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by Howard Culbertson
1. Biblical demon possession
A. Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures
Within Scripture, actual possession by demonic forces is almost exclusively a New Testament phenomenon. Certainly, references to demons do occur in the Old Testament. Demons are mentioned in such passages as Leviticus 17:7, Deuteronomy 32:17, 2 Chronicles 11:15, Psalms 95:5 and 106:37, and Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14. None of these biblical passages speak, however, of that "use of a living body by another spirit" as one writer has defined possession.4 Though spiritism is forbidden in Scripture, what is referred to in Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 8 doesn't seem to have included possession.
J. S. Wright is one of the few Old Testament scholars to assert that the Old Testament does actually contain identifiable references to demon possession. He says:In the Bible the pagan prophets probably sought possession. The prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 would come in this category. Mediums, who were banned in Israel, must have deliberately cultivated possession, since the Law regards them as guilty people, not as sick (e.g. Leviticus 20:6, 27). In the Old Testament Saul is an outstanding example of unsought possession (1 Samuel 16:14; 19:9)5
In this particular case involving Saul, Wright stands almost alone in his categorical statement. Among scholarly Biblical commentators, only a few like early Methodist scholar Adam Clarke6 and David Erdman7 even allow for the possibility of actual demon possession having occurred here. Although the scripture says that "an evil spirit from the Lord tormented (Saul)", most writers dismiss Saul's problem as one of simple insanity. They would opt for a statement like that of Laird Harris, professor at Covenant Theological Seminary: "Demon possession is not mentioned in the Old Testament."8
B. New Testament
The picture changes considerably when one turns to the New Testament, of course. In the New Testament, demons (daimon in Greek)are referred to more than 100 times, with many of those references involving possession. This is particularly true of the gospel accounts where J. Ramsey Michaels, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, asserts: "Nothing is more certain about the ministry of Jesus than the fact that He performed exorcisms."9
Dealing with demon possession was an integral part of Jesus' daily life and ministry. It was also something in which He involved the Apostles and His other followers. As Bible scholar and Christian apologist Merrill Unger reminds his readers: "Not only did Jesus cast out demons, . . . but he delegated this power to the Twelve, to the Seventy, and even to believers."10
Unfortunately, only a few of the cases in Scripture are treated with sufficient detail to be of any help in this study. Even those descriptions are often briefer than one would wish. In several passages where demon possession is mentioned, it is only in passing, such as in Mark 1:32: "They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons." The lack of any further detail doesn't provide much help for a study of this type except to support a distinction being made in scripture between demon possession and illness. Nine cases in the New Testament are described with enough detail to make possible some comparisons between them and modern-day phenomenon such as Haitian loa possession.
1. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
The synoptic gospel authors include seven cases of demon possession in which some detail is given. These are:
- The demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:23-26; cf. Luke 4:33-37)
- The Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20; cf. Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39)
- The daughter of the syro-phenician woman (Mark 7:24-30; cf. Matthew 15:21-28)
- The demoniac boy (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matthew 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43)
- The dumb man (Matthew 9:32; cf. Luke 11:14-15)
- The blind and dumb man (Matthew 12:22-28)
- The crippled woman (Luke 13:11-16)
2. The Gospel of John
There is no case of demon possession recorded in John's Gospel, either with or without detail. Jesus himself is, however, accused by his enemies of being demon possessed in John 7:20-21.
Two cases of demon possession described in some detail are included in the book of Acts. These are:
- The slave girl at Philippi (Acts 16:16-18)
- The strong man at Ephesus (Acts 19:13-17).
4. Remainder of the New Testament
The rest of the New Testament writings do not contain descriptions of cases of demon possession. Reference is, however, made in several places to demons and demonic powers (1 Timothy 4:1; Ephesians 6:12; James 2:19; and Revelation 9:20 and 16:14).
William W. Orr suggests that there is a clear reason for the abundance of cases of demon possession in the first part of the New Testament after almost no mention in the Old Testament and then their sudden disappearance from the Scriptures. Orr, who uses a dispensalist lens to look at scripture, says it was part of the devil's strategy "to assemble the whole host of demons from all corners of the universe to thwart and defeat, if possible, the purpose of Christ's coming into the world."11
When the demons failed in that, Orr says they dispersed throughout the universe again, and this concentrated activity recorded in the New Testament subsided. . . . [ continue reading ]
4Kyle Kristos, Voodoo (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1976),p. 12
5New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. "Demon Possession" by J.S. Wright.
6Adam Clarke, A Commentary and Critical Notes, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, n.d.), p. 259.
7David Erdman, "The Books of Samuel," A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 5, Philip Schaff, tr. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1877), p. 222
8Laird Harris, "One View of Demon Possession," His, March, 1975,p. 9
9J. Ramsey Michaels, "Jesus and the Unclean Spirits," in Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological and Theological Symposium, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1976), p. 41.
10Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (Wheaton: Van Kampen Press, 1952), p. 78.
11 William W. Orr, Are Demons for Real? (Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, 1970), p. 16.
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What does demon possession look like in the Bible? That is, what are the common characteristics? . . . [ read more ]
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