JESUS AND THE DEMONS IN
THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Contrasting Secular and Animistic Interpretations
Synoptic Gospels: MARK
Tod K. Vogt
At about the age of 14 a friend of mine whose family faithfully attended a mainline denomination church informed me that the previous Sunday the minister preaching the sermon had effectively refuted the existence of Satan. His reasoning was that God the Creator could not or would not create something so evil, so destructive to humanity. He informed his congregation that Satan and the demons found in Scripture were merely first-century ways of talking about human frailty and the natural inability of human beings to resist temptation. Even at the age of 14, I sensed a weakness in this reasoning. Later, after becoming a Christian, I began to see that most believers; Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, give very little credit to the existence of personal evil forces and by default adopt a similar perspective as the minister.
Today, I work as a church-planting missionary among the Fon people of Benin, West Africa. This area of West Africa was once know as the Slave Coast and provided many of the slaves transported to Brazil, the Caribbean and the United States. Spiritism of Brazil, Santeria of Cuba and Voodoo of Haiti and other Caribbean islands find their roots in the African traditional religions of the West African coast. However, Benin is commonly accepted as the cradle of Voodoo. The ancient city of Abomey was the seat of the Dahomean kingdom and today is a center of world voodoo. The voodoo practiced in and around Abomey is renown throughout West Africa as very powerful. We live 5 miles from Abomey. Idols, altars, sorcery, amulets, secret societies and divination permeate this region. I am deeply curious about the reality of the spiritual realm, the existence and power or Satan and his demons, their influence over Christians and the proper response to his activities. My experience and my ministry provide the rationale for this investigation into the interpretations of demonic possession as found in the Gospel of Mark.
People frequently ask us to pray for someone who is being tormented by evil spirits. How should we respond? Should we explain the non-existence of such spirits? Should we take them to the hospital? Should we accommodate their pre-scientific understanding, pray for them while maintaining disbelief in their plight? Or, perhaps there are evil spirits tormenting them and our job is to confront them in the name of Jesus and offer to them the freedom which Jesus offered to several throughout the Gospel of Mark.
I do not propose to answer definitively these questions. Christians have debated these questions for centuries and they require a much larger scope than is possible in a paper of this nature. The goal of this paper is largely expository, investigative. I propose to investigate contrasting interpretations of possession accounts in the gospel of Mark. Some analysis will be offered but I will attempt to let the authors cited herein speak for themselves. However, my personal perspective will be obvious.
Because my wife & I were on furlough, having a baby and preparing to return to Benin at the time I took the class for which this paper was written, I was only able to spend two days in the library at ACU researching this topic. In the ensuing study and writing I have many times wished I could run down to the library and pursue another line of thinking but I have been limited to what I was able to collect during those two days in the library.
In an attempt to uncover interpretive models rather than develop a theology of demons in the Gospel of Mar, I chose only three passages to investigate. I wanted to look at a wide range of authors across a few texts rather than a few authors across many texts. I believe this approach has helped to demonstrate the differences that exist on the worldview level between Western theologians and Fon Christians.
I approached four men who do most of the teaching in two congregations among the Fon. Two of them have had limited formal training and two have had no training. I presented them with the texts and asked them to study the texts on their own and prepare to explain their meaning. Since I conducted the interviews in French, I had to translate their comments for inclusion in this paper. I have attempted to render their comments as they expressed them, choosing not to correct grammar or syntax in the hope of presenting their thoughts un-interpreted. Therefore, their comments have a spoken quality that I hope will enrich their value.
SECULARISM AND ANIMISM SHAPING WORLDVIEWS
The Secular-Animistic Axis
In his book Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (1991), Gailyn Van Rheenen, citing Timothy Warner, identifies a worldview continuum that contrasts Secularism with Animism. Van Rheenen defines secularism as the "belief that there are no spiritual powers (1991, 96)" He defines animism as the "perception that all of life is controlled by spiritual powers and human beings seek to manipulate these powers (1991, 96)." Though some would take issue with the term animism (Kato, 1987, 18-24), Van Rheenen's definition accurately describes the traditional religion practiced among the Fon people of Benin. For the purposes of this paper, animism should be read as "African Traditional Religion."
According to Van Rheenen, "secularists disavow any power that cannot be perceived, studied, and analyzed by the five senses. God is relegated to the spiritual realm where he is allowed little authority over the world he created. Only natural powers that can be empirically analyzed are thought to operate in the natural world (1991, 96)." Douchan Gersi, a non-Christian anthropologist, concurs, "officially, modern Western science allows no validity to magic [spiritual phenomenon], first, because results that can be duplicated are impossible to obtain and therefore the effects of magic are considered a series of natural coincidences-and second, because magic is, theoretically, based on principles that defy our present understanding of many scientific laws (1991, 33)."
Like anthropology, western theology has tended toward secular explanations. Osadolor Imasogie, in his critique of Western theology, identifies two distinct secular perspectives. First, the orthodox scientific world view, presupposes a closed universe which self-originated and denies the existence of the spiritual realm. Second, the quasi-scientific worldview, half-heartedly acknowledges the reality of a spiritual dimension (1983). Van Rheenen identifies three ways by which Western theologians express their secular worldview (1991, 96-97).
1. They ignore the concept of spiritual powers in biblical writings.
2. They assert that though spiritual powers existed in the past, their existence ceased with the death of Jesus.
3. They have used various secular interpretations to explain that the powers are not personal spiritual powers (i.e., spirits, demons, etc.).
Western theology has reflected the philosophical transformation of western culture. As Western culture has become more secular, Western theology has followed.
