“Magic Lies at the Very Heart of Christianity”

Jesus: Exorcist, Magician, Lord and Savior

In the subdued lighting of a church in Spain, I saw a woman touching the frame of a saint portrait as she prayed. A vial of Pope John Paul II’s blood toured the United States in 2004—yes, a vial of blood was displayed in the center of a gold reliquary—especially precious because it qualifies as a body part of a saint; apparently a spiritual benefit could be derived by being in the presence of this holy artifact. Billions of time a day, Christians conclude their supplications to God with the words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”

It seems to go unnoticed by the faithful that these practices reflect magical thinking. That is, beings—or a supreme being—in the spiritual realm can be manipulated for human benefit if we touch, view, or say something here on the ground on planet Earth. But there is no known mechanism, for example, by which prayer works: the thoughts bouncing around in our heads, even our most intense thoughts that qualify as prayers: just how do they escape our skulls to reach the god who runs the Cosmos, in whatever realm this deity resides? It’s always been comforting—or terrifying—that this god knows our thoughts. But that’s not falsifiable because there’s no way to test it, which suits religious bureaucrats just fine. Hence the plea of priests and preachers for centuries: Believe it on our say-so, take it on faith.

People know better when they see magic in a Disney movie—that’s just fun. But they fail to notice the magic at the heart of religious practice, especially magical thinking that is so firmly rooted in Christian thought. This is hardly a surprise: The Bible fuels magical thinking, as Robert Conner illustrates in his essay, “Miracles of the Christian Magicians,” in John Loftus’ anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

Humans have always imagined an abundant population in spiritual realms. Even after belief in a supreme god, a high god who runs everything, became popular, other “spirits” were assumed to play their own roles. So much of the evil in the world, for example, has to be the work of Satan, who inexplicably gets away with being God’s rival. But there is a hierarchy of spirits, good and evil, angels, saints and demons—all of whom can interfere, intervene, in human affairs. Or so humans imagine, and have done so for millennia.

In his essay, Conner describes belief in this swarming spiritual realm in the ancient world, the milieu in which Christianity arose. Study of these superstitions is fascinating, and of course, we bump into major embarrassments. The gospel of Mark could be subtitled, Jesus and the Demons, because here we read that demons knew who Jesus was (they resided in the spiritual realm and had inside information), and Jesus had to smack them down whenever he could; in Mark 5, by his use of a magic spell, he transferred them into pigs. Indeed, readers today—at least those tuned in to how the world works—can see that these stories damage Christianity.

Near the start of his essay, Conner points out that Luke was sure that Jesus also had inside information about how demons operate. This is a cringe-worthy Jesus quote, Luke 11:24-26:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

Unseen spirits wreaking havoc on human lives and property? How does this dose of magical thinking differ from what we’d hear from a storefront medium babbling on about revelations during a séance?

Can’t the Son of God do better than this? Well, not as he is represented by the superstitious authors who created the gospels. “To the dismay of Christian apologists,” Conner points out, “the cloven hoof prints of magic can be traced throughout the gospels, Acts, and letters of Paul” (p. 452). He quotes an observation by Harry J. Magoulias: “…magic indeed lies that the very heart of Christianity” (p. 452).

When Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the “good news” of the kingdom, he also authorizes them to cast out demons, Mark 3:14-15: “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” This demon threat, so thought Jesus—or Mark—had to be handled:

“Jesus and his troupe, the Ghostbusters of Galilee, hit the Podunks of Palestine, spinning the heads of yokels. Spirits fled, paralytics picked up their cots, and the people declared, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this!’” (pp. 454-455)

It would seem that Jesus the Exorcist became as popular as Jesus the Preacher. “Jesus’ fame as an exorcist continued to spread; soon other exorcists began to invoke the power of his name—‘for his name became known.’ Jesus’ name was literally a name to conjure with. ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he was not one of us’” (p. 455). Also, Matthew 6:22: “Did we not cast out demons in your name and in your name perform many wonders?”

Thus, for these writers, Jesus’ Name had become one of many magic spells; the powers of the spiritual world were invoked to bring desired changes. This thinking became so imbedded in Christian thought that its status as a magic spell isn’t even noticed. In fact, it is embraced today by Christians: “In Jesus’ name we pray’’—as if that will seal the deal with God.

Prayer itself is magical thinking, as I indicated earlier: somehow human thoughts influence the gods. Is there any difference between prayer and incantation?

