aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Checking the facts

In a recent exchange on social media, one fellow quoted a book (Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science, by Drew Dyck) that claimed that Justin Martyr, the 2nd Century theologian, "named four major challenges to discipleship for the early Christians: sexual immorality, magic, wealth, and ethnic hatred." The author then went on to quote Andy Crouch (whoever he is) that in our day, technology takes the place of magic.

To this, another commenter said that "magic" in Koine Greek would refer to drugs, rather than technology.

Both these comments seemed a little off to me. Grk pharmakon means poison or magic potion. It can also mean medicine. A pharmakos is a poisoner or magician. The Greeks were certainly familiar with mind-altering substances and used them in their religion. This usage is found in early Christian literature, but not in the NT. The eucharist, btw, was called pharmakon athanasias, the medicine of immortality. Now, in Acts 19:19 we are told, "a number of those who had practiced sorcery (perierga praxanton) brought their scrolls (tas biblous) together and burnt them publicly." perierga are magical apparatus, here specifically scrolls, not drugs. What word did Justin use?

Finding the English text of Justin's First Apology was stark simple. Locating the Greek text took a while. Justin's references to magic are all in condemnation of Simon Magus (cf. Acts 8). The English says Simon "through the working of demons performed mighty acts of magic" (dia tés tón energountón daimonón technés dunameis poiéras magikas). Mageia is "magic," defined in context as miraculous healings, summoning spirits, prophecy, etc. Simon Magus was running a seance-Ouija board-fortunetelling-conjuration show. He wasn't, so far as we know, peddling snake oil, nor did he use books in his scam.

So commenter number two is all wet. Back to commenter number one, the one quoting Dyck's screed. I re-read the entirety of both Justin's Apologies, and I can't get what the author is getting out of them. Justin isn't talking about temptations to Christians, maintaining self-control, or discipleship. He's defending Christians against common slanders against them in a petition to the Emperor. He's saying, don't confuse us with those people, we don't do that. Trying to make him into a self-help guru is wresting what he has to say out of context (violently).

Even at that, Justin doesn't have a lot to say about ethnic hatred, unless you count his testimony that everybody is welcome to be a Christian. Sounds like somebody had already identified what he thought were the biggest 21st-Century problems and stood Justin up as a handy authority from the early Church. And who would know? Who reads Justin Martyr these days? (And who bothers to check the Greek, come to that?)

Christians today need to be careful in whom they follow. There's many a good sermon based on poor exegesis, and many a sincere preacher who only thinks he knows what he knows. And these are the people we trust, not the obvious heretics and apostates. The warm heart needs the properly operating head (and, of course, the busy-for-Jesus hands).

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