John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 2, ch. 20: Jesus' Exorcisms,
pp 646-677

(Detailed summary)

Which exorcisms of Jesus can be considered historical?


In the Greek text of the New Testament, we do not have the word miracle as such, but various expressions to speak of acts of power, or wonderful or amazing deeds. Moreover, we do not have medical descriptions of the various pathologies that date back two thousand years. Thus, we can only group miracles using the New Testament categories, beginning with exorcisms, which are mostly found in Mark.

As much as we have been able to assert that it is very likely that Jesus performed actions out of the ordinary that his contemporaries and Jesus himself interpreted as miracles, it is a challenge to assert that any particular account of a miracle is historical. Nevertheless, we can conclude the following: the account of the boy possessed (Mk 9:14-29) and the reference to Mary Magdalene's healing (Lk 8:2) probably date back to a historical event, as does the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20), which is in fact a case of epilepsy, without the scene of the pigs; on the other hand, in its present form, the account of the man with unclean spirit in Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28) is probably a Christian creation, but it reflects the kind of things Jesus did, while the account of the mute demoniac of Mt 9:32-33 is clearly a creation of Matthew, just as the account of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30) is probably a Christian creation. Finally, it is impossible to come to a conclusion with the brief account of the exorcism of the mute demon in the Q tradition (Mt 12:22-23a).

  1. Prologue to the Inventory: The Various Types of Jesus' Miracles

    As we have seen previously, the application of several criteria of historicity has led us to conclude that it is very likely that Jesus performed actions out of the ordinary that his contemporaries and Jesus himself interpreted as miracles. It should be noted, however, that in the Greek text of the New Testament we do not have the word miracle as such, but various words such as dynameis (acts of power), semeia (sign), terata (wonders), paradoxa (amazing actions) and thaumasia (wonderful actions).

    However, when one begins to look at individual miracle stories, one is faced with a number of difficulties. First of all, these miracles were told using motifs and forms typical of the Greco-Roman world, so that some specific features of the event were lost along the way. In addition, it is typical for a storyteller to rework his or her narrative to make it more vivid. In addition to this, the Church's effort to transmit a catechesis through these narratives and to make them play a symbolic role. Finally, twenty centuries separate us from this era and it is impossible to establish the exact pathology of the various diseases and to obtain a medical description. Moreover, we must recognize the scientific and cultural gap that separates us from the first century: a case of epilepsy was seen as a demonic possession. This is why we will group the stories into the types of miracles that have been attributed to Jesus.

  2. The Exorcisms

    The challenge of what follows is to evaluate the possibility of historical elements in the individual stories, and first of all in the exorcisms of Jesus. First, note that the majority of exorcism accounts come from the evangelist Mark. Without having multiple sources, we have multiple forms.

    1. The Demoniac in the Synagogue at Capernaum (Mk 1: 23-28 || Lk 4: 33-37)

      The context is the presentation of a typical day of Jesus. It is the very beginning of his public ministry. So we have a summary of what will characterize his ministry: in the synagogue on a Sabbath day, he teaches with surprising authority and frees a man from a demon who knows his true identity, and from there his reputation spreads everywhere. The paradigmatic character of the story and the fact that Jesus commands silence to someone who pronounces a Christological title forces us to see in this account the expression of Mark's theology, especially the one concerning the messianic secret. The only historical element that we can extract from the story is that of the place of Capernaum as the center of Jesus' ministry, an element that is confirmed by the four gospels, including John, who is more focused on Judea than on Galilee. Document Q (Mt 11:23 || Lk 10:15) contains an account in which Jesus rebukes cities in Galilee, particularly Capernaum, for not repenting at the sight of his miracles. Thus we can affirm that Jesus performed exorcisms in Capernaum, without being able to give details.

    2. The Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5: 1-20)

      This is a story full of tensions and contradictions that has undoubtedly evolved from a simpler story. It is the only account of exorcism that occurs in pagan territory, since Gerasa was located east of Lake Galilee in a territory called Decapolis, where we find a group of Hellenistic cities with a mostly pagan population.

      The first difficulty comes from the account of the herd of pigs rushing to the sea from the top of an escarpment after a legion of demons had taken possession of them. Gerasa was about fifty kilometers from Lake Galilee, and makes such a drowning impossible. The Church Fathers, like Origen, perceived the difficulty, and looked for another town closer to the lake. But this difficulty only reinforces what had been observed in the form of the narrative: we are faced with a secondary addition to an original narrative that did not contain this scene of the pigs.

      A second difficulty comes from the terrifying nature of the story where a possessed man shouts and cuts himself with stones in a cemetery and succeeds in breaking his chains. It must be recognized that Mark probably uses all these highly evocative elements to promote his theology, the liberating power of the Gospel among the Gentiles, a mission begun by Jesus. In fact, the dialogue between the demon and Jesus contains several terms that are specific to Mark's theology, especially that of the messianic secret, because according to him no human can know and proclaim Jesus as the Son of God before the mysterious revealing act of death on the cross; only supernatural forces, like demons, do so before time.

      Thus, there are very few historical elements left to extract from this story, except perhaps two. First, the geography: "Gerasene" is unique, as is the mention of the Decapolis. Why would the first Christians have invented this strange location, if it did not reflect a rather special historical event whose details would have been forgotten. Second, it is possible that the conflict among the early Christians between those who supported openness to pagans and those who opposed it may have contributed to the memory of an exorcism of Jesus in a pagan environment to support the open position.

