14. Christian Magic and Conclusions


‘I adjure you, father, by Orpha, that is your entire body,
and Orphamiel, that is the great finger of your right hand,
that you send me Jesus Christ…’

~ ‘Spell to cast out every unclean spirit’,
London Oriental Manuscript 6796, 41-44 ~

Throughout the course of this study we have been slicing into the Gospel materials to pinpoint magical techniques and magical attitudes that are present in Jesus’ behaviour. Now is the time to unfold the finished work and reveal the overall pattern to which each critical incision has contributed, although for some readers the results will not be particularly pretty. The portrait of Jesus that emerges from Mark’s Gospel in particular is in stark contrast to the familiar figure recognised by the mainstream Christian tradition and yet it is a faithful reflection of the evidence presented by the evangelist. That the author of Mark would consciously seek to portray Jesus as a magician is an astonishing thought. However the constant appearance of magical behaviours, techniques and attitudes throughout the Gospel ensures that Jesus does not merely satisfy one or two of the required credentials for an ancient magician, but he appears to fulfil them all.

To begin with, Jesus exhibits the typical behaviours of a magician. He appears in Mark’s Gospel as a shadowy figure who speaks in parables, withdraws from the crowds to give secret instruction to his close band of followers, engages in secretive prayers and commands the public to keep his activities secret whenever they witness his miracle-working abilities. The magician practicing his art in the ancient world would behave in an identical manner; concealing his words in elaborate cryptography, engaging in magical instruction with his initiates, rejecting organised and communal worship and attempting to keep his activities away from public speculation.

Second, Jesus uses a variety of customary methods of natural magic. The Gospel writers reveal that Jesus incorporated various elements of natural magic into his healing ministry; the use of words of power, sighs or groans, spittle and the transference of energy through touch. The embarrassment felt by the Gospel writers regarding the implications of magic technique in their received texts is demonstrated by their attempts to edit out suspicious material and incorporate anti-magical apologetic whenever necessary. In addition, Jesus appears to possess a mana-like power that is effective without an appeal to God and produces immediate results (Mk. 5:25-34//Mt. 9:18-22//Lk. 8:43-48). Since both self-assurance and self-sufficiency in the application of a personal power were considered to be major indicators of magical practice in the ancient world, Jesus’ autonomy in the application of this personal power-source is highly suspect.

Third, Jesus employs a spiritual power-source that works under his command. Possession theories are desperately inadequate when accounting for the relationship between Jesus and his spiritual power-source since there is a noticeable absence of possession traits in Jesus’ behaviour throughout the Gospels. On the contrary, the degree of independence and autonomy that Jesus exerts in the application of his spiritual power is evident in the recurrent themes of authority and control that permeate the Gospels. In addition, his ability to transmit this power to the disciples, who are subsequently able to heal and exorcise (Mk. 6:7-13//Mt. 10:1//Lk. 9:1), plainly contradicts the person-specific adoption model of spirit-possession. Although there are many parallels between the election rites typically endured by shamans in the ancient world and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his subsequent wilderness experience, comparing Jesus’ behaviour to shamanistic activity is also ineffective as the seizures, trance states and aesthetic limitations that are commonly associated with shamanism are absent in the Gospel accounts.

In contrast to theories of spirit-possession, the Jesus-Spirit relationship that is portrayed throughout the Gospels fits comfortably into the magician-assisting spirit model that was commonplace in the ancient magical tradition. Both Jesus’ followers and opponents claim that he is in possession of a spirit and that he is able to perform miracles as a direct result. For instance, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of the magical spirit-manipulation of a demonic being (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15) and athough Jesus denies that his power-source is demonic and he immediately identifies it as the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10), he is suspiciously knowledgeable of methods used by magicians to bind demons and employ them in magical operations. He reveals his knowledge of these binding techniques to the Pharisees (Mk. 3:27//Mt. 12:29) and demonstrates their application when binding the demon in the Capernaum synagogue using a silencing formula (Mk. 1:21-28) and requesting the name of the demon that possesses the Gerasene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20).

