1. Introduction


Having been born in the year of its publication, I can only imagine the impact that Morton Smith’s book Jesus the Magician had on historical Jesus research at the time. I expect that the book’s title alone sufficed to stir a response in even the most indifferent critic. Consequently I was astounded to discover that many years after Jesus the Magician had been published, the book still stood more or less alone in its specific field of research, albeit accompanied by a few general studies of magic in the Gospels. Due to this lack of subsequent study, I initially assumed that Smith’s theories were not considered to be sufficiently innovative to warrant a wealth of ensuing research and publications. However, I soon became aware that Jesus the Magician has been viewed with a certain amount of disdain in New Testament Studies for quite some time, perhaps on account of the sensitive nature of the subject matter or most likely due to a scholarly distrust of Smith himself, who was known to be a controversial and provocative character.
Furthermore, the disagreement that still rages in current New Testament academia concerning the authenticity of the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ may have irreparably tainted Smith’s reputation and scholars proposing that Smith had forged this text may be particularly reluctant to accept the credibility of his other theories or view them in an equally suspicious light. As a newcomer to both the study of the historical Jesus and ancient magic, Smith’s Jesus the Magician was a hugely frustrating starting-point from which to embark on an exploration of magic in the New Testament. Smith often makes bold statements with little supporting evidence and abandons certain lines of thought abruptly and without explanation, leaving the tracks cold for successive researchers. Although this was initially a great hindrance, it also provided an exciting incentive for further study. I realised that a great deal of Smith’s thinking had yet to be investigated and consequently there were many tantalisingly dark corridors in Jesus the Magician that needed to be fully explored.

The research proposal submitted for this study did not commit the work to a particular standpoint regarding Smith’s book. Although I was fully aware of the controversies surrounding the Secret Gospel of Mark and the character of Smith himself, I was determined to isolate Jesus the Magician from this controversy and present a balanced evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of Smith’s thesis. The result of which would either be a) a rejection of the theory that Jesus appears as a magician within the Gospels and a thorough critique explaining why these allegations are unfounded, or b) a study which lends weight to Smith’s book, expanding his theories and highlighting areas that have been previously overlooked. Initially this approach was borne out of genuine naivety regarding the implications of Smith’s work, however by engaging with the magical material and familiarising myself the worldview of the ancients, my familiar, ingrained ‘school-R.E.-class’ correlation between the figure of Jesus and his divine power was gradually eroded away, particularly by the revelation that other individuals in antiquity were performing miracles, including healings and the raising of the dead, by using magical techniques and manipulating both demonic and divine spiritual powers. In light of the widespread nature of the allegation that Jesus was a magician and the popular usage of these alternative magical power-sources in the ancient world, it became clear at an early stage in my research that the premise that Jesus was a magician should be taken very seriously.


When applying a particular persona or set of attributes to the person of Jesus, the question of whether we intend to present an insight into the historical Jesus (i.e. Jesus, the figure of history) or the literary Jesus (i.e. Jesus, the literary construct) is of central importance. When proposing simply that Jesus ‘was a magician’ we must ask whether we are claiming that the historical Jesus used magical techniques and therefore he should be viewed historically as a magician, or whether this wizard-like figure was carefully crafted by an author and exists only within the pages of his text, bearing little or no resemblance to the activities of a real, historical individual.

A major difficulty that is encountered when attempting to establish a clear division between historical Jesus material and the fictional inventions of an author is demonstrated by the frequent appearance of the figure of Jesus the magician in anti-Christian polemical writings. The connotations of deviant behaviour that magic carried in the ancient world ensured that the opponents of a movement would seek to associate its leader with the practice of magic and thereby harm the reputation of the group leader and his followers. If the depictions of Jesus as a magician that appear within the polemical texts are borne out of hostility and malice that was directed towards the early Christians, then it is highly likely that the figure of ‘Jesus the magician’ is a literary creation and consequently evidence drawn from these sources cannot be considered to represent a historically accurate picture of the life of Jesus. However, there is also a strong possibility that these texts represent an alternative perspective on Jesus’ activities that was suppressed by early Christianity and therefore it is equally credible that these accounts preserve details of the historical Jesus’ activities that were rejected by the early Christians.

