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The Quest for the Magical Jesus

Jesus the Magician

by Morton Smith
Harper and Row, 222 pp., $12.95

Most of us have a passion for secret history, for the real dirt concealed by the official version. There is a gross justification for our interest, for experience shows that official versions almost invariably have a lot to hide; and there is a subtler one, which is that the most truth-seeking of narratives has to achieve consonances and illusions of simple causality which are incompatible with a desire to tell all. Of course, the story we want—absolutely candid, free of the guilt and bias of the official version—is itself subject to similar distortions and omissions, and just as incapable of bridging the gap between the written text and something that is supposed to have actually happened. But we want it all the same (“So that’s how it really was! Now that makes more sense”) and believe it because it was suppressed, and is therefore more fun to believe; or because, since it reveals error and duplicity in something else, it seems to be ex officio on the side of truth.

This is the origin of conspiracy theories, of books demonstrating that Homer was a woman or that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford. But mistrust of the official version may also be the impulse behind scholarship of a high order. There may be relations, previously unconsidered, between certain documents; there may be unconsidered documents; and somebody makes new sense of a piece of the world. Our excitement is not only in that new sense, but in the process of its discovery; examples that come to mind are Panofsky on Gothic and Wittkower on Renaissance architecture. Or, a document or person formerly obscure is exposed as having some bizarre importance—A.J.A. Symons on Frederick Rolfe, or Hugh Trevor-Roper on Sir Edmund Backhouse.

A remarkable instance of high scholarship engaged in a quest for missing sense is Frances Yates’s book The Valols Tapestries, a work which offers the excitement of a tenacious pursuit of clues, yet is inconceivable without the prior possession of an extraordinary amount of digested learning. This combination of heroic learning and heroic persistence in a single quest is pretty rare. It is essential to the kind of inquiry I am talking about, for without it you may have either mere folly or a lifeless assemblage of facts; yet the possession of the double gift is by no means an unmixed blessing. You may have to pursue your clue past the point where a more prudent inquirer would turn back. Frances Yates has always taken risks, for the most part triumphantly and with vast rewards; but now and again learning and common sense may nod for a moment, and the new sense is too tenuously achieved and too implausible to supplant the official version.

Morton Smith is an ancient historian of immense learning and a passion for the quest, so he runs similar risks. The most cursory acquaintance with his career will enable one to see it as an unconscious preparation for the present book. In 1965 he was associated with Moses Hadas in a book called Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity; here and elsewhere he argues that the literary genre of the Gospels is the arctulogy, an account of the career of a “divine man.” The model is the early third century Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, and the implication, to which Smith holds firmly in spite of the skepticism of the learned, is that the Gospels treat of the works of Jesus in a manner appropriate to lives of miracle-workers or magicians. He made a greater impact on the public with his Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark in 1973; a popular version, called The Secret Gospel, appeared in the same year, Some knowledge of Clement seems necessary to an understanding of how Smith came to write the present book.

Smith discovered, in a monastery in Judea, an eighteenth-century Greek manuscript in which was copied a letter written by Clement at the end of the second century. This letter contains a quotation from Mark’s Gospel which occurs nowhere in the text as we have it. What the context seems to show is that Clement was using a special version of Mark, reserved for the use of those who were “being initiated into the great mysteries.” But Clement also condemns another secret version in use among the Carpocratian Gnostics, a libertine sect given to practices described by the orthodox as unmentionable. Clement is so worried about the bad effect of this wicked version that he advises the faithful to deny the existence of any secret version at all.

The passage of Mark in question tells how Jesus rolled back the door of a tomb and raised a rich young man from the dead. Six days later the young man went to Jesus at night; wearing a linen garment (sindon) over his naked body (epi gumnou), and was instructed in the mystery of the Kingdom of God. This is Clement’s version. What he condemns is the Carpocratian claim that the text contains the words gumnos gumnou, which would suggest that both parties were naked.

