Spirit Possession, Exorcism and the Historical Jesus

Thus, Jesus’ experience as portrayed in Mark closely resembles those of healers across cultures, whose careers often begin with a period of illness or spirit possession, followed by a period of trials or testing, during which the healers learn to control their spirits. Once this has been achieved, they are able to control the spirits of others. In other words, they become healers and exorcists themselves.

See Also: Jesus, the Galilean Exorcist. (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012)

By Amanda Witmer
Department of Religious Studies
Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON Canada
March 2013

In my research for Jesus, the Galilean Exorcist, I examined spirit possession and Jesus’ exorcisms, as described in the New Testament gospels, using insights from anthropology and sociology. These tools were used to situate Jesus and his role as exorcist as well as the phenomenon of spirit possession within the social and political context of first-century Galilee under Roman rule.

Sociological studies help us to understand the way in which agrarian societies are structured. Cross-cultural anthropological studies have demonstrated a link between spirit possession and agrarian societies where hierarchy, slavery, occupation and political oppression are present. Agrarian societies are those in which agriculture forms the base of the economy and the vast majority of people live and work on the land, while a very small percentage of the population reaps the financial benefits of the land. This is the way that Mediterranean societies, including Galilee and Judea, were structured in the first century.

In addition to this broader social context, in the ancient Mediterranean world and within Judaism in particular, there was a shared belief that political reality and cosmological reality were deeply intertwined. The cosmos was understood to be made up of good and evil spirits, and when these spirits did battle, the conflict was thought to spill over onto the earthly plane. In practical terms this meant that political rulers and the oppression that often resulted from their rule were regarded as manifestations of spiritual reality. For example, the emperor Nero is depicted as Satan or Beliar in the Pseudepigraphal text, the Ascension of Isaiah (2nd-4th century CE).

This understanding of the world is also evident in the writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the caves of Qumran. The community that produced these writings (contemporaries of Jesus) often refers to itself as the “sons of light” and to others as the “sons of darkness” or “demons” (1QS 3-4; 1QM). Specifically, in texts such as the Rule of the Community, the sons of darkness and the demonic are typically associated with foreign peoples and with apostate Jews (1QS 1.16-2.8; 3.13-4.26).The corresponding outlook, that destruction of evil at the cosmic level was linked to the destruction of evil rulers on the earthly plane, is also found in a number of Jewish texts from the Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE) (See, e.g., Jubilees 11:4-6; 15:31-4; 22:16-17). This perspective was co-existent with the worldview that the defeat of evil (and evil spirits) and the restoration of justice was linked with the coming of the reign of God.

Erika Bourguignon, an anthropologist who has written extensively on both spirit possession and exorcism, has argued that there are two basic ways in which societies respond to incidents of spirit possession. In the first case, the spirit is seen as a positive or benevolent force and spirit possession may be welcomed, and in some cases may even be voluntarily initiated. An example of this would be the Voodoo cult in Haiti, where possession by the spirits is encouraged and actively sought. A second view of spirit possession understands possessing spirits as malevolent or demonic forces and the experience of possession is rejected entirely. In that situation, the most common response is to attempt to remove or exorcise the demonic spirit.

In addition to these two basic positions, within many societies, a third interpretation may exist which combines the two perspectives described above. In this case, whether the spirit and the experience of possession are accepted or rejected depends to some degree on the context, the person’s social position, and whether they are able to gain control over the spirit or spirits. This means that possession by spirits may be accepted or validated by some segments of society and rejected by others, or rejected initially and then later accepted. In the latter case, the person may initially struggle with malevolent possession, but is later able to control the spirits and so themselves become a recognized healer (Bourguignon: 1976).

First-century Galilee exhibits traits of both the second and third type of society; that is, exorcism is an accepted method of dealing with what is perceived to be malevolent spirit possession. However, there is also a division within the society whereby some accept and some reject particular cases of spirit possession or question the source of power used by healers to exorcise malevolent spirits. In the case of Jesus, the ability to control spirits seems to have been learned during his time in the wilderness through a series of tests devised by Satan. According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), it is immediately after this experience that his mission of healing and exorcism began. Interestingly, while some among the population seemed to support his activities and the source of his power, others did not. Often his detractors are portrayed as being part of the Jewish leadership.

Jesus’ role as exorcist and his own experiences of involuntary spirit possession can be compared to those of healers across cultures using insights from anthropological studies on spirit possession. From this perspective, his historical mission of healing and exorcism began with a period of spirit possession. While Matthew and Luke have downplayed this aspect of Jesus’ career, in Mark’s gospel—widely regarded by scholars as the earliest of the four New Testament gospels—the description mirrors those of healers and exorcists across cultures as well as those attributed to the Hebrew prophets.

