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The Use of Biblical Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt: Texts, Functions, and Contexts

Joseph Sanzo

            My paper investigates the use of opening lines and/or titles (incipits) of biblical texts on Greek and Coptic amulets from late antique Egypt. Drawing on insights from the ritual and scribal contexts of late antique Egypt and from cognitive linguistics, I challenge what has become a foundational assumption concerning this late antique ritual practice.

            There are over fifty amulets from late antique Egypt that utilize incipits of one or more of the “canonical” Gospels, a particular psalm (esp. LXX Ps 90:1), and/or the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9). For instance, BKT VI 7.1, a sixth–or seventh–century CE Greek amulet from the Fayum, begins its ritual text with a trinitarian invocation followed by citations of several incipits (LXX Ps 90:1, Jn 1:1-2, Mt 1:1, Mk 1:1, Lk 1:1):

            In the name of the F(athe)r a(nd) of the S(o)n and of the Holy S(piri)t; (LXX Ps 90:1)

            The one who dwells in the help of the Most High <will> abide in the shelter of the L(or)d

            of Heaven; (Jn 1:1-2) In the beginning was the Word and the Word was wi(th) <God>

            and the Word was G(o)d; he was in the beginning with G(o)d; (Mt 1:1) (The) book of the

            generation of J(esu)s C(hris)t, S(o)n of D(avi)d, S(o)n of Abr(aham); (Mk 1:1) (The)

            beginning of the Gospel of Jesus C(hris)t S(o)n of G(o)d; (Lk 1:1) Inasmuch as many

            have undertaken to arrange a narrative. (Translation mine)

            Although scholars have frequently acknowledged the use of such biblical incipits on amulets, there has been little focused analysis of this ritual practice. To be sure, some scholars have mentioned in passing that the incipits stood in a “part-for-whole” (pars pro toto) metonymic relation with their contiguous biblical units. Thus, according to this interpretation, the opening lines of the Gospels or a particular psalm sought to attain the power of the Gospels or that psalm in toto. But my research has led me to conclude that this explanation is insufficiently nuanced in light of (1) the uses of biblical texts more generally on the extant amulets and (2) metonymic theory.

            In my paper, I respond to this assumed part-for-whole model and offer the first focused analysis of the biblical incipits. I begin my discussion by highlighting the manifest preference among late antique ritual specialists (“magicians”) to focus on and cite short thematic units of the Bible (instead of entire books). With this observation in mind, I organize the incipits into a typology that distinguishes between incipits of shorter biblical units (e.g., psalms) and incipits of larger biblical corpora (esp. the Gospels). I then use insights from recent linguistic work on metonymy to challenge the view that all incipits worked according to the metonymic relation “part for whole.” I argue that, at least for the incipits of larger biblical units (e.g., the Gospels), the metonymic relation “part for parts” (pars pro partibus) is more appropriate.

            In conclusion, my paper represents the first sustained analysis of the use of biblical incipits on amulets from late antique Egypt. Given the ubiquity of this ritual practice during late antiquity, this paper will not only contribute to the study of “magical” language, but also to the disciplines of late antique history and philology. It is my hope that this paper will initiate a much-needed conversation on this fascinating aspect of late antique culture. 

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Amulets: Language and Artifact

Session/Paper Number


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