3. Accusations of Magic


A brief glance over the polemical materials which circulated in response to the spread of early Christianity reveals a sinister figure that appears time and time again; Jesus the magician. Although both the opponents and followers of Jesus recognised his abilities as a miracle-worker, they strongly disagreed on the source behind his miraculous powers. While Christian discourse stated that Jesus’ abilities resulted from his direct relationship with God, anti-Christian propaganda denied a divine source of Jesus’ powers and accused him of performing magic. Initially the followers of Jesus responded by fervently emphasising the divine source of his miraculous powers and as Christianity flourished and became increasingly mainstream, the opportunity grew for the new dominant Christian group to distance their hero from these allegations of magic and the voices of those who opposed Jesus gradually died away. Since a charge of magic was a popular polemical device employed against enemies in the ancient world, these stories may simply have been malicious rumours constructed by the hostile opponents of Christianity. Nevertheless, the damage caused by these allegations was far from minor and inconsequential as they had penetrated deep into the tradition and even infiltrated the Gospel materials themselves, prompting many a Christian apologist, and Gospel writer, to engage directly with these rumours and address them as serious accusations rather than frivolous conjecture.

Most charges of magic that are found within the various polemical works tend to present a vague argument which lacks a clear explanation of the behaviours or words within the reports of Jesus’ life that were considered to bear magical connotations. Occasionally the charge is made a little more explicit and it is from these informative accounts that we can hope to construct an understanding of the elements of Jesus’ behaviour that warranted these seemingly outlandish claims. Vague fragments of charges of magic can be recovered from various cultures which have come into contact with the Jesus tradition; for example, the Mandaean literature describes Jesus as a magician and identifies him with the Samaritans. Equally the Quran provides an account of Jesus’ healings, raisings from the dead and his ability to make birds from clay and adds that ‘those who disbelieved among them said: This is nothing but clear enchantment’ (5.110).[1] The majority of allegations are found within the Jewish tradition and the Christian apocryphal and apologetic texts, but the strongest charges are ultimately those made within the Gospels themselves.


By the beginning of the second century AD, Jewish tradition had firmly woven an accusation of Jesus’ magical activity into its anti-Christian polemic. The Tract Sanhedrin, the fourth tractate of the fourth set of six series which comprise the Mishnah (compiled in the second century AD) and later included in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled in the sixth century AD), contains an intriguing passage in which Jesus’ hurried trial, as reported in the Christian Gospels, is extended to a period of forty days to allow people to step forward and defend him. As a defence fails to emerge, the passage states that Jesus was executed as a sorcerer:

           ‘On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [Jesus] was hanged. For forty days before
the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to
be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.’
(Sanhedrin 43a)

The Talmudic claim that Jesus performed his miracles using magic, along with reference to his illegitimate birth and a shameful death, may simply be Jewish-Christian polemic intended to damage Jesus’ reputation and therefore the historical accuracy of this story is questioned. However, the Talmud contains two further references to Jesus and the practice of magic. The first is contained within the concluding line of Sanhedrin 107b which reads:

‘The Teacher said: ‘Yeshu practiced sorcery and corrupted and misled Israel.’’

It is difficult to relate this sentence to the historical Jesus himself as the story in which this statement is situated is set in the century before Jesus lived and the name ‘Yeshu’ was particularly common at the time. Nevertheless, this final line suggests that the story came to be associated with rumours of Jesus’ exploits that were in general circulation. The second allegation of magic within the Talmud states that Jesus learned magic in Egypt and cut magical formulas into his skin:

‘Did not Ben Stada bring forth sorcery from Egypt by means of scratches on
his flesh?’ (Shab. 104b) 

Initially the source of this Egyptian influence appears to be the Matthean account of Jesus’stay in Egypt (Mt. 2:13-23). However, since Egypt was traditionally associated with magic in the Jewish tradition then it is possible that this story arose independently of Matthew’s Gospel and was invented by Rabbis seeking to discredit Jesus by associating him with Egyptian magic. [2] Furthermore, scratching symbols on the flesh was not a particularly common practice within ancient magic, although mention of the magical use of tattoos does occur in later Christian magical texts. [3]


