Baker Academic

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jesus in Pagan Imagination - Le Donne

Earlier today I posted a link to a lecture by Craig A. Evans on the topic of Jesus and exorcistic practice in the ancient world. There is some interesting information about the so-called “Jesus Cup” of which there has (to my knowledge) been no scholarly publication as of yet.  More on this artifact in another post soon.  What caught my fancy today was a Greek incantation called the “Charm to induce insomnia” (No. 9. PGM XII.376-96):
“Take a living bat and on the right wing paint with myrrh the following figure, and on the left write the seven names of the god as well as, “Let her, NN whom NN bore, lie awake until she consents.” And so release the bat again. The names to be written on the left wing are these: “I call upon you, great god, Thathabathath Pepennabouthi Peptou Bast Jesus Ouair Amoun …. Let her, NN, lie awake thought the whole night and day, until she dies, immediately, immediately, quickly, quickly.”
(Translation by R. F. Hock, in Betz, Greek Magical Papyri, p.166-167). 
The reference “NN” is where the name of the woman and the name of her mother should be inserted. The poor woman in question (if this spell comes off as intended) is supposed to be unable to sleep until she gives this jerk was he wants.

Evans suggests that this instruction was meant to coerce a woman to consent to marriage or sex.  I’m more inclined to see this in a different way.  It might have to do with marriage, but one wonders whether the spell might have been more effective on the parents of the woman, those who would have a greater say in the decision to marry her off.  Or maybe this guy is trying to cast a spell on his own wife who is refusing him sex (I can't imagine why; he seems like such a catch!).  But it is equally likely that the woman in question is refusing to consent in other matters.  For example, the first-century Babatha documents demonstrate that wealthy women held property, custody of children, etc.  It could be that the problem is business related.

What is most interesting to me about this text is that it is decidedly not Jewish or Christian and yet the name “Jesus” appears in the list of foreign names.  It was not uncommon for “exotic” culture/speech to be seen as powerful in incantation.  It was an ancient form of ethnic prejudice that survives in modern times (cf. Big Trouble in Little China, All of Me, or almost any movie with a "magic negro" theme).  The more exotic the culture, the more powerful the incantation – or so many people thought.  In the case of this incantation, the man who is supposed to repeat the words “Thathabathath Pepennabouthi Peptou Bast Jesus Ouair Amoun” probably had no idea what these words meant.  In all likelihood, the virtue of these words is that they were understood as powerful by exotic practitioners of incantation.  With this in mind, do we have a list of foreign deities here?

If so, notice that the name Jesus is listed.  Of course, the name “Jesus” was popular.  But (1) Jesus was known widely as an exorcist and healer, and (2) there aren’t any other gods named Jesus.  There is a very good chance that this text gives us an outsider perspective of Jesus in the popular imagination of ancient pagans.


Anthony Le Donne (Ph.D.) is the author of the books The Historiographical Jesus, and Historical Jesus.


  1. Anthony,

    Interesting post, along with the lecture from Evans. I had a couple of thoughts on both the lecture (which I posted there) and this post, which I'd be interested to hear back on if you had the time.

    1. PGM as a whole is really just an easy way to refer to the eclectic compilation by Preisendanz/Betz. I'm not really accusing either you or Evans of not knowing this or whatnot, but I find that when people quote from 'PGM,' the spells contained therein are easy to decontextualize. What I find really interesting about both PGM IV and XII (two notable places where the name of Jesus appears), are that both represent fairly long compilations of spells, probably by an editor.
    2. In PGM XII, there is another long spell (270-350), which is for the creation of a ring (in the incipit identified as "for success, favor, and victory"), however, as the spell goes on, other applications are noted, one of which is "It also works for demoniacs [δαιμονοπληκτους]." In the following section of names, the first invocation, after the phrase "Greatest god, who exceeds all power, I call on you" is IAO SABAOTH ADONAI EILOEIN, along with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob later on. In this spell, what is likely "Elohim (EILOEIN)" is misspelled, along with the names of the three patriarchs. In the spell you and Evans quote, "Jesus" is also misspelled (ΕΙΗΣΟΥΣ). These factors do seem to point to a person using powerful names without necessarily being an adherent of the Jesus movement, perhaps working on the memory of a particularly effective thaumaturge using just these appellations.
    3. Turning to PGM IV, which I know you don't mention here, but which I think has some bearing on it, Evans quotes lines 1227-64 (Rite for driving out demons) and 3007-86 (Pibechis Charm). He claims that both of these spells are 'pagan,' which in the latter case is based on the adjuration "God of the Hebrews, Jesus." However, he leaves out huge portions of this spell which actually point to someone who has a great deal of knowledge about Jewish traditions and legendary material. Furthermore, A.A. Barb has done a bit with this phrase in an article on three amulets using similar wording, which are surely Jewish.
    4. The former spell (1227-64), which is only touched on in Evans' presentation is again noted as being likely a 'pagan' using a powerful name, but if this spell is contextualized within PGM IV as a whole, only this spell and the Pibechis charm really have anything to do with "casting out" daimones. All other references to daimones within PGM IV are more or less neutral, mostly in spells which actually give instructions for their attraction and use for various purposes. I find it curious that the two spells invoking the name of Jesus in PGM IV also happen to be those used for the expulsion (not control/use) of malevolent forces named as "daimones".
    3. So, I am interested in whether we have here attestations of Jewish/Christian/a bit of both thaumaturgical traditions dealing with the expulsion of demons (exorcism) that have actually migrated into a late antique compendium of spells via an editor or compiler. Further, I am interested in what it might mean for the earliest memories or traces that early Christians may have left in the eyes of those outside the movement. Such would ultimately fall within the argument of Ramsay MacMullen, which claimed that it was the thauma/dramaturgy of exorcism, with its clear demarcation of evil/good forces (no more useful daimones here!), and the ability of those possessing the power of Jesus' name to rectify and eliminate these malevolent forces from the bodies of the afflicted.

    I know that this is really long, so I certainly don't expect you to read and comment on the entire thing.

    1. R., you are right on to draw attention to the problem of context. It has been notoriously difficult to nail these to a particular community or ideology. The text I cite above does indeed look from the internal evidence that it was not (in its present form) a Jewish or Christian incantation.