In addition to this charge of demonic spirit manipulation, Herod states that Jesus has achieved the magical manipulation of the dead, more specifically, that he has raised John the Baptist from the dead and is subsequently performing miracles using John’s spirit (Mk. 6:14-29//Mt. 14:2). When examining this allegation in the context of superstitions surrounding the magical employment of the dead in the ancient world, we immediately uncover other aspects of Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospels which suggest that he was involved in necromantic activity. As the Gospel writers inform us that Jesus was able to resurrect the dead, it is entirely logical to assume that he would be perfectly capable of the physical resurrection of John the Baptist, particularly since the many depictions of Jesus raising Lazarus with a wand in early Christian art suggest that certain individuals believed that Jesus was using a magical, necromantic tool to raise the dead. Alternatively, it is equally credible that Herod’s correlation between Jesus and John constitutes an allegation that he was engaging in divinatory practices. The possibility that Jesus was consulting the dead is supported by his consultation of the spirits of Moses and Elijah in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 9:4// Mt. 17:3// Lk. 9:30) and the appearance on two separate occasions of a young man who is similar in appearance to the boy mediums commonly used by necromancers to consult the spirit world. A third interpretation of Herod’s statement emerges when investigating the magical manipulation of the souls of the dead in antiquity and the superstitions surrounding those who had died a violent or untimely death. Due to the violent nature of his death, John the Baptist would have been considered by many to be a particularly powerful βιαιοθάνατος and a prime example of a spirit that would be used by magicians to perform miracles. Therefore it is highly likely that Herod’s accusation in Mk. 6:14-29//Mt. 14:2 is that Jesus has possession of the spirit of John the Baptist. In light of Jesus’ ability to command the dead (Mk. 5:1-20) and his awareness of magical methods used to bind spirits in order to gain their assistance, the suggestion that he had bound the spirit of John and was using him as a powerful assisting-spirit is an entirely rational proposal.

Allegations of magical spirit-manipulation are not only made by Jesus’ opponents, but also by his followers and the general public. The response to Jesus’ question ‘who do men say I am?’ in Mk. 8:27-28//Mt. 16:13-14//Lk. 9:18-19 and the alternative identities proposed to Herod in Mk. 6:15//Lk. 9:7-8 indicate that rumours were circulating amongst the general populace of Jesus’ time that he derived his miracle-working abilities from a spirit of the dead; either John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. In addition, the centurion in Mt. 8:5-11//Lk. 7:1-10 implies that Jesus presides over spirits that are subject to him and who will respond immediately to his summons to produce miracles. Jesus’ positive response in this instance confirms that the centurion has made a valid observation regarding his power-source. Furthermore, in his response to his opponents’ charge of spirit-manipulation, Jesus openly reveals that the spirit that he is using to perform his miracles is the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10). The Gospel authors are clearly uncomfortable with the implied ‘use of’ the Holy Spirit in this passage and this is demonstrated by the tension between the Lukan δακτύλω θεου (‘finger of God’, Lk. 11:20) and the Matthean πνευμα (‘spirit’, 12:28, 31-32). Since the assisting spirits in the magical papyri were often of divine origin, the identification of Jesus’ spirit as a πνευμα τὸ ἅγιον (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:32//Lk. 12:10) should not discount the possibility that an anonymous divine spirit was being manipulated by Jesus in order to perform his miracles, especially since the accounts of a divine assisting-spirit appearing to a magician in the magical papyri are suspiciously similar to the account of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism.

Finally, Jesus displays the quintessential attitude of a magician: a coercive approach to the gods. Although the absence of an appeal to God before a healing or exorcism may indicate that Jesus has achieved a relationship with God that was typical of a charismatic healer, it is also reminiscent of the magician’s arrogant attitude towards his god and the self-assured guarantee that his god will respond to his immediate demands. This arrogant conviction is evident in Jesus’ reckless cursing of the fig tree in Mk. 11:12-24//Mt. 21:18-22. Jesus not only uses a magical cursing technique in this passage, but he also demonstrates that his power can be used for destructive purposes and teaches that the strength of an individual’s own will can produce miracles. By teaching that others can recreate the same miracles if they have sufficient faith in their own actions, Jesus thereby implies that his abilities are not God-given, but that they are acquired techniques that can be taught to others.

