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Miracles not magic

Christianity developed in a world with a well-articulated understanding of a multilayered and hierarchical universe that was, above all, animated. Most inhabitants of the ancient world envisioned cosmic energy as alive, meaning that the essence of physicality, spirituality and ethics rested in a host of supernatural sentient beings. Among those beings were demons who dwelt in the space between the earth and the Moon.

In the mid-2nd century, CE Justin Martyr explained the role of demons in Christian thought. The sons of God succumbed to intercourse with human women, and they begot children called the Nephilim (meaning giants). The progenies of the Nephilim were demons. These demons enslaved the human race, sowing wars, adulteries, licentiousness and every kind of evil. All the pagan gods, Justin warned, were, in fact, demons who haunt the earth. The North African bishop Augustine offered a different genealogy. He identified demons as the rebel angels who fought alongside and suffered the same fate as Lucifer (also known as Belial, Beelzebub, the Devil, Satan, and the ‘Day Star’) whom God cast out of heaven after he mounted a failed rebellion.

Both pagan and Christian ideologies envisioned demons in prominent roles but, for pagans, demons could be both good and bad. They resembled deities in that they shared in their immortality, but they were also subject to obnoxious, irrational cravings. Demons were positioned between humans and gods, and could act as guardian angels. Demons were corporeal, though of a material much lighter than, and superior to, the human form; they could move faster than mortals, read thoughts, and slip in and out of spaces impossible for the human body to occupy.

For the Church, all demons were malevolent. Christians saw demons as shape-shifters who copulated promiscuously with human beings, controlled the weather, sickened their victims, flew through the atmosphere, impersonated the dead, predicted the future, and were always to be feared. The 4th-century Christian writer Lactantius wrote:

Because these spirits are slender and hard to grasp, they work themselves into people’s bodies and secretly get at their guts, wrecking their health, causing illness, scaring their wits with dreams, unsettling their minds with madness.

It is important to note that in the 4th century when he wrote, the notion of a super-demon, that is Satan or ‘the Devil’, had not yet developed. Until the high Middle Ages (c1050-1200) Satan was just one more demon, albeit a particularly nasty one.

Augustine was the most instrumental of the Church fathers in articulating the theology governing the relationship between human beings and demons. Miracles are allowed by God and wrought by faith, not by incantations and spells. Marvels not performed for the honour of God are illicit sorcery accomplished by the deceitful tricks of malignant demons. Magic took place when humans trafficked with demons in order to carry out particular deeds such as divination, casting spells, love magic, raising storms, and astrology. Demons feasted on the smoke, incense and odour of blood rising into the clouds from animal sacrifices. They craved blood, so, in order to lure demons, people mixed gore with water or offered up burnt sacrifices. This exchange created a contract by which humans could enlist demons to do their bidding. Feasting on sacrificial flesh in cultic ceremonies was not the only way to attract demons. Any ritual activity that resembled pagan worship, such as honouring idols, casting spells or worshipping in the outdoors – regardless of intention – was magic. The Christian clergy had to be ever vigilant that the people under their care were not inadvertently interacting with demons.

In its attempt to distinguish itself from the many cults and belief systems that formed a veritable mosaic in the ancient world, early Christians had to confront demons, the magic they facilitated, and the contumely of other religionists. That was an awesome task because magic was ubiquitous. One of the earliest undertakings of Christian apologists was to counter slurs against Jesus and his apostles that they were nothing more than charlatans taking advantage of the superstitious disposition of the ignorant. Pagans slung insults at Christians for passing off tricks as miracles. The 2nd-century pagan philosopher Celsus referred to Christian miracles as masquerades for scandalous ‘trickery’, less impressive than the stunts of jugglers who performed in the marketplace.

