The Exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac

Mark 5:1-13

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many." He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them." So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned by the sea.

Who Wrote the Book of Mark and Why?

Though the author of Mark is unknown, most scholars believe that the author was John Mark, mentioned numerous times in the Book of Acts. There are other references to Marks in the New Testament, but few scholars agree that they refer to the author of the gospel, because Markos (Greek) and Marcus (Latin) were popular names in the time that the gospel according to Mark first surfaced. In these other references, Mark is an associate of Paul and is mentioned in Paul's various letters. In Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 4, verse 10, Mark is mentioned as the cousin of Barnabas. Another reference can be found in 2 Timothy 4:11, when Paul requests Mark to come to him, because "he is useful in [Paul's] ministry". As to why, Paul does not say. In Paul's letter to Philemon, verse 24, Mark is associated with Paul's "other workers": Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.

If all of these Marks consist of the same person, then this Mark was a Jewish-Christian from a wealthy family in Jerusalem. From Acts 12:12, it is stated that John Mark's mother, Mary, had a large house that was able to fit a prayer group and Mark had a cousin named Barnabas who was a landowner and associate of Paul. Whether or not these Marks are all the same person is unknown.

For centuries, scholars have wondered why Mark wrote his gospel. Almost all scholars agree that the author wrote after most, if not all, the original twelve apostles had died and that the author felt that it was imperative that the oral history of Jesus be written down, lest it be lost or disfigured through word-of-mouth narratives. Robert H. Gundry argues that Mark wrote in order to apologize for the crucifixion of Christ (Gundry, Mark, 1993). Gundry argues that many non-believers of Christianity would not be attracted to a religion founded by a man that was crucified, seeing as being crucified was a shameful form of death, normally reserved for criminals. Mark would have felt the need to tell non-believers that Jesus was not an actual criminal, thus would have written his gospel to convince converts to not be repulsed by the crucifixion. Very few, if any, scholars support Gundry's theory as to the motive behind the authorship of Mark, rather believing that Mark is a straight forward narrative to explain the story of Jesus Christ.

The Placement of the Miracle

The exorcism of the demons found in Mark 5:1-13 is not a singular miracle. This miracle falls between two other miracles thought to demonstrate Jesus' power over three different realms. As Jesus and his disciples make their way to Gerasa, a storm appears that threatens to jeopardize the trip across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat during the storm, but is awakened by the terrified disciples. The disciples fear that the boat will capsize because of the amount of water the boat is taking on and are surprised by Jesus' seeming lack of concern. Jesus then commands the storm to stop with a mere "Peace! Be still!" The storm ceases and Jesus asks his disciples about their lack of faith. This story illustrates Jesus' powers, demonstrating his power over nature and the elements, the first miracle.

After the exorcism, the second miracle, Jesus and the disciples continue on their journey. At this point, Jesus performs another miracle, this time displaying his power over death. Jesus is approached by one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus, who begs Jesus to save his daughter who is dying. When Jesus arrives, it is too late: The girl has died. Jesus resurrects the little girl, then commands the parents to not tell anybody about what has occurred.

Jesus Exorcises the Demons

The story of the Gerasene demoniac can be found in all three Synoptics, with some variations in the texts. All three have the same message: Jesus has power over all evil that he confronts. Parallel telling of the story of the demoniac can be found in Matthew 8:18-32 and in Luke 8:26-33. Matthew presents the briefest and least detailed version of the story, while Mark and Luke provide a detailed account of what Jesus does, why he does it, and how.

All three Synoptics agree that the demoniac lived in the tombs of Gerasa, a common dwelling place for demons and evil spirits. The three also agree on the violent nature of the man, stating that he had been "restrained with shackles and chains", but that the man possessed extraordinary strength and broke his bindings. The three books also claim that he is bruised from hitting himself with rocks and from other forms of self-abuse. The demoniac recognizes Jesus in all three versions and make initial contact with him, instead of Jesus going to the man.

In Matthew, Jesus travels to the land of the Gadarenes, not to the land of the Gerasenes. This is often explained by scholars as a mis-interpretation in the transition from Mark to Matthew. Another difference in Matthew's telling of the story is the fact that two demoniacs exit the tombs, as opposed to the solitary man in Mark. W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann suggest that Matthew includes two demoniacs to compensate for not telling the story of the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum (Albright 52). S. V. McCasland points out that Matthew might have thought the idea of thousands of demons possessing one man to be unrealistic, thus altered the story (McCasland 47). Sydney Page argues that the addition of another person would have done little to "alleviate" the problem of too many demons (Page 148). A final possibility is presented by J. M. Gibbs; that there were two demoniacs present so that Jesus would have two witnesses, in accordance with Jewish law (Gibbs 457). Gibbs does not explain, however, why the disciples and the swineherds cannot count as witnesses.

