Making Amulets Christian

Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts

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Theodore de Bruyn
Oxford Early Christian Texts
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199687886.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Theodore de Bruyn’s Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts is a thoughtful and well-researched work that examines how emerging Christian language and mythology interacted with long-standing Greco-Roman traditional amulet forms in Egypt during the Late Antique Period. Introducing the book, de Bruyn makes it clear that while he does intend to offer a thorough examination of the materials discussed, he also hopes that it will remain accessible for readers without extensive previous knowledge of related topics like surrounding early Christian ritual, magic, or papyri. He accomplishes this by defining relevant terms and offering a brief but relevant history of social structures, religious developments during Late Antiquity, and a thorough explanation of previous amulet construction and content. In providing this framework, the author’s extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman culture and the diversity of early Christian communities is apparent. However, de Bruyn’s most impressive accomplishment is his ability to lead the reader through thinking about amulet creation and scribal methods as individual activities, and then broadening the consideration of these activities in order to demonstrate how developments in these traditions can aid us in understanding the changes that occurred as Egyptian communities encountered varying forms of Christianity and Christian practice. 

The book is organized in a straightforward and logical manner, with useful background being provided in the first half of the book that will later aid in understanding the significance of Christian elements appearing on amulets. The first chapter provides a view of how normative Christian sources wrote about magical practice in general, and amulet use in particular, beginning in the 4th century. From authors such as Tatian, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea we see varying degrees of condemnation for amulet use, grouped together with various types of divination and sorcery, culminating with official emperor’s decrees against these practices following the reign of Constantine. Chapter 2 examines amulets as artefacts and focuses on both their physical form, the materials used and shapes they appear in, as well as the forms and characteristics of the writing that appears on amulets. In this chapter there is also discussion of scribal practices and who the makers of amulets may have been. Issues such as access to education, gender, and economic class are suggested considerations when we contemplate what amulets might tell us about their creator’s social location. Chapter 3 examines manuals of magic incantations and formularies from Egypt. While there is recognition that individual scribal choices and decisions are certainly evident, the focus in this chapter is demonstrating that the format and content of incantations had remained fairly stable and standardized over periods of time. 

The second half of the book delves more directly into an examination of amulets with Christianity informed elements. Chapters 4 and 5 are particularly intriguing as de Bruyn analyzes specific texts and explains their importance by referencing the traditions connected to them. In chapter 4 we see examples of developments over time such as the increasing inclusion of Christian elements such as cross imager, the intermingling of characters from several traditions such as characters from the Hebrew Bible as well as invocations to Jesus, and regional differences in content from area to area. In chapter 5 amulets with scriptural incipits and sections of scripture are similarly evaluated. Chapter 6 connects what the book has so far discussed in the way of Christian content appearing on amulets and connects it to the ritual practices and theologies of Christian communities. Again, the diversity of the artefacts is seen to reflect the diversity of Christianity as practiced in Late Antiquity.

Making Amulets Christian: Artefacts, Scribes, and Contexts is an enjoyable book. Theodore de Bruyn sifts through a vast amount of material and curates a selection from which we can really get a sense of the rich cultural milieu that existed in Egypt in the Late Antique period. The book challenges us to move past envisioning Christianity and the earliest Christian practices in a monolithic manner and instead suggests an immense amount of nuance with variation by time, region, social positioning, and individual interpretation. This is a valuable and worthwhile read for anyone interested in the development of Christianity in Late Antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melody Everest is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Theodore de Bruyn is associate professor in the department of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa. He has studied aspects of Christianity from antiquity to the early modern period. He is the co-editor of Patristic Studies in the Twenty-First Century (Brepols, 2015).

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