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Magic in the Middle Ages - Jewish vs. Christian Perspectives

To: alt.magick
From: "John B" 
Subject: Magic in the Middle Ages - Jewish vs. Christian Perspectives
Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2001 10:35:36 -0800

 My personal efforts in this area...


Magic in the Middle Ages --
Jewish vs Christian Perspectives

by John Bilodeau (copyright 2001-2)

It is my purpose in this paper to analyse the
perception of magic among Christians and Jews in the
medieval period. This analysis suffers from some very
real problems that should be addressed at the outset.
It is my hope that through focusing on the perception
of magic, rather than the belief in magic, or the
practice of it, I will avoid some of the more
complicated problems that this type of survey generally
suffers from. If successful this paper will shed some
light on the idea of magic in the middle ages within
these two traditions, and give the reader insight into
some of the reasons for the quality of certain
representations of both Christian and Jewish figures in
medieval tales and records of magical phenomena.

The value in focusing on the perception of magic in the
medieval period lies in the importance of perceptions,
which can exist independently from beliefs in magic's
reality, or in the practice of magic by specific groups
or individuals. It is my belief that perceptions of
magic can more easily be established through this type
of survey, than could any real understanding of the
variety of magical beliefs, or varieties of magical
practice. Both of these more concrete aspects of magic
rely on an initial belief about the quality of magic. A
definition of magic must exist in the mind of the
individual before belief in magic can grow or fade, and
of course before any practice that is considered
magical can be performed or persecuted.

It is perhaps obvious from the preceding statements
that my own definition of magic, for the purposes of
this discussion, must be vague and plastic, if the
medieval perception of magic is to be given a chance to
express itself. In the interest of circumscribing the
topic, I will consider magical any phenomenon that is
considered supernatural that has an element of human
involvement. I will not distinguish between a religious
act and a magical one. A prayer that is answered will
be considered as magical as a successful incantation, a
prophet's dream of the future will be considered a
diviner's successful augury. I propose that we allow
the medieval Jewish and Christian authorities the
privilege of creating the distinctions between magic
and religion. From these distinctions we will perhaps
be able to divine for ourselves what magic meant to
both European Jews and Christians in this period.

This paper is divided into three sections. The first
deals with the Jewish perception of magic. The second
deals with the Christian perspective. And the final
section deals with the interaction of the two religions
as influenced by their individual perceptions of magic.
The first two sections will hopefully establish the
roots and fruits of the concepts that surround the idea
of magic in the medieval period in these two
traditions. The third will focus on the use of these
two religions' beliefs concerning magic and magical
activity. Perhaps some insight into Jewish perceptions
of Christianity, and visa versa, will arise from this

Medieval Jewish Perceptions of Magic

The Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and the various folk tales
and legends that revolve around Hebrew scripture and
authoritative religious texts served to inform a
medieval Jewish understanding of the quality of magic
in comparison to mainstream religious practices and to
influence the growth of the beliefs about magic within
the Jewish community of medieval Europe.

Joshua Trachtenberg begins his analysis of the
development of Jewish superstition with this
disclaimer: " The Biblical allusions to the practice of
magic indicate a widespread acquaintance with its
manifold forms at an early time, but this can hardly be
called 'Jewish' magic. It was merely a reflection of
the superstitions of the Canaanites, reinforced by
importations from Babylonia and Egypt." The magical
beliefs of both Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages
were influenced by the allusions which Trachtenberg
makes reference to in the above quote. Scriptural
authority has always been an important moral guide, and
on the topic of magic, scripture is not silent. The
Hebrew Bible makes several references to magic and its
effectiveness that are of interest to those trying to
understand the medieval Jewish understanding of magic:

"When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy
God give to thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the
abominations of those nations. There shall not be found
among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to
pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a
soothsayer , or an enchanter, or a sorceror, or a
charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or familiar
spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever doeth these
things is an abomination unto the Lord; and because of
these abominations the Lord thy God is driving them out
from before thee. Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the
Lord thy God. For these nations, that thou art to
dispossess, hearken unto soothsayers, and unto
diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not
suffered thee so to do. A prophet will the Lord thy God
raise up unto thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto
him shall ye harken; according to all that thou didst
desire of the Lord thy God in Horeb in the day of the
assembly, saying: 'Let me not hear again the voice of
the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire
anymore, that I die not.' And the Lord said unto me:'
They have well said that which they have spoken. I will
raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like
unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he
shall speak in My name, I will require it of him. But
the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in
My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or
that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same
prophet shall die.' And if thou say in thy heart:' How
shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?'
When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the
thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing
which the lord hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken
it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him. "

This passage has several interesting elements that
should be borne in mind as influencing medieval Jewish
thought concerning magic. There was apparently a need
to forbid certain practices, designating them as
incompatible with Israel's ownership of the land and to
her patron deity, and assignment of them to those
nations which Israel had met as opponents. What becomes
important later is the distinction between lawful and
unlawful practices, designated respectively as magical
and religious practices. The long list of magical
titles ( sorcerors, charmer, soothsayers, etc...) is
juxtaposed with the religious title of 'prophet', one
whose powers spring from God alone. Also important to
medieval Jewish understanding of magic is the power of
the name and words of God, which is clearly outlined in
this passage. What is developed here is the conception
of three groups of people; the general populace who do
not have direct access to the commands of God, the
prophets who are raised up by God and perform miracles
in agreement with His commands, and the magicians who
attempt to perform miracles either in the name of other
deities, or presumptuously using God's name without His
commands. The impact this had on later Jewish
authorities regarding magic and miracle and the power
of God versus other supernatural powers appears in
various ways, primarily in seeing the wonder-workers of
other nations as 'sorcerors', as opposed to holy men,
and also in understand the name and words of God to
have particular effectiveness in the hands of His
elect, while being dangerous to the impure.

