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Jesus and Magic

Jesus and Magic: Freeing the Gospel Stories from Modern Misconceptions

Richard A. Horsley
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: James Clarke & Co Ltd
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Jesus and Magic
    Book Description:

    It has become standard in modern interpretation to say that Jesus performed miracles, and even mainline scholarly interpreters classify Jesus's healings and exorcisms as miracles. Some highly regarded scholars have argued, more provocatively, that the healings and exorcisms were magic, and that Jesus was a magician. As Richard Horsley points out, if we make a critical comparison between modern interpretation of Jesus's healing and exorcism, on the one hand, and the Gospel stories and other ancient texts, on the other hand, it becomes clear that 'the miracle' and 'magic' are modern concepts, products of Enlightenment thinking. 'Jesus and Magic' asserts that Gospel stories do not have the concepts of miracle and magic. What scholars constructed as magic turns out to have been ritual practices such as songs (incantations), medicines (potions), and appeals to higher powers for protection. Horsley offers a critical reading of the healing and exorcism episodes in the Gospel stories. This reading reveals a dynamic relationship between Jesus the healer, the trust of those coming for healing, and their support networks in local communities. Horsley's reading of the Gospel stories gives little or no indication of divine intervention. Rather, the healing and exorcism stories portray healings and exorcisms.

    eISBN: 978-0-227-90451-0
    Subjects: Religion
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. ii-v)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vi-vi)
  3. Introduction (pp. vii-x)

    Interpreters of Jesus seem to be stuck when it comes to dealing with the healings and exorcisms. They are stuck in old terms and phrases that long ago became frozen into standard scholarly concepts and assumptions. The Gospels are full of episodes of healing and exorcism. In the Gospel of Mark they compose most of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. In the recent spate of books on Jesus, however, interpreters devote little or no attention to their interpretation. Why?

    The development of the New Testament studies branch of theology in the age of Enlightenment is surely part of the reason. When...

  4. Abbreviations (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. PART 1: Miracles
    • Introduction to Part 1 (pp. 3-5)

      The concept of miracle is deeply embedded in modern biblical studies, particularly in interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels. While many interpreters of Jesus allow that stories of his healings and exorcisms include some elements of magic, nearly all interpreters simply assume that the healing and exorcism stories are miracle stories, and (correspondingly) that the healings and exorcisms were miracles. Interpreters are thus applying to Jesus, the Gospels, and antiquity generally a concept developed in the European Enlightenment, articulated most influentially perhaps by David Hume.¹ Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophers understood miracles as supernatural phenomena (as opposed to natural phenomena),...

    • 1 A Missing Concept: (Elite) Judean and Hellenistic Culture (pp. 7-19)

      It is standard in New Testament studies both to assume that the modern concept of miracle is applicable to a widespread phenomenon, and to assume that “several [ancient] terms, variously translated, denote this phenomenon.”¹ Whether the modern term and concept of miracle is appropriate to ancient accounts that refer todynameis or terata or paradoxa or semeia, however, requires investigation. It should not be imagined either that our investigation can establish what the vast majority, or what most people, believed. Nearly all Judean and Hellenistic literary sources were produced by the cultural elite. We have few or no direct sources...

    • 2 The Concept of Miracle and Jesus’s Healings and Exorcisms (pp. 20-32)

      The influential German philosopher Lessing exemplified the Enlightenment understanding of and skepticism toward miracles: “I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen.” A century and a half later, Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential New Testament theologian of the twentieth century, declared that “now that the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits.” Being consistent in his thinking, he insisted that it was impossible to avail oneself of modern medical discoveries “and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”¹ During the last century,...

  6. PART 2: Magic
    • Introduction to Part 2 (pp. 35-36)

      Jesus was accused by both ancient and modern intellectuals of practicing magic. Discussion of whether Jesus’s healing and exorcism (stories) involved magic was stimulated by the early twentieth-century scholarly (re) discovery of magic in the Greco-Roman world, especially by the literal discovery in Egypt of papyri from late antiquity that were labeled as “magical.” Influential scholars in the early twentieth century suggested that certain elements in the “miracle stories” resembled those in sources that had been used to reconstruct Greco-Roman magic. Like ancient Christian theologians such as Justin Martyr and Origen, twentieth-century Christian interpreters have generally defended Jesus against the...

    • 3 Modern Construction of Ancient Magic (pp. 37-52)

      The twentieth-century construction of “ancient magic” was a quagmire of conceptual confusion. Scholars applied the concept to a wide range of material and in diverse ways, and engaged in heated debates about how it related to miracle or religion or philosophy. Most declined to define it, evidently trusting that they “knew it when they saw it.” Interpreters simply assumed that there was such a reality as “magic” in the Greco-Roman world and that they knew many of its features and what it included. The concept became prominent in study of the Hellenistic-Roman context of Christian origins, and was the source...

