ephesus. They had been looking for a particular feature without success when they came upon an old man and a young girl, presumably his granddaughter. They asked him for directions and then moved on. My friend asked his colleague if he had seen what the old man had done as they approached. He had not noticed, so my friend explained that the man had made a sign with one hand, by closing his thumb and two middle fingers while extending his outer fingers, so that his hand looked like a pair of horns, which he had pointed downwards and moved up and down. My friend’s colleague did not know the significance of this even when it had been described to him.

The point of the gesture was to ward off the evil eye. This is a belief that certain persons, often characterised by crooked or cross eyes, have inherently in them a power for evil, generally associated with envy, which is likely to harm anyone but to which babies and children are especially susceptible. Strangers are thought to be a primary source of the evil eye. The old man made the gesture to protect his granddaughter against the possibility that the two strangers who approached might cast the evil eye upon her.

A belief in the evil eye is rampant in Mediterranean lands and in countries in Latin America colonised by the Spanish and Portuguese. It is today and it has been for thousands of years; it is attested in Babylonian sources, for example, dating back to the time of Hammurabi, about 1750 BCE (Before Common Era) (Murdock 1980:58). Anyone who is aware of belief in the evil eye

-19-

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