In a discussion of rabbinic doctrine, Ephraim Urbach
states the position of some rabbinic authorities in
this way:" The rabbinic doctrine concerning God's
all-embracing power has bearing on other concepts. It
excludes the possibility of the existence of magic
power capable of influencing the laws of nature and the
decrees of God." He quotes Tanna R. Nathan , from the
second half of the second century, who says, " If all
the magicians of the world were to come together and
seek to change morning to evening they could not to so"
 He also draws the connection made by the rabbis
concerning idolatry and magic.

" Magical acts were a concomitant of the nature of
idolatry. Idolatry, in all its forms, believed in the
existence of a source of power apart from the godhead,
for it did not recognise a god who transcended the
existential system, who controlled everything and whose
will was absolute. Magic flows from the desire to
utilize these forces, and idolatry associates man with
the deity in the need for magic. Nor did the fact that
there was opposition to sorcerors and sorcery affect
the position. Idolatry forbade injurious magic,
especially in the case of a rejected and defeated

However, according to Urbach, the religious authorities
still had to deal with the reality of widespread
magical practice within the body of Judaism, and so
definitions were created, boundaries marked, and limits
set on the kinds of practices that constituted magic
and the types of magic that were acceptable. The
dividing line was drawn, in the Mishnah, on the level
of reality and illusion. Those who perform and real act
through sorcerous means are guilty of sorcery and
punishable, those who mere conjure an illusion of
performing an act are not culpable. The decisive
condition is the attitude of the practitioner towards
what he is doing, if it is believed to be real, then
the person is a sorceror.

A thornier problem is the relationship between miracle
and magic. Events , sometimes commanded by a human
being, that run counter to the laws of nature; the sun
halting in the sky, bodies of water parting, the walls
of cities collapsing, etc... Scriptural accounts of
supernatural events need some explanation if they are
to be distinguished from magical inference in God's
order. The explanation that arises from the rabbinic
sources, again according to Urbach's portrayal, is that
while the means may be similar there is a " clear,
basic difference. God in the Bible does not employ, in
contrast to the other gods, magical devices. Those who
makes use of them are only his messengers. The wonders
of the Egyptian sorcerors emanate from their magical
arts, which influence supradivine forces. Moses'
wonders are a finger of God, who commanded him to
perform them; thus they stem from His will. It is God
who works miracles." This is the distinction that is
made, and from within the tradition which made it
perhaps it is indeed clear and basic, unfortunately
from the outside it is a subtle distinction. However,
it is a distinction that is popular in medieval
religious polemic, in which the power of one group
derives from the mightiness of the deity and the power
of the other ascends from the trickery of magical arts.

One example that illustrates the problem of distinction
between magic and miracle lies in the story of a first
century BCE man, by the name of Honi the Circle Drawer.
 The story goes that Honi was requested to pray for
rain by the leaders of the community, when his prayers
were not answered Honi was moved to greater measures.
He drew a circle on the ground, stood in the middle of
it and yelled up into the sky " O Master of the
Universe! Your children have turned to me because I
have access to You. Now I solemnly swear by Your Holy
Name that I will not move out of this circle until You
have mercy on Your children." It then began to rain a
little and Honi's disciples suggested that it was an
insufficient amount of water. Honi then told God he had
had a heavier rainfall in mind, at which point it began
to rain very heavily. Honi's disciples then informed
him that there was too much rain. So Honi told God that
this was more than he had wanted, at which point God
made it rain in a more moderate way. After the event
Simeon ben Shetah sent Honi a message saying, " Had it
been anyone else but you I would have had him
excommunicated for practicing witchcraft. But what can
I do to you after you implore God and He accedes to
your requests? You are like a child before an indulgent
father who begs his father one moment to give him a
warm bath, then asks for a cold shower. Then the child
requests nuts, almonds, peaches and pomegranates.
Whatever he wants his father gives him."

This story records something of the uncertainty which
surrounded wonder-working. It is only Honi's reputation
as a holy man that raises him above suspicions of
witchcraft, and even then he is criticized by Simeon
ben Shetah for his somewhat presumptuous demands on
God's mercy. In any event there are permitted and
forbidden 'wonders', those which spring from God are
miracles and those which spring from magical devices
are forbidden. Joshua Trachtenberg deals with these
distinctions as they appear in the medieval
understanding of the Talmudic discussion of the
legality of certain forms of magic. The distinction is
made here between acts requiring spiritual aid and
those that do not. Interestingly, it is the magical
acts that do not involve the aid of spirits that are
considered the worst and are punishable with the
Biblical penalty of death. Those which required the
aid of spirits and were completely illusory were still
forbidden, but were not punishable by death. And
finally there is a third form of magic that is
permitted, the use of the Laws of Creation, " a term
which was later interpreted to signify the mystical
names of God and the angels." Trachtenberg quotes R.
Eliezer of Metz who states: " invoking the demons to do
one's will is permitted from the outset, for what
difference is there between invoking demons or
angels?... An action may not be characterized as
'magic' unless it consists of taking hold of a thing
and manipulating it, that is, if it is the performance
of a deed, or an incantation that does not include an
invocation of spirits, but invoking demons is permitted
ab initio." Trachtenberg describes this, later on in
the same section as a convenient dodge to get around
the legal problems of the theurgy present in the
medieval period, identifying it with the Laws of
Creation and thereby giving it an air of
respectability. We are left with the interesting
suggestion that the summoning and command of demons
differs in no substantial way from the command of
angels, all accomplished through the use of the divine
names and therefore permissible. There were other
methods used to navigate around the Talmudic and
Biblical injunctions against magic.