We have learned so much about the context in which Christian arose. Again, Conner’s insights:

“Reading across the ever-expanding literature on ancient magical arts it’s clear that Jewish magical folklore, based in large part on Babylonian and Canaanite folklore, forms the basis of Christian magical folklore, which in turn incorporates elements of Greco-Egyptian magical belief.

“Comparing the gospels with similar material from contemporaneous Mediterranean cultures, the distinction between prayer and incantation, miracle and magic, dissipates like an early morning fog” (p. 461).

There are favorite miracles that Christians are sure confirm their faith:

• A woman is cured of a 12-year flow of blood by touching Jesus’ garment.
• A man who was blind from birth is cured when Jesus makes mud with his saliva and smears it on his eyes.
• A paralytic was able to get up and walk because Jesus forgave his sins.
• Jesus performs a voice-activated resurrection in John 11: he raises Lazarus by saying, “Come out!”
• Peter’s shadow heals people (Act 5).
• People are healed when touched by Paul’s handkerchief or apron (Acts 19).

What are the chances? That, yes, these things happened and deserve belief? Or that these are elements borrowed from folklore? Conner offers important perspective:

“During the late 19th century various magical papyri collected by antiquarians were published, and in 1928 and 1931 Preisendanz issued the first edition of his well-known two-volume collection of the papyri, Papyri Graecea Magicae, a trove of documents that opened a window on the religio-magical lore of Jesus’ era.

“That Jesus conformed in both word and deed to the magical praxis of his day became increasingly well recognized.

“Book length examinations of the evidence for magic in the New Testament followed. John Hull’s classic, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition…appeared in 1974, followed in 1978 by Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician, a work aimed at a general readership and still in print, a book that earned its author the everlasting animus of biblical literalists” (p. 458).

Conner’s analysis of the Eucharist is especially helpful:

“That no ritual of the Christian liturgy is more overtly magical than the Eucharist has long been recognized” (p. 462). He offers two choice quotes from observers more than a century ago:

• “The Sacraments especially come within the definition of magical functions…” according to Herbert Chatley [1908], who also quoted Pope Honorius: “I conjure thee by virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ contained daily in the chalice.”

• Fredrick C. Conybeare [1910]: “Whether, therefore, Christ himself instituted this sacrament or whether Paul, under the influence of his ecstatic revelations, merely fathered it on Christ, in either case ideas and conceptions which to-day we call magical underlay and motivated it…It would be against all analogy that an institution so tainted with magic from the first as was the Eucharist, should not, as the ages rolled by, gather about it ever fresh accretions of superstition” (p. 462).

Christians who are accustomed to the pious fog that surrounds the Eucharist would do well to skip the synoptic version—which is bad enough, i.e., “Take, eat, this is my body”—and look hard at the grotesque version found in John 6:53-57.

This is an explicit claim about the power of magic potions:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Yes, this is disgusting. Perhaps the author of John was testing those in the Jesus cult: If you don’t like it, maybe you should leave—and he reports that some did just that: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6:60)… Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66)

But over the long haul this was not a problem—such is the power of magical thinking: You get out of dying if you drink human blood and eat human flesh. Well, it’s not actually human after all, is it? It’s divine blood and flesh—the Catholic Church nailed this idea with transubstantiation—and parents, priests, and preachers tell even toddlers it’s okay; then, at age seven, they are officially initiated into this superstition, with great ceremony. There was nothing quite so formal about it in the Methodist tradition in which I grew up. As a kid I went to the altar with my mother to get the tiny cube of bread and thimble-sized glass of grape juice. We pretended that we were consuming symbols of Jesus body parts. No one was there to tap me on the shoulder: “That’s pretty gross, you know.”

Conner includes two Ignatius quotes which, I suspect—along with John 6:53-57—played a role in the official adoption of transubstantiation.

The Eucharist is

• “…the medicine (pharmakon) of immortality, the antidote that [we] not die, but live forever in Jesus Christ.”

• “…charged with a magical quality for keeping both body and soul deathless.” (pp. 464 & 465)

Most of the faithful don’t bother to read the Bible, let alone study it at any depth. And they seldom do serious probing of Christianity’s ancient context.

Conner’s informative and entertaining essay is a good place to start. He states at the end:

“A summary of the evidence for magical praxis in the career of Jesus and for magical belief in the early Church would hardly fit within a work of a thousand pages…

“The biblical world is magical throughout, top to bottom, end to end, and the few examples given in this chapter barely skim the surface of the cumulative evidence. The conclusion is incontrovertible: to enter into the world of Jesus and primitive Christianity is to enter fully into the world of magic” (p. 466).

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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