Saturday, December 12, 2009

Driving Out Demons



In the New Testament, Jesus is remembered as a miracle worker and healer, a rabbi and prophet, the son of God and the anointed one (messiah) of Israel. Among his many different hats, however, is also the role of exorcist. In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is seen driving out demons at least as often as he is seen healing the sick or performing nature miracles. In fact, one of his methods for healing the sick is depicted as exorcising unclean spirits that cause illness.

My purpose in this account is not to discuss the circumstances of Jesus’ various roles in the New Testament, or whether demon-possession and exorcism is real or metaphorical. It is enough for my purposes here that folks living in the 1st century certainly believed in demon possession, believed that unclean spirits were responsible for some illnesses, and certainly believed in the efficacy of exorcism.

With that established, I want to look at two specific passages in the New Testament that talk about demon possession and exorcism. These two accounts deal more with who is qualified to perform exorcisms than with the nature of the exorcism itself. We’ll look first at a story from the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 9:38-41 (NRSV):

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

In this story, the disciples have witnessed someone performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, but it was a stranger – not one of their group. John informs Jesus that they tried to stop him. Jesus, however, rebukes them with the adage “whoever is not against us is for us” – in other words, we’re all part of the same team. He goes on to make the rather eye-raising assertion that anyone who does a kind thing for a Christian will, themselves, earn the rewards of a Christian.

A good theological debate could no doubt be had over that last phrase of the Markan passage, but it is secondary to our purposes here. The point Jesus makes in this story is that everyone who works in the name of Jesus is “part of the group.”

In the larger context of Mark’s Gospel, the writer’s purpose with this story is reasonably clear: Mark is addressing concerns in Christian society over competing Christian communities. It is important to remember that in the 1st century (and, in fact, well into the 4th century), Christianity did not have the sort of unified doctrine and belief that it has today. And in fact, the idea that it has unified doctrine and belief today is really an anachronism. Since the Protestant Reformation, and later the Enlightenment, Christianity has become wildly diverse, with beliefs ranging from non-theistic self-improvement to rabid fundamentalism. Most modern Christians, however, can at least agree on a few major points of Christian theology (Jesus existed, he died for our sins, he was raised, we can have new life in his name, etc.).

In the 1st century, however, Christian beliefs were at least as diverse as they are today, and probably far more so. In modern society, most Christians accept the legitimacy of other denominations. “My neighbor is a Roman Catholic and I am a Methodist, but we are brothers and sisters in Christ.” That sort of thing. Not so in the 1st century. (In fact, not so until about the 20th century). Christian groups were very exclusive and very suspicious of outsiders. Their regard for non-Christians was not very high: they were pagans and sinners worshipping offensive false gods. Yet their regard for other Christian groups was frequently even worse. As Elaine Pagels points out in her book “The Origin of Satan,” the “intimate enemy” is far worse than the outsider. While pagans were godless sinners, other Christians with different beliefs were doing the very work of Satan. Corrupting the true faith, as it were.

This connection between Satan and those “Christians who disagree with us” remained common in Christianity right up until the last hundred years or so. Of course, for some modern Christians, it still remains.

With that in mind, we turn again to the referenced passage from Mark. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Clearly Mark’s purpose in this story was to address the competition and hard feelings among Christian groups of the late 1st century (Mark was writing around 70 C.E.). While many Christians felt negatively toward other Christian groups, Mark is attempting, through the words of Jesus, to call for unity and encourage reconciliation.

In historical context, we know that by the time Mark was writing his Gospel, Paul had already lived and died and become an important figure in developing Christianity. Church tradition, in fact, holds that John Mark – a companion of Paul – later became the secretary for Peter and wrote the Gospel that bears his name based on stories from Peter. That may or may not have any historical credibility, but in any case, the writer of Mark certainly would have been familiar with Paul and the impact he had on Christianity.

In his own letters, Paul makes it clear that competing groups of Christians were already well established. He writes of false prophets and other rabbis teaching in Jesus’ name. Paul makes his negative opinion of them clear.

