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09.11.05, Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic

09.11.05, Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic

In this well-written monograph, Gideon Bohak provides a diachronic study of Jewish magic, focusing on the era between the second temple period and the end of late antiquity. The author writes in a periodic style that will serve to guide less knowledgeable readers through complex material and with sense of humor that will not be lost on experienced scholars. The foremost purpose of the work is to provide a historical overview of the development of Jewish magic in the period through careful examination of what Bohak terms "insider" and "outsider" sources. Bohak maintains the distinction between insider (emic) and outsider (etic) material throughout the book, and this classification allows Bohak to appropriately contextualize literary, archaeological, and papyrological evidence. Bohak's ability to integrate diverse sources in a unified study is one of the great achievements of the work. Indeed, students and scholars will find the book useful for its presentation of papyri and archaeological material, some of which have thus far only been published in obscure venues. Although the book is ostensibly limited to the subject of Jewish magic, Bohak engages the broader subject of the development of Jewish identity throughout the text, and students of that subject will find this study useful and provocative.

Bohak states, "the last good book" on Jewish magic was Ludwig Blau's 1898 work Das altjüdische Zauberwesen, 2d ed. 1914. He is certainly correct in that no recent work has attempted to analyze the topic in anywhere near as comprehensive a manner as Blau's. Thus, discoveries of new texts and archaeological material in the twentieth century call for an up-to-date treatment of the subject that can integrate such material. In addition, the past quarter century has witnessed a large number of smaller publications on particular aspects of Jewish magic. The need to synthesize these studies also justifies Bohak's book-length treatment. Bohak's endeavor is ambitious in scope, as his discussion of Blau's seminal work indicates. However, Bohak repeatedly indicates that he does not see his work as the final word on the subject. In fact, he suggests that soon-to-be-published material will make it obsolete in the near future. The present reviewer is doubtful of this assertion and believes that the book will be a useful reference for some time. However, because Bohak consciously sees his book as part of a process, this allows him to suggest avenues for future research throughout the text, which many students will find useful.

The topic "ancient Jewish magic" necessitates an explanation of what the author understands that phrase to mean. By "ancient," Bohak means the period from about the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. However, by necessity Bohak discusses some older material and some aspects of later medieval Judaism as he makes ample use of medieval magical texts from the Cairo Genizah and sometimes discusses the relationship between late antique and medieval Jewish magic. As for "magic," Bohak avoids a long, preliminary discussion of the problems inherent in the term "magic" and does not provide a strict definition. Bohak analyzes the term and the subject through emic and etic paradigms. This method allows Bohak to consider material that present-day and "outsider" groups could consider magical, but that the producers of such material would not, and vice versa. As Bohak states, "we are using 'magic' as a heuristic device--a means to gather together a group of related cultural phenomena, texts, and artifacts--and not as an explanatory category" (62).

Bohak devotes considerable energy to analyzing the category of "Jewish Magic." The first chapter, "Jewish Magic: A Contradiction in Terms?" is explicitly dedicated to the question of what is meant by "Jewish Magic." Many scholars have been reticent to consider "Jewish Magic" a legitimate category for a number of reasons. As Bohak relates, some scholars who believe that magic has no place in Judaism have argued that anything magical cannot be Jewish, therefore the category cannot exist. Conversely, other scholars have argued that magic is so pervasive in ancient and medieval Judaism that it is impossible to separate magic from Judaism as a separate category of analysis. Bohak argues that magic is a distinct category within ancient and medieval Judaism, and the chapter makes the persuasive argument that while biblical prohibitions against magic could be taken to mean that magical practices were antithetical to Judaism, a closer reading of key biblical texts (and their reception) reveals a distinction between licit and illicit forms of magic. Bohak finds the origins of Jewish magic as practiced in later periods in biblical prohibitions against sorcery and magicians (Heb. mekhasheph) and the stories of miracle-working men of God, such as Elijah and Elisha. Bohak argues that such biblical sources do not necessarily condemn magic per se, but they do prohibit foreign magic. Thus, specific biblical prohibitions against magic can be interpreted in the broader context of biblical distinctions between Israel and its neighbors. The result of such biblical prohibitions, Bohak argues, is the evolution of a distinctively Jewish system of using words and media to effect supernatural protection and coercion.

