What Was Jesus: Preacher, Rabbi, Teacher, Ascetic, Radical, Healer?

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Teaching the multitudes
Jesus has been viewed as healer, moral teacher, reformer, apocalyptic preacher, radical, revolutionary, and, ultimately and most importantly, the Messiah. Jesus lived during a time when, historian say, wandering charismatics and faith healers were relatively common place. Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “ Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms—as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic prophet, or even a Jewish jihadist—plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission.” [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

After the completion of the fast Jesus took up the role of an itinerant rabbi and wandered the countryside preaching. . People began calling him the Messiah and he began drawing people to him. Jesus did the bulk of his teachings in the fishing towns and farming communities in Galilee, a region named after the Sea of Galilee, which today is on the border of Israel and Syria.

The center of Jesus's early teaching was Caprnaum, the hometown of Simon Peter, one of his first disciples. Jesus preached in the synagogue, taught by the seaside, and healed in the home, but failed to win any converts in Capernaum, which he said would be "thrust down to hell."

Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: ““I think Jesus was a teacher, a wise person. He was not a peasant if by peasants you mean someone unlettered and untutored. As a wise man, certainly, Jesus participated in the normal education of a good Jewish home and Jewish upbringing in Nazareth or the region [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Jesus as a Religious Leader

Jesus feasting with the Pharisees by Rubens

Jesus became a major religious figure after the death of John the Baptist. Most the Gospels refers to the three year period between Jesus' baptism around A.D. 27 and his death around A.D. 30. From what we can tell Jesus began preaching in A.D. 28, about the same time that John the Baptist was arrested and beheaded.

Jesus reportedly inspired many people and won many converts with his teaching. Some scholars have theorized that large numbers of people were attracted by his message because Judea was in such a state of chaos and social unrest. Even so Jesus had very little impact on the history his time. He was one of many orators who was critical of the materialism and the decadence of the Romans and Jerusalemites.

Recent archaeological excavations in Galilee area have indicated the towns where Jesus preached were much larger than previously thought. A modest house found in Capernaum in the late 1990s offered hints of being Peter’s residence and possibly the center of Jesus’s teachings.

Jesus: the Healer- Teacher-Preacher

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “One of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of the stories about Jesus in the gospel is that they speak about him in so many different ways. There are elements of Jesus' public career, if you want to look at it that way, where he seems like a healer.... [I]n Mark, he's first of all an exorcist, somebody who drives out demons and drives out sickness. He is depicted as a religious teacher in the Gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes, [the] Sermon on the Mount, are part of that teaching. He's constantly having arguments about what the correct way to live Jewishly is.... [Source: Paula Fredriksen. William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

healing the sick

“He's depicted also as somebody who's talking about the coming Kingdom of God. If all we had were the gospels, if that were all we knew about this moment in the development of Christianity as a religion, we might think that the attribution of apocalyptic hope to Jesus came from a level after his lifetime, or maybe was the editorial decision of the evangelist, who, after all, is writing sometime between 70 and 100. And Jesus dies around the year 30. So there's that gap. In other words, we could look at these apocalyptic elements and see them as a kind of literary theme, but not telling us anything about Jesus.

“I think, though, that [it's important to look at] Paul's letters that are written 15 years earlier than the first gospel, by a person who doesn't know Jesus, but by a person who is in a movement that is creating itself around the name and the memory of this man, Jesus. And... Paul himself is also talking about the coming Kingdom of God with a different improvised wrinkle to it: that the son of God, namely Jesus, is going to come back ...and now the Kingdom is also going to arrive. I want to put Paul between the Jesus of history and the different Jesuses that stand in the gospels, and line up what's in the gospels with what's in Paul.... [Paul is] talking about a coming Kingdom of God. He's talking about the transformation of the living and the resurrection of the dead. He's talking about a spirit of holiness transfusing Christian communities. He's talking about Jesus coming back. He's talking about God intervening definitively in history. He's talking about the end of evil. And either he, and the movement he stands in mid-century, are inventing this out of whole cloth, and it has nothing to do with the person they consider their founder and teacher had said, or Jesus himself had also said something like that. I think it's less elaborate to think of Jesus, Paul, and the early church as on this kind of continuum.