Myth versus History
Adela Yarbro Collins (1992) properly identifies the temptation of Western theologians to interpret Scripture from a secular point of view. "A recurring issue in the analysis of biblical narratives from the point of view of genre has been the tension between myth and history. The miraculous and the supernatural elements in biblical narratives...have led modern critical historians to deny that these narratives may be defined as historical narratives (1992, 23)." She shows how Western theologians refuse to allow for realities outside their worldview and, therefore, make a distinction between myth and history; myth being all supernatural elements found in Scripture and history being what is left.
In his classic book, JESUS CHRIST AND MYTHOLOGY (1958), Rudolf Bultmann emphasizes the eschatological nature of Jesus' preaching found in the New Testament but asserts that this expectation was based on mythology and not reflective of the historical world. He writes:
"This hope [eschatological expectation] of Jesus and of the early Christian community was not fulfilled. The same world still exists and history continues. The course of history has refuted mythology. For the conception "Kingdom of God" is mythological, as is the conception of the eschatological drama. Just as mythological are the presuppositions of the expectation of the Kingdom of God, namely, the theory that the world, although created by God, is ruled by the devil, Satan, and that his army, the demons, is the cause of all evil, sin and disease. The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological...the conception of the the intervention of supernatural powers in the course of events; and the conceptions of miracles, especially the conception of the intervention of supernatural powers in the inner life of the soul, the conception that men can be tempted and corrupted by the devil and possessed by evil spirits. This conception of the world we call mythological because it is different from the conception of the world which has been formed and developed by science since its inception in ancient Greece and which has been accepted by all modern men. In this modern conception of the world the cause-and-effect nexus is fundamental...modern science does not believe that the course of nature can be interrupted or, so to speak, perforated, by supernatural powers. The same is true of the modern study of history, which does not take into account any intervention of God or of the devil or of demons in the course of history (1958, 14-15)."
Thus, Bultmann becomes a representative of secular theology. Anything outside natural history he labels a myth. He labels beliefs that are outside the natural world as superstitions. Bultmann leaves not room for any unexplained phenomenon and writes: "Modern men take it for granted that the course of nature and of history, like their own inner life and their practical life, is nowhere interrupted by the intervention of supernatural powers (1958, 16)."
Common Explanations of Possession
Most secular theologians offer one of three explanations for demon possession. These explanations are not mutually exclusive but are often employed in tandem. First, many authors offer medical interpretations which fit the descriptions of possession. Wm. Menzies Alexander (1902) devotes his entire text to an analysis of the biblical text through the filter of history and medicine. He writes, "In every case [of possession] a consistent and reliable diagnosis is attainable (1902, 10)." Further, he claims, "Genuine demonic possession, as set forth in the New Testament, contains an element that is natural, another that is supernatural. The former belongs to the category of mental disease, and still continues; the latter belongs to the category of Satanic opposition, and was summarily suppressed (1902, 12)." This explanation is consistent with Van Rheenen's analysis (see pg. 6, number 2) which states: "They [Western theologians] assert that though spiritual powers existed in the past, their existence ceased with the death of Jesus." Likewise, Rawlinson (1949) generally interprets possession as medical ailments. According to Rawlinson, the New Testament claim of demon possession "provided the popular explanation of the symptoms of a number of forms of disease-not only of epilepsy and delusional insanity but also of deafness and dumbness and no doubt also of various forms of neurotic hysteria (1949, xlviii)."
Second, scholars interpret the conflict with demons metaphorically. Rawlinson states, "It is not impossible that...this Marcan conception of our Lord's ministry as specifically directed towards the work of exorcism and as involving a kind of victorious conflict with the demonic powers, we ought to see a Christian spiritualization of the ancient Jewish conception of the 'Messianic War'(1949, 1)." Rawlinson refuses the space-time occurrence of demon exorcisms and prefers a literary explanation. From Rawlinson's perspective Mark was not necessarily reporting an historical occurrence but weaving a tale, capitalizing on the beliefs of the day to speak of a wholly different subject. This is consistent with Anderson and Moore's caricature of Mark as Allegorist, "To read Scripture allegorically was to read it for hidden meanings- meanings metaphorically implied but not expressly stated (1992, 9)."
The third explanation of demon possession, more common among those seeking to apply the text to the modern life, is to reinterpret the demons to be any or all sin. C.S. Lewis employs this method of interpretation as he recounts his conversion, "For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a hareem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion (1955, 213)." Lewis implies that finding a variety of sins within oneself is equivalent to the Gerasene demoniac's possession by Legion. Lewis' interpretation denies the uniqueness of demonic possession. He makes it a phenomenon common to all people. The demons are no longer the personal spiritual enemies of Jesus, waging war against the Kingdom of God, but are interpreted as expressions of natural, human weaknesses.
These interpretations can be seen in the following survey of three Marcan passages in which Jesus confronts demons; 1:21-28, 5:1-20 and 9:14-29.
Jesus & the Demoniac in Capernaum: Mark 1:21-28
In his commentary on Mark 1:23, C.E.B. Cranfield, while allowing for the existence of demons as the subordinates of Satan, acknowledges the difficulty of interpreting such passages. "Here we are up against something that presents many difficulties to the modern mind, which is apt to dismiss the whole subject as outgrown superstition. It is important to approach it with as open a mind as possible. To suggest that there may be more truth here in the N.T. picture than has sometimes been allowed is not to wish to turn the clock back on scientific progress or to open the flood-gates to obscurantism (Cranfield, 1963, 75)." Cranfield precisely expresses the tension experienced by Western scholars. While seeking to understand the biblical text, the temptation exists for the modern scholar to interpret the text through his modern worldview, applying his modern suppositions to the text before allowing the text to shape those suppositions.
"The narrative [Mark 1:21-28] abounds in primitive features (Taylor, 1952, 171)." Perhaps Taylor's analysis of the passage as 'primitive' is representative of the secular approach to the text. W.C. Allen expresses the common perspective of accommodation. He implies that demons do not really exist but that Jesus accommodated the prevailing understanding of first century Palestinians.
