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Jesus the Magician Paperback – 1 Nov 1981

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars 8 reviews
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars informative book 25 July 2005
By Miles N. Fowler - Published on
Format: Paperback
Whether you agree with him or not, Morton Smith has something to say. In this book you might learn not only about what Jesus contemporaries probably thought of him, but also about the concept of magic and how ancient people understood it. For example, why do magicians sometimes seem to cast a spell by a long and time-consuming procedure while at other times they do it with a single word? Smith answers this question. (Hint: why do computer programmers sometimes write code for hours while at other times they launch a program with one key stroke? Basically the same answer to both quetstions.)

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.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Morton Smith (1915-1991) was an American professor of ancient history at Columbia University, who has written other books such as THE SECRET GOSPEL. He wrote in the Preface to this 1978 book, "'Jesus the magician' was the figure seen by most ancient opponents of Jesus... 'Jesus the Son of God' is pictured in the gospels; the works that pictured 'Jesus the magician' were destroyed in antiquity after Christians got control of the Roman empire... This book is an attempt to correct this bias by reconstructing the lost picture from the preserved fragments and related material, mainly from the magical papyri, that New Testament scholarship has also generally ignored." (Pg. vii)

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.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars as they are commonly attributed to all truly great persons in history) 3 Sept. 2014
By Paul Trejo - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is strong medicine -- yet if you know somebody who is doubting whether Jesus Christ was really a real human being, known to history as well as to legend -- then this book is the cure. Well -- sometimes the medicine seems more bitter than the disease -- but after the initial shock wears off, one can never again doubt that Jesus Christ was a real person (to whom legends have been attributed, as they are commonly attributed to all truly great persons in history). Jesus was real, and this is proved by Dr. Smith by his review of the writings of the ENEMIES of Jesus. There are a lot more than we like to admit -- and most of their writings are shocking to believers. But if a person is on the verge of disbelief in Jesus as a real, historical person, this will shock them back to reality. Jesus was hated. That's the proof that he lived.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-researched comparison of gospel texts with peer magical practices 19 May 2013
By Frank A. Nemec Jr. - Published on
Format: Hardcover
People write to express what they believe. They use language, vocabulary, phrases, idioms, and literary/cultural references their audience would easily understand. To read ancient literature with no attempt to understand this backdrop is to invite misunderstanding and misinterpretation. I began my journey of learning this backdrop with "Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective" by David Bivin & Roy Blizzard, Jr. From that launching pad, comparing the parables to typical rabbinic teachings and debates of that era transformed the parables from puzzling to clearly understandable.

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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended 11 Oct. 2014
By Paul - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
An excellent read. Solid academically and yet an easy reading style. Aslan's *Zealot* and Ehrman's *How Jesus Became God" reflect concepts found in Smith's *Jesus the Magician*.
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