Jesus as a Holy Man

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen says that Jesus is probably best described as a holy man. He told PBS: “That is to say, a person who was believed by his followers, by his disciples, by eye witnesses, to somehow be diffused with a divine presence.... He is able to do things that the rest of us can't do. He sees things that the rest of us don't see. He hears things the rest of us don't hear. He is a human, of course, but somehow he is possessed by a god, or the God, or a divine spirit or an angel or something that somehow has elevated him above the ordinary, so that he is able to do things the rest of us simply can't do. This is a recognized social type, both in the history of Judaism, and in fact, virtually all the world's religions, all the world's societies and cultures who have different names for such people. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“And even in the Hebrew Bible we can recognize this type in the Elijah type from the Book of Kings, they are characterized by their ability to do miracles. In Jesus' case, especially healings, which seems to have been something of a specialty of his, for which he had a great reputation. People would bring from miles around, judging from the gospel, they would bring their, the sick, the frail, to Jesus to be healed, as if somehow just a touch from the holy man would suffice to effect a cure, just looking at the Holy Man might suffice to effect a cure....

“If you believed in him, of course, he was a man possessed by God. If you did not believe in him you would say he was a magician, a charlatan, a faker, a pretender, just a cheap trickster, nobody of any consequence. So the same acts might be construed differently depending on where you're coming from, what your perspective was. This would be the core then of what Jesus was, I think.”

Jesus, a Cynic, an Apocalyptic Preacher?

Jesus in the Wilderness

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Jesus was a very creative and engaging preacher, we know that. And contemporary scholars have tried to find analogies between his preaching and the images he uses, the parables he uses, the prophecies that are attributed to him... between those materials and contemporary preachers of various sorts. In recent years, it's become quite popular among some scholars to think of Jesus as a cynic. By a cynic I mean someone who was a member of a kind of countercultural movement; the hippies of the Hellenistic world were the cynics. They were very critical of conventional religion, conventional philosophy, conventional behavior. And they issued to the Hellenistic world generally a call to return to nature, to a natural and a simple way of life. There were some things in the preaching of Jesus that are analogous to that kind of call. "Consider the lilies of the field," for instance, is something that is very reminiscent of some cynic preaching. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“However, there's something that I think differentiates Jesus from most cynics who seem to have been by and large very individualistic. Jesus does seem to have had a concern for the reign of God as something that effects the people as a whole.... And I take seriously the claim that he called people together in some sort of fellowship, and probably used symbols that in some way relate to the tradition of the people of Israel. That he was, in effect, constituting a call [for the] reform of the people in Israel, and that seems to be a very uncynic kind of thing. So those elements in his teaching and his proclamation that have to do with the reign of God and the people bring him closer to what we might describe as an apocalyptic preacher or someone who was concerned for God's intervention into human history to set Israel right. So, bottom line, Jesus was a very complex kind of character, and to put him in one or another of these pigeon holes, I think, is a mistake, and doesn't do justice with to the complexity of the evidence that's available....

“If we take the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we find a series of predictions about the end of the world. The skies will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, there will be earthquakes, trials and tribulations, war, and rumors of war. And then at the end of that period, a divine figure, the Son of Man, will come, will enter into human history and will inaugurate God's kingdom. That whole series of predictions is an example of apocalyptic prophesy. A prophesy of God's intervention into human history at the end of time to bring to realization all of the things that God has promised to his people. That's more or less what we mean by apocalyptic eschatology. If we take the attribution of that series of prophesies to Jesus seriously, then we'd have to classify him as an eschatological prophet.

“There is, however, reason to believe that some of those prophetic statements attributed to Jesus probably were creations of the early church and put on his lips in order to help his followers to understand their relationship to their own history and to the catastrophes that were developing during the course of the first century. If we look at some of the other elements in the teaching of Jesus, there seems to be a critical stance towards some of these prophetic elements. So for instance, there are sayings where Jesus says that he does not know when the end will come. And if we look at the way in which he uses some symbols that are connected with these hopes for eschatological intervention then we seem to see Jesus using them in odd ways. Ways that suggest he may have been critical of some of those eschatological hopes.

“So it's my understanding that Jesus probably grew up in an environment where some people nurtured these hopes for divine intervention into human history, that he may have shared them at some point in his life, if indeed he was a disciple of John the Baptist and was baptized by him. And if John the Baptist was such an apocalyptic preacher, it's entirely reasonable to presume that Jesus had some connection with those eschatological hopes. But the way in which he worked them out and the way in which he came to understand the reign of God or the kingdom of God suggests that he didn't buy in totally to that eschatological vision that then gets reworked by his followers into such passages as Mark 13.

Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

AD 3rd century image of the Good Shepherd

Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “Jesus talks quite clearly about the Kingdom of God, and there's no hesitation about it. And that means this is the will of God. Jesus is making statements about what God wants for the earth. And there is no "The word of the Lord came to me," or there's no "I've thought about this." It seems self-evident. I think that's exactly what it is for Jesus. The Kingdom of God is radically subversive of the Kingdom of Caesar, and that's self-evident to Jesus because he's grown up, as it were, at the bottom of the heap and he knows the heap is unjust. It's so obvious for him, it is beyond revelation.... It's coming straight out of the Jewish tradition that this system is not right. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Now, his followers are going to ask him, of course, a very obvious question, "Who are you?" And I find no problems that during the life of Jesus, certain of his followers could have said, "He is divine." And by divine, meaning, "This is where we see God at work. This is the way we see God" or, "He is the Messiah." But then, they'll have to interpret the Messiah in the light of what Jesus is doing. He doesn't seem to be a militant Messiah, or maybe we would like him to be a militant Messiah. All of those options could have been there during the life of Jesus. I have no evidence whatsoever that Jesus was in the least bit concerned with accepting any of them, or even discussing any of them. He was the one who announced the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus had to think he was speaking for God, yes...I do not think that Jesus thought he had any special relationship with God that wasn't there for anyone else who would look at the world and see that this is not right. It was to Jesus so obvious that anyone should be able to see it. Now, on the other hand, most people weren't able to see that in the first century or the twentieth. So in that sense, yes, it is a unique relationship. And it's that on which later theology would build, of course.

“If somebody says, "This is the will of God," then I'm going to say, "Well, when I hear you , I'm hearing God then?" "Yep." "Well, then, you're kind of like God?" "Yep." "But, when you die, God doesn't die?" So, I mean, it's perfectly valid for somebody to say then, "Jesus is God." But they're going to have to explain what that means. And that means for me, that Jesus speaks for God. That what Jesus says is what God wants for the world.

Jesus, the Non-Pacifist and Revolutionary

Professor Harold W.Attridge told PBS: Jesus “probably was aware of the growing Pharisaic movement which preached a notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not simply those who were officiating at the Temple cult. He certainly would have known Jewish scripture.... And we can see in some of his parables how he plays on images from scripture. For instance, the great Cedar of Lebanon from Ezekial probably plays a role in his description of the mustard seed, which becomes a tree, and there's probably an element of parody there. So his relationship with the scriptural heritage is a complex one, but it certainly is an important one in his formation.” [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Jesus casts out the moneychangers

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: For all of the parables about caring for sheep, orphans, and poor people, Jesus was not a pacifist. Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth” (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces “Blessed are the peacemakers” during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple. He preferred peace, but he also engaged in at least one violent act of civil protest in order to highlight the social injustice and corruption of his day. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, September 25, 2016]

Dale B. Martin wrote in the New York Times: “In his book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Reza Aslan follows this long tradition, settling on the hypothesis, also around for hundreds of years, that Jesus was a Jewish zealot, a rebel against Rome and the Romans’ local agents.According to Mr. Aslan, Jesus was born in Nazareth and grew up a poor laborer. He was a disciple of John the Baptist until John’s arrest. Like John, Jesus preached the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, which would be an earthly, political state ruled by God or his anointed, a messiah. Jesus never intended to found a church, much less a new religion. He was loyal to the law of Moses as he interpreted it. Jesus opposed not only the Roman overlords, Mr. Aslan writes, but also their representatives in Palestine: “the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite.” [Source: Dale B. Martin, New York Times, August 5, 2013 |=|]

“In the last week of Jesus’ life, Mr. Aslan writes, he entered Jerusalem with his disciples in a provocative way that recalled royal entrances described in Jewish scripture. He then enacted a violent cleansing of the Temple: something like radical street theater, except that it took place in a site of supreme holiness. Provoked by that action and his other rantings against the Temple and its caretakers, the authorities arrested Jesus. The Romans crucified him as a rebel, a zealot and a pretender to the Judean throne. The charge on the cross is historical: the Romans took Jesus as claiming to be the messianic king of the Jews. Since only the Roman Senate could appoint kings within the Empire, claiming to be a king was treasonous and punishable by the worst kind of death: torture and crucifixion. |=|

“Mr. Aslan’s thesis is not as startling, original or “entirely new” as the book’s publicity claims. That Jesus was a Jewish peasant who attempted to foment a rebellion against the Romans and their Jewish clients has been suggested at least since the posthumous publication of Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s “Fragments” (1774-78). The most famous case for the thesis is the 1967 book by S. G. F. Brandon, “Jesus and the Zealots.” |=|

Book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, Random House. $27.

Was Jesus a Rabbi?

