Whatever else he may have been Jesus was clearly a teller of tales. His stories remind me of the world's first photographic process, the daguerreotype. His tales, like those old photos, were black and white, grainy, and often blurry, but nevertheless provided realistic images of life in first-century rural Galilee. For the most part the stories replicated common life in small peasant villages. Chances are that all his characters in peasant village life were accurate to type, but those few modeled on characters from the upper classes are, likely, lacking in verisimilitude because of the inaccessibility of the oral "folk poet" to their exclusive social circles. Few of the stories reflect religious motifs, however general, and none of the stories are theological or eschatological in character. Theology and eschatology are brought to them by pious believers, and early "Christians," who preserved them purely for theological and religious reasons.
The stories treat human beings in Palestine momentarily caught in the act of being human—except two. One of these (Luke 16:19-31) contrasts the states of the rich and the poor after death. The other, a Q story (Matt 12:43-45a = Luke 11:24-26a), describes "unclean" Spirits who possess an individual. This last narrative provides the only confirmation among the stories that their artistic creator shared in the mythology of evil spirits, and demons endemic to the ancient world. According to the Jesus Seminar this story did not originate with Jesus, and it seems to be little discussed in academic literature. Brandon Scott, Craig Blomberg, and Arland Hultgren do not include the story in their parables surveys; Graham Twelftree does not include it in his book on spirit possession and exorcism in Palestine.
The story of the twice–possessed person, however, is narrative, as is the classic form of "parable." In form the story is not unlike other better known stories Jesus told. The story of the twice-possessed person narrates a case of possession by an "unclean" Spirit, later described as "evil." Contrary to the highly respected German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, the Spirit is not "cast out," but merely goes out of the person of its own volition. It passes through the desert (i.e., "waterless places") seeking rest, but finding none (why the Spirit needed rest is not stated), the Spirit returns to its "house," in the person in whom it formerly resided. It found the "house" cleaned up and put in order (Matthew adds that it was "empty"). Speaking in images like the story, apparently during its residency this possessing Spirit had only disarranged and cluttered the house, leaving a dirty floor. The Spirit went out again, and found seven other Spirits "more evil" than itself. And all eight entered and dwelled there. Q added an interpretive conclusion (Matt 12:45a = Luke 11:26a), "and the last state of that person becomes worse than the first." Matthew adds a second interpretation (12:26c): "So shall it also be with this generation."
The story describes the helpless and the hopeless condition of a person possessed by a Spirit: if for some reason the possessing Spirit decides to vacate its "house," nothing prevents it from returning and causing even more serious harm to its host, who had in the interim regained an ordered life. Jeremias argued that the relapse is not "predetermined and inevitable," but merely possible, and makes the individual responsible for keeping free of future possession by not letting the "house" become empty, and hence subject to repossession.
In short the story describes the absolute control that evil spirits exert in the ancient world. Apparently anyone could be possessed or repossessed at the whim of any Spirit. Matthew regards the story as a curse upon "this evil generation" (Matt 12:45c; 12:38-39). In Luke it becomes a warning about the dangers of demon possession (Luke 11:14-26). Jeremias turned it into Christian theology. He thinks the life of the healed individual must be filled with a spiritual element—"the word of Jesus."
The canonical gospels, with the exception of John, relate several stories about the exorcism of demons. Oddly there is only one story about Spirit possession in the Old Testament (1 Sam 16:14-16; 18:10; 19:9), but the amelioration of Saul's depression by David's harp playing is scarcely an exorcism in the later Hellenistic style (cf. Tobit 3:7-8; 6:7-8, 16-17). None of the other seven exorcism stories in the gospels concern repeat possessions by evil Spirits.
Does this story of Spirit possession have any relevance in the 21st century, other than as an astute observation on life in the 1st century?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University