Where the world comes to study the Bible

Demonism in Jewish/Hellenistic Literature and Its Relation to Mark 5

Related Media


For many Christians (myself included at one time), the Bible is sort of viewed as a book having come directly down to us from heaven and the hand of God, quite apart from any necessary historical context and processes. And, as such, we live with the idea that it really can be understood simply by reading it, without working through the relationship it sustains to the cultural, political and religio-historical context in which it was born and indeed shaped. Perhaps this is due in part to the notion, that appears to prevail in the existential day in which we find ourselves, that all I need is God; He and He alone will help me understand the Bible. While this appears to flatter God on one hand, on another hand, it is quite naive, since it was God Himself who actually breathed out His word (e.g. the N.T.) in the historical context of the first century. That is a fact. When one begins to compare with the Bible ancient Jewish materials of the same time period (including other materials as well, i.e. Hellenistic), it becomes clear, rather quickly actually, that the men who penned the Scripture under the direction of God, were certainly men whose thinking and ways of expressing things were directly influenced by the culture in which they lived. Therefore, it would most surely be a help to us, as students of the Bible, if we made an attempt to understand the culture, etc. of the authors of the Word of God in order to better understand what they wrote.

The purpose of this paper is simply to interact with some extra-biblical sources in order to demonstrate how they might interface with Scripture and aid us in our understanding of it. As such it stands as a test case to encourage all of us to better acquaint ourselves with this extra-biblical material. The passage under question is Mark 5:1-20 and Jesus' dealing with the demoniac of Garasenes. Several extra-biblical references will be cited and compared and contrasted with the Biblical record.

Similarities to Mark 5:1-20
Among Extra-Biblical Source Materials

(Parallel synoptic passages, according to Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, would be Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39. They will be referred to as necessary.)

There is a plethora of information on the subject of demons, exorcism, etc. in ancient Jewish, Gentile writings of the N.T. era. Much of it bears upon the passage in question, elucidating for us an interesting backdrop to the events described therein (cf. G. H. Twelftree, "Demon, Devil, Satan," in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 163-172. See also I. Howard Marshall "The Gospel of Luke," in The New Testament Greek Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), 471-480.).

Mark 5:2, 3

When Jesus arrived in the area of the Gerasenes, a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. As Mark says, o}" thVn katoivkhsin eicen ejn toi`" mnhvmasin. The question that one might pose, among many others, is, "Why is this man in the tombs and not under the care of someone? Mark answers this in part when he says that no one could bind him anymore (cf. also Matthew 8:28; Luke 8:27). It appears that society had simply abandoned the man. Extra-biblical parallels in Philo may provide insight into the situation and indicate that the man lived among the tombs, not only because no one could bind him, but also because people ridiculed him. (This may not be in opposition to Luke 8:29 where it is said that the demon drove the man into lonely places. Perhaps both are parts of a composite picture.)

    Flaccus 36-40

There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness, but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all his days and nights (cf. kaiV diaV pantoV" nuktoV" kaiV hJmevra" in Mark 5:5) naked (cf. Luke 8:27) in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there that he might be seen by everybody...flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem...and when...he had received all the insignia of royal authority...the young men...stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him...[and Flaccus] would have done right if he had apprehended the maniac and put him in prison, that he might not give to those who reviled him any opportunity...for insulting their superiors (Italics mine).

The point of the quote is to show that the society of that day ridiculed such people as Carabbas, a man who appears to have been demon-possessed. They dressed him up as a king and used him to voice their dissenting opinion of their king—Agrippa. He was not considered a member of society. He was an outcast as it were, much like the man of the Gerasenes in Mark 5, who according to this parallel from Philo may have been required by the people to remain separate from them in the tombs. Notice that Jesus our Lord and example, did not avoid the man, but instead dealt with the situation.

Philo's text also helps us further understand why the people responded as they did to the healing. Perhaps the reason, after they had been told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine (5:16, 17) they requested Jesus leave their region was because they thought more of their pigs than they did of the demon-possessed man now healed. After all, according to Mark and Philo, it appears that the man was of little value to them. The fact that Jesus would take time with such an outcast further demonstrates the emphasis of the gospel writers that he had come to save sinners.