The Encyclopedia Judaeica mentions some of these in its
treatment of the subject of medieval Jewish magic. "
Works on magic neither use nor are identified by terms
denoting magic, but were written under the guise of
concepts which neither reveal their special character
nor their contents. There are hundreds of collections
on magic, in print and in manuscripts, appearing under
such names as simanim, refafot, refu'ot, goralot and
segullot. These works are usually devoted only to one
branch of magic or popular superstition, but to a
variety of practices such as dream interpretation,
popular medicine, and amulets." The suggestion of the
author of this article is that magic, while apparently
universal in medieval society, was of little importance
to the religious authorities, that it did not
constitute a serious ethical, ideological or social
problem. That it is barely referred to, and when it is
it is a minor point, compared to the mystical practices
that formed the body of Kabbalah, which the author
distinguishes clearly from magical practice. 
Trachtenberg makes a similar claim, although granting
the relationship between magic and Kaballah a bit of a
closer character. He seems to reduce the relationship
to an accidental meeting rather than any close affinity
between the two systems. He refers to the magical use
of divine names derived from Kaballah's gematria as an
'accidental offshoot' .

Regardless of its relationship to mystical Judaism or
its legal status in respect to Talmudic law, The Jewish
magical tradition had many popular manifestations, and
the Jewish people's desire to manipulate unseen forces
was considerable. Through the use of 'signs' , simanim,
from external events, feelings, or various types of
bodily discomfort ( itching, etc...) the near future
could be predicted. Charms and incantations could be
used to prevent malevolent future occurrences. Dream
interpretation was part of this category, and
apparently there were magical means by which bad dreams
could be prevented from being realised in real life.
The segullah was a second important form of the Jewish
magical tradition, the central element of which is "a
name or series of names which is considered holy". The
amulets frequently referred to in studies of Jewish
magical tradition, constitute a written form of
segullot. Both of these manifestations do not
constitute 'magic' from the legalistic perspective of
the Talmudic injunctions. All of the effective
principles rely on the power of the name of God, his
words , or his angels. On a popular level however, they
may have indeed seemed magical. But it is impossible to
say how the Jewish authorities viewed these practices
and beliefs. The fact that they were permitted is not
the same as saying they were encouraged, or considered
worthwhile by the religious elite.

The medieval Jewish perception of magic is informed by
their understanding of miracle, of God's power to
reveal himself in creation. Magic cannot supercede
divine power, nor can it be seen as emanating from a
similar, if opposed, source. For this reason, the
medieval view forbade in the strongest terms any magic
that sought to effect real manipulations of reality
without reference to the Jewish cosmology of
supernatural powers. Any operation that was understood
to manipulate accepted spiritual forces, even demonic
ones, was less threatening to the cosmological whole,
particularly if the effects were considered to be
purely illusory. An operation that attempted to cause
real change through the agency of the power of God's
name, or through accepted esoteric formulations,
blurred the line between 'magical' and 'religious'
activity. If successful such an act could be perceived
as miraculous evidence of God's power, rather than the
successful manipulation of supernatural forces by a
learned magical adept.

Medieval Christian Perceptions of Magic

As I have done with Judaism, I would like to look first
at some scriptural sources of Christian understanding
of magic, and although the Old Testament preserves the
message of the Hebrew scriptures regarding magic and
those who practice it, I'd like to focus on a couple of
New Testament formulations of the quality and value of
magic. The New Testament has several references to
magical activity and here again the discussion is often
on the grounds of miracle vs. magic. A slightly
different tone begins to operate in the texts of the
Gospels, revolving around the concept of exorcism, the
magical healing of illness and dysfunction.

An interesting discussion is Jesus' ability to cast out
demons is presented as having taking place between the
itinerant teacher and the Jewish authorities of the

" But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is
only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this
fellow drives out demons. "Jesus knew their thoughts
and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself
will be ruined, and every city or household divided
against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out
Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his
kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub,
by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they
will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the
Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon
you. "Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's
house and carry off his possessions unless he first
ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. "He
who is not with me is against me, and he who does not
gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin
and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy
against the Spirit will not be forgiven. "

The effectiveness of the exorcist is presented as
potentially satanic, and Jesus asserts the blasphemous
quality of this interpretation of his power. In an
interesting difference from the rabbinic understanding
of the nature of magic, here there are only two
options regarding an effective magical act, tapping
into the power of one or another side of a sharply
dualistic spiritual hierarchy. In the Acts of the
Apostles, Paul gives a powerful speech at Ephesus and
the story continues:

" And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of
Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away
from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and
the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the
itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the
name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits,
saying, "I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches."
Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were
doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I
know, and Paul I know; but who are you?" And the man in
whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all
of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of
that house naked and wounded. And this became known to
all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and
fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus
was extolled. Many also of those who were now believers
came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a
number of those who practiced magic 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
fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the
Lord grew and prevailed mightily."