Allegations of Jesus’ magical activities owe their survival in part to early Christian apologists who provide reference to the Jewish accusations that Jesus was a magician and thereby demonstrate that these charges were a common polemical tool in the ancient world. Tertullian and Justin Martyr are particularly vocal when discussing the charge in the second century; Tertullian explains that the Jews called Jesus a ‘magus’ [4] and Justin Martyr writes in his Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160 CE) that the Jewish witnesses to Jesus’ miracles considered him to be a sorcerer:

‘For they dared to call Him a magician (μάγος) and a deceiver
(πλάνος) of the people.’[5]

Similarly, the fourth-century Christian writer Lactantius wrote in his Divinae Institutiones that the Jews accused Jesus of performing his miracles through magical means, although Lactantius unfortunately does not elaborate on the grounds for these accusations. [6] The fourth-century Christian apologist Arnobius helpfully provides an additional detail in his description of the Jewish allegations by stating that Jesus was accused of stealing the ‘names of the angels of might’ from the Egyptian temples. [7] The magical employment of names also appears in a story recounted in the Toledoth Yeshu, a medieval polemical report of the life of Jesus. In the Toledoth, Jesus learns the ‘Ineffable Name of God’ and the knowledge of this name allows its user to do whatever he wishes. Jesus writes the letters of the name on a piece of parchment which he inserts into an open cut on his leg and removes with a knife when returning home. When the people bring a leper to Jesus, he speaks the letters of the name over the man and the man is healed. When they bring a dead man to Jesus, he speaks the letters of the name over the corpse and the man returns to life. As a result of his miraculous powers, Jesus is worshipped as the Messiah and when he is eventually executed he pronounces the name over the tree upon which he is hung and the tree breaks. He is finally hung on a tree over which he does not, or is unable to, pronounce the name.

The New Testament apocryphal works compound these charges of magic by including stories which portray Jesus as engaging in typical magical behaviour. For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas depicts Jesus as a child performing a variety of magical feats; he models sparrows out of clay which fly away (2:2, 4) and even uses his power for destructive ends, such as killing his fellow children (3:3; 4:1) and blinding whoever opposes him (5:1). This destructive use of Jesus’ power is feared to the extent that ‘no one dared to anger him, lest he curse him, and he should be crippled’ (8:2) and Joseph urges to his mother ‘do not let him go outside the door, because anyone who angers him dies’ (14:3). Positive applications of Jesus’ power are demonstrated in the healing of a young man and a teacher (10:2; 15:4), the raising of the dead (9:3; 17:1; 18:1), the curing of his brother James’ snakebite (16:1), the filling of a broken jug with water for his mother (11:2) and the miraculous extending of a piece of wood in order to help his father make a bed (13:2).

Accusations of magic made in the apocryphal materials often imitate and elaborate on those made by the Jewish people in the apologetic material discussed above. For example in the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions the scribes shout out: ‘the signs and miracles which your Jesus wrought, he wrought not as a prophet, but as a magician.’ [8] Similarly in the Acts of Pilate the Jewish people state that it is ‘by using magic he does these things, and by having the demons on his side’[9] and they claim that Jesus is a sorcerer since he is able to send Pilate’s wife a dream.[10] The narrative also has the chief priests echo the words of Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15 with a more explicit charge of magic:

‘They say unto him: He is a sorcerer, and by Beelzebub the prince of the devils
he casteth out devils, and they are all subject unto him.’[11]


One of the most detailed allegations of magic is the charge made by Celsus, a pagan philosopher writing in the late second century. Although we do not have Celsus’ original text, the philosopher and theologian Origen set out to refute many of the central tenets of Celsus’ True Doctrine in his apologetic work Contra Celsum and since he generously quotes from Celsus’ text it is possible to reconstruct his argument from Origen’s citations alone. A fervent critic of Christianity, Celsus did not doubt that Jesus was a miracle-worker but he attempted to reinterpret his life as that of a magician, referring to him as a γόης (1.71) and claiming that Christians used invocations and the names of demons to achieve their miracles (1.6). Celsus also echoes the allegations made by the Talmud regarding Jesus’ early infancy in Egypt, suggesting that Jesus stayed there until his early adulthood and it was during his stay in Egypt that he acquired his magical powers:

‘After she [Mary] had been driven out by her husband and while she was
wandering about in a disgraceful way she secretly gave birth to Jesus…
because he was poor he [Jesus] hired himself out as a workman in Egypt,
and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians
pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of these powers, and
on account of them gave himself the title of God.’[12]

