The case for the prosecution

Saturday, 28 February

For the entirety of that afternoon I wasn’t sure whether I was learning from a genius or humouring a madman. Don’t get me wrong, our discussion was very entertaining indeed, but Leonard’s argument sounded a little far-fetched at times and for a while I found myself busily devising a polite way to change the subject. However Leonard persevered in spite of my quizzical looks and before long I was won over by his enthusiasm and the strength of the evidence that he presented to support his case. Although I struggle to remember every precise detail of our conversation, the main points went as follows...

Leonard explained that both the opponents and followers of Jesus agreed that Jesus was a miracle-worker but they strongly disagreed on the source of his miracle-working powers. On the one hand the early Christians claimed that Jesus’ healing and exorcistic powers came directly from God, but on the other hand his opponents denied a divine source of Jesus’ powers and they accused him of performing magic. Leonard said that as Christianity became increasingly mainstream and grew in popularity, the Christian movement seized the opportunity to distance Jesus from these allegations of magic, but their efforts were in vain because these stories had already penetrated deep into the tradition and they even appear in the accounts of Jesus’ ministry that we have today.

I asked, rather rudely upon reflection, for specific examples of these allegations of magic and Leonard was more than happy to oblige. He cited three intriguing accounts from the Babylonian Talmud: the first contained a straightforward declaration that Jesus practiced sorcery, the second reported that Jesus learned magic in Egypt and he cut magical formulas and symbols into his skin and the third was a story in which Jesus’ trial is extended to a period of forty days to allow people to defend him from accusations of magical activity before he is eventually hung as a sorcerer. Leonard then went on to give the names of early Christian apologists who refer to these and other similar stories and he mentioned the ancient Christian writers Tertullian and Justin Martyr, both of whom were particularly vocal when addressing these allegations of magic in the second-century AD. He also recounted a passage to me from the medieval polemical gospel Toledoth Yeshu in which Jesus learns the ‘Ineffable Name of God’ and the knowledge of this name allows its bearer to do whatever he wishes (our discussion turned into story-time at that point and I felt as though I should be sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, yawning and asking to go to the toilet).

Surprised by these extraordinary accounts, I asked whether these stories had been invented by Jesus’ enemies and they were simply malicious attacks on Jesus’ character with little or no factual basis at all. Although Leonard agreed that polemics may have been a contributing factor, he said that allegations of magic are not confined to Jewish religious texts and he referred to several reports that appear in the literature produced by other cultures that had come into contact with the Jesus tradition. He was also quick to add that similar stories can also be found in Christian sources and, although the names and titles that he mentioned came too thick and fast for me to provide a comprehensive list here, one or two names stood out, such as the fourth-century Christian apologist Arnobius who wrote that Jesus was accused of stealing the ‘names of the angels of might’ from the Egyptian temples and he was able to perform magic as a result. 

Leonard then asked if I was familiar with ‘The Infancy Gospel of Thomas’. When I answered that I was unaware of this gospel, he stood out of his chair and reached up to a high shelf and fetched down a book entitled New Testament Apocryphal Works, then returned to his seat, opened the book and began quoting from a passage in the ‘Infancy Gospel’ in which the young Jesus performs a variety of magical feats as a child, such as modelling sparrows out of clay which subsequently fly away. He was silent for a few moments while he scanned down the page and, when he had located the relevant section, he began quoting examples of the young and exceptionally tantrum-prone Jesus using his powers for destructive purposes such as killing his fellow children and blinding whoever opposes him. In one particularly disturbing episode, the destructive powers of the young Jesus were feared to such an extent that no-one dared to upset him for fear that they would be maimed and in another passage Joseph urged Jesus’ mother not to let Jesus go outside because if anyone angered him then they would be killed. 

These were extremely unusual and somewhat incendiary reports of Jesus’ life and I was keen to hear more about them, but the most surprising aspect of Leonard’s story-time was not the content of these stories but the fact that I had not encountered them before, not in academic circles within the university nor through my work at St. Bartholomew’s Church. If these stories really do exist - which from all accounts appears to be the case - then they are very well hidden and largely ignored...and perhaps rightly so if my shocked response was any indication of their general reception!