Since materials within this thesis will be drawn from non-Christian sources (such as Josephus and Celsus), canonical sources (such as the Synoptics Gospels) and non-canonical sources (such as the Gospel of Peter and Secret Mark), we cannot assume, therefore, that the historical Jesus can only be discerned in favourable material (i.e. writings which portray Jesus in a positive light) while the figure of Jesus which appears in negative, polemical texts must be a literary creation of its embittered author and bear no resemblance to the historical Jesus. Equally, we must be aware that the Gospel authors may be inclined to insert apologetic material and embellish their material favourably in order to endorse the figure of Jesus to the reader, thereby similarly distorting our perception and creating a literary figure that bears no resemblance to the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, since some readers might reject the possibility that the historical Jesus engaged in magical behaviour on the basis that the figure of Jesus the Magician features prominently in anti-Christian polemic, in order for a charge of magic to be both convincing and historically plausible it is clear that evidence must not only be gathered from polemical or apocryphal sources, but primarily from the Gospels themselves.

The possibility that a historically reliable portrait of the historical Jesus’ life and teachings can be reconstructed from material found within the Gospels has proven to be a methodological minefield within New Testament academia. Although various attempts to establish a stratum of earliest Synoptic material in order to authenticate the historicity of certain details concerning the historical Jesus have produced a series of differing opinions regarding the literary relationships between the Synoptic Gospels, many New Testament scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the foundational stone used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who both expanded Mark’s Gospel using a common source, known as Q, and material particular to each evangelist. Consequently, the Gospel of Mark is considered by many scholars to be the earliest Synoptic account of Jesus’ ministry and the most valuable Synoptic source of historical information on the person of Jesus. Since the theory of Markan Priority remains the dominant approach for studying Synoptic interrelationships, this majority position will be assumed throughout this thesis (I will not, however, be assuming the existence of Q, which I regard as problematic[1] ).

Upon turning to the Gospel of Mark, we are immediately confronted with the figure of Jesus the Magician since certain reports of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms within Mark’s Gospel contain magical behaviours and techniques that were extensively employed by magical practitioners in the ancient world. A reader of the Matthean and Lukan Gospel narratives who has an awareness of the negative implications of this type of behaviour will quickly observe that the Markan material appears to have passed through a kind of ‘evangelist filter’ and a substantial amount of the magical techniques present within Mark’s Gospel have been omitted. We could assume that this material was omitted on the grounds that it was considered to be uninteresting to the reader or irrelevant to the narrative. However, due to the consistency with which the redactors remove these suspicious techniques from their received traditions, I would suggest that the underlying motives behind the composition of the Gospels and a sensitivity towards implications of magic may have significantly influenced the omission of this magical material in both Matthew and Luke.

As the Gospels were primarily composed for evangelistic purposes, the Gospel writers carefully assessed their received traditions and included what was deemed suitable in order to place emphasis upon particular aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, although the evangelists are keen to promote Jesus engaging in activities that strengthen the faith of the reader, such as teaching, healing or prophesying, they are understandably reluctant to include evidence of practices that could be construed as having magical connotations, particularly since the allegation that Jesus was a magician featured heavily in the accusations made by his opponents. As a result, the authors of Matthew and Luke are noticeably hostile to magical behaviour and deliberately edit their received accounts accordingly whenever they feel that magical techniques are being implied. In addition to the omission of dubious material, there is also a stratum of apologetic material that appears to have been overlaid onto the narratives by the redactors in order to explain, justify or refute rumours of magical practice in Jesus’ ministry. That the Gospel writers actively sought to include material that deliberately threw the reader off the scent of magical behaviour suggests that they were aware that allegations of magical practice were being made against Jesus. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the historical Jesus actively engaged in anti-magical activities or whether this is a literary device used by the Gospel writers to distance their hero from a charge of magic.