What the demoniac says to Jesus varies among the three Synoptics, as well. In Mark 5:7, the demoniac says "Do not torment me!", while in Matthew 8:29, the demoniacs ask Christ if he has "come to torment us before the time". What the demon means is unknown, but it is thought that the demon recognizes the future eschatological judgement that Christ is to bring in the future (McCasland 113). Meanwhile, Luke 8:28 has the demoniac beg Jesus to "not torment me". The reason for the demoniac's torture probably stems from the fact that Christ has asked the name of the demon, assumed to assert dominance over the demon (Page 152). Clearly the demon recognized Jesus' superior power.

Ulrich W. Mauser notes similarities between the miracle over the elements and the miracle over the demoniac. Mauser notes that the fury of the storm can be analogous to the rage of the demoniac and the great stillness that follows the storm can be compared to the cured demoniac sitting down, clothed and sane (Mauser 126). The sea almost becomes the "burial place" for Jesus and his followers, then later becomes the burial place for the legion of demons. Mr. Mauser points out that the two "forces of death" collide and fall when faced by Jesus (Mauser 126).

The Use of the Name and the Significance of Legion

Jesus asking the name of the demon is unique to all of Jesus' exorcisms. Nobody is quite sure why Jesus asks for the name of the demon in this story, besides the theory provided by Sydney Page, mentioned above. Throughout the gospels, Jesus otherwise never asks for the name of a demon (or even converses with one), but for some reason, Jesus does ask for this demon's name. When asked, the demoniac responds with "My name is Legion; for we are many." Isaac Asimov claims that in New Testament times a legion consisted of six thousand soldiers (Asimov 248). By saying that the name of the demons in question is Legion, the demons indicate that there is a large number of demons occupying the man from Gerasa, possibly thousands. Later, when Jesus expels the demons from the man, the demons possess two thousand pigs.

Some scholars believe that Legion also might have been used for the name of the demons as protest against the Roman army (Hollenbach 46-47). This is feasible because the Romans did use the word "legion" as a military term for six thousand soldiers. Douglas R. A. Hare points out that the transfer of the spirits into the herd of pigs would have also been a knock against the Romans, in that the "Legion" is transferred from an army of demons to an army of swine: filthy, unclean animals according to devout Jews (Hare 65). Sydney H. T. Page also notes that often times possession is used to protest plight in a repressive society, but the exorcism of a false demon out of a protester would most likely not have been recorded in the gospels (Page 153).

Differences to Other Exorcisms Performed by Jesus

This story is unusual from other exorcisms in the New Testament. For instance, This is the first time that Jesus asks the name of the demon that possesses the man. This is the first time that the demons do not come out immediately after Jesus commands them to leave the demoniac, as well as bargain with Jesus. Also, this is the first time that Jesus grants a request from the demons, transferring the demons to a herd of swine. Sydney H. T. Page accounts for this by theorizing that Mark wrote the story down as he received it, but the story was embellished as it was told orally by early Christians (Page 146). While Page takes the story to be embellished, Robert H. Gundry takes the whole story to be another example of Jesus' utmost powers over the forces of evil (Gundry 251-252). Gundry states that Jesus expelling the demons from the demoniac into the pigs is done not based on the demons' request, rather to punish the demons. Mr. Gundry hypothesizes that the demons wanted to be sent into the pigs so that they could continue to live by the tombs where the demoniac was living, but that Jesus somehow forces the herd of swine to rush into the sea, causing the demons to become homeless (Gundry 253). Cf. Burkill suggests that there is a possibility that the demons requested to be sent into the swine in order to turn the local villagers against Jesus for killing their animals, essentially tricking Jesus (Burkill 164-65). Page counters this theory by stating that it is unlikely that the authors of the gospels would include a story of Jesus being tricked by demons (Page 154). J. Duncan M. Derrett takes an interesting view of the drowning of the herd of swine, comparing the drowning of the swine to the drowning of the Egyptian army in Exodus. Derrett states that Jesus was considered by some to be a second Moses, a man that would lead the people through the wilderness of evil to the Promised Land (Derrett 6). While being pursued by the Egyptian armies, Moses parts the Reed Sea to lead the Jews through to safety, but closes it upon the pursuing army.

