Jesus and Shamanism

(For Nazrudin)

Identifying the historical Jesus is no easy task.  Some deny his existence altogether; others find as many identities for him as searches performed, with Jesus often ending up  strangely congruent with the researcher’s own christological views.  An old admonition to biblical scholars goes something like, “Beware of the Jesus you are comfortable with.”  The present writer finds the work of New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg helpful in this matter.

Addressing theories claiming that the figure of the New Testament Jesus is mostly an amalgam of mythological – and especially pagan mythological – conventions,  Borg suggests an alternative view.

From what we now know from global comparative religious studies, Borg says, Jesus can be identified as fitting among several different types of religious practitioners.  That is, Jesus, and figures like him, abound in documented spiritual “types” found in religions across the world.  Obviously, these people are not fictions in the present or from the past.  They are real, and not myth.  It is not necessary, Borg claims, to leap to paganism and mythology to delineate Jesus, because, like documented contemporary religious figures, Jesus, too, was real, and not myth.

Borg applies the criterion of comparative religious typology to Jesus and finds that Jesus has in common with global religious types such attributes as:

Spirit person or holy person, familiar with God, Spirit, heaven, the underworld, ancestors, etc. 

Charismatic mediator, a person whose personality draws to himself or herself others in his/her group, and who mediates between the (earthly) group and heaven.

Transformative sage, a person who delivers wisdom teachings (such as parables, metaphors, koans) designed to cause inner spiritual transformation in the recipient.  A subset of this category might be called Teacher of Enlightenment, defined as one who is mystically, spiritually enlightened (who has attained bodhi or samadhi), or has at least undergone several powerful enlightement experiences (one who has had satoris).

Wonder worker, healer, exorcist, a person who cures illnesses and “heals” the social stigma attached to diseases; one who influences his/her environment and the “heart”  in little understood ways; one who expels demons or “unclean” spirits considered as causes of mental, physical and spiritual malaise.

Social prophet, a person who attempts to change the religious status quo in the interests of intensification of the tradition, supplementation of the tradition, or evolution of/breaking with the tradition.

Renewal movement founder, a person who reforms and transforms the religion and/or its traditions to the extent that s/he is considered to be the leader of a new, sectarian group within the larger religious grouping.

Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament easily fits with all of these observed, documented figures and categories.  Conversely, these figures and categories reflect what is written of  historical figures like Jesus.   The present posting will explore Borg’s suggested comparative categories at a very primal point in the Gospel story: namely, the traits of Jesus’ ministry that have strong affinities with shamanism.  We will also avail ourselves of the scholarly work of the late Morton Smith, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman, Hugh Schonfield and many others.

Jesus the Shaman

(The supposed crudity, ignorance and filth commonly associated in the West with shamanism will in this essay be regarded as mere prejudice.  As shamanic scholar Michael Harner has said, in addition to ethnocentricity, there is an equally biased form of perception: cognicentricity, the notion that one’s own cultural way of knowing is the only correct way.  The present writer eschews the condemnatory view of shamanism, and recalls that the earliest connotation of “enlightenment” was probably shamanic enlightenment: the perception of reality in an ineffable spiritual “light.”)

Consulting Morton Smith, we present a partial list of shamanic-magical traits ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Jesus continued a ritual of water immersion begun by John the Baptizer, developed by Jesus, and practiced by Paul.  As Smith said, if we view primitive Christianity as a baptismal group, we see the rite as initiated by John, developed by Jesus as a (short) middle term, and culminating in Pauline baptism.  “Jesist” baptism effected union with the Holy Spirit and/or Jesus’ spirit.

In the miracle stories Jesus cures by touch, manipulation, by looking heavenward, sighing or groaning, invoking Aramaic phrases to affect the cure, anointing with a salve compounded with dirt and spittle, touching the afflicted person’s tongue or eyes, expressing anger at the demons responsible for illness, driving out  demons, instructing disciples to pray and fast before performing exorcisms.

