Friday, January 28, 2011

Jesus The Magician (Post 5: Chapter 4 Summary)

(Prior posts in the series are located in Category "Jesus the Magician")

In Chapter 4 Morton Smith examines a number of early depictions of Jesus by non-Christians that have been preserved outside of the Christian gospels. First Smith takes a look at the earliest non-Christian work to reference Jesus – namely, Josephus’ Antiquities. It is pointed out that not much can be gleamed from the two passages that mention Jesus in Antiquities. The first passage merely references Jesus as the brother of James who was illegally brought to trial and executed. The second passage as it exists today is, according to Smith, a rewrite with numerous Christian elements inserted at some point subsequent to its original composition. Accounting for these extraneous Christian elements, the author conveys that the original composition likely advanced the view that Jesus was a miracle worker who led the Jews astray and who indulged in impiety while claiming to be more than a man.

Next Smith considers some of the portrayals of Jesus preserved within rabbinic stories that stem roughly from the same time as Josephus’ Antiquities. In one of the stories ascribed to the distinguished rabbi Eliezer, Jesus is identified as the son of Panteri/Pantera (and its variants). Smith points out that this name was not a very common name at the time and speculates that one possible candidate for this mysterious “Pantera” might be a Sidonian archer named Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, who served in Palestine about the time of Jesus’ birth. Next Smith considers another very cryptic passage by Eliezer in which he sees hidden references to Jesus as someone educated in magic and tattooed with spells during a sojourn in Egypt.

After completing his examination of rabbinic literature, Smith turns to an inspection of the Roman depictions of Jesus preserved in the reports of Suetonius and Tacitus, two Roman historians who were active in the early second century. He also touches upon the writings of Lucian, a Roman poet. Some of the charges brought against Jesus in these writings contain the accusations that Jesus promoted “hatred of the human race” and “cannibalism,” both of which Smith argues were common charges against magicians.

Subsequently, Smith turns to an assessment of Palestinian anti-Christian propaganda preserved and responded to by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, who wrote in Rome between 150 and 165 A.D. It is pointed out by Smith that we learn from Justin that Christianity is viewed by many as a “godless and libertine heresy” that originated with Jesus, a Galilean magician. Justin’s writings also indicate that the Palestinian priests and Sanhedrin denied the resurrection and claimed that Jesus’ body was stolen.

Smith argues that all of the preceding depictions of Jesus stem from Palestinian traditions originating from direct observations of Jesus. According to Smith, a slightly different depiction of Jesus began to emerge from pagan observations of Christian communities in the Diaspora. These depictions portray Jesus as a teacher who introduced a new “initiation,” which Smith contends should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was viewed as the founder of a new mystery cult.

To round off this chapter Smith makes the case that the very fact that Jesus was later invoked as a source of magical power in both Christian and pagan spells and exorcisms indicates the existence of a longstanding tradition that links Jesus with magic. He also contends that the very nature of early Christian communities themselves probably helped to perpetuate the idea that Jesus and his followers where practicing magicians. According to Smith, Christian talk of mutual love and the Christian community’s inclination to refer to its members as “brothers” and “sisters,” when taken together, led to charges of promiscuity and incest. The idea of Christian communalism led to speculations of polyamorous relationships between husbands and wives. Above all, the practice of the Eucharist led to charges of cannibalism. According to Smith, all of the above charges leveled against the Christian communities were charges typical of those leveled against magicians as well.

To bring an end to the chapter Smith combines the views of Jesus’ opponents preserved both within and outside the gospels to offer a sketch of Jesus’ life “as it was pictured by those who did not become his disciples.” (Smith, 67)

What follows below is Smith’s “sketch” of the life of “Jesus the Magician” in its entirety.

