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The Jesus Bowl

New Evidence of Christian Magic


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A bowl excavated from the underwater ruins off Alexandria may be one of the most important discoveries for queer spirituality in a generation....

In October 2008, an Internet news report announced the discovery by marine archaeologists of a ceramic bowl in the waters off the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria bearing a remarkable inscription—DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS. Literally translated from Greek it reads, “by Christ the magician.” Dating somewhere between the late second century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., a span that includes the lifetime of Jesus, it is, in the words of the Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News, “the world’s first known reference to Christ.”

The natural reaction of both Christians and non-Christians to this report will likely be: The earliest written reference to Jesus Christ describes him as a...magician?

But this is not news at all, for this is precisely the argument made by the eminent New Testament scholar Morton Smith in his 1978 book actually called Jesus the Magician. The discovery of this bowl offers uncanny confirmation of the Smith’s central thesis: that Jesus, in his own time and in the period that followed, was widely understood to be a geotes, the Greek term typically translated as “magician,” although “healer” or “wonder worker” might be more accurate.This was because, as the gospels amply attest, the ritual gestures and formulaic language Jesus routinely employed in effecting his miracles are paralleled in magical spells common in the very the period Jesus lived. “Jesus the Son of God,” as Smith pointed out, was the view of him as seen “by that party of his followers which eventually triumphed.” Both views, of course, were interpretations of the real, historical Jesus, whose life is now irretrievably obscured by legend. Nonetheless, Smith cited an impressive amount of evidence from the gospels and other sources to show why Jesus was viewed as a magician. His book includes examples of artifacts as well that link Jesus to magic. But none of his examples are as early or as explicit at this bowl from ancient Alexandria. It proves that Jesus’ reputation as a magician must have developed at an early date.

The ritual use of such bowls is documented as far back as the third millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and, in Jesus’ time, in Egypt and Palestine. The inquirer, sometimes with an assistant (typically a youth) who functioned as a medium, used incantations and ritual procedures to enter a trance state. Peering into a bowl into which water and oil had been poured, the swirling forms suggested the presence of particular gods or spirit beings to whom they addressed questions or made requests. The spirit might also possess them and speak through them.


The god or spirit invoked by those who used this bowl, to whom they spoke and appealed for aid, and invited to unite with them and inhabit their bodies was, as the inscription indicates, Jesus Christ. The owner of this bowl was therefore a Christian—a believer in Christ—but of branch of early Christianity that was being avidly suppressed in Clement’s time and disappeared soon after, its written records, gospels, and artifacts largely obliterated.

The publication of Jesus the Magician brought Morton Smith no end of derision from mainstream scholars. Smith himself was even accused of forging a key source of evidence, the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark. In 1958, Smith discovered a passage of this gospel quoted in an ancient letter preserved at desert monastery outside of Jerusalem. The letter was written by the late second century Church father Clement, bishop at none other than Alexandria. Clement’s letter quotes what he calls the Secret Gospel of Mark—a passage that describes Jesus performing a ritual, clearly magical in nature, paralleled in Greek magical spells. This bowl, a century or more earlier than Clement, further establishes Alexandria as a center of an esoteric version of Christianity.

While the accusations of forgery are still made in some quarters, a growing consensus among scholars has redeemed Smith’s reputation. The Secret Gospel is increasingly accepted as authentic—that is, an actual passage from an early version of Mark written by the same author.

The discovery of this bowl from Alexandria now redeems Jesus the Magician as well. It is exactly the kind of evidence Smith’s theory predicts. Indeed, it is so spot on that we should not be surprised if its authenticity is challenged, too. Note, the picture of the archaeologist-diver (borrowed here), which accompanied the Discovery News article; it is evidence for doubters of the object’s provenience. (Hopefully, the bowl will not suffer the fate of the book Smith found where the Secret Gospel was recorded--in the years since Smith’s discovery in 1958 it has disappeared.)

My book, Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love, depends rather heavily on Smith’s work. To the extent that this new find lends credence to Smith, it lends credence my shamanic Jesus as well. And it suggests that more spade work by historians, theologians, and archeologists may yet reveal astonishing evidence for queer history and spirituality.

—Will Roscoe, October 2008

P.S. One other recent and widely publicized discovery lends support to Smith’s work and my own. The so-called Gospel of Judas, an apocryphal text from the second century C.E., found in Egypt, portrays the early Christian movement from the point of a view of an oppositional sect deriving from the reviled apostle, Judas. The characteristics these outsiders attribute to what it sees as the dominant form of Christianity—worship of angels, heavenly ascents, and same-sex practices--are precisely those I identified as being present at the movement’s origins in the mid-first century.

Click on the link below for an unpublished article-in-progress on the queer insights to be drawn from the Gospel of Judas...

Christianity’s Other Betrayal:

The Gospel of Judas and the Origins of Christian Homophobia