Bohak's second chapter, "Jewish Magic in the Second Temple Period," examines insider and outsider evidence for Jewish magic from about 200 BCE to 100 CE. Bohak rightly indicates that, compared with the centuries that follow, the second temple period contains a relative dearth of insider evidence for Jewish magical practices. Bohak argues in subsequent chapters that this does not mean that second-temple Jews were not practicing magic. Rather, the lack of evidence in the period, compared to what follows, is indicative of a transition from a primarily oral magical tradition to one that relies more heavily on the written word, both for effecting magic and transmitting knowledge of magic. Bohak's examination of Jewish magic in this period relies primarily on "outsider" evidence, in particular Philo; Josephus; the books of Jubilees, Tobit, and 1 Enoch; and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These sources offer particularly rich insight into second-temple Jewish culture, and Bohak ably uses them to examine Jewish discourse on magic. Bohak also discusses exorcism, one ritual practice for which there is insider evidence from the second-temple period. Bohak demonstrates that while such sources often condemn illicit forms of magic, the terms "magic" and "magician" are rarely deployed as invective terms against Jewish sectarian opponents. This is a significant point, revealing as it does both emic definitions of magic and aspects of Jewish sectarian discourse in the period.

Chapters Three through Six focus on Jewish magic in late antiquity. These chapters are by far the most compelling due to Bohak's ability to put such "insider sources" as magical gems, amulets, incantation bowls, and books of magic into dialogue with late antique Jewish discourse on magic. Chapter Three, "Jewish Magic in Late Antiquity: Insider Evidence," examines artifacts, magical recipes, and treatises on magic (such as Sepher ha-Razim) that Bohak identifies as being created by Jews. This category raises the question of how one knows what objects Jews created. A large number of syncretistic Greco-Egyptian magical artifacts and spells contain Jewish elements such as angel names, the names Iaō and Sabaoth, and images of Solomon, in combination with names and images drawn from Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Gnostic traditions. Such syncretistic material is usually written in Greek, although references to Hebrew sometimes appear. Whether such objects were created by Jews, and thus should be categorized as "Jewish Magic," is a question that many studies of such objects have had to consider. Language is one of Bohak's primary methods to distinguish authentically Jewish material. Thus, Bohak considers magical material to be Jewish if it is written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Exceptions include bi- and tri-lingual Greek-Aramaic-Hebrew texts and Greek spells and amulets that contain extended biblical quotations. This method of distinguishing between Jewish and non-Jewish magical products allows Bohak to examine a clearly defined group of undoubtedly Jewish objects. However, such a rigid distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish magic excludes some potentially Jewish material. For example, most of the magical products written in Hebrew or Aramaic come from Syria, Palestine, or further east. Therefore, material potentially produced by Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews in Asia Minor, Greece, and North Africa is excluded because of language and because material from these regions tends to be of the syncretistic type that Bohak does not consider indisputably Jewish. Bohak does not disguise such limitations. His methodology works well for his study, it is clearly articulated, and it provides him with solid body of reliably Jewish material to analyze. Furthermore, such explicit methodology provides a foundation that further studies can build upon and refine.

Chapter Four, "Non-Jewish Elements in Late Antique Jewish Magic" examines "the non-Jewish elements that can be detected in the Jewish magical texts of late-antique Palestine and its vicinity" (291). The purpose of the chapter is to, "demonstrate and assess the influence of the Greco-Egyptian magical tradition upon the Jewish one [and] to show how such a claim should be demonstrated, and in so doing lay more solid foundations for future study" (228). In this chapter, as throughout the book, Bohak attempts to correct what he considers to be the methodological errors of past studies while analyzing relevant material. To that end, Bohak sets out a clear criterion for examining foreign elements in Jewish magic that signals the importance of distinguishing between parallels and genuine borrowings, determining the status of foreign magical elements in another tradition, analyzing the meaning of foreign magical elements in a new tradition, and determining when foreign elements entered the Jewish magical tradition. The chapter discusses late antique magical texts written in Hebrew or Aramaic and medieval texts from the Cairo Genizah, all of which illustrate Jewish familiarity with Greco-Egyptian magical traditions, parallel developments, or explicit borrowings from Greco-Egyptian traditions. Bohak convincingly demonstrates the varying degrees of contact and acceptance found in such texts. For example, late antique magical technologies such as voces magicae, word-shapes, and charakteres can be found in Greco-Roman, Christian, and Jewish magical texts. Angel names and names for Jewish God appear in all three traditions. However, particular deities are more problematic for late antique Jewish texts. Bohak argues that while Abrasax/Abraxas (one of the most ubiquitous deities in late antique magical texts) appears in dozens of late antique Jewish magical texts and medieval texts from the Cairo Genizah, other foreign deities, such as Helios and Aphrodite, are less common. Bohak also argues that those names that do appear, including Abrasax, are typically invoked as angels, voces magicae, or names of the Jewish God. This illustrates a particularly important point, as Bohak summarizes, "here, as elsewhere, we see how asymmetric cross-cultural contacts and transmissions can often be, with each culture offering to the other much of what it has but receiving only what it can and wants to handle, and thoroughly transforming it in the process" (257).

