Ancient Jewish Magic

By Noy, David | Shofar, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Ancient Jewish Magic


Noy, David, Shofar


Ancient Jewish Magic, by Gideon Bohak. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 483 pp. £70.00 / $135.00.

This book represents an academic tour- de-force, based on die author's vast knowledge of ancient source material and modern scholarship; the 44-page bibliography is an important resource in itself. It is written in a clear and often lively and entertaining style, full of such memorable vignettes as R. Shimeon b. Shetah and the eighty witches of Ashkelon, and is almost entirely free from misprints. Bohak leads the reader through the difficult material carefully, with frequent summaries and cross-references.

None of the three words of the title is entirely self-explanatory, as the Introduction acknowledges (Bohak returns to the issue in Chapter 5). "Ancient" as opposed to medieval, but Bohak makes much use of Genizah material whose origin is often undatable; the cut-off date he uses, at least theoretically, is the 7th century CE. "Jewish" as opposed to non-Jewish, but there was considerable borrowing and overlap, although Bohak ultimately emphasises what was distinctively Jewish. And what exactly is "magic" (as opposed to, e.g., medicine, miracle, astrology, prayer)? Bohak largely avoids giving his own direct answer to this hotly-debated question.

The book is divided into six chapters. 1: "Jewish magic: a contradiction in terms?" The Hebrew Bible does not forbid magic per se, as sometimes claimed, only certain practices or practitioners. In fact, biblical holy men were praised for magical actions, and the prohibition on consulting foreign practitioners actually encouraged the development of Jewish magic, Jewish magicians might not be able to coerce God, but there were plenty of angelic and demonic powers they could work on. Magical techniques were apparently considered to "work" even where it is very difficult for us to see what effect they could have had; one might note that many of the practices of ancient medicine seem to have survived a similar shortcoming.

2: "Jewish magic in the Second Temple period" and 3: "Jewish magic in late antiquity - the 'insider' evidence." Bohak stresses the difference between insider and outsider evidence, i.e., between evidence provided by practitioners of magic themselves (sometimes in the form of "finished products" such as written spells or inscribed objects with magical properties) and discussion of magic by non-practitioners. There is little evidence of either sort from the Second Temple period, when exorcism is the best-attested magical practice, but a vast amount of insider evidence from Late Antiquity due to a cultural change in which writing became an important aspect of Jewish magic as "professional" practitioners took over. Metal amulets with Aramaic texts are a particularly important source, and of course much more likely to survive than texts written on papyrus or leather. A gold amulet found near the Roman fort at Caernarfon in Wales (Roman Inscriptions of Britain, 436) has a Greek text but many ttansliterated Hebrew words and phrases not normally found in Greek magic, leading Bohak to see its origin as Jewish (p, 210).

4: "Non-Jewish elements in late-antique magic. …

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