I am excited to announce a forthcoming book on Christian amulets: Theodore de Bruyn, Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts (Oxford: OUP, 2017). The book is scheduled for release in late August.
As readers of this blog probably know, I have a keen interest in amulets. My first major monograph analyzed New Testament citations in Greek amulets and Prof. Theodore de Bruyn's work is cited many, many times. His scholarship speaks for itself. Prof. de Bruyn was kind enough to read several portions of my doctoral dissertation and to answer many questions along the way.
Needless to say, this is a book that has been needed for a long time. Amulets have popped up in early Christian studies here and there, but they have largely been ignored, in my opinion. There are so many interesting questions related to the production of amulets, including scribal activities, ritual and social practices, transmission of scripture, Christian symbols, adaptations, "magic," liturgical influences, "syncretism," use by women, etc. I am currently beginning to write an article on the reception of Jesus and Jesus traditions in Christian amulets, an avenue that has not been explored at all. So, I'm very glad to see that amulets are beginning to draw more and more attention by early Christian scholars. I think part of the reason for this is that more and more amulets continue to be identified and published. (I am working together with a colleague on a very interesting papyrus amulet that should be published within a year so stay tuned!) A broad historical study of Christian amulets has been needed, and now that need has been met with the publication of this monograph.
Note: The papyrus on the cover is P.Oslo 1.5, a fourth/fifth century Greek amulet against scorpions, snakes, demons, witchcraft, and every kind of evil in a house, with "magical" and Christian characters. I briefly describe it on p. 31 of my book.
[The following is taken from Oxford University Press' website]
Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts examines Greek amulets with Christian elements from late antique Egypt in order to discern the processes whereby a customary practice--the writing of incantations on amulets--changed in an increasingly Christian context. It considers how the formulation of incantations and amulets changed as the Christian church became the prevailing religious institution in Egypt in the last centuries of the Roman empire. Theodore de Bruyn investigates what we can learn from incantations and amulets containing Christian elements about the cultural and social location of the people who wrote them. He shows how incantations and amulets were indebted to rituals or ritualizing behavior of Christians.
This study analyzes different types of amulets and the ways in which they incorporate Christian elements. By comparing the formulation and writing of individual amulets that are similar to one another, one can observe differences in the culture of the scribes of these materials. It argues for 'conditioned individuality' in the production of amulets. On the one hand, amulets manifest qualities that reflect the training and culture of the individual writer. On the other hand, amulets reveal that individual writers were shaped, whether consciously or inadvertently, by the resources they drew upon-by what is called 'tradition' in the field of religious studies.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
List of Abbreviations
A Note on References
1. Normative Christian Discourse
2. Materials, Format, and Writing
3. Manuals of Procedures and Incantations
4. Scribal Features of Customary Amulets
5. Scribal Features of Scriptural Amulets
6. Christian Ritual Contexts
In the year 197 C.E., an elite Egyptian farmer by the name of Gemellus submitted a series of petitions to the Roman prefect about his neighbors who had been stealing produce from his fields. Copies of the petitions, written in Greek on papyrus, were discovered in an excavated house and courtyard in the ancient Egyptian village of Karanis in 1924. Gemellus tells us that three neighbors—Julius, his wife, and a certain Zenas—performed a strange curse or binding spell to keep Gemellus and those with him from stopping them from stealing the harvest.
Binding spells were common in antiquity and the ritual ingredients that might have been used are known from a variety of Greco-Egyptian ritual manuals. Yet none of those were used here. Instead, the binding spell, performed publicly, was achieved by throwing a dead fetus (βρέφος) at Gemellus and his companions. Here is the relevant portion of text from P.Mich. 6.423:
“In addition, not content, he [Julius] again trespassed with his wife and a certain Zenas, having with them a brephos [βρέφος], intending to encircle my tenant farmer with malice so that he should abandon his labor after having harvested in part from another allotment of mine, and they themselves gathered in the crops. When this happened, I went to Iulius in the company of officials, in order that these matters might be witnessed. Again, in the same manner, they threw the same brephos [βρέφος] toward me, intending to encircle me also with malice, in the presence of Petesouchos and Ptollas, elders of the village of Karanis who are exercising also the functions of the village secretary, and of Sokras the assistant. And while the officials were there, Iulius, after he had gathered in the remaining crops from the fields, took the brephos [βρέφος] away to his house.”
