John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2, ch. 18 : Miracles and Ancient Minds,
pp 535-575

(Detailed summary)

Can we classify Jesus among the great magicians of antiquity?


That there is a certain similarity in form, themes and motifs between the miracle stories of the gospels and those of the Greco-Roman world should not come as a surprise: it is quite normal that the evangelist used the language of the surrounding culture. But it is quite different when one identifies miracle and magic, as sociology and cultural anthropology seek to do. Jesus cannot be ranked with the great magicians of antiquity.

First of all, since there is no consensus on the definition of magic, it is better to speak of a sliding scale where at one end of the spectrum we find the miracle, and at the other the magic, and between the two extremes, various mixtures. An example of the ideal type of miracle is the raising of Lazarus, which takes place in an atmosphere of interpersonal relationship marked by love and faith and becomes a sign of the merciful being of God and of Jesus as the source of life. At the other end of the spectrum, the magic papyrus of Paris represents the ideal type of magic with its exorcism recipe of special ingredients and long unintelligible incantations. Some gospel stories have a few magical notes, just as some Greco-Roman stories have a flavor of authentic spirituality. But the two ideal types have opposite characteristics: on the one hand, the miracle story revolves around an interpersonal relationship of faith and succinct, intelligible words, and expresses a greater reality, such as the partial realization of God's reign, while on the other hand magic represents an effort to harness the forces of a capricious deity by means of unintelligible, secret formulas, and thus to fulfill a client's mundane demands, such as winning a horse race. The gospel stories clearly revolve around the first ideal type.

  1. Some basic problems

    In antiquity, the attitude towards miracles is very different from the one observed today: there is of course an elite that denies its possibility, but for the majority of people in the Greco-Roman world the miracle is part of the religious landscape.

  2. Pagan and Jewish parallels to Gospel Miracles

    In the early 20th century, the German school of the history of religion (religion geschichte) demonstrated that the miracle stories of Jesus reflect the same forms, themes, and motifs found in pagan and Jewish stories. On this point, however, three observations must be made.

    1. Many of the pagan and Jewish stories were written several centuries after the last gospel.
    2. While the gospel accounts present Jesus as someone working miracles by virtue of his own power, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the rabbinic accounts describe instead pious people who receive a swift, dramatic and superhuman response to their requests for special favors (rain, healings).
    3. The very fact of establishing a literary parallel between the gospel miracles says nothing about their historicity: it is normal that the evangelist used the forms and themes known to his time to tell his story. The same can be said of the vocabulary chosen.

  3. Miracle and Magic

    Alongside the parallels with pagan and Jewish miracles, there is the question of the close links between miracle and magic. The way in which biblical accounts of miracle workers such as Moses, Elijah and Elisha were repeated in synagogue celebrations in Jesus' day, or the references to exorcisms and horoscopes in Qumran, all indicate that miracle and magic were very much present. So let's ask the question: do the gospel accounts of miracles represent an example of Greco-Roman magic?

    1. Magic and the Social Sciences

      In the 20th century, sociology and cultural anthropology extended the work begun by form criticism and did useful work. But for them, there is no objective difference between the miracles found in the gospels and the magical actions described by the papyri, the news and the Greco-Roman historians. We must hasten to make two remarks here

      1. Social scientists may repeat that the word magic has no negative connotation, that it comes from the Persian word for "priest" and that it is another way of designating religious observances, but the fact remains that in Greco-Roman society it conveyed negative vibrations and served as ammunition in various polemics. This is still the case today in academic circles, despite claims to the contrary. If one really wants a neutral term, then it is better to use the word miracle.

      2. One may question the claim that there is no real phenomenological difference between the miracle stories of Jesus told in the gospels and what is found, for example, in the magical papyri of Roman times. The scholarly literature has tried to propose various definitions of magic. But no consensus has been reached, and no single definition manages to cover what is found in all times and places in all cultures.

    2. Ideal Types from the Gospels and the Papyri

      So, rather than looking for two different definitions, we propose a sliding scale or continuum which would reflect at one end the ideal type of miracle, and at the other end the ideal type of magic, and between these two extremes various mixtures of the two. Both the gospel texts and the magical papyri provide us with examples.

      Let's start with the gospel miracles. A good example is the story of the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11). First of all, we are immersed in an atmosphere of interpersonal love between Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and of personal faith in Jesus, not the mercantile faith of a client paying for a service. But above all, the miracle has a purpose beyond the good that is conferred, that of revealing the merciful being of God and of arousing faith in Jesus as the source of life; the miracle becomes the sign of a deeper reality. Even the person who receives the good becomes a missionary of the good news. Of course, this perspective may take on different colors depending on the evangelist, with faith following rather than preceding the action, but these elements of personal relationship and faith are always present, so much so that their absence carries an element of responsibility and guilt on the part of the witnesses. We are far from an impersonal force to be harnessed or capricious deities to be cajoled or cornered with long incantations or mysterious rites.

