More on Jesus as Magician

Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician was controversial. When controversy impinges on Jesus or Paul, New Testament scholars tend to react like zealots rather than scholars. Geza Vermes was a notable exception. He offered an alternative explanation of Smith’s data. But most New Testament “scholars” lacked the ability to formulate a legitimate rebuttal to Smith, and relied instead on their lack of scruples. For example, some claimed that E. P. Sanders refuted Smith’s claims, and affirmed his refutation.

In fact, Sanders heaped praise on Smith’s book, though he rejected its primary conclusion. Thus in the introduction to Jesus and Judaism, Sanders said:

“The guild of New Testament scholars has not paid Smith’s latest work the attention which it deserves, despite the fact that in it Smith offers us another deposit of material from his unrivalled treasury of learning. The title ‘magician’ may be a hindrance, as may Smith’s habit of tweaking the noses of the pious. We should not, however, allow ourselves to be so easily deflected from considering the work for what it is: a serious effort to explain historically some of the principle puzzles about Jesus, specifically why he attracted attention, why he was executed, and why he was subsequently deified” (pp. 6-7).

Sanders said Smith’s arguments were “like a breath of fresh air” compared to the stultifying, faith-based materials from “the guild of New Testament scholars.” Sanders made no attempt to refute Smith’s arguments. Rather, he said that Jesus viewed himself as a prophet, and Sanders thought this was a more useful way for others to view Jesus. He agreed that most outside observers viewed Jesus as a magician. But Sanders thought that magic was secondary, a tool to support Jesus’ primary claim about an imminent Kingdom of God. Not only did magic draw crowds for his preaching, it gave an inkling of what the future Kingdom would bring. But very few prophets performed miracles, and none were apocalyptic prophets.

Geza Vermes

Geza Vermes was a unique figure. He came from a family of non-observant Jews, but was educated in Catholic schools, and became an ordained priest. He was one of the first scholars to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, under the supervision of Father Roland de Vaux, who controlled the scrolls for many years. He subsequently converted to Judaism, and wrote three important books on the historical Jesus and his relation to Palestinian Judaism. Like Morton Smith, he was recognized for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, but unlike Smith, he was not particularly controversial.

In The Changing Faces of Jesus, Vermes presents a Jewish category as an alternate way to explain Jesus’ “magic,” or supernatural accomplishments. A few divine men or Hasidim had a very close relationship with God, who would answer their requests. They could ask for and receive rain in a drought, and control the rain as if through a tap. They were also healers, and could heal remotely. Unlike magicians, they used neither touch nor exorcism nor charms. They simply prayed silently, and God fulfilled their request. While Morton Smith also discussed divine men, he focused on pagans like Apollonius of Tyana, rather than Jewish precedents.

Vermes acknowledged some of the differences between Jesus and the documented cases of Jewish divine men. In particular, he acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ primary technique for healing was exorcism, while the Hasidim simply prayed to God, and never performed exorcisms. But he felt nonetheless that Jesus is better viewed as a Hasid, a Jewish divine man.

This is an elegant solution that shows how Jesus could have performed magical acts without being a magician, but a higher-level being. Unfortunately, I think the category of magician is a better fit for Jesus. First, Jesus’ behavior has more in common with magicians than Hasidim. Jesus’ healing techniques are those of magicians – Hasidim never used them. In addition, Jesus used techniques he could pass on to his disciples. The Hasidim had no disciples. They were so beloved by God, that He answered their prayers. Hasidim had no techniques to pass on.

Second, New Testament scholars ignore the matter of base rate or relative frequency. There were only a handful of “divine” Hasidim, but thousands of magicians. If you knew only that someone performed miraculous healings, and had no knowledge of how he did it, the odds are hundreds to one that the person was a magician rather than a Hasid. In the present case, Jesus not only behaves more like a magician, but a priori is far more likely to have been a magician than a Hasid. Rationally, you must consider him a magician and not a divine man, even while admitting the remote possibility you are wrong. Mr. Vermes, though no longer a priest, still revered Jesus, and strove to elevate him as much as possible, short of divinity. But if you are guided by reason rather than faith, you must categorize him as a magician rather than a Hasid or divine man.