It seems Jesus very likely was a rabbi or what would become a rabbi in the future. Although rabbi is a Hebrew word its root word is Aramaic. Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: Except for two passages, the Gospels apply the Aramaic word only to Jesus; and if we conclude that the title "teacher" or "master" (didaskalos in Greek) was intended as a translation of that Aramaic name, it seems safe to say that it was as Rabbi that Jesus was known and addressed. Yet the Gospels seem to accentuate the differences, rather than the similarities, between Jesus and the other rabbis. As the scholarly study of the Judaism of his time has progressed, however, both the similarities and the differences have become clearer. [Source: Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries”, Yale University Press 1997 pp. 9-23, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Luke tells us (4:16-30) that after his baptism and temptation by the devil, he "came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read." Following the customary rabbinical pattern, he took up a scroll of the Hebrew Bible, read it, presumably provided an Aramaic translation-paraphrase of the text, and then commented on it. The words he read were from Isaiah 61:1-2: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." But instead of doing what a rabbi would normally do, apply the text to the hearers by comparing and contrasting earlier interpretations, he declared: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Although the initial reaction to this audacious declaration was said to be wonderment "at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth," his further explanation produced the opposite reaction, and everyone was "filled with wrath."

“Behind the confrontations between Jesus as Rabbi and the representatives of the rabbinical tradition, the affinities are nevertheless clearly discernible in the forms in which his teachings appear in the Gospels. One of the most familiar is the question and answer, with the question often phrased as a teaser. A woman had seven husbands (in series, not in parallel): whose wife will she be in the life to come (Matt. 22:23-33)? Is it lawful for a devout Jew to pay taxes to the Roman authorities (Matt. 22:15-22)? What must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-6)? The one who puts the question acts as a straight man, setting up the opportunity for Rabbi Jesus to drive home the point, often by standing the question on its head.

“To the writers of the New Testament, however, the most typical form of the teachings of Jesus was the parable: "He said nothing to them without a parable" (Matt. 13:34). But the Greek word parabole was taken from the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of their Bible into Greek. Thus here, too, the evangelists' accounts of Jesus as a teller of parables make sense only in the setting of his Jewish background. Interpreting his parables on the basis of that setting alters conventional explanations of his comparisons between the kingdom of God and incidents from human life. Thus the point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), better called the parable of the elder brother, is in the closing words of the father to the elder brother, who stands for the people of Israel: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." The historic covenant between God and Israel was permanent, and it was into this covenant that other peoples, too, were now being introduced.

Book: Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries,” (Yale University Press 1997)

Was Jesus a Prophet?

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote:“The oscillation between describing the role of Jesus as Rabbi and attributing to him a new and unique authority made additional titles necessary. One such was Prophet, as in the acclamation on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:11),''This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee." Probably the most intriguing version of it is once again in Aramaic (Rev. 3:14): "The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness." The word Amen was the formula of affirmation to end a prayer, as in the farewell charge of Moses to the people of Israel, where each verse concludes (Deut. 27:l4-26): "And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'" In the New Testament an extension of the meaning of Amen becomes evident in the Sermon on the Mount: Amen lego hymin, "Truly, I say to you." Some seventy-five times throughout the four Gospels Amen introduces an authoritative pronouncement by Jesus. As the one who had the authority to make such pronouncements, Jesus was the Prophet. [Source: Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries”, Yale University Press 1997 pp. 9-23, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

The word prophet here means chiefly not one who foretells, although the sayings of Jesus do contain many predictions, but one who is authorized to speak on behalf of Another and to tell forth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as asserting (Matt. 5:17-18): "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly [amen], I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." That affirmation of the permanent validity of the law of Moses is followed by a series of specific quotations from the law, each introduced with the formula "You have heard that it was said to the men of old"; each such quotation is then followed by a commentary opening with the magisterial formula "But I say to you" (Matt. 5:21-48). The commentary is an intensification of the commandment, to include not only its outward observance but the inward spirit and motivation of the heart. All these commentaries are an elaboration of the warning that the righteousness of the followers of Jesus must exceed that of those who followed other doctors of the law (Matt. 5:20).

“The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount confirms the special status of Jesus as not only Rabbi but Prophet (Matt. 7:28-8:1): "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him." Then there come several miracle stories. The New Testament does not attribute the power of performing miracles only to Jesus and his followers (Matt. 12:27), but it does cite the miracles as substantiation of his standing as Rabbi-Prophet. That identification of Jesus was a means both of affirming his continuity with the prophets of Israel and of asserting his superiority to them as the Prophet whose coming they had predicted and to whose authority they had been prepared to yield. In Deut. 18:15-22, God tells Moses, and through him the people, that he "will raise up for them a prophet like me from among you," to whom the people are to pay heed. In its biblical context, this is the authorization of Joshua as the legitimate successor of Moses, but in the New Testament and in later Christian writers, the prophet to come is taken to be Jesus-Joshua. He is portrayed as the one Prophet in whom the teaching of Moses was fulfilled and yet superseded, the one Rabbi who both satisfied the law of Moses and transcended it; for "the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). To describe such a revelation of grace and truth, the categories of Rabbi and Prophet were necessary but not sufficient. Therefore later anti-Muslim Christian apologists would find Islam's identification of Jesus as a great prophet and forerunner to Muhammad to be inadequate and hence inaccurate, so that the potential of the figure of Jesus the Prophet as a meeting ground between Christians and Muslims has never been fully realized.

