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Jesus the Magician

Some of you will be familiar with the work of Morton Smith, especially on the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” I may have posted a few bits on it at some point. Smith was a brilliant scholar, always the smartest guy in the room. And he knew it. He had a rapier wit and was not afraid to use it. He regularly bloodied people – even internationally famous scholars – who disagreed with him. I met him only a couple of times, when I was a lowly graduate student and he was a mighty professor at Columbia. He really was the real deal. Unbelievably learned and uncanilly knowledgeable about all things antiquity.

One of his “popular” books was Jesus the Magician. A great book, even if you disagree with it. A new edition is coming out (it was published in 1978 – 35 years ago now!). And the publisher has asked me to write a brief Introduction to it. I was honored and flattered. Here is a draft of what I have in mind for it:


Magic in the ancient world was not what it is today. For most of us, magic involves ruses, tricks, and sleights of hand: the modern magician is an illusionist skilled in the art of deception. In antiquity, magic was real. It accomplished what it claimed to do — not through deception but through the power to make things happen. Spectacular things. Seemingly impossible things. Things that violated the normal course of nature. The ancient magician was a miracle worker.

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Video: Ehrman & Evans 2012 Debate – Part 2
A Third View of Jesus’ Body at the Resurrection



  1. Avatar
    James Chalmers  December 5, 2013

    You and others have left me little doubt but that Jesus was a prophet of an impending apocalypse. But I’ve also been left with the impression that Jesus’s popularity–his ability to draw crowds–rested mostly in a particular form of “magic”– his performing miracles of healing. So I guess I have three questions. One, is it true that Jesus would never have attracted the fairly large following he did had he not healed and exorcized? Two, was Jesus’ magic mostly manifested in healing and exorcism? And three, is there any reason to think Jesus could not have been both a proclaimer of the apocalypse and a performer of exorcisms and acts of healing?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      Good questions. My views, in order are (1) I doubt if he had large crowds (2) the stories also include “nature” miracles (calming the storm and the like — also actions of magicians); (3) Nope, no reason at all!

  2. Avatar
    laz  December 5, 2013

    Any word on a release date?

  3. Avatar
    LP in PA  December 5, 2013

    Your introduction makes me want to read Smith’s book! Although it appears that you don’t share his view of Jesus, you still value his presentation as important. Can you incorporate Smith’s magician elements into your apocalyptic prophet view? In other words, is Jesus as magician incompatible with Jesus as apoc. prophet?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      Yes, it’s perfectly compatible. I myself don’t think Jesus did these things — and Smith does; but if he’s right and I’m wrong, Jesus *still* could have predicted the end of the age….

      • Avatar
        Shubhang  December 8, 2013

        But is it likely that Jesus claimed to be a faith healer and exorcist, like many other itinerant Jews of his time (a category that Morton Smith labels ‘magicians’)? The stories of his healing miracles are probably exaggerated but might it be that this was his ‘primary occupation’?
        On a related note, have you ever contemplated assigning probabilities to various things Jesus is said to have said or done in the Gospels? To illustrate – it is probably most likely (or almost overwhelmingly likely) that Jesus said ‘My Lord, why have you forsaken me’ at his crucifixion, the other statements being progressively less likely (given that a crucified man’s lungs are being crushed by his body weight, he probably won’t be able to say too many things).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2013

          I’m not sure if Jesus *claimed* to be these things, but they were certainly claimed *about* him. And yes, my book on Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet does lay out what I think we can probably say about Jesus words and deeds.

          • Avatar
            Shubhang  December 9, 2013

            Makes sense

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  December 5, 2013

    Yes, yes, yes, I say contemplatively.

    One means towards being a magician is control of a demon or a good spirit. (And Jesus could send the Holy Spirit.)

    Mark 1: 9-10
    It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him.

    Commentary from Jesus the Magician:

    the story of the coming of the spirit is surprising because the event it describes is just the sort of thing that was thought to happen to a magician. Essentially, it admits the charge that Jesus had a spirit [as a means to magic] and, as told by Mark, it takes for granted that the reader will know this as a good spirit, not a bad one. …

    Directions for getting such a spirit were available in magical texts: When the sun rises, greet it reciting this: holy spell burning uncut frankincense. While you are reciting the spell, the following sign will occur: A hawk flying down will stop (in the air) in front of you..” As we read in the Bible, instead of a hawk, a dove appears for Jesus–nevertheless, a bird appears.

    However, this spirit had led Jesus to into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and this spirit led jesus to crucifixion; hence, the case for supposing it a demon that deceived and destroyed him must have been plausible.

