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In Quest of Jesus

In response to:

The Quest for the Magical Jesus from the October 26, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

I am sorry to have to ask you to print the following corrections of the false statements and insinuations made by F. Kermode in his review (NYR, October 26) of my book Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1978).

Some years ago I discovered in a Palestinian monastery a patristic letter which quoted a fragment of a secret gospel, allegedly by Mark; this I published in 1973 (Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Harvard University Press). The fragment reported that Jesus gave secret, nocturnal teaching to a chosen disciple, and I tried to conjecture, from collateral evidence, what that “teaching” might have been. Kermode now has tried to discredit my present book as a mere extrapolation from those conjectures; he concludes (p. 10, end), “Professor Smith has brooded for years over that fragment of a lost Mark he found in Judea…. All his subsequent conjectures rest on that brief passage.”

This last statement is false. It completely misrepresents the argument of Jesus the Magician, which runs as follows: (1) Almost all current accounts of Jesus are based on the canonical gospels written by his followers. (2) A historian should ask what those who were not his followers thought about him. (3) Evidence from the gospels and other sources shows they thought him a magician. (4) What they meant by “magician” must be determined by comparison of Jesus with other men of his time who were so called. (5) This comparison reveals a social type which Jesus resembled; it also yields a plausible account of his career. (6) This account of his career is confirmed by comparison of the gospels with magical texts found mainly in papyri contemporary with the gospel manuscripts; in point after point the gospels’ accounts agree with the magicians’ claims and prescriptions.

In this argument, clearly, the fragment of secret Mark plays no substantial part. It contributes only one or two confirmatory details to the mass of evidence. Kermode’s statement that Jesus the Magician rests on the secret gospel fragment is utterly untrue.

Besides this false statement, Kermode consistently misrepresented the book by saying almost nothing of the most important part of it, the accumulation of evidence from magical texts to show that most stories and sayings found in the gospels agree with what we are told of and by ancient magicians. He repeatedly represents conclusions drawn from these parallels as baseless conjectures. Thus p. 9, “The sindon [linen cloth] is described as the ‘standard’ garment of the initiate, for which, so far as I know, there is no evidence outside Smith’s own conjecture.” References to seven magical texts justifying my statement were given in the notes to Jesus, p. 134; see further Clement, pp. 176f. Again Kermode, p. 10, “We are told…that the accusation of Celsus, that Jesus went to Egypt as a hired laborer and learned magic ‘is almost certainly based on Matthew.’ ” Again false. The words he quoted (from Jesus, p. 59) referred to Celsus’ attack on Matthew‘s story of the flight into Egypt (Origen, Against Celsus I.66); but Celsus had his own story of Jesus’ going down to Egypt and learning magic there (Origen, I.28,38) and on pp. 58-60 I presented much evidence to prove this story was not based on the gospels but came from Jewish tradition. Kermode must have read this evidence, but did not choose to mention it. Again, p. 10, “Smith, not uncharacteristically, argues that the rather awkward Greek expression used by John [18.30]—…’man who is doing evil’—is to be read as a technical term meaning ‘magician.’ ” Kermode, not uncharacteristically, does not mention that the oldest Roman imperial law code speaks of “Chaldeans and magicians (magi) etc. whom, on account of the greatness of their crimes, common people call ‘men who are doing evil.’ ” References to this passage and three others to the same effect were in the notes to Jesus, p. 33. Again on p. 10, “Smith can hardly be impartial…the Eucharist is a magical rite; and so forth,” with no reference to the fact that by far the closest ancient parallels to the eucharistic acts and the words of institution are found in the magical texts cited in Jesus, pp. 111 and 122f.

These are merely a few important examples; a complete answer to Kermode’s insinuations would be as long as his review. In sum, whenever neglected evidence necessitates new interpretations of familiar texts, any work that advances the new interpretations can be made to seem ridiculous by a malicious reviewer who represents them as the author’s groundless conjectures and says almost nothing of the evidence. So Kermode consistently did. I cannot believe that he carelessly overlooked both the structure and about a third of the content of the book. It seems to me most likely that the misrepresentation was deliberate and the review, as a whole, deceptive.

Morton Smith

Columbia University

New York City

Frank Kermode replies:

Like other men, Professor Smith is put out when a reviewer declines to accept a thesis by which he sets much store; but there is no excuse for his intemperate way of saying so. I admired his Clement and hoped to admire this book; I have no motive in the world to deliberately misrepresent it or make “insinuations” (of what?). Malicious reviewers express dissent; therefore dissentient reviews are malicious—the logic is mistaken, but we shall see that Smith is prone to this kind of error.

