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Magical Traits in the New Testament

The work of the late Morton Smith and others has revealed many parallels and points of similarity between ancient magic and the New Testament.  A short enumeration includes:

Like a magician, Jesus acquires a spirit – he “has” (possesses, or is possessed by) a spirit.  His enemies call Jesus’ spirit “Beelzebul” and his friends call it “a” or “the” holy spirit.

Jesus’ spirit drives him into the wilderness, where, like shamans, he undergoes an ordeal of prayer, fasting and temptation.  He is tempted by another, evil spirit, identified in the Gospels as Satan or the Devil.  By virtue of his spirit, Jesus overcomes tempation and emerges from his wilderness retreat imbued with a sense of mission.

Jesus, like a magician, now has the power to make anyone he wishes to follow him.  He can drive out evil spirits by the power of his spirit.  He can even exercise power over other spirits remotely.  Jesus can still storms, raise the dead.  Moreover, like magicians, Jesus has the power to communicate his skills and his spirit to others.

Like magicians, Jesus can provide miraculous meals, he can walk on water, turn water into wine, ascend to heaven spiritually, ascend to heaven physically on a cloud, and can penetrate solid barriers.

Jesus has precognitive power and the power of metamorphosis (the “transfiguration”).  He reveals supernatural beings to his disciples.  He has an inner circle of special disciples.  He claims to be united to a supernatural being and to be that being’s foremost spokesperson.  He “breathes” his spirit on his disciples and transfers his essence into bread and wine (called “placing” in shamanism).

Jesus performs miracles.  Many he performs in secret, telling the recipient not to reveal the event.  He cures by touch and manipulation, sometimes using a salve of dirt and spittle.  He instructs his disciples in prayer and fasting before they emulate his exorcistic work.

There is Gospel evidence that Jesus was thought to have acquired a spirit during his baptism by John in the Jordan during which he had a vision of the heavens opening, the descent of a “spirit like a dove,” and a divine voice acclaiming him “Son.”  Beyond this reference Jesus and the Gospels are generally silent about his authority.

Jesus never discloses the origins of his spirit, and he fends off questions of his authority’s ultimate derivation.  Had he been a standard prophet, he would have likely invoked the standard Hebrew formula by which to express his mission:  “Thus says the Lord.”  But Jesus never invoked normative prophecy in support of his authority.  This silence opened him to charges of sorcery and magicianship, which were used as accusations against him during his life, and against his follwers in later decades.

An objective investigation of the historical Jesus must therefore take into serious account many aspects of his work and teaching which have points of contact with ancient magic.  Seeing Jesus in this context does not necessarily limit him to a magician’s role, but it does immerse him in the category of ancient wonder-workers and exorcists.