Review – Jesus the Magician
When Morton Smith wrote this book, New Testament scholars had been churning out books depicting “the historical Jesus” for about a century. Historical Jesus was usually a prophet, but sometimes a cynic philosopher or a non-violent freedom fighter. He was never Jesus the miracle-maker. But miracles are what brought Jesus fame. Everything else attributed to Jesus was essentially a way of explaining how he could perform these miracles.
Morton Smith emphasized this seemingly obvious point, and provided historical context. The ancient world was full of magic, just as it was full of gods and demons. Magic was not only used to manipulate people, it could manipulate objects, reveal the hidden past, and foretell the future. It generally worked by recruiting the aid of supernatural entities – gods or demons – to carry out the desired tasks. Purveyors of magic ranged in status from charlatans to “divine men.” Most practitioners were considered magi or magicians. They did not enjoy the best of reputations. Furthermore, many types of magic were capital crimes.
People today are led to believe that Jesus’ healings were unique. Virtually all our cultural institutions reinforce this assumption. But it is false. In one form or another, magic was the primary form of ancient medicine, and cures were not uncommon. Keep in mind that just over fifty years ago, Oral Roberts achieved national prominence through faith healings. In many lesser developed countries, faith-healing is still common. Even in the Western World, the Catholic Church still does a booming business in exorcisms, despite the precipitous decline of its main business. The ancient world had no scientific medicine. It relied on magic, which often worked.
Morton Smith’s first major point is that the role that best fits Jesus’ record is that of magician -- not prophet or god. He devotes an appendix to showing that the role of Old Testament prophet is radically different from that of Jesus. Even those that perform miracles, like Elijah, Elisha, and Moses, occupy very different roles than Jesus. And none of them went around warning about the imminent end of the world.
Smith points out that many of his contemporaries viewed Jesus as a magician. He also cites the precedent of Apollonius of Tyana, who was a contemporary of Jesus. Apollonius performed essentially the same miracles as Jesus, including the resurrection of the dead. He attracted a large following, including an empress who sponsored his biography. Many considered him divine. He was put on trial for his magic, but miraculously escaped – unlike Jesus.
Jesus’ critics accused him of magic. Celsus was one such critic. Origen, a church father, wrote Against Celsus to refute his claims. Since we no longer have any writings of Celsus, we don’t know how fairly Origen represented his arguments. But Celsus clearly charged Jesus with magic, and Origen had problems defending against this charge.
The authors of the gospels also knew this charge, and tried to depict Jesus’ miracles in the most favorable manner. First, Jesus specialized in healings, a good type of magic that generally involved calling on gods rather than demons. Jesus may well have performed other types of magic which were suppressed. For example, Paul consigned some of his Corinthian followers to Satan -- the blackest type of magic. The book of Acts has Paul performing other types of black magic. Luke also said that Peter magically killed a married couple for withholding part of their donation.
The gospels have a story about Jewish scribes accusing Jesus of using Beelzebul (Satan) to perform his miracles, indicating that he too faced charges of black magic. Jesus reputedly had two responses. First, he denied that Satan would defeat his own minions, the demons. Second, he asked his accusers how they performed their cures. The gospels acknowledge that they (and others) perform similar “miracles.” Scribes did it in the name of God. Jesus implied his cures were also free of satanic involvement.
How you performed healings was important. Magicians generally used spells, calling on some deity to perform the miraculous healing by defeating the demon responsible for the problem. (Demons were always considered the source of the problem. There were no “natural” explanations for disease.) Various physical sorts of manipulation were also used, both by magicians and by charlatans. “Divine men” didn’t use manipulation or spells – they had sufficient power to defeat demons on their own authority.
Mark has a number of examples of Jesus performing healings using touch and even his spittle. This was clearly the domain of magicians or even charlatans - certainly not divine men. When they wrote their gospels, Matthew and Luke left out the spittle and much of the manipulation, attempting to embellish the quality of Jesus’ cures.
(This type of revision was not uncommon. Thus Mark 3.21 tells how Jesus’ family - including mother Mary - thought he was insane and tried to have him locked up. Matthew and Luke censored this story. They also introduced the story that an angel told the virgin Mary she would give birth to the all-perfect son of God, Jesus. Matthew and Luke presumably thought they couldn’t sell this story if they admitted that Mary thought Jesus was a dangerous lunatic. In fact, it made remarkably little difference. Christians simply ignore Mark’s inconvenient story. They have spent trillions of dollars on a quasi-divine Virgin Mary.)
People were attracted to Jesus because he was a miracle-maker. Because of his miracles, some concluded Jesus he was the messiah or even a divine entity. In the ancient world, Jesus’ miracles were generally viewed as a form of magic. Morton Smith shows that this was acknowledged by both friends and foes of Jesus. He provides a new perspective on Jesus, one that New Testament scholars have willfully ignored, yet one with significant implications. It deserves far more attention than it has received.