RESPONDblogs: Responding to the “Magical Jesus” Accusation

water to wine

I was speaking recently to another blogger about Jesus Christ. Jesus – the man of history, referred to in history and followed by Christians all over the world. She said that she thought Christians worshipped a magical Jesus. Someone who is not actually found in the pages of history at all. But rather – is simply the result of exaggeration and Church manipulation down thru the centuries. What she was saying was this – the miracle working Jesus must be legendary…because reports of miraculous events always are! This is legend – not history. The Jesus you worship, Stuart, is therefore not real.

 

Now I guess she is referring to the many miracle claims that the New Testament makes about Jesus life. The ones people probably remember are…turning water into wine at the wedding in Canna, feeding of the 5000…and his physical resurrection from the dead. But the New Testament records many many more.

 

Is my friend right? Is this a mythical construct superimposed on a real person?

 

Well here’s the interesting thing. In the surviving ancient historical sources that document the miracles of Jesus – none of them deny that these miracles occurred. They all assume that they did. They only dispute the reasons for their occurrence.

 

So – for example – the Jewish Talmud (certainly not favourable to the person of Jesus Christ…after all it was the Jewish religious establishment who had him crucified in the first place) says this:

 

“On the eve of Passover they hung Jeshu the Nazarine. And the herald went out before him for 40 days [saying]: “Jeshu the Nazarine will go out to be stoned for sorcery and misleading and enticing Israel.”[1]

Now – notice. The Jewish people recorded their traditions in the Talmud. The manuscripts that survive today in printed form give a fascinating insight into the ancient Jewish assessment of the Jesus who lived amongst them. David Instone-Brewer believes what we have here is the actual charge sheet read out against Jesus prior to his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman government.

The problem that the Jews had with Jesus – is that he did miraculous deeds! The underlying assumption of the Talmud – is just this fact. They accuse him of “sorcery and misleading and enticing Israel” so their assumption was that his miraculous deeds themselves were coming from an evil source (not Yahweh). But the assumption remains in this ancient account from the enemies of Jesus – he worked miracles just as the New Testament explains in detail.

Christians aren’t worshipping a legendary construct – we are worshipping a historical person.

 

Another example is – the Greek intellectual Celsus. He “attacks Christianity with force and ridicule.”[2] Writing in the second century, Celsus criticizes Christianity and Jesus in particular. He says this, “having tried his hand at certain magical powers, Jesus returned from there (Egypt), and on account of those powers gave himself the title of God.”[3]

 

Again – we have an enemy of Christianity assuming that the miracle reports were true, but trying to explain them away by some other means. In this case, Celsus decides that Jesus must have learned his special abilities from Egyptian magicians.

 

Christians don’t worship a magical Jesus. They worship the man whose miracles are documented from the first century.

 

A third source is Josephus. Scholars have decided that the passage about Jesus in Antiquities 18 has been interpolated by medieval Christians (added to and embellished), yet a general consensus of opinion amongst scholars is that the original text from Josephus can be clearly uncovered….

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders…”[4]

Geza Vermes, a Jewish professor from Oxford University says, “For Christians Jesus was the miracle working Son of God. For later, hostile Jews he was a magician. Josephus stands in the middle: for him Jesus was a wise man and a performer of extraordinary deeds.”[5]

 

But notice again the underlying assumption. As John Dickson summarises the situation…

“There can be little doubt, in other words, that friend and foe alike thought Jesus to be a wonder-worker of some kind.”[6]

 

I have pointed to 3 sources – scholars point to seven, independent sources that document Jesus as a doer of wonders. Including the New Testament documents themselves which are prized by Historians for both their early date, their incredibly good preservation through the centuries (thousands of extant manuscripts), and the clear statement of intent in these documents – they were written so that we would believe in the resurrected Jesus.

“Historians…do not privilege the New Testament texts, as Christians do, but nor do they approach them with sceptical prejudice. The Gospels are treated like any other historical text of the first century, whether those of Tacitus or Josephus…The fact is, mainstream experts overwhelmingly agree that the core of the gospel narrative is historically sound.”[7]

 

But what about other ancient historical people who claimed magical powers for themselves. Should we be convinced by those too?