Was Jesus a Messiah?

From the Gospels it appear that Jesus considered himself, and was considered by many Jews to be the Jewish Messiah. Jews discounted Jesus as the messiah when he died at the hands of the Romans instead of taking them to paradise. Many scholars seem to view Jesus as more of a Messiah-designate than a Messiah because a Messiah is supposed to have presided over the End of the World and Jesus didn’t do that. Through his death and resurrection he changed the equation from a Jewish messiah to Christian martyr who removed the barrier between man and god and defeated the powers of evil.

There were others that were considered the Messiah. In A.D. 132, a leader named Kochva, set up a Jewish state supported by 200,000 soldiers that endured for three years. Hailed as a messiah, Kochva reportedly rode a lion, fought in the front lines with his soldiers and defeated an entire Roman legion before he was brought under control.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David. What no one seems to have expected was a Galilean peasant of the artisanal class who would die a humiliating death at the hands of the government. There are some passages in Isaiah that describe a “suffering servant” who would endure mistreatment at the hands of his people, but almost no one read those verses messianically. This doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t the messiah, of course – just that he wasn’t what anyone was hoping for. The unexpected nature of Jesus’ ministry explains why Jesus didn’t attract that many followers, but it also posed problems when his followers tried to explain to other people that he really was the Messiah. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, September 25, 2016]

Was Jesus a Wizard? — a Real Academic Question

Whether or not Jesus was a wizard or magician is a question that has been discussed seriously by academics. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In the Gospels, Jesus’ rivals accuse him of being possessed by a demon and use this to explain how he performs exorcisms...In 1978, Columbia historian Morton Smith published “Jesus the Magician” in which he argued that Jesus was one of many ancient magicians and that his ministry is best understood as wonderworking. He argued that while healing the sick, exorcizing demons, turning water into wine, multiplying bread, and walking on water read to us as signs of Jesus’s divine nature, in his own time he sounded like a magician. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 1, 2020]

There are even examples of early Christian artwork that seem to confirm this theory. Stone reliefs on ancient Christian sarcophagi and the walls of the catacombs beneath Rome regularly show Jesus (and sometimes Peter) healing people while holding or even pointing with something that looks very much like a wand. In actual fact, he’s holding a staff... likely a way of connecting Jesus to the biblical prophet Moses.

Even if the artistic evidence doesn’t hold up it’s clear that there were those outside of Christianity who also viewed Jesus as a magician. Celsus, a Roman philosopher and critic of Christianity, said that Jesus was a magician who had learned his trade in Egypt. Dr. Shaily Patel, a professor of early Christianity at Virginia Tech and specialist in ancient magic, told the Daily Beast that Christians spent a lot of time defending themselves against these claims. Origen, the third century head of a kind of Christian university in Alexandria, “spilled a lot of ink talking about how Jesus’ wondrous deeds weren’t magic because they were aimed at things like moral reformation and salvation instead of the sorts of parlor trickery displayed by marketplace sorcerers.”

It’s likely, Patel added, that both Celsus and Origen are stereotyping magicians in their comments about Jesus but the questions about the founder of Christianity arise from the fact that there were other accomplished ancient wonderworkers who did the same kinds of things. In this case calling someone a “magician,” Patel went on to explain, is about delegitimization. It’s a way of slandering someone by associating them with something negative.

As David Frankfurter has argued in his recent “Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic”, the problem with these conversations about magic is that they usually start with an assumption about what magic actually is. That definition, in turn, is a scholarly reconstructing that relies upon centuries of accumulating biases and assumptions. Patel pointed out that magic wasn’t always considered a bad thing or even something that the uneducated rabble did. She told me that when the Platonist philosopher Apuleius of Madura was put on trial for “evil acts of magic” he argued, among other things, that magic is no different from philosophy. In fact, in the ancient world, distinguishing magic, medicine, and religion from one another is not always easy. The supernatural is mixed up in everything from ancient physics, to philosophy, health care, and even banking. When an ancient elite writer describes one person as a philosopher and another as a magician they are often writing those differences into existence.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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