"Belief in demons was universal in Palestine during the lifetime of the Lord, and the gospel writers represent Him as assuming the truth of this belief. Whether He did or did not so believe we cannot say, because nothing is more certain than that, granting the non-existence of demons, and granting His knowledge of their non-existence, He would not have taken any trouble to denounce this belief, and to substitute some other explanation of the facts of which it was supposed to explain. He nowhere attempts to anticipate modern or ultimate psychology, or any other branch of science. Practically it made no difference. To the man who believed that a demon had taken possession of him, the demon really existed. The belief was demon enough (1915, 59)."
Scholars have commonly used accommodation to explain difficult passages, not the least of which are passages describing demon exorcisms. First, if one assumes the omniscience of Jesus and second the non-existence of demons, accommodation is the only plausible explanation. However, assuming that Jesus accommodated the prevailing beliefs of first century Palestinians concerning demon possession leads one to wonder if he accommodated other beliefs. Which beliefs? If the exorcisms which we find in Scripture are examples of Jesus' accommodation, the authenticity of all Scripture comes into question and we open the proverbial can of worms.
Another common mode of interpretation is to read the exorcism passages metaphorically. Rather than viewing Mark 1:21-28 as having occurred in space and time, it is viewed as having a larger, thematic meaning. Barnes interprets the exorcism of demons as the freeing of a sinner from sin. "Satan still considers it an infringement of his rights when God frees a sinner from bondage and destroys his influence over the soul (date unknown, 10)." This method of interpretation follows that of C.S. Lewis described in the introduction. In essence Barnes reduces the exorcism to an experience common to all who come to Jesus. The space-time occurrence either did not happen and the account in 1:21-28 is simply a literary device used by the author to communicate this larger theme or if it happened, its value in the text is not in the actual deliverance of the possessed but in its metaphorical meaning for all believers.
Other authors emphasize the symptoms of the possession and interpret them medically. Wm. Menzies Alexander claims of the demoniac, "The whole conduct of this demoniac proves that he is labouring under a maniacal attack of an acute and dangerous kind (1902, 67)." He concludes, writing, "the final diagnosis is reached without difficulty. The case is one of epileptic insanity (1902, 68)." More than simply attributing medical explanations to this text, Alexander, like other authors of his period and perspective, embellishes the text to make more plausible his explanation of a medical or psychological illness. "Probably there had been hallucinations of the senses, more especially those of healing; so that this patient was likely to suffer from piercing noises, or warning or threatening voices (1902, 68)." Alexander's attempt to "flesh-out" the story, while interesting, casts suspicion on the validity of his conclusions. Rather than allowing the text to speak for itself, Alexander manipulates the text, forcing it to fit into his modern categories.
C. Leslie Mitton adopts the same interpretation. "In that day many illnesses were ascribed to evil spirits, but especially those of the mental or nervous type. Probably in this case the man was what we should call an epileptic or neurotic (1957, 11)." Mitton continues and bridges the gap between a medical interpretation and a metaphorical interpretation.
"Today we are not accustomed to speak of evil spirits or demons, as men of ancient times did. Nevertheless we still suffer from the same ills as those which they attributed to the malicious presence of such spirits, ills that wreck human happiness, and sometimes jeopardize life itself. Such ills are fear, guilt, remorse, shame, resentment, jealousy, hate, depression. Or we may give them psychological names, such as neurasthenia, neurosis, psychosis, and so on. These names perhaps suggest how difficult to control these emotional disturbances can be, and how man can feel himself utterly dominated by some evil power before which he is helpless (1957, 12)."
Mitton chooses to view the demoniac not a one who suffers under the oppression of evil spirits but rather a pitiable man full of fear, guilt, shame and the like. For Mitton, he is a neurotic not a demoniac.
Alexander and Mitton do not reflect the prevailing thinking among scholars. Most scholars tend to interpret Mark 1:21-28 either as a projection of Jesus' identity or as expressive of his authority over evil. Commenting on Mark 1:24, Cranfield writes; "In either case it [vs. 24] expresses a mixture of fear and defiance. The demon's foreboding is due to his recognition of the identity of Jesus (1963, 76)." Earle emphasizes the theme of power or authority. "The thing that astonished the crowd was that Jesus cast out the demon by a simple, authoritative command (1957, 37)."
Hurtado writes, "Mark obviously intends this part of the episode as an illustration that Jesus was much more than simply another teacher, and that the authority claimed in his teaching represented a real authority, not simply an empty claim (1983, 27)." Further, he says, "As this scene shows, the kingdom (or reign) of God is God's power (authority) in action (1983, 27)." Likewise, Mansfield interprets this passage as presenting the power (authority) of Jesus. "In 1:21-28 Jesus' e x o u o i a is demonstrated by his exorcism of the unclean spirit with a word of rebuke...Jesus' authority is emphasized in contrast to the inferior power of the unclean spirit (1987, 51)." Lane also interprets 1:21-28 as demonstrative of Jesus' authority and sees in this passage Mark's first attempt to describe the purpose of Jesus. "To have allowed the defensive utterance of the demon to go unrebuked would have been to compromise the purpose for which Jesus came into the world, to confront Satan and strip him of his power. As such, this initial act of exorcism in the ministry of Jesus is programmatic of the sustained conflict with the demons which is a marked characteristic in the Marcan presentation of the gospel (1974, 75)." Hurtado, Mansfield and Land find in this passage large themes; that of Jesus' identity, his authority and his purpose.
