IIt’s Halloween weekend, when spooky yet sexy becomes a universally acceptable dress code. While deception may be off the table due to the pandemic, sexy demons, witches, and wizards are still on the sartorial menu. While the satanic undertones of Halloween may seem like a world away from the immaculate godliness of Christianity, it has to be argued that the most famous magician of all time is not Harry Potter or Gandalf, but Jesus Christ. himself.
To us modern readers, who often first encounter the stories of Jesus in churches scented with incense or the muted tones of a Bible study, the biography and abilities of the Son of God may seem especially special. But there were a number of people in the ancient world who could perform what we might describe as miracles, magic, or wonders. A number of Roman historians tell us that Emperor Vespasian could cure blindness, restore a “withered hand” and even assist in a case involving a damaged leg (all of which Jesus is said to have done). The mathematician Pythagoras and the Emperor Augustus are said to have cured “plagues”. And a competitor of the Apostle Peter, a man known as Simon Magus, could apparently fly. Many of these accounts are more like Elvis’ sightings that adorn the pages of the “newspapers” at the grocery store checkout than reliable accounts of historical events.
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Then, of course, there is the resurrection, the most important supernatural event in the Christian Bible. Some theologians argue that the resurrection is a unique event that sets Jesus apart from other human beings who have been temporarily rescued (such as Lazarus) or who were taken alive to heaven. While we don’t really know if the ancient public cared about the permanence of the resurrection, they were in awe that people could resurrect the dead. This is something the philosopher Empedocles was apparently capable of, and a wandering healer called Apollonius of Tyana could also bring the deceased back to life.
This is not to say that all of these men were wizards, but rather that the ability to heal, break the laws of physics, or cheat death was not restricted to the early Christians. More interestingly, no one, not even monotheists like the early Christians, disputed that members of rival groups could do this sort of thing. They simply asserted that their own methods and sources of power were superior. In the Gospels, Jesus’ rivals accuse him of being possessed by a demon and use it to explain how he performs exorcisms. There are also mentions of people not affiliated with Jesus casting out demons in his name. Apparently, you didn’t have to be baptized or a follower of Jesus to use his power.
In 1978, Columbia historian Morton Smith published Jesus the magician in which he argued that Jesus was one of many ancient magicians and that his ministry is best understood as a work of wonders. He maintained that while healing the sick, exorcising demons, turning water into wine, multiplying bread, and walking on water we read as signs of the divine nature of Jesus in his day, he looked like a magician. If you transplanted Jesus to Hogwarts, it looks like he wouldn’t even stand out.
There are even examples of early Christian artwork that seem to support this theory. Stone reliefs on ancient Christian sarcophagi and the walls of catacombs under Rome regularly show Jesus (and sometimes Peter) healing people while holding or even pointing to something that looks a lot like a wand. In fact, he is holding a staff and while we can also associate this with the wizards of Tolkien, it was more likely a way of connecting Jesus to the Bible prophet Moses.
Even if the artistic evidence does not hold up, it is clear that some outside of Christianity also considered Jesus to be a magician. Celsus, a Roman philosopher and critic of Christianity, said that Jesus was a magician who had learned his trade in Egypt. Dr Shaily Patel, professor of early Christianity at Virginia Tech and specialist in ancient magic, told the Daily beast that Christians have spent a lot of time defending themselves against these claims. Origen, the third-century head of a sort of Christian university in Alexandria, “spread a lot of ink about the fact that Jesus’ wonderful actions were not magical because they were aimed at things like reform. morality and salvation instead of the sort of salon deceptions. displayed by market wizards. “
It is likely, Patel added, that Celsus and Origen stereotyped magicians in their comments on Jesus, but questions about the founder of Christianity stem from the fact that there were other ancient wonders accomplished that did the same sort of thing. things. In this case, to call someone a “magician,” Patel continued, is a matter of delegitimization. It’s a way of slandering someone by associating them with something negative.
As David Frankfurter argued in his recent Ancient Magic Study Guide, the problem with these conversations about magic is that they usually start with an assumption about what magic really is. This definition, in turn, is a scholarly reconstruction that rests on centuries of accumulation of prejudices and assumptions. Patel pointed out that magic wasn’t always seen as a bad thing or even something the uneducated populace did. She told me that when the Platonic philosopher Apuleius of Madura was tried for “bad acts of magic”, he argued, among other things, that magic is no different from philosophy. In fact, in the ancient world, it is not always easy to distinguish between magic, medicine and religion. The supernatural is entwined with everything from ancient physics to philosophy, healthcare and even banking. When an elite ancient writer describes one person as a philosopher and another as a magician, he often writes these differences down.
All of this to say that Jesus maybe deserves a place alongside all of today’s Halloween costumes, whether they be tasteful or Tiger King and Karen. After all, and even socially distant, who wouldn’t want a guest who can turn tap water into alcohol and multiply the snack options?
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