Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, Hampton Roads Press, 2014 (first published 1978)
Robert Conner, Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics, Mandrake, 2014
These two new releases complement each other neatly, one being a reprint of a ground-breaking study and the other a survey of the work that built on it. As Bart D. Ehrman notes in his foreword to the new edition of the late Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician, its appearance in 1978 marked a watershed in New Testament scholarship, as it introduced a new, and to many unwelcome, factor into the already problematic quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. 🔻
Smith not only showed that Jesus was perceived in his day primarily as a sorcerer, but also that this was because he acted like one.
Smith not only showed that Jesus was perceived in his day primarily as a sorcerer, but also that this was because he acted like one.
Smith, an eminent history professor at Columbia University, wasn’t the first to note the parallels between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracle-working and the practices of magicians in the ancient world. Isolated examples had been recognised since the 1920s and a more academic-oriented study had been produced by John M. Hull four years before Jesus the Magician. But Smith went further, showing that the gospels don’t merely use the language of magic but accurately describe Jesus’ methods.
His argument was straightforward, being based on the observation that whichever one of three groups you choose you end up with the same picture. Those hostile to Jesus in his lifetime were, according to the gospels, motivated by a belief that he used demonic magic in his exorcisms and healings. Similarly, Christianity’s early opponents – both Jewish and pagan – denounced him as a sorcerer. Finally, and most conclusively, the gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus’ own followers saw him that way, too.
From there, Smith went on to show the spookily precise parallels – the use of identical words and actions - between descriptions of Jesus’ cures and castings out of demons and the techniques given in magical texts from the Greco-Egyptian world, as well as in accounts of pagan magicians such as Apollonius of Tyana.
The implications were game-changing. Since the gospel writers’ position was that Jesus, as Christ, used his own God-given power and/or the Holy Spirit to work his miracles, there was no reason for them to invent these parallels. They must therefore represent genuine memories of how Jesus operated. This is, of course, totally at odds with the traditional Christian image of Jesus Christ. And it is equally problematic for the fashionable sceptical view, which has gained popularity since Smith’s day, that Jesus never existed at all, the gospels being works of fiction: why would the writers create elements that contradict their basic premise?
It is extremely ironic that what makes Smith’s case so compelling is that, unlike those with a doctrinal axe to grind, he let the gospels speak for themselves: ‘We have merely read the gospels with some knowledge of ancient magical material and noticed what, in the light of that material, the gospel stories and sayings really say.’
His conclusion was that ‘behind the present Jesus of the gospels there lurked, in Christian tradition, an earlier Jesus whose practices were much closer to those of Jesus the magician.’ Going further, he argues that the evidence shows that Jesus really was a magician. Perhaps most controversially, he argued that gospel terms that assumed a defining meaning in Christianity, such as ‘Son of God,’ actually derive from magical rites (the term customarily being used of a magician who invoked the power of a god).
Such challenges to Christian sensibilities still create nervousness in presenting Smith’s case. Even the strapline of this edition is ‘A renowned historian reveals how Jesus was viewed by people of his time’ – ducking the awkward issue that this was how Jesus presented himself to those people.
Jesus the Magician is a book that not just should, but must be read by anyone with even the vaguest interest in the historical Jesus, and this new edition is therefore very welcome. It is a genuine classic, a model of clear writing and exposition which is both satisfyingly scholarly and accessible to the general reader.
What is missing from Ehrman’s introduction is an examination of how Smith’s work has fared since its publication. Robert Conner’s Magic in Christianity – which is dedicated to Smith’s memory – provides just that.
Conner shows that, since Jesus the Magician broke the dam, there has been a flood of academic research that has amassed a huge weight of evidence not only for Jesus employing standard magical techniques and formulas but also that early generations of his followers did so, too. He presents a survey and summary of that material - acknowledging that there is little original investigation in his book – in order to show just how overwhelming the case now is and to assess what it tells us about Christian origins, and indeed Christianity in general. In fact, he could be accused of overkill, as he is so keen to show just how much evidence there is that he sometimes labours his point.
However, despite the wealth of evidence, the subject remains a no-go area for many because of what Conner describes as ‘the double barrier of theological commitment on one hand and a materialist approach to religious praxis on the other’: believers just don’t want to go there, while non-believers think that since magic isn’t real then it isn’t relevant. Of course, the ancient world’s universal belief in magic and the supernatural is absolutely essential context to an understanding of contemporary perceptions of Jesus and the first Christian communities, whether or not that belief has any foundation. (Conner, unlike Smith, thinks that magic does sometimes work, on a similar principle to the placebo.)