Scholars use a variety of methods of interpretation and emphases as they investigate Mark 1:21-28. Though not mutually exclusive, I have defined five. Some scholars perceive Jesus as accommodating the common beliefs of the people with whom he lived, though knowing their beliefs to be false. Other scholars define exorcism passages as literary devices intended by the author of the gospel as metaphors. Usually applied in conjunction with another of the explanations, some scholars flatly refuse the existence of demons and diagnose medical conditions to the demoniac. However, some scholars, while not refusing the existence of demons, give little attention to their existence, power, work, or influence over the possessed. Their comments center on literary themes like the identity of Jesus and the authority of Jesus which they see at work in the text. While this level of investigation is valuable and can provide interesting insights into the text, it does not provide much solace for one who finds himself possessed by a demon. This level of interpretation does not speak to those who experience the presence of demons.
Mark 1:21-28 is not particularly difficult for Fon Christians to understand. They take it literally. For the most part, they accept the details of the account as they are presented in the text and are not tempted to reinterpret the details as referring to other phenomena or as having a larger thematic meaning. They see a confrontation between Jesus, the emissary of God, and an underling of his arch-enemy. They see a battle waging, albeit between unevenly matched foes. In general they see Jesus saving.
For modern, Western Christians, salvation is primarily a spiritual phenomenon but for the Fon Christians salvation has very real physical dimension. This exorcism demonstrates this physical dimension of salvation.
"Here in Benin, there are possessed people, evil spirits live in people, even in small children. You can see them and they don't speak but when they see someone they gesture or move [about wildly], and they must be restrained or locked in a room. It is demons that do this, here in Africa. But with the name of Jesus, we torment them [demons], we cast them out. As Jesus said in the Bible, he came to deliver the captives and really men are captive in the hands of the devil today. They are in captivity; crazy people, men who were educated but now must be sent from the family, it's evil spirits who live in them. Here [Mark 1:21-28], I see that it's a similar thing. When Jesus arrived, he cast out this evil spirit (Davidi, 1995)."
Salvation and liberation from the forces of evil are synonyms. Salvation for animistic peoples, including the Fon has the immediate result of providing power with which they can fight against the evil spirits or evil forces that torment them
Fon Christians emphasize the power of Jesus over the forces of evil. They focus on verse 24. "And he cried out 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, The Holy One of God." Where Western theologians give emphasis to the identity of Jesus, Fon Christians give emphasis to the power of Jesus. Constant Bakpe (1995) concludes, "The power of Jesus was very strong, that is why the evil spirit cried out. If today the Holy Spirit is in us and an evil spirit sees us, it can cry out like that." This analysis demonstrates how Christians from animistic cultures seek very practical interpretations. Their concerns are earthly versus the predominantly cosmic concerns of Western theologians.
For the Fon Christian there is little difference between the authority of Jesus and his power. When Fon Christians consider Jesus' authority they are really concerned with the power he has to affect this world. His authority is not a nebulous concept or cosmic truth but a this-worldly power that is manifest in healings, exorcisms and miracles of many kinds. For the animist, the authority with which one speaks is verified by the power which he exhibits. They point to verse 27 as justification for this interpretation. "And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, 'What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." Nicholas Davidi applied it to himself saying, "Here in Africa, if I want to preach publicly...As I am preaching the people will realize that this man speaks with the authority, that he is filled with the power to cast out evil spirits (1995)." For Davidi the authority with which he speaks is synonymous with the power to cast out evil spirits. He goes on to say, "If we teach as one having authority, like Jesus, there will be miracles (1995)."
Fon Christians do not believe that all sickness is necessarily the result of demon possession. There are many more cases of sickness that are not the direct result of intervention by demonic forces than cases that are a direct result. Paul Tohoinon explains, "There are the possessed and the non-possessed. Those who are possessed, they [the demons] require a direct command to leave. But if it is a case of sickness, it is not necessary to have a miracle. We pray and ask God, and if He wants, we cannot force God to do this or that, if He accepts our prayer he will heal the person, even through medicine. You can go to the hospital and get an injection and be healed. But if a man is really possessed, he can go to the hospital but he will not be healed (1995)."
They interpret Mark 1:21-28 as a literal account of an exorcism at the powerful hand of Jesus. This account justifies their faith in Jesus. They see that Jesus is not subject to the same forces to which they have been subject. They see a manifestation of power that promises to help them live their daily lives.
The difference between the secular interpretations and the animistic interpretations is the difference between the cosmic and the earthly realm. Western theologians, including those with a uniquely secular perspective, interpret Mark 1:21-28 in cosmic terms; Jesus' identity, salvation for humanity, the uniqueness of Jesus' teaching, etc. Christians from animistic cultures interpret this passage in earthly terms; protection, power, healing, freedom, etc. Where Western theologians largely address ideas worthy of reflection, Fon Christians address daily problems which need to be solved.
Jesus & the Demoniac at Gerasa: Mark 5:1-20
Scholars treat this passage with greater depth than other exorcism passages. Perhaps this is because the gospel writers provide a fuller account of the Gerasene demoniac than the other demoniacs. Perhaps this is because of the remarkable results of the exorcism; namely the response of the pigs and later the town's people. However, the net result of the commentaries is not markedly different from those of Mark 1:21-28.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac poses several interpretive problems for the Western theologian. Paramount among these is the question of the pigs. If one accepts a secular interpretation of the existence and activity of demons, namely that they do not exist and/or have no influence in the natural world, the problem still remains; What of the pigs? Some very curious conclusions are drawn. According to Taylor, "The greatest difficulty is the account of the swine. If we reject mythical explanations, or the suggestion of Dibelius that a secular story has been incorporated, and if we accept a psychological explanation of possession, we must explain the panic of the swine, as Weiss explains it, as occasioned by the paroxysm of the man's cure (1952, 278)." Taylor succinctly exposes the problem facing theologians. A number of explanations for Legion have been offered. Medical explanations and metaphorical explanations are the most prevalent. In conjunction with medical and metaphorical explanations, most authors conclude that Jesus accommodated the contemporary belief of the existence and activity of demons.
