Podcast episode

Episode 152: Prolegomena to Christian Magic

Continuing with our series of studies on aspects of the Abrahamic esoteric in late antiquity, we are turning to Christian magic. However, the ideological warfare around the term magic and related notions in Christianity is much more fraught than what we have seen in Judaism. We are faced with a strange situation: on the one hand, hostile outsiders accused Jesus of being a goēs and a magos, while Christian apologists vociferously denied this charge. We also have accusations from hostile opponents to Christianity that the Christian congregations are the ones doing the magic; this charge, too, is answered by apologists, and Christian intellectuals like Augustine even turned it back on their accusers, alleging that it was in fact the entirety of polytheist religious culture which was truly demonic and therefore magical in the late-antique Christian sense of ‘empowered by evil daimones’.

On the other hand, we have lots and lots of contemporary material culture, and even extensive textual records, not only of Christian magic, but of pretty nasty Christian sorcery.


Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Augustine of Hippo: all traditional religious practice is demonic: e.g. Serm. 198. Theurgy is just evil magia, despite what Porphyry says: De civ. dei 10.9. Nature does produce miraculous wonders, but many are in fact due to demons: De civ. dei 21.6. Moses and Aaron’s snake-miracle: De civ. dei 10.8; Div. quaest. 83.79.1–4
  • Celsus compares Jesus to cheap performing magicians: ap. Origen Cels. 1.28; 1.38; 1.46; 1.68; 3.44; 5.12; 2.9; 2.14; 2.16; 2.48–49. Occasionally he also admits that Jesus might have some `real’ magic going for him; in this case, it’s the product of corrupt daimones: 1.6.
  • Constantine’s law: Codex Theodosianus IX.16.3. The accounts of later harshness are given by Ammianus Marcellinus, 29.2.26 and 28. Cf. Justinian’s later, more rigorous anti-magic law, Pandects 48:8 13 f.
  • Justin Martyr defends Jesus against accusation of magic: Dialogue with Trypho 69, 7.
  • Origen of Alexandria: Names of power, demonic summonings, and charms are all effective in combatting disease: Cels. 8.61. Jesus’ name effective even when used by evil men: Cels. 1.6. Exorcists of all faiths successfully use the names of the Hebrew god: Cels. 4.33. Magi sunt, qui invocant Beelzebul: Hom. in Num. 13.5.
  • Hostile accusations of magical practice among early Christians refuted by Christians: Hippolytus Philosophumena 6.7 ff; 39 ff; 7.32; 9.14 ff; 10.29.  Lactantius Inst. 5.3. Origen Cels. 6.40 et passim. Eusebius Dem. ev. 3.2; 3.5. Jerome Tract. Ps. 81. Augustine Cons. 1.9.14; 1.10.15; 1.11.17.
  • The Osiris-Christ magical gem can be found here. The crucified Christ without the cross discussed in the episode looks like this:
British Museum gem 231.


Smith 1978 (see below), we quote p. 105.

Recommended Reading:

On Debates within early(ish) Christianity about magic:

  • G. Bardy. Origène at la magie. Recherches de science religieuse, 18:126–42, 1928.
  • N. Brox. Magie und Aberglaube an den Anfängen des Christentums. Trierer Theologische Zeitschrift, 83:157–80, 1974 [sees magic as a divergent, debased aspect of religion; we might not agree, but will still find the discussions of Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine very useful].
  • Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg, editors. Defining Magic: A Reader. Routledge, London/New York, NY, 2014, pp. 33-40 [Augustine].
  • Kimberly B Stratton. The Rhetoric of ”Magic” in Early Christian Discourse: Gender, Power and the Construction of” Heresy”. In Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele, editors, Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, volume 84 of Biblical Interpretation Series, pages 89–114. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2007.
  • Francis C.R. Thee. Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1984.

On the culture of ‘magic’ among early Christians:

  • D. E. Aune. Magic in Aarly Christianity. In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, volume 23.2, pages 1507–557. de Gruyter, Berlin, 1980.
  • Peter Brown. Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity. In M. Douglas, editor, Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations, pages 17–46. Routledge, London, 1970.
  • J. Engemann. Zur Verbreitung magischer Überlabwehr in der nichtchristlichen und christlichen Spätantike. Jarhbuch für Antike und Christentum, 18:22–48, 1975 [discusses evidence for magical practice among clerical circles. Nice].
  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Aspects of Religious Propaganda in Judaism and Early Christianity. In Judah Goldin, editor, The Magic of Magic and Superstition, pages 115–47. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1976.
  • W. Heitmüller. Im Namen Jesu: Eine sprach- und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Neuen Testament, speziell zur altchristlichen Taufe. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1903 [the comprehensive work on the use of Jesus’ name for all sorts of powerful rituals during and after the life of the man himself].
  • Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 1994 [the stuff, in English].
  • Jonathan Z. Smith. Good News is No News: Aretalogy and Gospel. In Jacob Neusner, editor, Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults. Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty, 1: New Testament, pages 21–38. Wipf & Stock, 1978 [an excellent analysis of the ways in which Græco-Roman biographies of wonder-workers, including the Gospel accounts, sought to defend their protagonists from outsider charges of being magi vel sim].
  • Morton Smith. Jesus the Magician. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1978 [a beautifully-written and accessible introduction for the ancient accusation that Jesus was a goēs, and an analysis of the Gospels and other early-Christian documents in terms of defence against this accusation].
  • E.G. Weltin. The Concept of ex-opere-operato Efficacy in the Fathers as Evidence of Magic in Early Christianity. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 3:74–100, 1960.


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