Of the hundreds of books that are written in biblical scholarship each and every year, handful of make a lengthy term influence and have an extended shelf life. Very handful of certainly deserve to be study and reread thirty-5 years soon after their original look. Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician is 1 of them, a twentieth-century classic, uncannily intelligent, extremely discovered, and however accessible to laypersons as nicely as scholars, a book deserving a spot on the bookshelf of everybody interested in Jesus of Nazareth and the history of religion in antiquity.
–Bart Ehrman, Preface to the 2014 reprint of Jesus the Magician
In 1978 Morton Smith published a preferred trade book titled Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row, San Francisco). To contact it “controversial” is an understatement. Credit goes to legendary Harper editor John Louden for his encouraging and courageous efforts to offer the public with the ideal of such scholarship.1
In the October 26, 1978 situation of the New York Assessment of Books, Frank Kermode provided a scathing critique of Morton Smith’s book titled “The Quest for the Magical Jesus.” Smith of course responded and Kermode replied to him. The exchange is “classic Smith” and worth a cautious reading. You can access it on-line here.
Thirty-5 years soon after its initial publication a new edition came out with a forward by Bart Ehrman, see his Weblog post “Jesus the Magician.”two
I want to commend to my readers Morton Smith’s classic volume–either for reading or re-reading, as the case may well be. Considerably like Schweitzer, whom I think about my literary “mentor,” in whose shadow I can not even stand, and a handful of other books on Jesus, this 1 in no way grows old. My colleagues are hopelessly divided on classifying and labeling the “historical figure of Jesus,” as E. P. Sanders puts it. Was he a failed Messiah, an Apocalyptic Prophet, an itinerant Stoic/Cynic philosopher, a Charismatic Rabbi, an illiterate Galilean peasant, or a nationalistic Zealot–or some mixture of all of these? What most of these categorical portrayals fail to take into account is that Smith’s use of the figure of the “Magician” in late Antiquity is applicable to all of these sub-categories. In other words, the ancient Mediterranean globe, whether or not 1 is speaking about Jewish or non-Jewish religious figures and movements, is completely Hellenized from stem to stern.
As the “other” Smith, Jonathan Z., used to say to his classes as we delved into letters like 1 Coninthians, “Don’t assume if you time-traveled back to an early gathering of Paul’s “Christ Mystics” you would have an understanding of a damned factor about what was going on ritually.” This was not a standard “Church Service,” or Rabbinic Talmudic academy, as issues sooner or later created liturgically by the 4th century CE. What we have these days, even with the “most liturgical” of Christian or Jewish traditions, East and West, is a domesticated normalized version of the magical mystery tour we now contact “early Christianity.”
Most vital, all of these types of Jewish expression in the late 2nd Temple period will need to be set in their wider astral mystical context of Hellenistic Mediterranean religions extra frequently. Apotheosis is the only game in town. Just after all, “these issues had been not carried out in a corner.” To picture the “crazy stuff” only came later with the so-known as “Gnostics” reflects not only a category error, but an inexcusable ignorance of the wider globe of Hellenistic religions–not as background to early Christianity but as its base and foundation. Right here I refer my earnest readers to Jonathan Z. Smith’s incomparable survey in the Encyclopedia Britannica “Hellenistic Religions.” Run, do not stroll to study this 1.