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Saturday, 31 January 2015

When is an angelos not an angel? A critique of Christadelphian lexical semantics


There are a number of passages in the New Testament which appear, in standard English translations, to refer to bad angels. The most striking of these are Matt. 25:41, Rom. 8:38, 1 Cor. 6:3, 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6, and Rev. 12:7-9. Other possible references to bad angels in the New Testament include 1 Cor. 4:9, 11:10, 2 Cor. 12:7, 1 Pet. 3:19-22, and Rev. 9:11. Belief in bad angels was certainly prevalent in Second Temple Judaism, and was rooted in the interpretation of certain Old Testament passages (Gen. 6:1-4; Job 1-2; Dan. 10:13-21; see also Job 4:18; Psalm 78:49).

Now, Christadelphians hold that the Bible does not teach the existence of bad angels. How can such a claim be maintained in the face of the passages referred to above? The general approach is to deny that the word ἄγγελος )angelos)[1]  refers to angels in these texts. In some cases it may be allowed that the text refers to angels but denied that it refers to bad angels.

The purpose of this post is not to engage in a thorough exegesis of the above passages, but to offer some observations on the meaning of angelos in these texts. Correctly identifying the meaning of this word is crucial in Matt. 25:41, 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6 and Rev. 12:7-9, since in these four texts there is absolutely no question that the angeloi are morally bad (though strong arguments can be made for the moral badness of the angeloi in the other texts, too). In fact, in the case of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6, some Christadelphian exegetes now acknowledge that the text refers to bad angels, but proceed to claim that the writers were not actually asserting the existence of such beings (see a critique of this approach here and here).

In these four texts, nearly all English Bible translations[2] have translated angeloi with 'angels'. So too, all the major French translations[3] have 'anges', and all the major German translations[4] have 'Engel'. Thus, when Christadelphians claim that these angeloi are human beings rather than angels, they are contesting an overwhelming consensus. As far as I can tell, the only translation which does not render angeloi with 'angels' in these two texts is Young's Literal Translation. However, this is not very significant since the YLT always renders angelos with 'messenger'. While Young no doubt sought to bring out the etymological background of the word angelos, and while 'messenger' remained the primary meaning of angelos outside Judaism and Christianity, the usual meaning of angelos in the New Testament is 'angel'.

Martin argues that even within the Hebrew Bible, the word מַלְאָךְ (mal’āk) gradually became a technical term rather than a common noun; and when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (as the LXX), "the Jewish scholars translated the term מַלְאָךְ into ἄγγελος and thus introduced a new technical term, one referring to a particular species, into Greek."[5] Martin explains what he means by distinguishing a technical term from a common noun:

I simply mean the difference between a noun that refers to a recognized class of beings rather than to an activity or role. 'Golden Retriever' does not refer merely to a yellow dog that retrieves.[6]

Similarly, discussing semantic change in the New Testament, Silva comments on the frequent reduction in the meaning of words; words become 'specialized' relative to their previous usage and their usage in non-Christian literature. He explains the exegetical significance of this phenomenon:

We must understand that once the semantic range of a term has been narrowed, we are less dependent on the context when we wish to grasp the meaning of the word. That is, the word becomes more precise: a more or less definite referent (what the word stands for) is automatically associated with the word itself. These are the terms that become technically charged at times, so that they serve as ‘shorthand’ for considerable theological reflection.[7]

Silva includes angelos in a list of "(more or less technical) specializations".[8] Other examples for comparison are ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), which was specialized from 'assembly' to 'church' (ecclesia if you prefer), and εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), specialized from 'good news' to 'gospel (message of salvation)'.

An interesting point is made by Turner on the emergence of the term ἀπόστολος (apostolos). This term is never used in the LXX, whereas angelos is occasionally used for a human who brings the divine message (2 Chr. 36:15-16; Isa. 44:26; Jer. 29:14(49:14)[9]; Hag. 1:13; Mal. 1:1; 2:7; 3:1). (Indeed, over 40% of instances of angelos in the LXX refer to human messengers).[10] Turner explains the emergence of the term apostolos in the New Testament on the grounds that "the preachers rejected angelos (messenger) as already a technical term for 'angel'".[11] Thus in the New Testament we see a conscious shift away from the use of angelos for humans.

