New Testament's Book of Revelation Was Influenced by Curse Tablets

Ruth Schuster

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The style of John’s Revelation, the apocalyptic final book of the New Testament, smacks of formally cursing one’s enemies in true Middle Eastern tradition, proposes scholar at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

50687232Death on the Pale HorseCredit: The horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death on the Pale Horse, Benjamin West, 1796

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John” – Book of Revelation, 1:1 (New International Version).

Revelation is the final book in the New Testament and what must take place is the apocalypse. The book features apocalyptic visions, and language known less from the temple and more from the curses that people from Mesopotamia to Rome and the Holy Land have been hurling at each other for centuries, according to research at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz headed by Dr. Michael Hölscher of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz’s Faculty of Catholic Theology.

In short, Hölscher suspects that the style of the Book of Revelation’s author, John, experienced literary influence from the classical pastime of hexing one’s enemies, business rivals, unfaithful loves, sports champions, et cetera.

Revelation is an outlier in the New Testament, in its language, apocalyptic theme and the fact that not all Christians accepted it as gospel. For instance the 4th-century bishop of Caesarea MaritimaEusebius, seems to have had mixed feelings. Nor is it clear who John is.

Early Christians assumed the author was John the apostle but nowadays scholars think the book was written in the very late 1st century, during the reign of Emperor Domitian. “The prophet John gives instructions on how to live a Christian life at this time. He refers to the concrete situation in western Asia Minor under Roman rule,” Hölscher says.

50687136Credit: Jastrow

The name John was so common in antiquity that it is hard to identify him with the people known from early Christianity. "Nevertheless, tradition has done exactly that,” Hölscher says. “It saw behind the John of Revelation the apostle John, whom it also understood as the author of the Gospel of John. Today’s scholarship distinguishes the author of John’s Revelation from both John the Evangelist and John the Apostle.”

Whoever John was, often his idiom is soaring: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation, 1:8). However, the descriptions of what the unbelievers face are extraordinary too, just one aspect being (after the fifth angel blows his trumpet) “smoke locusts” with golden crowns, women’s hair and lion’s teeth pouring out of the abyss to torment errant humans.

“There are aspects of curse tablet-related inscriptions and practices in Revelation,” said Hölscher. “This may well have been an indirect expression of the need for segregation and the attempt at self-preservation of an often threatened early Christian community.”

50687233Lead curse tablet found in L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac, Aveyron, southern FranceCredit: Pankratos

Is Revelation unique in the New Testament, in resorting to the language of curse tablets? Sort of; nowhere does scripture ban the practice but it is tacitly acknowledged in passages urging the faithful to choose their words carefully, Hölscher says: “These include the passage from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus encourages his readers to love their enemies: ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’” (Luke 6:27–28).

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals “creatively with the practice of cursing and transforms it,” Hölscher explains, citing his colleague Susanne Luther on this: The apostle binds the believer to Christ rather than to some foul spirit. “And those who are bound into Christ are no longer able to curse, as 1 Corinthians 12.3 states: ‘Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,’” he explains.

May your horse die

When did the practice of magical curses arise? “The idea that words have a reality-changing power that can be supported with ritual actions and used against one’s opponents is perhaps simply part of human nature and may have arisen in different places. In my opinion, it is hard to determine exactly where the specific practice related to the curse tablets may have its roots,” Hölscher answers. “Scholars consider whether this practice originated in the Greek city-state. Alternative conjectures point in the direction of Mesopotamia and assume a cultural exchange with the Greek world, for example via itinerant priests.”

50687137Curse against enemies in a trial written on a lead figurine put in a lead box, Greece, 420-410 BCE.Credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto

Mesopotamians certainly had the knack. The Old Babylonian Code of Hammurabi from about 3,800 years ago entreats the divine Nergal to “burn his people with his great overpowering weapon like a raging fire in a reed thicket,” to beat these foul miscreants to a pulp and shatter limbs “like a clay figure.” The goddess Nintu is tasked with preventing the offender from having children, and Ninarrak is urged to give the vile miscreant an eternal carbuncle. In Israeli archaeology, some claim that curse tablets have been found in Jerusalem and biblical Mount Ebal; others think some are seeing things. More securely, over 1,700 examples of such barbs from the past have been found spanning from at least 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E., from Mesopotamia to northern Europe.