Yet the writer of Mark is calling for reconciliation, despite Paul’s own views about competing Christian teachers. Again, historical context explains why. As we saw above, Mark was writing his Gospel in the early 70’s C.E. At the start of that decade, the Jewish-Roman war had ended with Jerusalem destroyed, the Temple burnt to the ground, and the Jews dispersed into Gentile lands. It was a time of great social, political, cultural, and even theological upheaval within Judaism – which at that time still included Christianity. Writing in the midst of that chaos and tragedy, Mark is encouraging Jewish Christians to unite, to band together, to recognize that anyone who is not against us is for us. In essence: “We’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.”

With that in mind, we turn to another exorcism story from the New Testament. This time, it comes from the writer of Acts of the Apostles.

Acts 19:13-16 (NRSV):

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.

But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”

Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.


Immediately before this story in chapter 19 of Acts, the writer had talked about the unbelief Paul encountered in Ephesus. The writer then recounts this story, suggesting that the event helped solidify faith in Paul’s message of Jesus. For the writer of Acts, only Paul and “those in the group” had the authority to perform exorcisms.

So how can one explain these competing theological messages? In Mark, Jesus says that anyone driving out demons in his name is “for us” – that is, part of the group. In Acts, it is made clear that no one but those “in the group” have the authority to do this.

Again, historical context brings the answer into focus. As we have seen, Mark was writing around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Thus, his message of reconciliation. Whoever is not against us is for us. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

The writer of Acts, however, was writing some twenty to twenty-five years later, in the middle of the 90’s C.E. By that time, drastic theological and cultural changes had taken place. Christianity had split violently from Judaism in the intervening years between Mark and Acts – an event reflected in many New Testament texts. In splitting from Judaism, Christianity was quickly becoming a religion of Gentiles, and Jews were increasingly seen as the enemy. Furthermore, as Christianity distanced itself from Judaism, it began to undergo a lot of dramatic theological changes. It was spreading into many new areas, and Christian groups and communities were popping up all across the Mediterranean. This inevitably led to problems not unlike what Paul addresses in his own writings – Christian groups vying for authority and primacy, and accusing one another of heresy and false prophesying.

Mark’s call for reconciliation was, apparently, either ignored or didn’t stick for long.

Thus, Acts reflects what was happening culturally during the era that the book was written. Unlike Mark, who wanted to see Christian groups reconcile, the writer of Acts clearly believed that only Paul’s Christianity was legitimate. Anyone else was a false prophet, a heretic, unable to channel the power of Jesus in exorcisms.

The nature of this perspective is evident in the polemical tone of the story itself. First, we see the result of trying to exorcise falsely in Jesus’ name: you get beaten up by the demon you are fighting and end up fleeing naked and injured. You’re made a fool of, in other words.

Second, consider the writer’s choice of words in that passage: he refers to these false prophets as “Jews.” This, of course, gives modern readers the impression that these are just more of the same Jewish enemies of Jesus and Christianity. Yet clearly the content of the story implies that they are not practitioners of Rabbinical Judaism. They may or may not have been ethnically Jewish, but that is completely beside the point: they are performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus; clearly they are Christians. Jewish Christians, perhaps, but Christians nonetheless. The important point is that these are not Rabbinical Jews that the writer of Acts is talking about. He is talking about other Christians, but he is derisively calling them “Jews” in an effort to equate them with those who had rejected Jesus (remember, again, that Acts was written during the painful separation of Christianity from Judaism). This is not unparalleled in early Christian writings. The 2nd century Christian leader Valentinus, for instance, called anyone not following his brand of Christianity a “Hebrew,” whether they were actually Jewish, pagan, Christian, or otherwise.

It may also be noteworthy to point out that no historical record, outside of Acts, makes reference to any Jewish high priest, either before, during, or after Paul’s life, named Sceva. That is true despite the fact that extremely thorough records exist covering the identities and actions of the various Jewish high priests of the 1st century.

