Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Jesus the Sorcerer
The always interesting blog by Geoffrey Dennis, Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, had recent posts on Moses the Magician and Solomon the Sorcerer. For the sake of completeness, let's expand a bit on another equally famous Jewish wizard (mentioned briefly by Dennis in the aforementioned Moses post).
The Talmudic accounts that are sometimes ascribed to Jesus (Yeshu) are both obscure and problematic. Possible confusion of personalities (e.g., Ben Stada vs. Ben Pandira, Miriam the mother vs Miriam Magdalena), chronological issues (e.g., Yeshu as a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, the latter born ca. 50 CE), are a few of the many problems in ascribing one or more individuals to Yeshu. Nevertheless, one common thread in the various rabbinic works on the individual ostensibly claimed to be Yeshu is that he was an accomplished sorcerer (an appellation usually reserved to denigrate someone outside of the mainstream, otherwise one is called a miracle-worker whose wondrous acts are ascribed to God rather than dark forces). For example, the Talmudic account in Shabbat 104b has Ben Stada bringing witchcraft out of Egypt by means of scratching incantations into skin (see also Rashi there). Toledot Yeshu has Yeshu accomplishing his magic by the use of God's Ineffable Name, also surreptitiously removed from the Temple's Foundation Stone by writing it onto a parchment and hiding it within a cut on his thigh. Please also refer to my previous (very long) post discussing Toledot Yeshu. A number of relevant references can be found at the end.
Early Christian accounts in which Jesus is described as a sorcerer include The Gospel of Nicodemus, a composite pseudepigraphic work whose earliest sections date to the 2nd century CE. In it, the Jews accuse Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate of healing on the Sabbath by means of sorcery: "He is a sorcerer, and by Beelzebub the prince of the devils he casteth out devils, and they are all subject unto him." By the way, there is considerable anti-Jewish rhetoric in this book, including the claim that the Jews - not Pilate - crucified Jesus and by doing so "have punished themselves and their posterity with fearful judgements of their own fault". May the author(s) be posthumously cursed for this calumny!
Apparently Jesus learned his magic at a very early age, long before his travels to Egypt (not including his supposed initial stay as an infant prior to the death of Herod, as described in Matthew 2). In the apocryphal work, The First Gospel Of The Infancy Of Jesus Christ, we have a 7-year old boy being accused of sorcery. In chapter 15, he does a very cool trick of making little animal golems out of clay, even succeeding in getting the bird-golems to fly away!
That Jesus was a proponent of "white magic" has long been in vogue among New Age spiritualists. Theosophist Helena Blavatsky developed this idea in her magnum opus, Isis Unveiled (p. 147ff). Indeed, there was nothing unique about Jesus in this respect. He was an initiate in the esoteric doctrine and was accused of black magic and sorcery by "the intolerant clergy of opposing religions".
Among modern scholars, Morton Smith was a major proponent of the theory of Jesus as sorcerer in his book Jesus the Magician. Quoting his obituary in the NY Times, "Professor Smith was best known for his report in 1960 of what he said was a secret Gospel of the Apostle Mark, from which he theorized that Jesus might have been a magician rather than a Hebrew rabbi and that magic rituals played an important role in fledgling Christianity." For more on Smith, which includes a detailed account of his decades-long relationship with Gershom Scholem, see this article in The Nation. (Thanks to the Michtavim blog for pointing out this fascinating article.)
Recently, during an excavation of the underwater ruins of Alexandria, a bowl dating to between the late 2nd century BCE and the early 1st century CE was discovered which may be the world's first known reference to Jesus. And what is engraved on this bowl? The words "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which has been interpreted by the excavation team to mean either, "by Christ the magician" or, "the magician by Christ."! Team leader French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio explained, "It is very probable that in Alexandria they were aware of the existence of Jesus and of his associated legendary miracles." Based on Biblical texts, these included transforming water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread, conducting miraculous health cures, and the story of the resurrection. It should be noted that there has been some criticism of the original report by Jennifer Viegas, as described here and here.
By the way, in contrast to the typical "European white boy" image of Jesus used in my post Jesus and the Kuzari Proof, the Semitic-featured visage of Jesus (in the Hogwarts hat) in this one is a more likely representation.