The emergence of angelos as a technical term means that the mere use of the word angelos is generally sufficient to establish the meaning 'angel', apart from contextual considerations. We can see this in a number of New Testament passages in which angelos is used with no explicit reference to sending and no qualifier such as ‘of the Lord’ or ‘in heaven’: Matt. 4:11; 25:31; Mark 1:13; Luke 16:22; 20:36; 24:23; John 12:29; Acts 6:15; 7:30; 23:8; Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 4:9; 6:3; 11:10; 13:10; Gal. 3:19; Col. 2:18; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:4; 2:5; 2:7; 2:9; 2:16; 12:22; 13:2; 1 Pet. 1:12; 3:22; 2 Pet. 2:11; Rev. 5:11; 7:11; 12:7; 21:17.

To quote a few of these examples:
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matt. 4:11 ESV)

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor. 11:10 ESV) 
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, (Col. 2:18 ESV)
It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:12 ESV)
In all of these passages, the mere use of the word angeloi is sufficient to impart the meaning. No contextual clues are given, and none are needed. This shows why angelos is said to be a technical term in its Christian usage: one does not first read 'messenger' and then reflect on the concept of 'messengers' and ask, 'What sort of messenger is this?' One simply reads 'angel', and rightly so. In the same way, if your friend tells you he got a golden retriever, you do not reflect on the concept of 'retrieval' to get his meaning; you simply identify this as a technical term for a particular breed of dog.

If a New Testament writer wanted to use this word as a common noun meaning 'messenger' with a human referent, he would need to make this clear from the context to ensure his Christian readers did not apply the usual technical meaning. Indeed, this is exactly what we find in the six New Testament texts where angelos is generally regarded as referring to human messengers.

Three of these are direct quotations from Mal. 3:1 LXX (in Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). In quoting Scripture a writer would be less likely to introduce his preferred vocabulary than in his own original material. Moreover, in Mal. 3:1 LXX and in all three of the Gospel quotations, the verb ἀποστέλλω (apostellō, ‘send’) is used, which highlights the functional meaning of angelos.[12] Moreover, the application of the prophecy to John the Baptist (implicitly in Mark but explicitly in Matthew and Luke) makes the human referent of angelos unmistakable.

Two further non-technical uses of angelos are in the Gospel of Luke (7:24; 9:52). Being probably the sole Gentile among the New Testament writers, Luke may have been more accustomed to using angelos with its secular, non-technical meaning. In any case, in these two texts, as in his quotation from Malachi, he makes both the functional meaning of angelos and the human referent perfectly clear. In Luke 7:24, John's angeloi are those disciples who have been sent (apostellō) to Jesus as envoys with a message (Luke 7:19-20). In Luke 9:52, the angeloi are those disciples whom Jesus sent (apostellō) ahead of him to a Samaritan village.

A final non-technical use of angelos is in James 2:25, where the word refers to the Israelite spies received by Rahab and sent out another way. Here too, the envoy function of the word is apparent. Moreover, although angelos does not occur in the LXX account of Rahab and the spies, mal’āk is used twice of the spies in the Hebrew text (Josh. 6:17; 6:25). This fact is sufficient to account for James' decision to use angelos in a non-technical sense here.

The two other cases in the New Testament in which angelos may be used non-technically are the reference to the angelos satana in 2 Cor. 12:7 and the references to the angeloi of the seven churches in Rev. 1:20; 2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14. In the former case, English translations almost unanimously render angelos as 'messenger', implying that 'messenger of Satan' is a metaphorical description of Paul's thorn in the flesh. The tendency among English translations (which probably owes much to the precedent set by the KJV) is not found in other languages. For instance, three out of four major French translations (NEG1979, LSG, SG21) have "ange", while all five major German translations (Luther, HOF, NGU-DE, SCH1951, SCH2000) have "Engel". Furthermore, there has been an emphatic shift in recent English-language scholarship toward interpreting the angelos of 2 Cor. 12:7 as an angel.[13] In any case, it is virtually certain that the angelos of 2 Cor. 12:7 is not a human person.

