LONDON, SCM PRESS, 1974 xii + 192PP

This book is based upon Hull's University of Birmingham doctoral thesis of 1970 and is a study of the background of the miracles of Jesus in the magical world of the first Christian century.


Hellenistic Magic

and the

Synoptic Tradition


John M Hull


CONCLUSION - pp. 142-145

The results of our investigation must not be exaggerated. We do not find Jesus portrayed in the gospels as waving a wand, mumbling an elaborate incantation or carrying out the kind of magical ritual familiar in the papyri. We do find however certain aspects of the gospels which are at home in the magical world-view of the first century of our era, and a number of details relevant to the central concern of magic, namely the health, happiness, life and death of individuals threatened by hostile powers. We find that the miracles of Jesus and particularly his exorcisms and healings were interpreted as being magical at an early date, that in the light of contemporary presuppositions it was inevitable that they should have been so interpreted, and that the gospels themselves witness to early stages of this interpretation.

It is to be expected that any presentation of a religious message at any place or time would be modified by the presuppositions of the people to whom the message is addressed. This modification may take place unconsciously, as in the West today, when most Christians do not realise how Westernised is the Christianity to which they are accustomed, or consciously, as when the church in Europe seeks to adapt its message to those who live in industrial centres.

Mark's gospel presents the acts of Jesus so that they would meet the needs, interests and expectations of people exposed to the dangers of ordinary life in the first century, dangers from which a wonder-worker, a divine magician might deliver them. This adaptation was made unconsciously; it was already in process before the earliest gospel was written.

By the time the earliest gospel was written the tradition of the acts of Jesus had already become saturated with the outlook of Hellenistic magic. The Jewish Son of Man was already radiant with the mysterious magical power of the Hellenistic wonder-working Saviour. This process was aided by two factors. The first was that Jesus himself was not remembered as performing all his cures in the manner which the later, more reflective strata of the tradition presents him as doing, by a mere command. Sickness and disease did not always simply flee before the glance of the Messiah. As well as using faith, prayer, knowledge of the Torah and holiness of life, the means by which God was believed to work miracles through the rabbis, Jesus was thought to have used folk remedies. Sometimes his cures took time and trouble. It was not unknown - or so primitive elements in more than one gospel would have us believe - for him to recommend the potency of a particular holy pool or spring, for him to use popular remedies such as spittle, and for him to ask his patients if they were aware of any improvement. Above all, the two earliest of all the sets of collected materials, Q and Mark, make it clear that Jesus entered without reserve into the central conflict of the magician's art, the struggle with evil powers directly confronted in the persons of the possessed. What methods he used, whether magical or otherwise, made no difference to the immense impact made by the fact upon the early Christian communities. For them it was enough that Jesus was known to have healed the sick by various mysterious methods and to have cast out spirits. This was the starting point justified by the tradition itself from which the same tradition was to become so fully penetrated by the magical ideal.

The second impetus for this interpretation in the light of magical beliefs came from the early Hellenistic or mixed Jewish-Gentile communities set in the pagan empire. The gospel tradition was inevitably adapted to meet the needs of those who, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, ‘were all their life-time in bondage through the fear of death to the devil’. Just as the Christ figure of the Apocalypse is triumphantly adapted to meet the terrors of those suffering beneath the Roman persecution, just as the cosmic Christ of the Colossian letter satisfies the needs of those caught up in the worship of the aeons, so the Saviour described by Mark’s gospel was a deliverer for those whose lives were lived in fear of evil spirits, the constant threat of the powers of darkness to the body and mind, and to the limitations of human skill and strength.

It is due to those two pressures - the need of the exposed Christian communities and the invitation offered by the exorcism and folk healing already present in the stories of Jesus - that the Messiah in Mark has become a divine man, a wonder-working Son of God.

But although magical beliefs have so deeply influenced Mark, this is also the gospel in which these beliefs are most naive, least self-conscious. There is no awareness of the danger of pollution, of the threat of counter-attack from pagan sources - the sort of attack against which by the middle and latter part of the next century Justin and Origen were fighting. There is as yet no reaction against magic. Mark represents the first stage in any preaching of the gospel - the stage of presentation in terms suitable to the needs and expectations of the hearers. The next stage, of correction, of self-consciousness, of qualification and polemic against distortion is found in the later gospels.

In Luke we find a world-view arranged along magical lines, the battle between Jesus and his foes being presented in terms harmonious with the sort of significance attached in magic to the battle between spiritual forces. Christianity, face to face with magic as described in Acts, overcomes it by a greater power of the same kind, the source of which is traced back to the one who, indwelt bodily by the energy of the spirit world, passed his authority over the demons on to the church which confessed his mighty name.

In Matthew we find a deeper awareness of the danger of this view. Not all those who say the name shall enter the kingdom, and there are exorcists who use the name but are unknown to the Lord. The miracles are removed from the sphere of miraculous magic and replaced in the setting of the Old Testament, where in accordance with prophecy they become witnesses to the moral authority of the Servant-Messiah. If space allowed it could be shown that magic interpreted by Luke and expunged by Matthew is baptised in the Apocalypse of John, where the relationship between Christianity and magic becomes creative, and magical images and customs are taken over wholesale without compromise to the essentially eschatological nature of the church’s faith.

Was Jesus a magician? We have made little attempt to press back behind the records to the original beliefs and attitudes of Jesus. We can perhaps venture to suggest however that Jesus did not think of himself as a magician, any more than he thought of himself as pre-existent Logos or as metaphysical Son of God. But to the early Christian the myth of the magus was helpful in various ways; it drew attention to certain aspects of the salvation of Christ in a manner which no other myth was able to do. It is because the myth of the magus has been dead for so long, much earlier in its decease than the effective death of the myths of Logos and Son of God, that we find it especially difficult to appreciate today.

But perhaps the most abiding impression left by the New Testament treatment of Jesus as the Master-Magician is the restraint of that treatment. The value of the myth is recognised, at least by Mark and Luke, but even in Luke, Jesus is described as warning his church not to rejoice because the spirits were subject to them, but because their names were written in heaven. The potential of the magus-myth for Christology was not very great. He was greater than Solomon, who when invited to ask of the Lord God whatever he wished made a request; whereas Jesus, in a prayer which expresses the heart of religion, asked not for his own will but God's to be done. The records of magic contain nothing like the self-sacrifice of the Gethsemane Christ.


For other writing on biblical interpretation see:  In The Beginning There Was Darkness