The synoptic evangelists agree that the public career of Jesus could best be summed up in the following way:
His mission was primarily that of a prophet (Mark 1:15), teacher (Luke 4:15), and healer (Luke 4:40, 13:32), or exorcist (Luke 4:41, 6:17-19); his message was the announcement of the impending arrival of the reign or kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).1
I would have said healer and exorcist based on the Q saying (Matthew 12:28=Luke11:20) attributed to Jesus. In other words his exorcisms, casting demons out of people unfortunate enough to have been possessed by them, and his healings of diseases and infirmities are two sides of the same activity, for in the view of the synoptic evangelists illness is also caused by demons (Mark 9:14-29/Matthew 17:14-21/Luke 9:37-43a). Hence exorcizing demons, healing the sick, and proclaiming the kingdom are all aspects of the emerging reign of God, which brings the end of the age. Therefore Jesus is generally described as an apocalyptic prophet who announces the blessings of the soon-to-arrive kingdom, of which his exorcisms and healings are a foretaste in the present. Such is the default understanding of Jesus on the part of the authors of the synoptic evangelistic tracts, a view that is shared by the confessing church and by many (if not most) in the contemporary academic community (but not by the Gospel of John).2
"A belief in the existence and activity of demons is not limited to the New Testament. Some conception of evil spirits or demons was held almost universally by the religions of the ancient world."3 But not all people in antiquity shared this view of possession by evil spirits and the therapeutic activity of exorcising them. For example, the satirist Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) ridicules the gullibility of people who were willing to believe all sorts of things about a supernatural world, and uses exorcism of evil spirits as an example of their gullibility.4 Hippocrates of Cos (5th century BC), the most famous physician of antiquity, regarded possession (what he calls the "sacred disease") as due to natural causes, and the idea that it is due to divine action was the result of superstition, gullibility, and quackery. The real source of this serious disease is to be found in the brain, and it can be cured without recourse to purifications or magic.5 Among the things that Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor, 2nd century AD) claimed he learned was to be incredulous about sorcerers and imposters regarding the driving out of spirits. 6
Doubt is cast on the historical value of this general picture of Jesus emerging from the synoptic gospels by a number of the sayings of Jesus that the evangelists preserve, and in particular on the therapeutic value of exorcism. For example, the narrative parables, in the main, contain no trace of the apocalyptic features the synoptic evangelists associate with the career of Jesus. Nevertheless one of his stories does describe demon possession, but it in fact casts doubt on the general efficacy of exorcism. The story is found in the earliest gospel Q (Luke 11:24-26=Matt 12:43-45), which Matthew and Luke repeat with minor differences—in short, the story is virtually verbatim. Oddly the Jesus Seminar printed Matthew's version in grey (meaning the ideas in this version are close to Jesus' own) and Luke's version was printed in pink (meaning Jesus probably said something like this), even though the differences are only stylistic and few in number.7 Here is the story in Luke's version:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there.
Luke's concluding statement (11:26, "and the last state of that man becomes worst than the first") is the Q interpretation of the story and is repeated by Matthew (12:45); Matthew (12:45) adds another interpretation: "So shall it be also with this evil generation." While the story reflects the widespread superstition in antiquity that demons possess people, it regards the practice of exorcism as futile. In that sense it challenges the traditional image of Jesus as an exorcist. You will recall that there are no accounts of demon possession or exorcisms in the Gospel of John. This short story seems to link Jesus to the attitudes expressed by Lucian, Hippocrates, and Marcus Aurelius.
Why would Jesus cast doubt on the therapeutic value of his own exorcisms, do you suppose? Or was this story not told by Jesus? Have the synoptic evangelists simply capitalized on a tendency in the Jesus tradition to see Jesus as an exorcist and developed it further? After all, they had no personal knowledge of Jesus.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1F. C. Grant, "Jesus Christ" IDB, vol. 2:882.
2See C. W. Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 164-179 for a summary of academic views of Jesus at the end of the twentieth century.
3D. G. Reese, "Demons," ABD, vol. 2:140.
4Lucian, Lover of Lies, 16, and 31-32.
5Hippocrates, The Sacred Disease, I, 1-4; II, 1-46; V, 1-21; VI, 1-2; XXI, 22-26.
6Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, I.6.
7Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 189, 330-31.