Magic and a Patriarch

Following on my post Conversion of a Patriarch? and Chaim’s post The deathbed conversion of a patriarch?, I thought to post the other tale related by Count Joseph of Tiberias to Epiphanius, as related in the latter’s Panarion 30.7.1-8.7 (the translation is that of Frank Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis [Brill, 1987]). Setting the scene, it is several years after 365, the year in which Hillel II died. Hillel’s son and successor, Gamaliel V, was not yet of age at Hillel’s death, so his upbringing was entrusted to Joseph (in these years before his conversion to Christianity, he was still a well-respected elder at the Patriarch’s court in Tiberias) and another elder. Epiphanius was born in Palestine, south of Gaza, which explains his reference in an aside to “my country” when telling the story.

[T]he boy Ellel had left to be reared as patriarch was growing up. (No one usurps the positions of authority among the Jews; a son succeeds a father.) Just as the lad was reaching full vigor some idle youths of his age, who were used to evil, unfortunately met him. (I guess he was called Judas, but because of the time I am not quite sure.) The youths of his age got him into many bad habits, seductions of women and unholy sexual unions. They undertook to help him in his licentious deeds with certain magic devices–made certain love-philtres and compelled free women, by incantation, to be brought against their will for his seduction.

Josephus and his fellow elder, who were obliged to attend the boy, bore this with difficulty. Often they charged him verbally, and admonished him. But he preferred to listen to the young men, and he hid his indecencies and denied them. And Josephus did not dare to voice his accusations of him openly; he admonished him, however, as though from professional duty.

Well, they went to Gadara for the hot baths. There is an annual gathering there. Persons who wish to bathe for a certain number of days arrive from every quarter, to rid themselves of their ailments, if you please–though it is a trick of the devil. For where God’s wonders have been, the adversary already spread his deadly nets–men and women bathe together there!

There happened to be an unusually beautiful free woman in the bath. With his accustomed licentiousness the young man brushed against the girl’s side as he strolled about in the hot-air room. But being Christian, she naturally made the sign of the cross. (There was no need for her to break the rules and bathe in mixed company. These things happen to simple laypersons, from the laxity of the teachers who do not forewarn them through their instruction.) Still, that God might make his wonders manifest, the youngster, I mean the patriarch, failed in his enterprise. For he sent emissaries to the woman and promised her gifts; but she insulted his messengers and did not yield to the pampered youth’s futile efforts.

Then, when his helpers learned of the passion the boy had betrayed for the girl, they undertook to equip him with more powerful magic–as Josephus himself described to me minutely. After sunset they took the unfortunate lad to the neighboring cemetery. (In my country there are places of assembly of this kind, called “caverns,” made by hewing them out of cliffsides.) Taking him there the cheats who were with him recited certain incantations and spells, and did some things, with him and in the woman’s name, which were full of impiety.

By God’s will the other elder, Josephus’ partner, found this out; and on realizing what was happening, he told Josephus. And he began by bemoaning his lot, and said, “Brother, we are wretched men and vessels of destruction! What sort of person are we attending?” Josephus asked what the matter was, and no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the elder seized his hand and took Josephus to the place where the persons doomed to die, with the youth, were holding their assembly in the cemetery for magic. They stood outside the door and eavesdropped on their proceedings, but withdrew when they came out. (It was not dark yet; it was just about sundown, and visibility was still good.) After the monsters of impiety had left the tomb Josephus went in and saw certain vessels and other implements of jugglery on the ground. He made water on them and covered them with a heap of dust, he said, and left.

But he knew the kind of woman on whose account they had plotted these wicked things, and he watched to see whether they would win. When the sorceries did not win–the woman had the aid of the sign and faith of Christ–he learned that the young man had waited for the girl’s arrival on three nights, and later quarrelled with those who had performed the jugglery, because it had not succeeded.

Such a lively tale! In the end, it sounds to be no more than a teenage crush, though a serious one, that the young Gamaliel was suffering from. And if it weren’t for his rough friends, there would likely be no tale to tell here at all. The drama is heightened by the “doomed to die” which would be related either to a presumed Divine judgment on the way for such rank impiety, or the Imperial ban on such magic. Since the Patriarch Hillel V held the post from 365 to 385, we can rather expect that his repentance was forthwith and he was spared such an immediate punishment. The account of Josephus “making water” (urinating) on the magical implements is delightful. This story, with the Christian woman avoiding the powerful magic of the young and wealthy Jewish Patriarch, is presented as the third of the various experiences that led Josephus step by step toward his conversion to Christianity. Another thing that is extraordinary about this story is that Epiphanius’ Panarion was published in 378, while the Patriarch Gamaliel V was still alive, though some dating schemes I’ve seen online would make it a close call. Perhaps the work was not so popular immediately as it was to become with time; Epiphanius clearly avoided any resultant odium in offending one of the most powerful men in the region.