    3. The Possessed Boy (Mk 9: 14-29 and parr.)

      This long narrative, which contains certain inconsistencies, is probably the result of a complex literary history. But what is notable in this narrative is its departure from the usual exorcism narrative. Indeed, an exorcism generally includes the following elements:

      1. Jesus arrives on the scene
      2. A demon is brought to him or he is questioned by a demon
      3. Sometimes there is the description of the pitiful state of the demoniac.
      4. Jesus calls out the demon and asks him to come out
      5. The story tells how the demon leaves the scene, sometimes in the midst of convulsions
      6. Sometimes the story tells about the person's well-being to confirm the result
      7. The story ends with the reaction of the spectators

      But our story has elements that are unique to it:

      1. The disciples failed in their attempt at exorcism
      2. Jesus' interlocutor is not the demon, but the father of the boy.
      3. Instead of a battle between Jesus and the demon, there is a pastoral debate on the place of faith, and more particularly on faith as a condition for exorcism.
      4. When Jesus says that all things are possible for those who believe, it could be Jesus' own faith.
      5. And most importantly, we have a detailed clinical description of a case of epilepsy believed to be caused by the moon.

      The very fact of these deviations from the usual structure of an exorcism could point to a special and memorable encounter between Jesus and the father of an epileptic child during his ministry. In addition, it should be noted that there is no Christological title attributed to Jesus (he is called "teacher" by the father). Finally, the Greek text of the story contains a number of Semiticisms. Thus, there may be a historical recollection of an event in Jesus' ministry behind the present narrative, but we cannot say more.

    4. The Mute (and Blind?) Demoniac (Mt 12: 22-23a || Lk 11: 14)

      This story comes from Document Q. It is all the more noteworthy because Document Q consists primarily of discourse, and the only two miracle stories found there are our account of exorcism and a healing (the servant of the centurion, Mt 8:5-13 || Lk 7:1-10). One might think that this exorcism was specially composed to introduce the controversy over Beelzebub. But it should be noted that Luke's version best reflects Document Q and that the motif of a mute demon is unique, playing no role and disappearing in the rest of the story. Why would one have invented this motif, when a simple exorcism would have been sufficient? Even if the reasoning is based on tenuous evidences, it must be said that it is probable that this exorcism was not invented by the authors of Document Q and that it was indeed originally linked to the controversy around Beelzebub. This does not prove the historicity of this particular exorcism, but it is highly probable that exorcisms are at the origin of the accusation that Jesus was an accomplice of Beelzebub (on this controversy, see ch. 16).

    5. The Exorcism of a Mute Demoniac (Mt 9: 32-33)

      There is a consensus among biblical scholars that this story is a creation of Matthew, that it is in fact a doublet of Mt 12:22-23. Why did Matthew recycle another story in this way? Chapters 8 and 9 represent a beautiful and complex literary structure in which Matthew has grouped nine miracle stories that he presents in groups of three, each linked together by an interlude presenting the requirements for discipleship. It is possible that by the time he wrote the ninth miracle, he had already exhausted his sources (Mark, Document Q and his special sources) and decided to fill the void by reusing the exorcism that introduced the controversy around Beelzebub.

    6. The Reference to Mary Magdalene (Lk 8: 2)

      Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out (Lk 8: 1-2)

      It is usual for Luke to describe the healings using the analogy of exorcism, and here the number seven describes the severity of the disease. The literary form of the text is that of a summary in which Luke summarizes Jesus' activity using stereotypes of his own, and in particular the role of women. Does this mean that we are dealing with a pure and simple creation of Luke, without any historical foundation? Two criteria rather point us towards a historical source:

      1. First of all, the criterion of embarrassment, because the four Gospels agree in describing the presence of Mary Magdalene on the cross, her testimony at the empty tomb and, according to Matthew and John, her experience of the resurrected Jesus; how could the primitive Church, which was very masculine, have created such an account in which a woman, who had also experienced the devil, plays a founding role?
      2. Then there is the argument of coherence, because it is easy to understand that a woman who was healed by Jesus of a severe illness decided to follow him to the end.

    7. The Story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Mk 7: 24-30 || Mt 15: 21-28)

      Let us first note that this story does not follow the usual pattern of exorcisms where Jesus is confronted by the demon who tries to drive him away, and succeeds in expelling him by a command that amazes the crowd. Rather, the story follows the pattern of miracles at a distance (see the servant of the Centurion, Mt 8:5-13) where a petitioner intercedes with Jesus for a dear absent person, and where in the dialogue that follows certain difficulties lead one to believe that Jesus will do nothing, before giving in to the petitioner's faith. The heart of the story is in this dialogue between Jesus and the petitioner. And when we look at the context of the story where Jesus first opposed the distinction between the pure and the impure (Mk 7:1-23), which is in fact the barrier that separates Jews and pagans, we realize that the story has a strong theological flavor that takes a stand on the debate that affected the first generation of Christians: should we accept pagans into the Christian community. Even if the mention of Tyre and the Syro-Phoenician is unusual in the New Testament and might lead one to believe that the story is historical, one must nevertheless conclude that this is a creation of Christian missionaries.

      In conclusion, the results of our survey appear quite meagre.

      1. The story of the possessed boy (Mk 9: 14-29 and parr.) and the reference to Mary Magdalene's healing (Lk 8: 2) are both a historical event, as is the Gerasian demoniac (Mk 5: 1-20), which is in fact a case of epilepsy, without the scene of the pigs.
      2. In its present form, the story of the demon from Capernaum (Mk 1: 23-28 and parr.) is probably a Christian creation, but it reflects the kind of things Jesus did.
      3. The brief account of the exorcism of the mute demoniac in the Q tradition (Mt 12: 22-23a and parr.) is difficult to judge.
      4. The account of the mute demoniac from Mk 9:32-33 is clearly a creation of Matthew.
      5. The Syro-Phoenician narrative is probably a Christian creation to represent the missionary theology of the early church.
Next Chapter: Which of the stories of healings are likely to date back to the time of Jesus?

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