Was Jesus Magical? Larry Hurtado on “Semitic Language in Mark”

Larry Hurtado, a biblical scholar based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, recently wrote a blog post addressing the question of whether some of the Semitic terminology used in the Gospel of Mark are examples of magical incantations. The passages in question are Mark 5:41 and 7:34.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41, NRSV)

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34, NRSV)

It is those Aramaic expressions – “Talitha cum” and “Ephphatha” – that are in view. This issue has also been addressed by other commentators [1] and the conclusion is generally that they do not represent such a thing. Hurtado offers three reasons for this: (1) a lack of more examples of such magical incantations doesn’t make sense if Jesus used them when he performed miracles like exorcisms; (2) Semitic phrases that are not connected to miracle stories can also be found elsewhere in Mark as well as the other Gospels; and (3) the terms are translated by Mark, something that you don’t do with magical incantations. Hurtado concludes,

So, my final suggestion about these particular instances is this:  Not only are they not really instances of the magical use of foreign/exotic expressions, Mark may actually have intended to counter any such idea!  It is as if he “sends up” the practice, taking what at first might appear to be the magical device of exotic words, and then translates them, thereby voiding any magical power.  Perhaps the intention was, if there is any allusion to magical practice, in short, to distinguish Jesus’ miracles from it.

Read his full post here.


[1] For example, see David Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 64.

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