Let’s look at an example. Apollonius was born in Tyana, Turkey and travelled widely preaching Neo-pythagorean philosophy. He is also reported to have performed countless wonders – including raising a child from the dead.

The problem with these reports – is that there are no reports as such. We do not have the wealth of independent early evidence that we have for the life of Jesus. The stories about Apollonius come from a single source – Life of Apollonius, written in the third century over one hundred years after Apollonius’ death. In comparison to this, the reports of Jesus life are like a 21st century excited tweet from the scene itself.

 

Is my friend right? Is the miracle working Jesus an elaborate, ahistorical construct designed to mislead the gullible? Not according to the enemies of Christianity in the first and second century. Not at all. Many will dispute these early reports of Jesus life and his miracles. But what we cannot claim…is that legend has built up over time about a “magical” Jesus. The earliest historical evidence does not permit it.

[1] David Instone-Brewer and Peter J. Williams, “Expert Evidence on the Crucifixion of Jesus,” accessed May 12th 2015, http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/expert-evidence-on-the-crucifixion-of-jesus.

[2] John Dickson, The Christ Files: How Historians Know What they Know about Jesus, Zondervan, 35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Tabor, “Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus and James,” Tabor Blog, accessed May 12th 2015, http://jamestabor.com/2012/08/12/josephus-on-john-the-baptizer-jesus-and-james/.

[5] John Dickson, Life of Jesus: Who He Is and Why He Matters, Zondervan, 63.

[6] Ibid., 83.

[7] Ibid., 40.

 

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

5 thoughts on “RESPONDblogs: Responding to the “Magical Jesus” Accusation”

  1. “Not according to the enemies of Christianity in the first and second century.”

    You mean, not according to people who historically were prone to believing in magic and sorcery and not question it too harshly? Yes. True.

    Still, there is evidence for a historical person named Jesus. Which is fine. But the evidence for a Jesus with supernatural abilities is not significantly better than the evidence for alien abductions or the evidence for Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter.

    1. Countless people have been executed on the basis of being magic. It’s obviously not evidence for magic being a thing. It’s important to not dismiss it entirely, because that’s dumb, but you do need a little more evidence than vague references in court documents, especially for a claim like that. Burden of proof and all that.

      1. Thanks for your comment Ashley. I absolutely agree. Lots of unfortunate folks have met an early end as a result of superstition and ignorance.

        But what we have for Jesus is evidence that something very different was happening. It wasn’t the miracles that made Jesus unpopular and led to his crucifixion. It was his claim to be God himself. It was his challenge to the strict monotheistic religious establishment of his day.

        I also agree with you on your other point…you need to have solid evidence if you are going to treat Jesus claims seriously. I’m wondering what you think about the evidence for the life of Jesus that we have in the New Testament gospels? These aren’t vague references, after all. These are biographies.

        Stu

    2. Hey there –

      So…I’m wondering who you are talking about when you refer to people prone to believing in magic…and not question it too harshly?

      If you are referring to the writers of the Talmud, then I would disagree. They constructed an elaborate set of rules around working out whether someone was just doing magic tricks…or whether someone was actually working the supernatural. Did they examine things closely? Yes – because it was a legal matter for them.

      But I do agree – if you put classical history from the first century thru the shredder…along with the new testament and two thousand years of church history…there is no evidence for a supernatural Jesus. The enemies of Jesus assumed his supernatural status…and they countered these assumptions with naturalistic explanations. You can read it in both the extra-Biblical and the New Testament accounts.

      Did they ignorantly see the supernatural where no such event occurred? Well – dead people stay dead. Water stays as water (at room temperature). Lame people live out their lives on the ground. You don’t need to live in a post-enlightenment world to intuitively get this. Yet Jesus challenged and overturned all of these naturalistic and normal observable experiences for those people. The chief priests (the people not questioning things too harshly?) were the first to counter Jesus missing corpse with a naturalistic explanation…”Tell people, His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we were sleeping.” If thats all that really happened after his crucifixion, I can guarantee that I wouldn’t be talking to you about it today on my blog. 🙂

      But I also agree…if we are locked into a material naturalism as a worldview – if there is no God – then miracles aren’t allowed a priori. Yet if God does exist…and the Universe is already his handiwork…then water into wine would be childsplay for him…right?

      Stu

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