Allen admits, "The attempt to explain the demons in the New Testament in cases of demoniac possession as personified diseases meets with great difficulty in this narrative (1915, 88)." Though Allen admits that this passage challenges the validity of a medical interpretation of demonic possession, he adopts such an interpretation referring to the possessed man as, "the lunatic possessed with the belief that a number of evil demons have taken possession of his body and have made it their home (1915, 88)." But how does Allen explain the pigs? "The impelling force was probably the demoniac himself, who by shouts and yells would drive from him the now demon-possessed swine (1915, 88)." Allen is not alone in this interpretation. Attributing the action of the pigs to the rantings of the demoniac is the most common explanation.
Alexander, here as in 1:21-28, categorizes the affliction as a psychological phenomenon. Referring to the condition of the demoniac, he uses phrases like; "pathognomic of acute mania," "mental derangement," "madman," and "dismal state of mind (1902, 73, 76, 77)." He concludes decisively, "The demoniac of Gerasa [suffers] from acute mania (80-81)."
Others adopt medical explanations for the demoniac's conditions but with less precision. Thompson writes, "The Gerasene demoniac was quite evidently a maniac (1954, 99)." He reasons that, "Insane men oftentimes have superior strength (99)." Thompson does not provide the extensive medical explanations of Alexander but accepts the previous explanation for the behavior of the pigs; "they were frightened...by the loud shrieks and wild gestures of the maniac (1954, 101)." Some scholars succumb to temptations to dramatize Mark's account. Earle describes the scene writing, "The disciples saw rushing down the hill toward them a screaming maniac, half man, half monster (1957, 70)." Earle adds to his interpretation a metaphorical dimension, "night and day the man was screaming and cutting himself with stones. Here is a portrait of sin. The man was dwelling in the place of death, a raging maniac, slashing his body with sharp stones. Sin is suicide; sin is insanity; sin is self-destruction (1957, 71)."
For Earle the behavior of the demoniac illustrates the destructiveness of sin. Was that Mark's intention? Others embrace similar metaphorical interpretations. Ogilvie questions, "Are there such people around?" "Who is like Legion(1975, 93)?" He attempts to answer the question.
"The reason for taking this passage seriously is that we are all troubled by Legion's symptoms to some degree. We may not be ready for the tombs of self-inflicted punishment, but we're often troubled, hoping no one knows how bad we feel at times. Note that both ends of the alienation scale are registered in this passage. That keeps us from thinking it has little to say to us. How clever of Mark! He shows the extremity of human need in Legion and a much subtler sickness in the herdsmen and townspeople. But both groups were possessed. Neither wanted Jesus to bother them. The demons in Legion cried out to be left alone; the people begged Jesus to leave their country and trouble them no more. We all get to that state of misery where the familiarity of feelings of unfulfillment are at least more secure than the possibility of change in ourselves or institutions (1975, 93)."
Ogilvie demonstrates well a metaphorical interpretation. In an attempt to find useful this passage, Western theologians search for metaphorical meanings in the details of the account. The destructive behavior of the demoniac becomes the result of sin. The need of the demoniac to be freed from the possessing demons becomes every man's need to be freed from the bondage of sin. The plea of Legion for Jesus to leave him becomes every man's aversion to change. The story is no longer about a man possessed of a demon but about every man's struggle with sin and the weaknesses of human nature.
Even scholars who give credence to the existence of demons and take the passage largely at face value make metaphorical applications. Guelich, who supports the idea that the demoniac was in fact possessed by a legion of demons concludes, "one can hardly miss the repeated emphasis on the uncleanliness of impurity found in the original story...The story of the deliverance of a man becomes the story of the deliverance of a land (1989, 283)." Hurtado, who likewise accepts the presence of demons draws a similar conclusion. "All of this is a powerful picture of how the NT describes the condition of humans apart from Christ: spiritually dead and in bondage to evil (1983, 83)." One wonders what the demoniac grasped from the experience. Did he draw universal conclusions? Did he interpret the experience metaphorically?
Fon Christians interpret this passage similarly to Mark 1:21-28. They typically search for immediate application in their lives. They see the power of Jesus demonstrated. They see healing. The see salvation coming to a man. Not salvation that exists only in the heavenly realm but salvation that has immediate and visible repercussions in daily life. They see the Gerasene demoniac was distinctly different after his encounter with Jesus. His encounter changed the quality of his life. Fon Christians expect that encountering Jesus will change the quality of their lives as well. Western Christians might agree but the improved quality would most likely be a psychological or emotional improvement where Fon Christians expect a physical improvement. They believe this because of the power that they see demonstrated in this exorcism. Power and physical salvation are the key issues on which Fon Christians focus. Nicholas Davidi explains, "Everything that Jesus was doing in this passage [Mark 5:1:20], all of this was to demonstrate the power of God; that God is able to save (1995)."
Fon Christians perceive an ordered spiritual realm. They believe that there are greater and lesser spiritual powers. They believe there are personal spiritual powers and impersonal spiritual forces. When they read the Bible, this perception is confirmed. They observe the demons and their reaction to Jesus and understand Jesus to be near the top (if not at the top) of the spiritual hierarchy. In this passage they see the inability of human beings to control the demoniac and the ease with which Jesus casts-out Legion. "All the things the people used to bind the demoniac, the demon was greater than all these things. However, the demons are not superior to Jesus (Davidi, 1995)."
Western Christians attribute sin, evil, crime, immorality, etc. to their humanity, to a character weakness, or to developmental or environmental dysfunction. People of an animistic heritage typically believe that evil is the direct result of evil spirits or evil forces. This is the perspective of Fon Christians. "I think that all evil things are the product of evil spirits. Because it is evil spirits that lead one to do evil. The evil spirits could not do evil things himself. The evil spirit is himself evil but he cannot do something without man. He must possess a man and he then causes the man to do evil. All fighting, arguing, lying, I think all of that comes from evil spirits (Bakpe, 1995)." Through this statement it is obvious that Fon Christians believe that evil spirits permeate much of life, that they are all around them.
