Jesus the Magician was written in 1978 by a man named Morton Smith. Smith, far from a house-hold name, was a highly educated, but controversial Biblic...moreJesus the Magician was written in 1978 by a man named Morton Smith. Smith, far from a house-hold name, was a highly educated, but controversial Biblical scholar - and books like this indicate why.
It isn't that the charge is new - indeed, the Gospels contain references to Jesus being a magician as early as Mark (written ca. 70 CE), in Mk. 3:20-30. The typical enemies of Jesus, the Scribes, claimed that he "had a demon" named Beelzebub, who was apparently the leader of the demons in Hebraic mythology at the time and that it was through this power, and not that of God, that Jesus accomplished his miracles.
Smith notes early on in his book that the miraculous events in the Gospels, while certainly difficult for most modern-day people who see no evidence of 'miracles' on the level of Jesus' healing of the sick, raising of the dead, etc., are crucial aspects of the story. Too often, he notes, people who seek the 'historical Jesus' simply interpret him on a secular and materialistic level. It isn't that Smith gives credence to the healings and resurrections as actual events in history; rather, as he notes, the Jewish mindset was decidedly mythological and filled with spirits and miracles. Further, a magical undercurrent certainly existed, with romances involving King Solomon and his alleged powers over spirits and demons in circulation. In his Antiquities of the of Jews, Josephus goes into great detail about this legend.
Once pointing out that the miracles must be dealt with, Smith decides to look at the 'other side' of the coin. We've heard about Jesus' miracles being from God... but non-Christians, Jews and Romans alike, had their own view of where Jesus got his powers. Thus Smith begins citing evidence from the Gospels and later Talmudic writings that are alleged to refer to Jesus as a deceiver and a magician, and continues citing evidence of a similar view about Platonists and Pagans in the Roman Empire.
There's no question that this was a common explanation for Jesus' power by those who did not believe he was a Messiah or a god. Much attention is paid not just to the evidence in the Hebrew and Roman writings, but also to magical texts and papyri that have fortunately survived, some of which cite the Jewish god and Jesus himself in attempts to gain magical powers. Smith then outlines what the ancients considered to be evidence of supernatural powers, from necromancy to the binding of a god or a spirit by its "true name."
There is little doubt that both Jesus and the Jewish God (names ranging from Ioa, Saboath, Adonai, etc.) were used at least somewhat for magical purposes, and great results were often claimed from their invocation. The Gospels likewise make reference to this when the disciples find people using Jesus' name to cast out demons and sicknesses. They come to Jesus, worried and wondering about this, because the people who were using Jesus' name were not people that the disciples knew. They were 'outside of the flock' as it were. Jesus comforts them with, "For he who is not against us is for us." (this is all related in Mk 9:38-40. Interestingly, a very DIFFERENT position is taken by Matthew in Mt 7:21-23, wherein Jesus rejects those who have done things in his name if they have not done "the will of my Father in Heaven.")
I find that the book falters, however, when Smith tries to relate the Gospel accounts to depictions of magicians in various sources, from the magical papyri, the satires of Lucian and others and the life of Apollonius of Tyana. In other words, he tries to find evidence in the Gospels that can fit Jesus to the mold of the standard stereotypical "magician" in Greco-Roman society at the time.
Certainly comparisons can be drawn, but what Smith ignores is the fact that all of these writings came after Jesus had long since passed away. Despite Christianity being a small cult (here used in the neutral sense, such as a "cult of St. Peter" rather than in a negative sense, such as "The Jonestown cult") in the Roman Empire, Christianity itself was very well known and practiced by all manner of people, from ascetics to libertines, from what would become known as the 'orthodox' to the Gnostic.
All of these groups, along with the Greco-Roman equivalent to hippies who think they can combine Buddhism and Wicca without compromising at least one, would certainly use Jesus' name. The 'orthodox' and the 'heretics' would use it just as much as those who simply took various names of power and used them.
It isn't that I reject Smith's hypothesis. In fact, I think it explains quite a bit, especially in the beginning chapters, and I think that he has proven that Jesus WAS regarded as a 'magician' by many and treated as such. But comparing the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life to later accounts of other magicians (the aforementioned Lucian satires, Apollonius of Tyana, etc.) does not allow for the very real possibility that Jesus had gained prominence as a magician in certain circles and that the Gospels were used much later to FORM pictures a magician, rather than the Gospels themselves CONTAINING such comparisons.
To put it into a more modern context, it is akin to taking a Kung-Fu movie that Quentin Tarantino borrowed from for the Klll Bill films and deciding that the similarities indicate that the earlier Kung Fu film was either copying Kill Bill or that Tarantino was involved in the production of both!
It doesn't logically follow. Unfortunately, the evidence that Smith presents is actually much later (often by a century or two) than a 70s Kung Fu film verses an early 00s Tarantino flick, making the possibility of crossover from the old to the new much more likely and much more difficult to trace.
That being said, I really enjoyed the book and I recommend it - come to your own conclusions, certainly! Smith makes a very good case until the last couple of chapters, when it becomes more polemic and less evidence-based. It isn't Smith's fault that we don't have more evidence, of course - but the attempt to prove that there are remnants of Jesus AS a magician (or in the same mold as a magician) ignores the dating, as do many other attempts to claim that Jesus was like Mithras, etc.(less)