This passage strikes me as a blatant subversion of
spiritual authority. The message here is one of total
dominance in supernatural power, over both the
'exorcists' of the Jewish tradition, who aren't even
recognised by the demons, and the pagan beliefs of the
area. Whatever the political thrust of the message
being given here by the emergent Christian religion,
the consequence of it to the perception of magic is a
declaration of cosmological distance, that the
spiritual power of the Christian is bound to the
understanding of the true nature of God. Here the agent
of magical activity is the servant of the true
religion, and in this there is little to choose between
the Christian formulation and that of the Talmudic
discussion of miracle and magic. The difference that
lies in the Christian scriptural message lies in the
power granted to the non-divine sources of supernatural
power, namely that of the demonic. Christian cosmology
allows for a powerful evil spirit, capable of real
manipulation of reality, in opposition to God, although
inferior to Him. Satan is the 'lord of this world' and
his darkness is such that it blinds people to the
light. This duality creates for the Christian a very
plausible source of real power that stands in
opposition to God's will, and implies that if God
maintains mortal servants on whom He bestows
supernatural power, the evil spirit may have servants
of its own. In Acts 13 Paul meets such a man,
identified as a " a magician, Jewish false prophet,
named Bar-Jesus" and Paul blinds him while rebuking his
satanic ways," You son of the devil, you enemy of all
righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will
you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the
Lord?" Here the line is clearly drawn, non-Christian
wonder-workers are not simply blasphemous because of a
denial of God's absolute power, but because of their
direct relationship to anti-divine power. A slight
difference that will cause interesting developments in
the medieval perspective regarding magic.

Legends that grew up around the stories in the New
Testament reflect something of this dualistic
character. As an example take the story of Simon Magus.
In the Acts of the Apostles, he is identified as a
magician of great power, who had amazed the population
of Samaria with his abilities, of course Simon is
amazed by the powers of the apostles and converts to
Christianity, after making his disastrous offer to
Peter to buy the Holy Spirit off of him ( Acts 8:9-24).
A different version of the story has Peter and Simon
compete against each other, at one point Simon flies
into the air, soaring through the clouds by the use of
his powers. Peter mutters a prayer and Simon's powers
leave him and he plummets to his death. Peter's
ability to negate Simon's ability to fly not only
declares the superiority of divine power, but also
highlights the effectiveness of Simon's powers in
normal circumstances, and their negation by a holy
power indicates a less than holy source.

From this smattering of New Testament accounts two
important things may be discerned about Christian
understanding of magic. First, that within the
Christian cosmology their is a place for the servants
of Evil whose powers, whether deceitful illusions or
true manipulations of reality, are inferior to the
gifts of the Spirit. Second, that the gifts of the
Spirit are the only source of divine power, and that
non-divine power is malevolent power of the Opposer.
There is very little room here for 'natural power' or
for power generated through some kind of art, as
children of God, the apostles partake of something of
God's power without artifice or special learning. The
miracles of other religions, the magic of other people,
all hide the movements of demonic opposition to
Christian truth. This explosion of statements in the
Hebrew Scriptures regarding the demonic quality of the
gods of other nations feeds directly into the harsher
dualism of the Christian cosmology, making the
wonder-workers of other faiths not simply deceived
practitioners of illusory arts, but rather active
participants in demonic opposition to Christian

" From the earlier periods of which records have
reached us there have been practitioners of magic who
were credited with the ability of controlling the
spirit world, of divining the future, and of
interfering with the ordinary operations of nature.
When this was accomplished by the ritual of an
established religion it was praise worthy, like the
oracular and augural divination of classical times, or
the exorcism of spirits, the excommunication of
caterpillars, and the miraculous cures wrought by
relics or pilgrimages to noted shrines. When it worked
through the invocation of hostile deities, or of a
religion which had been superceded, it was blameworthy
and forbidden. [...] With the triumph of Christianity
the circle of forbidden practices was enormously
enlarged. A new sacred magic was introduced which
superceded and condemned as sorcery and demon worship a
vast array of observances and beliefs, which had become
an integral and almost ineradicable part of popular

Christianity did not dismiss the supernatural powers
belonging to other religious traditions, rather it
equated them with the negative supernatural forces of
its own cosmology, understanding foreign belief as the
product of the Christian Devil's malevolent pursuits.
The first centuries of Christian growth maintain this
position of magic as anti-religion, and the
non-Christian magician is denied a place within the new
community. An extract from the instruction to
catechumens of Hippolytus (215 AD) states: " A magician
shall not even be brought for consideration. A charmer
or an astrologer or an interpretor of dreams or a
clipper of the fringes of clothes or a maker of
amulets, let them desist or be rejected." Notice that
there is some distinction being made here between a
magician and other types of magical pursuit, by the
middle ages these distinctions have faded and these
practices have been swallowed into the larger category
of maleficia, the dark arts, which included magic,
sorcery, necromancy, divination, and witchcraft .

The power of the dark arts lay in the hands of Satan,
and the importance of this evil spirit in the minds of
Christians determined the amount of fear which the
prospect of these arts would generate. The power of the
dark arts lay at the heart of one of Satan's many
campaigns to claim Christian souls for himself, the
temptation of forbidden power. Satan offered many
powers to those who were willing to worship him among
them the indulgence of all physical appetites ( for
food, sex, comfort through riches, etc..) the ability
to foretell the future, the discovery of hidden things,
and the control of other human's emotions. Christians
desiring these powers however had to undergo a kind of
inverted baptism, renouncing God and swear allegiance
to hell. It resembles a reenactment of the Devil's
temptation of Jesus in the desert, in which the key to
Satan's ability to aid Jesus lies in Jesus'
renunciation of God . It would follow from this,
perhaps, that those who have already renounced the
Christian religion have already entered into this deal
with the Devil.

