5. Apologetics


It is human nature to present the history of individuals for whom we have a fondness or groups that we have sought allegiance alongside through rose-tinted spectacles. In our contemporary culture, magazine articles charting the success of pop singers or football clubs typically emphasise the awards and accolades and play down the occasional drug-abuse or sex scandal according to the source of funding for the article or the musical taste or sporting allegiance of the author. As consumers we are naturally suspicions of the underlying intention of the author and the motives behind their selective use of material. Since the majority of received texts and belief systems that inform the overriding perception that we have today of the life and death of the Jesus of the Gospels were constructed by the Christian post-Easter community who were sympathetic to his message and eager to present him in a positive light, I would suggest that the Gospels should be approached with the same degree of caution. In a bid to endorse their hero, the evangelists would naturally seek to incorporate suitable, promotional material and reject reports which included contradictory, or damaging, information. Therefore it is necessary, if not essential, when examining the healing techniques found in the Gospels to keep in mind the intentions of the editors and adopt a degree of suspicion regarding the inclusion or exclusion of certain aspects of the miracle accounts.

Although the miracle stories were essential tools in the promotion of the Christian message, the legal penalties and social fears that were associated with the practice of magic ensured that it was imperative that any suspicious material that could be seized upon by opponents was eliminated or adequately explained by the Gospel authors. As a result, the miracle accounts have been subjected to an intense editorial process which has strained out a great deal of evidence of magical practice. Possible reasons for why specific passages have been edited or omitted will become evident when examining certain healing accounts on an individual basis, but a general overview of this editorial whitewashing shows the magnitude of this activity.

That the authors of Matthew and Luke may be hostile to the practice of magic could possibly account for why techniques with potentially magical elements are eliminated within these two Gospels. The author of Luke’s Gospel repeatedly removes any healings which involve unusual procedures, such as the healing of the deaf-mute (Mk. 7:31-37), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26) and the healing word given to Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5:41). The author of Matthew also omits any Markan healings which suggest the presence of a technique (again namely the healing of the deaf-mute in Mk. 7:31-37 and the blind man of Bethsaida in Mk. 8:22-26). Furthermore, in the Matthean account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mt. 8:28-34), all magical traits have been removed to the extent that the demon and Jesus have very little interaction; there is no indication that the demons have ignored Jesus’ first command for them to leave, Jesus’ request for the name of the demon is missing (and consequently the name ‘Legion’) and Jesus’ exorcising words are simply reduced to the command ὑπάγετε (‘go’, Mt. 8:32).

This process of careful editing often proves to be an immensely frustrating impediment for the New Testament scholar when scrutinising the Gospels for traces of magical practices. However, instances in which the Gospel writers appear to have faltered over the inclusion of a certain technique or a word and scrambled to omit, explain or change their received texts are a good indication that they were aware that the material was unsuitable or that it had the potential to be used polemically against Christians. Whenever it is possible to detect the delicate treatment of a received text by the editors, our suspicions are aroused as to whether the difficulty in the passage was one of implied magical activity. If so, the exclusion of this material provides a good indication of what behaviours or methods constituted ‘magic’ to a first-century audience.

However, it is not only the absence of material that provides a valuable indicator that the Gospel redactors suspected dubious practices within their received traditions, but also the deliberate inclusion of material. The addition of anti-magical passages with seemingly apologetic purposes, especially in close proximity to the miracles or the supernatural abilities of Jesus, suggests that the Gospel authors were aware that charges of magic were being brought against Jesus and that these are attempts to directly eradicate such notions. I would sugest that the most obvious magic apologetic within the Gospels is found very early in Jesus’ career in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and it appears in the form of a mystical encounter between Jesus and the Devil.


All three Synoptic accounts of the temptation narrative portray Jesus as enduring forty days in the wilderness, a period which alludes to the forty years spent by Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 16:35, Num. 14:33-34) and resembles the episodes of solitude, purification and spiritual encounter that were often associated with the early lives of holy men such as Moses, Zoroaster and Pythagoras. The short Markan temptation narrative appears to depict a typical shamanic experience, however the purpose of the expanded temptation narrative in Mt. 4:1-11 and Lk. 4:1-13 is not immediately clear to the reader. Why would an author who claims to present a solemn historical account of an individual’s life begin with a story which involves the main character conversing with a mythical, demonic being? The mythological language within the passage makes a literal, historical reading of the account difficult for the modern scholar. Although the bizarre imagery may deter an authentic interpretation in our modern clime, it has been suggested that the implausibility of this account was not so for the early reader.

Attempts within New Testament scholarship to explain the temptation as a historical event tend to acknowledge an element of authenticity within the account and yet inevitably add a pinch of post-Enlightenment sobriety. Some theories propose that the report is of an apparent reality within the psyche of Jesus, taking either the form of a psychological and/or moral struggle confined to the reality constructed in his mind or an ecstatic or visionary experience such as those endured by shamans. Understanding this encounter with the Devil in terms of contemporary developments within the field of psychology and psychiatrics, which have seen the Devil increasingly situated within the human psyche, we could perhaps interpret the account as depicting Jesus encountering and battling against his own ‘inner demons.’ However, it is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers intended to give a psychological critique of Jesus’ mental state since they do not reflect upon Jesus’ mental states and thoughts elsewhere in the Gospels. Equally, whether the story is a pedagogical device that was employed by Jesus himself or a teaching that was incorporated into the text at a later date to educate the Christian community is not clear. Either way, it seems unlikely that the Gospel authors would retain the story, or equally invent such a superfluous addition, as in doing so they draw attention to Jesus’ human frailties and susceptibility to temptation.