In order to distinguish between the indications of magical practices that are valuable to the historical Jesus scholar and the anti-magical, apologetic character of Jesus that has been created by the Gospel authors, the following study will attempt to separate the wheat of authentic magical behaviours that could trace their sources back to the historical Jesus from the chaff of apologetic or polemic material that has been invented by the Gospel evangelist or the early opponent of Christianity. We must therefore keep a keen eye on the Synoptic interrelations at work within passages containing magical techniques or behaviours and consider the underlying intentions and biases of each Gospel evangelist. If it is clear that an author’s evangelical objectives have influenced the behaviour or speech of Jesus within a particular passage and it is doubtful that the passage holds any significant value for historical Jesus research, attention will be given to the author of the Gospel under discussion and we will speak of the Markan/Matthean/Lukan Jesus (i.e. Jesus, the Markan/Matthean/Lukan construct). However, this must not be confused with a similar classification of Synoptic authors that is made when considering a portrait of Jesus that is restricted to, or prominent within, a particular Gospel. Since certain characteristics are exhibited by Jesus exclusively, or primarily, within a specific Gospel (such as the secrecy theme in Mark’s Gospel), it is often necessary to refer to the Markan/Matthean/Lukan Jesus, i.e. a portrait of Jesus that is unique to a particular Gospel narrative. In this case, by distinguishing between Synoptic authors we do not immediately imply that Jesus’ words and actions are solely an invention of the Gospel author and it is perfectly credible that these behaviours may be traced back to the historical Jesus.

Although the insertion of apologetic material and the anti-magical editorial process threatens to frustrate an investigation into magic in the Gospels, I would suggest that the sensitive treatment of this material by the Synoptic authors provides a valuable insight for historical Jesus research. First, there are certain passages, which we will examine later in this thesis, in which Matthew and Luke appear to have taken great care to remove evidence of suspicious practices and insert anti-magical apologetic material. This suggests a considerable degree of embarrassment concerning the implications of magic present in the omitted text and this is understandable since magic carried severely negative connotations in the ancient world and it featured heavily in anti-Christian polemic. Although certain passages have been edited to remove implications of magic, elements of magical techniques still remain elsewhere in both Matthew and Luke. By reading against the grain of the Gospel narratives and appealing to John Meier’s criterion of embarrassment[2], I would suggest that it is unlikely that the Gospel writers would deliberately retain these details as they are damaging to the person of Jesus and therefore these surviving fragments of magical techniques must warrant an unavoidable inclusion. Perhaps the historical Jesus’ use of a particular technique was common knowledge amongst the populace at the time of the composition of the Gospels and therefore such methods could not be ignored by the Gospel authors? If this is correct, then it is highly likely that these techniques and behaviours have their origin in the activities of the historical Jesus. 

Second, although the authors of Matthew and Luke attempt to soften connotations of magical behaviour in their Gospels, the author of Mark’s readiness to mention magical techniques in his Gospel raises many important questions. Did the author of Mark fail to realise that certain techniques used by Jesus within his Gospel are similar to those employed by the magicians of antiquity? Or did Mark deliberately set out to portray Jesus as a magician? The magical techniques present in Mark’s Gospel are often extensively paralleled within the ancient magical tradition, therefore it is unlikely that a writer of this period would overlook connotations of magic in his Gospel or equally seek to portray his hero in such a negative light. Once again, in light of the negative stigma associated with magic in the ancient world and by reading against the grain of the evangelist’s basic concerns, it is entirely possible that the historical Jesus’ use of magical technique was well-known at the time of the composition of Mark’s Gospel and therefore these events constituted an unavoidable inclusion. In which case, these passages in Mark’s Gospel may provide us with historically reliable accounts of the historical Jesus employing magical techniques.

Third, the allegation that Jesus engaged in magical activities is a viewpoint that is common to friend and foe, i.e. it appears in both sources favourable to Jesus (e.g. the healing and exorcism accounts of the Gospels) and sources hostile to Jesus (e.g. the anti-Christian polemical materials and the hostile opponents of Jesus within the Gospels). This type of consensus is cited by some scholars as a reliable criterion upon which to establish historical Jesus material. Consequently, in accordance with this criterion and on the strength of the agreement between hostile and sympathetic sources concerning the role of magic in Jesus’ ministry, it is probable that the historical Jesus exhibited behaviours that were characteristically associated with magical activity in the ancient world.


