‘The magician Merlin had a strange laugh,
and it was heard when nobody else was laughing...
He laughed because he knew what was coming next.’
~ Robertson Davies, World of Wonders ~
A combination of bad weather, a lacklustre congregation and the unrelenting desire of an overenthusiastic clergy to recreate the events of Holy Week in all their magnificent detail, resplendent with rusty iron nails and large wooden cross, had landed me with a speaking part in the trial narrative at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Good Friday, Holy Week, 1998. I had avoided participation in the Easter readings and drama pieces of previous years since my usual position at the organ was at a considerable distance to the main altar and the inevitable pause in the proceedings while I descended from the loft to join the cast was considered to be impracticable and time-consuming. Nevertheless, there were concerns that due to the poor turn-out for the Good Friday service that year, there could potentially be more participants in the reading of the trial narrative than seated in the congregation and so I was enlisted in the minor role of the fictional character Jolbad, a cleaner in the temple. When practicing my part before the service started, a few lines immediately leapt out of the script at me. When testifying to Jesus’ miracle-working powers before Caiaphas, my character Jolbad says:
‘He…Jesus, that is…
He does tricks,
He does magic tricks;
He does tricks with fish and bread;
He does tricks with trees;
He threatens to move mountains and ruin our landscape.’
Magic. I expect that my comprehension of the word at the time was fairly typical; a composite jumble of images consisting of Mickey Mouse with a pointy wizard’s hat in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, a vague recollection of the witch trials from history lessons at school, late night episodes of David Blaine performing card tricks on the TV, the extensive popularity of the current Harry Potter craze and recollections of a guy in a bar in Birmingham who made my ten-pound note disappear only to recover it from inside his beer glass. So was Jolbad claiming that Jesus was like Harry Potter? Or David Blaine? Or even a witch? Such a proposal seemed ridiculous to me at the time and I subsequently assumed that Jolbad was a fairly dim-witted and foolish character.
The events of that Good Friday would remain dormant until an undergraduate lecture given by Prof. Mark Goodacre (who would later become my PhD thesis supervisor) during my final undergraduate years at Birmingham University in 2001. The two-year New Testament studies course consisted of a series of lectures intended to highlight the many roles applied to Jesus in Biblical Studies, each being inserted or removed like a set of optician’s slides to see whether the Gospel content became any clearer; Jesus the teacher, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the healer, Jesus the exorcist and so forth. One of these lectures introduced me to the character of ‘Jesus the magician’ and the work of Prof. Morton Smith, who claimed that Jesus’ conduct within the Gospel material constituted a ‘coherent, consistent and credible picture of a magician’s career.’ The theory that the historical Jesus was actively practicing magic and that this behaviour is reflected in the Gospel materials was a very intriguing proposal and immediately stimulated a personal interest in this field of research.
This curiosity culminated in the submission and acceptance of my PhD thesis Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels at The University of Birmingham in April 2007, extracts of which can be found on this website. The thesis was highly praised by my contemporaries in the field of Biblical Studies but I resisted publishing it for a number of reasons. First, I wanted it to be widely read outside academia and worried that committing to an academic publisher would prevent this. Second, my research (and I) quite often fell foul of much vitriol from religious communities who thought that the subject matter was blasphemous, which was never my intent, and I worried that my working relationship with these communities would suffer as a result. Third, although I consider myself to be rational and non-superstitious, I had a number of odd, somewhat supernatural, experiences throughout the process of writing the thesis that made me reluctant to pursue the subject any further and I don’t think my nerves would take revisiting it too often! So I have taken the decision to upload extracts from the thesis in the hope that the reader may find it informative or at the very least entertaining. I have removed a great deal of referencing to make it ‘internet friendly’ and there is so much more to tell...but here are the basics for now....
‘A sound magician is a mighty god’
~ Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus,
Scene I. ~ Act I.