Scholars in search of a historical Jesus usually assume the miraculous stories are later additions and that the real Jesus was either a sage dispensing wisdom or a prophet preaching the end of the world. However, Morton Smith believes the opposite is true.
"Teachers of the law were not, in this period, made over into miracle workers. Neither were the authors of apocalyptic prophecies [...] but a miracle worker could easily come to be thought a prophet and an authority on the Law." (p. 16)
The miracle stories in the gospels show signs of reworking, proof that they were not later additions, but rather part of the original story. There are literally thousands of teachers of the Law found in rabbinic literature, but none of them are comparable to Jesus. This is because he was not a teacher of the Law. He was a miracle worker who later had legal sayings attributed to him.
Jesus was also not a prophet in the Old Testament sense. The Old Testament prophets did not forgive sins, perform exorcisms, and with few exceptions did not heal. Moses and Elisha healed leprosy, Elisha and Elijah raised boys from the dead, but only Jesus and the magicians of his time cured fever, blindness, lameness, paralysis, catalepsy, hemorrhage, wounds, and poison. In fact, Jesus twice refuses to perform the miracles of the prophets (compare II Kings 1:10 with Luke 9:54-55 and II Kings 6:15-17 with Matthew 26:52-4). The miraculous escapes, transfiguration, walking on water, eucharist, and "I am" sayings of Jesus have parallels in magical practice, but not in the Old Testament.
Another common mistake many biblical scholars make is relying on Christian sources. To get a complete picture of who Jesus was, we must also consider what critics said of him. You wouldn't write a biography about a dictator using only what his propaganda said.
Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?
Since history is written by the victors, the texts we are left with are mainly Christian. In fact, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered all books by "heretics" (Christians who held minority opinions) and pagan works critical of Jesus to be destroyed in the early 300's AD. However, many early Christians quoted from these critical works in order to denounce them, so we do have some idea of what they said. Some criticisms of Jesus are even preserved in the New Testament.
Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). His own family accused him of being crazy (Mark 3:21) and did not believe in him (John 7:5). He is called the "son of Mary" (Mark 6:3) rather than the son of Joseph, which means he was born out of wedlock. He is also accused of being possessed by a demon, i.e. being crazy (John 7:20, John 8:48, 52, John 10:20). This is why is he told to heal himself (Luke 4:23). A demon apparently drove him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:12, "demon" and "spirit" were interchangeable terms in common usage). He was even accused of being Beelzebul.
It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household! (Matthew 10:25)
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan?[...] In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” (Mark 3:22-30)
Interestingly, the only unforgivable sin in Christianity is accusing Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul rather than by the Holy Spirit. The fact that this is such a big deal indicates that it was the most important rumor about Jesus his followers wished to dispel.
Jesus is accused before Pilate of being a "doer of evil" (John 18:30) which in Roman law codes refers to magicians. Jesus is often called "one who leads astray" or "deceiver" which also refer to his being a magician.
After John the Baptist died, the Gospels tells us that many people believed Jesus was John raised from the dead (Mark 6:14). This doesn't make much sense except when we look at magical beliefs of the time in which the spirit of someone who dies a violet or unjust death can be summoned by a magician, such as Jesus.
In third century Smyrna, Christian necromancers summoned the spirit of Jesus because of his violet death by crucifixion. The Samaritan magician Simon as well as Saint Paul (Galatians 2:20, Romnas 15:19, 1 Corinthians 5:13) also summoned the spirit of Jesus to perform miracles, so it's plausible Jesus was using John's spirit the same way.
Jewish accounts of Jesus repeat the accusations found in the New Testament (that he was mad, demon-possessed, a magician). They also accused him of cutting magic Egyptian marks into his flesh, which could be a reference to either scarification or tattooing. (Matthew admits that Jesus was visited by magi (magicians) and lived in Egypt, although only in his infancy.) Magicians of the time did write spells on their flesh and instructions for doing so are found in magical papyri of the time. Paul tells us he was tattooed or branded with the marks of Jesus in this way (Galations 6:17).
Rabbinic writings speak disapprovingly of magicians using the name of Jesus ben Pantera to heal and the Babylonian Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 43a) tells us Jesus was stoned for practicing magic. Jesus was also said to be the student of the magician Joshua ben Perahya who lived 80 BC. (B. Sotah 47a, B. Sanhedrin 107b, P. Hagigah II.2(77d), P. Sanhedrin VI.13(23c))
The Roman historian Suetonius said Christians practiced magic. Lucan, a Roman poet, wrote of a witch who not only summoned a soul from the underworld, but forced it to reenter its dead body, much as Jesus had done. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr counters claims that Jesus was a magician. The writings of Celsus have been destroyed, but Origen quotes from him at length in order to counter his claims.
Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God. (Celsus, quoted by Origin in Against Celsus 1:28,38)
Celsus gives us a different account of Jesus than that found in the Gospels. Jesus was conceived by a soldier named Panthera. He had 10 disciplines instead of 12, and he was betrayed by more than one of them. He said that Jesus was small and ugly (Against Celsus 6:75). Origin agrees that Jesus was indeed ugly, but that his appearance was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:1-3. Celsus also accuses Jesus of being a wicked man under the influence of an evil spirit (Against Celsus I:68).
