Thursday, January 01, 2009

Moses the Magician

It was already an established trope of religious polemics in antiquity: My religious wonders are miracles, your religion has mere magic (Antiquities 2:284). The licit Roman civic cults said as much of the wondrous feats of the mystery sects.

[Moses begins his training]

The Church fathers accused Jews of being wizards (Dialogue with Trypho 85:3; Sermons of Chysostomus; Coun. of Laodicaea, Canons 35-37), and rabbinic literature sporadically argued Jesus was really a magician whose feats derived from his time in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-19), the wellspring of witchcraft (Talmud Sanhedrin 104b; Kiddushin 49b; Toldot Yeshu).

While the distinction seems clear to those embrace a particular faith, defining what is a miracle vs. what is sorcery is more problematic than believers might think. Mesopotamian theurgists performed their rituals by the authority of the gods Enki (patron of magicians) and Asalluhi (patron of exorcists). Greeks believed magic powers were the gift of Asclepius or Apollo. Egyptian court sorcerers also derived their power from their gods. So how is that different from what Moses did with the power granted him by his patron, the God of Israel (Ex. 7:1-6)? The paradigmatic battle between Moses and the wizards of Egypt (7:8-8:15) ends with the wizards admitting that Moses' wonders were unparalleled, but a reader in the ancient world would just as reasonably understood this story as a contest between theurgists and their patron deities, where one magician and his god proved more powerful, but the powers themselves were of a kind. The distinction between Moses and the courtier sorcerers was one of scale, not of a different order.

Because the distinctions are really quite subtle, there arose in antiquity an interpretation of Moses as a scholar/magician in the classical mould of Pythagoras, Pancrates of Memphis, and Empedocles. The fact that Moses came from Egypt was suggestive, just as it was for Jesus. All the peoples of antiquity saw Egypt as the locus of occult and esoteric knowledge. Even the NT books of Acts refers to Moses as wholly steeped in the 'words and deeds' of Egyptian wisdom (7:22). 'Deeds' would mean magical feats to many Greek listeners. The Roman historian Pliny describes Moses as the founder of a 'sect of magic' (i.e., Judaism). This idea of Moses the theurgist appears in individual incantations (PGM 5:109) of Late Antiquity and gets enshrined in both Hebrew (Charba de-Moshe) and pagan (The Eighth Book of Moses) magical manuals. A dominant motif concerning Moses in these books is his power to command angels (See: Angel Adjurations:Drawing Down Divine Power , Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels), a power that others can learn and use.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I've often wondered about the showdown Moses had and this brought a little clarity to it. Thanks.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understood the struggle to move Yahweh beyond the status of Best Of the local gods, but I never thought about the Moses vs Egyptian wizards in this context. Of course! Nice post.

9:25 AM  

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