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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Jesus the Underrated Exorcist

Every so often I google "historical Jesus" to see what Ziggy has to say about about popular opinion (shout out to those playing the Quantum Leap drinking game at home). My first stop was here:

I've used Early Christian Writings dot com with great affection for many years. It's a very useful teaching resource for new students of biblical studies. This particular page on theories of the historical Jesus is (not surprisingly) also very helpful. It gives a nice survey of the historical Jesus landscape, albeit somewhat dated. I did notice a blindspot. This list details theories of Jesus as myth, as prophet, as sage, etc. But no such list is complete without a "Jesus as exorcist" entry.

On this note, it is time to take notice of the underrated work of Graham Twelftree. Twelftree's book, Jesus, the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus shed new light on a key but under-appreciated element of Jesus' career. It occurs to me that this element is still under-appreciated 30 years later. Although, see e.g. this book and this book for material advances. I've tinkered with this element in a few publications too.

So my next stop was the almost always disappointing Wikipedia page:

Sure enough, the name Twelftree isn't once mentioned. Neither is the word "exorcist" mentioned. I should note, however, that the term "exorcism" is mentioned in passing a few times. But without much explanation. The ever quotable Amy-Jill Levine is quoted, "Most scholars agree that Jesus was baptised by John, debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God’s will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE)." I should also note that among those who have built upon this fact, some have elevated it to a cosmic scale (e.g. Wright) and others have elevated it to a political scale (e.g. Horsley). In both cases, demonic possession becomes a metaphor for something more global and more culturally important. This allows Jesus' career as an exorcist to serve as a wide-lens social commentary.

So if Jesus' career as an exorcist is one of the generally accepted facts of history, why is this element underplayed in our popular depictions of him? More to the point, why are there so many books, essays, and documentaries about Jesus with almost no treatment of this key element? I have a few half-baked thoughts on this.

(1) Paul doesn't care about exorcism. Or so suggests the thirteen letters attributed to him. Paul certainly believes in evil powers on a cosmic level but he never mentions exorcisms or Christian exorcists. Indeed, early Christianity doesn't preserve much material on Christian exorcists. Could it be that the Christianized West took most of its theological cues from Paul?

(2) The Gospel of John doesn't care about exorcism. No demons are cast out of human bodies in the Fourth Gospel. Judas is said to be possessed by the Satan. "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, "What you are about to do, do quickly" (John 13:27). Rather than casting out Satan, Jesus gives the possessed Judas his permission—perhaps even a command?—to do the dastardly, demonic deed. So, as far as John is concerned, Jesus is not an exorcist. Could it be that Christianity's Jesus Christ is mostly Johannine?

(3) The Hebrew Bible doesn't care about exorcism. While we might see a rare exception with David's ability to sooth the "evil spirit of the Lord", there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that parallels Jesus' war with demons. None of those iconic and highly influential stories from Adam to Jonah prepare us for a career exorcist. Had it not been for Mark's unique interest in exorcism (impacting Matthew and Luke), we would think that exorcism was unbiblical.

(4) When we look down the well of history to find our own reflection, we rarely see career exorcists. Historians (like artists, ideologues, and religious folks) are notorious guilty of finding our own reflections in the face of Jesus. In the modern, white, western world, we simply cannot relate to this worldview. [Odd but true sidebar: I personally witnessed two exorcisms in Zimbabwe during my five-month visit in 1993.] Our only mainstream category for possession relates to the genre of horror. That is, unless you count Scott Bakula's weekly possession of different human bodies in the 1980s. Oh boy.

In sum, the fact that Jesus was a career exorcist doesn't much work for us. It alienates him from us. Whatever selectivity Christians have employed to invent a modern "biblical" worldview has largely neglected this portrait. Moreover historical and political appropriations of Jesus have focused elsewhere most often (noteworthy exceptions listed above). Even so, I remain convinced that Jesus' career as an exorcist is one of the top five things we must know about him to understand him as a man of his own time, place, and worldview.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day

In the spirit of St. Valentine, I send this embroidered love note out to our readers:


the Jesus Blog

Thursday, February 9, 2017

CSSSB Conference 2017: The Bible in Politics

The next conference to be hosted by the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible, St Mary’s University is…

The topics will be broad ranging and will involve critical analyses of uses of the Bible in politics in a range of geographical and cultural contexts roughly within the timeframe of capitalist modernity. There are more confirmed speakers too. Further details to come over the next few weeks.

