Suffer the Little Magicians

Illustration: Jesus' Teaching on Greatness; Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius, 1794-1872. Inscription in German cites Mark 10:14-16.

In the New Testament, the word 'baptism' is translated from the Greek baptizó which means “to dip [under], sink” and implies being fully immersed. The word is specifically used in the sense of a “ceremonial dipping” which further implies the presence of a 'dipper.' The ritual aspect of  baptism is re-enforcing the concept that the starting point for the initiate is an acceptance of being taught from a higher source. This has two specific dimensions. On the one hand, this means the position of the teacher while, on the other hand, this also refers to the acceptance of a spiritual guide in the invisible world.

In a chapter of the second volume of his Collected Works (1904-1905) entitled „Seelenbehandlung“ (Soul treatment), Freud mentions the efficacy of ritual bathing and oracle dreams that come from sleeping in the temple and explains that this could only bring effective treatment by working through the patient's soul. In other words, the self-healing processes of the person's psychology are especially operative in these ritual situations. In the same context, the important role of the priest or healer is explained as enhancing the psychic strength of the situation. (Freud: 1905).  

The word 'intuition' stems from the Latin tueri which means to 'watch or guard.' This is also the root of the English 'tuition' which means to be watch over or teach. The same image is attached to the word 'inspiration' which is from the Latin spirare meaning 'to breathe' and hence the derivative, inspirationem which means to “blow into or breathe upon.” This, of course, is related to the Latin for spirit: spiritus. One is reminded here of Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” To be in-spired connects to being in-formed and, often, re-formed or being made anew. The word 'initiation' stems from the Latin initium which means 'a beginning' and, as we have seen, the process itself was formally instituted with the dynamics of a master guiding a disciple. The term 'inspiration' has historically carried the notion of being filled with a divine spirit. There are many such examples in our modern English language: 'Enthusiasm' for example, stems from the Greek enthousiasmos which means 'to be filled with God.' This can be equated with a spiritual 'possession.'  This concept of accepting a 'higher' spiritual teacher into our lives is also an instinct. It is first expressed in the baby's and infant's attachment to their parents and a total trust of what their care-givers are providing for instruction. We are all born with an instinct to 'learn the ropes' in the physical world and, as with all aspects of the material plane, it has a corroborative aspect in the spiritual dimension. This is part of the symbolism in the teaching attributed to Jesus at Mark10:13-16:  

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.    

There are various levels to read this exhortation here. Purely on the surface, this is another vital aspect of our picture puzzle for the historical Jesus in that he is being attributed to have taught children. The narrative context shows that the apostles were upset by this action because there were strict hierarchies in all aspects of Jewish life including with regards to age. It is important to remember that children were still taught in this context but the narrative infers that Jesus is giving preference to them here by blessing them. Despite this situation, there are many stories which describe Jesus teaching and healing children. These references are accompanied by the over-riding theme, as shown by the disciples' reaction, that Jesus was knowingly breaking a cultural taboo as with teaching the Gentiles. At Mark 9:33-37 another example is given:  

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.  Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”  

 Most scholars have taken these stories from the gospels and emphasised the way that they have been developed for theological purposes. The theologian William Maclean explains the editing hand of Mark in this respect: “Mark used the traditions inherited about Jesus in his work, welding existing material into a coherent account with a theological perspective to suit his first readers.” There were many fragments regarding Jesus' emphasis on children that were available to the Mark and he “has been able to redirect the various currents of orality into one coherent story, with his own theological flavour.” (Maclean: 2007.84)  

Because of the theological gloss that Mark, in particular, placed over these stories it has remained an enigma for the scholarly world as to what the “various currents” in the early oral tradition actually portrayed. In the first extract cited above the theme of children was introduced in answer to the disciples' attributed arguing over their ranking and it is clear that division and confrontation, generally, coloured the early followers' attitude to each other. The overall conclusion that the critical analyses have made is that it “is into this milieu that the child is introduced, as the opposite to the disciples, and as the antidote to their fear and divisiveness.” (Maclean: 2007.86).