The first order into which the ecclesiast was initiated
was the minor Order of the Exorcist, and his first
studied texts were of those rituals designed to invoke
and banish demonic forces. The belief in demonic
influence and in the priest's ability to control demons
was the foundation on which each member of the clergy
began his spiritual career. It perhaps shouldn't be
amazing then that there is evidence of wide-spread
involvement in magical practice among the clergy.
Richard Kiekhefer , in his Forbidden Rites discusses
his theories about the clerical underground that
existed in medieval Europe.

" A society that had a surplus of clergy inevitably
spawned an underemployed and largely unsupervised '
clerical underworld' capable of various forms of
mischief, including necromancy, and indeed this
underworld seems to have been the primary locus for
this explicitly demonic magic. Not all those accused of
conjuring demons were clerics; the charge was attached
at times to laymen and occasionally women. But the
examples cited already suggest that cleric were
disproportionately represented, and when we examine the
Munich Handbook of Necromancy in the following chapters
what we will find there is a characteristically
clerical form of magic, using Latin texts and
presupposing knowledge of mainstream ritual."

Within the clergy the charges of sorcery appeared with
disturbing regularity, suggesting that there was a fine
line between wielding benevolent supernatural power and
falling into the temptation of personal power offered
by the demons. Popes John XXI and Boniface VIII in the
late thirteenth century were charged with having
familiar spirits. The Knights Templar were accused of
wantonness with the devil. Manuals of legalistic
procedures to be used in uncovering and prosecuting
sorcerors date back to 1270. The stories that I have
selected that represent the interaction of the clergy
with magic also deal with the Jew as a magician and
therefore will appear in the next section.

From this short survey of Christian approaches to the
phenomenon of magical belief, it can be seen that there
is a wide acceptance within the tradition of the
effectiveness of magic, of its reality as a force
which, from a Christian standpoint is, distinguished
from the powers given to the servants of Godby its
moral quality. In the act of demonizing the faiths of
others, the wondrous powers of adherents to different
religious paths become for the Christian an expression
of diabolical agency. This moralizing treatment seems
to be difference from the Jewish dialogue already
discussed, which approached the topic in terms of
reality and illusion, from a legalistic stand-point. 
The moral neutrality which allowed Jewish authorities
to find the invocation of spirits, angelic or demonic,
a permissible act, finds only a faint echo in the
practice of Christian exorcism. On the whole medieval
Christianity was prepared to see the machinations of
the Devil not only in those groups who opposed
Christian faith, but also in individual members of the

Christian establishment itself who had fallen into
corruption of the spirit.

Jews and Christians: the Interaction of Perceptions of

The interaction of Jews and Christians in medieval
Europe cannot be reduced to the extreme manifestations
of either harmony or disorder, love or hate. A huge
group of individuals segmented by national, religious
and economic differences cannot be effectively treated
as two units which can easily be opposed to each other
. For the purposes of this analysis I plan on focusing
on two figures, literary character types so to speak,
and suggest that the manner in which these characters
are used in different legends and tales reflects
something of the medieval understanding of supernatural
power and spiritual figures of authority. It is also my
contention that the differences between medieval Jewish
and Christian conceptions of magic appear in these
tales and highlight the function of magic within the
two cosmologies. The two figures that I will focus on
are the Christian priest, and the Jewish rabbi, or more
generally put, the figures of religious authority from
both traditions.

The similarities that exist between the two traditions,
the shared histories and scriptural antecedents, are
the cause of much of the suspicion and fear that
manifests itself in these accounts of Jewish and
Christian folklore. The two religions are not so alien
to each other that no understanding is possible
between them. At the same time they are not so similar
that misunderstanding is easily avoided. Shared
language with differences in meaning cause real
problems to arise in the dialogue between the two
faiths, and in the extreme cases of the use of magic,
these misunderstandings are sometimes of the most fatal

The figure of the Jewish rabbi and of the Christian
priest in tales of magic are in some ways very similar,
and some of these similarities should be explored at
the outset in order to set the stage. The Rabbi and the
Priest are both figures that are associated with a
particular type of magic, as befits certain social
realities of their relative position in society. Their
magic is a learned, book magic, a magic of words ,
spoken and written. It is a form of magic whose
presentation in popular tales depends directly on the
social image of their office. It expresses not only the
power of spiritual authority, but the power of

" One may define the Jewish magician as a scholar by
vocation, a practitioner of the mystical-magical arts
by avocation. Every mystic, properly trained, could
practice magic as a sideline. Indeed, the dangers of
invoking spirits without an adequate education in
mysticism were frequently stressed, and the possessor
of esoteric traditions and writings was sternly
counseled to keep them hidden from the common glance,
lest they be misused, and to pass them on only to a
select circle"

Similarly the Christian Priest:

" But in the later Middle Ages certain forms of magic
were increasingly assimilated to liturgy and
increasingly written, so that a magical act was the
performance from a script, or the observance of a rite
whose details were enshrined in a text. This
development surely owed much to the spread of literacy
among the laity, but even more to the practice of magic
among the clergy, particularly those on the fringes of
the clerical elite. Judicial and anecdotal evidence
suggests that explicitly demonic magic, called
'nigromancy' or 'necromancy', was largely the domain of
priests, perhaps especially those without full-time
parish employment, as well as ordained monks with some
education and esoteric interests, university students
and others who received the minor orders."

