Emile Durkheim wrote that there is no church of magic, meaning that magic’s purview lay outside institutionalized religions. Magic thus becomes a marginalized obverse of religion. A similar assessment obtains in Origen of Alexandria’s Contra Celsum. According to Origen, magoilack moral rectitude. If Jesus were a magician, Origen writes, he could not teach believers to act as though divine judgment were forthcoming and prompt them to modify their behavior accordingly. Jesus’ miracles, and Christianity as such, represent a moral system antithetical to magical practice. Despite Origen’s claims, magical objects like curse tablets, amulets, and papyri suggest that the practice of magic, institutionalized or not, was not nearly as marginal as Durkheimian conceptions might imply. The archaeological record indicates that our earliest Christians regularly encountered the magical. Thus, while magic may have been marginalized and maligned, it also enjoyed widespread popularity. This paper seeks to demonstrate how these contradictory facets of ancient magic might illuminate Origen’s famous refutation of Celsus. By contextualizing the Contra Celsum within broader discourses of Graeco-Roman magic, I show that an easy distinction between magic and religion was not a given, despite scholars’ preoccupation with the notion of magic as illicit religio. Rather than
one of legitimacy, the distinction in Origen is subtler one – that of intention
contrasted with practice. Instead of categorically denying Jesus’ participation
in activities associated with magic, our author offers moralizing interpretations
of said activities, which, in turn, contribute to his overarching construction
of Christianity as antithetical to magical practice.