Sunday 17 May 2020


A Greek magical papyrus text.



In this article, we will explore some ancient non-Jewish (pagan) papyrus magical texts which are, surprisingly, interwoven with early rabbinical magic themes. We will see how some obscure magical spells in these pagan papyri texts – ironically – can only be understood through a knowledge of corresponding themes in early Jewish mystical[1] literature.

I have drawn from Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber[2] who is a Talmud professor at Bar Ilan University, who gives us a window into the 3rd-century world of Jewish mysticism.


A number of Greek, Coptic and Gnostic papyrus texts dealing with magical charms and incantations have been discovered. The interesting thing about this discovery is that Jewish names and rabbinic themes were interwoven with pagan names and themes - as if a common magical culture existed.

Sperber writes:

“One of the outstanding features of this material is the welter of Jewish and pagan names which are used almost interchangeably, indicating the degree to which Jews and pagans were profoundly influencing one another...

[Furthermore] elements of Hellenistic magical lore penetrated the Jewish world, leaving their traces in Rabbinic literature, most especially in the early Jewish mystical literature.”

This interwovenness, according to Sperber, is so profound that clearer pagan texts can sometimes explain difficult and unclear rabbinic mystical texts – as can these rabbinic texts elaborate on obscure pagan texts. This leads one to the conclusion that Jews and non-Jews shared the same cultural magic and mystical tradition. 

Not only did they apparently share mystical traditions but Sperber even maintains he may have uncovered some 'lost' rabbinic writings scattered within these pagan texts! We will analyse two such examples in Part 1 and 2 which follow.



Here is one example of how an existing rabbinic text can shed light on one of these difficult popular magical texts dealing with various spells. In the collection of papyri housed in the Paris Library[3] there is a spell which reads:

“For I adjure thee by him that revealed the hundred and forty tongues and divided them by his command.”

Secular scholars were at a loss to explain this text. 

They assumed it referred to 140 languages which were somehow divided by G-d’s command. They assumed, based on a reading of Genesis Ch. 10, that after the flood, the generation of Noah’s descendants numbered seventy and spoke seventy languages becoming the 'Seventy Nations of the World'. But why not just say 70 instead of 140 being divided by 2?

Fascinatingly, there is a rabbinic text which can explain this obscure papyrus text. A rabbinic textual tradition in the Sifre[4], dating back to the second century CE, maintains that there were 140 nations of the world (not 70 as commonly understood)!

This Sifre is later discussed in Shir haShirim Rabba[5]:

“Seventy of them [i.e., the nations of the world] know their paternal ancestry but not their maternal ancestry, and seventy of them know their maternal ancestry but not their paternal ancestry...”

This is why 140 is divided by 2 to make 70. Evidently, the Shir haShirim Rabba text is an attempt at reconciling the common understanding that there are 70 nations of the world with the earlier Sifre claiming that there are 140.


Sperber suggests that this Paris text may, in fact, be a lost rabbinic text:

“It would appear that our passage from the Paris papyrus is based upon a (lost) homily which similarly grappled with the apparent contradiction between the two sets of numbers.”

Amazingly, this papyrus text seems to be dealing with exactly the same problem as, and presents the same solution to, that expressed in the Shir haShirim Rabba.

If this text is indeed a lost piece of rabbinic magical tradition, it is interesting that it comfortably formed part of the general pagan magical literature. This shows just how interconnected some of these early Jewish and non-Jewish magical texts were. There does appear to have been a common mystical tradition or certainly one which overlapped in multiple areas.



Following similar patterns, Sperber continues with the suggestion that we can trace another lost rabbinic statement, in another spell mentioned in the Paris texts.


The same section of our magical papyrus text contains the following spell which also confounded the scholars:

“For I adjure thee by the seal which Solomon laid upon the tongue of Jeremiah and he spake.”

One scholar, Adolf Deissmann (d. 1937), a German Protestant theologian who specialized in the ancient Greek language writes:

“I do not know what this refers to. The tradition is probably connected with the LXX Jer. 1:6-10."[6]

[The LXX is a reference to the Septuagint, which means ‘seventy’ or in Roman numerals LXX, after the 70 (or 72) scholars who translated the Torah into Greek.]

