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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.

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