In discussing Mark 5:1-20, Paul Tohoinon, a Fon evangelist, recounted the following story which is presented in totality. Paul hoped to clarify his understanding of the text by telling of his experience.
When I was with the church UNION OF MEN REBORN IN CHRIST, we were in a village near Kpassagon, I was with a group and when we arrived there was this guy who had worked at the post office. He had been well paid and had built a beautiful house. It was at work that he became insane. He left his work and house and spent 25 years insane. He gathered garbage and lived in a lean-to constructed of garbage. The people of the village sent us to this man's lean-to with another man of the village. We counseled the parents of the insane man. We spoke a long time, we preached the Good News to them, saying if they really had faith in the words we had been preaching in the name of Jesus, that their insane son could soon be better if God willed it. We started looking for the insane man in the bush. He heard our voices and ran away and we chased him, encircled him and trapped him. When we arrived at the house we went into a room and locked the door. We started singing songs of spiritual warfare...after singing 7-10 songs nothing happened so we prayed saying, "today the devil must leave this man..." We prayed for an hour. Before, the guy refused to kneel when we told him to kneel but we encircled him and put our hands on his head and prayed fervently, by the grace of God, God answered our prayers. The insane guy began to speak with reason. After the prayer he looked at himself and asked if he had dressed himself in his torn-up clothing. And we told him 'yes,' that he had dressed himself and lived in the lean-to. He asked, "Who put all this garbage here?" It was like that, he began to think clearly. We decided to pray again. We prayed at least 30 minutes. Then he said he wanted to go wash. We got some water for him and he took a bath. We took his torn-up clothes and brought him some other clothes. We cut-off all his hair because it was all matted. Now he is in Cotonou [the capital] with the church. His family asked us to take him to Cotonou. The leaders of the church take care of him. They provide him with food, clothes, everything he needs. The leaders do that. He is still there but he is no longer possessed. The spirit left. We asked the spirit questions. We asked how many spirits there were. He said many. We did this before we prayed. We asked how many spirits there were and the spirit spoke through the insane man.
Through this story we see that Fon Christians perceive the world much as First Century Palestinians. Paul identifies with the story of the Gerasene demoniac because, according to him, he has had a similar experience. Paul sees no reason to search for metaphorical meanings or theological themes. For him the message of this passage is clear; Jesus has the power and will to save.
Fon Christians and some moderate Western scholars can agree on the preeminent task of Legion; to destroy the creation and influence of Yahweh God. Lane conveys this writing, "What must be seen above all else is that the fate of the swine demonstrates the ultimate intention of the demons with respect to the man they had possessed. It is their purpose to destroy the creation of God, and halted in their destruction of man, they fulfilled their purpose with the swine (1974, 186)." He states further; "The story was remembered in the tradition because of the dramatic evidence it offered of the purpose of demonic possession and of the full deliverance brought by Jesus. It declared that victory of Jesus over evil forces is a reality in which the liberating power of the Kingdom of God is manifest in an extension of the saving mercy of God (1974, 189)."
Anyone doing biblical interpretation, be he American, German, Brazilian or Beninese, brings to his study a lifetime of suppositions, values, beliefs and attitudes. It would be naive to believe that one can divorce himself from his pervasive sense of reality. His reality, his worldview, significantly shapes his conclusions.
Lane accepts the existence of demons and assumes the validity of the text. His conclusions speak powerfully to the heart of one suffering under the oppression or possession of demons. The sufferer hears of the merciful and powerful God who saves those overcome by the Prince of Darkness. The sufferer hears of One whose power far surpasses the power that torments them. For the vast majority of the world's Christians, the Good News is not that they are deluded, pre-industrial, and superstitious or that they suffer from epilepsy but that One exists with the power and the will to cast a demon or a legion of demons from their lives.
Jesus & the Demoniac Boy: Mark 9:14-29
Typical interpretations of this passage are not markedly different from the interpretations of Mark 1:21-28 or 5:1-20. Again, the secular interpretations can be categorized as either medical or metaphorical. Some writers who firmly adopt a secular perspective of Mark 1:21-28 or 5:1-20, adopt a more moderate interpretation of 9:14-29. However, most scholars evenly apply their secular suppositions to all three texts.
W.C. Allen, who denies the existence of demons and contends that Jesus accommodated the prevailing beliefs of Palestine, concludes simplistically, "The symptoms are those of epilepsy (1915, 126)." Barnes classifies the symptoms "as marks of violent derangement or madness (year unknown, 67)." Earle writes, "The language of verse 18 indicates that the boy was epileptic. Matthew, indeed, expressly states that (17:15), using a word that literally means 'moonstruck.' The expression 'becomes rigid'(RSV) is literally 'dries up.' But the former is its meaning when used in connection with epilepsy (1957, 114)." All three authors prefer stock explanations and avoid delving deeply into the difficult questions surfaced by the text. Such as, If this was simply a case of epilepsy, why could not the disciples cure it when they had presumably cured other similar illnesses (see 6:13)? What makes epilepsy more physiologically or psychologically difficult to cure than acute mania? What is it about prayer that makes it necessary for the cure of epilepsy but not for other physical or mental disorders?
Alexander provides a more comprehensive medical interpretation of Mark 9:14-21. "There is the cry preceded by the unconsciousness, the sudden fall, the convulsive seizure, the gnashing of the teeth, the foaming at the mouth, the rolling on the ground; then the utter exhaustion...These features belong to a severe type of epilepsy and complete the popular diagnosis (1902, 83)." He states further, "The dumbness and deafness, the multiplicity and severity of the convulsions, are proofs of serious organic disease or degeneration of the brain; issuing in this deplorable inbecility or idiocy (1902, 85)." Being a medical doctor, Alexander supports his perspective with significant study and experience, deducing that since the symptoms described in Mark parallel those attributed to contemporary epileptics, the boy must have had epilepsy, albeit a severe case, "The case of the boy is almost desperate, even among epileptic idiots (Alexander, 1902, 85)."
