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Jesus the Magician? Interrogating Ancient and Modern Discourses of Ritual Power in the Gospels

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Maybe 4th-cen. BCE amphora showing a goēs, seated, perhaps holding a mirror and a something-or-other, questioning a dead man – standing, still wearing his winding-sheet. (The thing hanging from the ceiling seems to be a iunx). Image courtesy Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.

In this episode, we try to cover some of the main strands of evidence preserved in the New Testament for the idea that Jesus was practicing something we can usefully call ‘magic’. This involves some work in ad hoc definition (sigh …), discussion of the relevant passages (lots of exorcisms, nature-miracles, healings, and even the odd resurrection of the dead), a lot of discussion of modern scholarship on the subject (taking Morton Smith’s important Jesus the Magician as a starting-point, but engaging with a slew of other historians as well), and some discussion of the question, ‘If Jesus was indeed a magician, what kind of magician was he?’

Works Cited in this Episode:


Apuleius: Zatchlas the Egyptian priest raises a man from the dead: Metamorph. II.28. Tale of the miller killed by a ghost: Metamorph. IX 29-31.

Church fathers reporting accusations that Jesus was a sorcerer: Eusebius (Dem. ev. 3.6), Arnobius of Sicca (Adv. nat. 1.43), Lactantius (Inst. 4.15), Augustine (Cons. 1.10.15; Faust. 29), Athanasius of Alexandria (Inc. 48).

New Testament:

  • From Aune 1980 (see below), pp. 1523-4: ‘The miracle tradition of the gospels contains accounts of six exorcisms (The demoniac in the synagogue: Mk 1:23-27; Lk 4:33-36; The Gerasene Demoniac Mk. 5:1-20; Mt. 8;28-34, Lk. 8:26-39; the Daughter of the Syrophoenician woman: Mk. 7:24-30; Mt. 15:21-28; the ‘Epileptic’ Boy: Mk. 9:14-29; Mt. 17:14-21; Lk. 9:27-43; The Dumb Demoniac Mt. 9:32-34; the Blind and Dumb Demoniac: Mt. 12:22-23; Lk. 11:15), seventeen healings (Peter’s mother-in-law: Mk. 1:29-31; Mt. 8:14-15; Lk. 4:38-39; the Leper: Mk. 1:40; Mt. 8:1-4; Lk. 5:12-16); the paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12; Mt. 9:1-8; Lk. 5:17-26); the man with the withered hand (Mk 3:1-6; Mt. 12:9-14; Lk. 6:6-11); the daughter of Jairus (Mk. 5:21-43; Mt. 9:18-26; Lk. 8:40-56); the deaf-mute (Mk. 7:31-36); the blind man near Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26); blind Bartimæus (Mk. 10:46-52; Mt. 9:27-34; Lk. 18:35-43; the young man at Nain (Lk. 7:11-17); the bent woman (Lk. 13:10-17); the ten lepers (Lk. 17:11-19); the man with dropsy (Lk. 14:1-6); the paralytic (Jn 5:1-9); the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11); the man born blind (Jn. 9:1-41); the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8:5-13; Jn. 4:46-54)), and eight so-called nature miracles (the stilling of the storm (Mk. 4:35-41; Mt. 8:23-27; Lk. 8:22-25); the feeding of the 5000 (Mk. 6:30-44; Mt. 14:13-21; Lk. 9:10-17); the feeding of the 4000 (Mk. 8:1-10; Mt. 15:32-39); walking on water (Mk. 6:45-52; Mt. 14:22-33; Jn. 6:16-21); the cursing of the fig tree (Mk. 11:12-14, 20-26; Mt. 21:18-22); the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt. 17:24-27); the miraculous catch of fish (Lk. 5:1-11; cf. Jn. 21:1-11); the transformation of water to wine (Jn. 2:1-11)).’
  • Jesus brings dead guy back to life: e.g. Mark 16:17–18; Jn. 11.
  • Jesus accused of exorcising through the power of Beelzebul: Mk. 3:22-30 and parallels.
  • Jesus possessed: Jn. 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20 etc.
  • The charge that Jesus was an impostor: Mt. 27:63 (πλάνος); cf. Jn. 7:12 (πλανᾷ τὸν ὄχλον), 47 (Μὴ καὶ ὑμεῖς πεπλάνησθε;).
  • Healing in the name of Jesus: Used by his disciples to perform exorcisms during Jesus’ lifetime (Mt. 7:22; Lk. 10:17; cf. Mk. 16;17) as well as freelance Jews using the name for exorcisms without formal association with Jesus (Mk. 9:38 f; Lk. 9:49). Healings and exorcisms in Acts: 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 30; 9:34; 16:18; 19:13).

Infancy Gospel of Thomas (where incidentally Jesus brings some clay statues of birds to life, as well as blasting loads of people with efficacious curses, killing kids left and right, and generally causing havoc): English translation in Wilhelm Schneemelcher. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings. James Clarke & Co., Louisville, KT/London, 1991, p. 444 ff.


Aune 1980 (see below); we cite p. 1508; pp. 1529-30 (on the historicity of the NT exorcism-accounts); pp: 1523-4 for the list of miraculous effects performed by Jesus.

Samain 1923 (see below).

Smith 1978: see below.

Recommended Reading:

‘Magic’ in the Brill Encyclopædia of Early Christianity is a good introductory resource.

D. E. Aune. Magic in Early Christianity. In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, volume 23.2, pages 1507–557. de Gruyter, Berlin, 1980.

Campbell Bonner. Traces of Thaumaturgic Technique in the Miracles. Harvard Theological Review, 20:171–81, 1927.

Campbell Bonner. The Technique of Exorcism. Harvard Theological Review, 36:39–49, 1943.

Jan-A Bühner. Jesus und die antike Magie. Evangelische Theologie, 43(2):156–75, 1983.

Wendy Cotter. Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook. Routledge, London, 1999.

John M. Hull. Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition. SCM, London, 1974.

Helen Ingram. Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits. PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2007 [a great thesis, and the section on Jesus’ wand is particularly wonderful].

Naomi Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Routledge, London, 2001.

Bernd Kollmann. Jesus und die Christen als Wundertäter: Studien zu Magie, Medizin und Schamanismus in Antike und Christentum. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1996.

P. Samain. L’Accusation de magie contre le Christ dans les Évangiles. Ephemeride Theologicæ Louvanienses, 15:449–90, 1938.

Wilhelm Schneemelcher. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings. James Clarke & Co., Louisville, KT/London, 1991.

Jonathan Z. Smith. Towards Interpreting Demonic Powers in Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity. In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2, volume 16.1, pages 425–39. de Gruyter, Berlin, 1978

Morton Smith. Jesus the Magician. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1978.

Eric Sorensen. Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament and Early Christianity. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, Germany, 2002.

Graham H. Twelftree. Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus. Mohr, Tübingen, Germany, 1993.

Idem. In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among the Early Christians. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007.

Karel van der Toorn. Demons: The Demonology of Israelite-Jewish and Early Christian Literature in Context of Their Environment. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2003.