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Books in Brief: Egyptian and Jewish MSS, BAR 13:03, May-Jun 1987.

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Volume I- Texts

Edited by Hans Dieter Betz

(Chicago- University of Chicago Press, 1986) 339 pp., $39.95

Genizah Manuscripts of Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch, 2 Volumes

Michael L. Klein

(Cincinnati- Hebrew Union College Press, 1986) Volume I, 363 pp.; Volume II, 131 pp., plus 182 plates, $100.00

Few devotees of Biblical Archaeology Review will want to read these two books. Yet they are important to know about. They represent the laborious, painstaking, detailed efforts of scholars to make available to their colleagues reliable texts of primary ancient documents. Other scholars can then use these texts in their own work—to draw inferences in a variety of ways, especially when these texts are understood in the light of other available materials known to one scholar or another. Such is the task of scholarship.

The first of these books, edited by Hans Dieter Betz of the University of Chicago, is a new edition of magical papyri dating from the second century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., mostly Greek, but also some in demotic (a form of cursive Egyptian) and Coptic, translated into English by a team of 16 distinguished scholars.a

From literary sources we know that large numbers of magical books existed in antiquity. For example, in Acts 19-19 (inaccurately cited in Betz’s book), we learn that when Paul was in Ephesus effecting miraculous cures in Jesus’ name, “a number of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to 50,000 pieces of silver.”

Unfortunately, almost all of these ancient magic books were suppressed, destroyed or suffered the ravages of time. According to the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius, in 13 B.C. the emperor Augustus ordered 2,000 magical scrolls to be burned. Sometimes the magicians were burned along with their books.

Short magical texts have survived on clay bowls, on tablets of gold, silver, lead and tin, on inscribed potsherds and even on inscribed gemstones. But the bulk of the extant magical texts were written on papyrus and came from a single acquisition that forms the heart of Betz’s book.
In the first half of the 19th century, an Armenian named Jean d’Anastasi was serving as a “diplomatic representative” at the court of Alexandria in Egypt. Like many diplomats and military men of his time, d’Anastasi was a passionate collector of antiquities. Among his acquisitions was a large collection of magical books written on papyrus, at least some of which he obtained in Thebes. Betz believes that many of the papyri came from the same place, probably a temple or tomb in Thebes, perhaps the collection of a famous old magician. We should be grateful for the acquisitive instinct of these two collectors, one ancient and the other modern, for it is to them that we owe the survival of what is now known as the Anastasi collection.

Initially, however, Anastasi’s magical papyri were not highly regarded. Eventually, they were distributed to various museums in Europe where they were stored as curiosities. Over a hundred-year period, however, most of the then-known papyri were published. A German edition bringing together these papyri was begun sometime before 1908 and finally came to fruition in 1974 (the Preisendanz edition). Betz’s English edition is completely new and contains 50 texts not included in the German edition. Betz’s book will undoubtedly be the definitive edition of these papyri for generations. A second volume will contain indices, a table of parallels between the magical papyri and early Christian literature, and a comprehensive bibliography.

These magical papyri tell us a great deal about the daily life as well as the religious beliefs of the time—direct evidence, as it were. As Betz observes, “Modern views of Greek and Roman religions have long suffered from certain deformities because they were unconsciously shaped by the only remaining sources- the literature of the cultural elite, and the archaeological remains of the official cults of the states and cities.” This collection of magical papyri serves as a powerful corrective. As Betz tells us, these documents are “ … as important for Greco-Roman religions as is the discovery of the Qumran texts for Judaism or the Nag Hammadi library for Gnosticism.”

The papyri contain individual magical spells and remedies, magical formulae, hymns, rituals, liturgies and even bits of mythology. Expressed in Greek, demotic and Coptic, some texts represent simply Egyptian religion. In others, the Egyptian element has been transformed by Hellenistic religious concepts. Most of the texts are mixtures of several religions—Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and even a little Christianity.

Jewish magic was famous in antiquity. These papyri contain divine names and entire passages that seem to come from some form of Judaism. Did this material originate with Jewish magicians? How did it get into the hands of the magicians who wrote the magical papyri? If some of these texts or passages do come from Judaism, what type of Judaism do they represent? These are the kinds of questions scholars may now be prepared to address.