For example, what Mark describes as the “ tearing open of the heavens” which initiates the descent of the spirit at Jesus’ baptism, has been softened by Matthew and Luke to a simple and passive opening of the heavens (Compare Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:16-17 and Luke 3:21-22). Similarly, while Mark’s spirit descends like a dove into (eis) Jesus (Mark 1:9), in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions the spirit descends upon (epi) him. Another change made by Matthew is that God’s voice is audible to the crowd, while Luke retains Mark’s version, where the voice speaks only to Jesus and reflects a private experience (compare Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:16-17, and Luke 3:21-22).

As Mark has described it, Jesus’ experience of the spirit entering into him rather than resting upon him, resembles closely that of Ezekiel (“a spirit entered into me” – 2:2), who himself is reported to have experienced spirit travel and ecstatic trance. In addition to Ezekiel, visions and ecstatic spirit possession are associated with several other figures in the Hebrew Bible, including Samuel, Saul, Elisha, Jeremiah and Amos ( See, e.g. 1 Sam 10:9-13; 19:18-24; 2 Kgs 3:15-20; Jer 23:9; 29:26; Isa 6; Amos 7:1-9).

All three synoptic gospels agree that immediately after his baptism, Jesus entered a forty day period of testing in the wilderness. In Mark’s version the spirit is said to “throw” or “drive” (ekballei) Jesus into the wilderness, while in Matthew and Luke he is passively “led” there (Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1-2). The verb ekballo is associated with rough handling and with casting out demons, which suggests that Jesus did not go voluntarily into the wilderness.

Thus, Jesus’ experience as portrayed in Mark closely resembles those of healers across cultures, whose careers often begin with a period of illness or spirit possession, followed by a period of trials or testing, during which the healers learn to control their spirits. Once this has been achieved, they are able to control the spirits of others. In other words, they become healers and exorcists themselves. These characteristics are particularly associated with healers who operate as informal charismatic leaders. Michael Winkelman has compared healers and the societies they work in across forty seven cultures using seven variables. Based on this assessment, and situating Jesus within a first-century agrarian Mediterranean context, Jesus can be characterized as a medium who experienced involuntary spirit possession, informal or charismatic leadership, and low-to-moderate social status in relation to the priesthood which occupied the role of formal, high-status religious practitioners in the society (Winkelman: 1990, 308-52).

There is also abundant evidence in the synoptic gospels that Jesus was known as a successful exorcist. A total of four separate exorcisms are conveyed in some detail in Mark, all of which are reproduced by either Matthew or Luke. These include the exorcism of a man in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28//Luke 4:31-37), the exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20; Matthew 8:28-34//Luke 8:26-39), the exorcism of a boy with a spirit of deafness and muteness (Mark 9:14-27//Matthew 17:14-21//Luke 9:37-43), and the exorcism at a distance of the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30//Matt 15:21-28). In addition, Mark, Q (written material shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark) and Luke’s source provide several indirect references to the phenomena of spirit possession and exorcism (Mark 6:7; Luke 11:24-26//Matt 12:43-45;Luke 8:2-3; 10:17-20), and passing references to other Jewish exorcists (Matthew 12:27//Luke 11:19; Mark 9:38-9) suggest that both spirit possession and exorcism were part of the normal experience of those who penned the gospels and their communities.

Perhaps even more intriguing is evidence that Jesus was himself accused of being possessed by a demon and working with evil forces to exorcise demons. All three synoptic gospels contain the report that Jesus was accused of being possessed by Beelzebul and of drawing on this demonic force to cast out demons (Mark 3:22; Matthew 12:24; Luke 11:15). In Mark this accusation comes from the scribes, in Matthew from the Pharisees, and in Luke from the crowd. John’s gospel, which reports no exorcisms, nevertheless retains the tradition that Jesus was accused of demonic spirit possession and madness (See John 7:20; 8:48-52; 10:19-21). It is unlikely that the early church would have invented these accusations (the criterion of embarrassment) since they depict Jesus in a negative light and would have left the early Christian community open to charges that both they and their founder practiced magic and sorcery. These allegations were, in fact, made against the early Christians and the church worked hard to refute them, so why invent this accusation? As E. P. Sanders has remarked, “Why answer a charge that was not leveled?” (Sanders: 1985, 166) In addition, Mark’s gospel reports that Jesus’ own family tried to restrain him (apparently from ecstatic spirit possession) because people had begun to say that he had lost his mind (Mark 3:20-21). The Greek verb used here, exesti – from histeimi, and from which the English word “ecstatic” is derived, means “to stand outside oneself,” or “to be insane.”