When addressing Celsus’ comparison between Jesus and the Egyptian magicians, Origen quotes at length from Celsus’ fantastical description of the illusionary tricks and bizarre magical methods employed by these magicians:

‘‘who for a few obols make known their secret lore in the middle of the
market-place and drive out demons and blow away diseases and invoke the
souls of heroes, displaying expensive banquets and dining-tables and cakes
and dishes which are non-existent, and who make things move as though
they were alive although they are not really so, but only appear as such in
the imagination.’ And he says: ‘since these men do these wonders, ought
we to think them sons of God? Or ought we to say that they are the
practices of wicked men possessed by an evil demon?’’[13]

The concluding lines of this quotation from Celsus raise a question that is of central importance to our present study; if other magicians were actively engaging in activities similar to those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, then how are we to separate the miracles of Jesus from the wonders produced by these magicians? 


There are two central allegations of magic made against Jesus by his opponents within the Gospels. The first is the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus is in possession of a demonic spirit through which he performs his miracles (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15) and the second is Herod’s suggestion that Jesus possesses the soul of John the Baptist (Mt. 14:2//Mk. 6:14-29). Each of these charges require a thorough explanation of the belief-systems and popular superstitions that were characteristic of the ancient world-view in order for us to fully appreciate the weight that these charges would have carried for the early reader and therefore an examination of the allegations made within each of these passages will be postponed until later. However some scholars have proposed that a third charge of magic can be discerned in the terminology used in the trial narratives of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew and therefore we must consider whether an allegation of magic is present in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial.

All four Gospel authors agree that Jesus was brought before Pilate on the indictment that he had blasphemed against God and professed to be the Messiah. Although a formal charge of magic is not explicitly made in the trial accounts of the Gospels, some scholars suggest that allegations of magical practice may have influenced the trial proceedings or that the terminology used by the Gospel writers reveals that an official charge of magic is present within the text. For example, Morton Smith proposes that when the Jewish people accuse Jesus of being a κακοποιός (‘evildoer’, Jn. 18:30) this term is generally understood as referring to someone who is illegally involved in magical activity. Smith supports this theory by indicating that ‘the Roman law codes tell us that [‘a doer of evil’] was the vulgar term for a magician’ and quoting from Codex Justinianus IX. 18. 7 which mentions ‘Chaldeans and magicians (magi) and the rest whom common people call 'men who are doing evil’ (malefici).’ [14] Smith also suggests that the word could refer to someone who encouraged the worship of false gods, a practice that would naturally incur a charge of magic. By translating the Greek term κακοποιός into its Latin equivalent ‘malefactor’, some scholars indicate that this latter term is clearly a technical expression for a magician.

A second potential charge of magic is founded upon the use of the term πλάνος in Matthew 27:62. The word is typically translated as ‘deceiver’ or ‘impostor’ and it is often used to refer to evil spirits; for example, the demon Beliar is identified as a ‘deceiver’ in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs[15] and the term is even applied to Satan himself in Revelation 12:9. The presence of πλάνος in Mt. 27:62 with specific reference to Jesus has led certain commentators, to suggest that the term pla,noj is to be interpreted here as ‘magician’. I would suggest that deception and magic were very closely related concepts in the ancient world and this accounts for Celsus’ association between the practice of magic and the performance of illusions when describing the activities of the Egyptian magicians who conjure up banquets which are ‘non-existent’ and make things appear alive ‘although they are not really so, but only appear as such in the imagination.’ [17] In addition, the correlation between magic and deception is made explicit in the Acts of Peter by those who accuse Paul of being a ‘sorcerer’ and ‘a deceiver’[18] and Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho states that the Jewish people called Jesus ‘a magician (μάγος) and a deceiver (πλάνος) of the people’.[19]

