Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moses the Magician

I have been fascinated with the traditions of Moses in the first to fourth centuries CE lately.  In connection with my "Christian Moses" project, I have been reading up on how his reputation developed in contemporary sources.  For this, there are many important scholarly works, but perhaps one of the most helpful ones in considering his broader significance in the ancient world is John Gager's Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism.  Of any figure from the Jewish tradition, Moses was the best-known to outsiders.  And while many erudite Greeks and Romans (and Egyptians) tended to refer to Moses as a lawgiver (usually as one inferior to Plato, among others), perhaps the most widespread view of Moses was that of a magician.  He is invoked among the Greek and Demotic magical papyri as an authority--sometimes works are written in his name (such as the much under-studied Eighth Book of Moses) or his name is invoked in surviving amulets because it was thought to have power in itself!  Hebrew terms and names for God (and angels) are all over the Magical Papyri (Iao, Sabaoth, Michael, etc.).  This tradition seems to derive out of general knowledge of two episodes in the Hebrew tradition:  the revelation of God's true name to Moses (Exodus 3) and Moses' competition with the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 7)--which are often considered interrelated insofar as Moses gained his abilities through the power endowed through knowledge of the divine name.  Gager writes:
On the whole...the Moses of the magical documents is a figure unto himself.  Here he emerges as an inspired prophet, endowed with divine wisdom and power, whose very name guaranteed the efficacy of magical charms and provided protection against hostile forms of the cosmos....  Jewish tradition and Egyptian syncretism agreed that Moses possessed a higher knowledge of the divine than most mortals.  For advocates of the magical arts, whether Jewish or not, the essence of this revealed gnosis was Moses' knowledge and transmission of the divine name, not the tenets of the law as in the Jewish scriptures and much of rabbinic Judaism, not his knowledge of the future as in some circles of Jewish apocalypticism.  The revelation of the divine name to Moses was also regarded as an important event within Judaism, and because of its immediate relevance for magic this particular event was commemorated in the papyri more often and more emphatically than any other events associated with the life of Moses. (p. 160)   
I find a couple further things of interest (for my own work at least).  Firstly, Moses is also invoked as a means to gain such knowledge (gnosis) through the revelation of the deity.  And we know they work because Moses did it!  These ritual means tend to draw the deity down as Moses drew the deity down to Horeb/Sinai.  Thus, many of these papyri seek to recreate a revelatory moment like Sinai (something Jews and Christians sought to do through liturgy, as I argued in my dissertation and forthcoming monograph).  Secondly, these works often claim that these books (like the Eighth Book of Moses) and other more oral traditions of hymns included in these works were revealed to Moses on Sinai, justifying their efficacy.  Concurrently, both Jews and Christians were justifying their interpretations and relatively novel legal discussions and community formations by saying that they were revealed to Moses on the mountain--thus, the revelatory moment has a broader interest.  Thirdly, many of the magical traditions surrounding Moses have parallels in the Hermetica.  In an Egyptian environment of Late Antiquity, it appears to be a competitive appropriation and repackaging of traditions--indeed there are some documents that explicitly state that Hermes Trismegistus stole his ideas from Moses.  Were there Egyptian practitioners vying with one another; some claiming Hermes, others Moses as the ultimate mediator to the Monad?  Finally, especially in the Eighth Book of Moses, part of the revelation that mingles with chants, charms, etc., are cosmogonies that resemble in many ways the cosmogonies found at Nag Hammadi.  Moses rarely shows up at Nag Hammadi and related literature (something I want to write about in connection with my Christian Moses project), there are clear ties between Nag Hammadi, native Egyptian Theogonies, Greco-Roman ones, and the Hermetical cosmologies.  It appears that the Eighth Book of Moses belongs to this matrix, providing a precedent or, perhaps as in the Hermetical literature, a competitive alternative.  The Moses of the magical papyri provides another piece of the puzzle of what Jews, Christians, and others on the ground thought, what they did, and, again, reasons for his exaltation and, just as often, suppression.  It is a clear example, here, of exaltation.  I wonder, what Christians did with this view of Moses as magician?  Does his exaltation here mirror his exaltation in contemporary Christian sources of the mid-second to fourth centuries?  How does it compare with contemporary Egyptian Christian sources of different opposing parties of the hierarchy, the monks, and the traditions of Nag Hammadi?  Indeed, it is fascinating territory into which the magical Moses takes us.  It is a messy, difficult terrain, but ultimately a fruitful one.

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