The medical interpretations of this passage closely parallel those of Mark 1:21-28 and Mark 5:1-20. Generally, writers adopting this interpretation refuse the existence of demons and support the conclusion that Jesus accommodated the belief among his contemporary Palestinians while himself knowing the truth of their non-existence. This analysis corresponds to the first of Van Rheenen's three methods of expressing a secular worldview employed by Western theologians (see; Introduction-The Secular-Animistic Axis).
Hurtado attempts a metaphorical interpretation. "This story immediately follows the mountaintop transfiguration in all three Synoptic accounts, probably because the writers intended an analogy between this incident and the incident in Exodus 32 in which Moses returns from his mountaintop encounter with God to find faithlessness on the part of Israel (1983, 147)." However, he does not refuse the existence of demons or the actual occurrence of this exorcism.
This incident brings us back down from the glorious height of the transfiguration experience to the earthly sphere, where the power of evil is confronted and where unbelief is a constant danger. In the same way that the disciples are brought back into Jesus' earthly mission here after the transfiguration that prefigures and symbolizes Jesus' resurrection, so Mark's readers were to realize that they, after the resurrection of Christ, were called still to an earthly mission of faith and of proclamation of Christ against the forces of evil. This exorcism, the last one mentioned in Mark, shows the power of Jesus (portrayed in the transfiguration) in action in practical terms and means that it is in such ministry (and not in visionary experiences) that Christ's power and glory are properly to be seen in the life of his followers (1983, 149)."
Hurtado walks a fine line between relegating the exorcism to mere metaphorical status and making an apt application of evident principles. It is dubious that Mark intended his readers to see their earthly mission in this exorcism. However, one cannot ignore Jesus' power manifested in a practical, saving way. If that moves his followers to likewise manifest his power in practical ministry, then the metaphorical interpretation is no longer secular in nature (i.e. denying the existence of the supernatural and its power).
Lane adopts another marginally metaphorical interpretation, but one that the text justifies. "The return from the glory of the transfiguration to the reality of demonic possession serves to reinforce the theme that Jesus enters into his glory only through confrontation with the demonic and the suffering this entails (1974, 329)." He refuses the standard medical explanations, "What was involved, however, was not simply a chronic nervous disorder but demonic possession (1974, 331)." He sees in this story a greater battle being waged than the battle between a boy and epilepsy. Lane sees a spiritual battle with the boy as the battle ground.
Unlike the metaphorical interpretations presented for Mark 1:21-28 and Mark 5:1-10, the metaphorical interpretations presented here do not reject the existence of demons or their destructive influence. Other than Hurtado and Lane, all other authors consulted for this project either interpreted the possession medically, accepted the existence of demons or circumvented the question altogether. Neither Hurtado's nor Lane's metaphorical interpretations reflect a strong secular worldview and are similar to Fon interpretations though maintaining a more global perspective.
The Fon Christians consulted for this paper generally agree on the central issue of this passage. They believe that Jesus is addressing the centrality of faith in the life of one who wants to follow Him. However, some Fon Christians address the faith of the disciples and others address the faith of the father of the boy.
Nicholas Davidi interprets this passage as revealing the failure of the disciples. He says, "The disciples did not have the faith to do what Jesus did [cast out demons], to speak with authority like Jesus (1995)." The faith of the disciples and the authority with which they should speak are tightly interwoven. Davidi sees their inability to cast-out the demon as resulting from their lack of authority which was a product of their lack of faith.
Paul Tohoinon interprets this passage as revealing the faithlessness of the father. He reasons that the father's lack of faith hindered the prayers of the disciples. "The key issue addressed in this passage is the unbelief of the father which created an obstacle for the prayers of the disciples (1995)."
None of the Fon Christians consulted adopt a medical or metaphorical interpretation to explain this passage. They interpret it practically. There is a general acceptance of this type of demon possession and this passage gives them clues as to a proper response. Constant Bakpe says, "There is a man that works with me that has the same sickness. He falls just like the boy. His sickness started seven years ago. He said that it is the wife of his uncle that did sorcery against him which started the sickness because he hasn't been like this since childhood. So now if you are talking with him, he falls and starts to become stiff...I told him to pray every day. I go to his house in the evening to pray with him (1995)."As Bakpe indicates, demon possession of this nature is common and there is little or no temptation to seek larger thematic meanings or to interpret this passage as a medical phenomenon. Fon Christians quickly identify the possession of the boy and are glad to receive teaching on how best to deal with this possession.
Fon Christians do not believe that demon possession causes all deafness or all dumbness. They reason that "sometimes a demon causes it...but sometimes it is caused by a malformation and can be corrected. But if they try to correct it medically and they cannot, it is a demon (Tohoinon, 1995)." Western Christians would not so readily attribute the cause to demons if they have been unable to correct the problem. However, Fon Christians perceive a world that is subjected to the powers of demons and anything that cannot be solved by normal human effort must be under the power of demons. This worldview is affirmed through passages like Mark 9:14-29
Developing a Theology of Demons for Africa
The thrust of this paper has been to contrast secular interpretations of demonic possession with animistic interpretations. That is, to contrast scholars who hold a Western worldview with Christians who hold an animistic world view. Osadolor Imasogie, a leading African theologian, asserts that a Western worldview is synonymous with a secular worldview, or in his words, 'a quasi-scientific worldview (1983).' He claims, "Traditional Christian theology has been ineffective in Africa because it is conditioned by a quasi-scientific worldview which blinds it to, and thereby makes it unresponsive to, the reality of the African's self-understanding within his own worldview (1983, 47)." He continues, "Such a quasi-scientific worldview is bound to deny or, at best, to ignore the African worldview and thereby renders the resultant theology irrelevant to the existential needs of the African (1983, 47)." So, missionaries working in Africa need to develop a theology of demons that speaks to the African worldview while remaining faithful to the biblical text. Historically however, missionaries have ignored this need and pushed forward with their Western interpretations of Scripture. McAlpine then can concur with Leslie Newbigin who wrote, "Western Christian missions have been one of the greatest secularizing forces in history (1991, 61)." In this quagmire of worldviews, methods of interpretations, presuppositions, scientific progress and cultural sensitivity, where is the truth? How can one reconcile scientific progress with the African experience? How does one develop a theology of demons for Africa?