In response to these accusations in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus links his exorcisms explicitly with the coming of God’s kingdom: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). His characteristic use of the phrase “kingdom of God” is attested in both multiple independent sources (Mark, Q, M [Matthew’s source] and L [Luke’s source]) and in multiple forms (parables, prayers, beatitudes, miracle stories). Speaking of alternate kingdoms in the context of Roman imperial rule was provocative. It is therefore likely that the use of this phrase by Jesus and its association with his exorcisms also played a role in his eventual execution as a political dissident. Luke reports the following exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees which suggests that Jesus’ exorcisms were somehow linked to his execution under Herod Antipas: “At that time some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work. Yet, today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’” (Luke 13:31-33).

Why was Jesus accused of being possessed by Beelzebul and of madness? Across cultures, healers and exorcists are often seen as a threat to the social order. Accusing someone of witchcraft or demonic spirit possession is a way of discrediting them and thereby rendering them less of a threat. The claim that someone was possessed by a demon was particularly common in the ancient world and was easy to make and difficult to disprove (Stanton: 2004, 139). In a society such as first-century Jewish Palestine, there were many reasons why Jesus might have been seen as a threat. The most obvious one was related to the precarious position the Jewish people found themselves in under Roman imperial rule.

The Jewish leaders in particular did not wish to provoke Rome and bring trouble down upon themselves and their people. As a result, they worked to protect a delicate balance between keeping Rome at bay and maintaining their own social and religious boundaries. When a society feels vulnerable at its margins, it will tend to have less tolerance for those who challenge those boundaries. (Douglas: 2003). John’ s gospel makes the fear of reprisal by the Romans explicit: “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:47-8). In conclusion, insights from anthropological studies of spirit possession, sociological studies of first-century Galilee, and textual evidence in the threads that make up the New Testament Gospels, all indicate that Jesus was known as a spirit-filled exorcist who provoked controversy among some of his peers and that this was deeply connected to the social and political context in which he lived.


Bourguignon, Erika. Possession (San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp, 1976).

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Vol. 2 of Mary Douglas Collected Works (London: Rougledge, 2003).

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, Vol. 3 of Mary Douglas Collected Works (London: Rougledge, 2003).

Lewis, I. M. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession.

Rothenberg, Celia. Spirits of Palestine: Gender, Society and Stories of the Jinn (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Towards Interpreting Demonic Powers in Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity,” Aufstieg und Neidergang der römanischen Weld 16.1: 425-39. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1978).

Stanton, Graham N. Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Winkelman, Michael. “Shamans and other Magico-religious Healers: A Cross-cultural study of Origins, Nature and Social Transformations,” Ethos 18 (1990): 308-52.

Witmer, Amanda. Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context (London: T & T Clark, 2012).

For further Reading:

Eve, Eric, The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 231. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).

Gager, John, ed, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Garrett, Susan R., The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

Hanson K. C. and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

Horsley, Richard, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

Janowitz, Naomi, Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians (London: Routledge, 2001).

Kleinman, Arthur, Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Malina, Bruce J. and Jerome H. Neyrey, Calling Jesus Names: The Social Value of Labels in Matthew (Sonoma, CA.: Polebridge Press, 1988).

Sheets, Dwight D., “Jesus as Demon-Possessed,” Pages 27-49 in Who Do My Opponents Say that I Am? An Investigation of the Accusations Against the Historical Jesus (ed., Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica; New York: T & T Clark, 2008).

Smith, Morton, Jesus the Magician (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

Stegemann, Wolfgang, Bruce J. Malina and Gerd Theissen, (eds.), The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

Comments (3)

Great to see some anthropological reasoning on how things may have worked in the past. Lately there has been a renewed effort in healing and exorcism in the northern region with ceremonies held on a weekly basis by the church and its leaders.

#1 - Joe Zias - 03/23/2013 - 19:25

Interesting article but there seems to be a small error here: "Similarly, while Mark’s spirit descends like a dove into (eis) Jesus (Mark 1:9)" > wouldn't that be Mark 1:10?

And why do some texts have 'epi' in Mark 1:10 if you look up the Greek (KJV) while others (ie NIV) have 'eis' (at least on blueletterbible.org)? How do we know which was the original one?

#2 - Jerome - 03/25/2013 - 13:15

perhaps more mention of jewish healers of christ's time would be appropriate?visit:-www.traditionalanglicancommunion-cornwall-uk.webs.com/apps/forums/

#3 - dr.peter long - 04/28/2013 - 20:08

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