Chapter Five, "How Jewish Was Jewish Magic?" is a significant contribution to the study of Jewish self-definition in the early rabbinic period and late antiquity, and should be read with other recent worlds on that subject, such as those by Daniel Boyarin and Shaye Cohen. [1] In this chapter, Bohak further refines his answer to the question of how to determine the "Jewishness" of Hebrew and Aramaic magical texts. The chapter also examines the role of magic in synagogues in the vicinity of Palestine and the relationship between Jewish mysticism and magic. The magical texts surveyed in this chapter are limited to those that Bohak argues can be securely identified as Jewish, principally those written in Hebrew or Aramaic, most of which come from near Palestine. Bohak argues that within the group of Jewish texts and products that he has delimited, there is conscious attempt to use a magical technology that accords with biblical and rabbinic theology and statements on magic, in particular the singular divinity of the Jewish God and warnings against foreign magic. There are some exceptions to this rule, and, as Bohak suggests, new discoveries may further reveal the varieties of demonstrably Jewish magic. However, Bohak's demonstration that a group of magical texts reveals the aversion of Jewish magicians to foreign elements and their concern to maintain the unique divinity of God will no doubt serve to further discussion of Jewish magic and Jewish self-definition in late antiquity.

Chapter Six, "Magic and Magicians in Rabbinic Literature," seeks "to re-examine the rabbinic evidence in light of the 'insider' sources, produced by the Jewish magicians who were the rabbis' own contemporaries" (352). Bohak's method of emic and etic analysis works particularly well in this chapter, as he is able in to discuss the "emic" rabbinic categories such as the proscribed magician, mekhasheph, and the not normally rabbinically proscribed Persian magus, Heb. amgusha. This method also facilitates Bohak's commentary on rabbinic discussion of the contexts in which normally forbidden magical practices could be used, such as in the study of magic, for healing, or, my favorite, when doing battle with evil sorcerers. Bohak's discussion of "etic" categories of magic allows him do include in his discussion an analysis of practices that are often considered magical by modern studies of magic, but that rabbinic commentators did not. According to Bohak, such technologies included amulets and the written use of the Name. Similarly, Bohak argues that some practices that modern commentators might expect the rabbis to condemn on the basis or sorcery or magic--such as the use of biblical verses for incantations, the misuse of sacred objects, and the adjuration of angels--are typically condemned as idolatry instead. The analysis of rabbinic categories of magic brings the book into the broader field of the development of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, where this study will no doubt illicit discussion and response.

My only real criticisms of this book are organizational and editorial. The book uses relevant images well, but on one occasion a Greco-Egyptian amulet referred to on p. 197 appears on p. 188, nine pages prior, in a section where the image is not particularly illustrative. Also, each of the book's six chapters is long enough to require multiple section summaries prior the end-of-chapter summary. The sections are logical and the summaries serve to clarify, but sometimes the major heading for a sub-section is not obvious, as on p. 97 where the sub-section and supra-section have the same style of heading. Techniques such as numbering the sections, or even breaking up the chapters and using supra-chapter sections, could make the book easier to navigate and more manageable as a reference, a use to which many scholars and students of late antique magic and Judaism will surely put this text.



1. D. Boyarin, Border Lines (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); S. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).