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Friday, 1 April 2011

Jesus The Magician Post 9 Chapter 8 Summary

Jesus The Magician Post 9 Chapter 8 Summary
(Prior posts in the series are located in Category "Jesus the Magician")

Smith opens Chapter 8 by discussing the importance of the apologetic material that appears within the gospels. Firstly, he argues that the very existence of apologetic material in the gospels points to negative traditions that had to be answered; they had to be either admitted or denied. Furthermore, these oppositional traditions would by necessity predate the apologetic responses that are imbedded within the gospels. These traditions, according to Smith, stem from scribal reports during the time of Jesus. Smith then proceeds to look for points of intersection between events touted within the gospels and those preserved within the negative traditions as possible indicators of historical veracity. According to Smith, it is the miracles of Jesus that are the primary feature in both the polemical and apologetical material. For Smith, these miracle stories are especially important as they provide the basis for Jesus' teachings and are the foundation upon which Jesus' identity is later established. The fact that Jesus (purportedly) performed miracles does not, according to Smith, however, necessarily make Jesus a magician. He points out that there are numerous accounts within the gospels of individuals performing miraculous actions, such as the exorcisms of demons, who are not charged with being a magician. The fact that Jesus was early on accused of being a magician while other exorcists were not, however, clearly indicates for our author that differences existed between Jesus' miracles and those done by individuals not seen as magicians. What was it about Jesus' miracles that led him to be viewed as a magician? Firstly, it was alleged by the outsider tradition that Jesus' "had" a demon and performed his miracles/exorcisms by way of the power of this indwelling spirit. It is Smith's opinion that some of the events surrounding Jesus most assuredly contributed to this opinion. He provides the examples of Jesus being driven into the desert for forty days and nights, his being restrained by family members who thought him to be out of his mind, as well as his neglect of the Law. Indeed, it was, according to Smith, very likely Jesus' neglect of the Law that most incited the scribes to spread malicious rumors about him.He writes,"On a practical level, it is easy to understand that a small class of small town lawyers and teachers, who owe their prestige and income to the Law, would detest a fellow who publicly neglected it, would hate to see him attract large crowds and would spread malicious charges to discredit him." (144)While it is Smith's contention that traces of magical traditions linger within the gospels, he argues that many of these preserved stories have been edited in such a way as to remove many of the magical details. He sees the story of Jesus' baptism and the descent of the spirit as a prime example of an abbreviated version of an account relayed within the magical papyri. Thus, based upon the position that magical elements have been edited from the gospels and the writings of other New Testament scholars, Smith argues that behind the Jesus of the gospels there lurked within the Christian tradition an earlier Jesus whose activities closely resembled those of Jesus the Magician. Consequently, he argues that when magical elements appear within the gospels it is less likely that they have been added by the tradition than they have survived from the earlier or more primitive form of the cult. This is because, according to Smith, the early Church found the magical elements an embarrassment and strove to excise them from the tradition. Thus, Smith proposes that those magical elements within the texts that did survive the editor's hand likely stem from the earliest days of the movement, indeed, from its founder. Interestingly, while Smith contends that much of the gospel's magical elements likely belong to a very early period within the tradition, he regards many of the stories that link Jesus to the Old Testament/Judaic tradition suspect on account that Jesus was criticized for not following or upholding the Law. According to Smith, many of these Jewish elements first came into the tradition with James and Paul.To conclude this chapter Smith offers three official portraits of Jesus that could possibly account for the rise of the tradition preserved within the gospels: Jesus Christ the son of God, given by the gospels as they stand; Jesus the magician, given by the hostile tradition; Jesus the god, given by the early primitive Christian tradition. For Smith, all three traditions are not only expressions of propaganda but are incredible in that they explain the phenomena of Jesus' life in terms of "the mythological world of deities and demons that do not exist." (149) Moreover, Smith dismisses many of the miracles as obvious inventions, such as Jesus walking on the water and his multiplication of food. These are, for Smith, best explained not as misunderstandings but as fictions. While he finds many of the miracles to be incredible, he does acknowledge that most of the miracles reported are at least possible if they are stripped of the explanations that make them miracles. For example, Smith claims that Jesus could not cast out demons because there are none, but he could and probably did quiet lunatics. In other words, for Smith, the quieting of lunatics by Jesus, a probable real event, was erroneously interpreted as the casting out of demons. For Smith, the entirety of the evidence would suggest that Jesus probably did use magical methods that may have worked for psychological reasons. While Smith discounts a supernatural dimension to Jesus' miracles, he does nevertheless proffer that many of Jesus' miracles were probably efficacious.

*This concludes my series of chapter summaries of Morton Smith's "Jesus the Magician". I have chosen not to summarize the Appendices. While I have undertaken this project primarily for my own benefit (summarizing helps me to learn the material), I had also hoped that publishing this series of posts would be of some use to the readers of my blog. If you found Smith's work intriguing (whether you agree or disagree with his thought processes and conclusions), I would highly recommend that you read the text for yourself. While I have earnestly attempted to faithfully set forth Smith's

position(s), I am sure that I have not only left a great deal unwritten, but have probably misunderstood him on occasion.