Magic in the Ancient World and the Bible

In November I went to the annual national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco.  I spent three days listening to over 30 papers written by some of the most preeminent biblical scholars in the world.  It was quite an amazing experience.  Hopefully, one day I will present something at that conference, but that’s a day at least several years away.  For now I’d like to turn several of my favorite presentations into blog posts.  Many of the presentations I heard were on magic, amulets, spells, and exorcism in the biblical world.  Join me as we look at the first one: the exorcism of Jesus.  (update: May 3, 2013: I never got around to writing the other two. Sorry. I have changed the title to reflect that this is no longer “Part 1”.)

This series is based on the presentations I heard at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. This blog post is based on the presetation:Dashing a Foot, Trashing a Tradition: On the Use of Psalm 91 in Matthew 4 (Abstract)
Carl Pace, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

Ancient Exorcism

There appears to be ample evidence of a rich tradition of using scripture to exorcise spirits. This tradition is not unfamiliar to modern readers, for we have heard of exorcists today, and certainly seen movies about it. The idea is that the holy text itself has a certain inherent power in it which is enough to command even demons. This tradition of exorcism using the Hebrew Bible had key texts and characters that strongly stand out in a wide variety of the literature. Out of all the figures from the Hebrew Bible that could be considered exorcists, by far the most popular is King David. That may sound surprising, considering there are certainly better options from the Hebrew Bible where priests and prophets dealt with the otherworldly, but David had very few such canonical adventures. There is perhaps one at the end of 2 Samuel where an angel is bringing a plague, but that might be it. So where does this strong tradition of David as exorcist come from? The answer comes from first understanding the texts used by exorcists: the Psalms. Since many of the psalms are attributed to David in Hebrew lore, and these psalms were used as exorcism texts, then logically David must have been an exorcist. Right? That’s the thought of the ancients.

David the Demon Hunter

There is indeed a rich history of David as exorcist. One of the scrolls found in Qumran contains an account of David the demon hunter:

Of David, concerning … incantation in the name of YHWH, call at any time to Heaven; When he comes to you at night, you shall say to him, “Who are you, offspring of man and the seed of the holy ones? Your face is the face of vanity, and your horns are the horns of a dream. Darkness you are, and not light, sin and righteousness…”

–11Q11 (ApocPs^a) V 1:1-14 (“How to Insult a Demon”)
Translation by Carl Pace

According to the Qumran community, David confronted demons, insulted them, and presumably triumphed over them (though that is not evident from the text above).

Psalm 91

The most important text of this psalmic exorcism tradition was by far Psalm 91. Here is the first part of the Psalm:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
2 I will say[b] of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

–Psalm 91:1-8

amulet scrollThe Psalm is a protection prayer which speaks of terrors at night and pestilence which stalks the darkness. While it acknowledges that these terrors exist, it also calls upon the protection of God to save those who are praying. In and around the first century this text was used not merely as a prayer, but as an assault on demons, whether they had infiltrated a place or a person. At least for some, the protection of God no longer was the saving element, but rather the protection of the recited text itself. This happens with any religious tradition where for some groups the power is no longer in the deity, but rather in the fact that the sacred text has been recited. Modern versions abound. Catholics who believe that because a “Hail Mary” was said that they are forgiven, as if the reciting of that prayer has power in and of itself, follow the same path. People in my own tradition (Churches of Christ) can fall into the same trap when tacking on “in Jesus name” to the end of a prayer. While Christians should pray in Jesus’ name, we sometimes treat the phrase mundanely and without second thought we tack it onto the end of our prayers kind of like a magic phrase that suddenly bends God’s ear and makes him listen/do what we are asking. I say this so it’s easy to see that most of us do this to our religious texts and prayers.

The end of the psalm speaks rescue and salvation, as if the recitation of the text has reminded God of his love for the target of the exorcism and has thus moved God to action:

14 “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

–Psalm 91:14-16

This canonical psalm was found together with exorcism texts in Qumran including the “How to Insult a Demon” text that I quoted above. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, it’s easy to see why this protection song was thought of as an exorcism text. The version of Psalm 91 found at Qumran is heavily amended and speaks of “the sons of Belial” and a heavenly battle. It’s not hard to think about this text growing mythologically after being associated with exorcism because of what the middle of the psalm says:

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge—
10 then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

–Psalm 91:9-14

This middle part of the psalm speaks of angels guarding the one whom this text is being recited to. It also speaks of God’s protection – protection enough to step on lions and trample snakes. I saved this middle part of the text for last because it illustrates the spiritual battle that the Qumran writers associated with exorcism, but I primarily saved mention of this part of the text because of how famous it is: it’s a text quoted in the temptation of Jesus.

Jesus the Demon Hunter

It’s not very strange to think of Jesus as a “demon hunter.” Every demon he comes into contact with is exorcised, including some very difficult ones that seem to require secret knowledge of how to deal with that particular type (Mark 9:29). Jesus is in fact quite the prolific exorcisor of demons. When the gospels quote this text as part of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, the first century reader who was informed of Jewish tradition would have recognized the scripture quotation instantly and all of what I’ve mentioned would have probably surrounded it in their minds.

The striking thing, then, is this: Satan quotes it to Jesus, not the other way around! The informed reader would have expected Jesus to utilize the popular exorcism text against the king of demons himself and yet according to the Gosepls, Satan flips this on Jesus. It at least appears as if Satan was trying to exorcise Jesus!


It’s no surprise that the Gospel writers pick up on all of this when they write about the story of Jesus’ temptation. They can’t include every detail, but they bother to include that Satan quoted Psalm 91 to Jesus. Why? The conclusion of the presenter, Carl Pace, was that the gospel writers were addressing a specific situation. Satan quoting Psalm 91 to Jesus, as Pace put it, “should be understood in part as a polemic against inappropriate magical and exorcistic practices and as a lesson in appropriate conduct for the believer in regard to evil powers.” The believer should not trust in the power of ritual texts – even if they do come from the Bible. There is no power in the text itself, only in God who provided the text. By including the story of Satan quoting Psalm 91 to Jesus, the gospel writers were asserting that the Christian communities should not rely on magic to hold power over demons. They should rely on God alone.

But did early Christians really suffer from this temptation to use the Bible as a ritual-magical text? We know for a fact that this was a problem in the ancient world, even among Christians, because of what’s written in Acts:

A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.

–Acts 19:19

Paul dealt with the same problem: believers in God who were trusting in magical texts to give them power over the spiritual world, rather than trusting in God alone. It doesn’t say, but it’s at least possible that some of these scrolls were biblical quotations. We have, in fact, found a plethora of small “personal” scrolls from the ancient world with biblical text on them. These scrolls are prefaced with dedications (e.g. “For the protection of my wife, children, and relatives”) and decorated with images of angels and demons. You would roll up the scroll and then wear it like an amulet. One of the next posts in this current series will be on early Jewish and Christian amulets.

In the end, Satan cannot exorcise Jesus. Jesus defeats the “king of demons” and then proceeds with a ministry that exorcised more demons than any other rabbi we have record of. The Christian reader should take note: Jesus alone is the source of power to defeat the spiritual world.

Peace to you,



4 thoughts on “Magic in the Ancient World and the Bible

    • Thanks, Phil. Yeah, it has been quite a while (a little over a year, actually). I’ve been so busy with school that it’s been hard to make a blog post. I’ve had this series outlined as drafts in my WordPress account since I went to these presentations in November.

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