Ritual Boundaries is part of the Christianity in Late Antiquity Series.

By Joseph E. Sanzo, author of Ritual Boundaries: Magic and Differentiation in Late Antique Christianity

What do you do when you get sick? What do you do when you are afraid? The COVID-19 pandemic required many of us to face these questions in ways we could never have previously imagined. While we have the privilege of benefiting from advances in contemporary medicine and psychology, early Christians—like most of their Mediterranean and Near East contemporaries—often addressed these and related concerns with the help of so-called magical objects such as amulets to wear on the body. Typically inscribed on pieces of papyrus, parchment, gemstones (e.g., hematite), and other materials, these textual artifacts call upon the gods (including, but not limited to, the Christian Trinity), cite short passages from the Bible, reference—and sometimes invent—creeds, and engage in invective against various kinds of outsiders (e.g., Jews and rival magicians). These objects are thus essential sources for understanding not only ancient magic, but also early Christianity. By providing a direct glimpse into the everyday concerns and interactions of early Christians, amulets and other ritualized objects for protection and healing offer unique insight into the religious, ritual, and textual boundaries Christians created, maintained, and promoted as they responded to everyday concerns.

The magical objects can in fact dispel certain long-held assumptions in scholarship on early Christianity and on late antiquity. There is a scholarly tendency to associate interest in ritual and religious boundaries in late antiquity solely with so-called “elites” such as John Chrysostom or Augustine of Hippo. According to this prevailing view, the “non-elites” were not particularly concerned with boundary demarcation and reflect “fluid” or “blurred” boundaries between Christians and non-Christians and between “magic” and “religion.” The extant material evidence, however, challenges this assumption. A good example is P. Leiden, Ms. AMS 9, a late antique Coptic magical handbook (VI-VIII CE). The texts found in this handbook not only blame the Jews for persecuting and killing Jesus, but even compare the Jews (alternatively called the “People of Israel”) with a “dead dog” (ouhor etmoout)—slanderous language that, interestingly, resonates with the sentiments of John Chrysostom (e.g., Discourses Against Judaizing Christians 1.2.1–2).

At the same time, this handbook uses names for God such as Iaō Sabaōth and Adōnai. Although scholars have often interpreted these names in dialogue with concepts such as “syncretism” or have labeled them “Jewish” (on the basis of origins), it is clear from the rhetoric of P. Leiden, Ms. AMS 9 that these names have been assimilated into the practitioner’s exclusionary version of Christianity. Simply put, these names for God were understood to be completely Christian and thus compatible with anti-Jewish sentiments. This same handbook, which includes a text that the practitioner calls an amulet (phylaktērion), also attacks and condemns other practitioners and their rituals using the same forms of invective that ecclesiastical literature would have used against it (e.g., the practices come from foreigners, they are demonic/satanic in character, and they are harmful).

What objects like P. Leiden, Ms. AMS 9 demonstrate is that practitioners, who cut across diverse social strata, were highly interested in policing the boundaries between Christians and Jews as well as between what we might call “religion” and “magic.” They just disagreed with literary writers—and, consequently, 21st-century CE scholars—about the particular ways such religious and ritual boundaries should be configured. The magical evidence thus challenges any strict distinction between “elite” and “non-elite” religion, especially as it relates to concerns about religious and ritual boundaries during late antiquity.

This following passage is excerpted from the introduction of Ritual Boundaries. Read the open-access ebook here.

In the opening chapter of The Cult of the Saints (1981), Peter Brown demonstrated that the scholarly study of the late antique cult of the saints had, up until that time, been fundamentally shaped by a two tiered model of religious change, specifically organized around the categories “elites” and “non-elites.” For the likes of Edward Gibbon (1737–94), who wrote under the influence of David Hume (1711–76), this two-tiered model—in its nascent form—resulted in a devaluation of the religion of late antiquity; according to this view, the greatest sin of the late antique elites was their permissive attitude toward “popular” or “vulgar” religion.

By the early 1980s, the two-tiered model appeared under a different guise. Brown writes the following: “We have developed a romantic nostalgia for what we fondly wish to regard as the immemorial habits of the Mediterranean countryman, by which every ‘popular’ religious practice is viewed as an avatar of classical paganism.” If the “modernism” of Gibbon’s era brought with it contempt for the “popular” or “vulgar” religion of the masses, the “postmodernism” of Brown’s day romanticized that non-elite religiosity. With a two-tiered model still at its center, this newer approach to religious history, in Brown’s estimation, emphasized continuity over change to such a great extent that it obscured unique developments in late antiquity, including especially the rise of the cult of the saints. Brown appropriately noted that developments in late antique religiosity could not be so easily divided according to an elite versus non-elite dichotomy because “they worked slowly and deeply into the lives of Mediterranean men of all classes and levels of culture.”

