Jesus & disciples: new competition in ancient service markets

Acts of the Apostles testifies to vibrant service markets in the ancient world.  In Samaria, a man named Simon spoke grandly and performed magic.  He attracted the whole town of Samaria and apparently acquired much silver through his business.  In Philippi,  a slave-girl “brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”  In Paphos, a magician-prophet was an associate of the provincial governor.[1]

Paul of Tarsus and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth were new competition for incumbent ritual-service providers.  Acts of the Apostles declares:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

To this new, powerful competitor, incumbent service providers in Ephesus responded with a standard business strategy:

some itinerant Jewish exorcists {the seven sons of Sceva} tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” … But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”

This was a major brand-identification failure for Sceva.  To make matters worse, the evil spirit went on to cast them out: it “leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.” Ephesus was second only to Rome among cities in the Roman Empire.  After Sceva’s reversal, Ephesians publicly burned magic books valued at fifty thousand silver coins.  For comparison, the price for betraying an associate was only thirty pieces of silver.  Losing market share in Ephesus undoubtedly was a major blow to incumbent service providers.[2]

Ritual-service training documents from Roman Egypt provide comparative evidence concerning service attributes. Persons with a background in ancient Egyptian temple service used these documents to prepare to compete in broader Greco-Roman service markets.  The products they developed were fundamentally similar to Microsoft’s Word.  Their ritual products were bulky, complicated, and required expensive hardware to operate.  Some operations, for example, required a falcon feather and a naked boy wrapped in linen.  Just consider the support costs for this operation: “onto a silver leaf inscribe this name of 100 letters with a bronze stylus, and wear it strung on a thong from the hide of an ass.”  Commands for invoking operations (voces mysticae) were long and difficult to remember.  On the other hand, their products claimed to be able to do anything, e.g. hinder the user’s legal opponent, make one person despise another, or cause a person to burn with lust for the user.  The ritual-service training documents indicate that these products, like Microsoft’s Word today, could be run on a stand-alone basis.  They also provided many options for localization.[3]

Jesus and his disciples’ service offerings were much different.  Their services were essentially limited to healings and exorcisms, although they occasionally washed feet and turned water into wine.  Moreover, their services were exceedingly simple in operation.  Jesus healed a leper by touching him and saying “be clean.”  He healed a paralytic by saying “stand up.” He healed a man with a withered hand by saying “stretch out your hand.”  A Roman army officer asked Jesus to heal a servant.  The officer implored Jesus: “only say the word and my servant will be healed.” The officer apparently recognized, as the wise Rabbi Judah bar Shallum explained: “the word of the Holy One, blessed be He, is identical with the deed.”  The services of Jesus and his disciples were much simple than the services that Microsoft’s Word provides today.[4]

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[1] Acts 8:9-24 (Simon), 16:16-19 (slave girl), 13:6-11 (Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas, an associate of proconsul Sergius Paulus).  Jesus himself noted the presence of other exorcist providers.  See Luke 11:19.

[2] Acts 19:11-20 (sons of Sceva losing business); Mt 26:15 (Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus).

[3] PGM III.620 (falcon’s feather), PGM IV.80 (naked boy wrapped in linen), 259-260 (silver leaf to be worn on thong).  The training documents, called the Greek Magical Papyri, are available in English translation in Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. 1992. The Greek magical papyri in translation: including the Demotic spells Vol. 1, [Texts].  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Luke 5:13 (healing leper); Luke 5:24 (healing paralytic); Luke 6:10 (healing man with withered hand). Matthew 8:8 (centurion’s request). Rabbi Judah bar Shallum’s statement is included in the Midrash on Psalm 107.  For the English translation, see Braude, William G. 1959. The Midrash on Psalms. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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