      Let us now turn to the magic papyri of the Greco-Roman period, which cover the period from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. Let's take the famous specimen of the Great Magic Papyrus of the National Library of Paris. It contains the recipe for a successful exorcism with virgin olive oil mixed with herbs and fruit pulp and boiled in marjoram, all accompanied by an unpronounceable list of names of gods from various nations recited by the exorcist. The idea of all these incomprehensible names and syllables is to press various buttons to finally find the one that will give the desired effect. This desired effect ranges from freeing the demon to winning a horse race or a sum of money or the heart of a loved one or a legal action or getting an erection for oneself or a catastrophic action for a rival. The magical approach is eminently pragmatic: the magician is paid for a service using special techniques, when ordinary means have failed.

      Between these two extremes of the spectrum we find gospel accounts that display elements of magic, and magical papyri that contain elements of spirituality. Take the story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mk 5:24-34: the woman is immediately healed by an electrical charge from Jesus' cloak. But such an automatic and anonymous healing is truly atypical of the gospel accounts, and the scene ends with Jesus insisting that it was through her faith that she was healed. Matthew (Mt 9:22) presents the healing only after Jesus' words about her faith. On the pagan side, there is the example of the Liturgy of Mithras, contained in the magic papyrus of Paris, which describes the mystical ascent of the soul and insists on the personal relationship of the praying person who asks for a favor from the deity, a reflection of authentic spirituality. Similarly, Apuleius, in his The Golden Ass or The Metamorphoses, describes the transition from magic to a personal religion: in the conversion of his hero, Lucius, from a donkey to a human form, he presents the transition from someone wading in the dark and harmful world of magic to someone who changes his life and commits himself wholeheartedly to the cult of Isis.

      In short, in the gospels and in the magical papyri, extra-human power can be represented at various points on our sliding scale between the two extremes; the gospel accounts, like some elements of pagan and Jewish literature, are more on the side of miracles.

    3. Listing the Characteristics of the Types

      In general, the typology of the miracle as seen in the gospels contains the following elements:

      1. A context where an interpersonal relationship of faith, trust and love prevails
      2. The person in need is a faithful believer or follower, not a corporate client
      3. Jesus grants the miracle in succinct but intelligible words, in his own language
      4. With a few exceptions, miracles happen because the miracle worker is willing to respond to the requester's urgent request, not because he is forced to do so
      5. In the Gospels, the overall context is that of Jesus fulfilling the will of his Father and the mission he has entrusted to him
      6. In the Gospels, miracles are the symbol and partial realization of the reign of God
      7. Jesus' miracles are not meant to punish or harm anyone.

      At the other end of the spectrum, magic reflects opposite elements:

      1. Magic is a technique for manipulating various supernatural forces or forcing the deity to grant the desired benefit
      2. The benefit sought is very down-to-earth: winning a horse race or a lover
      3. For the magician, each action is unique and does not point to any global reality such as a salvation story or an eschatological drama
      4. The magician does not function in the context of a community of disciples: he has a clientele, not a church
      5. In the magic formulas, various names of deities and unintelligible sequences of syllables are multiplied
      6. Magic has a secret and esoteric element.

      At both ends of the spectrum, miracle and magic are rooted in the strong tendencies of two types of literature. With this framework, we have an objective basis for designating Jesus as a miracle worker, rather than a magic worker.

    4. Final Remarks on Jesus as Magician

      In addition to all that we have just said, there are other reasons for dismissing the term "magic" when speaking of Jesus. First, although the New Testament knows the words "magician" (Acts 13:6) and "magic" (Acts 8:11), it never applies them to Jesus. Afterwards, Jesus' opponents will accuse him of working for Beelzebul, of blasphemy, of deceiving people, but never of practicing magic or being a magician. The first accusations of practicing magic date back to the middle of the 2nd century CE by the Jew Tryphon, at least according to the testimony of Justin (100-168) in his First Apology and his Dialogue with Tryphon. Similarly, the Greek Epicurean philosopher Celsus, in his work, the True Discourse, written around 178, makes the same accusations. Finally, it was only certain miracles that aroused fierce opposition:

      • Those who seemed to operate with demonic forces;
      • Those that were made on the Sabbath, in violation of the religious law.

Next chapter: Are Jesus' miracles historical facts?

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