Regardless of whether the word ‘magician’ or any equivalent euphemism is used by the Gospel authors in the charges brought against Jesus at his trial, the very nature of the trial narratives within the Gospels indicates that the participants were fearful of Jesus’ magical potential. Perhaps the fears and superstitions regarding magic and supernatural powers that were held by both the Jews and Romans explains their united condemnation of Jesus and accounts for why the trial was such a hurried affair. The Mishnah specifies that trials at night are illegal and cannot take place before a festival (Sanhedrin 4:1), therefore, if these laws were effective at the time of Jesus’ trial, to hold proceedings at night and on eve of the Passover (Mk. 14:1-2, 12; Jn. 18:28) would have been strictly forbidden under Jewish law. Furthermore, the chosen method of execution does not correlate with a charge of blasphemy. The Talmud specifies stoning as a punishment for practicing magic (Sanhedrin 67b), but the Johannine trial narrative states that the Jews sought to stone Jesus because he claimed that ‘I and the Father are one’ and was therefore guilty of blasphemy (Jn. 10:30-31). The association between stoning and the charge of blasphemy is reinforced by the subsequent statement: ‘it is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you being a man, make yourself God.’ (Jn. 10:33). If a charge of blasphemy was made against Jesus, then why was this usual method of execution rejected in favour of crucifixion? Perhaps a verdict of crucifixion may have been passed as an emergency measure based on a fear of magic, certainly the seemingly prevasive fear of Jesus’ supernatural power that is present in the trial narratives of the Gospels suggests that charges of magic were rife within Jesus’ lifetime and they may even have contributed to his eventual execution. Furthermore, while the allegations of magic made by certain individuals, such as Celsus for example, could be dismissed as malicious anti-Christian propaganda, these accusations of magic are recorded by the Gospel writers themselves who are actively seeking to further the Christian message. Since it is unlikely that the evangelists would willingly invent a charge of magic, we may assume that they were fully aware that their early readers would be familiar with these allegations, hence their unavoidable inclusion in the Gospel narratives. The fact that certain allegations of magical practices remain in the Gospel materials as an ‘unavoidable inclusion’ not only indicates the extensive nature of these rumours but also raises the possibility that these allegations may have been based on authentic, first-hand observations made by those witnessing the behaviour of the historical Jesus. Therefore, having considered the various allegations of magic made against Jesus which derive largely from the materials produced by the opponents of Christianity, we will now turn to examine the Gospel narratives themselves to discern whether they contain evidence of magical techniques employed by Jesus that have survived the editorial process, perhaps due to the early reader’s familiarity with Jesus’ use of these techniques.

To ensure that we are correctly identifying behaviour within the Gospels that would have carried connotations of magical practices for a first-century audience, we will return to the three main characteristics of ancient magic that have been established earlier in this chapter and use these as a ‘magical yard-stick’ against which we can compare the Gospels materials with the typical behaviour of the magician in antiquity. To begin this process, we will address the first of our three major indictors of magical activity and compare the behaviour of the magician, namely his self-imposed secrecy, against the suspiciously secretive behaviour of Jesus within the Gospels.

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.


[1] This story is similar to that found in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus fashions twelve sparrows out of clay which fly away (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, II).
[2] Egypt is mentioned several times in the Talmud in association with magic. For example, b. Qiddushin 49b states that of the ten measures of witchcraft that came to the world, nine were given to Egypt.
[3] For example, the magical text entitled ‘Spell of summons, by the power of god’s tattoos (Rylands 103)’ reads: ‘in the name of the seven holy vowels which are tattooed on the chest of the father almighty’. A similar statement is found in London Oriental Manuscript 6794 (‘Spell to obtain a good singing voice’): ‘I adjure you in the name of the 7 letters that are tattooed on the chest of the father’ (Translations from Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (eds.) Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) pp. 231, 280).
[4] Tertullian, Apol. 21.17; 23.7, 12.
[5] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 69. 7.
[6] Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones 4.15; 5.3.
[7] Arnobius, Against the Gentiles 43. 1.
[8] Clement, Recognitions of Clement I. 58.
[9] Acts of Pilate, 1.1
[10] Acts of Pilate, 2.1
[11] Acts of Pilate, 1.1
[12] Origen, Con. Cels. 1.28.
[13] Origen, Con. Cels. 1.68.
[14] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 33. Smith reiterates this point on p. 41: ‘‘Doer of evil,’ as the Roman law codes say, was common parlance for ‘magician.’’
[15] Testament of Benjamin, 6:1.
[17] Origen, Con. Cels. 1.68.
[18] Acts of Peter IV. cf also ‘Simon has used magic and caused a delusion’ (XVII).
[19] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 69. 7.

1 comment:

  1. Man may never unravel the mystery of Jesus.......