As for the angeloi of the seven churches, translations are nearly unanimous in rendering the word with 'angels'. The precise sense is obscure; Moulton explained it in terms of the 'representative angels' concept which he also sees behind texts such as Matt. 18:10 and Acts 12:15.[14] Hemer mentions five possible interpretations:
A choice is generally offered between (1) heavenly guardians of the churches, and (2) human representatives of them, generally their bishops. Three other principal variants deserve consideration: (3) that the 'angels' are personifications of the churches; (4) that they are literally human 'messengers'; and (5) that the term is used in some complex and elusive way or at differing levels, so that we cannot expect to assign it a lexical equivalent that tells the whole story.[15]
He adds that "Of the theories proposed we may most easily criticize (2) and (4)", which he proceeds to do. Osborne too mentions five views, and while he notes that the solution to this exegetical problem is not simple, ""the use of 'angel' in this book makes it extremely unlikely that these are human 'messengers' of any type".[16] Mounce likewise argues that "The use of 'angel' in the book of Revelation (it occurs some 60 times) favors identifying the angels as heavenly beings".[17] Johnson adds,
A strong objection to the human messenger sense here is the fact that the word is not used this way anywhere else in apocalyptic literature. Furthermore, in early noncanonical Christian literature no historical person connected with the church is ever called an angelos.[18]
Once again, then, despite the exegetical difficulties here, there is little support for interpreting the angeloi of the seven churches as human beings.

Thus, aside from the 'bad angeloi' texts under consideration, there are only six instances in the NT in which angelos refers to a human being. In four of these six instances, the usage can be explained by quotation from or dependence on an OT passage in which angelos is used in the LXX or mal’āk in the Hebrew. In the two remaining cases, the functional, non-technical use of angelos is made unmistakably clear from the context, which uses the verb apostellō and explicitly identifies the angeloi as human persons.

Thus, in all six generally accepted cases of angelos referring to a human being in the NT, the envoy function is made explicit in the context, making obvious the reason why the word angelos was chosen. Additionally, in each of these cases a human referent is specified by the writer: John the Baptist, or John’s disciples, or Jesus’ disciples, or the spies who visited Rahab.

This brings us back to four texts which undoubtedly refer to 'bad' angeloi but which Christadelphians typically interpret to refer to bad human beings: Matt. 25:41, 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6, and Rev. 12:7-9. The question is whether angelos carries its usual technical meaning, or whether there are contextual grounds for interpreting it non-technically. First of all, none of these four texts quote from or allude to an OT text in which mal’āk or angelos occurs. Secondly, none of these four texts contain any functional language pertaining to sending or a message which might direct us toward the non-technical meaning 'messenger'. Thirdly, none of these four texts explicitly identify the referents of angeloi as human beings.[19]

We should also note that there is absolutely no justification for broadening the semantic field of angelos as in Heaster’s claim that angelos means "a messenger or, by extension, a follower".[20] The BDAG lexicon attests two primary meanings for angelos: "a human messenger serving as an envoy; an envoy, one who is sent" and "a transcendent power who carries out various missions or tasks; messenger, angel".[21] The LSJ lexicon (which covers the whole of antiquity and does not restrict its interest to Christian literature), gives four meanings: "messenger, envoy; generally, one that announces or tells; angel; in later philosophy, semi-divine being".[22] In other words, although one can understand why a Christadelphian exegete would want to introduce a more general term such as 'follower', it simply does not fall within the semantic range of the word angelos.[23]

Thus, in complete contrast to the six cases considered above, there is no positive evidence for regarding Matt. 25:41, 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6 or Rev. 12:7-9 as exceptions to the usual technical NT meaning of angelos, namely, ‘angel’. Moreover, parallels in Second Temple Judaism to all four of these texts provide positive evidence for understanding the angeloi in these texts to be angels (the Jewish background to Matt. 25:41 will be discussed in a future post). In the case of Rev. 12:7-9, the angeloi of the dragon (which is a symbolic reference to the devil, as v. 9 makes clear) are pitted in a war against Michael and his angeloi. One cannot escape the obvious implications simply by drawing attention to symbolic elements in the wider context. Two group of angeloi are doing battle. One group is unquestionably angelic. How can we possibly reach the conclusion that the other group is not? (Note Johnson's statement above that angelos is not used of human messengers anywhere else in apocalyptic literature).