As the figure of Jesus the Magician is not restricted to a specific pericope or verse within the Gospels but impacts broadly across most of the Gospel material, to exhaustively consider the importance of each of the passages discussed below for historical Jesus research in general would not only involve a second volume to this study, but it would also replicate a great deal of well-trod research and almost certainly detract from our discussion of magic in the Gospels. Therefore, issues concerning authenticity and textual variation, for example, will be included when immediately relevant, but due to the extensive nature of the subject area, each piece of evidence cannot be hounded until it has been thoroughly explored in all aspects of New Testament academia.

Since we are restricting our attention to discerning historical Jesus material within the Synoptics, evidence from elsewhere within the New Testament will only be introduced in a supplementary manner where relevant. Material from the book of Acts, for example, will be discussed only where such evidence is deemed to directly inform the discussion. Hence, accordingly, attention will be given to the character of Simon Magus (Chapter 2), the possible mistranslation of Peter's 'Tabitha' in Acts 9: 36-41 (Chapter 7), Luke's use of 'hand of the Lord' as a replacement for 'Spirit' throughout Acts (Chapter 13), the Jewish exorcists in Acts 19:11-20 (Chapter 11), Paul's exorcistic use of the name of Jesus in Acts 16:18 and Peter's use of the name of Jesus when healing in Acts 3:6 (Chapter 14).

The reader must also be forewarned that the resurrection will not be addressed in any depth within this study and our examination of the Gospels will terminate at Gethsemane. There are a number of reasons for this decision. First, three major indicators of magical practice in antiquity will be outlined and each of these points will be dealt with in turn throughout the thesis. Since evidence of the third and most prominent indicator of magical practice in antiquity is largely found in the Gethsemane and final crucifixion scenes, we will devote a great deal of attention to a thorough examination of these Gospel passages in Chapter 13. Although an investigation into the resurrection narratives may seem to be a natural progression from this point in compliance with the sequence of the Gospel narratives, this would inevitably have a postscript feel to it and disrupt the order of points set out in Chapter II. Second, to exhaustively investigate the resurrection accounts for evidence of magical practice would require a thorough examination of both Christian deification rites and deification techniques found within the ancient magical tradition, particularly ascension rituals such as the Mithras liturgy. Although deification techniques feature within this thesis (Chapter 13 in particular), this is an enormous area of study and therefore a consideration of the resurrection in terms of magical deification should be explored in a separate publication. In further support of this decision, I am concerned that the magical use of Jesus' name and spirit following his death has not been adequately addressed and therefore in the final chapter, by way of conclusion, the natural progression into a discussion of the resurrection will be postponed in favour of a consideration of the contribution that can be made by this vastly overlooked area of New Testament research.

The presence of Johannine material within this thesis also necessitates justification since the use of the Gospel of John as a source of information on the historical Jesus is often disputed. Significant dissimilarities from the Synoptics in both discourse and the overall time-span of Jesus’ career have led many scholars to question the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. In more recent times, however, New Testament criticism has become increasingly receptive to the historicity of Johannine material and many contemporary New Testament scholars defend the use of Johannine material in their studies. In view of this development, evidence from the Fourth Gospel will certainly be included within this thesis where deemed relevant.


Magic, like music, was recorded in the form of manuscripts and through study of its notation we can build up a picture of its performers, instruments and audiences. Throughout this thesis we will appeal to a collection of magical manuscripts that are frequently cited in the academic study of magic in the ancient world; the Greek Magical Papyri, or Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM).[3] These texts have their origin in Greco-Roman Egypt and date from the second-century BC to the fifth-century CE. Although the majority of these texts are later than the New Testament period (as demonstrated by the occasional inclusion of biblical names) they are considered valuable to the study of ancient magic as it is highly likely that they include material from earlier sources, perhaps dating from before the first century. This is largely supported by the observation that mistakes have been made where the texts have been copied, a number of textual variants are noted in the texts themselves and some texts are templates into which the operator would insert their own details.

Although there is a strong possibility that the PGM texts record magical traditions that pre-date the composition of the manuscripts, supplementary evidence will be provided from earlier magical traditions and/or texts that can be reliably dated wherever possible in order to avoid the dating difficulties that are raised by the PGM texts.