Nothing filled demons with dread and kept them at bay like a sanctified church


The foundational metaphors of Christianity and paganism differed and conflicted with one another. The importance of place emerged for Christians as they crafted a new identity and a way to express it through ritual. Pagans looked to the natural world for meaning. Christian identity, on the other hand, was manifest in human-made consecrated structures such as churches and shrines. The new place of worship had to be one where demons did not feel welcome. When Christians established consecrated sites (the settings of ritual), they were often competing with pagan holy places that abounded in the world of nature – spots near lakes, beneath trees, at hallowed rocks, and in forests. Although Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions were temple-oriented with a sophisticated concept of enclosed ceremonial, the common person did not, as a rule, enter the hallowed domain, and most popular ritualistic, religious activity took place in the fields or outside the temple precinct – in short, out of doors.

Christians created a new kind of space where demons dared not tread and in which continuity with old rites and the worldview they stored were thwarted. These churches provided a clean slate on which Christians could write in the language of ritual. The building became a symbol for the new religion. It was more than just a different location from those frequented by pagan celebrants and inhabited by their demonic deities. It was a new concept of place particular to Christianity – cleansed of demons, consecrated to that special creator god who does not inhere in his creation (trees, rocks, springs) and should not be worshipped through it. Nothing filled demons with dread and kept them at bay like a sanctified church. The motif of demons fleeing in terror from a consecrating bishop was familiar in late antiquity when the fight against idolatry was a matter of openly confronting pagan cults. In the 3rd century, Gregory the Miracle-Worker prayed at the local temple, and the next morning the temple warden could not induce a lingering demon to enter. Christian structures were fortifications against demons.

Christian and pagan symbols also diverged in regard to shrines of the dead found in cemeteries outside the city walls. Christian and pagan approaches to death differed starkly. For pagans, the grave was a feared, polluted and haunted space from which the living recoiled. Early Christians fashioned a new kind of hallowed place where the dead and the living commingled, and these shrines were protected from the infiltration of the insidious demonic powers swirling around the tombs because they were protected by the supervision of the Church. In his 4th-century Life of Constantine, Bishop Eusebius advocated that pagan temples built over Christian holy sites be demolished and replaced by Christian shrines. He lamented that the emperor Hadrian and ‘a tribe of demons’ had defiled a Christian sacred place by building a temple to ‘impure’ Aphrodite over Christ’s tomb and had proffered ‘foul sacrifices there upon defiled and polluted altars’.

The distinctive Christian approach to death emerged as a central feature in the competition with pagans for cultural dominance. Despite the radical differences in pagan and Christian notions of mortality, there were also similarities, and these frustrated the new religion in its effort to establish itself as unique.

Necromancy in the ancient world pertained to the practice of calling the dead back to life for the purpose of learning the future. Pagan works portray contact with the dead as ghoulish and repugnant, but, if approached gingerly and undertaken for desirable ends, it was justified. Revivification of the dead was a major feat that required concentrated syncopation with cosmic powers, and such collaboration was realised and made safe through carefully executed rituals. For example, in his novel The Golden Ass, the 2nd-century pagan philosopher Apuleius relates a story of the corpse of Thelyphron, whom the Egyptian prophet Zatchlas temporarily revivifies so that the deceased can solve a mystery regarding his sudden demise.

Thelyphron had recently married, but he died shortly afterward. As his funeral procession winds through the streets of a city in Thessaly, the rumour goes out that his wife had killed him by the use of poison and the ‘evil arts’. She protests, and the crowd settles the matter by asking Zatchlas to recall the spirit from the grave for a brief time and to reanimate the body as it was before his death. Zatchlas agrees. He begins the resurrection by placing a herb on the cadaver’s mouth and on his chest. Then the priest turns to the east and prays silently to the majestic sun, asking that the corpse be granted a momentary reprieve. The irritated dead man comes to life and complains that he was already being ferried over the river Styx; he asks why he had been dragged back among the living and begs to be left to return to his rest. The shade then confirms that his wife murdered him. In this case, the motive for interaction with the dead was worthy and accomplished with a careful, simple rite and a silent prayer.