We are now in a position to answer the titular question. When is an angelos not an angel? In the New Testament, the Greek noun angelos (meaning a messenger or envoy) has become a technical theological term meaning 'angel'. There are six exceptional texts where the non-technical meaning of ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ is applied to human beings, but these can be identified using three simple criteria: (1) the presence of functional 'sending' language; (2) explicit identification of the angelos as a human being; and (3) quotation from or allusion to an OT passage in which angelos or mal’āk is used in this way. Criteria (1) and (2) are met in all six NT 'human messenger' texts, and criterion (3) is met in four out of six. By contrast, none of these three criteria are met in any of the four 'bad' angel texts we have discussed (or, for that matter, the other NT texts mentioned in the first paragraph).

We can safely draw the conclusion that has been virtually uncontested in biblical scholarship from the patristic era up until the present day: the New Testament teaches the existence of bad angels.


[1] The Greek word ἄγγελος is sometimes transliterated as aggelos, but more frequently as angelos, since a double γ made a ‘ng’ sound in ancient Greek.
[2] KJV; NKJV; RSV; NRSV; ASV; NASB; ESV; ISV; NIV; NET; NLT; etc.
[3] BDS, LSG, NEG1979; SG21.
[4] Luther; HOF; NGU-DE; SCH1951; SCH2000.
[5] Martin, D.B. (2010). When Did Angels Become Demons? Journal of Biblical Literature, 129(4), p. 665.
[6] Martin, D.B. op. cit., p. 664 n. 34.
[7] Silva, M. (1994). Biblical Words and their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Revised and Expanded Edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 77. Emphasis added.
[8] Silva, M. op. cit., p. 79.
[9] The confusing reference to this text is due to the disparity between the Hebrew and LXX text of Jeremiah. It is found at Jer. 29:14 in Brenton’s LXX translation and the NETS at 30:8 in other sources. It corresponds to Jer. 49:14 in the English Bible.
[10] This statistic is based on my own analysis of in ἄγγελος the LXX but follows the NETS translation.
[11] Turner, N. (1981). Christian Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, p. 25.
[12] In most cases in the LXX where angelos is used with a human referent, the context explicitly contains the idea of sending, and often the content of the envoy's message: see e.g. Gen. 32:4-7; Num. 20:14; Num. 24:12; Josh. 7:22; Judg. 6:35; 7:24; 9:31; 11:12-19; 1 Sam. 6:21; 11:3-9; 16:19; 19:11-21; 23:27; 25:14; 2 Sam. 2:5; 3:12-14; 3:26; 5:11; 11:4-25; 12:27; 1 Kings 20:5-9; 22:13; 2 Kings 1:2-16; 5:10; 6:32-33; 2 Kings 7:15-17; 9:18; 10:8; 14:8; 16:7; 17:4; 18:14; 19:9; 19:14; 1 Chr. 19:2; 19:16; 2 Chr. 18:12; 35:21; 36:15-16; Neh. 6:3; Job 1:14-18; Isa. 18:2; 33:7; 37:9; 37:14; Jer. 27:3; Ezek. 17:15; 23:16; 23:40; Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7.
[13] Price, R.M. (1980). Punished in Paradise: An Exegetical Theory on II Corinthians 12:1-10. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 7, pp. 33-40; Thomas, J.C. (1996). ‘An angel from Satan’: Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7-10). Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 9, pp. 39-52. Thrall, M.E. (2000). A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2). London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 808f; Williams, G. (2009). The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 105-109; Martin, D.B. op. cit., p. 674; Wallace, J.B. (2011). Snatched into Paradise (2 Cor 12:1-10): Paul's Heavenly Journey in the Context of Early Christian Experience. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 272-273; Becker, M. (2013). Paul and the Evil One. In E. Koskenniemi & I. Fröhlich (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (pp. 127-141). London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, p. 136.
[14] Moulton, J. H. (1902). ‘It is his angel’. Journal of Theological Studies, 12, pp. 514-527.
[15] Hemer, C.J. (1986). The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. London: A&C Black, p. 32.
[16] Osborne, G.R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 99.
[17] Mounce, R.H. (1998). The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 63.
[18] Johnson, A.F. (2006). Revelation. In T. Longman III & D.E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 13) (pp. 571-789). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
[19] Note that in Matt. 25:41, the fact that wicked humans are consigned to eternal fire prepared for the diabolos and his angeloi in no way implies that the wicked humans are the diabolos and his angeloi.
[20] Heaster, D. (2012). The Real Devil (3rd ed.). South Croydon: Carelinks Publishing, p. 409.
[21] Arndt, W., Danker, F.W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament
and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 8.
[22] Liddell, H.G. & Scott, R. (1940). ‘ἄγγελος’. A Greek-English Lexicon (Revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
[23] Note that in Isa. 37:24 LXX, angelos is used where the Hebrew Bible has עֶבֶד (‘ebed), the usual Hebrew word for 'servant'. However, this is because the angeloi referred to are in fact messengers. They have been referred to using the word mal’āk twice previously in the passage (Isa. 37:9; 37:14), and even in v. 24 the emphasis is on the words which they have brought against the Lord on Sennacherib's behalf.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