I would suggest that the extended version of the temptation story in both Matthew and Luke does not find its source in the words of the historical Jesus, but that it is a literary device created by the later Christian community in order to weave a particular apologetic stratagem into the Jesus tradition; more specifically, a defence against charges of magic in Jesus’ ministry. In Mt. 4:3-11//Lk. 4:3-13, Jesus is tempted to perform acts that would be expected of a magician. The first temptation takes the form of an enticement to use his powers for his own needs and self-gratification (‘command this stone to become bread’, Mt. 4:3//Lk. 4:3). The second temptation is to perform a frivolous trial of power based on the arrogant presumption that spiritual powers will immediately be present to save him (‘throw yourself down’, Mt. 4:6//Lk. 4:9).[1] Finally, the Devil tempts Jesus with dominion over ‘the kingdoms of the world’ (Mt. 4:8//Lk. 4:5) and encourages him to use his new-found abilities to further his own authority and self-importance, all of which would involve submitting to the control of the Devil. The deliberate insertion of a passage early into the Gospel narratives in which Jesus rejects the pompous and greedy behaviour associated with magicians indicates that the authors of Matthew and Luke intend the story to act as a mental ‘road-block’ to the reader in order to discredit the figure of ‘Jesus the magician’ right from the outset. Furthermore by having the figure of Satan echo the readers’ suspicions that Jesus might be a magician, this suggests that this manner of thinking is not only foolish but also heretical and evil. To think that Jesus is a magician is tantamount to thinking like Satan.

If the authors of Matthew and Luke include the temptation narrative as a means by which to address a charge of magic, then they must have been aware of rumours in circulation during the creation of their Gospels that were sufficiently notorious to warrant the construction of an entire mythological narrative in order to engage with these issues.[2] However, although the temptation story is effective in detracting from the figure of ‘Jesus the magician’, the dialogue between Jesus and the Devil does not disallow the possibility that he was entirely capable of achieving these magical feats. The authors of Matthew and Luke could not present Jesus as being unable to perform the acts requested by the Devil as this would have damaged the messianic nature of Jesus by implying limitations on his power. Therefore the reasons given for Jesus’ refusal to obey the Devil are based on morality and not incapability in both accounts.[3] There are further occasions in the Gospels in which Jesus rejects the personal admiration or financial gain which arises as a consequence of his ability to perform miracles. For example, in Lk. 10:20 Jesus warns the seventy-two who have returned boasting of their exorcistic abilities: ‘do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ Similarly, in Mt. 10:8 Jesus instructs the twelve that they should heal the sick and exorcise demons and yet they should ‘give without pay’ (δωρεὰν δότε). Since many magicians in antiquity would sell their services for a profit, the command to ‘give without pay’ suggests that they were expected to reject the standard payment that was required by the magician (although, this in turn suggests that those offering payment considered their techniques to be similar to methods used by the magicians).[4] Whether the moral principles underlined in the temptation narrative, particularly those regarding the frivolous use of power and the testing of God, remain constant throughout the Gospels will be considered when we come to examine passages in which Jesus appears to behave, or instructs others to behave, to the contrary (see later).

If the Gospel authors were aware that charges of magic were being brought against Jesus and they were actively seeking to oppose these charges by incorporating anti-magical apologetic, then the presence of verbal and physical techniques within the Gospels that are clearly associated with magical activity is highly confusing. Material bearing connotations of magical practice could possibly remain within the Gospels for three reasons; either the technique was not viewed as strictly magical in its original context, or it was overlooked during the editorial process, or the material was too well known to be discarded by the Gospel authors. It is unlikely that the evangelists would not have considered certain unusual healing techniques to have connotations of magic since these particular methods are clearly paralleled in the magical papyri and magical materials from the ancient world. Equally, if charges of magic were in circulation during and after Jesus’ lifetime, then the evangelists would surely have ensured that they had taken adequate care to exclude any evidence which could fuel polemics. The third and most persuasive explanation is that either Jesus’ contemporaries were aware that he was using particular techniques or reports of these techniques were in circulation immediately following his death, therefore the redactors felt compelled to include these methods even though they carried serious implications of magical practice. If an obligation to the reader’s familiarity with these rumours is the reason that this suspicious material remains in the Gospels and if these rumours were based on genuine observations of how the historical Jesus healed the sick, then these instances may provide the reader with rare glimpses of the historical Jesus using magical methods of healing.

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] Compare this with PGM I. 92: ‘Test this oath of the god on [what] you wish.’
[2] This is, of course, assuming that the story was conceived by either Matthew or Luke and that they are not drawing upon Q material. However, if they are reliant on a Q source, then attempts to address rumours of magical practice may have been made even earlier into the tradition.
[3] In a similar fashion, Jesus refuses to perform a miracle for the Pharisees in Mk. 8:11-12//Mt. 16: 1-4 due to the manner in which they test him.
[4] Apuleius makes a distinction between philosophers and magicians on this basis, stating that the magicians and the doctors only heal for monetary gain (Apuleius, Apology, 40.3). In addition, Apollonius claims that he is a true philosopher and therefore he does not have any interest in monetary gain (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 8.7).

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