Jesus the Magician Paperback – 1 Nov 1981
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My only major criticism of this book is that Smith never answers the question "what, if any, difference is there between religion and magic?" Even though he must have an answer to this, he never makes it clear.
He notes, "No classical Israelite prophet of Yahweh ever hesitated to declare, 'Yahweh has sent me'; but Jesus is never said to have said so---not in so many words. The synoptics put the claim in his mouth, but only indirectly. John, of course, remedied the oversight---repeatedly! ... why refuse? Whoever told the story showing his cleverness in avoiding an answer [in Mk 11:27-33] must have thought he had something to conceal. What did they think his secret was? Or what did he think it was, that made him unwilling to declare it? And why did he NEVER say, 'Thus saith the Lord'?" (Pg. 37)
He states, "some of Jesus' admirers thought him a magician and admired him as such [Mk 9:38 ff]. Lots of magic was practiced in the early churches: Acts 19:19 suggests the extent of it in Ephesus..." (Pg. 94) He contends, "After his shamanic session in the wilderness Jesus came, Mark says, to Galilee (1:14), and miracles began to happen." (Pg. 106) He says of Jesus' exorcisms, "Such [sending] of spirits and giving people over to them was often attributed to magicians and much feared... This was the blackest sort of magic, so it is not surprising that the gospels minimize Jesus' practice of it." (Pg. 110) He adds, "'the finger of God' [e.g., Lk 11:20] was a power in magic; that the kingdom of God should be identified (?) with the accessibility of such power is noteworthy." (Pg. 130) He suggests, "It is therefore possible that 'the mystery of the kingdom' was a magical rite, by which initiates were made to believe that they had entered the kingdom and so escaped from the realm of Mosaic Law." (Pg. 135)
He argues, "when magical traits appear in the gospels it is less likely that they have been added by the tradition than that they have survived from the earlier, lower-class, and more primitive form of the cult. A conspicuous case is that of the eucharist, an unmistakably magical rite, the institution of which was reported by a tradition attributed to Jesus, that Paul 'received' after his conversion within five years of the crucifixion." (Pg. 146) Later, he adds, "The clearest evidence of Jesus' knowledge and use of magic is the eucharist, a magical rite of a familiar sort." (Pg. 152)
He asserts, "Most of the miracles are possible, if stripped of the 'explanations' that make them miracles. For example: Jesus could not cast out demons; there are none. But he could and probably did quiet lunatics, and the reports of 'casting out demons' are merely reports of quieting lunatics... with built-in demonological explanations. Again, he could not glow in the dark. But he could and probably did persuade himself and his disciples that he would appear in glory, and eventually they all 'saw' (by hallucination) what they hoped to see." (Pg. 149) Later, he suggests, "the story of Jesus' transfiguration was primarily a story of a magical initiation, probably based on the disciples' recollection." (Pg. 161)
Smith's interpretations may not convince most (or even many) readers. But his interpretations have been influential within the so-called "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus, and are important material for anyone studying this.
Morton Smith does the same for many more otherwise confusing gospel passages. This portrayal of Jesus as a magician is either (1) an accurate portrayal of who Jesus really was; (2) an accurate portrayal of who the gospel diarists believed Jesus to be; or (3) a very strong attempt to lead a large audience of magic-believers into identifying with Jesus. I have no way to tell whether 2 or 3 is more likely.
In my view, the gospel diarists wrote to cover all the bases. Those who thought Jesus was a Zealot will find that idea in the gospels, but along with reasons the authors thought this was not true. For example, Pilate placed him on trial for that very accusation, but found him innocent.
Why would the diarists describe Jesus as a magician if they didn't believe that's who he was? They were first and foremost evangelists. A reader who thought of Jesus as a magician would instantly recognize that in the gospel accounts. The hope would be for them to become Christians.
The idea of Jesus as magician had never occurred to me before I read the book. The parallels are far too strong to dismiss. The depth of his scholarship forces the reader to take his ideas seriously.
His weakness is his limited understanding of Second Temple Judaism. The informed reader of the synoptic gospels is forced by looking at the actual teachings and debates by Jesus to conclude that Jesus was a Pharisee of the school of Hillel, though on a few topics he sided with Shammai. This weakness is not a problem if you recognize it. It was Christians, not Jesus, who had problems with Pharisees.
If you want to understand what the gospel authors meant by the words they wrote, then you will find this a very useful key to unlock some of those secrets.