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.)

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