Ancient Curse Tablets and the New Testament | New Publication

Michael Hölscher/Markus Lau/Susanne Luther (Hrsg.), Antike Fluchtafeln und das Neue Testament. Materialität – Ritualpraxis – Texte [Ancient Curse Tablets and the New Testament. Materiality – Ritual Practice – Texts] (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 474), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2021. XII + 570 Seiten, ISBN: 978-3-16-157592-1 . [to the publisher’s website]

What did cursing mean to people in the ancient world? And what role did the written word play in this context? These questions are addressed by the contributions in the recently published anthology “Antike Fluchtafeln und das Neue Testament. Materialität – Ritualpraxis – Texte”. In this volume, experts from papyrology, exegesis, ancient history and classical philology open up the world of so-called curse tablets (defixiones) for New Testament research.

Cursing was an everyday phenomenon in the ancient world. Ancient people relied on the written word for curses that were supposed to be particularly effective. Many hundreds of such curse tablets (defixiones) have survived on lead and other written media. The texts allow a fascinating insight into a dark world of everyday life in antiquity, into how people dealt with competitive situations of all kinds and into experiences of injustice they had suffered. In these texts, ancient people give free rein to the satisfaction of their needs and the desire for revenge by resorting to superhuman powers. It is not uncommon for them to wish death on their counterparts.


Survey of Contents

The contributions are grouped into three larger sections, preceded by an introduction.


Einleitung / Introduction

Michael Hölscher/Markus Lau/Susanne Luther: defixiones und das Neue Testament: Definitionen – Realien – Problemfelder


1. Antike Fluchtafeln und das Neue Testament: Übergreifende Aspekte / Ancient Curse Tablets and the New Testament: General Aspects

Marco Frenschkowski: Fluchkultur. Mündliche Flüche, das Corpus defixionum und spätantike Sichtweisen performativer Sprache

Curse tablets are a well-established way of coping with feelings of powerlessness, injustice, and similar situations where other cultural patterns of dealing may prove useless. Some of the texts are best understood as prayers, others can be seen as written magical acts. But how do they, as artefacts, interact with spoken “words of power” (Edward Clodd)? How do blessings and curses, prayers and spells, exorcism formulas, passwords and mantras, oaths, acclamations and installation formulas, and many other forms of performative language relate to general ideas on language and ritual in antiquity? Can the poetics and the rhetorical structure of these usually very short pieces be related to ancient ideas about language as such? Do we have in antiquity something like a theory of curses? The paper describes significant differences between curse tablets and oral curses and gives a survey of the Christian reception of both aspects of a “curse culture”. Particular attention is given not only to curses against children, a motif that became central in the European fairy tale tradition, but also to the place of curses in the Jesus tradition and in other early Christian narratives.


Paul Foster: British Curse Tablets and Their Implications for the Study of the New Testament and Early Christianity

This study seeks to locate and understand the curse tablets or defixiones discovered in Britain in their wider socio-religious setting. It is recognised that subsequent to the Roman occupation a new synthetic Romano-British culture began to develop. Within that context religious practices developed that were reflective of both cultural heritages. It is against this backdrop that various examples of British curse tablets are analysed. In particular, examples which have relevance for the study of the New Testament and early Christianity are selected from the two largest caches of curse tablets discovered at Bath and Uley. It is suggested that the transition that began to emerge in the fourth century from a majority pagan culture to a majority Christian society may not have been as large an intellectual and socio-religious shift as sometimes portrayed.


Alison Cleverley: Cursing as Ritual Communication in the Mainz Tablets, and Thinking with the New Testament

This article focuses on the 34 burnt and buried curse tablets from the temple of Magna Mater in Mainz. On the one hand, it is emphasized that these curse tablets offer an insight into the way people in antiquity communicated with the gods, and on the other hand, reference is made to the significance of the materials from which the curse tablets were made. Drawing on the New Testament in comparison with the ancient cursing tablets allows for a revisiting of fundamental questions about cursing. This brings into focus the often overlooked relationship between text and object. These objects of ritual significance, the curse tablets and the New Testament texts, allow us to draw conclusions as to how relationships between individuals and gods and between communities and gods were formed, maintained and shaped in antiquity.