    “Elijah and Elisha do indeed present us with figures resembling the Jesus of the synoptics–each, a man, who receives a divine spirit that makes them miracle workers and revelators, and whose subsequent life is a series of miracle stories and revelations.” I say, given this similarity, it is no wonder Elisha means Jesus in some passages of the Babylonian Talmud.

    Another means to magic is being divine. So, the pharisees, refuting his divinity by not admitting he was THE Son of God would have to acknowledge him as a worker of magic and faith healing.

    Being a magician was fundamental in Celsus’ explanation of Jesus’ career: Having been brought up in obscurity, he went as a hired laborer to Egypt and there acquired experience of some [magical] powers. Thence, he returned, proclaiming himself a god on account of those powers.

    A damaging point that Origen had to counter was the similarity of Jesus’ miracles to those of the common magicians: tricks done by those who have learned from Egyptians, driving demons out of people, blowing away diseases, calling up spirits of long dead heroes [think Transfiguration], make objects not really alive move as if alive and seem to be so.

    Finally, a magician gives his followers his own name as a magic word. Even resurrections are done in the magic word of “Jesus.”

    Apollonius like Jesus did miracles, but when arrested he neither stood dumb nor submitted himself to indignities, but lectured the emperor as a philosopher should, and then vanished.

    QUESTION: Jesus was more the magician after his resurrection than before, in that he was disappearing after the resurrection but not disappearing before the resurrection.

    As for walking on water, that is not a miracle. The gospel writers, competing with the Homeric Gods, knew that Hermes had wings on his boots and traveled over water (Athena also), so Jesus had to be able to hover over water as well. HOWEVER: walking on the water is also attributed to a Hyperborean magician by Lucian’s dupes (Philopseudes). A magical papyrus promises that a powerful demon will enable his posses to walk on water.

    So, the answer to the Ehrman Debate at SMU, “Can we trust the New Testament?”

    “In evaluating all these points of the evidence, and others like them, the reader of the gospels must keep in mind that the gospels were written in a hostile world to present the Christian case. Consequently, the elements in them that could be used to support magic are probably only the tips of the iceberg of suppressed traditions, while elements that counter the charge must be viewed with suspicion for apologetic purposes. We have to deal with a body of edited material. page 93

    Appendix: Elisha treated a (one) leper by telling him to go wash 7 times in the Jordan. Jesus treated (10) lepers on their way to tell priests they were healed. “Jesus cured ten times as many as Elisha and quicker.”

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 9, 2013

      “Directions for getting such a spirit were available in magical texts:”
      The one mentioned above comes from PGM I.54ff

      A magical papyrus promises that a powerful demon will enable his posses to walk on water.
      should be
      A magical papyrus promises that a powerful demon will enable his possesor to walk on water.

  5. Avatar
    donmax  December 5, 2013

    Amen to what you now say about Morton Smith. Why, I wonder, did you give so much credence and encouragement to the claims of Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax? Did you change your mind or do you still think he committed some sort of scholarly fraud?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      Yes, I still think that Smith probably forged it. But I’d love to be proved wrong!

      • Avatar
        donmax  December 6, 2013

        Two things. First, I am disappointed to find out you “still think Smith PROBABLY forged” the document he claims to have found. You should know better. Accusers bear the burden of proof, not the other way around. It’s up to them to make the case and provide adequate evidence, not just ACCUSATIONS. I know that in the court of public opinion people often make groundless insinuations, but in a court of law the accused is never required to PROVE his innocence. Neither you, nor Carlson have substantiated even the PROBABILITIES in this regard. Like the old lady at the counter I want to know “WHERE’S THE BEEF!?”

        Second, you should add a box that says “Notify ME when Bart answers MY QUESTION.” There’s no need to have a flood of emails when members can already see the responses of fellow bloggers. If anyone wants to respond, he or she can click the Reply Tab and exchange views without all the clutter of messages. Capish?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 6, 2013

          I’m not sure I understand the disappointment. Historians *always* deal with what probably happened in the past. In my view, Smith “probably” forged it. It’s not as if I’ve never given the evidence. I don’t know how much of my stuff on it you’ve read, but I’ve dealt with it at length not just in Lost Christianities but also, e.g., in my article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and elsewehere.

          I’ll see if we can come up with a new box or not.