“It is striking, in any case, that the curse tablets in Greek and Latin not only show similarities with the older rituals in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but also set their own accents, for example by developing their own formulaic language that remains constant across times and regions,” Hölscher elaborates. “The oldest known curses in Greek are documented for the 6th century B.C.E. in Sicily, followed by the finds from Athens, which are dated to the 5th century B.C.E. A curse tablet from Pompeii from the 2nd century BC is often cited as the first Latin evidence. Within ancient curse culture, the practice around Greek and Latin curse tablets seems to form a distinct group.”

Roman curses could be rather petty. Ancient Origins presents some choice snarls, including in the context of Roman games: “I implore you, spirit, whoever you are, and I command you to torment and kill the horses of the green and white teams” and the charioteers too while about it. A hex in North Africa hopes that the gladiator Vincenzus Zarizo loses all his bears.

Delivery might entail placing the tablets (which could be made of cheap metal such as lead, mark you) in graves or graveyards. However some ancient Athenians came to frown on this methodology around 2,400 years ago, leading hexes to be tossed down wells in order to gain commensurate proximity to the chthronic realms whence a demon would arise et cetera.

50687230Curse tablet in the shape of a liver, among dozens found in a 2,500-year-old well in AthensCredit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute in Athens

Heads or tails

The point is that curse tablets – of which over 1,700 have been found to date – predated the Book Revelation by centuries. Perhaps the Greeks were first to actually have such tablets formally carved, by professional magician/scribes.

But why relate the language found in Revelation to tabella defixionis specifically, rather than the general pastime of wishing ill?

“What is special about the New Testament book of Revelation is that it seems to blend so many traditions,” Hölscher explains – including elements of the Hebrew Bible, whence many of its motifs originate. “There is also a scholarly approach that examines the Revelation against the backdrop of contemporary history in western Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century C.E. Previous scholarship has already seen, in part, specific parallels between the Revelation and the ritual of the curse tablets,” he says.

Presently the research is seeking more evidence of where the curse tablets explain striking features in the Revelation text better than other pre-texts, he says – not only in using the language of the defixion ritual, but in specific actions and material aspects.

50687231Curse tablet against the newlywed Glykera, by someone jealous of her marriage, found in Athenian wellCredit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck / German Archaeological Institute in Athens

“The focus is particularly on aspects of the curse tablets that distinguish them from similar rituals of cursing, for example those attested in the Old Testament,” he says. Indeed the Bible is stuffed with such references: not a steed in sight, but in Deuteronomy one finds the wonders that shall be heaped upon the faithful, such as “the LORD will make thee the head, and not the tail” and a richness of evil that will befall deniers – it’s hard to pick the worst. One subset boils down to – back to Egypt with you, with your eternal boils and itches and your faithless spouse, where you will beg to be enslaved anew but nobody will buy you (Deuteronomy 28:68) following which vultures will eat your sorry carcass. (Deuteronomy 28:26).

John’s Revelation includes wording and phrases that smack of curse tablets such as: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” (Revelation 18:21)

This is the stuff of curse-ritual material, Hölscher feels (albeit talking about the fallen Babylon, not the neighbor), and the text goes on: “The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again” – (Revelation 18:22) and it goes on and on and on.

John also slams Rome and its emperor for demonic qualities from which the early Christians aspired to distinguish themselves, Hölscher says. “The Book of Revelation contributes to the process of self-discovery, the seeking of a distinctive identity by a Christian minority in a world dominated by a pagan Roman majority that rendered routine homage not only to the emperor but also to the main Roman gods,” he sums up. And even if John was blissfully unaware of the provenance of his muse, his readers wouldn’t have been.