Friday, February 25, 2011

Jesus The Magician (Post 7: Chapter 6 Summary)

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

Smith begins Chapter Six by making the case that the mark of a magician is, sin que non, a miraculous act and that, based upon the writings of Justin and Celsus, the title “son of god” was used in popular thought as an alternative label to designate a “miracle man.” This, he states, is why the title “son of god” is almost always used in the synoptic gospels in connection with miracle stories. An example of one such miracle worker/magician whose claims to divinity was well known during the time of the composition of John’s gospel was, according to our author, Simon Magus from Samaria. According to Smith it was apparently Jesus’ resemblance to Simon Magus that prompted his critics to label him a Samaritan (like Simon Magus).

Next, Smith demonstrates that early Christian writers such as Origin were forced to admit that the miracles of Jesus closely resembled the miraculous acts that were performed by magicians. However, Origin is quick to point out those factors which distinguish Jesus’ miraculous acts from those that a magician would perform. According to Origin, Jesus’ miracles do not resemble any of those performed by magicians (i.e., goetes) on account that Jesus utilized his miracles as a platform to teach those that were amazed by the spectacles the fear of God and to call them to moral reformation (As a side note, Smith points out that the miracle stories within the synoptic gospels are not usually connected with Jesus’ teaching stories. Thus he takes the position that Jesus’ miracle stories and his teaching stories probably circulated independently of one another, thereby suggesting that the activities did as well.) Smith then argues that other Christians followed suit and, like Origin, conceded that Jesus’ miracles resembled the miraculous acts of magicians. Like Origin they too found other criteria to distinguish the miracles of Jesus from those of the magicians. According to Smith, the typical maneuver of these Christians was to reduce the idea of a “magician” to its lowest standard of the scoundrelous goes. In doing so they were able to assert that Jesus, given that he did not resemble this character, was not a magician (As a side note, Smith reminds us that the notion of “magician” in Palestine had a wide range of meanings that do not fit this characterization of a magician. In other words, Smith argues that while the early Christians denied that Jesus was a magician, they were denying a very limited and specific type of magician, principally the scoundrel or criminal type. According to Smith, this tactic was an intentional misrepresentation of the accusation to deny the charges of Jesus’ accusers).

Smith brings the chapter to a close by comparing the stories of Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana, noting both the historical similarities between the activities of Jesus and Apollonius and the legends that sprang forth as a result of these activities. For Smith, the most noteworthy facts to discern from such a comparison is that both Jesus and Apollonius were believed to be a “son of god” by their followers (i.e., a being of supernatural power) and that both were accused of being magicians by their enemies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jesus the Magician (Post 6: Chapter 5 Summary)