An assessment of the accommodation theory of demon possession and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels

I haven't blogged in a few weeks, partly because it seemed right to take some time off over the holidays, and partly because I've been busy with some larger projects. One of those projects is now available online:


This is a thorough study of the references to demons, unclean spirits, possession and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) with a view to evaluating the accommodation theory. Because it is a lengthy paper, I'm going to offer an overview here for those who may not be inclined to read 50 pages on the subject.
A surface reading of the Synoptic Gospels gives the impression that Jesus, the disciples and the narrator all share the belief of their contemporaries in the reality of demons. There are, broadly speaking, three theories offered to explain this impression. The first two theories, which I'll refer to as the 'reality theory' and the 'error theory', agree that all is as it seems: Jesus, the disciples and the narrators (the Synoptic writers) did actually believe in demons. Proponents of the reality theory claim that they were correct in this belief, while proponents of the error theory claim that they were mistaken. The choice between these two theories will depend on one's view of Scripture, and also to some extent on empirical evidence for demon possession and exorcism today. The third theory, the accommodation theory, claims that all is not as it seems: Jesus, the disciples and the Synoptic writers did not believe in demons. They used the language and terminology of demon possession and exorcism, either because there were no other words available to describe these phenomena, or because it wasn't a priority for them to correct these misconceptions, or they used it ironically with the intention of correcting their contemporaries' beliefs about demons. As you can see, the accommodation theory can take different forms, which I classify broadly into two categories: 'benign accommodation', in which Jesus and his followers were content to leave existing ideas about demons uncorrected, and 'subversive accommodation', in which Jesus and his followers intended through their apparent accommodation to subvert popular beliefs and construct an alternative, non-supernatural demonology.

Now that we understand the options on the table, it's time for a quick history lesson. Throughout most of Christian history, from the Patristic era down to the Reformation, the reality theory has been the unquestioned position of the church. After the Reformation, and especially as the Age of Reason and subsequently the Enlightenment got underway, people started to challenge the existence of demons, and they brought their skepticism to the biblical text - which was, however, still regarded by most as inerrant. It seemed impossible that Jesus and the New Testament writers could have shared a belief that was now regarded as obsolete and even irrational, and so the accommodation theory was born. This view came to prominence in England in 1737 with the anonymous publication of a tract entitled, An Enquiry Into the Meaning of Demoniacks in the New Testament (the author was later revealed to be A.A. Sykes). This set off a heated debate between traditionalist and rationalist students of Scripture that lasted for many decades.