The cover copy describes Conner as an ‘independent scholar’ – his professional life seems to be in healthcare - although he has clearly mastered the subject, particularly the linguistic aspects; understanding what Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew terms meant in the context of the time is vital to this research. He’s written two previous books on the subject, Jesus the Sorcerer (2006) and Magic in the New Testament (2010).
In order to drive home the extent of scholarly support for the theory, Conner largely uses the scholars’ words themselves, with extensive quotes from academic books and papers to which he provides a commentary, written lucidly with often punchy turns of phrase. His introduction in particular is a superb 14-page summary of the current position of ‘Jesus the magician’ research with a background discussion of the relationship of religion and magic, from which he adopts the definitions that religion is ‘magic for the masses’ and magic ‘religion for the individual’.
Following Smith, Conner argues that, while scholars concentrate on Jesus’ teachings, in his day it was his ability to work wonders that defined him: ‘There is no Jesus apart from miracles; they are by far the best-attested feature of his life and the basis for his fame… Had Jesus and his earliest followers no fame for performing miracles, it is doubtful there would be any such religion as Christianity or that the world would recall Jesus’ existence.’
Conner’s conclusion is that ‘the evidence indicates that Jesus of Nazareth fits a well-known type: the apocalyptic preacher who authenticated his message by charismatic performances, performances that were understood as miracles by his followers but as magic by other Jews and pagans.’ As for which, it is ‘embarrassingly easy’ to show that Jesus used specific magical methods in his cures and exorcisms.
The only major difference between Conner and Morton Smith – one with very far-reaching implications – concerns the sources of those methods.
Smith found the closest parallels with magical texts from the Greco-Egyptian world and in accounts of pagan miracle workers such as Apollonius, which introduces a whole new complication into an already thorny subject, since of course Jesus is seen, near-universally, as Jewish. (Although, as Smith pointed out, he is only presumed to be, and 'The presumption is not certain.')"
Conner acknowledges those parallels but prefers to see Jesus’ wonder-working primarily in a Jewish context (which certainly makes life easier). He explains the pagan elements in terms of borrowings between Jewish and Hellenistic magicians and our more complete knowledge of pagan magic through the good fortune of Egypt’s climate, which is perfect for the preservation of papyri, among which are a large number devoted to magical systems. He attempts to show that the little we do know of Jewish magic – from the Old Testament, fragmentary archaeological evidence, and the one surviving collection of Hebrew magical spells, the Sepher Ha-Razim (3rd century AD but undoubtedly based on much older traditions) – reveals similar parallels to Jesus’ exorcisms and cures. However, on Smith’s evidence, the similarities do seem closer to the pagan texts, and incorporate elements that are hard to square with Judaism.
Conner also argues that the kind of wonder-working displayed by Jesus was expected of traditional Jewish prophets (the other mould into which, the gospels tell us, the people tried to fit Jesus). However, Smith devotes an appendix to comparing Jesus to the prophets – to specifically address the question ‘is the data we have taken as evidence for the opinion that he was a magician actually evidence of his role as a prophet?’ – and concludes that ‘The textual evidence for the notion is weak.’ His point-by-point analysis of what Jesus, the prophets and pagan magicians were reported as having done shows many more similarities with the latter, and some (most compellingly the Eucharist ritual) which can’t be accommodated in Jewish thinking.
Moving on to the formation of the Christian religion, Conner shows how magical ideas and practices – not theology - shaped the new cult based on a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. He observes that Paul ‘built his following, not on the message of Jesus, which he scarcely mentions, but on practices of spirit possession, specifically possession by Jesus’ spirit.’ He demonstrates that Paul’s Epistles – particularly Ephesians – employ many terms that also appear in the magical papyri.
Miracles, exorcisms and ‘possessed’ behaviour such as speaking in tongues were what characterised the new sect and, as with Jesus, ‘Christian rite and wonder working shared the presumptions, processes and procedures of Jewish and pagan magic.’ Also as with Jesus, it was one of the reasons for the hostility of outsiders, particularly those in authority. Their perception was that Christians, through their emphasis on possession by the spirit of an executed criminal and their obsession with death and the relics (i.e. body parts) of martyrs, were practising some very dark arts indeed: ‘The relationship between miracles and martyrs brought Christianity much closer to the attitude of necromantic sorcery than to anything in normative pagan religious belief.’
