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The Magic Bowl

I was away all last week — without laptop, newspapers, or other connections. Even my cellphone reception was minimal. But, yes, I saw the sensationalist coverage of the Magical Jesus bowl. In case you didn’t, here’s the scoop from the Discovery Channel:

A team of scientists led by renowned French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio recently announced that they have found a bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., that, according to an expert epigrapher, could be engraved with the world’s first known reference to Christ.

If the word “Christ” refers to the Biblical Jesus Christ, as is speculated, then the discovery may provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world.

The full engraving on the bowl reads, “DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS,” which has been interpreted by French epigrapher and professor emeritus Andre Bernand as meaning either, “by Christ the magician” or “the magician by Christ.”

“It could very well be a reference to Jesus Christ, in that he was once the primary exponent of white magic,” Goddio, co-founder of the Oxford Center of Maritime Archaeology, said.

He and his colleagues found the object during an excavation of the underwater ruins of Alexandria’s ancient great harbor. The Egyptian site also includes the now submerged island of Antirhodos, where Cleopatra’s palace may have been located.

Egyptologist David Fabre, a member of the European Institute of Submarine Archaeology, thinks a “magus” could have practiced fortune-telling rituals using the bowl. The Book of Mathew in the Bible refers to “wisemen,” or Magi, believed to have been prevalent in the ancient world.

According to Fabre, the bowl is also very similar to one depicted in two early Egyptian earthenware statuettes that are thought to show a soothsaying ritual.

“It has been known in Mesopotamia probably since the 3rd millennium B.C.,” Fabre said. “The soothsayer interprets the forms taken by the oil poured into a cup of water in an interpretation guided by manuals.”

He added that the individual, or “medium,” then goes into a hallucinatory trance when studying the oil in the cup.

“They therefore see the divinities, or supernatural beings appear that they call to answer their questions with regard to the future,” he said.
The magus might then have used the engraving on the bowl to legitimize his supernatural powers by invoking the name of Christ, the scientists theorize.

Goddio explained, “It is very probable that in Alexandria they were aware of the existence of Jesus” and of his associated legendary miracles. Based on Biblical texts, these included transforming water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread, conducting miraculous health cures, and the story of the resurrection.

While not discounting the Jesus Christ interpretation, other researchers have offered different possible interpretations for the engraving, which was made on the thin-walled ceramic bowl after it was fired, since slip was removed during the process.

Bert Smith, a professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University, suggests the engraving might be a dedication, or present, made by a certain “Chrestos” belonging to a possible religious association called Ogoistais.

Klaus Hallof, director of the Institute of Greek inscriptions at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy, added that if Smith’s interpretation proves valid, the word “Ogoistais” could then be connected to known religious groups that worshipped early Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses, such as Hermes, Athena and Isis.

Hallof additionally pointed out that historians working at around, or just after, the time of the bowl, such as Strabon and Pausanias, refer to the god “Osogo” or “Ogoa,” so a variation of this might be what’s on the bowl. It is even possible that the bowl refers to both Jesus Christ and Osogo.
Fabre concluded, “It should be remembered that in Alexandria, paganism, Judaism and Christianity never evolved in isolation. All of these forms of religion (evolved) magical practices that seduced both the humble members of the population and the most well-off classes.”

“It was in Alexandria where new religious constructions were made to propose solutions to the problem of man, of God’s world,” he added. “Cults of Isis, mysteries of Mithra, and early Christianity bear witness to this.”

The bowl is currently on public display in the exhibit “Egypt’s Sunken Treasures” at the Matadero Cultural Center in Madrid, Spain, until November 15.

A few observations: (1) We’re speaking here of one possible reading of a rough inscription that might refer to the Christ we all know and love, but might not, and there’s no way of knowing — no way we’ll ever know. This story is full of “if” and “could.” (2) It’s no secret that magicians tried to acquire the power of Christ and the Apostles (see Acts 8:9-19 and 13:6-10); nor did these attempts end with the apostolic era (see the book Ancient Christian Magic). (3) Knowing (as we do) that the name of Jesus even today gets dragged into all manner of superstition, we shouldn’t be surprised. (4) Since Jesus did work wonders, it was natural for some of the ancients to associate him with magicians. In paleochristian art, he is sometimes shown holding a wand; he is also depicted as a conventional healer and conventional philosopher. (5) Those are pretty wild speculative leaps from the Alexandrian cup to the Persian Magi and then to Jesus the Christ. As Peter Gabriel might say: Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry.

9 thoughts on “The Magic Bowl

  1. the question I have, and which I haven’t seen anyone raise, is: isn’t it possible to interpret this not as the name “Christ” but as the general noun “the anointed”?

  2. Good point, Larry. That’s what I meant when I said “one possible reading.” It could also be a proper name. Smith mentions that possibility.

  3. Larry, the word is actually not χριστός (christos), “anointed,” but χρηστός (chrestos), “useful” or “serviceable.”

  4. That jump doesn’t bother me so much, D.P., as Suetonius may have made the same vowel replacement. Suetonius’s reference, though, seems more clearly applicable to our Christ than this one.

  5. I agree, Mike. But it does add to the possibilities of other readings. “Through that which is useful to the magicians?”

  6. Ah, very interesting.

  7. “the primary exponent of white magic”? What an odd phrase.
    Glad to know you are a Peter Gabriel fan, Mr. Aquilina

  8. The focus is being misplaced in trying to decipher this bowl’s inscription. The OGOISTAIS is currently incomprehensible. There’s a good writeup of the issues and suggestions here by Wieland Willker. It could be something as innocuous as a label: “70 measures of salve.”

  9. You’re right, Kevin. And some of the scholars quoted here and there have indicated that this is all smoke. Once again, though, it’s the news-manufacturers who are hoping the cup will do for them at least as much as the Jesus Tomb did. I love the headline: “Earliest Reference Describes Christ as ‘Magician.'” Read it again. Every single word (except perhaps for “as”) is misleading! Now that’s a feat.

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