Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pagan Miracles and Pseudo-Philo

Pseudo-Philo is a first century C.E. Jewish work that interprets and expands upon stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In Pseudo-Philo 25, we learn about luminescent Amorite stones in the Amorite sanctuaries that had the power to heal disease.  V 12 states that “even if one of the Amorites was blind, he would go and put his eyes on it and recover sight” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  The Israelite judge Kenaz, eager to destroy the remains of Amorite religion in the land of Canaan so that they do not become (or remain) a temptation to Israel, finds a way to dispose of the stones.

We see pagan miracles elsewhere in Pseudo-Philo.  In Pseudo-Philo 34, there is a magician named Aod from the Midianite sanctuaries, and he is able to make the sun appear at night.  Aod has been sacrificing to the angels who are in charge of magic, and the angels, in the past, had transgressed by revealing magic to human beings.  I got a similar sort of message when I read I Enoch: that the transgressing angels, in revealing astrology to human beings, were not revealing something that was a total lie; rather, they were revealing something that, on some level, was true, but that God did not want people to know.  Perhaps God did not think that humans were mature enough to handle that knowledge, or he wanted for people to focus on him and thought that knowledge of astrology could detract from that.  It would be similar to the story in Genesis 3 about God not wanting Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Yes, the tree had real effects—-it enabled Adam and Eve to know good and evil, like God.  But God did not want for them to eat from that tree.  He may have thought that they were not yet ready to know good and evil, or that they should not seek the knowledge of good and evil apart from a relationship with God.  Less charitable interpretations say that God was being greedy, or that God saw the knowledge of good and evil as his sole prerogative.

But back to pagan miracles!  The reason that pagan miracles interest me is that they can potentially cast doubt on miracles being a sign that God is at work.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ miracles are a sign that God is at work.  People are supposed to be able to recognize that God is at work on account of miracles.  There are apologists today who hold that miracles attest to the truth of the Bible.  But what if the bad side can do miracles, too?  The Bible, as far as I know, does acknowledge that to be a possibility.  Pharaoh’s magicians could do some of the same miracles that Moses did.  Jesus in Mark 13 (and parallels) talks about false Christs and false Messiahs performing signs and wonders.  In the Book of Revelation, people marvel because the Beast died and came back to life.

But one could come back and nitpick those miracles that the bad side does.  The magicians were able to do some of the same signs that Moses was?  What does that prove?  If they wanted to demonstrate that they or their gods were more powerful than Moses and his god, then they should have tried to reverse the disastrous effects of Moses’ miracles—-to purify the water that had been turned to blood, to make the frogs and the locusts go away, etc.  Jesus in Mark 13 does not explicitly say what miracles the false Messiahs and false prophets will perform.  And some may take the Beast’s resurrection in Revelation as symbolic rather than as a literal miracle, saying that it could symbolize the resurrection of the Roman empire.

Jesus in Matthew 12:22-32 casts a devil out of a man who was blind and mute, and that results in the man’s healing.  When Jesus’ enemies say that Jesus cast out demons through the power of the prince of demons, Jesus finds their accusation to be absurd, for why would Satan undermine his own power by enabling an exorcism?  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was on the move, people were being healed, and Satan was not supporting this, but was on the other side, and it was actually in Satan’s interest to be on the other side.  Does this imply that, for Jesus, the bad side cannot perform exorcisms or heal, that those are things that only God can do?  And yet, in Pseudo-Philo, we seem to get another perspective: that pagan Amorite stones had healing properties.

I realize that Christians have tackled this issue, or at least have tried to do so.  Some distinguish between magic and miracle, seeing the latter as part of a larger redemptive purpose rather than as a mere fluke.  Some say that Christians do more miracles than non-Christians do.  Some say that Christianity is one of the few religions that has miracles, whereas other religions (i.e., Buddhism) only talked about miracles at a later stage.  Some will call the pagan miracles magic rather than miracles.  Some say that the pagan miracles are not true miracles—-that they only appear to be miraculous, but that they have a natural explanation.

I don’t know.  I have a slight bit of sympathy for the claim that Christian miracles are part of a grand story of redemption.  So the Amorite stones could heal.  What does that prove?  I suppose that it could prove the power of an Amorite god, or at least of the stones, but where is the grand story of redemption?  Plus, even if the Amorite stones can heal, the Amorite religion could be pretty cruel, at least if you accept what the Hebrew Bible says (and there are people who do not, seeing that as a caricature, or as demonizing the other).  But people can come back with other points: Christianity could be cruel, too; and, are the Amorite stones that different from ancient Israelite religion, or the religion that writers in the Hebrew Bible promoted?  Both may have seen miracles as a sign of their own god’s power.

I have been talking as if the Amorite stones were historical, and that is far from certain.  I wonder how the story came to be.  The note in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha about Pseudo-Philo 44 states that Pseudo-Philo’s depiction of Micah’s cult (as in the Micah from Judges 17) may be based on the Mithras sanctuary.  Could something similar be going on with the Amorite stones in Pseudo-Philo—-that they were based on something within the pagan religion of Pseudo-Philo’s day?

I’ll stop here.

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