‘Was Jesus a Wizard?’ Is Actually a Serious Scholarly Question
Early Christians found themselves defending Jesus from an accusation that might ring strange today—that he was a magician.
It’s Halloween weekend, when scary but sexy becomes a universally acceptable dress code. Though trick-or-treating may be off the table because of the pandemic, sexy devils, witches, and wizards are still on the sartorial menu. Though the Satanic undertones of Halloween might seem a world away from the pristine piety of Christianity there’s a case to be made that the most famous magician of all time is not Harry Potter or Gandalf, but Jesus Christ himself.
To us modern readers, who often first encounter Jesus stories in incense-scented churches or the hushed tones of a Bible study, the Son of God’s biography and abilities might seem uniquely special. But there were a number of people in the ancient world who could perform what we might describe as miracles, magic, or wonders. A number of Roman historians tell us that the Emperor Vespasian could cure blindness, restore a “withered hand,” and even assisted in a case involving a damaged leg (all things Jesus is supposed to have done). Both the mathematician Pythagoras and the Emperor Augustus were said to have healed “pestilences.” And a competitor of the Apostle Peter, a man known as Simon Magus, could apparently fly. Many of these narratives sound more like the Elvis sightings that adorn the pages of the "newspapers" at the grocery store checkout than reliable accounts of historical events.
Then of course there is the resurrection, the most important supernatural event in the Christian Bible. Some theologians argue that the resurrection is a unique event that distinguishes Jesus from other human beings who were either temporarily brought back to life (like Lazarus) or were taken up into heaven alive. While we don’t actually know if ancient audiences cared about the permanency of the resurrection they were impressed when people could raise the dead. It’s something of which the philosopher Empedocles was apparently capable and a wandering healer called Apollonius of Tyana could also bring the deceased back to life.
This isn’t to say that all of these men were wizards, but rather that the ability to heal, break the laws of physics, or cheat death wasn’t confined to early Christians. Most interesting of all, no one, not even monotheists like the early Christians, disputed that members of rival groups could do these sorts of things. They just claimed that their own methods and sources of power were superior. In the Gospels, Jesus’ rivals accuse him of being possessed by a demon and use this to explain how he performs exorcisms. There are also mentions of people unaffiliated with Jesus casting out demons in his name. Apparently, you didn’t have to be baptized or a follower of Jesus to utilize his power.
In 1978, Columbia historian Morton Smith published Jesus the Magician in which he argued that Jesus was one of many ancient magicians and that his ministry is best understood as wonderworking. He argued that while healing the sick, exorcizing demons, turning water into wine, multiplying bread, and walking on water read to us as signs of Jesus’s divine nature, in his own time he sounded like a magician. If you transplanted Jesus to Hogwarts, it seems, he wouldn’t even stand out.
There are even examples of early Christian artwork that seem to confirm this theory. Stone reliefs on ancient Christian sarcophagi and the walls of the catacombs beneath Rome regularly show Jesus (and sometimes Peter) healing people while holding or even pointing with something that looks very much like a wand. In actual fact, he’s holding a staff and even though we might also associate that with Tolkien’s wizards, it was more likely a way of connecting Jesus to the biblical prophet Moses.
Even if the artistic evidence doesn’t hold up it’s clear that there were those outside of Christianity who also viewed Jesus as a magician. Celsus, a Roman philosopher and critic of Christianity, said that Jesus was a magician who had learned his trade in Egypt. Dr. Shaily Patel, a professor of early Christianity at Virginia Tech and specialist in ancient magic, told the Daily Beast that Christians spent a lot of time defending themselves against these claims. Origen, the third century head of a kind of Christian university in Alexandria, “spilled a lot of ink talking about how Jesus’ wondrous deeds weren’t magic because they were aimed at things like moral reformation and salvation instead of the sorts of parlor trickery displayed by marketplace sorcerers.”
It’s likely, Patel added, that both Celsus and Origen are stereotyping magicians in their comments about Jesus but the questions about the founder of Christianity arise from the fact that there were other accomplished ancient wonderworkers who did the same kinds of things. In this case calling someone a “magician,” Patel went on to explain, is about delegitimization. It’s a way of slandering someone by associating them with something negative.
As David Frankfurter has argued in his recent Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, the problem with these conversations about magic is that they usually start with an assumption about what magic actually is. That definition, in turn, is a scholarly reconstructing that relies upon centuries of accumulating biases and assumptions. Patel pointed out that magic wasn’t always considered a bad thing or even something that the uneducated rabble did. She told me that when the Platonist philosopher Apuleius of Madura was put on trial for “evil acts of magic” he argued, among other things, that magic is no different from philosophy. In fact, in the ancient world, distinguishing magic, medicine, and religion from one another is not always easy. The supernatural is mixed up in everything from ancient physics, to philosophy, health care, and even banking. When an ancient elite writer describes one person as a philosopher and another as a magician they are often writing those differences into existence.
All of which is to say that perhaps Jesus deserves a place alongside all the Halloween costumes of today, be they tasteful or of Tiger King and Karen. After all, and even when socially distanced, who wouldn’t want a guest who can turn tap water into alcohol and multiply the snack options?