Parallelism to the Resurrection

Scholars have noted that the Gerasene demoniac story is parallel to the story of the resurrection of Jesus. John Bligh is an advocate for the similarities between the story of the demoniac and Jesus' resurrection and believes that the story of Jesus in Gerasa was written not to tell a story that happened, rather to be compared to the resurrection of Jesus. Bligh makes the following points: One, Jesus is compared to the actual demoniac, in that the possessed man is able to destroy his bonds with his abnormal strength, while Jesus is able to destroy his bond of death, with the power given to him by the Holy Spirit. Two, Bligh also notes the use of Legion as the name of the demons possessing the man and the use of legion to describe a Roman army. Bligh points out that Romans were the ones who captured Jesus and put him to death. Three, after Jesus dies, his body is placed inside a tomb, a place for the dead, while the demoniac lives in the tombs outside of the town. Four, after Jesus exorcises the demons from the man, Jesus sends the man to tell about the powers of God to his people. This is parallel to Jesus sending his disciples out to tell of God's powers. In summation of these points, Bligh claims that the destruction of the herd of swine is a direct parallel to the final destruction of evil by Jesus on the Day of Judgement (Bligh 388).

Jesus and the Gentiles

One reason why this story is studied in depth so often is because this is a tale of Jesus going into the land of the Gentiles and performing miracles. The story is set in the territory of the one of the Hellenistic towns of the Decapolis on the southeastern shore of Lake Tiberius. Lamar Williamson, Jr. points out that everything in the land of Gerasa is unclean by devout Jewish standards: the spirits, the swine, the tombs, as well as the territory. Williamson speculates that the passage could have been written with the sole purpose of giving an example of Jesus working miracles in a Gentile land (Williamson 104).

The Rejection by the Town

In an epilogue to the miracle, Jesus is confronted by the townspeople. Mark 5:17 reads "Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood." The majority of scholars attribute this to either the destruction of the herd, or to the fear of Jesus' powers. Robert Gundry points out that the pigs my have been used for sacrifice in addition to economically (Gundry 254). If the pigs were used in religious ceremonies, it is no wonder that the locals would take offense at Jesus killing all the swine off. Douglas Hare thinks that the townspeople rejected Jesus because they considered Jesus to be dangerous to their safety (Hare 65). When the townspeople hear that the swine have drowned in the sea and come out to investigate in Mark 5:15, they are "afraid". This leads a reader to agree with Hare's hypothesis.

An interesting point raised by Lamar Williamson, Jr. about the crowd is that the crowd seems to be more concerned with their herd of swine than one of their neighbors (Williamson 106). Even though the crowd is rejecting Jesus just as the demoniac did initially, Jesus does not force himself on the townspeople.

The Lack of the Messianic Secret

Unlike most of Jesus' other miracles, Jesus commands the former demoniac in Mark 5:19 to go out and tell the Gentiles "how much the Lord has done for [him]". By doing this, Jesus is breaking his habit of trying to keep the Messianic Secret. Sydney Page attributes this to the fact that Jesus and the twelve disciples were not going to travel the area, so Jesus had to have somebody to spread his ministry properly (Page 157). Page also believes that there was no reason to keep the Messianic Secret in a Gentile area because the Gentiles did not have any expectations of the messiah and Jesus did not have to worry about upsetting the religious authority (Page 156). Most scholars seem to agree with Page's idea.

My Interpretation

When interpreting the story of the demoniac in Mark and reading other scholars' interpretations of this passage, I noticed three main points:

One, Jesus' message is for everyone, whether they like it or not. The demoniac is wary of Jesus and his powers and actually begs Jesus to not "torment" him. Whether or not this is the demons speaking or the actual man is unknown, but Jesus helps the man in the end despite the man's asking Jesus not to. Jesus does this because one of the main reasons for him even being on Earth is to help and cure people that need it. Whether a person likes it or not, Jesus will destroy a person's inner demons.

The second point is that people really like to hold onto their inner demons. I was surprised that none of the critics of this passage pointed out the psychological aspect of this story. Even though the man is being harmed by the demons, he still begs Jesus to not send them out of his body. The legion of demons can be compared with drugs for our modern world. People that are addicted to drugs are harming their bodies, just as the demoniac harms his body with rocks. Addicts often distance themselves from their families and community, just as the demoniac does in this story by living in the tombs. The townspeople are trying to help the man by restraining him, but the man keeps bursting the chains that are trying to hold him. This can be compared to the denial that addicts have in our modern world. Addicts burst through barriers set up to keep them from drugs.

Finally, Jesus' message is for Jews and non-Jews. This story takes place in Gentile-country and Jesus heals a non-Jew for the first time in the book of Mark. This story is another example of the universality of God and Jesus. After saving the man, Jesus sends him out to tell the Gentiles of God's love. So, in addition to saving a Gentile, Jesus recruits one to spread God's message: "And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed." [Mark 5:20]

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