To pagans, Christian practices seemed mordant and cannibalistic


A different and chilling case of pagan necromancy comes from the 1st-century Roman historian Lucan. In this story, Lucan describes the craft of Erictho, a medium who summons a spirit from the grave to reveal to the consul Pompey (who’d died in 48 BCE) the outcome of his impending battle with Julius Caesar (who’d died in 44 BCE). Lucan writes:

[S]he chose a corpse and drew it along with the neck noosed, and in the dead man’s noose she inserted a hook … Then she began by piercing the breast of the corpse with fresh wounds, which she filled with hot blood … [Erictho mumbled:] ‘I never chant these spells when fasting from human flesh’ … She raised her head and foaming mouth and saw beside her the ghost of the unburied corpse … [T]he dead man quivered in every limb; the sinews were strained, and he rose, not slowly or limb by limb, but rebounding from the earth and standing erect at once.

The tale of Erictho captures the pagan horror of necromancy and the repulsion they felt toward not just magic but mortality. The scene bespeaks the ugliness of death, which Romans found anathematic and polluting. This dread shaped pagan views of Christians, who seemed to savour the dead. They frequented burial grounds, celebrated death days, held up martyrs as role models (cherishing their body parts), and circulated stories of Jesus as a heroic figure because he could bring the deceased from the grave. This pursuit of intimacy with the dead repulsed pagans. They suspected that initiates to the new religion engaged in eating human flesh when, during the Eucharistic ritual, they consumed the body and blood of the dead Jesus. To pagans, Christian practices seemed mordant and cannibalistic.

Many people in late antiquity saw Jesus and his followers as necromancers. This perception brought forth persistent denials from some of the best minds of the Patristic era. In one respect, pagans were right, Jesus had redefined death, and Christians did approach the deceased differently than their polytheistic neighbours. Whereas most pagan cults dreaded, shunned and burned the dead, Christians formed tender and mutually beneficial relationships with the spirits (and, in some cases, the material remains) of those who ceased to exist on a mortal plane. Rather than ostracising the dead beyond the city limits, by the 2nd century, Christians sought out the remains of their loved ones.

The idea that the dead could live again was a central tenet of Christian belief. Following his resurrection, Jesus assured humanity that they could have eternal life. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invests the disciples with the power to emulate his miracles, including resuscitating the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus revivifies Lazarus who had been gone for four days:

[He] cried with a loud voice: ‘Lazarus come out.’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them: ‘Unbind him; let him go.’

For Christians, it was easy to distinguish between Jesus reviving a dead man for purely charitable purposes and the practice of fiends such as Erictho dragging a slain soldier back from Hades for mantic designs, revenge and personal gain. Erictho brought the soul back to the world against its will, not for its own benefit but to assuage the fears of those who engaged her services. The work of Erictho was avaricious, bloody and unnatural. The shade shrank from its former body and entered it only when threatened, and then with great pain. The unfortunate soldier did not receive the gift of life, but an agonising and bitter jolt back to an unwanted consciousness. The resurrection Jesus undertook was unguarded, altruistic, loving and selfless.

Erictho used rituals involving plants, poisons, cannibalism and spells, while in John’s gospel the rite is a simple, controlled word formulation. The same could be said of the ritual performed by Zatchlas, however a distinction can be drawn between Jesus’ revivification and that by the pagan priest. Zatchlas brought the dead man to life for the purpose of telling the future, and the motive was just, but, by Christian reckoning, the act was demonic in that the priest was seeking information beyond human ken. Jesus’ favour to Lazarus, on the other hand, was a miracle done by the Lord – Jesus expected nothing in return. Magic is antipodal to miracle because of the source of power that actualises each. However, distinctions between miraculous resurrection and necromantic revivification were not clear-cut.

Jews and pagans routinely represented Jesus as a magician


Accounts of non-Christian revivification plagued Christian religionists. Stupendous miracles constituted a vital component of Christianity’s claim to authenticity, and the fact that many pagan holy men claimed to bring people back from the grave fed into the rivalry between the fledgling faith and dominant pagan cults. In the early 4th century, a provincial governor named Hierocles, seeking to defame Jesus and the Christian movement, wrote a treatise about Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean magus who lived in the 1st century and was reputed to have miraculous powers to heal the sick, predict the future, and raise the dead. Hierocles compared Apollonius and Jesus, to Jesus’ disadvantage. He cast Jesus’ miracles as conjuring and cheap stunts – the kind any street magician could pull off.