The son of a soldier named Panthera and a peasant woman married to a carpenter, Jesus was brought up in Nazareth as a carpenter, but left his home town and, after unknown adventures, arrived in Egypt where he became expert in magic and was tattooed with magical symbols or spells. Returning to Galilee he made himself famous by his magical feats, miracles he did by his control of demons. He thereby persuaded the masses that he was the Jewish Messiah and/or the son of a god. Although he pretended to follow the Jewish customs, he formed a small circle of intimate disciples whom he taught to despise the Jewish Law and to practice magic. These he bound together and to himself by ties of “love,” meaning sexual promiscuity, and by participation in the most awful magical rites, including cannibalism – they had some sort of ritual meal in which they ate human flesh and drank blood. Surrounded by this circle he travelled from town to town deceiving many and leading them into sin. But he was not always successful. The members of his own family did not believe him; when he went back to Nazareth his townspeople rejected him and he could do no miracle there. Stories of his libertine teaching and practice leaked out and began to circulate. The scribes everywhere opposed him and challenged his claims. Finally, when he went to Jerusalem the high priests had him arrested and turned him over to Pilate, charging him with the practice of magic and sedition. Pilate had him crucified, but this did not put an end to the evil. His followers stole his body from the grave, claimed he had risen from the dead, and, as a secret society, perpetuated his practices. (Smith, 67)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jesus The Magician (Post 4: Chapter 3 Summary)

(Prior posts in the series are located in Category "Jesus the Magician")

Chapter 3 -

In Chapter Three the author sets out to reconstruct the views of Jesus held by the general populace (comprised of those who were not among his followers) and by those who directly opposed him as they have been preserved within the four gospels (i.e., by Jesus’ believers). At the outset of the chapter Smith considerers the general views of Jesus’ contemporaries. Having offered up a number of recollections about Jesus (some of which would have surely been unflattering to the early Church), Smith argues that none of these recollections would explain the reason for his popularity among the masses. Instead, he makes the case, based upon the preserved fragments, that it was the perception of Jesus as a miracle worker that propelled Jesus into renown.

Despite the fact that there seemed to have been a common non-hostile vision of Jesus as a miracle worker among the masses, Smith argues that the gospels have equally preserved evidence of views where Jesus was seen unfavorably, if not with hostility or outright opposition, by isolated segments of society. The first group explored by the author is Jesus’ family and those from his home town. Smith argues that Jesus was more-or-less rejected by his home community and immediate family. As support, he cites Mk. 6.1ff. where Jesus is reported to have been unable to perform any miracles in his home town due to the unbelief of the people. In reference to Jesus’ family Smith cites Mk. 3.21. where Jesus’ family tries to restrain him and claims that he is crazy. Moreover, Smith makes the case that Jesus reciprocated this animosity towards his family and points to Jesus’ snub of his family in Mk. 3.31-34 as supporting evidence. Continuing along these lines Smith contends that the gospels do not support the amiable relationship between Jesus and his mother that has become the standard depiction in Christian tradition. Why might Jesus have been less than loving towards his mother? According to Smith, a clue is given in Mk. where Jesus is referred to by the townspeople as “the son of Mary.” Smith points out that in Semitic usage the referral to a man as the son of his mother was to indicate that his father’s identity was uncertain. In fact, Smith goes further and claims that the evidence, though scant, would seem to indicate that Joseph was not Jesus’ father.

While the author admits that the gospels preserve numerous stories of opposition to Jesus involving the Herodians and the Pharisees, he dismisses their inclusions within most of the adversarial accounts as anachronisms that grew out of later hostilities (post crucifixion) between these two groups and early Christians (Smith devotes the entirety of Appendix A to argue his case). One group that Smith contends played a particularly prevalent oppositional role to Jesus is identified within the gospels by the moniker “scribes.” According to the author, the scribes were a professional class that probably consisted of several professions, most likely a triune comprised of teachers, layers and notaries. Smith contends that the scribe’s oppositional views towards Jesus can be roughly categorized into three themes: that Jesus is a transgressor of the Jewish Law (he ate with publicans and sinners, his disciples did not observe the mandatory purity ritual of washing their hands before eating, he healed on the Sabbath); that Jesus lays claim to be in possession of a supernatural power; that Jesus is a magician who is able to work wonders (e.g., performs exorcisms) on account that he wields the power of Beelzebul, a mighty demon who “possesses” him (Smith sees a passage in John where Jesus is accused of being a “doer of evil” at his trial as corroborating evidence. According to Smith, “doer of evil” is identified in the Roman law codes as vulgar term for “magician.” Several other examples of corroborating evidence are also offered). It is this last charge, the charge that Jesus was a magician, that Smith sees as the most important on account that it reveals how the scribes contextualized the known facts about Jesus and his activities. According to Smith, the scribes are important not only for providing us with a contemporary view of Jesus, but for their role in the preservation of much of the anti-Christian polemic that would eventually be incorporated into the gospels.

