Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why is it that Smith's Understanding of the Historical Jesus Sounds So Swedenborgian?

An ordained Episcopalian priest who left the church, Smith knew well that his portrait of Jesus the Magician, and his picture of a Christianity dominated by magic, heavenly ascents, and spiritual possession, was far from the rational, middle-class Christianity of most of his readers.

No one can doubt Shaye Cohen's devotion to his teacher Morton Smith. These words come from the introduction to a 1994 Brill publication Josephus and the history of the Greco-Roman period: essays in memory of Morton Smith. The Shaye Cohen paper is entitled 'In Memoriam Morton Smith: Morton Smith and his Scholarly Achievement.' The point is well taken. There can be no doubt that the Morton Smith's idea of Jesus and Christianity seems light years removed from that of an 'ordained Episcopalian priest' and his congregation.

However the more I uncover of Smith's upbringing in a Swedenborgian community in Bryn Athyn, PA the less sensational these beliefs seem. Jesus the Magician makes the point that for all intents and purposes Jesus's activities would have been indistinguishable for the most part from those of a magician in antiquity. The same thing certainly were said about Moses. While Emanuel Swedenborg was certainly not a magician, the rest of Cohen's description - 'heavenly ascents and spiritual possession' would certainly have applied.

The real question for me is why doesn't anyone around Morton Smith make the connection with his Swedenborgian heritage? The answer must be that Smith didn't make the connection for them. Smith and his beliefs remain enigmas to us because we haven't incorporated his unique religious background. This is certainly about to change in a big way ...

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.