Here is the link for registration:

A free drink for the first person to identify correctly the poster beneath the poster...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Hitler for This Week

Photo from
"I have admitted earlier that from 1930 to 1933 I too voted for Hitler.  My work in the congregation and for my dissertation left me little time for involvement in politics.  Every night, and for an entire year-and-a-half, while synodical vicar in Barmen, I was forced to experience the civil war at my very door.  I eagerly longed for order.  In family and school we continually heard that the Treaty of Versailles shamefully humiliated us Germans.  Finally, the war left behind six million unemployed in our country.  So my friends and I agreed that only a strong government could help us.  I did come to mistrust Hitler after his intervention on behalf of a criminal storm trooper in Silesia.  But I was naive enough to suppose that we could get rid of him at the next election in four years.  In the meantime, the party of the German Christians was formed.  In the summer of 1933 it grew from four to forty-five members among the representatives of my congregation.  Then, when the so-called Reichsbishop incorporated the evangelical youth groups into the Hitler youth, and when the Roehm putsch eliminated disputes within the Nazi leadership through mass murder, we could no longer ignore our having been handed over to thugs who unflinchingly used force and would yield only to force.  The founding of the Confessing Church at Wuppertal led to political opposition.  As early as the fall of 1933 I declared that the Reichsbishop was a traitor to the evangelical church.  From then on I was hated by the Nazis, later was denounced in the marketplace as a national traitor by the Gauleiter (district leader) in Gelsenkirchen, and was recommended to the higher authorities for assignment to a concentration camp.  The chairman of our congregation lent support in an appeal to headquarters in Berlin.  For either side there was no turning back. . . .

I should like to break off here.  It would lead to a full-scale autobiography if I were to tell how I  had to be a soldier for three years, perhaps to get out of reach of the area command and seizure by the Nazis; how I finally survived the camp at Kreuznach, in which 70,000 prisoners starved, then returned to a heavily bombed congregation. . . .  As a last word and as my bequest, let me call to you in Huguenot style: 'Résistez!' Discipleship of the Crucified leads necessarily to resistance to idolatry on every front.  This resistance is and must be the most important mark of Christian freedom."

Ernst Käsemann in 1996
On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, xvii-xviii, xxi

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Frederick Douglass for this Week

"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. And that Bowling Green massacre wasn't cool. AT. ALL."

                  ~Frederick Douglass

Friday, February 3, 2017

Update Your Parables Bibliography

Readers of this blog know that I have a very high opinion of Stories with Intent by Klyne Snodgrass. And, yes, I am willing to admit that part of my reasoning is that I like saying the name Klyne Snodgrass. SWI is still the most comprehensive book on the parables ever written. But while you were binge-watching Stranger Things the topic of parables has become a trend.

David Gowler, The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia

Ruben Zimmermann, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretation

R. Steven Notley and Ze'ev Safrai, Parables of the Sages

John P. Meier A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume V: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
For a comparison of these last two books by Brant Pitre (who studied under both authors) see:

So what am I missing? Any other recent treatments of Jesus' parables or parables in the ANE more generally?


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Zimmermann and the Criterion of the Extraordinary—Chris Keith

I'm currently enjoying reading through Ruben Zimmermann's Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Intepretation.  It's proving fascinating to me because so much of my own work has insisted that form criticism still, in various ways, has a determinative impact on Gospels studies.  Zimmermann is doing the same thing, though he is focused particularly upon the parables.  In a section I just read, he observed how form critics distinguised clearly between the subgenres of "similitude" and "parable" partially on the basis of the claim that the latter primarily reflected an unusual occurrence rather than daily life.  Zimmermann shows how subsequent scholarship has rightly questioned these means of distinction precisely due to their subjective nature and dependence upon a full knowledge of the ancient context.  (In other words, this method is sometimes hampered by the fact that we often don't know what we don't know.)  It reminded me of more recent debates over the criterion of embarrassment, and particularly the contributions of Rafael Rodriguez and James Crossley.  Here's what Zimmermann says about a purported "unusual" occurrence in a "parable":

"As has often been stated, however, the distinction between the normal and the unusual is questionable.  While Juelicher and Bultmann agreed that the parable of the sower dealt with an extraorindary single occurrence and is thus, according to their definition, a parable, Jeremias objected based on ancient sowing practices.  According to Jeremias, the text portrays 'a description of the regular method of sowing, and that in fact, is what we have here . . . in Palestine sowing precedes ploughing.  Hence, in the parable the sower is depicted as striding over the unploughed stubble . . . What appears to the western mind as bad farming is simply customary usage in Palestinian conditions.'  Other examples also call into question the criterion of the extraordinary.  'Does it appear almost sensational' [here Zimmermann is citing Harnisch, Glechniserzaehlungen] if a judge finally gives in to an insistent widow simply out of the need for peace (Luke 18:2-8) or if one fulfills the urgent request of a friend (Luke 11:5-8)?  Which father would not rejoice at and celebrate the return of a son who was believed lost (Luke 15:11-32)?  Is this an extraordinary occurrence?  The question can also be turned around--is it a daily occurrence for a blind man to offer to guide another blind man (Q 6:39), for someone to find treasure buried in a field (Matt. 13:44), or for a master to leave his house to his servants when he goes on a journey (Mark 13:34-37)?  The boundaries between the normal and the extraordinary, between the generic and the unique, are blurred." (122-3)

All of this raises the question of who gets to decide whether something is embarrassing or unusual.  Of course, the answer to that question is the person making the argument, and it is part of his or her task to explain precisely why a given thing could have been embarrassing or unusual, and under what circumstances.  I do think, though, that Zimmermann's discussion is raising a point that I have pursued elsewhere (as have others), which is that, while also not being dismissive of received wisdom, we should be hesitant of uncritically allowing previous scholars to set these definitions for us.