Saturday, February 18, 2017
Jesus the Underrated Exorcist
I've used Early Christian Writings dot com with great affection for many years. It's a very useful teaching resource for new students of biblical studies. This particular page on theories of the historical Jesus is (not surprisingly) also very helpful. It gives a nice survey of the historical Jesus landscape, albeit somewhat dated. I did notice a blindspot. This list details theories of Jesus as myth, as prophet, as sage, etc. But no such list is complete without a "Jesus as exorcist" entry.
On this note, it is time to take notice of the underrated work of Graham Twelftree. Twelftree's book, Jesus, the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus shed new light on a key but under-appreciated element of Jesus' career. It occurs to me that this element is still under-appreciated 30 years later. Although, see e.g. this book and this book for material advances. I've tinkered with this element in a few publications too.
So my next stop was the almost always disappointing Wikipedia page:
Sure enough, the name Twelftree isn't once mentioned. Neither is the word "exorcist" mentioned. I should note, however, that the term "exorcism" is mentioned in passing a few times. But without much explanation. The ever quotable Amy-Jill Levine is quoted, "Most scholars agree that Jesus was baptised by John, debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God’s will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE)." I should also note that among those who have built upon this fact, some have elevated it to a cosmic scale (e.g. Wright) and others have elevated it to a political scale (e.g. Horsley). In both cases, demonic possession becomes a metaphor for something more global and more culturally important. This allows Jesus' career as an exorcist to serve as a wide-lens social commentary.
So if Jesus' career as an exorcist is one of the generally accepted facts of history, why is this element underplayed in our popular depictions of him? More to the point, why are there so many books, essays, and documentaries about Jesus with almost no treatment of this key element? I have a few half-baked thoughts on this.
(1) Paul doesn't care about exorcism. Or so suggests the thirteen letters attributed to him. Paul certainly believes in evil powers on a cosmic level but he never mentions exorcisms or Christian exorcists. Indeed, early Christianity doesn't preserve much material on Christian exorcists. Could it be that the Christianized West took most of its theological cues from Paul?
(2) The Gospel of John doesn't care about exorcism. No demons are cast out of human bodies in the Fourth Gospel. Judas is said to be possessed by the Satan. "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, "What you are about to do, do quickly" (John 13:27). Rather than casting out Satan, Jesus gives the possessed Judas his permission—perhaps even a command?—to do the dastardly, demonic deed. So, as far as John is concerned, Jesus is not an exorcist. Could it be that Christianity's Jesus Christ is mostly Johannine?
(3) The Hebrew Bible doesn't care about exorcism. While we might see a rare exception with David's ability to sooth the "evil spirit of the Lord", there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that parallels Jesus' war with demons. None of those iconic and highly influential stories from Adam to Jonah prepare us for a career exorcist. Had it not been for Mark's unique interest in exorcism (impacting Matthew and Luke), we would think that exorcism was unbiblical.
(4) When we look down the well of history to find our own reflection, we rarely see career exorcists. Historians (like artists, ideologues, and religious folks) are notorious guilty of finding our own reflections in the face of Jesus. In the modern, white, western world, we simply cannot relate to this worldview. [Odd but true sidebar: I personally witnessed two exorcisms in Zimbabwe during my five-month visit in 1993.] Our only mainstream category for possession relates to the genre of horror. That is, unless you count Scott Bakula's weekly possession of different human bodies in the 1980s. Oh boy.
In sum, the fact that Jesus was a career exorcist doesn't much work for us. It alienates him from us. Whatever selectivity Christians have employed to invent a modern "biblical" worldview has largely neglected this portrait. Moreover historical and political appropriations of Jesus have focused elsewhere most often (noteworthy exceptions listed above). Even so, I remain convinced that Jesus' career as an exorcist is one of the top five things we must know about him to understand him as a man of his own time, place, and worldview.