(Prior posts in the series are located in Category "Jesus the Magician")
In previous chapters Morton Smith argues that those who opposed Jesus or remained outside his circle of followers considered him a magician. In Chapter 5 he takes a look at some of the notions of a magician as a personality type that were circulating in Palestine during the time of Jesus. First, he considers the types of magicians that stem from Greco-Roman and Persian sides of Palestinian culture of Jesus’ day. According to Smith, the common Greek word for magician at the time of Jesus was goes (goetes, plural). He relays that this term was usually but not necessarily abusive in use. Smith understands the goes to be a type of Greek shaman who functioned primarily at death rites where, after entering an ecstatic trance, he (/she?) would accompany the dead on their journey to the underworld. The author contends that the goetes where known for their persuasive abilities. Accordingly, a persuasive orator might often find him/herself being referred to as either a sophist or a goes. Apparently, the goetes were also known for their persuasive influence among the gods. According to Smith the goetes were often times thought to be able to charm the gods through sacrifices, prayers and spells. Smith also points out that the related term goeteia, which for Herodotus meant a form of magic that transformed its practitioners into werewolves, was likely associated with goetes as well. For others, goeteia was used as a general term for deceit. Thus, a goes was often identified as a deceiver or scoundrel. As a consequence, it appears that at the time of Plato a person identified as a goes was subject to arrest. A second type of magician known in the Palestinian world of Jesus’ day was the magos (magoi, plural), who, according to Smith, was a step above the goes. Smith relays that the real magoi were a priestly clan of Media that came onto the Greek scene when the King of Medes and Persians conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Smith conveys that Herodotus saw the magoi as interpreters of dreams, omens and portents, as well as being instrumental as officiates in private and public sacrifices. According to Smith, the term magos, due to an increasing rationalization, became derogatory in nature much like goes. Magos could mean quack and their practice could be linked to the ingestion of drugs and the deceit of the gods. Oftentimes cannibalism and the ability to send living humans into the realm of the dead and bring them back to the world of the living was attributed to them as well. Despite the rather negative use of the term in later times, it is pointed out by Smith that the terms magos, magoi, and mageia (what magoi practice) continued to have a higher degree of prestige than goes, goetes and goeteia. This was due mainly to a lingering memory of the magoi as a priestly caste connected with ancient powers, such as the ability to placate the gods. The last of the Greco-Roman/Persian terms for magician discussed by Smith is divine man (Greek not provided). Smith points out that whereas an individual was likely to call his/her enemy a goes (or sometimes magos) the same individual would likely refer to his/her friend as a divine man. According to Smith, a divine man was either a god or demon in disguise moving about in the world in a seemingly human form. Because of his indwelling divine nature a divine man could perform magic without resorting to rituals and spells. Smith argues that it was this ability, the ability to operate ritual-free, that was the defining characteristic of a divine man. Smith points out that the dividing line between a divine man and a spell/ritual utilizing magician could at times become blurred, as the Greek magical papyri describe a number of rites by which a magician can obtain a powerful spirit as a constant companion and thereby dispense with rites and spells. Other rites intended to deify the magician either by joining the magician with some god or by changing the very essence of the magician’s soul as to make it divine. According to Smith, anyone deified in this way would for all intents and purposes be indistinguishable from a divine man. Despite this blurring of magical roles, Smith points out that the term divine man did not carry any of the negative connotations attached to the terms goes and magos. While the perceptions of the goes, magos, and divine man varied widely in Palestine ranging from scoundrel/criminal to a deity in disguise, Smith points out that a revision in the Roman law code in 82-81 B.C. (which remained valid until approximately 529 A.D.) branded the practice of magic as a criminal act punishable by crucifixion, being thrown to the beasts or burned alive. Although Smith acknowledges some squabbling as to what constituted punishable magic, he asserts that magic as a practice was, for the most part, deemed a prohibited act during Jesus’ time.
After his examination of three Greco-Roman and Persian magical types Smith takes a look at some Semitic notions of magical personalities. According to Smith, a general tendency within Semitic circles was to identify magic with madness. He claims this is probably do to the ambiguity in many folks minds as to whether a magician had a spirit or whether the spirit had the magician (he argues here and previously that this ambiguity with respect to Jesus is clearly demonstrated in the gospels). Next he turns to discuss the ba’al ‘ob (“master of a divining spirit”) mentioned in the Old Testament. These magical practitioners were thought to have in their possession (or be possessed by) one of the “divining spirits” (‘obot, plural of ‘ob). According to Smith, the ‘obot are a mysterious class of beings often associated with spirits of the dead but are probably better understood as underworld deities. Smith relays that an ‘ob can enter into a human and remain therein for extended periods of time. Since the ‘ob is the source of the magician’s power, the ba’al ‘ob closely resemble the divine man in that he too can perform magic devoid of rituals or spells. While the ba’al ‘ob may have been viewed as a type of divine entity by many, such individuals do not seem to have been well received by the Jewish priestly class as Smith points out that priestly law dictates that a ba’al ’ob is to be stoned. Despite the negative view of the ba’al ‘ob among the priestly class, Smith demonstrates that magic was not wholly condemned by the priests by pointing to the high regard in which Solomon, both King of Israel and a practicing magician, was held in Semitic circles.

*(Smith acknowledges a resemblance between the perceived activities of magicians and Israelite prophets. Since he wishes to discuss only the concepts of “magician” here, he has relegated a discussion of the prophets and their relationship to magic to Appendix B.)