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.

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