Magic and Misunderstanding in John 8

640px-Death_of_simon_magusA paper I wrote examined the dispute between Jesus and Jerusalem Jews recorded in John 8. I began with a well-trodden observation: in John 8:42-58 the typical Johannine misunderstanding motif is afoot. That is, the Jews do not understand what Jesus is saying. Their questions and accusations disclose that Jesus and his opponents are operating on two different rhetorical levels, talking past each other. Taking this as my springboard, I sought to understand the passage from the point of view of the Jews. It is clear enough what Jesus means by his words. But why do the Jews say what they say? What do they hear when Jesus speaks? These questions led me to an unambiguous conclusion: Jesus’ opponents identify Jesus as a sorcerer. Based on faulty but coherent reasoning, the Jews come to believe that Jesus has acquired a familiar spirit, that he offers an incantation for immortality, and that he has engaged in necromantic divination. I realize that these are large claims that at first seem unlikely. But I’d like to take some time to unpack my reading here and hopefully demonstrate its impressive explanatory power.

The Demon-Possessed Samaritan

My theory hinges on the charge leveled at Jesus in 8:48. The Jews exclaim “Are we not right that you are a Samaritan and have a demon!?” From here I tried to answer two fundamental questions: What do the Jews mean by this? and What has Jesus said that solicits such a conclusion? Interpreters offer a variety of answers, but generally they see these charges as indicative of typical Jewish animosity against a rival Jewish teacher. Jesus is a Samaritan because he is a false-Jew masquerading as a Jew; Jesus is demon-possessed because he is a false-prophet leading astray the people of God.

All well and good. But I felt more could be said. Why is it that the Jews have accused Jesus of being a demon-possessed Samaritan here in this particular passage? And why do the two accusations go together? In short, What are the Jews thinking? And beyond this, in what sense are these charges a compelling and damning explanation of Jesus’ behavior?

I found that a look at what Jesus says immediately before he is accused helps in answering these questions. At the end of Jesus’ exposition on why his opponents reject his testimony Jesus remarks: “whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” In effect, Jesus implies that he is hearing God and telling them what God is saying. At the same time, Jesus is also claiming that his opponents cannot hear the voice he hears because they know not the source of the voice.

Since Jesus has just called the Jews “children of the Devil,” Jesus’ interlocutors cannot accept his testimony as coming from God: God simply cannot call His own children the Devil’s offspring. Surely, the Jews think, Jesus is not simply confused, but rather, is an agent of the Accuser. Jesus, they think, must be hearing from and cooperating with a demon, a spirit sent to trick God’s holy people. This taken into account, the reason the Jews charge Jesus with having a demon at this particular point is abundantly clear: the testimony Jesus claims to be hearing from God is not from God but from the Devil. Notice that in their indictment the Jews are not denying that Jesus hears a voice, they are denying that it is God’s voice that he is hearing. The Jews are targeting Jesus’ revelatory-prophetic claims (8:47) in order to subvert (or rather, pervert) them. A full articulation of the demon-charge can thus be expressed like this: “Are we not right that you have a demon [from whom you are receiving your Satanic testimony]?”

Listening to the Spirits

A little more context can help solidify this argument. Spirits, demons, and deities were believed in the ancient world to communicate with and through humans. The prophet—and the false prophet—was entrusted to listen to and then speak the words of the deity. YHWH, for instance, admonishes Israel’s false prophets: “I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (Jeremiah 23:21-22, cf. Isaiah 37:7, Zechariah 13:2).

Also worthy of note is that for the Jew and Christian any spirit that was not from YHWH was by nature demonic. Jews and Christians (unlike the gentiles) considered all the gods and spiritual powers of the nations to be demonic (Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Cor 10:20-21). Israel (or the Church) alone was safe from idolatrous demonic corruption. Under the constraints of such a worldview, successful opponents—whether teachers or wonderworkers or both—were regularly accused of teaching and performing by means of demons (Luke 7:33, Mark 3:22, Revelation 16:13, Justin Martyr First Apology XXVI). When Jesus accuses his opponents of Satanic parentage he is essentially making the same claim: the Jews hear and speak Satan’s words, they perform Satan’s work. They are conduits of evil spiritual forces (John 8:41-45).

