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.
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.
How could there be? Dragons are mythical or legendary creatures. They constitute the stuff of fantasy and fiction, and are certainly not the material on which history and revealed religion are based—at least that is the prevailing view today. The dragon has a long and widespread tradition in the world. See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon
Answering the question, "are there dragons in the Bible?" is more complicated than one might suppose, however. It is complicated because translators practice the art of translation differently in rendering ancient words into what they take to be a modern equivalent, and because we must work in two ancient languages Hebrew and Greek. The Hebrew Lexicons indicate the following: Brown, Driver, and Briggs (1st edition 1907) and Gesenius-Robinson (1857) agree in the translation of "land-serpent, dragon" as being appropriate for the following passages: Deuteronomy 32:33; Psalm 91:13; Exodus 7:9, 10, 12; Jeremiah 51:34; Nehemiah 2:13).
Not all translators acknowledge this information in the seven English translations I checked. The following translations use "dragon" to translate Psalm 91:13, Deuteronomy 32:33: New American Bible; An American Translation (AT). The New American Bible (NAB) and the New English Bible (NEB) render Jeremiah 51:34 with "dragon." The following translations render Nehemiah 2:13 by "dragon": Today's English Version (TEV), New International Version (NIV), NEB, and NAB. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) renders the following passages by δράκων (drakōn: dragon, serpent): Deuteronomy 32:33, Psalm 91:13, Exodus 7:9, 10, 12. Of the translations I checked, except for Nehemiah 2:13, the NIV never used the word "dragon" to translate the ancient Hebrew text. The King James Version translated all passages with "dragon," except for Exodus 7:9, 10, 12. The NEB translated Isaiah 51:9 using "dragon"; the TEV also used "dragon" for Isaiah 27:1. The NAB used "dragon" in the translation of Psalm 74:13, Isaiah 51:9, Isaiah 27:1, and AT used "dragon" in translating Psalm 74:13, Isaiah 27:1, Isaiah 51:9.
The word "Dragon" (δράκων) appears in the following passages in the New Testament: Revelation 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 17, 17; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 20:2, where dragon is twice secondarily identified as an ὄφις, which the lexicon terms a "snake, serpent" (Revelation 12:9; 20:2). The Latin translation of the Greek text uses draco, which the lexicon identifies as "a sort of serpent, a dragon."
Is the mythical or fantasy "dragon" actually described in the Bible? The answer is "Yes," and dragons were part of the landscape of nature in antiquity—at least to judge from the writings of some of the best known names of our classical Greco-Roman past, such as Aristotle, Herodotus, and Pliny, as well as others. Their reports on the nature of the creature, however, were not uniform. The description of the dragon in Philostratus (2nd century CE), the author of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, is most similar to what we have come to know as the mythical creature. These ancient writers are not describing mythical creatures, however; they are reporting about creatures they claim to know—sometime serpent-like at other times dragon-like. The description of the creature in Revelation, however, is actually something more than simply a snake or a serpent. It is described as a species of reptile with a tail; snakes do not have tails. And this creature "stood on the sand of the sea" (Revelation 12:18). Serpents do not have legs, and hence cannot "stand." This dragon made certain sounds that enabled it to be identified as a dragon (13:11).*
What do we learn from this information? The lexicographers really didn't know the species of the creature on which they offered translation advice. The ancient classical writers are confident that they are describing actual existing creatures. And there actually are dragons described in the Bible.
As Oliver Hardy said to the second of the famed comic duo, his partner Stan Laurel, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" The Christian and Jewish Bibles, that are thought to report ancient history and are confessed popularly in conservative Christianity as "The Word of God," attest to the actual existence of what we today regard as a mythical and fantasy creature. Archaeologists and geologists, on the other hand, have given us the Pterodactyl and Pterosaur, a type of flying reptile that actually lived during the late Jurassic period (to judge from their petrified skeletons). These creatures, which actually did exist at one time, are not a part of the Biblical record.
So the "Word of God" (if I may call it that) leads us to a fantasy creature that never existed, but the modern scientific study of the earth gives us historical dragon-like creatures that actually existed. Go figure!
What do you make of dragons in the Bible?
Missouri State University
*The Greek word for "spoke" in Revelation 13:11 can also be used of inarticulate sounds.
Every culture has legends. Readers will recall the legends about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, John Henry the railroad pile-driving man, the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, and George Washington's cherry tree, among others. A current dictionary definition of a legend is: a story coming down from the past, especially one popularly regarded as historical, although its historicity cannot be verified.
Biblical scholars find that certain narratives in the Bible are also legends—a story popularly regarded as historical but whose historicity cannot be verified. In his magisterial work on the Old Testament Otto Eissfeldt, for example, identifies the story of David's victory over Goliath (1 Samuel 17:40-50) as a legend.* According to Eissfeldt a biblical legend is a poetic narrative "intended to give pleasure and entertain, and not really to adhere to the recalling of what has happened, nor to instruct."** In this legend the force of the story is not really on the man David, but rather on the divine power that controls him (1 Samuel 17:47).
Here is another definition of legend: Legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes that are read for inspiration, religious instruction, and spiritual benefit.*** By this definition the story of Jesus besting the Devil in a debate (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) is a legend.
Generally people want to know if a historical event actually happened much like its legendary description. The answer is, no. Legends are not history. In form the legend is thought to be fictional, although there may be a historical element at the base of it. For example, with regard to the temptation narrative: it is surely plausible that Jesus may have experienced an inner personal struggle at some point in his career, like, for example, the much simpler statement in Mark 1:12-13 suggests—but even this brief statement, as it appears, is legendary in character. The details of biblical legends, if dependent on oral tradition, are enhanced in the oral transmission of the stories, and appear at the time of their first inscription. In the case of the temptation narrative the story is enhanced further in Matthew and Luke.
Mark's narrative about Jesus' personal struggle at Gethsemane before the crucifixion (Mark 14:32-42) could be either a pious fiction invented by Mark or possibly a legendary account based on a historical datum that in considering his death Jesus did indeed struggle through his own "dark night of the soul." There is in fact a similar tradition in Hebrews 5:7:
In the days of his flesh Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his Godly fear.
Even this brief report, however, has a legendary character ("and he was heard for his Godly fear"). Scholars are divided on whether the report in Hebrews is to be related to the more developed narrative account in Mark.**** But in light of the fact that Hebrews shows no obvious influence from the synoptic gospels, this brief description of a personal struggle of Jesus in the face of death may possibly have a basis in historical fact. In the light of the courage of the Johannine Christ in facing his death (John 12:27-33), one is encouraged to see in John a reaction to a tradition about a tortuous personal struggle of Jesus when facing his own death—something less than what is depicted in Hebrews 5:7.
The romanticizing of the traditions about Jesus in the gospels has obscured for the most part the historical details of Jesus' humanity and personal history. The Jesus Seminar in its second report, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus found that only 16% of the 176 events they considered in early Christian literature had credibility as an actual historical event (p. 1).
Missouri State University
*The Old Testament. An Introduction (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 42.
**The Old Testament, 34-35.
***Keith Nickle The Synoptic Gospels. An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 40.
****Harold Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 148-52, n. 144; W. Robertson Nicholl, The Expositor's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 4.288-89.