Monday, December 15, 2008

SBL Boston, de Bruyn and Granger Cook on Amulets

In my blog series from the SBL in Boston, I have decided to leave out the papyrology sections I attended. I hope Peter Head can make a summary of those sessions. However, I will make an exception for two papers related to a subject that interests me, namely amulets with biblical texts. The following papers were presented on Sunday afternoon, November 23 in Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds. Again I must emphasize that the summaries below build mainly upon my fragmentary notes from the session.

"Criteria for Identifying Biblical Inscriptions as Amulets" by Theodore de Bruyn, University of Ottawa

De Bruyn started with a general description of common criteria for identifying amulets, which he defined as: 'an item believed to convey spiritual power for beneficial or antagonistic effect'.

In relation to written text:

a. characteristics that are found in amulets in general (petitions, esoteric words signs, shapes, phraseology, historiolae)
b. Biblical text that are normally cited on amulets (esp. protective texts such as Ps 90; the Lord's Prayer), in abbreviated form (incipits of gospels, first verse of a psalm); Biblical texts cited in a confused manner; staurogram at the beginning or end, doxology at the end (embellishments), use of alpha and omega.

In relation to material form:

a. not part of a continuous literary work (e.g., single sheet, single leaf, written one side only, or an irregular shape or format, or reused, the absence of literary features, the coarseness of the hand, etc.)
b. item was or could have been worn or fixed (small size), folds or rolls discernable, presence of holes or string.

An identification involves a weighing of probabilities whether an item was used as an amulet, i.e., whether that is the most likely purpose, or just one of several possible purposes. Often the verdict depends on a combination of criteria.

In this paper de Bruyn proposes a new classification system with four categories based on the criteria just described (a kind of ranking system):

Category 1: surely amulets
Category 2: probably amulets
Category 3: possible amulets
Category 4: not likely amulets

The handout included many items classifed in categories 1-2 (there were no examples of the other categories on the handout). Items in category 3 poses a challenge. In such cases it is not possible to rule out another use of the text (de Bruyn cited an example with Ps 1). One cannot be sure wheter the item was worn (whether it was folded, etc.) and other features are open to several interpretations, etc.

In the time for questions I proposed another criterium, namely a text-critical, related to the degree of textual variation. Does the item reflect a high number of unique readings, as resulting from sloppy copying or even conscious alteration related to the specific purpose? At first de Bruyn did not understand what I meant, but after the session was over I explained my point, which he seemed to accept.

The second paper in the session related to amulets was

"P50 [P. Yale 3] and the Question of Its Function" by John Granger Cook, LaGrange College

Because of the interrelatedness of their topics, de Bruyn and Granger Cook had agreed to change the order of their papers in order to have a more logic sequence.

P50 contains two selections from Acts (8:26-32; 10:26-31). The first editor, Clar Kraeling, believed that the text might have been for "missionary" or "homiletic" purposes or both, whereas subsequent scholars (e.g., Joseph van Haelst and Kurt Aland) have concluded that it was a amulet (de Bruyn has classified it as not likely, but I think he had had correspondence with Granger Cook). However, there are several indications that P50 may have had a different function. Granger Cook agreed that the criteria used for evaluating texts as Christian amulets needs a reevaluation. This item contains excerpts, but does not correspond to lectionary division. There are no liturgical or devotional implications of the text. The text is about the conversion of Gentiles. Granger Cook went through Christian writers to show that these contexts played an important role (both for Greek and Latin writers way into the middle ages). Both texts were used in homilies emphasizing evangelism. Hence, Granger Cook did not think the item should be classified as an amulet (contra e.g., Krueger and others). Maybe it had missionary, homiletic or didactic purposes (in the context of Christian mission), in line with Kraeling's original description.


  1. Did anyone comment on the amulet -- mentioned by J. Kelhoffer in "Miracle and Mission -- that was presented by Alphons Barb in the article "Der Heilige und die Schlangen" in 1950 or 1953 (in Mitteilungen der Anthrop. Gesellschaft in Wien)? It's supposed to have part of Mk. 16:18 (in Latin) and a depiction of Paul and a viper. (This article, which features a picture of the amulet, has been particularly difficult for me to track down.)

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  2. de Bruyn did not. His list dealt with Greek material, 4th - 8th Cent.

  3. de Bruyn's definition of an amulet: 'an item believed to convey spiritual power for beneficial or antagonistic effect'.

  4. I have lightly edited the section on de Bruyn with some more info from my notes. Hope you don't mind TW.

  5. Wouldn't the use of a text-critical criterium be difficult to define? For one thing, would a manuscript be created with more or less care if it was to be used as an amulet? One would be inclined to think that such a copy would be done with less care; then again, if the words as such are seen to have protective power, this would point to a high regard for the text.

    De Bruyn's list as it stands may of course be helpful in this regard, but then this might easily turn into a circular argument.