Although this theory is applied successfully in Jesus’ healing and exorcistic ministry, it fails dramatically with severe consequences when attempted in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:32-42//Mt. 26:36-46//Lk. 22:39-46). Although Jesus appears throughout the Gospels as an individual who possesses great power and authority, commanding demons and healing the sick often on the strength of his words alone, this is strongly contrasted with the tragic figure who appears in Gethsemane in a state of distress, praying desperately to his spiritual powers to deliver him and ultimately crying out in abandonment on the cross. Whatever the true identity of the spiritual source that had been empowering Jesus up to this point (Beelzebul, John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, the Spirit of God, or an anonymous assisting spirit), it has clearly abandoned Jesus on the cross, thereby nullifying his magical abilities and leaving him powerless to prevent his own death.

There are many additional areas of research that could be explored at this juncture but time and space restrictions simply do not allow their investigation. For example, I have been approached by many individuals engaged in Pentecostal studies who are interested to discover whether magical connotations of spirit-manipulation can be applied to the spiritual experiences of contemporary Pentecostal groups. Additionally, since the figure of Jesus the magician impacts widely upon the Gospel tradition, new material which emerges of interest to New Testament studies will most probably inform, and be informed by, the figure of Jesus the magician and/or the theories of ancient magic in general.[1] However, I would like to conclude by taking a brief excursion into an area that is immediately relevant to our study but may take us beyond the boundaries of the Gospels. It is a subject that is occasionally addressed in studies of ancient magic but it is not generally discussed in New Testament academia. This is the use of Jesus’ name and his spirit in magical rituals and procedures, both during his lifetime and after his death.


The high degree of syncretism that is present in the magical papyri is due in part to the magician’s tendency to modify his techniques and swap his allegiance to spiritual agents in a bid to discover the most effective method for his incantations. It is no surprise, then, that Christian symbolism was quickly embraced by magicians keen to adopt new methodologies and a considerable amount of Christian names, prayers and even Gospel passages were promptly absorbed into the magical tradition. Later magical texts often employed Christian symbolism in incantations for healing, exorcism and protection against evil and the popular usage of Christian material in charms and amulets appears to have survived right up to the modern-day. The incorporation of Christian symbolism into the ancient magical tradition also included the person of Jesus, who came to be represented on amulets, gems and in magical drawings. Morton Smith, for example, says:

‘of the three oldest representations of the crucifixion, two are on magical gems and the third probably refers to Christian magical belief.’ [3]

Magical gem, no. G231, British Museum.

Photo: Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989).

Magical Gem, The Pereire collection,

Smith dates ‘about A.D. 200’ (Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 81).

It was not only the depiction of Jesus that was integrated into the magical tradition, but also the name of Jesus came to be used as a valuable incantational device.


The Gospel writers do not hesitate to mention that Jesus’ name was being used in healing and exorcistic incantations during his lifetime. For example, the author of Luke has the seventy (two) disciples return to Jesus and say ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ (Lk. 10:17). The report of the strange exorcist, who also uses Jesus name to cast out demons, demonstrates that it was not only Jesus’ followers that were able to use his name to great effect (Mk. 9:38-9//Lk. 9:49-50). The author of Luke also reveals that this practice continued after Jesus’ death; in Acts 16:18 we read that Paul was able to exorcise demons ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’, the apostle Peter is able to heal ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ in Acts. 3:6 (cf. Acts. 9:32-35) and even the Jewish exorcists attempt to use this technique in Acts 19:11-20.[4] Since unidentified exorcists, such as the strange exorcist, were able to use this method successfully, then we must assume that the relationship between the practitioner and the person of Jesus was largely irrelevant and that the name itself possessed magical properties. Furthermore, as some exorcists failed to employ this method effectively (Acts 19:11-20) this suggests that the use of Jesus’ name was a technique that must learnt to be applied correctly.

