Was the writer's purpose pious recollection or to magically ward off evil?
About 1,500 years ago, an Egyptian Christian inscribed on papyrus certain passages from Matthew’s Gospel account of the Last Supper and from Psalm 78. The discovery of this very valuable artifact, found among the thousands of papyri housed in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, was recently reported with far more media hype than one would expect. Other such fragments exist and many of them are older. Why the sensationalism? The answer can be found in this headline’s claim: “Last Supper Papyrus May Be One of Oldest Christian Charms.” Roberta Mazza, who discovered this fragment of papyrus, described it as “one of the first recorded documents to use magic in the Christian context and the first charm ever found to refer to the Eucharist … as the manna of the Old Testament.” Was the papyrus fragment a magical charm used as a primitive means of warding off evil? I’d like to suggest a historical and far more likely explanation of its meaning and use, one that does not reduce Christian faith and practice to the level of “magic.”
Deuteronomy 11:18, hearkening back to Exodus 13:9-16, records the divine command that the People of Israel “take these words into your heart and soul. Bind them on your arm as a sign and as a pendant on your forehead.” Passages from Torah, the Law—notably the Shema, the most profound prayer of Judaism and a confession of faith in the Lord—were placed in small boxes, known subsequently as tefillin, and worn on the forehead and on the arm. Some observant Jews today still make use of these. One would not consider them an “amulet” or a “charm.” They serve—as clearly the biblical text avows—as a tangible reminder of their fidelity to the Lord, their response to his Word.
From the squabbles involving Gnosticism in the second and third centuries to the iconoclast controversies in the seventh and eighth, Christians spent a great deal of energy coming to grips with the created, material order. Far from rejecting the material world as the product of the malfeasance or incompetence of a lesser deity, as a darkened realm in which the soul (often associated with “light”) was trapped and longed for freedom, Christians recognized the created order as fundamentally good, yet damaged by sin and the evil wrought by rebellion against God. Christianity was born in a world dominated by a dull fatalism. Perhaps the Gospel’s greatest appeal in such a world is that it offered a narrative of liberation from the faceless cosmic powers which seemed menacingly to lurk in the shadows. The Christian practice of “blessing” items and persons, derived from Judaism, was related very much to their conviction that in Jesus, God had wrested creation from its solipsistic juggernaut toward destruction, and had begun to heal and restore the cosmos to its original purpose in the divine plan. To “bless” something was to re-claim it for its created purpose in God’s plan, in which all things—material as well as spiritual—somehow speak the praise of their sole Creator.
Christians blessed all kinds of objects, and some of them came to have special place or purpose, signposts in daily life of God’s life and love offered them in Jesus. Much later, these came to be known as “sacramentals,” the name itself indicating the imaginative liberty inherent in Christianity: Created things can and should become transparent to and reveal their Creator, the God whose love and mercy Jesus has made known in a definitive way.
Perhaps this papyrus was understood by its owner as no more than a mere magical amulet, a charm to ward off the havoc often wreaked in a disordered and disordering cosmos. We know that paganism (in its ancient and very modern avatars) did in fact make use of such trinkets; yet paganism was largely effete by the fifth century. This possibility cannot be absolutely discounted. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, this papyrus was more akin to the texts encased in the Jewish tefillin: beloved texts honored (by the mid-third century at least) as sacred, a tangible reminder of the commitment of faith, a living relationship with the Lord. Perhaps this papyrus is but the ancestor of many Christian sacramentals: not magical charms but concrete, seemingly ordinary objects, which, to the eyes of faith, are transparent with the spirit of the One who made them, and in whose love, mercy and Providence real freedom is alone possible.
Msgr. Michael Heintz, PhD is a priest with the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend and rector of St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend. Ordained in 1993, he received his Ph.D. in 2008 in Latin and Greek Patristics from the University of Notre Dame. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Theology and is currently completing a translation of Origen’s "Homilies on the Psalms" for inclusion in the Fathers of the Church series published by Catholic University of America Press.