Giovanni Bazzana: Do Not Worry about How You Are to Defend Yourselves. Judicial Curses, Risk in Trials, and the Early Christians as Freelance Religious Experts

This paper considers curse tablets as a “product” offered by freelance experts in the field of religion, whose activity is variously attested throughout the Mediterranean in the early Roman period. Although Christ-followers did not produce curse tablets themselves, their writings display linguistic and formal characteristics comparable to those of the defixiones. Therefore, Christ-followers can also be counted among these freelance experts and the insights gained from research on curse tablets can be used to better understand some socio-religious aspects of the Christ movement. This paper deals with “judicial curses” and compares their features with texts of the Christ movement (esp. Acts 13:4–11; ActPhil 2), in which process narratives play a relevant structural and ideological role.


Markus Lau: Brückenschläge. Gebete um Gerechtigkeit und das Neue Testament. Eine Skizze

This article presents characteristics of prayers for justice as a subcategory of defixiones, elaborates their Sitz im Leben and shows exemplarily where they can be of relevance for the understanding of New Testament texts (like James 1:20) and topics (such as the search for justice or anger management).


2. Fluch und Schadenzauber im Umfeld des Neuen Testaments: Vom Alten Orient bis in die frühchristliche Zeit / Curses and Harmful Spells in the New Testament World: From the Ancient Near East to the Early Christian Period

Sebastian Grätz: Flüche und Schadenszauber im Alten Orient und Alten Testament

In the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East, the magical notions of bonding and banishment by means of curses or damage spells are encountered once in connection with the tradition of covenant theology (which in the Old Testament defines God’s relationship to his people as a contract) and then particularly in texts of different provenance that reflect and react to a magical practice or its imagination. This article examines these two areas in an exemplary fashion.


Simone Paganini: Fluch (und Segen) in der Qumran-Literatur

The Qumran literature contains numerous texts about blessing and cursing. The disposition of these texts and the terminology used for “blessing” and “cursing” – which is often very similar to the biblical terminology – indicate that it is particularly in the “sectarian writings” that this topic plays a central role. The analysis of these writings points to a dualistic understanding of reality, which can only be understood in the context of a law that provides for the possibility of a new covenant (e. g., in 4QMMT and 11QT). Blessing and cursing are also present in the Qumran literature in two central ritual contexts: the organization of a sectarian community (1QS) and the eschatological liturgical war (1QM). Moreover, in the Qumran sectarian literature blessing and cursing serve an important social and religious function: they define the identity of the group and clarify the affiliation to the group. Thus, the community of 1QS and 1QM develops for itself a new covenant that does not apply to all Israel but only to the people who respect the new Torah: they are blessed, while all others are cursed.


Peter Arzt-Grabner: Griechisch-römische Fluchtäfelchen als Zeugnisse antiker Magie. Befund und neue Funde

Voodoo-dolls and curse tablets from Graeco-Roman antiquity have been excavated in as distant places as, e. g., Egypt, Palestine-Syria, Cyprus, the Black Sea, Greece, Hungary, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, and England. More than 1700 so-called defixiones in Greek, Latin, and Oscan are known today (dating from the 5th century bce to the 5th century ce), and the excavations and editions continue. After discussing definitions and classifications of the material, the main part of the article presents a selection of seven different, yet typical curse tablets that have been edited since 2010. A concluding remark suggests refraining from traditional classification models and to focus more on formal aspects which provide socio-historical information.


Sara Chiarini: Early Christianity and Cursing Rituals

This paper deals with the presence of Christian elements in ancient curse inscriptions and with the related question of the extent to which such elements can be considered evidence of the Christian faith of the authors and/or victims of those very curse prayers. Two main findings emerge from this investigation: First, that the mere invocation of Jesus or other figures of the Christian tradition is not evidence for the cursers’ affiliation to that religion, since the practice of cursing can be counted among the most syncretistic rituals of antiquity. The second and possibly more significant finding is the surprisingly low number of formulations with a Christian reference in the ancient curses, especially when compared to the high frequency of Jewish elements. The paper ends with a speculative conclusion on possible reasons for the rare appearance of Christian motifs in the ancient curses.


Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte: Der Name Jesu als magischer Angriff im frühen Christentum

What we call “magic” was part and parcel of the ancient world. Jesus and his followers lived in a world that practiced apotropaic rituals and prayers to ward off or cast out demons and evil spirits. Patristic evidence shows that the name “Jesus” itself was used with that same intention, even by outsiders. Scriptural passages played an important role in the ways in which the early Christians dealt with supernatural dangers, and amulets prove that passages from the gospels were used in this same way. The study of this material is important, since it indicates that Christianity grew out of a combination of elements of Jewish and Hellenistic cultural patterns of behavior.


Stephan Witetschek: Absturz und Knochenbruch. Mentalitätsgeschichtliches zu den Petrusakten und antikem Schadenszauber

The confrontation between Peter and Simon Magus as narrated in the Acts of Peter appears largely to be a contest between two miracle-workers or magicians. Therefore, this conflict seems to lend itself to a comparison with documents of ancient magic, particularly defixiones in the strict sense of the term. A contextual study of the Acts of Peter yields an ambivalent result, since a direct comparison reveals that dissimilarities in form and content outweigh the apparent similarities. However, the Acts of Peter, understood as an entertaining narrative with, at times, a coarse sense of humour, can give us insights into the mentality that seems to be part of the background for many agonistic defixiones as well. The respective characteristics of both types of documents are thus put into sharper relief.


3. Fluchtraditionen und Bindeformeln in den Texten des Neuen Testaments / Curse Traditions and Binding Formulas in the Texts of the New Testament

Bernhard Heininger: Die Bitte um Gerechtigkeit und die Kritik der Gegenseitigkeit. “Feindesliebe” (Lk 6,27–35) im Kontext antiker Fluchtafeln

When comparing Luke’s version of Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Lk 6:27–35) with the Matthean one (Mt 5:38–48), two changes deserve special attention: (1) the blessing of those who are cursing the addressees (v. 28a), and (2) not demanding back what has been taken (v. 30b), both of which are clearly a Lukan addition or reformulation. Both features point to the many curse tablets discovered since the 19th century up to the present. The prayers for justice can be paralleled especially with the Lukan text since they often have to do with theft or loans left unrepaid. This article discusses some of these prayers in combination with the so-called confession inscriptions. Both can be seen as a possible context for the Lukan imperatives which address not only rich people but are directed at the majority of the early Christian communities, the πένητες.


Joseph E. Sanzo: Curses, Exorcisms, and Monetary Improprieties. Reassessing ‘Magic’ in the Acts of the Apostles

This paper examines to what extent the category “magic” can be made useful for the interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts). Using the example of selected passages (Acts 8:9–24; 13:6–12; 16:16–24; 19:13–17; 19:19), it devotes special attention to the question of the extent to which practices and mental patterns associated with “magic” in anthropology and the history of religion (e. g., manipulation of deities or ritual practice in secret, private, or occult settings) or found in objects, texts, and corpora conventionally classified as magical in ancient Mediterranean culture (e. g., defixiones, amulets, or Greek magic papyri) become relevant. In contrast to a widespread use of terminology in New Testament exegesis, this study argues for describing the (presupposed) practices of the opponents and the disciples according with other categories – such as superior/subordinate rituals, legitimate/illegitimate rituals, insider/outsider rituals.


Stefan Schreiber: Von Zauberprofis und Bindungen. Antike Fluchtafeln und ihre Spiegelungen in der Apostelgeschichte

In the Acts of the Apostles, curse tablets are never a topic of discussion. But in some texts, words and expressions can be identified that can be compared to curse tablets, and when individual narratives take place in the milieu of magic or mageia, connections can be considered. This essay discusses relevant texts in this regard, such as Acts 13:6–12, 8:9–25, 23:12–22, and 19:13–17. The language of “bondage” (δέω et al.) that Luke-Acts uses in some places is also reminiscent of curse tablets. Another aspect related to the figure of Bar-Jesus in Acts 13 concerns the question of Jewish cursing practice as seen in the curse tablets. An interesting tablet may help to better understand the social milieu of slave owners and prospects for profit in Acts 16:16–21. As a result, peculiarities of the texts are more pronounced compared to curse tablets. A situation of competition between the early Christian mission and Hellenistic magic practices becomes apparent.