So we are left with an obvious question: Which account do we take as “gospel”? The story of Jesus, that says we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, or the story of Sceva’s sons, that says only Paul’s version of Christianity has primacy?

I’ll leave that question unanswered and rhetorical since the theological implications lie outside the scope of my purposes here.

There is, however, another curious aspect to this double tradition of exorcisms and Christian unity.

Many readers will be aware of the fact that the same person who wrote Acts of the Apostles also wrote the Gospel of Luke. Church tradition says this person was a Gentile named Luke who was the physician for Paul. Most scholars and theologians are skeptical of this, as there is no textual evidence to support it, but what most everyone agrees on is that the person who wrote Luke also wrote Acts.

Many readers will also be aware that the writers of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source. This is a well-established idea within modern Biblical scholarship that virtually all scholars agree upon.

One of the stories that Luke used from Mark is the first exorcism story mentioned above, where Jesus asserts that “anyone who is not against us is for us.” Thus, the writer of Luke seems to contradict himself between his two volumes: in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asserts that anyone driving out demons in his name is “for us;” but in Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that only those “in the group” can drive out demons.

How can we explain this contradiction? Many theories may no doubt account for Luke’s change in tone, but there are two explanations that I think are most likely.

First, perhaps Luke simply made a mistake. The editing process for writers of the 1st century wasn’t exactly like it is today. There were no word processors with scroll bars and word searches to review one’s work. Furthermore, several years probably passed in between the writing of Luke and Acts. By the time he wrote Acts, the writer of Luke may simply have forgotten the story of Jesus and the exorcists, or may not have given consideration to the contradiction he was creating. Minor theological inconsistencies like that are not uncommon between Luke’s two volumes, and most can probably be explained as a result of Luke’s reliance on many different sources. He frequently copied Mark word for word, but Mark’s theology (like the theology of any single writer in the 1st century) was not always uniformly consistent with all possible accounts available at the time. We have already seen, after all, how varied Christian beliefs were in the 1st century. Luke’s minor inconsistencies can no doubt be chalked up to his use of multiple sources that would have had competing theologies.

A second possible explanation is that Luke simply changed his mind. After writing the Gospel of Luke, where he repeated Mark’s story calling for unity among Christians, Luke may have had experiences that led him to see Paul’s version of Christianity as primary among all competing groups. Thus, he illustrated that change of heart by writing a story in his second volume, Acts, that was specifically geared toward “taking back” the theology of unity he had expressed in his first volume.

Even with all that, there is still one curious aspect of this story left to analyze. As we saw above, both Luke and Matthew relied heavily on Mark as a primary source. We also saw that Luke, in the Gospel of Luke, repeats Mark’s story about Jesus and the exorcists. Matthew, however, does not repeat this story. Yet he does use a form of the adage “whoever is not against us is for us.”

The curious thing about this, however, is that Matthew turns it around into the negative. He has Jesus utter these words during a dispute with the Pharisees over his authority to cast out demons (sound familiar?). In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus says: “He who is not with me is against me.”

Now, instead of a story about casting out demons where Jesus asserts that anyone working in his name is “part of the group,” for Matthew, Jesus uses a situation of casting out demons to argue for exclusion – whoever is not with me is against me.

This simply provides more evidence to the historical context we saw above. In the 1st century, there were many different Christian groups all vying for primacy and exclusivity, and while some writers urged reconciliation and unity, many other writers expressed their belief in the primacy of their own community’s tradition. Mark urged unity. Matthew urged exclusivity. Luke first urged unity, then later urged exclusivity.

What these stories ultimately tell us is that Christianity is, and always has been, a highly personal faith system, malleable to many different worldviews and spiritual tastes. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons for its rise to prominence and continued primacy among the various religions of the world. Christianity, by its very nature, is open to interpretation.

In my opinion, this is something that Christians should celebrate, rather than attempt to whitewash or gloss over.

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