Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jesus The Magician (Post 8: Chapter 7 Summary)

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

Having spent several of the preceding chapters delineating the view of Jesus held by his adversaries Smith again returns to examine the views of Jesus’ proponents. While Smith has argued that Jesus was typically viewed as a magician by his opponents, he proffers here that many of Jesus’ proponents understood Jesus to be a magician as well. To support his position he points to Acts 19.19, which he claims demonstrates the extent to which the early church continued to follow the magical tradition that had been passed down from the time of Jesus. Indeed, for our author the accusation of magic was not entirely a malicious invention, it in fact reflected actual practice within the early church. In support of this position Smith appeals to the existence of the Christian magical papyri and amulets that have been found in Egypt.

In the remainder of the chapter Smith draws multiple parallels between events depicted within the gospels and events occurring within the magical papyri. The first to be considered is the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the (holy) spirit. Smith makes the case that this story, which he claims lacks a Jewish basis, closely resembles magical stories/techniques where a magician acquires a helpful spirit/demon that permits the working of miracles. Interestingly, according to Smith, it is this purported event that led to the notion of the “sonship” of Jesus (“This is my beloved Son”). For smith the appellation “son of god” has clear parallels within the magical tradition. He points out that while the author of Mark (and later tradition) linked the notion of “son of god” with the notion of ”Messiah,” the title “son of god” has no such correlation within Judaism. Moreover, it primarily appears in relation to miracle stories within the gospels rather than stories concerned with the notion of ‘Messhiaship.” For Smith, the title “son of god” implies a conceptual type, namely – “a supernatural being in human form that performs miracles by his own divine power (see discussion of “divine man” in earlier post). Furthermore, according to Smith the use of “son of god” within Hebrew and Aramaic was a convention to designate a member of a particular class. Accordingly, to say that Jesus is a “son of god” would have been tantamount to saying that Jesus is a god. Thus, according to the author, what we have in the gospels is the story of a man made a god by a rite of purification followed by the opening of the heavens and the coming of a spirit. According to Smith, such stories are plentiful in the magical papyri. Next Smith considers the story of Jesus being driven into the desert for forty days and nights where he is tempted by Satan. This he claims fits the pattern of a magician’s life, especially that of a shaman who typically begins his/her career by withdrawing into solitude where he/she is subjected to a program of testing and arduous ordeals. According to Smith, it is after his “shamanic ordeal” that Jesus performs his first miracles in Galilee. For Smith these miracles are what would be expected from a typical miracle worker/magician, namely - winning disciples, exorcisms and cures. In fact, the author claims that the types of miracles Mark records Jesus to have performed in Galilee are drawn entirely from the magician’s repertoire. Indeed, it was, in Smith’s view, the close parallels between the miracles of Jesus and the types of miraculous events ascribed to magicians that enabled Jesus’ adversaries to label him a magician.

In addition to those parallels mentioned above, Smith offers his readers numerous other instances where he finds parallels between gospel material and contemporary magical texts. I will not present them all here. There are two that I would like to mention, however. The first, being the semblance of the Eucharistic meal at the Last Supper with a type of adoration/ bonding meal preserved within the magical papyri. According to Smith, a typical magical meal is described in the magical treatises as providing the partakers of the meal with enchanted food to cause affection or love. Oftentimes the food is identified with the body and/or blood of a deity with whom the presiding magician is identified. Thus, the food is also the body and blood of the magician. Whoever partakes of the meal is therefore united in love with the magician. For Smith, the Eucharistic meal more closely reflects meals within the magical traditions than it does any possible Jewish source. He emphatically states, “To try to derive them (i.e., the Eucharistic meals) from the Passover ritual or any other Jewish rite is ludicrous. Strange as some rituals of Judaism may be, they do not include eating people.” Lastly, our author finds parallels between the world view preserved within the gospels and the world view preserved within the magical papyri. While Smith admits that these parallels cannot be carried too far, since similarities in world view are to be expected, he does find it intriguing that both the gospels and the magical texts share in common what he calls “theoretical monotheism with practical polytheism.” Specifically, Smith sees both the hierarchical structure of supernatural beings under the one God and the manner in which Jesus dealt with such entities in the gospels to be strikingly similar to the manner in which magicians were described to have dealt with such spirits, especially with respect to exorcisms.

To end this brief summary of a very detailed chapter I would like to quote our author as he reminds us what he is and is not trying to do. He is not trying to uncover the historical Jesus, but rather to uncover an early view of Jesus held by many of Jesus’ adversaries and followers alike, namely – Jesus the magician.

Smith states,

Our primary concern in this chapter has not been to determine what Jesus did, but to analyze the gospels’ account of what he did and to point out the elements which correspond with magical material and which therefore, although preserved in the Christian stories of his life, provided evidence for a picture of Jesus the magician.


The picture in this chapter has been drawn entirely from the gospels, the accounts of Jesus given by his own followers. We have merely read the gospels with some knowledge of ancient magical material and noted what, in the light of that material, the gospel stories and sayings really say.

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