Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Was Jesus an Exorcist?

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
Professor Emeritus
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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

(1)Perhaps the Q parable was trying to say that an exorcism should not be treated as an isolated event.

(2)It would seem that Hal Taussig's point of view may be relevant to this topic ("Jesus in the Company of Sages," Profiles of Jesus [2002], Roy W. Hoover, Ed.).

He agrees with the perception of JD Crossan, FG Downing, and S Davies that "healers and teachers don't mix in the ancient world." But rather than copying their tolerance of that tension in Jesus, Taussig concludes that, "Since Jesus as healer and teacher appears to be an anomaly, I conclude that Jesus was not a healer but only a sage." He suggests that, "By all accounts the typical hellenistic sage did not heal...The absence of healing from the Cynic corpus loosens the connection between healing and the practice of a sage like Jesus...(and further) the idea that a sage might heal does not even occur in the Jewish wisdom literature." Taussig does not deny that healings occurred (as per modern anthropology), especially in exorcistic contexts, in early Christianity, but Jesus role was one of "posthumous" inspiration. Bottom line, "the jump from Cynic aphorist to healer is chancy and unsubstantiated...and flies too boldly in the face of larger historical patterns..."(190-192).

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Good morning Charlie,

1) Who is Jesus referring to in Matt. 12:45 as "this evil generation?" Every single man woman and child?

2) Was it more evil than other generations for some reason?

3) Was every generation in the Bible referred to as evil?

Many thanks, Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Gene,
I don't quite follow your interpretation of the story you list under your (1). Could you say a bit more about what you have in mind.

Under your (2) you cite Hal Taussig that "Hellenistic sages did not heal." I think that the discussion must have been about Cynic sages. Since there is a first century sage who was both a healer and an exorcist. That was Apollonius of Tyana. He was a Pythagorean sage (wise man) and healer/exorcist. Eusebius mentions Hierocles, a provincial governor under Diocletian, who wrote a book showing that Apollonius was as great a sage, as remarkable a worker of miracles, and as potent an exorcist as Jesus Christ. At least in the figure of Apollonius we have one solid example that puts all three skills together (sage, healer, exorcist) in one person. So perhaps we should conclude that the evidence shows that Jesus was not a cynic sage, since he was a sage said to heal as well as exorcize, and one prominent example finds all three skills in another Hellenistic sage?

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Perhaps yourself and Dr. Taussig can get together and discuss this one. He did use "typical" in front of Hellenistic, but, as you say, it would seem of what we know about Apollonius that he was also a three skilled person as is claimed of Jesus. Reminds me of the top professional baseball players being called five skilled: hit for average, hit for power, running speed, fielding acuity, and throwing power and accuracy.

[I still, wonder, however, if there be truth about Apollonius, why he didn't have a substantial historical impact!]

On the matter of "the return of the unclean spirit" I was thinking that the parable may not be advocating for eliminating exorcism. Perhaps it points to doing what's necessary to keep the demon away permanently, as a continuous event; in other words, one can never act as if the demon is gone. something like keeping bipolar disorder under control with medication and social support.

Gene Stecher

Charles Hedrick said...

Hello Elizabeth,
1) The expression is a value judgment. In this case it seems to be Matthew's judgment on those living contemporary with Jesus. I call it Matthew's idea placed on the lips of Jesus in 12:45, because Luke does not have the value judgment at the parallel in Luke 11:26. The expression also appears in a Q tradition (Matt 12:39 =Luke 11:29 and in a Matthean doublet 16:4). The expression also appears in Mark 8:38 but is not repeated in the parallel passages in Matt 16:26-27 and Luke 9:25-26. But Matthew and Luke add it to the material they appropriate from Mark 9:19 (Matt 17:17 and Luke 9:41). Paul even uses a version of it in Phil 2:15. The expression appears to be standard invective.
2)Matthew thought that the generation should be singled out for its failure to receive Jesus' message I assume.
3)I don't believe so; there is also a version of the expression at Deut 32:5, 20, and there may be other instances of the expression.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Sunday afternoon Gene,
Most religious figures in late antiquity did not have an influence that lasted into the modern period. A few did of course, such as Buddha and Confucius. Some gave orthodox Christianity serious completion for many years, such as Manichaeism.
With regard to the story of Jesus I see no hint in the narrative that demons can be controlled or eliminated. For whatever reason the demon chooses to leave and freely decides to return bringing seven other spirits more evil than itself. Matthew's interpretation seems to exclude your own: "the last state of that man is worse than the first"--that is, demons cannot be controlled and human beings are easy prey for them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, a question for you.

I read the first book of Philostratus' biography of Apollonius of Tyana. It would seem that he was a Hellenistic polytheist. So I thought, that's one way he differed from Jesus, Jesus was a monotheist, calling on God as The Father.

But then I began wondering, thinking about this blog. If Jesus believed in an alternative world of demons and evil spirits and their leader Beelzebul, and perhaps concurrently an alternative world of God's messengers (angels) or holy spirits, and he thereby practiced exorcism, does that mean he was a polytheist, or aren't demons properly classified as gods?