Thomas Schumacher: Feurige Kohlen und die Macht der Feindesliebe. Überlegungen zum Fluchmotiv in Röm 12,14–21

The present contribution looks at Rom 12:14–21 and analyses this passage in the light of the ancient practice of curse tablets and binding spells, which were well known to the Roman addressees of Paul. This approach uncovers a dense cluster of motifs and terms and also clearly reveals the coherence of the entire section and its argumentative focus. At the same time, this interpretation can explain some linguistic peculiarities that have been either ignored in the discussion so far or left without a convincing solution. On the level of content, it becomes clear that Paul suggests that the Romans should adopt counter-cultural behavior instead of using curse practices, in order to steer tension-filled conflicts onto constructive paths and to enable solutions committed to Christian ethics.


John S. Kloppenborg: Cursing in the Corinthian Christ Assembly

Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 5:5 to deliver to Satan a man accused of incest for the destruction of his flesh should be understood as a strategy for preserving the purity of the communal πνεῦμα, not as a means of redeeming the offender. The particular procedure that Paul imagines for the cursing of the offender involves the Corinthian Christ assembly invoking Paul’s presence through “spirit speech”, which simultaneously serves to attract the attention of the daimon who is to oversee the destruction of the incestuous man.


Peter Busch: Christlich korrekt verfluchen in Korinth. 1 Kor 5 und die “Gebete um Gerechtigkeit”

In 1 Cor 5:4–5 Paul demands that the Corinthian community hand over an anonymous incestuous man to Satan. This paper raises the question about the specific “act” that should be performed in Corinth. Based on relevant magical tablets, the author considers calling it a “prayer for justice”.


Susanne Luther: Neutestamentliche “Bindeformeln”? Eine Spurensuche in der paulinischen Korintherbriefkorrespondenz

The Pauline letters present a number of formulations that betray a close connection with pagan curse formulas, which, however, are used in a distinctively different context and for a clearly different purpose. This reception and transformation of the ancient curse tradition serves as a defining marker of early Christian identity over against pagan cults. This article focuses particularly on the Pauline engagement with the topic in 1 Cor 12:3 in connection with Paul’s use of formulas signifying a binding of persons (in)to (the name of) Christ; this seems to indicate a possible apotropaic and protective function of the Pauline ‘binding formulas’.


Konrad Huber: Verhext – verflucht – am Leib gezeichnet. Aspekte von Magie im Galaterbrief?

Reading Galatians in the light of ancient magic and the use of curse tablets, the question arises, if and to what extent some aspects of magic could be assumed for Paul’s letter. Does Paul indicate that his opponents banished the Galatians in order to lead them astray and withdraw from the way of truth? Does he himself hint at magical practices in using a conditional curse against his opponents, or even more – as could be the case in Gal 5:12 – in using a formula to harm them by taking up circumcision as the most apparent sign of their conflict in a subtle and macabre way? Does Paul’s mysterious disease perhaps also require one to think of it as the result of demonic forces? Finally, when H. D. Betz calls the entire letter to the Galatians a “magical letter”, which intends to convince its audience not only through argument, this description at least suggests that one can compare this writing with the functions of ancient curse tablets.


Michael Hölscher: “Und er band ihn für tausend Jahre”. defixiones und die Charakterisierung des Satans in Offb 20

This essay focuses on the scenes of binding and releasing the devil in Rev 20:1–3; 7–10 and is particularly interested in the extent to which the text alludes to the wording of the defixionum tabellae and which kind of statements result from these allusions regarding the characterization of evil in Rev 20. The following motifs are discussed: the angel coming down from heaven (Rev 20:1), the keys to the Abyss (Rev 20:1), the great chain (Rev 20:1), the interaction with the devil (binding, throwing him into the Abyss, locking and sealing the Abyss, releasing; Rev 20:2–3, 7), and the topic of legal proceedings (Rev 20:4–6).


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Michael Hölscher, Ancient Curse Tablets and the New Testament | New Publication, in: Entzauberte Rituale (13. Januar 2022), online verfügbar: https://defixiones.hypotheses.org/121 (abgerufen am 26. Januar 2022).

Michael Hölscher

Dr. Michael Hölscher ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Seminar für Biblische Wissenschaften, Abteilung Neues Testament, der Universität Mainz.

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