Smith argued that we are here getting a glimpse of some practice censored in the Gospel as we have it, and considers the possibility that it was libertine and homosexual, without, I think, accepting it. But in the new book he takes quite a different line, and his tone changes accordingly; he makes rancorous jokes that remind one of the sneers of some English eighteenth-century rationalists. He is now sure that he knows what lies behind the official version, protected by an institution which not only expurgated the texts it chose to preserve but did its best to destroy all evidence that the ministry of Jesus was really no more than the career of a libertine miracle-worker, and the disciples only his wretched troupe, performing tricks for pay.

The evidence has to be drawn from such anti-Christian polemic as survives (sometimes only because it is embedded in the replies of Christian apologists) and from evasions and oversights in the Gospels themselves, which are constantly covering up the charge of magic but, because the facts as reported by opponents of official Christianity were so overwhelming, often fail to do so successfully. Since he now believes in the existence of an original libertine magical sect, Smith can hardly be said to set forth the evidence impartially, and his tone, if nothing else, shows him to be firmly on the side of the opponents of the official version. Christians were accused of going in for many “godless and lawless and unholy” practices, including cannibalism and sexual orgies, but it is Smith who uses the expression “groupgrape” to describe the latter. It is he who characterizes the Lord’s Prayer as the plea of a bunch of poverty-stricken mountebanks, though others may think It derives from Jewish liturgy.

Aspersions are cast, not altogether prudently, on the intelligence of Mark (one might at least allow that if the whole affair was an enormous swindle it has proved altogether too successful to justify the accusation that the con men were very stupid). Above all, there is a tendency to continue the argument by evidence which is made to look more secure than it is. The young man who runs away, leaving his only garment behind, at the moment of the arrest of Jesus is said by Mark to be wearing a sindon. A sindon is a linen garment, worn in summer, or used as a shroud. The youth raised from the dead in the fragment of Mark published by Smith is also wearing a sindon. In his earlier book Smith conjectured that both youths were involved in some initiation rite, baptism perhaps, for which the sindon might be an appropriate garment. Not unreasonable; but now the sindon 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.

That the new book shows a hardening of method, a determination to be right, about the secret history, naturally does nothing to prevent its being a very good read. It is scholarly, and therefore not altogether original; for example, the relation between the miracle cures of the Gospels and traditions of magic, healing, and exorcism in Palestinian Jewish tradition was recently discussed by G. Vermes in his book Jesus the Jew, which Smith does not mention. And sometimes one feels that modern scholarship is avoided because it might disturb the argument. For instance, all notions of midrash, of interpretative fictions accruing to the original tradition, are avoided. Smith sticks to the idea that Matthew and Luke used Mark and another document, Q, which was lost, though the status of Q is nowadays dubious; he wants Independent synoptic sources to confirm his opinion that the reports of Jesus as magician are authentic and primitive.

Smith regards the accounts of Jesus’ occasional failures (for example on his visit to his home district) as more strong testimony to the same position, which is that Jesus would be regarded as a goæs (magician, sorcerer, and, if you disapproved, malefactor or cheat) with great power over crowds. The reason why his family thought him out of his mind, Smith argues, is that the goæs sometimes behaved crazily and screamed (the word is in fact related to a verb meaning to wail or cry). The power over crowds explains why the authorities regarded him as dangerous, and also why the crowd gave him up in disgust when he allowed himself to be arrested. The fact that magicians were regarded as malefactors explains why Jesus is so described by the Jews who bring him before Pilate (here Smith, not uncharacteristically, argues that the rather awkward Greek expression used by John—literally something like “this man who is doing evil”—is to be read as a technical term meaning “magician”). That magicians were thought to be possessed explains why Jesus was sometimes thought to be possessed by the spirit of John the Baptist. All this, and more, Smith claims, can be inferred from the texts of the Gospels themselves.