In the “biographical” stories Jesus undergoes a ritual of water immersion administered by an acknowledged prophet, during which a dove-like spirit descends on him and a divine voice declares him to be “Son,” Jesus is then”driven” (Mark’s term)  into the desert by his newly-acquired spirit where he undergoes a shamanic ordeal of prayer, fasting and temptation during which “his” spirit defeats another, “unholy” spirit (“the devil”); and after which Jesus returns from his ordeal with a mission and the new power “to make anyone follow him” –  as well as the power to drive out evil spirits and to control them remotely, as well as to perform miraculous cures,  to still storms and to raise the dead; to communicate his exorcistic and healing powers to disciples, to provide food miraculously, to change water into wine, to walk on water, to make miraculous escapes and to travel invisibly.

Jesus claims to possess the keys of the kingdom,  undergoes metamorphosis and enjoys the gifts of precognition and telepathy; Jesus claims authority to interpret scripture, to establish and represent the Kingdom of God, and to reform tribal cultic practices;  Jesus introduces new rites that unite his followers to him, such as foot washing, baptism, and the eucharist; Jesus claims unity with supernatural beings and exclusive knowledge of his god.

Moreover,  Jesus continues to act posthumously, exhibiting invisibility, bilocation, materialization/dematerialization, and levitation; this risen or “post-Easter” Jesus is now claimed to have ascended to the heavenly realm, continuing to work wonders from that exalted location and who, in a monotheistic Jewish context  (!)  can now even be prayed to (the Aramaic Maranatha Prayer).  Jesus, the “man who came down from heaven,” who embodied a (or the)  Holy Spirit, is now a risen, radiant, star-like heavenly being.  He is, in fact, on the way to becoming an example of that peculiar christology condemned by the rabbis, namely, a “second Power in heaven.”

Jesus the Vision Questor

With Jesus’ immersion in Spirit one can plausibly theorize that he was enlightened or at least customarily experienced satori-like glimpses of enlightenment.  His culture did not possess the Eastern “psychology of enlightenment” that existed in Buddhism and Hinduism, but judging from the christological titles assigned to him by the early Jewish “church,” we may surmise that he had undergone a kind of “Jewish” enlightenment.  Surely his self-description as the Son of Man points to this.

Some maintain that this Aramaic expression  bar nasha, (in Hebrew, ben adam)was simply Jesus’ self-deprecating manner of indicating himself.  In this context bar nasha simply means “the man,” and Jesus was merely euphemistically referring to himself: “the Son of Man says this” was Jesus’ humble way of saying, “this man, this guy, I myself, say this.”

However, this view ignores Jesus’ sayings that ascribe a heavenly, mystical meaning to “Son of Man.” In his trial before the high priests, Jesus answers the question of his messiahship by saying in so many words, “You have spoken correctly: I am the messiah, and you will see the Son of Man coming with Power in the clouds with great glory.”  This is, if nothing else, a “high-christological” statement embedded in a deeply Jewish context, and it verges on the dreaded “Two Powers” heresy.  No wonder that on hearing the high priest tore his robes and charged Jesus with blasphemy.  In this context, “Son of Man” is can no longer be seen as an innocuous self-designation.

This is an explicit identification of the Son of Man with a celestial figure closely associated with “the Power” (God).  Jesus is calling himself this Son of Man, or is at least claiming an intimate familiarity, if not identity, with that heavenly figure. When we recall (in a safely) metaphorical sense that  the Torah already contained “two Powers'” heaven, Jesus’ statement becomes very bold and provocative.  Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel describe a Primal Man, Heavenly Man, Adam-like Man, the Adam Kadmon – a “Standing One” in heaven next to God’s throne.  He was sometimes called Metatron, the one who stands beyond the Throne. He was sometimes called Yahoel (“Yahweh, Junior”).  Yahoel was God’s chief assisting angel, who bore the divine Name and had the power to exercise divine judgment.  Jesus, the Son of Man on earth, certainly verged on acting as if he had the knowledge and authority of a Yahoel or an Adam Kadmon.