This is the first attested case of fetus-throwing in the documentary record from Egypt. There is also no parallel in the ritual literature from antiquity. Nonetheless, its desired effect (as interpreted by Gemellus) was achieved, because no one tried to stop the thieves from stealing from Gemellus.
David Frankfurter has drawn attention to other wrapped fetuses from antiquity that apparently served as “power-objects.” In Kellis, for example, a fourteen-week fetus wrapped in linen cloth and cord (image at right) was found in debris connected with the roof of a fourth-century house. Frankfurter suggests it was used for the purpose of “binding” the house.
But why throw a fetus?
It appears its association with impurity might have had something to do with it. Another suggestion from Frankfurter is the “weirdness” factor. He indicates that weirdness was seen “as a kind of theatre for sorcery.” To quote Frankfurter, “Fetus magic, then, represented a quite rare use of impure substances that themselves carried little significance when “in place” but an awesome potency when “out of place”—especially in the full theatre of magical aggression implied in the Karanis papyrus.”
I think this raises all sorts of interesting questions about the social world of magic. At the most basic level, it is worth imagining just how this would have been perceived by those involved. In simpler terms: what in the world was going through these guys' heads as they experienced a dead fetus being launched at them in real time? If anything, the odd incident recorded in this Karanis papyrus shows that curse techniques were more varied than what we know from the ritual literature of the time.
Since Christmas is quickly approaching, I thought I would point my readers to a fantastic article by my colleauge, Dr. Stephen Carlson, titled "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7." This article was published in the academic journal New Testament Studies in 2010.
Carlson's study turns the traditional interpretation of the "inn" as being a kind of ancient hotel on its head. He also denies the view that Jesus was born in a stable or barn. Through a detailed lexical and semantic analysis of the term κατάλυμα (traditionally translated "inn") and Jewish patrilocal marital customs during the time of Jesus, Carlson demonstrates that the reference to κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 alludes to a marital chamber built on top, or onto the side of, the main room of a family village home. According to Carlson, the phrase διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι should be rendered "because they did not have room in their place to stay." The reference to "their place" is the marital chamber attached to the family village home of Joseph where the married couple would have stayed for some time before finding their own place. Since there was no space in their room, Mary had to give birth in the larger main room of the house, where the rest of the family slept. Carlson also shows that it was common for a "manger" to be present in the main room of most Jewish homes and so this detail of the birth account is in keeping with Jewish living customs. I quote Carlson's conclusion found on page 342 of the article:
"Luke's infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family's town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke's infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text."
Carlson's conclusions are so convincing that it would take considerable evidence to overturn them. Indeed, some may be uncomfortable with how this evidence changes the face of the traditional Christmas story, but it is, as Carlson admits, "grounded in a careful exegesis of the text." This article needs to be circulated widely, not only among academics, but also pastors and lay people alike, because it has serious implications for how we should understand this story as told by Luke. Carlson has posted this article on his personal website and it can be found here. Happy reading and happy holidays to all!
A reader of this blog brought to my attention a Christian papyrus fragment written in Coptic that is being auctioned off by Sotheby's on the auction house's website as well as eBay (links below). As it turns out, it is one of two codex fragments being sold by Sotheby's and both stem from "The Bible Collection of Dr. Charles Caldwell Ryrie."
Charles Ryrie, who passed away in February 2016, was a biblical scholar and a leading proponent of Christian dispensationalism. In an October press release, Sotheby's announced the sale of his Bible collection, described as “one of the greatest private collections of printed and manuscript Bibles formed since the 19th century.” The sale will take place in New York on December 5 and “will include some 200 lots of manuscripts and printed Bibles.”
The two Coptic manuscripts currently listed are as follows.
UPCOMING LOT 1. FRAGMENT ON PAPYRUS OF A TEXT CITING THE GOSPEL OF ST MATTHEW, IN COPTIC. [EGYPT, CA. 550-650 AD] [Sotheby's: here; eBay: here]
UPCOMING LOT 3. LEAF FROM THE GOSPEL OF MARK, IN COPTIC. [UPPER EGYPT, C.800-1100 AD] [Sotheby's: here; eBay: here]
Further descriptions of each codex fragment can be found at links to the Sotheby's and eBay listings above. If anyone knows further details about these manuscripts – such as provenance, sale/acquisition history, etc. – please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly. I would also be grateful to learn where these items ultimately end up.