During the preliminary stages of this study it was necessary to depart from New Testament and historical Jesus research in order to engage with other subject areas that have a direct impact upon our line of enquiry; namely psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, classics and Christian art. A considerable period of time was spent familiarising myself with the main theories of ancient magic, which is in itself an extensive field of research. Following a great deal of careful consideration, I found it necessary to use the incendiary terms ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ although I am aware that I am opening an anthropological and theological ‘can of worms’ which has the potential to tie all subsequent lines of enquiry into etymological knots. The task of defining ‘art’, for example, is made mildly easier for the historian or philosopher since most art works have survived to the current day in their original form, either in printed book, manuscript notation, or oil painting. Furthermore, these art works are made easily accessible to the general public, through bookshops, the internet or various reproductions of ‘authentic’ performances on CD. The modern reader, observer, listener or performer is able, in most cases, to engage with a piece of art in its original or ‘authentically reproduced’ form and therefore he or she can develop an awareness of the many expressions of ‘art’ that have existed throughout history and from a variety of diverse continents. Even though our modern playwrights produce theatre that differs from that found on the Shakespearian stage, we have usually encountered an adequate amount of Shakespeare in English literature classes at school to familiarise ourselves with the differences in the use of the English language and stage direction. Similarly, if our taste in music is limited, the excerpts of Mozart, modern rock or R ‘n’ B that we hear in television adverts expose us to a number of musical genres and we can appreciate the historical development of sound, from acoustic to electric and natural to synthesized. By engaging with these various expressions of ‘art’, both the expert and amateur alike can immerse him or herself in a specific historical setting and observe parallels or dissimilarities by comparing the historical art form against its modern equivalent. This ease of comparison is not possible with magic and herein lies the problem.

When taking the initial exploratory steps into the academic study of magic in antiquity it became immediately apparent to me that our popular, contemporary understanding of magic is considerably dissimilar to the use of the term in the ancient world. The word ‘magic’ has suffered significant distortions in meaning throughout its evolution from ancient to modern usage and this is largely due to our modern-day unfamiliarity with the belief systems of the ancient world-view. It was clear that in order to recognise the full significance that the word ‘magic’ would have carried in antiquity, particularly at the time of Jesus, the modern reader must disregard his or her own general conception of magical behaviour and adopt, or at least attempt to appreciate, the perspective of a first-century audience. It is therefore entirely appropriate to begin with a justification of the use of the word ‘magic’ in this study, clarifying how it is to be understood and detailing how the archaic use of the term differs from its modern incarnations. We will then attempt to construct a ‘working model’ of a magician in the ancient world from the various religious, magical and literary sources which provide evidence of the characteristics that were typically associated with magicians operating within antiquity. These unmistakably magical traits will fall broadly into three main categories; the social behaviour of the magician, the physical methods and rituals employed by the magician and the relationship between the magician and his gods. The archetypal figure that emerges from this investigation will inform our general understanding of the term ‘magician’ for the remainder of this study and establish the criterion against which we will examine the Gospel materials to determine whether they present Jesus as engaging in magical activity.

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]  For a defence of the theory of Markan Priority without Q, see Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002). For more on the Farrer Hypothesis (Markan Priority without the existence of Q), see A. M. Farrer, ‘On Dispensing with Q’ in D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), pp. 55-88; Michael Goulder, ‘On Putting Q to the Test’, NTS 24 (1978), pp. 218-24; Edward C. Hobbs, ‘A Quarter-Century Without “Q”’, Perkins School of Theology Journal 33/4 (1980), pp. 10-19.
[2] ‘The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.’ (J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. I, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991) p. 168).
[3] References to the Greek magical papyri will be made under the abbreviation ‘PGM’. English translations will be taken from Hans Dieter Betz (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) and the Greek texts will be taken from Karl Preisendanz (ed.), Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die Grieschischen Zauberpapyri, 2 vols (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973).

1 comment:

  1. Had I not seen the hint of this material on Mark Goodacre's website, I too, would have left it alone - got to be careful about what I bring with me when encountering the work of others.
    I like the intro - for what that's worth - and will follow along as time permits. Much study is a weariness of the flesh but the fruit is often delicious.