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

A few other comments in reference to exorcism:
In general the act of driving out an evil spirit is described by the Greek word ekballein, but other words can be used as well. In describing the process of the evil spirit's departure the Greek word exerxomai is regularly used. Here are some of the relevant citations: Matt 8:32; 17:18; Mark 5:13; 9:26; 9:29; Luke 4:35, 41; 8:2; 8:29; 11:14; Acts 16:18.
The problem with this story is that even if one postulates an exorcist actually driving out the evil spirit (which does not appear in the story), the driven out spirit along with other spirits are still free to return. On one occasion after an exorcism and the departure of the spirit, Jesus adds "never enter him again" (Mark 9:25), which suggests that Mark thought that repossession by an evil spirit was still a possibility. It is an odd little story.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good morning Gene!
I love questions; they are always a learning experience for me. Good questions seem to persevere; only answers change.
The ancient Hebrews were henotheists: the belief and service to one God without denying the existence of others.
It seems to me that your question hinges on what one means by God/god. There is a difference between Deity and divinity, it seems to me. Divinities are not Gods/gods. The Romans, for example, worshipped the genius (i.e., divine spirit) of Caesar Augustus. So at least at Rome Caesar was not a God (one of the 12 traditional Gods), but rather a divine figure. In the Greek-speaking provinces, however, he was worshipped as a God. I suppose that demons can be Gods if one wants them to be.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, other questions comes to mind.

Why do you suppose the phrase "passes through waterless places seeking rest" is used in the parable? Why would the demon's exile be described as "waterless places," and why would his out-of-body condition be described as "seeking rest?" And, deducing from that, why would inhabiting a human be thought of as "rest?" Further, why would the post-exorcised condition of the human be thought of as a "place for a demon to rest?"

GThomas has some "rest" material, but there doesn't seem to be a connection with the parable:

50 "If they ask you, 'What is the evidence of your Father in you?' say to them, 'It is motion and rest.'"

51 "When will the rest for the dead take place...He said, 'What you are looking forward to has come..."

60 " for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten (like the lamb)."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Unknown said...

First, my thanks to Charlie for the opportunity to comment.

Given that I've written three books defending the idea that Jesus and early Christians practiced magic, my position on the subject is nothing if not predictable. Rather than drag the reader through a thousand pages of material, let me hazard a couple of observations.

First, it is widely conceded in mainstream New Testament studies that none of the gospels contain direct eyewitness testimony to the career of Jesus. Second, various lines of evidence establish nearly beyond doubt that Mark is the earliest of the canonical gospels, and unlike the 'sayings' gospels (Q, Thomas) contains some biographical memory (or the memory of a memory) of Jesus' career. Assuming that Matthew and Luke are relatively late, theologically adorned, reworkings of Mark, I will focus on Mark and ignore the other synoptics.

The first chapter of Mark calls Jesus a "Teacher," but what is meant should be determined by context. The clearest indication is found in Mark 1:27--Jesus has a new teaching, based on authority not derived from the law: "He commands the unclean spirits and they obey him." Accordingly, Jesus passes that authority over demons to his closest disciples (3:15, 6:13). In short (following Crossan), Jesus makes divine power immediately and personally effective, unlike the Temple authorities who make divine power ritually, communally effective.

Indeed, Jesus' "teaching" is often directly linked to exorcism and other works of power (4:37-38, 6:2-3) and Mark takes pains to distinguish Jesus from the scribes, the usual 'teachers' on legal matters (2:6, 7:1, 5, 11:27). Clearly Jesus is 'teaching' something new, something beyond what the scribes and elders are squabbling about. My personal opinion is that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher (9:1, etc) who thought the restoration of the Jewish national sovereignty was imminent, hence the promise of houses and fields (10:30) and the acclamation of David's kingdom (11:10, compare Acts 1:6). Apocalyptic prophets/preachers were expected to establish their bona fides by wonder-working, works of power understood by Jesus' opponents as sorcery (3:22). Mark is at some pains to tell us how rapidly Jesus' fame as an exorcist spread, and that even in his lifetime his name became a name to conjure with (9:38). It is often overlooked that one of the most commonly reported reactions to Jesus is fear (4:41, 5:15, 6:50, 9:6, 11:18, 32, 12:12).

It is my position that reconstructions of Jesus' 'teaching' are all conjectural, in most cases highly conjectural to say nothing of improbable, and that we are necessarily thrown back on historical probabilities. It seems logical to assume that the earliest gospel is the most likely to preserve a memory consistent with what we know from other historical sources from the era, Josephus, for example. By the time Matthew and Luke were composed, outside of Palestine and a half century removed from the events of Jesus' life, the institutional memory of the Jesus cult had become vague to the point of invention. The infancy stories of Matthew and Luke are Exhibit A of this tendency to confabulate and I have ventured the opinion elsewhere that the resurrection accounts of Matthew and Luke (particularly) are drawn from the features of widely circulated ghost stories. I would venture a guess that the 'sermons' and 'teaching' of Jesus reported in the later synoptics have been substantially altered, 'contaminated,' by augmentation to fit the needs of the evolving communities of believers and that it's anyone's guess how much, if any, is original to Jesus.

Robert Conner

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Gene,
I can try to answer a little piece of what you have asked. In any case, from my perspective in this story we are dealing with popular superstition about the behavior of evil spirits, and I do not know of any literature on that particular subject that might meet the criteria of nearness in time and physical location that could address the subject (superstitions vary somewhat from area to area and time to time).
However, I can mention that in the imagination of the ancient Israelites deserts were generally uninhabited areas devoid of water and occupied by dangerous beasts and mythological creatures (Isa 35:6-7; Jer 50:12; Isa 13:20-22; 34:8-14; 50:38-39); so waterless place would seem to be where people fearful of such spirits might expect them. The Five Gospels with regard to the Lucan version of the story suggests that springs, wells and outhouses were especially connected to spirits. I know that this is true in part for the ancient Greek and Roman tradition, but in the Judean tradition this story associates spirits with waterless places.

Your other questions are good ones but I don't know anything about the popular lore as to the general behavior of evil spirits that comes close to addressing the questions. Perhaps another reader does.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Robert,
You are free to comment at anytime!