"Men like Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were
popularly charged with being wizards. Bacon,
enlightened beyond his age, pronounced some of the
popular beliefs delusions, but, far form denying the
reality of sorcery and magic, he tried to explain the
efficacity of spells and charms by their being made at
seasons when the heavens were propitious."

So education, privileged knowledge, and recognised
social status as religious experts, these factors
combine to create the potential for a figure of a
certain type of magical power. The suspicion that
haunts those in power is often the suspicion of

Medieval Jewish tales of magical phenomenon that
involve Christian figures generally take the form of a
competition between the two figures of my focus. The
Rabbi is presented as a holy figure who superior
knowledge of the laws of creation allow him to defeat
the Christian Priests who are usually referred to as
'sorcerors'. Remember that, as a Jewish term, sorcery
consists of magical activities that do not involve the
aid of God or subordinate spirits . The first tale I
would like to look at is the popular Golem Legend
involving Rabbi Loew of Prague. Only a small portion of
the story is relevant to my purpose here:" There was
one man in the Kingdom of Bohemia of whom the Maharal
stood in great dread. This was the priest Thaddeus. He
was not only an implacable enemy of the Jews, but a
clever sorceror besides. He was determined to carry on
a war to the death against the Maharal." The story
continues with the Rabbi's creation of an artificial
being through the power of a magical ritual, in order
to have a powerful defender of the community against
the threat of those who oppose Judaism. Although the
priest is not described in the story as performing any
type of magic operations or supernatural feats, he
maintains the title 'sorceror', and while Rabbi Loew
not only imperfectly replicates God's creation of man
but also crafts an amulet by which the golem is
rendered invisible, no mention of magic is ever
attached to the hero of the tale. In the story of Adam
Baal Shem, a Jew is saved by the Rabbi from a priest
who wishes to marry the Jew's wife, and is therefore
plotting against his life through magical means. The
Baalei Shem (wonder-worker) is challenged by the
sorceror/priest to a contest of magical power. The
Rabbi goes first in the competition, breaking apart a
piece of fruit, at which point the sorceror is
decapitated by unseen forces. The threatening figure of
the sorceror never manages to perform a successful act
of magic in the entire story, but his murder through
magical forces by the Baalei Shem is not remarked upon
. Apparently death of the sorceror/priest was a common
finale in this types of legends generally arrived at
through some colorful means: pecked to death by ravens,
strangulation, decapitation, crushed by the slow
pressure of collapsing walls or windows. The sorceror
was considered to be capable of changing his shape into
that of a wolf, a hare , a donkey, or a cat, and they
were reputed to do the same to their victims. They
could project their souls long distances from their
bodies, perform an errand and return to their bodies in
the blink of an eye.

For their part, Christians' representations of the Jew
as magician are not peaceful affairs either. As far a
certain Christians were concerned Jews were the
children of the Devil, making secret pacts with him and
performing obscene rites, they stink of the pit, have
their eyes fixed on the earth, sport the goat's beard,
the men have horns, the women tails, and they sacrifice
innocent life to prolong their own. The story of
Theophilus relates the importance of the learned Jew to
the magical process. Theophilus was, the story goes,
was a bishop seneschal, and on the death of the bishop
he entered into competition for control of the
bishopric with a more politically powerful opponent. To
achieve his much-desired new position, Theophilus
desired to acquire some magical aid, so he enlisted the
services of a Jewish magician who got him an
appointment with the Devil, with whom he signed a pact
according to which Theophilus would deny Christ and the
Virgin and deliver his soul to the Devil upon death, in
return for the desired ecclesiastical position. Perhaps
this story relates something of the usurious reputation
which the Jews had, as the conditions of this contract
seem grossly in favor of the Devil, however the Priest
cheats the Devil through devotion to the Virgin so I
suppose the Devil and his Jewish servant got taken
advantage of in the end.

" The belief in the eternal damnation of all
non-Christians is not greatly stressed nowadays. But
the medieval Church was emphatic in its assertion that
all who did not seek salvation in its bosom served
Satan. Romance and history combined in presenting those
outside the pale of the Church as the personal vassals
of Satan, who worked his deceptions among them. Jews,
Turks and heretics, in addition to the heathen, were
believed in all Christian lands to be the allies of the
infernal powers. The Jews were supposed by Christians
to worship the Devil and to accumulate their wealth
with his aid. The Jewish synagogues were regarded by
Christians as temples of Satan."

Meanwhile the Jews took a bit of a dim view of Jesus
and his supposed divinity. " It is noteworthy that in
the scant reports about Jesus and his disciples in
Rabbinic Literature they are primarily described as
enchanters and sorcerors...the books of the Minim are
diviner's books, that is, works on witchcraft. Minim
here denotes Christians or Gnostic sects. Past enemies
of Israel - Pharaoh, Balaam, Amalek- appear as
sorcerors... It is noteworthy that in the Midrash to
the Scroll of Ester, Haman - he is the spokesman of all
the revilers and blasphemers of Judaism, and sometimes
the reference is not to the historical Haman- is made
to say: There arose a sorceror unto them called Moses
the son of Amram,..."

On the one hand Jesus and his followers are sorcerors,
on the other anyone who suggests that Moses was a
sorceror is identified with the archetypal blasphemer.