The Existence or Absence of the "Excluded Middle"
In his article, The Flaw of The Excluded Middle (1982), Paul Hiebert alludes that Western culture has ignored a spiritual realm which exists between the natural realm and the supernatural realm. This realm he calls the "excluded middle." In this realm are thought to exist spiritual beings such as evil spirits, ancestors, imps and the like and spiritual forces like mana, fate, magic and sorcery. Western culture has not always made such a clear distinction between the natural and supernatural realms as it does today. Francis Schaeffer traces the differentiation to Thomas Aquinas (a.d.--1225-74). Aquinas identified two realms; the realm of grace which includes God, heaven, heavenly things, man's soul and unity and the realm of nature which includes the created, earth, earthly things, the visible, man's body and diversity (1982, 209). Schaeffer writes, "This sphere of the autonomous growing out of Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures (1982, 211)." For 750 years Western culture has been gradually removing the middle realm from its worldview so that by the twentieth century Hiebert can claim that it has been excluded.
The authors consulted and the Fon Christians interviewed for this paper aptly picture the tension between a belief in the existence or a belief in the absence of the middle realm. They aptly demonstrate how one's cultural presuppositions will radically affect one's interpretation of Scripture Western theologians refuse the existence of the middle realm or ignore it so that for them it functionally does not exist. Animistic peoples accept the existence of such a realm, along with the beings and powers that reside there, and elevate its importance and influence to such a level that one might conclude that they see demons under every rock and behind every bush. Where does reality lie? Does a middle realm exist?
The Secular-Animistic Axis, presented earlier identifies three points along the continuum: secularism, theism and animism. Van Rheenen defines theism as the "conception of God as sovereign over his world but allowing people to choose their allegiance in life (1991, 96)." Where the secularist refuses the existence of powers vying for the allegiance which rightly belongs to God and the animist believes that powers exist and wield enormous influence over humans to the point of controlling them, the theist believes that the powers exist in contrast to the sovereign God but humans are free to choose to whom they vow their allegiance.
Toward a Solution
Should missionaries in Africa begin to accept the middle realm? How does one sort-out the spiritual realities? Thomas McAlpine presents Paul Hiebert's three-step process of investigation; phenomenology, ontology and missiology. He defines phenomenology as "what people think is going on."For our purposes; "How do the Fon picture the spiritual realm?" He defines ontology as "what is really going on."Or, "How does God see the spiritual realm?" He defines missiology as "how to bring people from where they are to where they should be." Or, "How does one help the Fon Christians adjust their conceptions of the spiritual realm to parallel that of God?" McAlpine maintains that we must not accept phenomenological explanations without first testing them against the ontological explanations found in Scripture. "The danger here is to simply accept the people's phenomenological description of a phenomenon as a description of the reality itself (McAlpine, 1991, 67)." Both secular and animistic interpretations must be held-up to the scrutiny of Scripture. The purpose of missiology is to modify the phenomenological explanations with ontology.
Explanations offered by Christians from animistic cultures do not necessarily reflect the spiritual reality. They perhaps attribute too much power to too wide a pantheon of spirits. Likewise, explanations offered by Western Christians do not necessarily reflect reality. They perhaps ignore the spiritual altogether or at least pay so little attention to it that it functionally does not exist.
In attempting to define the picture of possession presented in Scripture, Ferguson offers ten conclusions.
1. Jesus accepted the demons as real, and there is no indication that he was accommodating popular superstitions.
2. The demons were spirit beings with superhuman strength and knowledge.
3. But the demons are presented as impure and evil spirits, that is, spiritual beings in rebellion against God.
4. Human beings were the scene of the struggle between Jesus and the demons.
5. The demons were acting under the direction of Satan and as part of his kingdom.
6. Jesus had authority over demons.
7. The final overthrow and destruction of the devil and his angels is certain, because of the authority exercised by Christ over them.
8. Jesus gave his disciples authority over the demons. Where the name of Jesus is confessed, they have no power and there is nothing to fear from them.
9. That which gave Jesus his authority over the demons was his perfect obedience to the will of the Father.
10. There are religious and spiritual values of much greater importance than the demons (1984,28).
In familiar terms, Ferguson has defined the 'middle realm' or 'theism.' Although, he is not free from cultural presuppositions, he has attempted to discard his culture bound assumptions and allow the biblical text to define itself.
It is my opinion that a proper understanding of the gospel of Mark is not one that denies the existence or activity of the demonic. Neither does a proper understanding of Mark accept demons hiding under every rock and behind every bush. Mark presents a view of the spiritual realm that is theistic. Evil spirits exist. They perforate daily life. They exercise power to harm and to persecute. However, they are not omnipotent. Humanity is not wholly at their mercy. Power is available and salvation is offered.
Secular interpretations of the demonic in the gospel of Mark are inadequate, they ignore both Scripture and human experience. Animistic interpretations are also inadequate, they see everything in terms of the demonic. A middle road leading to the middle realm accepts the existence and activity of the demonic while leaving God on the throne to be sovereign. Man then, must choose to whom he will offer allegiance. A proper interpretation of the demonic passages in the gospel of Mark is to see Satan and God vying for the allegiance of man.
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