The magical properties of the name ‘Jesus’ seems to account for the popularity of its usage by magicians during and after the period of the crucifixion. Morton Smith observes that ‘in Jesus’ lifetime magicians began to use his name in spells’[5] and ‘there is no question that Jesus’ name continued to be used in magic as that of a supernatural power by whose authority demons might be conjured.’[6] The name ‘Jesus’ is employed in the magical papyri for a variety of purposes. Most often, Jesus is invoked by name to assist in exorcisms; for example in an ‘excellent rite for driving out demons’ (PGM IV. 1227-64) the magician invokes ‘Jesus Chrestos’ (IV. 1233). Similarly, in ‘a tested charm of Pibechis for those possessed by daimons’ (PGM IV. 3007-86) the magician declares ‘I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus’ (IV. 3019). The name of Jesus also features in various other types of spells. For example, in a request ‘for release from bondage’, the magician asks ‘Hear me, O Christ’ (PGM XIII. 289) and in the fragmentary text PGM XII. 190-192 (a ‘request for a dream oracle’) the invocation begins ‘IESOUS ANOUI…’ (XII.192). The name EIESOUS also appears in PGM XII. 376-96 (a ‘charm to induce insomnia’, XII. 391). There is, however, a major difficulty when proposing that the name ‘Jesus’ had magical properties and Stevan Davies addresses this problem head-on when he makes the following objection:

‘at that point in history the name Jesus (as common then as Bob is now) would not have had ‘magical’ efficacy’[7]

If the name ‘Jesus’ was commonplace in a first-century environment, then how is it that Jesus’ followers and the magicians who subsequently employed this name claimed that it had a powerfully magical effect on others?

The ancients believed that the transformation of a common name into a magical word could be achieved through a process of glorifying, or hallowing, the name until it achieved a magical status. By promoting the name of a god amongst outsiders and closely associating it with the performance of miracles and wonders, the name was thought to gradually assume a mystical quality that would eventually transform it over time into a magical word of power. The widespread nature of this practice in both the Gospels and the magical tradition is demonstrated by Morton Smith who compares Jesus’ glorification of the name of God in Jn. 17 to parallel passages in the Greek magical papyri. Smith compares Jesus’ statement ‘glorify your son that your son may glorify you’ (Jn. 17:1) with an almost identical phrase in PGM VII. 490-504: ‘glorify me as I have glorified the Name of your son Horus!’ (VII. 504).[8] Although Smith does not elaborate on the similarities between these two statements, Betz comments in his footnote to PGM VII. 504: ‘although this sentence seems parallel to Jn. 17:4-5, there is no Christian influence here.’[9]
The glorification of names in order to make them widely known and subsequently accord them a powerful status was not restricted to the names of gods in the ancient world. Names of individuals who were considered to be successful exorcists were also used by magicians and miracle-workers in their exorcism rituals. For example, Graham Twelftree comments that the name of Solomon was widely used by exorcists in the New Testament era and that Josephus recommended the use of the name of another exorcist when exorcising demons.[10] Both the disciples of Jesus and the anonymous magicians of antiquity may have been using Jesus’ name in order to associate their operations with the powerful reputation and the divine sanction of another powerful miracle-worker/magician. However, although this may satisfactorily account for the use of Jesus’ name by his followers in the Gospels, the common usage of names in ancient magic reveals some alternative explanations for the use of Jesus’ name in magical ritual.

Since a magician would frequently attempt to gain control over a spirit or individual by appealing to the name of a higher power (as attempted by the demoniac in Mk. 5:7), the name of Jesus appears to have been used in a similar way to add authority and power to the magician’s spell. However, in addition to a simple request for Jesus’ assistance, some appeals to Jesus’ name in later magical texts are outright attempts to acquire the spirit of Jesus and subsequently employ it to perform magic.