While the Betz book is a joint effort of a team of 16 scholars, the Klein volumes represent a nine-year effort by a single human being. The texts involved are Targums—Aramaic translations and paraphrases. Klein brings together the Pentateuchal Targum fragments that were collected about the turn of the century from a repository in the old Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo.b Jewish law prohibits the destruction of anything bearing the name of God. Accordingly, Jewish communities do not discard or destroy worn-out sacred writings; genizah is the name for depositories of such worn-out writings. The most famous of these depositories is the collection from the Ben Ezra synagogue, universally referred to by scholars as the Cairo Genizah. The Cairo Genizah contained more than 150,000 pieces of manuscript. The documents cover a millennium beginning in about 900 A.D. Many of the documents, however, are copies of much older texts. As Klein remarks, “The Cairo Genizah is the largest and, after Qumran, the most important source of ancient and medieval Jewish documents and texts discovered in modern times.”

The Palestinian Targum fragments from the Cairo Genizah are the earliest extensive attestation of these Aramaic Biblical manuscripts. To find the 38 documents in his collection, Klein scoured the literature for references to published and unpublished manuscripts and examined the major library collections- “In spite of all these efforts,” he admits, “additional fragments will inevitably be discovered in the future.”

In addition to early Biblical texts, these manuscripts preserve ancient elaborations of Biblical stories known as Midrash, and forms of religious laws that were not preserved by mainstream Judaism. These Palestinian Targum fragments also provide the most reliable examples of what is known as Galilean Aramaic.

The second volume of Klein’s two-volume work contains, in addition to notes, commentary and an Aramaic glossary, plates picturing the documents themselves so that other scholars may check Klein’s readings. Looking at the photographs of these faded, torn and tattered fragments, one gains a new appreciation of what is involved in making sense of them. The first volume of Klein’s collection contains his transcriptions and translations. There is much grist here for the scholarly mill.
A number of fragments contain poems and comments on the Biblical text. For example, several different forms of a poem seem to preserve a tradition of a debate or argument among the Hebrew months for the honor of having the Exodus from Egypt occur in it. Eventually the month of Nisan is chosen, “for it is first among the months of the year,” and the people are therefore redeemed in it. In one poetic version of the story, it is suggested that the choice be made by lot. In others, the debate gets quite heated before the choice is made.

The month of Iyyar argues in one poem- “Let the extolled nation be delivered in me, for in me … the manna will rain down for them to eat.”

The month of Siwan tops this argument- “It is I who is chosen for the holy People; in me the light will be revealed [a reference to the revealed Torah]; for in me they will set themselves beneath the mountain [Sinai] and will listen to the commandments from amidst the fire.”

Tammuz argues- “In me the twelve men from the leaders of the delivered ones will be sent by Moses to spy out the land.”

Ellul’s argument is that “in me the humble one [Moses; see Exodus 34] will ascend the mountain [Sinai] and bring down the tablets a second time.”

In a further anachronistic look into the future, the month of Shevat argues that it should be chosen because “in me they [the Israelites] will gather before the humble one [Moses] and he will interpret for them the teachings of the Torah, in Trans-Jordan [see Deuteronomy 1-5].”

The month of Iyyar avoids anachronism by arguing that “in me the righteous Noah was saved from the waters of the flood and he entered the ark safely [see Genesis 7-11].”

And so the argument goes on. And so the stories were taught and learned. In some versions of the poem, there are shoutings, interjections, objections. Nisan silences Iyyar with these words- “Since you are likened to the ox, how can you be a redeemer? Know that the [golden] calf … was the son of an ox and you resemble it!” [The golden calf was made in Iyyar.]

To Siwan, Nisan argues that it cannot be chosen because it would be unfair if the Exodus and the Sinai revelation were in the same month.

The month of Av was deemed inappropriate because in it the Temple was [would be] destroyed.
At one point, “Nisan roars and says to the other months- ‘Hearken to me—to all that I shall tell you … Silence your mouths, for I am their father [the first month] and it is I who shall deliver them from bondage.’”

One can almost imagine poems like these being recited in some early synagogue in Palestine or Egypt in Nisan before the Torah reading on Passover, commemorating the Exodus event.

a. David E. Aune, Saint Xavier College, Chicago; Jan Bergman, University of Uppsala; Hans Dieter Betz, The Divinity School, University of Chicago; Walter Burkert, University of Zurich; John M. Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin; William C. Grese, Olivet College, Olivet, MI; Jackson P. Hershbell, University of Minnesota; Ronald F. Hock, University of Southern California; Janet H. Johnson, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; Roy D. Kotansky, The Divinity School, University of Chicago; Hubert Martin, Jr., University of Kentucky; Marvin W. Meyer, Chapman College, Orange, CA; Edward N. O’Neil, University of Southern California; Robert K. Ritner, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; John Scarborough, University of Kentucky; Morton Smith, Columbia University.

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