Seen in this light, the motif becomes merely a literary device to make a theological point. This is a similar situation as the stories of Jesus teaching Gentiles. The form critic Matthew Black goes so far as to conjecture that in Aramaic the word for child, talitha, could signify either ‘child’ or ‘servant.’ Thus, for him, the role of the disciples towards service lends itself to a childlike attitude. (Black: 1952.266). However, this is stretching the Aramaic Hypothesis well beyond its merit because there is no literary precedent for this word being used in such a way. (e.g. le Déaut: 1968.393; Fleddermann: 1981.64).

The Aramaic word talitha, young girl, comes from talya which means young in general. This in turn comes from talay', meaning  tender, young, young man, or lamb. A related word is talyuta, meaning childhood or youth. In Hebrew, the word taleh means lamb and this word comes from the same root, tela.  (Jastrow: 1903).  


Pen and Ink

by Rembrandt.

Jesus raising Jairus' daughter.

At Mark 5:41 the word is used in the context of Jesus raising Jairus' dead daughter. The Aramaic expression talitha koum was included in the original text with the Greek translation also give. In English it means “girl rise”. This can be, and has been, read as an instance of Jesus using magical 'power words.' There are more examples of this which we will come to presently. For now, it needs to be noted that it is significant that Matthew and Luke have not included the phrase in their re-telling of the story. In all three of the synoptics, this story follows Mark's format and is finger-jointed in with the story of the woman being healed by touching Jesus' hem. These two narratives were probably initially independent and were compiled together to form a single, rather busy, event. While the editing hand of Mark is quite apparent, Matthew and Luke pare the stories down and the full sequence becomes, in their gospels, considerably shorter. Apart from the provocative power words that are removed by Matthew and Luke, it is apparent in all three of the synoptics that Jesus' ministering to a woman—especially an unclean, haemorrhaging woman—and to a child was a theme that they were reluctant to deal with. This is probably the reason that these stories were handled in such a terse manner by Mark and this became more pronounced in the later versions.

At Acts 9:40 Peter also raises a dead girl and, in his healing command, he calls her Tabitha (“Tabitha arise”). This is a personal name in Aramaic and derives from the word for 'gazelle.' If we understand that Luke must have deliberately edited the Aramaic command out of his account of Jairus' daughter's healing, then it makes sense to read this story as having drawn on Mark's precedent. It could be conjectured that Luke is trying to 'muddy the waters' surrounding an interpretation of the Marcan variant and, by doing so, is making a second effort to distance Jesus and the apostles from what could potentially be read as magical procedures. This is further evidence that the polemical issue of Jesus being associated with using magical procedures intensified over time.  Another important aspect here is that the stories become more symbolic as they pass through the editing hands of the gospel compilers. In Mark the two main stories referred to here (9:33-37;10:13-16) are placed to coincide with Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. This context emphasises the comparison between the children and the disciples and enhances the servant theme in this connection. This is because the journey to Jerusalem is the lead-up to Jesus' crucifixion after which the focus is turned more towards the disciples who become the main players for the religion.  

When we follow the redactive trajectory backwards however, as Maclean points out: “One notable thing surfaces: the closer we get to Jesus, the louder the voice of the child is.” This is apparent in the narratives of Jesus ministering to children in general and “even as early as Mark’s redaction, the voice of the child gradually becomes muffled, as the concerns of the communities take over.” (Maclean: 2007.104,107). 

In the same way that we can assume the stories of Jesus talking to, healing  and teaching Gentilesto be based on actual events, we can also remain confident that Jesus taught children—and women as well while we are broaching this subject. The appearance of so many narratives pointing to these fringe people as recipients of Jesus' teaching and healing demonstrate that genuine historical seeds must have sprouted the later narratives because these accounts would have been controversial. As stated in the introduction, Celsus criticized Christianity for attracting women and children into its ranks. (Contra Celsus: 3.44).

It is rather obvious that allowing children into a mystery would have been one of the main contributing factors in the rapid growth of Christianity. Women and children were considered second-class citizens in Judaism and the broader cultural context. These stories were probably included reluctantly by the NT writers but their influence over the on-going identity of the religion were vital reasons for its success. That they appear at all is solid provenance that it was already commonly known Jesus taught women, children and Gentiles by the time the gospels were compiled. Therefore they had to be included. It is likely that Jesus' focus fuelled the attributed animosity towards him from the religious leaders.  