As the 19th century developed, the rise of biblical criticism brought a new challenge, not only to the traditionalists but also to the accommodationists. D.F. Strauss, a pioneer of 'historical Jesus' studies, published a lengthy historical-critical study of the Gospels in 1835-36 entitled The Life of Jesus which included a devastating critique of the accommodation theory. Strauss himself did not believe in demons but was an early proponent of the error theory. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the debate continued, but the accommodation theory gradually waned in influence. This could be seen clearly in the controversy that arose in the Church of England in the 1970s over the existence of demons and propriety of exorcism, in which both sides presupposed that Jesus himself had believed in demons and been an exorcist. Today, the majority of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus, his earliest followers and the Synoptic Evangelists all shared a real belief in demons and exorcism (see the plethora of quotations provided in the article, pp. 12-16). The accommodation theory has been pushed to the periphery in academic circles.

It is only among those who disbelieve in demons but have a very high view of Scripture that the accommodation theory remains popular. The Christadelphians are an example of a group with such beliefs. Christadelphians have always subscribed to some kind of accommodation theory or other. However, over the past half century some Christadelphian writers have proposed a more radical form of the theory, which I've referred to above as subversive accommodation. They hold that the references to demons in the Synoptic Gospels are ironic, intending to teach something completely different to the literal meaning of the words. To my knowledge, this idea is unknown outside of the Christadelphian community.

So, do theories of accommodation satisfactorily explain the evidence of the Synoptic Gospels?

Virtually everyone, accommodationists included, are in agreement that belief in demons was prevalent among first century Palestine, though there is scholarly debate on just how prevalent it was, and in particular, how prevalent belief in demon possession was. Nevertheless, there is little doubt as to the literal meaning of phrases like 'cast out demons' or 'come out of him, you unclean spirit' in such a setting. So, is there any reason to think that when Jesus, his disciples and the Synoptic writers used such language, they merely did so neutrally without espousing these beliefs? Or that they did so ironically, intending an altogether different meaning?

Accommodationists have offered several arguments in favour of their theory. For the most part, these are arguments from silence, which are intrinsically weak. Firstly, it is argued that the Synoptic Gospels contain no systematic demonology. They show no interest for instance in the origin or precise nature of demons. This, it is said, shows that they were not drawing on existing Jewish beliefs about demons. Now, there is a strong consensus among scholars that the Synoptic Gospels do draw on existing Jewish beliefs about demons, but we will come to that. For now, suffice it to say that the Gospels are about the life, ministry and person of Jesus. They refer frequently to angels without providing a systematic angelology, because they are not about angels. Angels appear in the text incidentally, and so do demons. We need to let the Gospels be Gospels and not make them out to be demonological treatises.

The second accommodationist argument is that the Synoptic Gospels do not always distinguish the demon and its actions from the possessed individual, which suggests that the 'demon' can be regarded as an attribute of the sufferer and not a separate being. This argument ignores the fact that the Synoptic Gospels often do distinguish the demon from the possessed person. Moreover, the limitations of language in describing a phenomenon such as demon possession, in which one 'person' takes over the body of another, make it virtually necessary to vacillate between ascribing actions to the demon and to the demon-possessed person. One New Testament scholar states that this state of affairs had given rise to a figure of speech whereby "A person 'is' the spirit which dwells in the person concerned" (see p. 20 of paper).

