In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit. He cried out, “Let us alone! What are you going to do to us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you going to destroy us? I know who you are: a righteous man of the Holy One.” Jesus rebuked the man, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him.” When the demon had left the man, it cried with a loud voice. The man no longer had the demon in him. All the people were amazed. They said to each other, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? This Jesus fellow can command demons, and they obey him!” Immediately, Jesus’ fame spread all around Galilee.
(In the Gospel account, the demons first are described in the plural; later, inexplicably, they are described in the singular. Not knowing Greek, I leave this contradiction to others.)
In these verses, Jesus becomes known as a healer of those who were possessed by evil spirits—demons. Today, many people—perhaps most—would hold that there is no such thing as an evil spirit or demon. If that is the case, what then could the man described in the Gospel have been suffering from? From a critical perspective, it may well be that he was plagued with some type of mental illness. Jesus, in some way, had a calming effect on the man. Still, there are many who do believe in spirits and demons that can indeed possess people and do them harm. Because Jesus was a Jew, who lived among Jews, it is worthwhile for us to explore demonology within Judaism.
Initially, evil spirits are not part of the theology of Judaism. As the Torah expressly states, “They [the Jews] shall no longer offer sacrifices onto demons. This shall be a statute forever, throughout your generations.” Leviticus 17:7. That Jews are not to offer sacrifices to demons is consistent with the absolute monotheistic view of Judaism: that the One God controls all and that there are not other “gods” who battle against the Source of all. This point is made clear in the story of Job: Satan can be mischievous, but Satan is always under the power and control of God: Satan is never an independent agent of evil. See post of November 2, 2010.
Still, because the Jews were in the land of idol worshippers, first in Canaan, and later in Babylon during the First Exile (beginning in 586 B.C.E.), they were influenced by these pagan societies. As such, demons became a part of the ancient Jewish culture, if not its theology. Even so, for many centuries, demons were, as with Satan in the story of Job, not an independent agent of evil. That seems to have changed around the first century. As such, demons came to be feared. In contradistinction to the Torah’s prohibition against demonology and magic, people turned to exorcists for help. Interestingly enough, it was the Pharisees, the much maligned group of decent people who became the ancestors of modern day Judaism, which put demonology in its proper place. The Pharisees, perhaps inconsistently with what Jesus did, as we shall see, taught that there is only one sure remedy to the “power” of demons: observance of God’s laws in His Torah.
Thus, we see that a fine line existed between superstitious demonology and theological demonology. At worst, the Pharisees put their hat in the former; demonology was never a part of Pharisaic theology because God’s Torah trumped all. Did Jesus put his in the latter? Was demonology a part of Jesus’ theology? If so, did this affect the relationship he had with the Pharisees? We shall see, in coming posts.
If you are interested in reading a good article on the subject, see 4 Jewish Encyclopedia 514-521 (Demonology).
I look forward to your comments.