Ancient Pagan Curse Tablets Influenced New Testament’s Book of Revelation

Andrei Tapalaga
Defixio tabella (Cursed Tablet) with an opisthographic curse in Greek against Kardelos, next to The Revelations New Testament.Photo byWikimedia Commons

According to research at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz led by Dr. Michael Hölscher of the Faculty of Catholic Theology, the book contains apocalyptic visions and language known less from the temple and more from curses hurled at each other for centuries from Mesopotamia to Rome and the Holy Land.

Revelation is an outlier in the New Testament because of its language, apocalyptic topic, and the fact that it was not received as gospel by all Christians. For example, Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea Maritima, appears to have had ambivalent feelings. It's also unclear who John is.

Early Christians claimed the book was authored by John, the apostle, but experts today believe it was written in the late first century, under the reign of Emperor Domitian.

“The prophet John gives instructions on how to live a Christian life at this time. He refers to the concrete situation in western Asia Minor under Roman rule,” Hölscher says.

The researcher Michael Hölscher argues that how the book of revelation is written does not necessarily correspond to the author's character.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation, 1:8).

The problem is that curse tablets, of which over 1,700 have so far been unearthed, predating the Book of Revelation by centuries. The Greeks may have been the first to have professional magician/scribes carve such tablets.

But why link the Revelation phrase to tabella defixionis, rather than the more generic behavior of wishing someone bad luck?

“What is special about the New Testament book of Revelation is that it seems to blend so many traditions,” Hölscher explains – including elements of the Hebrew Bible, whence many of its motifs originate. “There is also a scholarly approach that examines the Revelation against the backdrop of contemporary history in western Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century C.E. Previous scholarship has already seen, in part, specific parallels between the Revelation and the ritual of the curse tablets,” Hölscher says.

Curse tablets were common across the Roman world, despite the fact that they were considered a kind of black magic and were illegal. These were usually etched on a thin sheet of lead and placed in a position where only the gods could view them, such as a fissure in a wall or a pagan temple.
A curse tablet on lead from about A.D. 100, from the Roman province of Germania, now the Groß-Gerau district of Germany near Frankfurt.Photo byLive Science

He believes that the research is currently looking for more evidence of where the curse tablets explain remarkable features in the Revelation text better than other pre-texts - not only in terms of employing the language of the defixion process, but also in specific acts and material aspects.

John’s Revelation includes wording and phrases that smack of curse tablets such as: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” (Revelation 18:21)

These sorts of ideas are very similar to the ones presented within the curse tablets, trying to bring suffering and sort of an ending to the world. The definition comes back to the similar ideologies between the apocalypse presented within the Revelation and the apocalyptic ideology in ancient curse tablets.

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