Mark 5:7

In this verse the demons ask Jesus, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" There are similar statements (i.e. "What have you to do with me?") from outside the Scripture that may shed some light on the nature and reason for the statement.

    Josephus, Ant. 7.265

While he was thus entreating the king, and moving him to compassion, Abishai, Joabs' brother, said, And shall not this man die for this, that he hath cursed that King whom God hath appointed to reign over us? But David turned himself to him, and said, "Will you never leave off, ye sons of Zeruiah? Do not you, I pray, raise new troubles and seditions among us...(italics mine).

The account to which Josephus makes reference is in 2 Samuel 16. Josephus' wording (i.e. the italicized portion) is similar to that found in Mark, namely, tiV ejmoiV kaiV soiv (The Hebrew wording is <k#l*w= yL! hm^ in 2 Samuel 16:10.). This parallel from the Antiquities indicates that the expression is one in which the person saying it is trying to defend themselves. Here David is defending his position not to kill Shemei as Abishai requested. Another extra-biblical passage confirms the idea that the phrase is used when one tries to defend oneself:

    Philo, Deus Imm. 138

And every soul that is beginning to be widowed and devoid of evils, says to the prophet, "O man of God! Hast thou come to me to remind me of my iniquity and my sin?"

Philo is discussing the widow of Zerephath in 1 Kings 17:18 and quoting her words from the latter half of the verse. As Philo indicates, the woman is defensive, wondering if the prophet (i.e. Elijah) has come to accuse her of her sin. The woman asks Elijah first, "What have you to do with me?" (l*w* yL! hm^ is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek expression in 1 Kings 17:18. The Hebrew wording suggests that the phrase might have been transliterated from the Hebrew directly into a Koine Greek idiom.) Then she asks him if he has come to inquire about her sin. The importance of Philo's recording here is that it reveals that he understood the phrase (i.e. what have you to do with me) as a defensive maneuver.

Therefore, when the demons approach Jesus and ask him, "What have you to do with me?" it is probably an attempt to defend or guard themselves in some way against Jesus. Perhaps Jesus permitted this defense to hold, for verse 8 appears to indicate that the demons did not come out when He first told them (cf. Luke 8:29 and Marshall, 338). One might note also, that the widow of Zerephath, after asking the prophet, "What have you to do with me?" asks him if he is going to raise the issue of her sin and concomitant judgment. It is as if the demons too, after asking Jesus what he has to do with them, raise the issue of the consequences of their sin: "I adjure you by God, do not torment me."

Mark 5:8 (cf. Matt. 8:32; Luke 8:29)

The fact that Jesus simply 'commanded the demons to leave' may have been a typical way in which the Rabbis approached demon exorcism as well.

    b. Me il 17b

However, let the miracle [exorcism] be performed, no matter how. Thereupon he [Ben Temalion] advanced and entered into the Emperor's daughter. When [R. Simeon] arrived there, he called out: 'Ben Temalion leave her, Ben Temalion leave her,' and as he proclaimed this he left her.

In this incident, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (late with respect to N.T.) the Rabbi, R. Simeon apparently casts a demon out of the Emperor's daughter with just a command: "Ben Temalion leave her." If this does indeed go back to the time of the N.T. it may be one way in which the rabbis of Jesus day dealt with demon possession. In this case Jesus would not have been totally unlike other exorcists of his day.

    Philostratus Vit. Ap. 4:20

Now while he [Apollonius] was discussing the question of libations there chanced to be present in his audience a young dandy who bore so evil a reputation for licentiousness. . . Now when Apollonius gazed on him, the ghost in him began to utter cries of fear and rage, such as one hears from people who are being branded or racked; and the ghost swore that he would leave the young man alone and never take possession of any man again. But Apollonius addressed him with anger, as a master might a shifty, rascally, and shameless salve and so on, and he ordered him to quit the young man and show by a visible sign that he had done so.