In light of all this, the it is easy to see why the Jews conclude that the message Jesus claims is from God cannot be from God and therefore must be from a demon. From their perspective Jesus must be a false-prophet, a man speaking on behalf of a some spirit that is not God. Thus by accusing Jesus of having a demon, the Jews are both maligning his character and identifying the source of his testimony. They are firing back at Jesus: “We hear God just fine! It is you who are of the Devil! You are speaking his words!”

The Samaritan Magician

What now should we do with the Samaritan portion of the accusation? Is there a way to combine these two charges into a single cohesive claim? Based on the possible functions of demons in the ancient world, I believe there is.

Demons played a number of roles in the ancient world. In the Gospels demons often victimize their hosts. They cause insanity, sickness, and erratic behavior. But as I mentioned above, that is not all they were thought to do. They were also thought to be at work in false teachers and false prophets. Such people were seen not as victims of demons, but as mediators of demonic power. For all intents and purposes, these particular demoniacs were witches. A witch was someone thought to be a contagion, a person who corrupted the faithful community by concealing demonic intentions with a holy facade. He or she was a hidden pathogen, one that had to be exposed before it was too late (for more on this see the monograph Jesus the Witch by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey).

More often then not, the Jews who accuse Jesus of demon-possession in the Gospels are attempting to expose him as a witch. They are not claiming that he is the unfortunate plaything of a demon. They are claiming that he is in league with the demonic forces. So by indicting him as such the proprietors of the Jewish religious community (scribes, Pharisees, priests, etc.) try to remove Jesus’ prophetic facade, identifying his powers and his teachings with demons (see particularly the Beelzebub Controversy in Mark 3).

Now back to our question: Why is Jesus also identified as a Samaritan? I argue that this accusation functions to specify what kind of relationship Jesus has with his demonic spirit. Jesus is not a victim of demon-possession. He “has a demon” like a Samaritan. That is to say, Jesus is like those well-known demonic false-prophets from Samaria. He is like the Samaritan magicians.

A host of evidence can be mustered to demonstrate the association between Samaria and magic/witchcraft in the Jewish/Christian mind. But for now I want to give a couple of examples of how early Christians thought about this particular class of witches.

Justin Martyr writes concerning Simon Magus:

After Christ’s ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who
said that they themselves were gods… There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto… who did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god… And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him. 

First Apology XXVI

Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian speak similarly about Simon Magus. It seems the early Christians were intimidated by this Samaritan’s influence, so much so that they labelled him a witch, associating his powers with the Devil.

Menander, a disciple of Simon and native of Samaria is likewise decried in early Christian sources.

But the evil spirits were not satisfied…  put forward other men,
the Samaritans Simon and Menander, who did many mighty works by magic, and deceived many, and still keep them deceived.

Justin Martyr First Apology LVI

The successor of [Simon] was Menander, also a Samaritan by birth, and he, too, was a perfect adept in the practice of magic… 

Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23, cf. Tertullian Against All Heresies III.50

One Samaritan, Dositheus, even presented himself as the Jewish Messiah (Origen Commentary on John XIII.27). Jews and Christians no doubt considered him a witch and false-prophet like the rest. These Samaritan teachers and wonderworkers were rejected by Jews and Christians; their teachings and deeds were attributed to demons.

From this brief excursus we see that three popular and threatening Samaritan prophets quite naturally stand behind the Samaritan charge. Having heard his insane and heretical teachings, the Jews must expose Jesus as a demonic Samaritan witch (and compatriot of Simon, Menander, and Dositheus) and thus expel him from the Jewish congregation. They must neutralize the contagion.

I hope I have shown that this is a plausible reading of the accusations present in John 8:48. In the next post we will read the rest of the passage from the Jewish perspective—viewing Jesus as a false-prophet aided by demons. We will observe that all that Jesus says only hardens the reasoning of his opponents.

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