What appears a little in the Theophilus story, is an
interesting element of the dialogue on the topic of
magic . Everyone appears to prefer the other group's
magic to his own in certain cases: " The man who wished
to enter into business relations with the Devil
generally applied to a Jew to act as intermediary. It
was believed that only Jews could enter into
communication with the Devil through the arts of
magic." While at the same time," As a result magic [
sorcery by the definition used in this paper ] was not
a legitimate and commonly accepted profession in
medieval society and the religious convictions of a man
who practiced magic were suspect. Formulas were written
down since there was no oral transmission within a
special class of practitioners of magic. Many Jews,
especially in the East, usually consulted non-Jewish
magicians rather than Jewish magicians." One
difference between the two traditions lay in the
Christian recognition of some non-liturgical Christian
magical practices, as equally demonic as those of other
faiths. Thereby producing parallel trends of both
internal and external persecution, which the Jewish
perspective on magic avoided." Magic was proscribed by
the Church, and Hunted down by the Inquisition,...
Jewish magic during this period never strayed from the
fold, observing closely the tenets of faith, merely
extending and elaborating certain accepted principles,
so that, as we shall see, the magician remained a pious
and God Fearing Jew."

Perhaps we are now in a position to ask some questions
regarding why these representations appear in the
manner that they do. Purely on the level of the
perception of magic in these two religions, what sense
is there in these beliefs about Rabbi and Priest
engaged in magic and diablerie? Is it simple hatred and
religious bigotry? a lack of tolerance and
understanding of the beliefs of our neighbors?

From the Jewish perspective, is there any sense in the
derogatory title of sorceror applied to the Christian
clergymen? If we remember the two types of forbidden
magic, discussed by Trachtenberg, the first was magical
acts that do not rely on spiritual aid, the second was
acts of illusion that rely on spiritual aid of some
kind. Exorcisms performed in the name of Jesus (which,
as I understand the Jewish position, wouldn't count as
use of the Divine name) would qualify in the first
category I believe, as perhaps would most the
liturgical magic (again presuming the trinity has no
divine status for the Jews). Also considering the
amount of evidence which, in Kieckhefer's opinion,
points to wide-spread necromancy among a certain class
of clerics, the Christian priest reputation as a
sorceror may not be entirely undeserved from the Jewish
perspective. Their wonder workers were not magicians in
their view, if they possessed the power to alter
reality it came from God, and was a function both of
their learning and their piety.

Outside of the Jewish faith, though, Jewish learning
and piety was understood to have a different character.
From the Christian perspective, why are the Jews
depicted as the servants of Satan, possessors of vile
and demonic powers? Remember the moralized duality of
the Christian cosmology, Satan had a great importance
to Christianity, and it was from him that all
non-divine power flowed. This being accepted for the
moment, how does one enter into the power of Satan?
"The Devil, notwithstanding the great power he possesses
over the bodies and minds of mortals, is, however not
potent enough to put a man to death, unless his victim
has blasphemed or renounced the Lord... In view of this
limitation of his power over the body of man, Diabolus
exacted from his partner in the bond, which assigned
the victim's soul to hell, a formal denial of the
Christian faith, a rejection of Christian symbols and a
renunciation of the Lord and his saints". Although it
is offensive to consider in our modern atmosphere of
religious tolerance, I believe that the medieval
Christian may have been able to see in Jewish
unwillingness to convert to Christianity, exactly this
type of 'rejection' and 'renunciation' of the Lord.
From the believer's perspective that would drop the
entire Jewish community into the lap of the Devil.
Consider also that the Talmud was periodically seized
and poured over by the Christian authorities. Two
important points arise from this: first, the Jewish
attitude toward magic may have been known to the
Church, second the unflattering characterization of
Jesus and the Apostles as sorcerors might have been
tripped over. If a pious clergyman, read " invoking the
demons to do one's will is permitted from the outset,
for what difference is there between invoking demons or
angels?... An action may not be characterized as
'magic' unless it consists of taking hold of a thing
and manipulating it, that is, if it is the performance
of a deed, or an incantation that does not include an
invocation of spirits, but invoking demons is permitted
ab initio." I doubt that it would have improved
diplomatic relations. Unfortunately in medieval
Christianity demons may only be evoked and banished
back to the hell they came from. The difference between
invocation and command of demons and evocation and
dismissal of demons might be cloudy to the outsider,
but I imagine it was fairly obvious to the Christian

It is tempting to take the position, in defense of one
tradition or the other, that only the most
uncharitable interpretation of the situation , whatever
the differences in meaning between these two religions,
would justify demonizing and vilifying the spiritual
authorities of a particular religion. It is sheer
unwillingness to see the positive aspects of other
traditions that would lead someone to classify others
as demon-worshippers and sorcerors. Perhaps, this is
correct. My response to this would be that an effort to
understand medieval perceptions of magic perhaps should
allow for the possibility that no one was trying to be
particularly charitable or even-handed in their
treatment of other religions. At the very least
everyone was at about the same level of intolerance.


There is a significant difference in meaning attached
to the idea of magic as it appears in these two
religious traditions. Unfortunately for the apologist
of either tradition, there is some validity to the
charges that both traditions level against each other.
Their perception of each other is philtered through
their own personal understandings of the supernatural,
its successful manipulation and the source of such

The Jewish perception of magic, defines the problem not
in terms of effectiveness but in terms of the legality
of certain actions, the implied consequences on Jewish
faith of magical practice. Because of the omnipotence
of the deity, no supernatural force exists that can
contradict his Will. Magical acts, then, are conceived
of as attempts, unsuccessful or illusory, to challenge
God's power. Any manipulation of spiritual forces or
beings that draws its effectiveness from the power of
God are not magical but religious, and effective only
because of the practitioner's piety and agreement with
the divine Will. Christian priests practice a similar
form of supernatural manipulation, the learned magic of
texts, names, and spirits. The priest however earns the
title of sorceror because he, unlike the pious Jewish
wonder worker, is not in agreement with God's will. He
blasphemously attempts to manipulate reality without
reference to the celestial hierarchy of God, but rather
bases his power on the false name of Jesus the
enchanter. Whether or not the priest has any success in
doing so is irrelevant, it is the priest's seriousness
in the attempt that makes him culpable. And in
competition with a true servant of God, the biblical
punishment of death is justly handed down on the
clerical sorceror.

