Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Six)


“Pick up your cot and walk”—Christianity is basically magic.

The gospel of Mark, widely regarded as the earliest of the gospels, records this remarkable account of a miraculous healing:

   And when he came back to Capernaum after some days, it was reported, “He’s at home,” and so many gathered that it was no longer possible to get to the door and he spoke the word to them. And four men come to him bearing a paralytic, but unable to approach him because of the crowd, they made a hole in the roof where he was and after digging through [the roof], they lower the cot where the paralytic lay. And Jesus, seeing their faith, says to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

   But there were some of the scribes sitting there and they are questioning in their hearts, “Why is this man speaking this way? He’s blaspheming! Who is able to forgive sins except God alone?” And at once perceiving in his spirit that they are reasoning this way in themselves, Jesus says to them, “What things are you pondering in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Stand, pick up your cot and walk? But in order that you may know that the son of man(1) has the authority to forgive sins on the earth,” he says to the paralytic, “I tell you, Stand, take your cot (aron ton krabatton) and go home.” And he stood up and immediately (euquj) took his cot and walked out in front of everyone so that they are all astonished and praising God saying, “We never saw anything like this!”(2)

The story is repeated by Matthew,(3) who characteristically omits the more dramatic details such as breaking a hole in the roof, and by Luke.(4) John recounts a similar “Stand up, take your cot and walk” healing at the pool of Bethzatha.(5)

“Pick up your cot and walk”—followed by immediate compliance—appears to have become a trademark of Christian miracle. Peter commands Aeneas, a paralytic who has lain for eight years “on a cot” (epi krabattou), “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Arise and make your bed!” and “immediately he stood up” (euqewj anesth).(6) Other, very similar, accounts are found: a man, lame from birth, who must be carried to the gate of the Temple, is healed by Peter’s command to stand up and walk.(7) A similar miracle performed by Paul is also reported.(8) It is unlikely that any Roman conversant with the Christian movement could remain unaware of such popular stories.

Lucian soon turned the trope to comic effect in his story of the snake blaster in The Lover of Lies. A certain unlucky Midas, a vinedresser, is bitten by a viper and carried in extremis from the field “on a stretcher” (epi skimpodoj). At the suggestion of a bystander, a “Babylonian”—a widely used synonym for “magician”—is hastily summoned and “he raised (anesthse) Midas with some spell (epwdh tini)…Midas himself, picking up the stretcher (aramenoj ton skimpodoa)” on which he had been carried, immediately heads back to work on the farm for “of such power was the spell (h epwdh).”(9)

In a thorough analysis of Lucian’s Lover of Lies, Ogden proposed “that Lucian may be consciously playing with Christian imagery…which graphically expresses the speed and completeness of the recovery” and noted “that no pre-Christian examples of the [pick-up-your-cot-and-walk] motif are known.”(10) In his attempted rebuttal of Celsus, Origen said of Christian doctrines, “they are just like spells (wsperei epwdaj) that have been filled with power (dunamewj peplhrwmenouj).”(11) We will get to the significance of the word dunamij (dunamis), power, in a bit. Lucian appears to have been quite familiar with Christian preaching and may have read at least one of the gospels. It is easy to suppose that he would find the “pick up your cot and walk” tales an irresistible target for parody.

That Lucian used Christian miracle stories as fodder for satire is further suggested by his references to walking on water and raising rotting corpses.(12) However, Lucian likely had Jesus specifically in mind when he composed his story of the “Syrian” exorcist.

Everyone knows of the Syrian from Palestine, the master of his art, and how he receives many struck down by the moon (katapiptontaj proj thn selhnhn),(13)  frothing at the mouth (afrou pimplamenouj to stoma)(14) and eyes rolling, and he sets them aright and sends them away sound of mind…standing beside them as they lie there, he asks from whence [the demons] have come into the body. The madman himself is silent, but the demon answers in Greek or a barbarian [tongue](15) from whence and how he entered the man. By adjuring, or if the spirit does not obey, threatening,(16) he drives the demon out.(17)

The “Syrian from Palestine” is clearly a Jewish exorcist(18)

and given the several close parallels in vocabulary and imagery between Lucian’s story and the stories in the gospels, it is no great leap of the imagination to suppose Lucian had Jesus specifically in mind, a possibility conceded by Morton Smith: “It is possible that this parody was inspired by some gospel story like Mk 5.1-19 …”(19)

Jesus had such fame as an exorcist that other exorcists used his name both during his lifetime(20) and after his death.(21) Gager comments on the appearance of Jesus, “who was known independently in Jewish tradition as a sorcerer, that is, as one who exercised power over spirits,”(22) in ancient spells.

Christians of Origen’s era bragged about the power (dunamij, dunamis) of Jesus’ name: “Of course the name of Jesus is of such great power (dunatai) against the demons that sometimes even unworthy men accomplish [exorcisms] by pronouncing his name just as Jesus taught when he said, ‘Many will say to me in that day, we cast out demons in your name and performed works of power (dunameij epoihsamen)…”(23) Chadwick noted that “narratives from the gospels are found used as spells in the magical papyri.”(24)

Celsus clearly regarded Jesus as a magician: “After being brought up in obscurity he hired himself out in Egypt and having become proficient in certain magical arts (dunamewn tinwn), he made his way back and on account of those powers proclaimed himself a god.”(25) Celsus concluded that Jesus was merely “some worthless sorcerer, hated by God” (qeomisouj hn tinoj kai mocqhrou gohtoj), and Origen acknowledged Celsus’ claim that he “has seen among certain [Christian] elders who were of our opinion books containing barbarous names of demons (biblia barbara daimonwn) and magical formulas (terateiaj).”(26) “Those who accused Jesus of being a magician (they were not few among the pagans) argued that he, after all, had spent part of his youth in the homeland of magic, after the escape from Palestine…”(27)

“Celsus is the first critic to call Jesus a magician and charge the Christians with practicing magic. It may be that this view was already adumbrated in Suetonius, who spoke of Christianity as a ‘new and criminal (maleficus) superstition.’ The term maleficus can mean “magical,” and used as a noun it designated a magician. If so, Suetonius foreshadows what later became a common charge.”(28) Flint notes, “magic was linked with mystery and secrecy …and secrecy with almost certain treason. Magic, accordingly, came increasingly to be represented by the word maleficum.”(29) The Theodosian Code, a compilation of laws published in 439, declared all forms of divination illegal.