The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
A controversial legend, long discouraged and suppressed by the Church, is that Jesus was a magician. Count Cagliostro, for instance, described Jesus as “the first and greatest magician who ever lived.”
The Church did not take that statement as a compliment. At the time of Jesus’ life, Egypt, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean were filled with traveling magicians, many of whom specialized in healing and exorcisms. A few even claimed to have performed resurrections. (And Jesus does not perform the first or only resurrection in the Bible. The prophet Elisha earlier revives someone from the dead.)
Jesus was a contemporary of these magicians; he first came to attention as a miracle healer. His cures were what first made him famous. A recurrent theme and issue of the Gospels is that Jesus is divine, the Son of God, and not just another magician.
Was Jesus a magician or did his enemies just accuse him of being one in an attempt to deny the divine origin of his miracles? Part of the problem about attempting to answer that question is that virtually everything now known about Jesus was written by his devotees.
What did those who were not devotees say? Many, if not most ancient writings are now lost. In 396 CE, Emperor Constantine ordered books of “heretics” hunted down and eliminated. A series of decrees issued by Constantine and his successors ordered the discovery and destruction of written works that contradicted official teachings.
How do we now know anything about these writings and what they contained? Fragments of a few survive as do lists of lost books, and official refutations of their content survive. This is how we know that among the accusations early Christians were eager to refute were suggestions that Jesus was a magician. (Not everyone who perceived him as a magician presumably refuted his divinity. Simon Magus (see page 767) was openly acknowledged as a great magician but also worshipped by some as a god.)
A list of titles of lost books about Jesus attributed to Pope Gelasius (492—496 CE) ends: “We declare that these and similar works which Simon Magus…and all heretics and disciples or heretics or schismatics have taught or written…are not only repudiated but indeed purged.”
Justin Martyr, writing in Rome between 150 and 165 CE, complained that Jews were describing Jesus as “a Galilean magician.” (Among Jews, Galilee bore a reputation of retaining Pagan and/or less conventional Jewish traditions.)
Sometime near the end of the second century or the beginning of the third, a Platonist named Celsus made a study of Christianity, writing a treatise attacking it. The treatise itself no longer exits. Following the political triumph of Christianity, all copies of the treatise were destroyed, but earlier, c.247, the Christian Origen (185—254) wrote a reply, Against Celsus, quoting from the original text, and this refutation survives.
Apparently Celsus began his attack by describing Jesus as a conjuror of miracles. Because Christians know that other conjurers will also claim to perform miracles by the power of God, they will not permit the presence of other conjurers. Celsus wrote that Jesus grew up in Galilee, went to Egypt as a hired laborer and returned home as a magical practitioner.
This theory suggests that what are described as miracles ascribed to Jesus were actually performed by controlling spirits, a forerunner of High Ceremonial Magic and Commanding and Compelling. King Solomon too allegedly commanded spirits and a powerful tradition of angelic magic already existed.
Although the most common legend is that Jesus allegedly learned magic in Egypt, an alternative theory suggests that he studied with master magicians in Babylonia. He reputedly performed miracles and resurrections (including his own) via the magical use of the Ineffable Name, the greatest of all spells.
According to these legends, Jesus was allegedly tattooed with magical spells or symbols, known as “the Egyptian marks.”
In the Roman world, Jews were renowned for exorcism skills and spirit-summoning magic in the same manner that the Greeks viewed Thessalians as powerful magicians or the Nordic people viewed Saami shamans as exceptionally powerful.
The Mandaeans of southern Iraq claim descent from devotees of John the Baptist. According to Mandaean tradition, Jesus was a magician in contact with Samaritan practitioners similar to Simon Magus.
In the Gospel of Matthew 27:62 some translations suggest that the Chief Priests tell Pilate, “that deceiver said, while yet alive…” Other translations substitute the word “magician” for “deceiver.” Similarly, the Gospel of John 18:30, in some translations, has the Chief Priests describing Jesus to Pilate as a “malefactor”—a word that during certain eras (notably the Burning Times) had powerful magical implications; the quote has been interpreted as indicating that Jesus is charged before Pilate with practicing magic.
Furthermore, among the crimes punishable by crucifixion are political sedition, rebellion against the empire, rebellions by slaves against masters, rabble rousing, and the practice of magic and witchcraft.
It is possible that, like Simon Magus, some early worshippers of Jesus, particularly Gnostic devotees, adored him as a sacred magician. It is also possible that the earliest Christians were not as vehemently anti-magic as they would eventually become, and that after Christianity gained official status, previous magical aspects of the religion were suppressed.
Early Christians used the fish or ChiRo as emblems of their faith rather than the cross. According to historian Morton Smith, author of Jesus the Magician, two of the three oldest representations of the crucifixion are engraved on magical gems while the third also probably refers to Christian magical beliefs. A fourth-century gold glass plate in the Vatican Library depicts Jesus as a magician complete with wand in the process of raising Lazarus from the dead. It is not a malicious depiction. The image may be found on the cover of the 1978 paperback edition of Morton Smith’s book.
Within Jesus’ own lifetime, magicians began to use his name in spells as a Name of Power, although whether they considered themselves Christians is unknown. Acts 19:13 describes Jewish magicians and exorcists using Christ’s name, and in the Magical Papyri and Greek curse tablets of the first and second centuries, Jesus’ name is among those used to conjure and control spirits as well as perform exorcisms in Pagan as well as Christian spells.
Further Reading: Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row, 1978).