    • 4 Construction of Jewish Magic (pp. 53-62)

      Increasing attention has recently been given to what is labeled “Jewish magic” as the background and comparative material for interpretation particularly of Jesus’s exorcisms. Jewish “magical texts” and “magical bowls” from late antiquity (like the Greek “magical papyri”) offered many examples of adjuration of spirits and demons. More strikingly, the heretofore unanticipated texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls dealing with strange spirits were taken as evidence for the practice of exorcism by Judeans more closely contemporary with Jesus.

      Moving into even a cursory investigation of what has become the scholarly composite of “Jewish magic,” however, brings us up against...

    • 5 Construction of Jesus as Magician (pp. 63-74)

      After a critical review of the sources from which modern scholars constructed their composite picture of magic in the Greco-Roman world, it must seem odd that New Testament scholars find “magical” elements in the miracle stories, much less entertain the notion Jesus was a magician. As discussed in the previous chapter, the sources for ancient “magic” either are polemical or, in the case of the “magical papyri,” are very late and focused largely on divination, obtaining a divine assistant, protective rituals, bringing a woman under a man’s control, harming an enemy, or enhancing one’s business. The “miracle stories” in the...

    • 6 The Magician—and Jesus—as Sociological Type (pp. 75-91)

      Little more than a decade after Morton Smith—and following his presentation in certain regards—John Dominic Crossan mounted an even broader argument that Jesus was a magician. He sharply opposed, not only the distinction between miracle and magic, but that between religion and magic; Crossan insisted that magic was merely deviant, individualistic religion. While presupposing the composite scholarly concept of ancient magic,¹ he did not base his argument primarily on similarities of terms and techniques attested in ancient sources formageia/magoi. Rather he dramatically broadened the concept of magic on the basis of an abstract typology from the sociology...

    • 7 Discourse, Ritual Practices, and Healing (pp. 92-100)

      The resurgence of scholarly interest in ancient “magic” had barely begun at the time of Smith’s and Crossan’s presentations of Jesus as a “magician.” Investigations during the 1990s, like that of Nock eighty years ago, recognized not only that what ancients thought of as “magic” was different from the modern concept but also that polemical references and accusations are not good sources for historical practice. Investigators have also considered whether the modern concept may hinder understanding.¹ The more candid scholars, aware of earlier critical reflection by social anthropologists in the 1960s, sensed that there is no longer much point in...

  7. PART 3: Jesus’s Healings and Exorcisms
    • Introduction to Part 3 (pp. 103-105)

      The critical review of modern scholarly constructs and ancient sources in the preceding chapters should clear the way for focusing on the stories of Jesus’s healing and exorcism as stories of healing and exorcism. Once it is recognized that the concept of “miracle” is a construct of modern Western culture that is absent in the Gospels, there seems to be no justification for lumping healings and exorcisms together with other acts of power into such a category. Once it is recognized that the concept of “magic” is also a modern Western construct, then there seems little warrant for mistaking the...

    • 8 The Gospel Stories as the Sources (pp. 107-118)

      One of the first and most fundamental steps in historical inquiry is to assess the character of the sources for the subject of the investigation, in this case the Gospels as the sources for the healings and exorcisms of Jesus. The standard approach in dealing with Jesus’s healing and exorcism, as described briefly in the Introduction above is highly problematic. Interpreters of Jesus treat the Gospels not as the sources but as containers or collections of text-fragments that they take as the sources. They then make broad general formal classifications of those fragments into individual sayings and individual stories, lumping...

    • 9 Healing Episodes (pp. 119-142)

      The healings of Jesus as represented in the Gospels are healings. They are not miracles and not magic. It is inappropriate even to conclude that the healing episodes in the Gospels include elements or techniques of magic.

      The examination of healing stories here will include those in all of the canonical Gospels. Insofar as the consensus is holding among Gospel scholars that Matthew and Luke both knew the Gospel of Mark and included most of his episodes, mostly in the same order; and insofar as exorcism and healing episodes make up so much of the Gospel story in Mark, most...

    • 10 Exorcism Episodes (pp. 143-162)

      For critical assessment of exorcism episodes, far more than for healing episodes, we are dependent on the Gospel of Mark. If the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were following the Markan narrative, then most of the exorcism episodes in those Gospels are adaptations of episodes included in Mark.

      The four exorcisms in the Gospel of Mark play a special narrative role in the sequence of episodes. In the first narrative step in Mark, Jesus’s exorcism in the Capernaum village assembly is the first action of his mission. It is also the action that exemplifies the “authority/power” with which Jesus “...

  8. Conclusion (pp. 163-167)

    Jesus was not performing miracles or practicing magic. To apply these concepts to the healing and exorcism (stories) of Jesus is to modernize him. The investigations in these chapters indicate that the concepts of miracle and magic under which the healing and exorcism (stories) of Jesus have been classified and interpreted are the products of Enlightenment Reason shaped by (natural and social) scientific perspective. The concept of miracle and especially the concept of magic were also influenced by colonial and Orientalist attitudes. Interpretation of Jesus and the field of New Testament studies in general somehow became stuck in these modern...

  9. Bibliography (pp. 169-178)
  10. Back Matter (pp. 179-179)