Sperber explains that it does indeed correspond to a reference in the Book of Jeremiah (although not to the Septuagint version[7]). The reference is to the prophet Jeremiah’s inauguration into the world of prophecy, where a ‘seal’ of some sort was placed on his tongue.

According to rabbinic tradition, this ‘seal’ or 'signet ring' alludes to the renowned ‘seal of Solomon’[9] which is alleged to have had the power to produce prophetic oracles.

Sperber writes:

“If our reconstruction be correct, we have here the traces of a lost Midrash...”

Sperber, interestingly, goes on to suggest that while the verse in Jeremiah 1:9 actually states:

"Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my [i.e., Jeremiah’s] mouth."

However, there were rabbis who were uncomfortable with the anthropomorphic innuendo that G-d has a ‘hand’ and, instead, explained that G-d had sent an angel to touch the mouth of Jeremiah. This was quite a common technique whereby the rabbis often reworked uncomfortable anthropomorphic texts.

The Paris papyrus text may be an example of this very trend. Hence the concept of the ‘seal of Solomon’ placed in Jeremiah's mouth, possibly brought by an angel (or by Solomon[8] as the text implies) but certainly with no reference to  G-d’s hand, is a better alternative. Sperber suggests that this papyrus text, therefore, may indeed be a lost Midrash from the anti-anthropomorphic rabbinic school.


As further support for Sperber's interpretation, we will now look at an array of parallel rabbinic teachings concerning the placing of ‘magical’ items on the tongue to produce some form of prophecy or supernatural outcome.


Placing amulets on (or under) the tongue to achieve certain required outcomes became a common custom in the Jewish mystical world.

In one instance we read about a practice to send dreams to one's neighbour by writing a spell “upon a plate of silver and placing in the mouth of a rooster.[10]


According to Sefer haRazim, sometimes a special ring was placed in a person’s mouth to achieve certain results.[11]


When Yakov and Rachel (Leah, Bilah and Zilpah) left Lavan’s house to return to Canaan, Rachel took (stole) her father’s (Lavan’s) terafim[12] while he was out. These terafim, also referred to as ‘household goods’ were in fact idols. The common reason given for taking her father’s idols is that she didn’t want him to worship them.[13]

The Midrash Tanchuma[14] describes how these terafim were made:

“And how did they make [them]? They would bring a first-born man, slaughter him, and salt him with salt and oils. Then they wrote on a golden plate the name of an unclean spirit, and placed the plate with magic under his tongue. Then they placed him in (a niche in?) a wall, and lit before him candles, and prostrated themselves before him, and he would speak with them in oracles – (or: in a magical manner).”

The Targum Yerushalmi[15] states that the golden plate which was placed under the tongue was endowed with ‘kismin’ or ‘magic powers’.  

This Midrash and Targum, again, indicate the widespread and common belief held by Jews and non-Jews that golden and silver plates and certain ‘seals’ or rings placed in the mouth can produce supernatural outcomes.


According to Shir haShirim Rabba[16], Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the First Temple, also used a similar technique:

“What did that wicked man (Nebuchadnezzar) do? He took the diadem [headpiece] of the High Priest and placed it into the mouth (of the idol - cf. Daniel 3:1), and it began to speak [saying]: I am the Lord, thy God...”

The Zohar[17] writes similarly:

“[Nebuchadnezzar] took a vessel of the Temple vessels on which was engraved the Holy Name, and placed it in the mouth of the idol, and from that moment it began to speak wondrous things...”

As does the Tikkunei Zohar[18]:

 “[A]nd afterwards they would place the Ineffable Name (Shem haMeforash) in the mouths of the images (of the zodiacal constellations-the Mazzalot), and they would speak...”

From all these sources it is clear that it was commonly believed that placing a ‘magic item’ in the mouth could cause a person or object to speak in an oracular or prophetic manner. 

However, based on the Paris papyri, we now know that this was not just a rabbinic idea but one held to be similarly true by the general non-Jewish mystical culture at that time.