The last group of opponents to be considered by the author is the Jewish authorities running the city of Jerusalem – principally the “high priests.” Smith points out that there may have been some tension between Jewish authorities and Jesus as a result of Jesus’ attack on the Temple of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he does not see this as the primary cause of opposition to Jesus. According to Smith, the main point of contention between the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and Jesus was Jesus’ source of power. He argues that because Jesus did not fit the mold of a prophet of Yahweh and refused to reveal his source of power when questioned the Jewish authorities were left to speculate as to Jesus’ source of miraculous power. Accordingly, their view of Jesus was probably much akin to the “magician view” held by the scribes who in all likelihood were among the authority’s informants. He argues against many of the gospel trial stories and the testimony that Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorizes for execution on the grounds of his “blasphemous” claim to be the Messiah as spurious and that they are constructs by the early Church. He points out that a claim to Messiahship would not have constituted a punishable offense by Jewish law. Even if it did, the Jewish authorities would have been within their legal right to execute the proper punishment. There would have been no need to hand him over to Roman authorities. According to Smith, the Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to the Roman officials with the accusation that he was a revolutionary magician who was making a claim to kingship.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jesus The Magician (Post 3: Chapter 2 Summary)

(Prior posts in the series are located in Category "Jesus the Magician")

Chapter 2-

In Capter Two Morton Smith sets out to provide a historical framework of Jesus based upon sources left by his believers, specifically the writings of the four evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (including the Q source/s and unique Lukan and Matthean material). The author contends that this material portrays (or demonstrates upon a close reading) that Jesus became famous and attracted huge crowds (as well as his followers) on account of the miracles he performed, not on account of his teachings. In fact, Smith makes the case that the Gospels clearly demonstrate that Jesus’ status and the things he said were elevated to a divine level by his contemporaries on account that he performed many miraculous acts. In other words, Jesus’ miraculous deeds caused many during his generation to regard him as the Messiah. For Smith, the simple fact that Jesus was recast from the social type “carpenter” to “miracle worker” itself would have been enough to cause many to confer upon Jesus an extraordinary status. He points out that social identities and social mobility were relatively fixed during Jesus’ day and that any change in social type was generally held to occur as a result of some extraordinary endowment.

Dismissing the notion that the miracle stories are legendary outgrowths of the basic historical material, the author accepts that the miracle stories more-or-less reflect the manner in which Jesus was remembered quite early on. Moreover, the author is of the opinion that at least some of the stories probably reflect remembrances of actual “miracles” (i.e., cures) that occurred in Jesus’ presence. Smith is not of the opinion that the miracle stories are accurate in all details, however. He admits that the miracle stories, as they appear in the gospels, have been reworked and expanded. For Smith, however, this very fact supports his thesis, as he contends that the pre-worked miracle stories are evidence that Jesus was held to be a miracle worker by early communities of believers prior to the composition of the gospels. Furthermore, Smith argues that that the rest of the tradition about Jesus can be understood only if the miracles are taken as primary, whereas the miracles cannot be understood if a strictly teaching tradition is primary. He points out that whereas tradition seldom ascribed miraculous powers to teachers of the Law in Jesus’ time, miracle workers “could easily come to be thought a prophet or an authority on the Law.” (Smith, p. 16)

According to Smith, it is precisely on account of the huge crowds that Jesus drew unto himself as a miracle worker and the eventual elevation of his personage by many who saw his extraordinary abilities as an indication of his Messiahship, that Jesus was feared by the local civil authorities and handed over to Pilate (governor of Judea from about 26 A.D. to 36 A.D.) to be put to death.