          • Avatar
            donmax  December 7, 2013

            Well, I remember your endorsement of Stephen Carlson’s assessment of the alleged crime, and I didn’t particularly like what I took to be a cheap-shot of Smith as you left the podium a few years back at a Bar Conference, and I’ve read Lost Christianities, too (one of your books I obviously need to reread), but I don’t understand why you won’t briefly summarize the key factors that caused you to support a “guilty” verdict. I do know that MS did not suffer fools easily, and there is quite a number of smart, scholarly fools. When he was alive, few people challenged him, and fewer still had the stomach to suggest he committed a fraud to his face. Still, I have noticed you sometimes make loose claims of probability and scholarly consensus when making judgments about historical people and events. This issue, however, is too recent to be considered legitimate history. Do you still support The Gospel Hoax?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2013

            I’m not sure what you’re looking for. I discuss my views at lengths in my publications — I *more* than summarize them, I lay them out in some detail!

  6. Avatar
    Cliff  December 5, 2013

    Jesus performed miracles as we know described in the Bible. His performances appeared to have been witnessed and many hailing him while others doubted his source. But does it mean that any miracle has to be either from a divine source or evil source?

    Okomfo Anokye of Ghana was mentioned in history books to have ordered a golden stool from the skies and performed great miracles in his lifetime and was the highest fetish priest of the peoples of Denkyira and Ashantis in the western, and southern Ghana, West Africa. He did planted a sword in the ground in Kumasi city that couldn’t be removed even with earthmoving machines of our time. He lived in 17th Century.

    There are spirit beings that guide men to perform miraculous things, whether or not they are divine is the case. The concept of good and evil is part of the human mind that has led us to question sources, which is good. But how can we be certain what is the right or wrong?. Please follow link to read about… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okomfo_Anokye

  7. Avatar
    maxhirez  December 5, 2013

    Is his “Jesus the Magician” accessible to your popular audience or is it aimed more at the serious scholar?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      It’s aimed at a popular audience, though I’m not sure non-experts would get all the nuances….

  8. Avatar
    FrankB57  December 5, 2013

    Oh boy, I can only imagine efforts to suppress it if this book gets highlighted in the popular media. Bart, have you done interviews with Fox like Reza Alan (below)? But then again, Laureen Green’s interview went viral afterwards and probably helped book sales.


    And after reading the Wiki on the late Morton Smith apparently for some scholars still, the Mar Saba is by itself considered a forgery? Interesting.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      I don’t think anyone has had an interview like that. It’s one that we all pray for. 🙂 It didn’t just “help” sales; it rocketed the book up to #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list!

      • Avatar
        toejam  December 5, 2013

        Oh yeah! And let’s not forget, we’re still waiting for your review of Aslan’s book! 😉 Have your students completed their assignment on it yet?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 6, 2013

          It’s coming! Yup, students have written their papers, I’ve read the book, and I’m loaded for bear! 🙂

  9. Avatar
    jonfoulkes  December 5, 2013

    Hi Bart, an easy yes/no question for you! Do you think Morton Smith fabricated the Secret Gospel of Mark? In Lost Christianities, you hint strongly that you think he did but I could have misread this.

  10. Avatar
    jhague  December 5, 2013

    Historically speaking, what is the thought on how Jesus and the numerous magicians of his time actually performed their magic? My thought is that most of it did not happen: the calming of the sea, the healing of the blind, the curing of leprosy, raising the dead – these are acts that magic men of any time cannot do. Is it possible that most of these events were written into Jesus’ life? And written into the lives of these other magic men. I find it difficult to believe that Jesus and the other magic men were “healing” people who were blind, deaf, etc. due to mental issues. I do not believe that a person can be out of their mind with a mental disorder and then be healed through touch and word, the use of bodily substances, and/or the verbalization of incantations. That would not work now or in the first century. When it is said that Jesus was a healer, exorcist and magician, is it really that he fooled ignorant, illiterate people or that most of the events were made up after his death?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      Smith thinks that a lot of the problems were psycho-somatic, and that faith in a healer can cure such things.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 6, 2013

        After reading through the comments, it is your belief that Jesus did not heal anyone, correct? Obviously, he did not perform miracles. Is it best to assume that the miracle stories were written into Jesus life so that Christianity could compete with the other mystery religions?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 6, 2013

          Yes, I think that Jesus did not perform miracles, despite all the stories about them. At least he did not do anything that cannot be done. Maybe some people have the power to heal psycho-somatic conditions if people have faith that they can, as Morton Smith thinks. But in any event, “miracles” require the intervention of a divine being, and I don’t believe in one. (I don’t think the mystery religions were touting leaders who did miracles, as a rule)

          • Avatar
            jhague  December 9, 2013

            Maybe mystery religions was the wrong term to use but the Christians were attempting to have their Christ figure be at the same level as the other demigods, etc., correct? One way to do this is was to write in stories of a virgin birth, healings, raising the dead and commanding nature to obey him.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 10, 2013

            Yes, to some extent! I’ll be dealing with this a bit in my book How Jesus Became God.