There are direct parallels in this text to the healing described in Mark 5:1-20. First, the response of the demons (i.e. fear) to an exorcist is similar in both records. Second, the method of Apollonius was similar to Jesus. Both attempted to simply command the demon to leave (Mark 5:8). There is a difference though between Jesus some of the rabbis. Jesus was always successful at commanding the demons to do what he wanted. They could not resist Him. As a quote from the Talmud reveals, the rabbis were not always as successful:

    b. Pes. 112b

'If I am of account in Heaven,' replied he, 'I order you never to pass through settled regions.' But we see that she does pass through?

Rabbi Hanina b. Dosa had commanded the demon not to do a certain thing (pass through settled regions), but it appears that he was unsuccessful, for the demon continued to pass through. Jesus was never unsuccessful in his dealings with demons. Mark 5 is just one example of His unmitigated authority over them.

Mark 5:13 (Matt. 8:32; Luke 8:33)

There may also be a parallel in Philostratus Vit. Ap. 4:20 to Jesus' sending of the demons into the pigs.

    Philostratus, Vit. Ap. 4:20

But Apollonius addressed him with anger, as a master might a shifty, rascally, and shameless salve and so on, and he ordered him to quit the young man and show by a visible sign that he had done so. "I will throw down yonder statue said the devil, and pointed to one of the images which were in the portico, for there it was that the scene took place.

Mark's account of the demons entering the pigs and the account in Vit. Ap. of the devil "throwing down yonder statue" is similar in that both acted as proofs that the demonic forces had actually done what the exorcist demanded of them. The difference appears to be though, that in Mark's recording the demons went into the pigs, not as a demonstration of the efficacious nature of Jesus' authority, but because they wanted to. In Vit. Ap. the devil threw down the statue because Apollonius required that he do it as demonstration of his exit from the man.

Mark 5:10-12 (cf. Matt. 8:29; Luke 8:31)

Mark records the fact that the demons begged Jesus not to torture them or send them out of the country. (Matthew simply records that the demons wanted to go into the swine [i.e. they wanted to inhabit someone or something]. Luke says that the demons pleaded with Christ that He not send them into the Abyss, that is, their final judgment [see 1 Enoch 14, 15; Jub. 10:8-9 and T Levi 18:12]). The demons appear to be asking Christ to withhold ultimate judgment for the time being and permit them yet more time to continue their harassing. They also asked that He permit them to remain in the country in which they were. Demons begging for mercy and requesting permission to stay in certain geographical locations is found in literature outside the N.T. as well.

    Demons Pleading For Leniency
      Jub. 10:7-9

And the Lord our God spoke to us so that we might bind all of them. And the chief of the spirits, Mastema, came and he said, "O Lord, Creator, leave some of them before me, and let them obey my voice. And let them do everything which I tell them, because if some of them are not left for me, I will not be able to exercise the authority of my will among the children of men. . . And he said, "Let a tenth of them remain before him, but let nine parts go down into the place of judgment."

The author of the book of Jubilees (ca. 50-70 B.C.) is describing Noah's prayer against the demons and how Mastema, chief of the demons, pleaded that He be allowed to continue his activity through certain emissaries. In effect, he was asking God for mercy; that He withhold judgment. This reflects Jewish though about demons at the time of the N.T. and parallels exactly the statements of the demons encountered by Christ. They pleaded that He not terminate them then and there.

      1 Enoch 13:3-5

Then I [Enoch] went and spoke to all of them [fallen angels, cf. intro. to 1 Enoch in Charlesworth volumes] ; and they were all frightened, and fear and trembling seized them. And they begged me to write for them a memorial prayer in order that there might be for them a prayer of forgiveness. . . For as for themselves, from henceforth they will not be able to speak, nor will they raise their eyes unto heaven as a result of their sins which have been condemned (italics mine).

This text indicates that the fallen angels pleaded with Enoch to extend mercy to them. (These fallen angels, because of what Enoch says they did, are probably a reference to those in Genesis 6 [if indeed they are angels in Genesis 6. cf. 1 Enoch 6:1]) Instead they are condemned in their sin. Again this reflects Jewish thinking (perhaps Essene) around the time of the N.T. writings and is similar to Jesus' dealings with them in Mark 5. They beg Him to be lenient with them there as well.

    Demons Pleading To Remain in Certain Geographical Location
      Tobit 8:3

The odor of the fish so repelled the demon that he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt.