In his treatise, Hierocles describes a resurrection by Apollonius that closely resembles Jesus’ miracle. On one occasion, Apollonius revives a maiden who is being borne to the grave, simply by touching her and speaking a few words, very similar to the way in which Jesus raised the lifeless Lazarus. Neither Apollonius’ nor Jesus’ acts required grandiose rites or ritual substances such as saliva, blood or hairs. Jews and pagans routinely represented Jesus as a magician, and non-Christians commonly compared the marvels of Apollonius with those of Jesus. As late as the 4th century, Augustine alluded to the fact that some praised the miracles of Apollonius along with those of Christ. The sting in the comparison was that Christians considered Apollonius’ powers to be demonic and Jesus’ to be miraculous.

Early Christians bristled when others censured them for necromancy, certainly because the efficacy of the necromantic art rested on demons of the lower air, but also because they sought to distinguish themselves from the many other religions and belief systems in the ancient world. Christian authors worked tirelessly to defend Jesus specifically and Christians generally against accusations of maleficium (malignant magic). Throughout the Early Middle Ages (c500-1000), Christian writers insisted that the power of their holy men and women rested not on demons that lurked between the Moon and the earth, and not on elaborate rites, but on faith, simple Christian rituals, and ultimately on God alone. Elaborate rituals equated to demonism.

In an early Christian text called the Recognitions, the apostles repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are forced to defend Jesus and themselves against charges of magic. According to one story in the text, James sends Peter to Caesarea to refute the magician Simon Magus who is claiming to be Jesus Christ. The character Niceta questions how it is possible to distinguish between Jesus’ miracles and claims to divinity as put forth in the Gospels from those that Simon Magus and false prophets generally proffer. The answer to Niceta’s question emerged from an unexpected quarter. In Matthew and Luke, the virgin birth demonstrates Jesus’ preeminent and singular authority over other itinerant preachers and healers. According to the Patristic interpretation of these two gospel passages, the virginity of Mary was the critical sign that Jesus was not just another prophet, but the Christ called Immanuel. That Jesus was born of a virgin, thus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, was the most demonstrable evidence of his godhood. Christians promoted this argument, at least in part, because the ancient world was full of holy men, prophets and magicians who could perform wonders, including raising people from the grave; this was in no way a unique claim. But the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy involving a virgin birth separated religion from common sorcery.

Christians walked a tightrope on the issue of revivification. The earliest Christian theologians were univocally in harmony with their pagan neighbours on the evils of using (or trying to use) the deceased either for fortune-telling or to exploit the power of death’s liminal state for nefarious purposes. Dealings with reanimated corpses involved the worst sort of traffic with demons. Yet Jesus and his closest male followers resuscitated the deceased, and all Christians honoured the spirits and bodily remains of departed saints and fostered friendly relationships with these special dead. In the end, through sermons from the pulpit and private correction in the confessional, Christian intellectuals were able to convince converts that Christian resurrection was different from necromancy.

At the same time that the clergy expressed ambivalence about ritualism because of its association with paganism, the Church was developing its own vocabulary of pious rites that all Christians could employ in place of those pagan customs that flirted with the demonic. Tracing the sign of the cross, baptism and exorcism all had the specific virtue of keeping demons at bay.

One of the symbols that was easiest to manipulate was the ritual signing of the cross. In keeping with the general prejudice of the early Church against elaborate rites, signing with the cross was simple and employed casually. Crossing as a sign or symbol was a referent to the resurrection of Christ and the salvation of humankind, and it left no room for demonic infiltration like other signs might, in fact quite the opposite; the act of signing with the cross was meant to ward off demons. Beginning with the earliest Church literature, Christians were enjoined to ineffectuate evil and ensure the protection of persons and property by signing with the symbol of the cross instead of employing other superstitious apotropaic procedures. In his On the Military Garland, the 3rd-century Tertullian writes:

At every step and movement, at every entering and exiting, in dressing, in putting on shoes, at the bath, at the table, while lighting candles, when lying down or sitting, whatever we are doing, we mark our forehead by the sign [of the cross].

