Baker Academic

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.


  1. I would love to read a book by you about this topic coupled with the stories of the exorcisms you saw!!!! Very interesting and insightful

    1. A., I wrote lots about exorcism in my *The Historiographical Jesus (Baylor Univ. Press)* and a bit more about it in my *Historical Jesus (Eerdmans)*. I don't think that I've ever written in detail about my Africa experiences. A good challenge!

  2. Yes, I'd be interested to hear of the Zimbabwe experience too, and your reflections on it.

  3. Eric Eve's work on the historical Jesus' miracles is also worth reading since he also addresses exorcisms in those writings.

  4. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    I offer this NT exorcism info for those who are interested:

    Legends - 21
    Pronouncement stories -20
    Cures and Resuscitations - 19
    Controversy stories – 13
    Call and Commissioning Stories - 11
    Nature wonders – 7
    Exorcisms – 6

    The above analysis is found in The Acts of Jesus (Jesus Seminar), p. 11-17


    My own brief look at the 6 exorcisms:

    Mute (Lk)/Blind mute(Mt) [Q Lk 11:14-15/Mt 12:22-23] - ???
    Capernaum synagogue demon (Mk 1:23ff, Lk 4:33ff), Mt 15:21-28)
    Demon of Gerasa (Mk 5:1ff, Mt 8:28ff, Lk 8:27ff) - ???
    Daughter with a demon (Mk 7:24ff, Mt 15:21ff)
    Mute and deaf (Mk) seizured boy (Mk 9:14-27, Mt 17:14-21, Lk 9:37-43) - ???
    Mute Man (Mt 9:32ff) - ???

    ??? - Exorcism seems to be identified with mute conditions, which could be considered healings. The Gerasene demoniac may be just another way to say Roman legion. That leaves just two "pure" exorcism stories.

    BeDuhn, The First NT (2013) reports that a version of all of the Lukan passages except 6:18 are found in Marcion's version of Proto-Luke as per an examination of the commentaries of the Church Fathers, especially Tertullian.


    Other relevant passages:

    Exorcism and silencing demons, general description: Mk 1:34, Lk 4:41 / Mk 1:39, Mt 4:24, Lk 6:18 / Mk 3:11

    Debating the source of Jesus’ power to exorcise: Mark 3:20-27 / Q (Mt 12:22-30, Lk 11:14-23)

    Demonizing the Holy Spirit: Mk 3:28-30, Mt 12:31-32

    Disciples cast out demons: Mk 6:13, Mt 10:8

    Non-follower uses Jesus' name to exorcise: Mk 9:38, Lk 9:49-50

  5. This gives me the opportunity to ask why Morton Smith's "Jesus the Magician" seems to have so little currency in present-day scholarship. I have my own thoughts on this, but it would be better to hear from a present-day scholar.

    1. Larry, I'll take a stab. Part of it is Morton Smith's overall legacy, I think, but I'm relatively sure that it was already overlooked before the Secret Gospel of Mark stuff exploded. Isn't this also the book where he claims Jesus was part of a mushroom cult?

    2. I think maybe you're confusing Smith with John Allegro's "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross"?

    3. I fear that my one-line answer to this will appear dismissive. But here it is: Almost all of the work done on magic in the last 20 years reveals Smith's categories to be insufficient.

    4. From : Dr. G

      All the sermons I ever heard on the odd similarity between miracles and magic, always insisted they were absolutely distinct. Or in any case I'd say, it is biblically implied that miracles are similar, but superior. E.g.: Moses's snake defeats - or swallows whole - the magicians' snake.

      However, there are exorcisms in most cultures. In most of them we think of them as being magical beliefs.

      Many, many sermons attempt to deny the connection with Christian miracles.

  6. Graham Twelftree also has written a more recent book--"In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians" (Baker Academic, 2007). He discussion of Paul would challenge the comment above: "Paul doesn't care about exorcism."

  7. Interesting post - with regards to your first point about Paul, that while Paul doesn't make a point of it in his letters, Luke records in Acts 16 Paul performing an exorcism and Acts 19:11-20 would suggest more activity in this area than you give him credit for.