The third accommodationist argument is another argument from silence. It is claimed that Jesus' exorcism ministry was restricted to the northern part of Palestine (mainly Galilee) and that the Synoptic Gospels never have him performing exorcisms in Judea. This is said to show that belief in demons was minimal in Judea. Consequently, he accommodated belief in demons in Galilee, but did not do so in Judea because there was no need. Several objections can be raised against this line of argument. Firstly, the Synoptic Gospels mention only two distinct healing miracles of Jesus in Judea, plus one summary statement about an unspecified number of healings in the temple (the evidence of John's Gospel will be addressed separately below). By contrast, they mention at least eighteen distinct healing and exorcism miracles of Jesus in the north, plus numerous summary statements describing 'many' additional healings and exorcisms. Thus it is apparent that the vast majority of Jesus' healing ministry in general took place in Galilee and surrounding areas. The sample size from Judea is far too small for an argument from silence to carry any weight. Moreover, there is no evidence that afflictions which were characteristically regarded as demonic in the Galilean context were characteristically regarded as natural in the Judean context. Furthermore, all three Synoptic Gospels have a summary statement about Jesus' healings and exorcisms in Galilee which reports that a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem were following him (Luke 6:17-19 and parallels). There is every reason to think the exorcisms mentioned here included Judeans and Jerusalemites. We also know for certain that the apostles engaged in a major exorcism ministry in Jerusalem for the benefit of Judeans (Acts 5:16). We also know that the de facto leader of the church at Jerusalem, James, alluded to exorcism in his epistle (James 2:19). Finally, we know that, apart from the Sadducees, the Jewish religious leaders from Jerusalem believed in demons (Mark 3:22; John 7:20; 8:48; 8:52; 10:20; cf. Acts 19:12-18). The notion that Judeans and Jerusalemites, as a rule, did not believe in demons and would not have required accommodation is demonstrably false.

The fourth and final major line of argument raised by accommodationists is yet another argument from silence. In this case it is argued that the omission of exorcism stories in the Gospel of John shows the real state of the case. In particular, it is claimed that the Synoptic Gospels were written for the uninformed and spiritually immature, who needed accommodation, while the Gospel of John were written for mature Christians who no longer believed in demons and thus needed no accommodation. In the first place, as discussed in the paper, this sharp distinction in audience and purpose between the Synoptic Gospels and John is reductionist and has virtually no scholarly support. There is good reason to think that Matthew, Mark and perhaps even Luke were written primarily for use by the church, including but not limited to evangelistic purposes. Moreover, there is good reason to think that John was written at least partly for evangelistic purposes (John 20:31). So the clear distinction in audience and purpose that is supposed to explain the absence of exorcism in John's Gospel does not actually exist.

Secondly, the Gospel of John contains a grand total of four healing miracles, and mentions only four distinct types of health problems, whereas the Synoptic Gospels contain over 20 healing miracles, plus summary statements, and mention more than a dozen different types of afflictions. Thus, while it is striking that John contains no exorcisms, we should be cautious about making an argument from silence on this basis. We cannot be certain of why John chose not to include any exorcism stories, because he doesn't tell us. It is possible that he did not believe in demons, but this is only a conjecture. Scholars have offered a number of other possible explanations (see paper, pp. 29-31) which are equally if not more plausible. Moreover, even those scholars who take John's silence to mean that he did not believe in demons do not regard this as overriding the evidence of the Synoptic Gospels; they instead argue that John had a different view than Jesus and the Synoptic writers.

In summary, there is very little substance to the arguments that are raised in support of accommodation. What about the arguments against accommodation? There are seven mentioned in the paper. The first is an argument from silence, but a weighty one. Subversive accommodationists claim that the references to demons in the Synoptic Gospels are ironic. Now irony is a literary technique in which one makes explicit one attitude or evaluation but implies a different attitude evaluation that is often the opposite of what is expressed. In short, one doesn't mean what one says. Verbal irony is subtle, particularly in written language, and the writer must provide the reader with clues enabling him or her to detect the irony. In my paper I cite a couple of examples of verbal irony in the New Testament and show how the writer has made the irony easily detectable. The question for accommodationists is, where are the clues informing the reader that the references to demon possession and exorcism are ironic? The answer is simple: there are none. Moreover, the vast majority of readers of the Synoptic Gospels down through history have failed to detect any irony in these statements. These are already compelling reasons to reject the subversive accommodation theory.

