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Monday, 11 May 2015

A note on Josephus' belief in demon-possession and exorcism

In an article[1] of a few months ago, I argued at length that the "accommodation theory" concerning demon-possession and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels (which had its heyday in the 18th century but remains popular among Christadelphians) is out of touch with current biblical scholarship.

One claim made by Christadelphian defenders of the accommodation theory is that belief in demons was uncommon in Judea and Jerusalem relative to Galilee. Snobelen cites a rather dated source[2] which he says implies that belief in demons was "virtually nonexistent among Judaean rabbis" in the first century AD.[3] He infers from this that belief in demons, and consequently cases of alleged demon possession, were prevalent in Galilee due to local folk beliefs but severely reduced or non-existent in Judea because these beliefs were not widespread there. This is said to explain why the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus performing exorcisms only in Galilee and not in Judea: there was no need to accommodate such beliefs in Judea.

I responded to these claims by making four observations:[4]
  1. The vast majority of Jesus' healing ministry was in Galilee
  2. Distinction is made between demonic and non-demonic affliction in the Galilean context
  3. Exorcisms did occur involving Judeans
  4. Judeans and Jewish religious leaders believed in demons
Here I would just like to add one point which further substantiates the fourth observation. We have clear evidence that one particular well-educated first-century Jew from Jerusalem believed in demon possession and exorcism. I am referring to the historian Josephus. His background and early life are described thus in the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible:

In 37 C.E. Josephus was born in Jerusalem of a rich and distinguished family. His father, Matthias, had the advantage of belonging to one of the aristocratic priestly families which ran the affairs of Jerusalem and Palestinian Jewry during the Roman occupation. Josephus was endowed with a keen intellect, an amazing memory, a compelling charm, and an ability to adapt to all circumstances of life. Instead of joining the aristocratic Sadducees he threw in his lot with the Pharisees, but only after he had tried the Sadducees and Essenes as well.[5]

Here we have a picture of an intelligent, well-educated Judean Jew who was undoubtedly familiar with the prevailing teachings of the Jerusalem elites concerning demons. If Snobelen and Burke are correct, Josephus is just the sort of person whom we would expect to have expressed disbelief in demon-possession and exorcism. Instead, we find just the opposite. Commenting on accounts of exorcism outside the NT and prior to the end of the first century AD, Stuckenbruck states:

Perhaps the most well known instance of an exorcism is the story of ‘a certain Eleazar’ recounted by Josephus (Ant. 8.46-49) as an illustration of the continuing potency of exorcistic cures attributed to Solomon. The extraction of the demon from the man through a foul-smelling root prescribed and incantations composed by Solomon leaves it beyond doubt that Josephus thought that the demon had been inside the man’s body.[6]

Hence, rather than repudiating a belief in demons, we find that Josephus assumes and perpetuates such a belief. This, together with other evidence discussed in my paper, strongly suggests that belief in demons in first-century Judea was neither rare nor limited to the uneducated classes.


[1] Farrar, T.J. (2015). ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person’: An Assessment of the Accommodation Theory of Demon Possession and Exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels. Published online at http://www.dianoigo.com/publications/When_an_unclean_spirit_goes_out_of_a_person_Jan2015.pdf
[2] Loewe, H. (1911). ‘Demons and spirits (Jewish).’ In J. Hastings, J.A. Selbie & L.H. Gray (Eds.),
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 4). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
[3] Snobelen, S. Quoted in Burke, J. (2007). Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard. Unpublished work, made available by permission of the author at http://www.dianoigo.com/writings_by_others/Satan_And_Demons.pdf, p. 169.
[4] See Farrar 2015: 20-25.
[5] Smith, T.C. (1990). Josephus. In W.E. Mills & R.A. Bullard (Eds.), Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (p. 470). Macon: Mercer University Press.
[6] Stuckenbruck, L.T. (2008). Jesus’ Apocalyptic Worldview and His Exorcistic Ministry. In G.S. Oegema & J.H. Charlesworth (Eds.), The Pseudepigrapha and Christian Origins: Essays from the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (pp. 68-86). London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, pp. 77-78. Emphasis added.

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