The Mandaeans, a sect in modern day Iraq that worships John the Baptist, claim Jesus was an evil magician based on their ancient texts. Also, Jesus was sometimes identified with the Samaritan magician Simon. However, it's unknown exactly how old the Samaritan and Mandean traditions are.
Ancient magical material, which is archeologically datable, shows that the name of Jesus was used in magic spells during his lifetime (see also Acts 19:13). Also, of the three oldest visual representations of the crucifixion, two are found on magical gems.
The oldest visual representation of the crucifixion, a graffito scratched on the plaster of a school room on the Palatine Hill in Rome, depicts a crucified figure with the head of a donkey. There was a long standing legend that the god of the Jews was a donkey or had a donkey head. Josephus refutes this claim (Against Apion II:80), although later Jews accused Christians of the same thing.
A graffito drawn in Carthage around 200 AD depicts a figure with donkey ears and a hoof wrapped in a toga holding a book with the inscription, "The god of the Christians." A little bone crucifix of a crucified donkey has also been found in Montagnana, although it can't be dated. The Christian writer Minucius Felix refutes the claim that the god of the Christians had a donkey head. The association of the Jewish and Christian gods with the donkey may have something to do with the Egyptian god Seth sometimes depicted on magical gems with a donkey head and called Iao (Yahweh).
Before the fourth century, the name of Jesus was used in various magic spells (conjuration, exorcism, cursing, love charms, spells to improve memory or receive revelations through dreams, etc.) by both Christians and pagans. These survive in fragmentary amulets, lead tablets and magical papyri. Jesus has continually been depicted as a magician in Christian art, complete with magic wand, including a gold glass plate in the Vatican library.
New Testament scholars often claim that Judaism was sealed off from the outside world and therefore early Christianity could not have had any pagan influences. The opposite is true. The ancient Israelites had never controlled all of Palestine. While the Jews had overrun most of Palestine including Galilee and forcibly converted the semitic peoples living there between 125 BC to 75 BC, this conversion was only skin deep. The region had long been influenced by Phoenician and Egyptian beliefs (Egyptian amulets are frequently found in archeological digs). Persian influence lead to the Jews adopting monotheism and demonology. Also Greek beliefs and practices were familiar everywhere. In the 360 years between the time Alexander the Great had conquered Palestine and Jesus got baptized, the Jews were ruled by either the Greeks, the Romans, or Roman agents for 320 of those years. It's impossible for Christianity not to have been influenced by paganism.
In the magical papyri, the name of the Jewish god Yahweh is used more than three times as often as any other deity. The fact that the Jews practiced magic is proven by the discovery of the magical book Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Secrets). The Old Testament speaks of the 'obot ("divining spirits" or "spirits of the dead", see Isaiah 8:19, 19:3, 29:4, 1 Samuel 28, Leviticus 19:31, 20:6,27, 2 Kings 23:24) who are equated with gods.
Solomon was said to control demons in Rabbinic literature (B. Gittin 68a-b, the midrashim on Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes), the writings of Josephus (Antiquities VIII:45-49), and in the romance The Testament of Solomon. Solomon controlled the demons through an amulet engraved with the secret name of Yahweh.
The term "son of god" was synonymous with "magician" and thus Jesus is almost exclusively called "son of god" when performing miracles. Apollonius of Tyana was another magician who lived the same time as Jesus who shared a lot in common with him (he was the son of a god, performed miracles, taught morals, had disciples, rose from the dead, etc.) Early Christian apologists such as Eusebius had difficulty explaining why Jesus should be preferred over Apollonius.
Jesus cured a deaf man by spit and a magic word (Mark 7:32-35) he also cured blindness by spit, although it took two tries (Mark 8:23-26). He used a magic phrase to raise a girl from the dead (Mark 5:41, Peter also uses this phrase in Acts 9:40 although he mistakenly uses the Aramaic word talitha (girl) as the proper name Tabitha!).
The other gospel writers were embarrassed by this apparent magic so they took it out of their versions. They couldn't remove references to Jesus being the son of god since it was essential to their religion, but since it was a common claim of magicians, they have other people call Jesus the son of god (he only says it of himself when forced to, see Mark 14:60-62). The gospels almost completely remove any reference to Jesus being a Samaritan since they were associated with magic.
Magic was a common practice at the time (see Mark 9:38, Acts 19:19) and numerous Christian magical papyri have been discovered. Jesus often gives instructions for the proper way to perform healings and exorcisms in the gospels. In Matthew, magi (magicians) give gifts to the infant Jesus, declaring him the ultimate magician by implication. They then go home by a different route (Matthew 2:12) since after meeting with a supernatural being, you should go home by a different road (Sefer ha-Rezim I:5)
At the baptism of Jesus, a spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. This scene is not based on anything from the Old Testament or rabbinic tradition, it could only come from the realm of magic. The magical papyri give spells magicians can use to entrap a spirit. This way, they can perform miracles immediately, by commanding the spirit, rather than reciting lengthy spells (The Magical Papyrus of Paris IV:2006, Sefer ha-Rezim I:5). Early Christians said the Samaritan magician Simon Magus performed his miracles by controlling the spirit of a murdered boy.
