E.P. Sanders on Jesus as Magician

If there were a Hall of Fame for New Testament scholars, E. P. Sanders would probably be elected on the first ballot. His Paul and Palestinian Judaism countered the standard caricature of Judaism as a legalistic and ritualistic system that worships a mercy-less God who carefully weighed sins against good deeds. It was published in 1977, after being shopped unsuccessfully for several years. Religious publishers are reluctant to publish anything that threatens long-established prejudices. The book had its greatest impact in studies of “the historical Jesus,” who was far better integrated into first-century Judaism than previously acknowledged. Sanders also showed that Paul’s depictions of Judaism often had no historical basis, but these findings had little influence, either on Sanders or his colleagues.

I recently reread Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. It was published in 1993, nearly two decades after Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician. While his colleagues regarded Smith’s book as blasphemy, Sanders made no attempt to dispute his claim that Jesus’ wonders fit the era's concept of magic. Sanders’ only objection: “Morton Smith … thought that Jesus should be considered more a magician than a prophet. I continue to regard ‘prophet’ as the best single category. Jesus was also, however, an exorcist” (p. 153). Sanders also discussed other supernatural acts attributed to Jesus, like turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. But in discussing the categories of prophet vs. magician, Sanders chose to exclude such miracles.

Sanders granted that Jesus was widely considered to be a magician, and that such views were historically valid. He claims, however, that Jesus thought of himself primarily as a prophet, and so should we. While Sanders usually provides obsessive detail in support of his conclusions, he failed to do so. He implied the existence of such supporting detail, but provided none. Morton Smith published an appendix in his book concerning this issue of prophet versus magician, yet Sanders made no attempt to address his arguments. Furthermore, Sanders implicitly assumed that only “the best single category” to describe Jesus matters, and that other attributes can be safely (and conveniently) ignored. This assumption is both unprecedented and illegitimate – no one believes that Jesus was unidimensional.

Mr. Sanders presented evidence which clearly contradicts his claim. First, he admits that exorcism and similar magical activities were among Jesus’ most salient characteristics: “we may be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as the result of healing, especially exorcism. This is an important corrective to the common view that Jesus was essentially a teacher” (p. 154).

Sanders also admits that the prophets did not perform exorcisms: “the Hebrew Bible which attributes numerous miracles to prophets (such as Elijah and Elisha), but which does not contain stories of exorcism. Exorcism, however, is the most prominent type of cure in the synoptic gospels” (p. 149). In other words, Sanders insists that Jesus, famous for his exorcisms, is primarily a prophet, even though prophets don’t ever perform exorcisms, and very few prophets perform any miracle. Thus the same evidence that Sanders considers “an important corrective to the common view that Jesus was essentially a teacher” should have also served as a corrective to the view that Jesus was essentially a prophet.

Sanders goes further: “We cannot … say that [Jesus’] healing activities put him on the level of magicians. It is a speculative possibility that he sometimes used one or more of their devices, including spitting and imitative physical behavior” (p. 154). Mr. Sanders also cites the case of Apollonius of Tyana, who he calls “a travelling philosopher, cult reformer, and healer. He was widely thought to have the power to heal and especially to exorcise demons.” (p. 137). While Apollonius’ followers considered him a “divine man,” Mr. Sanders most certainly does not. Nor does he consider him a prophet. When Apollonius heals by exorcisms, he does so by magic or suggestion or some other non-divine method. Mr. Sanders has no problems putting Apollonius’ healings and exorcisms “on the level of magicians.”

Furthermore, the Greek magical papyri provide many examples of performing exorcisms by harnessing the powers of various deities. The most popular deity by far for such exorcisms is the God of Israel, even though these are pagan magicians. Jews were famous for such magic, and the God of Israel had a powerful reputation.

Mr. Sanders insists that when Jesus performed exorcisms similar to those of Apollonius or magicians, it is merely “a speculative possibility” that Jesus used magic. By Sanders’ logic, if you learn that some bird quacks, waddles, and looks like a duck, it is merely “a speculative possibility” that it is a duck.


E. P. Sanders is one of the greatest New Testament scholars, and one of the best at relying on empirical evidence. But when the evidence threatens his Christian faith, both fact and reason lose out. New Testament research has an inherent conflict of interest between intellectual standards and its subject matter. When normal academic standards of evidence and reasoning threaten doctrines of faith, practitioners find some way to uphold their faith at the expense of intellectual integrity.

Sanders, like his colleagues, viewed the notion of Jesus the magician with repugnance. But he had the integrity to acknowledge it, and allowed that it played a minor role relative to prophecy and more godlike matters. His colleagues, on the other hand, were more than happy to jettison reason and fact, and hold “acts of faith” against Morton Smith and his claims of Jesus as magician. This kind of behavior does not belong in a university, and should not be the recipient of its resources.


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