H.J. Schonfield envisions Paul’s Christ as the “unmanifest” Adam Kadmon made temporarily manifest in Jesus and then returning to his place in heaven; carrying with him his transformed humanity, in and as,  the risen, exalted, glorified Jesus.  Certainly Jesus’ earliest Jewish followers viewed him as standing by God’s throne, bearing God’s name, and charged with (eventually) administering God’s judgment.  In this early, primitive, monotheistic, Jewish context Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man, the functional equivalent of the Standing One, the heavenly Son of Man, Metatron, Adam Kadmon, the Primal Man, and Yahoel.

Clearly, given Jesus’ own mystical, parabolic  statements, self-designations, miraculous/’magical/shamanic deeds, and the claims made for him in the earliest forms of Christianity, it is extremely reasonable to view him as enlightened.  How did his enlightenment come about?  We can’t possibly know, but we can make educated guesses.

Some of the earliest Jewish views considered that Jesus became enlightened – i.e., was adopted by God, was granted the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and was charged with a mission – during his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer.  Some versions present this as a public event, others as a private vision where Jesus sees the heavens opened, a dove-like spirit descending on him, and hears the bat kol or divine Voice adopting him as “Son.”

Jesus’ presence among the crowds that flocked to see John indicates that he, too, was a religious seeker.  At the very least as a loyal Israelite, Jesus was likely to have been interested in the transformative (and inexpensive) potentials of John’s baptismal rite.  Moreover, the New Testament and other sources document a close connection between the Baptizer and the Galilean.  A plausible scenario is that, among other devout Kingdom-seekers, Jesus joined John’s movement, with John acting as mentor to the young pilgrim.  The New Testament may preserve elements of this when it mentions that before baptizing Jesus, John knew Jesus, was Jesus’ cousin, and recognized Jesus’s spiritual potential.

John’s Gospel reports that Jesus, after John’s having witnessed the descent of the spirit on his unusual cousin, began his own baptizing movement.  John’s Gospel states that Jesus himself baptized; then contradicts that claim by saying that only Jesus’ disciples baptized.  The irreducable point here, though, is the report that Jesus was baptized; was associated with John possibly as a disciple; received a holy spirit through John’s ritual; supported the practice of baptism, even to the extent of  starting his own version of it.

Moreover, John’s Gospel reports that Jesus in his baptizing ministry began to make more disciples than John was making.  In plausible deference to his old teacher, Jesus moved his activity away from John’s locale.  Here we have an example of Jesus the Spirit-filled leader of a new baptismal group, separate from, and becoming more popular, than John’s.  Moreover, Jesus’ new ministry probably contained a new teaching about the Holy Spirit, which is not surprising since Jesus had recently experienced a transforming encounter with God and God’s Spirit; in fact, Jesus’ form of baptism was actually said to convey the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ own personal spirit – a strikingly shamanic notion. In fact, John’s Gospel (chapter 3) sandwiches Jesus’ (secret, nocturnal) baptismal teaching about the Spirit between two chapters dealing prominently with Spirit, the Baptist, and baptism (chapters 2 and 4).  So here we see that the factors: Jesus, John the Immerser, baptism, reception of the Holy Spirit, are deeply shamanic and deeply connected in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and his ministry.

As we have seen, Jesus the religious seeker underwent a water immersion ritual during which “the heavens opened” and a tutelary Spirit descended from those heavens.  He underwent a typically shamanic ordeal of prayer and fasting.  During that ordeal he found that his Spirit, or his new life in the Spirit, overcame another, evil spirit.  After this experience, Jesus the shaman became a “master of spirits,” able to understand the principles of their activities and able to cast them out – even remotely.  He spoke for his Spirit and the God represented by that Spirit, and communicated living experiences of his Spirit, and of himself, as the radiant Son of Man (e.g., the Gospels’ “Transfiguration,” resurrection and ascension narratives).  Even now he continues, claim the scriptures and modern Christians,  to be an effective messiah, a shaman-magician, a risen holy person, charismatically mediating the Sacred from heaven within human hearts united with his own holy spirit. In Messiah Jesus, the manifest and unmanifest Adam Kadmon,  the ultimate flourishing of Jewish shamanic enlightenment blazes forth.


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