Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a prolific exorcist. Indeed, we know of no other figure in antiquity for whom exorcism was so important. Matthew and Luke suggest that exorcism was of central significance in understanding him (Matt 12:28-29 // Luke 11:20-21). However, one of the puzzles of John’s Gospel is that there is no mention of exorcisms, perhaps because they were thought too common to reveal Jesus’s glory (John 2:11).
What is exorcism?
Exorcism is forcing an unwanted spiritual entity to leave its host. In the ancient world, exorcism was thought to depend on the innate power of the exorcist, the perceived authority of the exorcist, and the specific words or activities used by the exorcists to remove a demon. The varying importance attributed to these factors gave rise to a range of different kinds of exorcism. Awareness of the kinds of exorcism during the first and second centuries CE helps understand the exorcisms of Jesus.
At one end of the spectrum were magical exorcisms. A spiritual power was called up to evict a spirit. Josephus tells of a Jew performing exorcisms by putting a finger ring to the nose of a sufferer and, as the person smelt the pungent roots in it, drawing out the demon. When the person fell down after the demon left, the exorcist used poems or songs and Solomon’s name to order the demon never to return (Ant. 8.45-49).
Next, were exorcisms performed by charismatic magicians. In his work, Josephus retells the story of King Saul, beset with evil spirits, cured by David standing over the king, playing his harp and chanting his songs (Ant. 6.168-69; cf. 1Sam 16:14-23). Success in this narrative, according to Josephus, depended not only on personal force, but also on what the exorcist said and did.
Finally were exorcisms by charismatics. Simon ben Yose is said to have cast out a demon by calling out, “Ben Temalion, get out!” (b. Me’ilah 17b). In this story from the second century CE, success was thought to depend not on what was said or done, but only on the personal force of the exorcist.
What type of exorcist was Jesus?
Jesus appears like the charismatics in that he is reported as telling a spirit to “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). However, while he appears to rely on his own personal force, when asked about his method Jesus says that he casts out demons by the Spirit (or finger) of God (Matt 12:28// Luke 11:20). Jesus assumes he is relying on an external power-authority, as did the magical exorcists. In terms of his method, this places Jesus somewhere between the charismatic magicians and the charismatics of a slightly later period, making him the first of the charismatic exorcists.
In view of the prevalence of exorcism it is astonishing that Jesus made the unprecedented claim that his exorcisms were both the spearhead of his defeat of Satan and, in themselves, an important aspect of the realization of the kingdom of God.