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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 64, 2016

JOHN H. ELLIOTT, Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World. Volume 1: Introduction, Mesopotamia, and Egypt (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016). Pp. xxii + 209. Paperback. US$32.00.

John H. Elliott, as the Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, is interested both in the scientific, anthropological and social-scientific criticism of biblical texts and the ancient world. In this vein, he is completing the forthcoming four volume study on the “Evil Eye” in the Bible and related textual and socio-religious history. The introduction to Volume 1, reviewed here, seeks to cover the historical periods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and provide an introduction to anticipate any questions or methodological explanations. Volume 2 will be centred on ancient Greece and Rome, Volume 3 on biblical and biblical era texts and Volume 4 on post-biblical texts through to 600 CE. Although missing a general index which would be helpful, this is overall a welcome update to much older studies and new work emerging in recent years on the Evil Eye in biblical texts.

What is the Evil Eye? Scholarly and folk definitions often defy full explanation, which is an apologetic for a new study. The Evil Eye is vital, active, conveying emotion, envy and real harm. Those who are most vulnerable are children, women, attractive people, pregnant or birthing mothers, those of high social status or the healthy. The ability to wield an Evil Eye is through natural ability or fascinare. Rather than a passive organ, the eye in the ancient world followed an “extramission theory of vision” (59) in which ocular rays or energy is jettisoned (Matt 6:22–23/Luke 11:34–36). More specifically, this ability, whether conscious or unconscious, was directed to the judgment to label outsiders, widows or those that live alone, the differently-abled, social deviants or morally questionable people. There are particular places for this activity such as public spaces and thoroughfares, tables, barns, beds, fields, latrines and cemeteries.

Chapter 1 explains this visceral physical and spiritual quality as an expression of the anxieties of precarious or dangerous living conditions. This has caused a kind of persistent anxiety as to the effects of this action/power, leading to apotropaic (warding off) strategies such as hand signs, amulets, colours or special words. Elliott also briefly mentions the “good eye” (37), divine or human, which it is hoped will be developed more in the biblical discussion volumes. More controversial—and relevant to biblical studies—is the use of the Evil Eye in various forms of Jewish and Christian belief as detected in texts. In Chapter 2, Mesopotamian incantations directing the power from the attractive or successful back toward the perpetrator are linked to such texts as Deut 15:7–11 and 28:54–57 (95). Egyptian texts and motifs of fighting the Evil Eye on amulets are also linked with Solomon (2 Chron 1:14) (145) and late Jewish and Christian papyri (143). Late Christian texts also reveal that the Evil Eye process became less controlled by human means and more by demonic personification (26).

The methodological focus that Elliott employs is partly explained by his use of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) methods of anthropological and ethnographic study. This is a useful part of sociology or anthropology, however, it should be noted that this also assumes a type of objectivity favoured by modernist scientific rationalism. For such a subject as the Evil Eye, this method could bracket some questions about biblical interpretation in favour of those posed by modern conventional biblical studies. However, Elliott states “that all readers of the Bible must be prepared to address … what am I, a reader enlightened by modern science, to make of these several biblical passages assuming the existence and danger of an Evil Eye?” (19). The interpreter should be aware that the ancient authors were not writing from a contextual lens of modernist anthropology.

The use of anthropology explains the geographic, biological and social functions of societies “marked by intense aggression, competition, and struggle for survival under often tenuous ecological conditions” (42). These “agonistic societies” consider resources to be scarce and limited, and therefore see aggressive behaviour to be a threat to resources, of which even Paul the Apostle was accused (Gal 3:1) (31). However, the Evil Eye was not considered to be part of magical practice to ancient authors, rather part of theological and natural processes of life (63). Elliott is therefore careful not to label the practice magic and critiques earlier scholarly portrayals of biblical Evil Eye belief as “just superstition” so as to be more sensitive to the convergence of magic and science in ancient contexts (61–68). This balance creates a useful working methodology to begin to investigate biblical texts for the various appearance of the Evil Eye.

Review by
Whitley College, University of Divinity