Exorcism: the dark side of the Gospels


By Daniel Marguerat, Professor Emeritus at the University of Lausanne

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first public act of Jesus was entering a synagogue in Capernaum, where a scandal was taking place. As soon as he enters a man howls: “What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (1:24). He is, comments the Evangelist, possessed by an evil spirit. And Jesus needs to order the spirit to quiet down and come out of this man. This is the first intervention of Jesus the exorcist; there will be many others. What does this strange practice with a nefarious reputation – the dark side of the Gospels – reveal?

We are familiar with the image of Jesus the healer, responding to the plea of an invalid and alleviating his sufferings. But exorcism is a wholly different matter: the patient bridles up, aggressive and violent. Exorcism is a combat, a fight to the death, for the exorcist is not confronted with a sick body, but with a preternatural force that has taken over a body. To speak of the afflicted as the “possessed” reflects the reality to the letter: the individual finds himself dislodged, invaded by a foreign force that has taken possession of his mind and will. He is held hostage. The cries of the possessed man of Capernaum can be understood as symptoms: sometimes he says “we,” sometimes “I.” This touches upon the core of the problem: alienated, stranger to himself, the man no longer controls his “I.” That is why Jesus the exorcist does not address him, but the spirit that has colonized him: “Hold thy peace, and come out of him” (Mark 1:25). The miracle of exorcism is essentially a miracle of liberation: the individual is restored to his liberty and autonomy.

The origins of the illness

It is tempting to dismiss the phenomenon as extraneous to science and belonging to the world of mythology. How to defend the presence of evil spirits in the 21st century? But before disposing exorcism onto the shelf of pre-scientific relics, it is worthwhile to inquire into its origins. Where does it come from and what does it mean? In antiquity, two etiologies were developed to explain the illness. On the one hand, the illness was considered to be a somatic disorder due to the loss of vital energy; it was called asthenia, from the Greek word astheneia, which means “infirmity.” The Hippocratic medicine, named after the great physician of the fifth century BC, largely contributed to this hypothesis. To fight the illness, force and vitality needed to be restored to the patient, or his defective organ had to be removed. The popular pharmacopoeia had a list of products that were supposed to cure it. It is according to this etiology that a charismatic healer miraculously removes the inimical deficiency. The other etiology is founded on animist beliefs: demons and angels are fighting over the course of the world, and humans are caught up in the turmoil. In this case, the illness is understood as resulting from the infiltration of an evil spirit. Colonized, the individual is given over to the force that occupies him, to the extent that it is no longer him but the spirit that expresses itself. The appropriate cure would be to combat, overpower, and expel the spirit. Exorcisms were practiced either by charismatic figures, like Jesus, or by sorcerers. That is why adversaries of Jesus, not recognizing his charisma, accuse him of sorcery: “He hath Beelzebub” and “by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22). Let us note in passing that the scribes, who are speaking here, do not contest the success of his exorcisms; they question the origin of his power and attribute it to the Evil.

In the case of illness-possession, unlike in the case of illness-asthenia, the exorcist finds himself confronted with the radical Evil. He faces not only a suffering being, but also the very incarnation of Evil that contaminates humanity. But there was a belief that the demon could also identify other spiritual beings. That is why the evil spirit, from within the possessed man of Capernaum, cries out: “I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (Marc 1:24). The spirit knows who Jesus is and where his charismatic power comes from, and fears Jesus will subdue it.

We can hardly, in this day and age, uphold this mythical representation of the world. Nonetheless, tales of exorcism leave us with two questions, an anthropological one and a theological one.

The anthropological question: can a human being be alienated from his agency to the point he loses conscious control over his acts? Can he commit actions about which he will later say “I didn’t know what I was doing”? If this clinical view is correct, we find ourselves faced with a pathology which the ancients had already perceived and explained with the help of a mythological representation of reality – a pathology we nowadays apprehend with different fields of psychiatry.

The theological question: is it true that the Christ is capable of restoring liberty to a person? Is it true that, before the word of Jesus, a person can regain control over his choices and values?


A colonial situation

Whoever compares the Gospels to other religious texts of antiquity (the Talmud and Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers) will be struck by the unusually high number of exorcisms ascribed to Jesus. We can count six instances, with a man in a synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), a man taking refuge among gravestones in a non-Jewish country (Mark 5:1-20), a possessed mute (Matthew 9: 32-34), a young Syrophoenician girl (Mark 7:24-30), and an epileptic child (Mark 9:14-29). But seven lists of miracles mention numerous other healing acts and exorcisms. It is a lot, compared to the small number of miracles attributed to rabbi healers in the Talmud. Moreover, the Book of Acts ascribes to the disciples the continuation of the healing activities of Jesus, including exorcism (Acts 16:16-18, 19:13-17).

