Feb 19, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Ancient Roman Curse Tablets and the Book of Revelation Found to Have Much in Common

Outside of the four gospels, the most famous books of the Christian bible just might be its alpha and omega – Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament and the Hebrew bible, and Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. The cryptic and apocalyptic book was written by someone named John, which narrows the author down to thousands of 2nd century men. While religious teachers and biblical scholars generally say that the writers of the bible were inspired by their God, a new study proposes that Revelation had a different inspiration – the ancient curse tablets used by Romans and Greeks to communicate with their pre-Christian gods. Could the most puzzling book of the Christian bible be explained by such a non-Christian source?

A curse tablet found in London.

“The Revelation of John (Rev) reads like a competition between God and ungodly powers, between right and wrong religious practice. Both sides engage in a battle with all available means”

In the product description of his new research project, “Disenchanted Rituals. Traces of the Curse Tablets and Their Function in the Revelation of John,” Dr. Michael Hölscher, a researcher at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, introduces his new twist on the old Revelation of John (Rev), a popular alternate name. The study begins by describing Revelation as a collection of writings about a battle between right and wrong religious practices – a real battle that was going on as the Roman empire and its religions declined and the new offspring of Judaism – Christianity – began to take hold. An important part of those Roman religions was curse tablets.

“The tablets, that are mainly found in the form of inscribed lead lamellae, are documented from Roman Britain to Egypt. In antiquity, these tablets were officially regarded as black magic and such practices of black magic have always been prohibited in Roman law.”

The curse tablets, ironically etched on thin sheets of lead which curses those touching them with lead poisoning, were rolled or folded, then buried in graves, thrown into wells, slipped into the cracks of walls or otherwise hidden to all but the gods. While generally intended to bring harm to enemies, the curse tablets could also contain love spells. To add power to the curse, the thin lead sheets were often wrapped around dolls to represent the target, or ships of hair or clothing from them, Needless to say, this type of religious behavior was in conflict with the controlling Roman Empire and also with Christianity. Or was it?

“On the narrative stage, this battle is mirrored in narrative techniques reminiscent of ancient binding spells: The God of the Revelation can “bind” and “loose” Satan, even hide him underground like a magic doll (Rev 20:3). The whore of Babylon – symbolized by a large stone – is to be sunk ritually into the sea (Rev 18:21–22). On both the divine and the ungodly side, the inscribing and marking of bodies can be seen as ritually binding, and thus as a way of exercising power, as it is typical of binding spells: The mark of the beast (Rev 13:16) is contrasted with the “seal of the living God” (Rev 7:2–3) as an powerful sign.”

Hölscher directs us to a major similarity between the Book or Revelation and the curse tablets – the act of ‘binding’. A ‘binding spell’ is meant to stop someone from committing harm and is the root of the word ‘spellbinding’. The entire process surrounding the curse tablet contributed to the binding – the wording of the spell, the act of writing it down, the rolling of the tablets, the selection of the location to place them, the burial or insertion or nailing to a wall. These rituals were signs of witchcraft or black magic and were prohibited under Roman law. The Book of Revelation also bans them, also with sorcery. Then why are there so many similarities between the curse tablets and the writings in Revelation?

“This may well have been an indirect expression of the need for segregation and the attempt at self-preservation of an often threatened early Christian community.”

As Hölscher explains to Haaretz, it all goes back to John - the mysterious author of Revelation. Many ancient biblical scholars believed ‘John’ was John the Apostle, also thought to be the author of the Gospel of John and several other biblical books. Modern biblical scholars generally agree that the Gospel of John and the other books were written by the same author, who was different from the author of the Book of Revelation, and neither of them were John the Apostle. The scholars do agree that Revelation was written around 81-96 CE during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. That would put it after hundreds of years of curse tablet usage by the Romans and the Greeks – which was fairly common as over 1,700 have been found to date.  That puts Revelation right smack in the middle of a clash between three religious cultures - Roman, Hebrew and Christian.

“What is special about the New Testament book of Revelation is that it seems to blend so many traditions. 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”

It is almost as if ‘John’ is taking elements of Roman religions and Judaism and putting them in Revelation to attract members to Christianity. And, by emulating the curse tablets of the Romans and the punishments of the Hebrew bible, he tries to make it appealing to the lower classes rather than the leaders and the elites. It is not unusual for the Christian bible to borrow from other texts – the flood and the virgin birth are two examples -  but Revelation seems to be the only book predominantly based on older elements … and certainly the only one with so many refences that could be interpreted as witchcraft or sorcery.

A curse tablet found in France.

As expected, not all biblical scholars agree with Hölscher. Ken Dark, an archaeologist at King's College London, tells Live Science that "The proposed links between Roman curse tablets and the phraseology of the Book of Revelation are at best tenuous," and notes that Hölscher admits that no direct quotations from curse tablets have been identified in the Book of Revelation. Well then, Mr. Dark … how do YOU explain the quirky Book of Revelation?

While we wait for other answers, Hölscher provides a nice summary and points to ponder:

"The Book of Revelation contributes to the process of self-discovery, the seeking of a distinctive identity by a Christian minority in a world dominated by a pagan Roman majority that rendered routine homage not only to the emperor but also to the main Roman gods. It is possible that those who read or listened to the words of the Apocalypse of John could readily have seen whole passages, single phrases, or concepts in the light of curse spells."

In other words, the revelation to the puzzle of Revelation lies in the shared history and practices of the early Christians and ancient Romans. 

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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