Secondly, the Synoptic writers carefully distinguish between demonic and non-demonic cases, which shows that they were not accommodating a simplistic view which held all illness to be demonic and treatable with exorcism. The Synoptic writers show sophistication in their use of demon possession and medical terminology and expect sophistication of their readers in appreciating this discernment.

Thirdly, scholars who have compared the references to demons and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels to the beliefs current in the Judaism of Jesus' day have found that the continuity is far more striking than the differences. Points of continuity include: (i) belief in an indefinitely large number of evil spirits; (ii) association of demons with definite localities, such as deserts, tombs and other desolate places; (iii) special reference to groups of seven evil spirits; (iv) the destiny of demons being imprisonment and final fiery destruction; (v) the belief that demon possession could give people superhuman strength.

Besides this, scholars who have closely studied Jesus' exorcism techniques find significant points of continuity with exorcism techniques known from other ancient literature. In particular, the words of Jesus to the demons parallel incantations known from other literature: 'Be quiet'; 'Come out of him'; 'What is your name?' and 'No longer enter into him'. The use of objects to which to transfer demons (as in the pigs episode) also has ancient parallels. Now it should be noted that there are also points of difference between Jesus and other exorcists of his day. He does not seem to have used any mechanical devices in his exorcisms, he did not use 'proofs' to indicate the success of his exorcisms, he did not pray during his exorcisms, he did not invoke a power authority in his exorcisms, and he seems not to have used the formula 'I bind you'. Jesus' uniqueness as an exorcist lies particularly in commanding the demons on his own authority instead of invoking a higher authority. This tells us something about the person of Christ. 

On the whole it is evident that neither Jesus (as an exorcist) or the Evangelists (as writers) were trying to distance themselves from contemporary conceptions of demons and exorcism. Jesus behaved like an exorcist, and the Evangelists wrote as though they shared the belief in demons common to their contemporaries.

A fourth argument against the accommodation theory lies in the great theological significance that Jesus attached to his exorcisms. For him they were not merely incidental or just one of his many types of healing miracles; they heralded the breaking in of God's rule into the world and the defeat of Satan.

Fifthly, there are at least three supernatural elements in the exorcism accounts which cannot be explained in rationalist terms. The first is the superhuman strength of the Gerasene demoniac which enabled him to tear chains apart and break shackles in pieces. The second is the demons' request to be transferred to the pigs, to which Jesus gave them permission. The third and most striking is the demons' supernatural knowledge about Jesus' identity. The demons consistently know and declare that Jesus is the Son of God, long before the people in the narrative make such a confession. All of this strongly suggests that the Synoptic writers regarded demon possession as a supernatural phenomenon.

Sixthly, there is a general saying about the operations of unclean spirits in Matthew 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26 that presupposes the existence of such beings. While these texts raise some interesting hermeneutical issues (e.g. is it a parable or a straightforward saying?), in Luke's case at least, the positioning of the saying immediately after an exorcism and the ensuing Beelzeboul controversy makes it obvious that he regarded the saying as concerning actual spirits. This is true even if there is a higher symbolic meaning.

Lastly, Jesus was not content merely to behave like an exorcist himself. He solemnly conferred on his disciples the authority to cast out demons and sent them out twice on missions in which exorcism played a central role. This enthusiasm is difficult to explain if he was merely humouring or containing existing beliefs. He celebrated when his disciples were successful at exorcism (Luke 10:17-20) and offered them coaching tips when they were unsuccessful (Mark 9:28-29). Moreover, Jesus endorsed the exorcisms of a person who was not his disciple, and therefore had not received any secret teaching that Jesus may have given his disciples about the true nature of demons (Mark 9:38-40). This is virtually impossible to explain if Jesus sought to subvert existing beliefs and practices regarding demons.

In conclusion, it is with good reason that the accommodation theory has fallen out of favour among biblical scholars. The evidence supporting it is virtually non-existent, while the evidence against it is voluminous. Jesus, his disciples, and the Synoptic writers believed in evil spirits, demon possession, and exorcism. And this means that the question which logically follows from this conclusion cannot be papered over: should we?

The reader is encouraged to access the full paper for a more thorough treatment of the subject, with references.