In his lectures for Lent, the 4th-century Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem says that the cross is ‘a terror to devils … For when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they fear Him who has “smashed the heads of the dragons”.’

Only Christ, working through his designated vicars, could make the whole person sound


The basic initiatory rite of Christianity was baptism, which acted as a foil to demonic infiltration and was rich in evocative and introspective rituals. It is a good case study for seeing how the early struggle for identity was waged on the field of ritual. A central component of the ‘rebirth’ inherent in baptism was renunciation of devils. Demons resided in water and frequented watery places, so the purifying power of the font challenged demons head on. The baptismal sacrament incorporated an exorcism, an explicit renunciation of Satan, and a command that ‘all evil demons depart’. The repudiation amounted to an abandonment of wrongheaded ritual; the catechumen was to say: ‘I renounce you, Satan, and all your service [displays or rituals] and all your works.’ Rather than drawing on demonic power, these Christian usages combated it. They were palliative and a counter to magic-ridden pagan rites, while exorbitant ceremony and complicated machinations with gaudy objects (all absent from baptism) were offensive to early Christians’ sense of the proper approach to God.

In Latin, the word ‘health’ (salus) can also mean salvation, and, since soundness of the body and the soul were interwoven, spiritual and physical wellness continued to be expressed in the language of healing. The clergy and the saints were thought to administer the most effective medicine in the form of prayers, blessings and miraculous cures. Secular physicians were a suitable second choice, but magic was never an acceptable option for healing. To receive bodily cures from magic imperilled the soul and was ultimately self-defeating, even if it worked in the short run. The early Church was particularly sensitive about pagan facility with medicine because pastors felt it was critical for their flocks to understand that, although other gods (demons) could heal the body, only Christ, working through his designated vicars, could make the whole person sound – body and soul – and perpetuate that wellness into the next world.

The earliest Christian writings use the discourse of healing to describe the benefits of the new religion and cast Jesus or the Church as ‘physician’. In some contexts, this characterisation was metaphorical, but it was just as often literal. Prayer, penance, supplication of saints and pious living were thought to be genuinely curative. Augustine wrote:

Just as physical medicines, applied by humans to other humans, only benefit those in whom the restoration of health is effected by God, who can heal even without them.

He submitted that both the mind and the body can be ‘cleansed’ best by Christ, who is a better physician than doctors or sorcerers. The very name of Jesus, when spoken, vanquished demons and ensured healing. Tertullian affirmed that all mastery and power over demons came from naming the word ‘Christ’.

In the field of therapeutics, the Christian struggle against magical superstitions was long-lived. It was not easy for the new religion to suppress age-old remedies that were generally applied in intimate and quasi-private settings: the home and the monastery. The time-honoured feel of traditional paganistic cures and the texts that transmitted them added legitimacy to the rites that had kept people safe for generations. The Church’s sought-after ownership of health provoked a rivalry with pagan cults, because certain of the deities had always been healers. The most renowned of the healing deities was the Greek god Asclepius. Of all the healing cults, his sect posed a particularly competitive challenge to Christians in the fierce rivalry over healing. Justin Martyr maintained that demons introduced the ‘myth’ of Asclepius to challenge Jesus’ prowess as a healer. Justin claimed that the Devil so feared Jesus’ popularity that the ‘Evil One’ brought forth Asclepius to imitate the gospels and cheat men of their salvation.

Christianity was ultimately successful at establishing itself as the only legitimate religion in the Roman world. However, the struggle for supremacy was protracted and hard fought. The Church was met with the challenge of facing down an ancient, finely chiselled and much beloved cultural system of which demons and magic were a part. Christianity’s success was due, in part, to the development of a new and thoroughgoing system of rituals responsive to its own worldview.

Sam Haselby