How can we explain this frequency? It assuredly reflects the widespread success of Jesus as a charismatic healer. No one can reasonably dismiss the miracles of Jesus, as did Ernest Renan in the 19th century, as fiction concocted by “the excited imagination of a few pious women.” The therapeutic acts of Jesus are currently considered by researchers to be one of the most reliable elements in the biography of Jesus the historical figure.

But then again, how to explain the frequency of exorcisms? An American researcher, John Dominic Crossan, looked for an explanation where we would not have expected: in the recent history of African societies. In his book The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), Crossan consults sociological studies on African societies during the period of European colonization. The facts are astounding: under European colonization, the number of mental alienation and exorcism cases skyrocketed. And why? The following is Crossan’s response: mental possession emulates at the individual level the socio-political situation of the country. The country is occupied by a foreign force that governs politically and economically, and that imposes its social and cultural order. The local culture, inherited from ancestral tradition, is discredited and relegated to the status of primitivism. It is as though particularly sensitive and/or aware individuals reproduce within themselves the colonial environment from which their communities are suffering. Result: a colonized society produces colonized individuals.

Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon echoes this theory in his study of the mentally ill in Algeria during the French occupation (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961). He writes: “mental disorder can be considered as a socially acceptable form of protest against oppression or as a way of escaping it.” He speaks of a “symbiotic relation” between alienation (protest of the weak against the strong) and accusation of alienation (power of the strong over the weak).

It is very tempting to draw a parallel with the state of affairs in the first-century Palestine. The Roman Empire had colonized the people of Israel. Impious soldiers trampled the soil of the holy land, and the Temple in Jerusalem was at risk of being profaned by Roman prefects, such as Pontius Pilate who wanted to install the insignia of the legions within the walls of the Temple. Roman modernity is imposed on the customs and culture of the Sadducean elite. In short, all the stigmata of colonization were present in Israel during the time of Jesus. We then understand that the same socio-political phenomenon could have engendered the same psychiatric fragility: oppression and possession go hand in hand. A story in the Bible seems to support this analysis: the exorcism of the possessed of Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). This deranged man behaves antisocially and violently, roving the mountain and the graveyard, bellowing and cutting himself with stones. His distress and self-mutilation are particularly revealing signs. His encounter with Jesus follows the usual steps. The possessed implores Jesus not to torment him, and Jesus responds: “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit” (Mark 5:8). What follows merits more attention. When Jesus asks for a name, the spirit answers: “My name is Legion: for we are many” (5:9). And it persistently begs Jesus to “not send them away out of the country” (5:10). And since nearby was a large herd of pigs grazing, the impure spirits ask Jesus: “Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them” (5:12). Right away they enter the pigs, and the entire herd throws itself into the sea.

The political connotations are evident. The name of the unclean spirits, Legion, is also that of the Roman army. That the spirits save themselves by colonizing the pigs is of caustic irony, since the pigs are for the Jews impure animals. The presence of the herd can be explained because the scene takes place not in Israel, but in a non-Jewish region called Decapolis, on the other side of the Lake of Gennesaret. The outcome of the exorcism, that is, the collective suicide of the pigs, sounds like a triumph over the redoubtable Roman army: their impurity is confirmed, their defeat predicted. The protest against Roman imperialism has transformed this tale of miracle into a political allegory.

The finger of God

Two sayings by Jesus, quoted from the most ancient tradition, demonstrate what the exorcisms signified for the man of Nazareth. When accused of performing sorcery and acting on behalf of Beelzebub, he retorts, “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The finger of God is a metaphor for his charismatic power. If, Jesus seems to say, my power to cast out devils comes from God, Evil diminishes from the world and the Kingdom of God is coming. The exorcism offers a glimpse of the Kingdom of God by liberating man from what disfigures his humanity. Man is freed from the forces that alienate him and take away his autonomy – thus is the glory of God in the world.

Another saying by Jesus, also surprising, is in a similar vein. When the disciples return to Jesus and tell him that they have successfully performed exorcisms in his name, Jesus exults, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The imagery is striking: the defeat of the Evil is the fall of Satan. There is more than just an image here. This enigmatic saying conserves the trace of a visionary experience (for the Nazarene was without doubt a mystic). The vision of Satan falling shows the full importance of the combat Jesus carries out against Evil: to restore liberty to man is to push back by an inch the influence of Satan in this world.

– Translated from the French by Shijung Kim

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