If we accept that Jesus was a gifted pedagogue then it would be reasonable to take this further and assume that children were, in fact, the main focus for his teaching. If one were to try and introduce new and controversial teaching to a community it would make sense to engage more particularly with young people who were not so entrenched in the established cultural narrative. Jesus would likely have appealed to Gentiles and women for this same reason. One does not overthrow traditional belief systems by appealing to the people who are its beneficiaries. In first century Palestine, Gentiles were also second-class minorities to the Jewish majority. This is the reason that the term “sinners” for the people Jesus is attributed to have eaten with is very likely a broad-brush category that included Gentiles, who did not follow the Jewish Law.  

This is the vital aspect that has been ignored in the scholarly debate and it is an important factor to engage with. Despite the male-dominated descriptions of the Jerusalem church in Acts, it is logical to assume that the women and older children, perhaps even the Gentiles, who were recipients of Jesus' direct one-to-one teaching made up a significant proportion of the first Jesus movements. These people would, most certainly, not have set up in Jerusalem. We will examine more evidence that suggests this controversial conclusion when we get to the politics leg of our journey.  

Returning to the symbolic meanings in the child narratives, there are several references in the Gospel of Thomas that extol the childlike nature of the spiritual person. At logion 4, for example, this motif is combined with that of the first and the last: “Jesus said, 'The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same.'"    At Logion 50 there is a particularly enigmatic narrative:  

 Jesus said, "If they say to you, 'Where did you come from?', say to them, 'We came from the light, the place where the light came into being on its own accord and established itself and became manifest through their image.' If they say to you, 'Is it you?', say, 'We are its children, we are the elect of the living father.' If they ask you, 'What is the sign of your father in you?', say to them, 'It is movement and repose.'"    

 It is important to consider the reference here to the adepts being “the elect of the living father.” In this symbolic sense, the exhortation to become as children can be read as mirroring the aspect of the mysteries, mentioned above, where the initiate is adopted into the divine family. This language of adoption, with the same sacred sense, is used by Paul at, for example, Galatians 4:4-6:  

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”    

Paul has taken the Hellenistic idea of divine adoption and centred it around the Jewish people. There was already a strong theological precedent for this in Judaism with the concept of the descendants of Israel being God's chosen people. The actual procedure of being adopted by the deity, however, is not found in the HB. In Diodorus' Bibliotheca historica he explains the adoption of Heracles into the divine family:  

We should add to what has been said about Heracles, that after his apotheosis Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as her son and henceforth for all time to cherish him with a mother's love, and this adoption, they say, took place in the following manner. Hera lay upon a bed, and drawing Heracles close to her body then let him fall through her garments to the ground, imitating in this way the actual birth; and this ceremony is observed to this day by the barbarians whenever they wish to adopt a son. Hera, the myths relate, after she had adopted Heracles in this fashion, joined him in marriage to Hebé, regarding whom the poet speaks in the 'Necyia':  

I saw the shade of Heracles, but for Himself he takes delight of feasts among Th' immortal gods and for his wife he hath The shapely-ankled Hebé. [Odyssey II. 602-3.]  

They report of Heracles further that Zeus enrolled him among the twelve gods but that he would not accept this honour; for it was impossible for him thus to be enrolled unless one of the twelve gods were first cast out; hence in his eyes it would be monstrous for him to accept an honour which involved depriving another god of his honour. ( Book IV. 39. Oldfather trans.)  

The Greek here for 'adoption' is huiothesia, from hyiós, 'son' and 'títhēmi,' 'to place.' It was a special legal term connoting the institutional power of the state in the process and it was specifically with this inference that it was used in the mythic contexts with the adoption of the demi-gods. The same word is used by Paul. As mentioned, the Christian concept of being born again is also one that was introduced via Hellenistic mysticism. It can be found in the Orphic hymns in relation to Dionysus or Bacchus, Hymn to Bacchus (XXX).

Bacchus I call loud-sounding and divine,  Inspiring God, a twofold shape is thine:  Thy various names and attributes I sing,  O firstborn, thrice begotten, Bacchic king.