Douglas Geyer suggests that the crucifixion of Jesus, much like the decapitation of John the Baptist, constituted ‘a type of σπαραγμός, or a desecrative rending of the flesh.’ [11] The violent nature of the crucifixion is described by Joel B. Green as follows:

               'Rome did not embrace crucifixion as its method of choice for execution on account
               of the excruciating pain it caused. The act of crucifixion resulted in little blood loss
               and death came slowly, as the body succumbed to shock.’ [12]

If John the Baptist would have been accorded all the superstitions regarding a violent death and subsequently viewed as a biaioqa,natoj, then Jesus’ violent manner of execution would surely have attracted the same suspicious attention. Unsurprisingly, there are reports of magicians scrabbling around for control of the spirit of Jesus following his crucifixion on the premise that he was now a powerful βιαιοθάνατος and readily accessible through magical means. The necromantic manipulation of Jesus’ spirit is addressed in the Martyrdom of Pionius, in which Pionius reports that the Jews at Smyrna in 250AD considered Jesus to be a βιαιοθάνατος due to his violent death and they accused the Christians of practicing necromancy using his spirit.[13] The allegation is as follows: λέγουσι δὲ καὶ νεκουμαντείαν πεποιηκέναι καὶ ἀνηγειοχέναι τὸν Χριστὸν μετὰ του σταυρου.[14] There is some disagreement whether this passage is an account of the necromantic manipulation of Jesus’ spirit or an accusation that Jesus himself performed necromancy on the cross. [15]

Evidence of the necromantic manipulation of the spirit of Jesus is found in many later Christian magical texts. One prime example appears in a fourth or fifth century text entitled ‘spell invoking Christ for protection against illness and ill treatment’ (Egyptian Museum 10263).[17] The spell begins by invoking Jesus using the typical method of recounting details about his life (i.e. ‘in the womb of the virgin Mary, who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, who was crucified…’) and the overall purpose of the spell is to protect the bearer from illness and evil influences. Since Meyer comments that this papyrus ‘seems to have been buried with a mummy’, we may assume that the performer of this rite has utilised a familiar technique used to manipulate the untimely dead by placing the spell in a tomb alongside a corpse, thereby assuming that Jesus can be used and summoned as easily as the rest of the dead in the Underworld.[18] The name ‘Jesus’ also appears as a means of magical self-identification, a method previously discussed in Chapter VIII. For example, in a sixth-century exorcistic incantation entitled ‘spell to cast out every unclean spirit’ (Oriental Manuscript 6796), the magician uses the familiar ‘I am’ formula to identify himself with Jesus (‘I am Jesus Christ’). A crucifixion scene also accompanies the main text  and the spirit of Jesus is invoked through an elaborate ritual of adjurations and offerings during which the magician states:

‘I adjure you, father, by Orpha, that is your entire body, and Orphamiel, that is
the great finger of your right hand, that you send me Jesus Christ…’[19]

Spell to cast out every unclean spirit (London Oriental Manuscript 6796 [4], 6796). P
hoto: Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith.
The incorporation of Jesus’ name into magical procedures indicates that Jesus was considered by many magicians in the first centuries, particularly those responsible for constructing these texts, to be a powerful magician and consequently a potent source of authority for their spells. In addition, the attempts to control Jesus’ spirit that appear in many of the later Christian magical texts suggest that he had fallen victim to the procedures with which he was charged during his lifetime; the manipulator had become the manipulated. Ultimately, if the accusations of magic made by the opponents of Jesus were proven to be unfounded and malicious lies and the techniques of magical practice in the Gospels were entirely fabricated by the Gospel authors or completely innocent methods of healing, then the indisputable fact remains that, like many other miracle-workers who flirted on the boundaries of magic, Jesus was considered by some during his lifetime to be a capable magician and he remained closely associated with magic following his death.