          • Avatar
            jhague  December 28, 2016

            It seems that many scholars indicate that Jesus was a healer and a miracle worker. Why are these two things listed to describe Jesus when most of us believe that Jesus did not heal anyone and did not perform miracles?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 28, 2016

            Because most of *them* to believe it!

          • Avatar
            jhague  December 28, 2016

            I’m not sure what you’re saying. Are you saying that most scholars believe that Jesus was a healer and miracle worker? I’m sure that Christian scholars believe this but I’m talking more about non-Christian scholars. It seems that many who write regarding “what we actually know about Jesus” say he was born in Nazareth, baptized by John, was a traveling preacher, was crucified by Pilate and they also include that he was a healer and a miracle worker. It seems to me that if they want to include these two items, they should say “it was claimed” or written into his life. I am sure that some of the writers who include these two items do not believe that Jesus healed people or performed miracles. Have you noticed non-Christian scholars include healer and miracle worker when describing Jesus?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 29, 2016

            A premier example would be E. P. Sanders, arguably the most important scholar on the historical Jesus in the second half of the 20th century, not a Christian, but maintained that Jesus was a “healer.” I don’t know what he thought Jesus was actually *doing*. But there are numerous “healers” in the world today, for example in developing countries, and (completely secular) anthropologists who study them do not restrain from describing them as healers (even if they don’t go into detail about what they think actually — if anything — was happening when they do whatever it is they do)

  11. Avatar
    fishician  December 5, 2013

    There are many suggestions of “magic” in the Gospels. In Mark 5:41 and 7:34 Jesus’ Aramaic words (“Talitha kum!” and “Ephphatha!”) are preserved in the Greek as if it they are magic phrases, like “Presto!” In Matthew 12:42 the reference to Solomon probably is an allusion to the stories of him using magic to control demons and build the temple with Jesus claiming greater power. I’ve always thought that Luke 11:24-26 was Jesus’ explanation for why some of the people he “healed” relapsed later on. Then there are the times where Jesus cannot perform miracles under scrutiny or when the people don’t have enough “faith” (gullibility?). There are ancient images of Jesus holding what looks like a magic wand as he raises Lazarus from the dead. I suspect Jesus really thought he had magical/miraculous powers, and so did his followers, just as even in our modern age there continue to be many “miracle” workers with loyal followers.

  12. Aleph82
    Aleph82  December 5, 2013

    ” Among leading scholars there is still no unanimity of opinion: is the historical Jesus best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet? … Or was he, as Smith contends, a magician?”

    I haven’t read Smith’s book yet, but are the identities here exclusive?

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 5, 2013

    Did Smith himself believe the ancient magic was “real”? If he did, did he attribute it to gods and demons, or to powers the humans themselves actually possessed? I can accept the *possibility* of humans’ possessing paranormal powers, that would be more likely to manifest themselves in an age of belief. But it’s also more likely that non-empowered people living in an age of belief would gulliby accept frauds. In that scenario, perhaps one in hundreds of miracle claims would be genuine.

    I assume your response to Smith would be that Jesus’s enemies accused him of being a “black magician” – or a hoaxer – but his closest followers knew he’d never performed miracles, or claimed to be able to. But I can’t help wondering whether he really did perform “fake” miracles. The things you’ve shown us about forged writings show that some of his later followers bought into the idea that “the end justifies the means.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      Yes, he thought it was real, but not paranormal. He thought that hysteria and psycho-somatic symptoms could be cured, especially when one who was sick believed in the power of the healer.

  14. Avatar
    toejam  December 5, 2013

    Haven’t read this one yet, but it’s definitely on my wish list. I’ll wait for this new edition to come out now I think. I skimmed through Stevan L. Davies’ “Jesus the Healer” the other day at my local Library. Seemed very interesting. Any thoughts on Davies’ book?

    Seems to me that Jesus was very much a wandering exorcist / “faith”-healer, much like the many wandering Indian Gurus with cult followings today. The difference being that Jesus also seems to have had apocalyptic expectations. Maybe it was this cocktail that made him so appealing, particularly to the oppressed and poor.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      I’m afraid that I looked through Davies book but don’t remember it well enough to comment!