The Christian perception of magic draws on a sharp
duality existing in their moral cosmology. Magic is
defined not by its effectiveness, nor by the intentions
or attitude of the practitioner, but rather by the
source from which supernatural power flows. The evil
spirit's power in the world is not questioned. As much
as Christ, and His followers, suffer for the salvation
of humanity, so too do Satan and his followers toil to
bring about its damnation. As a corruption that flows
from the Devil, supernatural power lies in the hands of
those who reject Christ, who focus their attention on
the things of this world, Satan's dominion. Internally,
renunciation and rejection of Christ manifests itself
in the heretic, and in the excommunicant. Externally,
the one community of faith that has both renounced
Jesus, during his incarnation, and continues to reject
him can only be the servants and children of Satan,
himself. Thus every religious act of the Jew
constitutes a magical act for the Christian, a
communion with the demonic ruler of the world. The
Jewish wonder-workers' ability to manipulate
supernatural forces is derived from their blasphemous
attitude toward Jesus, the support of Satan in
opposing Christian truth, and their willingness to
consort with the demonic on order to satisfy their
greed and worldliness.

As offensive as the logic of both of these positions
may be to the twenty-first century reader, it remains
logic of a kind. Bigoted, intolerant and
self-referential, but logical nonetheless. Wherever and
whenever the religious cosmology dominates the minds of
humanity, this type of logic will be appear, and we are
not free of religious bigotry in our society. Rosemary
Ruether's comments on the problem of Christian
anti-Semitism seem to apply directly to the medieval
situation although she is speaking of modern times:

" The Christian anti Judaic myth can never be held in
check , much less overcome, until Christianity submits
itself to that therapy of Jewish consciousness that
allows the 'return of the repressed.' This means
establishing a new education for a new consciousness,
the sort of new consciousness that would make us
grapple with the need for a new way of formulating
Christian identity that allows space for the Jewish
brother to live- live not on our terms, but on his. "

I would suggest that in the medieval period no one had
gone through the 'therapy of consciousness' which
Ruether refers to, and that everyone was perceived in
everyone else's terms. In the case of magic, while the
terms were the same, the meanings were different. The
Jewish opponents of magic and the Christian opponents
of magic would never have agreed on who their enemies
were, or why.


- Ausuhel, Nathan A Treasury of Jewish Folklore ( Crown Publishers, Inc.,
New York, 1948)

- Ayerst, David and Fisher, A.S.T. Records of Christianity vol 1
 Blackwell & Mott, Oxford, 1971)

- Encyclopedia Judaica ( Kether Publishing House, Ltd. 1971)

- Falk, Gerhard The Jew in Christian Theology ( Mcfarland and Company, Inc.
Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 1992)

- Hsia, R. Po Chia The Myth of Ritual Murder ( Cornall University Press,
London, 1988)

- The Holy Scriptures: according to the Masoretic Text ( the Jewish
Publication Society of America, Philedelphia, 1955)

- Kieckhefer, Richard Magic in the Middle Ages ( Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, New York, 1990)

- Kieckhefer, Richard Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the
Fifteenth Century, ( Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1997)

- Lea, Henry Charles The Inquisition of the Middle Ages vol 3 ( Harper and
Brothers, Franklin Square, New York, 1888)

- Lesses, Rebcca Mary Ritual Practices to Gain Power ( Trinity Press, Int.
Harrisburg Pennsylvania, 1998)

- Nigal, Gedalyah Magic Mysticism and Hasidism: the Supernatural in Jewish
Thought ( Jason Aronson Inc. Northwale N.J., London. 1994)

- Pearl, Chaim ( translation, annotation and selection by) Stories of the
Sages vol 2 ( DVIR Publishing House, 1988)

- Rivka, Ulmer The Evil Eye in the Bible and in Rabbinic Literature ( KTAV
Publishing House, Inc. Hoboken N.J., 1994)

- Robbins, Russell Hope (editor) The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and
Demonology ( Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1959)

- Rosenberg, Stuart E., The Christian Problem: A Jewish View (Deneau
publishing, 1986)

- Rudwin, Maxmillian The Devil in Legend and Literature ( AMS Press, New
york, 1970)

- Russell, Jeffrey Burton Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages ( Cornell
University Press, London 1984)

- Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church vol 5 ( WM.B. Eerdman's
Publishing Company, Michigan, 1910)

- Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church vol 6 ( WM.B. Eerdman's
Publishing Company, Michigan, 1910)

- Synan, Edward A. Disputation and Dialogue ( Ktav Publishing House, Inc,
New York, 1975)

- Synan, Edward A., The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages ( the
Macmillan Company, New York and Collier-Macmillan Limited, London.)

- Thompson, R. Campbell Semitic Magic: Its origins and Development ( KTAV
Publishing House, Inc. New York, 1971)

- Trachtenberg, Joshua Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk
Religion ( Meridian and the Jewish Publication Society, Cleveland, New York
and Philedelphia, 1961)

- Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: Thier Concepts and Beliefs vol.1 ( Hebrew
University, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1979)

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