Let us—temperately, though I fear at some length—look at the “important examples” of error, or as Professor Smith prefers to say, mendacity, in my review. 1. I said that the book had its roots in Smith’s earlier work on the aretalogies and the “Secret Gospel.” It often happens that a man’s work has such roots, and since Smith had formerly studied the relations between magicians, “divine men” and Christian origins, and found hints of magical initiation rites in Mark, it seemed reasonable to make the modest expository claim which has so angered him. Since he sets such store by denying this innocent conjecture I happily withdraw it. But to say that my remarks were an attempt to discredit his new book, or to dub it “a mere extrapolation” from his earlier work is simply nonsense. And the assertion that by making them I misrepresented the argument of the new book cannot survive a comparison between Smith’s new summary of the argument, and the account of it I gave in the review.

  1. The sindon. As it happens, the reference to the “seven magical texts” is not keyed to the statement that the sindon was a standard garment, but to a passage on the same page which suggests that as a miracle worker Jesus cultivated rich people; so I missed the reference to the magical uses of linen garments. I should add that Smith does not quote or discuss these magical texts; we are to assume that they make his point without further discussion. Now I have looked them up, and it is clear that they do nothing of the kind. It is true that all seven (if we include two allowed by Smith to be dubious) refer to the use of linen cloths or tunics in magical ceremonies. The Demotic Magical Papyrus has one passage describing the use of a virgin boy, together with bricks, palm-sticks, loaves, oil and salt, to interrogate the gods. The boy is dressed in a white linen tunic, and the editors of the Papyrus remark that this garment may be related to the sindon. In another passage describing what is called a “vessel-inquiry,” the inquirer is told to operate in a clean place, with a bronze vessel, and to cover himself and the pot with a clean linen robe. What these Demotic instructions show is that recipes for magic would call for cleanliness, and sometimes for clean linen. They have nothing to do with initiation, and their relation to sindon is a conjecture made in passing.

Smith’s remaining four references come from the Papyri graecae magicae as edited by Presisendanz. Two (one doubtful) say the practitioner should be clad in linen from head to foot. A third also calls for clean linen. The fourth, which is the only one that actually uses the word sindon, speaks of clean linen as worn by the priests of Isis. The first three texts use words related to sindon but apparently very rare. To put it mildly, these magical texts cannot, magically, merely by being named, establish Smith’s case; they call at least for some discussion. All one can say is that the word sindon occurs (once) along with other related words in accounts of magical ceremonies. Like the others, it is used on occasion to describe the clean garment necessary to these practices. On other occasions it means a shroud; on others, other things made of linen. The magical texts, whatever interest they may have in themselves, do not show that sindon was a standard term for anything. Its appearance in texts not expressly magical cannot possibly be taken as of itself entailing a magical sense, except by the kind of logic mentioned above.

  1. Celsus’ Jew. Professor Smith, in a somewhat careless and obscure sentence, wrote that “The…attack on the story of the flight into Egypt is almost certainly based on Matthew.” I took and take this to mean that the story Celsus attacks is Matthew’s story. Having attacked it, Celsus’ imaginary Jew replaces it with another, which says that Jesus went to Egypt as a hired laborer and studied magic there. This account of the matter not only suggests that Matthew was lying, but that Jesus was a trickster and, incidentally, a bastard. Smith thinks the anti-Christian version closer to the truth, and argues that Matthew was well aware of it, and wrote his version as a cover-up. I hope I have got this right; it is what I tried to convey, more briefly, in my review. If I am right, then the magician-story, whether or not it is as old as Matthew’s, is part of the Jewish attack on Matthew; so what I said is not “false” at all. But in any case Smith says nothing about the most important point, which is that Matthew’s inclusion of the flight into Egypt can be much more plausibly explained than by this hypothesis; and the plausible explanation went, and goes, unmentioned by Smith.

  2. The man who is doing evil.” This expression of John’s, which has a parallel in 1 Peter 4:15 (kakopoios) is held by Smith to be equivalent to “magician” because there is a Roman law code which says the common people identified magicians as evil-doers. I have not looked this up, and do not know what the Latin word translated by Smith as “men who are doing evil” was. But it does not matter. It is perfectly plausible that magicians might sometimes be referred to as evil-doers. It does not follow that one could not accuse somebody of doing evil without claiming that he was a magician. I need hardly add that the logic required to make such a claim is of the kind already described.

Finally, it must be said that Professor Smith, who claims to address himself to “important examples,” says almost nothing about the parts of my review that opposed his thesis in a more positive sense. Nor does he try to justify his abandonment of all scholarly disinterest, or the occasional scurrility of his tone. He is learned in these matters beyond any conceivable pretension of mine to learning, and I expected to be challenged and corrected on detail; but his letter is a poor thing, and as an admirer of Clement I am sorry it was the best he could do.

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