  15. Avatar
    JoshuaGordon  December 5, 2013

    Read it in 1983 and it was a real good education about how the people current at the time saw things rather than our modern interpretations of the past. One of the charges in the trial descriptions in the gospels was that Jesus was doing “black/evil magic”. It is poignant that that part was still stated, indicating the pagan and post temple destruction Jewish accusations must have been something that had to be acknowledged, most likely from the very time Jesus was alive.

  16. cheito
    cheito  December 6, 2013

    If Jesus was such a powerful magician why did he submit to dying on a cross? So Jesus greatest trick was to allow the Romans to kill him and then rise from the dead?

  17. Avatar
    Slydog1227  December 9, 2013

    I read Smith’s book abut 3 months ago, just before joining this blog. I am definitely NOT a scholar, and I started my quest for the truth with Aslan’s book. Morton Smith’s book was the second I read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. With my dictionary app handy, it was not that difficult to comprehend. I really like your “forward” btw! Two thumbs up!
    On the subject, I have something to run by you that was brought up by a friend in a religious discussion group I’m in. He had what I thought to be a fascinating assertion, which I wanted to delve deeper into. I’m currently about half way through “Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World” by Matthew W. Dickie. IT is a hard, dry read! He does talk about “love philtres” and different potions and spells used by magicians & sorcerers throughout antiquity, but I he doesn’t mention this (or I haven’t gotten to it yet!) My friend postulates that perhaps Jesus was somewhat knowledgeable in the use of mushrooms or other drugs. When he turned the water into wine, he was simply mixing up a batch of electric kool-aid! Perhaps the ancients assumed it was wine because it brought about the same light euphoria as actually drinking wine might and could be mixed up easily using just water and say..honey to sweeten it. It could also be the catalyst for eye witness accounts other things such as resurrections, etc. Is it possible that these could all be somewhat of a mass hallucination brought about from being drugged up by Jesus the pharmacist? My friend suggested psilocybin mushrooms for the water to wine trick. Sounds good to me! Are you aware of any hallucinogenic plants or drugs that were in use during Jesus’ time? Are you aware of anyone who has considered this angle? Can you provide any other source for information regarding drugs like this used during this time in history? Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 9, 2013

      Your friend has almost certainly been influenced by the (in)famous and widely (almost universally!) discredited book by John Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Allegro was a scholar of Jewish antiquity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, who was largely admired until he wrote this book; with this book, a lot of scholars thought he had gone off the deep end. The short answer to your question is that there aren’t any bona fide scholars (at least any that I’ve ever heard of — and I’ve heard of lots, lots, and lots!) who give any credence to the theory. But an idea can be interesting, intriguing, and even amusing, even if there is no basis for it!

  18. Avatar
    jebib  December 10, 2013

    Brad, are you saying that you disagree with Smith’s conclusion about repeated references to “magic” in the gospels, that they refer to something else, or you agree with the references and are saying it just didn’t happen. One more question please: there are a couple of references to Smith’s forging documents. Would these documents if validated as authentic have advanced any of his theories, or was it kind of an Indiana Jones ego thing? Thanks!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 10, 2013

      Are you referring this to me or someone else? My own view is that in the Gospels Jesus does do the things that magicians do, although there are not many charges there of him doing magic. I don’t think historically he actually did these things….

      • Avatar
        jebib  December 11, 2013

        Yes Sir, I was referring to you, and you do put it in perspective, thank you. To me, a layman, Smith wove the whole book around the “magic” concept , I saw his representation of the Ministry as a travelling medicine show where the message was secondary to the “magic”. Another thing, again as a layman, that I notice he does is subtly weave in his theories almost as facts in his narrative. My example is that I read him to alluding that Paul may have had contact with Jesus at some point in the Ministry. It does make it more entertaining, but less reliable to me. I much prefer your much more scientific approach.

  19. Avatar
    CalifiorniaPuma  December 20, 2013

    The notion of Jesus as a magician is quite juicy. If I am feeling mischievous at our family gathering on Christmas Eve, I might introduce the topic among those who are far more devout than I am. But I’ll at least wait until after the blessing…

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 21, 2013

    Thanks for the review. I guess one question is whether Jesus was really a “magician” or people made up stuff about Him making him into a “magician.” I still think that Schweitzer’s view that people make Jesus in their own image is the best explanation so that Jesus is viewed as having the beliefs and views of the people who follow Him.

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