Despite Brown’s trenchant criticisms, the two-tiered model—and its accompanying distinction between elites and non-elites—has proved to die hard in late antique studies. In fact, I contend that an even newer kind of two-tiered model— likewise accompanied by a “romantic nostalgia” for “non-elite” religion—has had a considerable influence on scholarship in the intervening years since 1981. Although Christian continuity with Jewish, indigenous, pagan, or heathen practices still constitutes a robust field of scholarship (though not necessarily for the same problematic reasons it did in the early 1980s), many scholars of late antiquity now adopt a two-tiered approach to religious boundaries and identities that casts non-elites and elites into positive and negative lights respectively. The late antique Christian masses are said to have enjoyed a great degree of amicability with their non-Christian neighbors, which reflected or resulted in “messy,” “fluid,” “blurred,” “porous,” or “permeable” boundaries. This generally peaceful posture, so we are told, stands in marked contrast with the suspect predilections of the “orthodox” Christian elites (e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, and Augustine), who were preoccupied with religious and ritual differentiation and establishing clear-cut boundaries between Christians and a host of Others (e.g., Jews, Pagans, heretics, and magicians). This two-tiered understanding of interreligious interaction—which, to be sure, is in large measure a response to the earlier “great thinkers” models (see above) or conflict-oriented reconstructions (see conclusions) of early Christian history—has not only penetrated the study of early Christian literature; it has also made a deep impact on the fields of Christian (and Jewish) archaeology and art history.

Fortunately, a few recent studies have destabilized aspects of this bifurcated view of religious interaction among early followers of Jesus and their neighbors. Geoffrey Smith has argued that some ostensibly “heretical” texts, such as the Testimony of Truth (from the Nag Hammadi archive), betray an interest in religious differentiation—even appropriating the genre of the heresy catalogue. In a quite different scheme, Heidi Wendt has reframed both early Christian heresiologists, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and their heretical interlocutors (e.g., Marcion and Valentinus) as “freelance religious experts,” vying for social, economic, and ritual capital and attempting to marginalize one another along the way. Finally, a complex view of early Jewish-Christian relations—as reflected in literary sources primarily from the first two centuries CE—has emerged from a 2018 collection of essays dedicated to Joel Marcus. As the editors of this volume—aptly titled The Ways that Often Parted—note, this collection of essays “cumulatively illustrates how a variety of ways not only parted but also intermingled—early and late, intentionally and accidentally, over and over again.”

What emerges from these recent works is a portrait of a competitive world of early Christian intellectual voices—not confined to traditional conceptions of orthodoxy—competing with one another and, more importantly for the concerns of this book, framing and maligning one another through manifold discourses of religious, ritual, and cultural alterity. Yet, although this research has usefully contributed to the study of early Christian differentiation by situating early literary writers within a robust agonistic context, the analytical parameters of these studies (and the sources they discuss) leave views of religious difference among the late antique Christian masses—including Christian ritual specialists and their clients, who cut across the ostensible boundaries between “elites” and “non-elites”—for the most part unaddressed.

Ritual Boundaries attempts to address directly the issues of religious, ritual, and textual difference among such Christians with the help of magical artifacts (e.g., apotropaic, curative, exorcistic, and imprecatory objects), supplemented at times with select patristic and monastic sources that condemn or discuss these ritual materials. This “magical” evidence (see below) is particularly useful for assessing the issue of differentiation among the Christian masses—again, not confined to some putative category of “non-elites”—in part because these sources provide a direct glance into the quotidian lives of believers and in part because amulets and similar technologies are often presented (erroneously in my view) as one of the premiere examples of cultural, religious, and ritual blending. Consequently, these sources are often held up as an “obvious” domain of late antique social existence in which the desire for ritual and religious difference was unimportant, unknown, or even unimaginable.

Although one cannot necessarily posit a general portrait of conceptions of religious and ritual differentiation among such Christians on the basis of select magical objects and early Christian texts, attention to this evidence undermines two partly overlapping presuppositions in late antique studies that have reinforced many of the claims for blurred boundaries or the lack of concern for difference among these believers: First, that shared symbols, spaces, practices, and the like necessarily imply friendly exchange or a lack of rigidly demarcated boundaries; and second, that taxonomies of Christian symbols, rituals, and social contexts among the Christian masses corresponded in a one-to-one fashion with those articulated in ancient Christian literary sources and, by extension, in modern scholarly studies. The challenging of these presuppositions ultimately supports my contention that the impulse to differentiate, malign, and slander was much more widespread in late antique Christianity than scholars now generally acknowledge. By demonstrating that ritual and religious differentiation and invective infiltrated diverse social strata in late antique lived contexts (see especially chapters 1 and 2), Ritual Boundaries further disrupts the hard-and-fast distinction between elite and non-elite religion that Brown began to deconstruct over forty years ago.