This text reflects the understanding within inter-testamental Judaism that demons inhabit certain regions (i.e. Egypt) and desire to be within them. This understanding is carried on and reflected in the Babylonian Talmud. This helps us understand the cries of the demons in Mark 5:11 that they be permitted to remain in that country.

      b. Pes. 112b

. . . because Igrath the daughter of Mahalath [i.e. the Queen of demons] she and 180,000 destroying angels go forth, and each has permission to wreak destruction independently. . . On one occasion she met R. Hanina b. Dosa [and] said to him, 'Had they not made an announcement concerning you in Heaven, "Take heed of Hanina and his learning," I would have put you in danger.' 'If I am of account in Heaven,' replied he, 'I order you never to pass through settled regions.' 'I beg you,' she pleaded 'leave me a little room.'

This text must be used with caution because it is late with respect to the N.T. writings, but it does however, appear to echo the words of Mark and Tobit with regard to demons desiring to stay in certain regions. Mark records the demons requesting Jesus to permit them stay in that country. Mahalath, in this case, desires access to certain " settled regions," perhaps a reference to well populated areas.

The significance of the preceding discussion was simply to show that certain features of the theology of Mark in 5:1-20 were commonly held in Jewish writings outside the New Testament. However, certain texts outside the N.T. shed light on the uniqueness of Jesus's approach to healing the demon possessed man in Mark 5.

Differences with Mark 5:1-20
Among Extra-Biblical Source Materials

It is clear from other Jewish materials that the approach of Jesus as described in Mark 5 is unique among his contemporaries to some degree.

      Tobit 8:2,3

Then Tobias remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the fish's liver and heart and put them on the embers of the incense. The odor of the fish so repelled the demon that he fled...

Tobit 8:3 describes Tobias burning incense in order to ward off the demon. This Jesus did not do. Another text communicates differences between Jesus and other exorcists as well:

      Genesis Apocryphon 20:27-29

'And now pray [Abraham] for me [Pharoah] and my household that this evil spirit may be driven far from us!' And I prayed for [him and for] his princes and I layed [sic] my hands on his head. And the plague departed from him (italics mine).

In this text, the writer says that Abraham laid his hands on Pharaoh in order to drive the demon away. Jesus does not touch, so far as we know, the demoniac in Mark 5. Neither is there any record of Jesus praying in order to perform the exorcism. Here is a difference in the way exorcists no doubt worked in Jesus' day and how he differed from them. He asked the demons their name and then "gave them leave" (RSV).

      Jos. Ant. 6.166

but as for Saul, some strange and demoniacal disorders came upon him. . . for which the physicians could find no other remedy but this, That if any person could charm those passions by singing, and playing upon the harp, they advised him to inquire for such a one, and to observe when these demons came upon him. . .that such a person might stand over him and , and play upon the harp.

In this text from the Antiquities, Josephus also makes reference to music being used to cast out demons in the case of Saul. There is no record of Jesus ever using music per se as a means to deal with demon possession.

      Jub. 10:12

And the healing of all their illnesses together with their seductions we told Noah so that he might heal by means of herbs of the earth.

This text seems to indicate that the inter-testamental Jews thought that herbs played a role in exorcisms and subsequently interpreted the Genesis account of Noah in similar fashion. It seems apparent from the gospel record, including Mark 5, that Jesus felt that herbs were not necessary for performing exorcisms. Again, Jesus seems to part company with certain current notions of how dealing with demons was to be done.


The Jewish source materials that were written in and around the era of the shaping of the N.T. contribute greatly to an understanding of the historical/theological milieu of the Scriptures, in particular in this study, references to demons and their relation to Mark 5. There are a great deal of similarities between Jesus' understanding of, and methods of dealing with, demon possession and the Jewish thinking on the subject at the time. There are also some important distinctions. The point of the preceding discussion has simply been to illustrate that while the Scriptures are divinely inspired of God, that process of inspiration was carried out through men in a concrete historical situation. The affinities of vocabulary, ideas and forms all demonstrate this to be true. Let us therefore work hard to understand the historical situation in which the Scriptures came to expression in order that we might better understand these writings and the God they reveal.

Related Topics: Demons

Report Inappropriate Ad