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What is the Difference Between Magic and New Testament Healing?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Adult and Child Hand


Healing happens many ways, and often without our even knowing why or how. But comparisons of methods and experiences can help us get a better grasp on what’s happening.

People in antiquity and even today often conflate magic and New Testament-inspired healing. But I see some differences, and I’d like to see if experiences of our readers could shed further light on the question. What is the difference?

Starting with one of my own experiences.

Years ago I was awakened in the middle of the night from one of those heart-wrenching cries from my baby daughter’s room. It didn’t sound right, so I ran to see what was going on. She was burning with fever, so I picked her up gently to comfort her.

While she was still screaming, I sat down with her in the rocking chair and reached out to God, asking what I needed to do, what I needed to know.

As I rocked and held her close, a thought came that brought me peace. I remembered what I’d heard from the Bible, that there’s an important connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom of God and the immediacy of healing authority.

“Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt 4:3).

The presence of God’s kingdom and healing go together.

It’s hard to describe what happened next in my baby’s room. It was as if I heard the voice of Mother-God assuring me with something like, “I love her even more than you know how! I’m the One who created her out of the vastness of my love, and I’m just beginning to show you what that love means! I’m here. Trust Me.” I was in awe and humbled at the same time. I wanted to know that love!

Either my eyes or my mind was adjusting to the light in the room, but it was lit with a soft glow and I felt a deep peace within before my baby even stopped crying. I kept rocking and pondering these things for about half an hour. Gradually she cooled off, and I tucked her back in bed, sound asleep. In the morning, she resumed her normal cheerful babbling.

The “good news” I heard that night had a transforming effect on me. The love I felt was now everywhere around me. Healing and the transforming power of the kingdom of God have become intertwined for me now.

But there have always been different ways of understanding and practicing healing.

Jesus was accused of practicing it the ‘wrong way’ when some Pharisees accused him of healing through the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons (Matt 12:24). But he explained that if their accusation were true, they would be cutting themselves off from the Spirit of God, the source of his healing power.

The common term in antiquity for ‘other forms of healing’ was ‘magic.’ Although ‘magic’ was a pejorative term, it was not a stage trick. Rather, magic was a serious form of religion and healing. Hans Dieter Betz explains that “magical beliefs and practices can hardly be overestimated in their importance for the daily life of the people” (Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri, 2nd ed., xli).

In The Greek Magical Papyri, I found a ‘treatment’ for fever which makes a helpful comparison with my own experience.

Fever with shivering fits, I conjure you, Michael, archangel of the earth; whether it is daily or nightly or quartan fever; I conjure you, the Almighty SABAOTH, that it no longer touch the soul of the one who carries this, nor touch his whole body; also the dead, deliver, …the distress….”

“He who dwells in the help of the Most High shall abide in the shadow of the God of heaven.

He will say of God, ‘thou art my refuge and my help; I will put my trust in him.”

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy will; our daily bread.”

“Holy, holy is the Lord SABAOTH, heaven is full of justice, holy is the one of glory.

“Aniaada… Migael of lords, Abraham Isaac Jacob Solomon SABAOTH Oel. (Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri, 2nd ed., 300).

Some of the words of this magical incantation are missing from this ‘fever amulet,’ but we see enough to realize it is an odd combination of several biblical verses. As the translator of this verse points out, “the incoherent manner by which the verses are quoted suggests that the writer was ignorant of their content and meaning” (Translator, Roy Kotansky in Betz. Magical Papyri, 300).

A brief comparison of practices for healing fever in magic and New Testament teachings:
  1. Unlike the incantation in the magical papyri, my prayer based on the presence of the Kingdom of God was less about words and more about a comforting communication between God and me.
  2. This magic formula does ask that the fever not touch the soul or body, but it is difficult to know if that request results in transformation. My experience was a transforming one, because after I felt the presence of Love, I wanted to love more.
  3. Karl Olav Sandnes, one of the scholars studying the meaning of healing for Jesus, identifies several characteristics of Jesus’ method of healing. One of his insights resonates especially with my experience. He claims that Jesus’ compassion for those healed is not only the motivating factor behind his healing ministry, but “is also the guiding motivation for extending his mission to the disciples” (Sandnes. Jesus as Healer, 73).

It made sense to me that I could reap the benefits of that compassion as a modern disciple. Sandnes also notes that the compassion accompanying Jesus’ healing works paralleled other scriptural passages, such as Ezekiel 34, with the people of Israel described as sheep without shepherds. “His compassion is the divine presence among the sick among the people” (Sandnes, 74).

I’m comforted to think it was the “divine presence among the sick” that touched both my daughter and me that night many years ago. Are there other views of the Bible or other ancient texts that have brought you comfort?