Thus Sperber is able to speculatively reconstruct two lost rabbinic homilies positioned comfortably within a general papyrus text of pagan magic.


Sperber’s research is fascinating although even he admits that he has not conclusively shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that he discovered lost rabbinic teachings.

Nevertheless, regardless of how one chooses to read Sperber, what we do see and what is abundantly evident is that there were large swathes of common areas of overlap between the early rabbinic position on magic and that of the Greek, Coptic and Gnostic pagan world. 

This muddies the waters and makes it extremely difficult to know the difference between an original Jewish idea and that stemming from the outside pagan magical and mystical community.

Jewish mysticism, as presented today, is a far cry from the original style of mysticism and magic as presented in the older Jewish texts. Today’s mysticism is portrayed as a clean and sophisticated philosophical system of lofty spiritual ideas and concepts - but this wasn’t always the case.
At some point, the system was radically changed from a very raw and folk-rooted magical and superstitious tradition common to the non-Jewish world, to the well-polished theosophy which we find today.

Rambam (1135-1204) was against mysticism and, as we know, presented an alternate system of spiritual rationalism. This began a series of religious controversies which still continue to this day because, despite the theological makeover, we still see an unwillingness to let go of elements of basic theurgy (magic) as was practiced in earlier times.

Thus, for example, the manner in which we teach our children about angels in our contemporary Torah schools, stands in sharp contradistinction to way Rambam understood them. In his view, angels did not manifest as supernatural beings but were rather states of human perception.

Rambam did not believe that the Jewish mystical tradition (as practiced in his day and by extension, certainly thereafter) went all the way back to Sinai. This was to become one of the main points of mystical contention between Maimonides and Nachmanides who did believe that the mystical roots originated at Sinai. [See Who Owned the Early Kabbalah?]

Rambam believed that he knew the origins of Jewish mysticism and that he understood that, to a large extent, it simply reflected some of the common superstitions of the ancient world.

One of the great ironies of the Maimonidean controversies is that it is Rambam himself who the mystics accuse of misrepresenting Judaism by incorporating an overly Greek (Aristotelian) worldview.


[1] I intentionally use the terms ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ interchangeably with reference to earlier theosophy.  Today the separation between ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ mysticism is said to be somewhat more distinct. One could argue, however, that even today, when (innocent) attempts are made to manipulate mystical knowledge or ‘direct’ it, it is no longer in the category of theoretical theosophy but has technically crossed back over to theurgy (magic).
[2] Daniel Sperber, Some Rabbinic Themes in Magical Papyri.
[3] Bibliothèque Nationale, Suppl. grec. no. 574.11.
[4] Sifre Devarim, 311.
[5] Shir haShirim Rabba, 6:8.
[6] Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, transl. Strachan (London, 1927), pp. 255-66.
[7] The Septuagint verses read in English translation: “And the Lord stretched out his hand to me and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have given my words to your mouth.”
[8] Sperber also suggests that the original text had been corrupted and should read the “by the seal of Solomon” and not “by the seal which Solomon laid...”
[9] See Gittin 68a. In Arabic lore "Bism Illâh" (=in the name of God) is both on the tongue of Jesus and on the seal of Solomon.  E. A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans (1961 ed.), p. 70. It is possible that the Muslims begin their sermons with this reference in order to take advantage of the ‘seal’ and thus speak in ‘prophecy’. The 'seal' is known as Khātam Sulaymān and refers to the signet ring of King Solomon.
[10] M. Gaster , The Sword of Moses, (London 1898), p. 39 no. 70.
[11] Sefer ha-Razim, ed. M. Margalioth (Jerusalem 1966), pp. 105-06.
[12] Similar objects are also referenced in Judges 17:5, 2 Kings 23:24 and Zecharia 10:2.
[13] Other reasons are that by possessing these terafim, she could claim her father’s inheritance and also use them as fertility amulets.
[14] Tanchuma, Vayetzei 12.
[15] Bereishit, 31:19.
[16] Shir haShirim, Rabba 7:9.
[17] Zohar, Terumah 2, fol. 175b. 
[18] Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 66, fol. 97b.

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