The external tradition—the “counter-gospel” of anti-Christians as it may be reconstructed from fragmentary survivals and polemics—strongly / supports this reading. Because it was his reputation as a magician that caused him to be thought of as a god, the Jews went out of their way to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, calling him illegitimate, ignorant, ugly, dishonest, and blasphemous. Smith constructs a picture of Jesus as the opposition saw him: the bastard son of a soldier called Panthera, he was reared as a carpenter, but went to Egypt and learned magic, returning to Galilee tattooed with magic spells, rather like Queequeg. Having made himself famous, he claimed to be Messiah and/or the son of a god. He taught his disciples to reject Jewish Law and to practice magic, binding them to him with rituals of cannibalism (the Eucharist) and sexual promiscuity. The scribes opposed all this wickedness and began a campaign which ended with his trial for magic and sedition. After the crucifixion, his followers stole the body from the grave and continued to practice his magic and his obscene rites.

The touch about tattooing is very ingenious; it also indicates the lengths Smith will go to. He argues that Matthew, in sending the infant Jesus on an unnecessary trip to Egypt, was apologetically toning down the truth, which is that he went there much later to learn magic. In order to believe this one has to abandon a much more plausible explanation, namely that Matthew was here merely adding to his elaborate series of comparisons between Jesus and Israel, also called out of Egypt. The evidence for the tattoos consists of a very vague allusion in a much later rabbinical manuscript, which may not even refer to Jesus. Moreover we are told only a few pages later that the accusation of Celsus, that Jesus went to Egypt as a hired laborer and learned magic, “is almost certainly based on Matthew.” How much confidence should we have in this Egyptian sojourn, or in the magic tattoos?

Still, whether he was tattooed or crazy or a crook, Jesus can easily be fitted into a general view of what magicians were at the time thought to be: anything on the scale from mounte-banks and peddlers of amulets to great sages and “divine men.” It was the business of Christians to prevent his identification with practitioners at the lower end of the scale. Smith, though I think he was tempted to do so, does not place Jesus at the bottom level. He regards him as very like Apollonius, hero of the third-century biography by Philostratus already mentioned. Apollonius was a Pythagorean wonder-worker who studied in Babylon and India, and became an itinerant sage in the time of Nero and Vespasian. Late in life he was accused of sedition and tried in Rome; but he simply vanished from the courtroom and remained in Greece and Asia Minor until he died and ascended to heaven, somewhere near the end of the first century. Smith works hard at the resemblances between this career and that of Jesus, as they are reported by the evangelists and Philostratus, and there is no doubt that they were both thought to be magicians. But the divergencies, which Smith is not concerned to maximize, are also great; there is nothing in the Apollonius story that remotely resembles the Gospel accounts of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus either in tone or structure, and it is hard to believe an Impartial reader of the Life of Apollonius would think it generically close to the Christian writings.

But Smith can hardly be impartial; he wants a secret history, now to be told for the first time: the story, veiled by censorship and the propaganda of an institution that acquired much political power, of a magician, a libertine Jesus. The descent of the dove at his baptism signifies a magical rite of deification; the Temptation in the Desert is a characteristic shaman’s retreat; the first miracles (cures of hysterical conditions) are normal for a beginning miracle-worker. In handing to Judas the sop by which Satan enters him Jesus is practicing black magic. The Eucharist is a magical rite; and so forth. The group who survived him, convinced that magic and ritual had made them privy to the secrets of the kingdom, rejected the Law and continued in their libertine ways. By the time of Clement all these scandalous facts had been concealed from the faithful, though the Corporations seem to have preserved for a time something of the original tradition.

Profesor Smith has brooded for years over that fragment of a lost Mark he found in Judes; it is certainly of extraordinary interest and calls for explanation. All his subsequent conjectures rest on that brief passage: and who could have supposed that in order to explain it one would need to rewrite not only the canonical Gospels but the entire history of early Christianity? Yet this is what he seems to be attempting. Being very learned, he is fertile in conjecture; being very persistent he will follow the scent of his theory over rocky places where other hunters would give up. He is a fine example of the secret historian; but for my part I am no more persuaded by his than by the official version.

Letters

In Quest of Jesus December 21, 1978

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