(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)