However, spirits of the dead were mainly used for harmful magic. Since Jesus was a healer, he would have used a supernatural being of a higher order than men. The Magical Papyrus of Paris gives instructions for how to command a god (I:54). It involves burning frankincense to summon a hawk, then burning myrrh to summon a god who comes down in the form of a star. Once the magician has control of the god, he can do things like make food and wine appear, stop evil demons, solidify water so that it can be walked upon, change shape, turn invisible, fly, calm wild beasts, read minds, know the future, etc. This god will also take the magician's spirit up into the air after he dies. The magical papyri also describe how to become a son of god. The Good Demon is invoked in Magical Papyrus of Paris XIII:784: "For I have taken to myself the power of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and of the great god-demon Iao Ablanathanalba." Iao is the Israelite god Yahweh, Ablanathanalba is a magical palindrome of uncertain meaning.
Jesus apparently uses his spirit servant to heal the centurion's servant (Luke 7:1-9) and had 72,000 angels at his command (Matthew 26:53). The spell for how to command such an angelic legion is found in Sefer ha-Rezim VI. Also, the manner in which Jesus obtained disciples corresponds to magical love spells to make someone forget their family and follow the magician. His disciples immediately drop what they're doing, not even bothering to put their fishing nets away, and follow him without so much as saying good bye to their families (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus didn't even permit a potential disciples to bury his father before following him (Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:60).
The exorcisms and healings of Jesus have a magical basis, including the belief that diseases were demons (Jesus commands a fever to leave Simon's mother-in-law as if it were a demon in Luke 4:38-39). Jesus also gives his disciples immunity from snakes and scorpions (Luke 10:19, Mark 16:18) another common magical spell.
Defixions are spells usually written on lead tablets or potsherds and buried by graves or thrown into water to destroy an enemy. One such addressed Osiris and other underworld gods and said "inasmuch as I give over to you Adeodatus the son of Cresconia, I ask you to punish him in the bed of punishment." Paul also uses the language of magic to "give over" his enemies to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:3, 1 Timothy 1:18-20).
It was common to enchant food so that whoever ate it would become possessed. Jesus seems to do this at the Last Supper. When asked who will betray him "Jesus answered, 'It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.' Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." (John 13:26-27) This same principal seems to be at work with the Eucharist.
In addition to putting evil spirits into people, Jesus also put good spirits into people. He gives the Holy Spirit to his disciples by breathing on them (John 20:22). His disciples had the power to send out a spirit (their "peace") to a house and have it return to them (Luke 10:5-6). They could also place a curse by shaking the dust off their feet (Luke 10:10-12). Jesus had the keys to heaven which other magicians claimed to have.
Another magical parallel is found during the Transfiguration, when Jesus ascends a mountain, changes his form, and meets with the spirits of Moses and Elijah who foretell his future (Luke 9:28-31). Also, Jesus is able to become intangible (Luke 4:29-30, John 7:30, 44, 8:20, 59, 10:39) and invisible (Luke 24:31). Jesus often commands people to tell no one after he heals them, perhaps to keep the demon from coming back (Matthew 12:43).
The Greek term for "one who can get what he wants from the gods" is pray-er, that is, one who prays (Iliad 1:11,94; 5:78). The term was later replaced by magician. After all, both prayers and spells are two different names for the same thing.
Just like the magicians of his time, Jesus called god "Father" and believed he lived in the heavens. He also instructed his followers to pray only in secret, a common magical practice. Glorifying the Name of the god was also important. Compare John 17 where Jesus asks that his name be glorified because he glorified god's name with "Glorify me as I have glorified the Name of your son Horus!" (Papyri Graecae Magicae VII:504). "Thy will be done" was also a prayer used by magicians (PGM XII:189).
Initiates into the magical rites generally wore a particular costume, a linen cloth over their naked body (Mark 14:51, Papyri Graecae Magicae III:706, IV:88, 170, 3095, The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden III: 13, XXVIII:6, XXIX:23, Longer Gospel of Mark quoted by Clement of Alexandria).
Like all magicians of the time, Jesus was poor, and consequently commanded his rich followers to give all that they had to the poor, i.e. to him (Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33). He apparently made his living by performing miracles. One trick faith healers still use to this day is secretly finding out someone's name and pretending they know it through other worldly means. Jesus does this by sending his disciples to a town ahead of him (Luke 10:1). Then he impresses the rich people in that town by already knowing their names. Finally, he invites himself to stay at their house (Luke 19:1-5).
While I don't agree with everything Morton Smith writes in this book, I do agree that the New Testament makes more sense if Jesus was originally a magician who later had sayings and prophecies attributed to him rather than the other way around.