A final thought

At St. Bartholomew’s Church on Good Friday 2006, Jolbad held a serious conversation with Caiaphas. This was partly as an apology for mocking him on previous occasions, but primarily because I realised that I had a lot more in common with him than I thought. With this came the terrible realisation that I could possibly endure the same ridicule that I had previously heaped upon poor Jolbad eight years ago. However, as I have the opportunity to defend my argument in a doctoral thesis and the important advantage of not being a literary character (!), I hope that any doubtful derision has been quashed under the sheer weight of the evidence that has been presented. Furthermore, a comforting thought has sustained me throughout this thesis and has anchored my mind into academic study when the theories of ancient magic and divine men have become a little too fanciful or far-fetched. It is as follows.

There have been thousands upon thousands of self-proclaimed magicians throughout history and many individuals still claim to practice magic to this current day. Accounts of magicians appear in all forms of literature, from the sinister figures of serious religious discourse to the comedic characters of children’s stories, and they are represented on both ancient gemstones and on the modern cinema screen. And yet many of us would reject the possibility that the historical Jesus was one of the many magicians in the ancient world, or even ignore the overwhelming evidence that these individuals existed altogether, on the basis that these characters are objects of fantasy and whimsy in the modern age. We would prefer instead to propose, with a serious amount of sobriety and solemnity, that Jesus was the Son of God who had come down to earth. Although this alternative viewpoint is equally fantastical to the modern mind, it is widely considered to be an entirely sensible and realistic possibility. When weighing the sheer scale of magical activity in the ancient world and the considerable evidence of magical technique in Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospels against the biased propaganda circulated by the followers of Jesus who sought to promote their hero above his contemporary wonder-workers, the suggestion that the historical Jesus was a mere magician who was dragging down heaven to serve his own requirements is clearly the more rational explanation.

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 has recently occurred with the publication of the ‘Gospel of Judas’, in which angelic ‘attendants’ (parastasis) are mentioned on three occasions.
[3] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London: Gollancz, 1978) p. 61.
[4] Origen also observes that the name of Jesus was being used to cast out demons (Origen, Con. Cels. 1.25).
[5] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 61.
[6] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 62-63.
[7] S. L. Davies, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance and the Origins of Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1995) p. 111.
[8] Smith, Jesus the Magician p. 132. A similar declaration is made by the magician in PGM XXXVI. 165: ‘I glorify your sacred and honoured names which are in heaven’.
[9] H. D. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) p. 131.
[10] Josephus, Ant. 8. 46-9 (G. H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus (Mass: Hendrickson, 1993) p. 139).
[11] Douglas W. Geyer, Fear, Anomaly, and Uncertainty in the Gospel of Mark, ATLA Monograph Series, 47 (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002) p. 215.
[12] Joel B. Green, ‘Crucifixion’ in Markus Bockmuehl (ed.) Companion to Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 91.
[13] For a discussion of this text, see Jan Den Boeft and Jan Bremmer, ‘Notiunculae Martyrologicae III. Some Observations on the Martyria of Polycarp and Pionius’, VC 39. 2 (1985) pp. 110 -130.
[14] The Martyrdom of Pionius, 13:3.
[15] For example, H. Musurillo translates this sentence as ‘they assert that Christ performed necromancy or spirit-divination with the cross’ (H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972), 137-167) however J. L. Roberts proposes the more accurate translation: ‘that they performed necromancy and that they brought up Christ with the cross (J. and L. Roberts, Fouilles d’Amyzon en Carie I (Paris, 1983), p. 262).
[17] For full text, see M. W. Meyer and R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999) pp. 35-36.
[18] Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic, p. 35.
[19] For full text, see Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic, pp. 290 – 291.


  1. As Saint Augustine once said: miacles happen not in opposition to nature, but what we know if nature. God's universe, as modern science will confirm, is far more miraculous than Aristotle knew. Yet Plato's idealism is being validated

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  3. Very interesting. Jesús figure has be en exploited by many people even the ancient magicians. Another proof of his historicy.