Thursday, May 9, 2013

Did Jesus Appeal to Evil Eye Magic?

Scott B. Noegel from the University of Washington has dedicated much of his career to academic study of Ancient Near Eastern magic.  If ancient animal entrail divination, dream interpretation and Canaanite cults of the dead are your thing you can check out Noegel’s Jewish magic bibliography.
You’re also probably single.
Apotropaic Roman mosaic from Antiochia,
House of the Evil Eye. Source: 
John R.
Clarke: Darmstadt: Primus 2009
One of the issues raised in Noegel’s bibliography is ancient Mediterranean evil eye magic and the Bible.  Evil eye magic was an extremely pervasive and powerful belief in the Bible’s historical-geographic context (still is in the Mediterranean and a tremendous amount of other world cultures today), and it’s no coincidence the Old and New Testaments share the technical language associated with the belief.  Interestingly, Jesus Himself appeals to the evil eye in His Sermon on the Mount. John H. Elliott (from the University of San Francisco) has written on this in this Biblical Interpretation article.
Is Jesus’ appeal to a false pre-scientific belief system a problem for inerrancy?  Before you stone me to death with Norm Geisler textbooks my answer is no, and a case like this is a great object lesson in divine condescension.

Take for example Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  Why did Jesus chose to ascend bodily before His ancient audience?  Paul Seely in the Westminster Theological Journal (along with scads of other scholars like Horowitz, Geer and Walton) has shown that everyone in that context believed in a solid sky dome (Seely’s article). Heaven was usually considered to reside geographically above this dome.  In fact, the first culture Seely could find that propounded some concept of an atmospheric sky was the Chinese in the third-century. “As late as the sixteenth century a Jesuit missionary to China wrote home saying the idea that the sky is not solid is ‘one of the absurdities of the Chinese’!” (Shows how much he knew.)

The dilemma then is this: We know the throne of God is not geographically located in outer space (errr… at least everyone who isn’t Mormon does).  It is not sitting above a sky dome made of a hard crystal substance to which “the stars are fixed like nails” like Aristotle thought.  Why then did Jesus choose to ascend physically taken up "in a cloud” (Acts 1.9) before His audience when He was going to be with the Father?

Either (1) Jesus is still flying out in space somewhere on his way to heaven.
Or (2) Jesus was condescending to his audience. i.e. meeting them where they were intellectually and using their pre-scientific beliefs as a vehicle for conveying a more important message in a way they would understand.

Talk about a firm grasp on the obvious! God speaks to His audience in their historical situation in terms they can understand.  No Ken Ham, God doesn't need to systematically alter the scientific worldview of His audience in order to communicate with them.


  1. Headless Unicorn GuyJuly 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    The dilemma then is this: We know the throne of God is not geographically located in outer space (errr… at least everyone who isn’t Mormon does).

    Don't forget the Dake's Annotated Bible as well...

  2. So, I agree that we should not read the Bible against the background of our modern ideas. However, I think that you should stop pretending that you can hold to anything like inerrancy. One could say that God condescended to those ignorant first-century jews about the resurrection since that was one of their beliefs. It IS the 21st century after all, and we know that resurrections are scientifically impossible.

    It seems to me that ancient thought was mythological through and through and Bultmann had a point. Why not jettison the whole thing and find some other philosophical medium that doesn't deal with gods, angels, demons, and other forms of woo. I say all this tongue in cheek, but the logical implications are there. Do you care to develop an account of were you would stop with demythologizing theology for modern people? Why stop at the Evil Eye?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Your taste in candor is my kind of style.
      We know scientifically that men do not rise from the dead naturally. We do *not* know scientifically that God cannot act to raise a man from the dead.

      I stop the demythologizing at the evil eye, kidneys and cosmology because the theological messaging in those text isn’t dependent upon the verity of the scientific assumptions of the author. The assumptions are “accidental” to the meaning of the text. (The Hebrew of Psalm 16.7 is a good, plain example of this.) The theology of the resurrection of Jesus, however, *is* dependent upon the scientific assumptions of the author. (i.e. That he really was raised is inextricable with the resurrection’s meaning) Such is the case for Joshua’s long day, or the nephilim hybrids of Genesis, the Exodus, etc. Rest assured. If these elements in the text are unhistorical we have serious issues with inspiration. I’m also not inclined to believe religious truth is a thing which moderns are better able to access than ancients by virtue of our modernity.