Conner goes on to trace the process by which this magic-based cult developed into an organised and powerful Church that, out of expediency, labelled the magical parts heresy and suppressed them, along with the material that revealed Jesus to be a magician - ‘how Jesus’ apocalyptic message, which was central to his preaching, came to be explained away and then quietly abandoned, how magical details of Jesus’ charismatic performance were excised from the gospels and how spirit possession, once central to what became orthodox Christianity, was allowed to wither and disappear.’ It was, Connor argues, the sects condemned as heretical that maintained the religion’s original practices.
Being outside academia, Conner can go further than those within in his assessment of the meaning of it all, particularly for today’s Churches. For him – and it is hard to disagree – knowing that Jesus was, essentially, a sorcerer undermines the whole foundation of what followed and what continues today. He writes that the evidence put together in his book ‘entirely dispenses with the pleasant pretext that the life of Jesus was truly relevant then or now.’
He also aims some withering invective at New Testament scholarship for being too unwilling to challenge, or upset, believers (‘apologetic scholarship is inevitably dishonest scholarship that does violence to the evidence and… the field of “Jesus Studies” is so riddled with special pleading that it barely qualifies as an academic discipline.’) He particularly blasts Bible colleges as ‘in most cases an interminable Sunday school for overachievers.’
For all the good things in Magic in Christianity, though, it’s hard to see who the book is aimed at, as it falls between two stools. It’s presented as a scholarly work, although sadly Conner’s lack of academic status (and his broadsides at the profession) probably means that it won’t find a home among that audience. On the other hand, it doesn’t work as a popular account either. In his conclusion, Conner laments the public’s ignorance about what scholars have discovered about the New Testament – blaming the scholars themselves – but his book doesn’t fill that gap; he acknowledges wistfully that few members of the public are likely to read it. It’s too detailed, with too many quotations and a lot of Greek, plus a smattering of Coptic and Hebrew, necessary for Conner’s argument but, like equations in a popular science book, off-putting to the general reader.
The value of Magic in Christianity is as a sourcebook, as it gives a comprehensive survey of the academic work on the subject of early Christian magic, brought together by Conner’s erudite commentary, heavily referenced and with a bibliography that runs to some 500 entries. Unfortunately its usefulness for research is let down by the extremely poor index. (Still, that’s better than Jesus the Magician, which doesn’t have one at all. Shame on you, Hampton Roads Press!)
Others will be put off by the book’s production, which is very slipshod. The design and typesetting are horrible, giving it the look of a self-published book, although it isn’t. The chapter numbering is erratic (8, 10, 11, 12, 16) and some sections appear misplaced. The organisation of material is a little haphazard too, with sometimes confusing meanderings between topics, or sudden shifts in subject. All these faults could have been fixed by a half-decent editor; indeed, the book looks as if it hasn’t been edited at all.
The ‘Jesus magus’ theory radically changes our image of Jesus and brings us closer to understanding the man behind (or should that be beneath?) the halo. But while answering some of the most fundamental questions, perhaps inevitably it raises more, particularly about the prevalence of pagan material in Jesus’ magic.
Leaving aside the Christian image of the redeeming Son of God (which, even if correct, couldn’t have had any bearing on the way he was understood by those around him), Jesus is depicted in a number of contrasting ways in the gospels – wandering exorcist and wonder-worker, religious teacher, prophet, end-times preacher and messianic pretender. The ‘magician’ theory helps reconcile some of these – for example, apocalyptic preachers were expected to work wonders and cast out demons – but not all. And while some can be rejected as later embellishments, as Smith does with the claims of Jesus as prophet, awkward fits remain.
For example, Conner dismisses the messianic material – specifically the elements of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that fulfil Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah – as later invention. However, those parts of the gospels contain evidence that Jesus contrived his actions to fit the prophecies, which makes no sense for a made-up story. Clearly, there’s still something missing from the picture.
Nevertheless, the work of Smith and the other academics, brought together and elucidated by Conner, provides a quantum leap in our understanding of Jesus the man. | Clive Prince |