Casting Out the Devil

The belief in the existence of evil spirits or demons is as ancient as the earliest man.  Primitive man tended to think in terms of the continuing influence of their departed ancestors, which he believed affected his experiences of good or bad fortune.  These same spirits were also thought to be even capable of entering into a person’s body, causing diseases and pain.  That some ancestors were malevolent was the basis for belief in demons, and earliest concepts of a demon was an entity with human attributes.  And, not surprisingly, there was then also thought to be certain individuals who possessed the power to exorcise those hostile spirits and demons.

Pagan cultures also struggled with such concepts of negative entities, but the belief that every animal, plant, river, body of water, rock, mountain or human was a development of a soul put a more favorable balance on perceived spiritual influence.  As lesser gods became demoted to the rank of daemons (meaning neither good nor bad, but which usually became bad), the more educated persons encouraged a ban on sorcery, magic and “black arts.”   In the third century BCE, however, there was a widespread revival of popular demonology—even among the Hebrews.

To the Old Testament’s credit, despite its numerous flaws and contradictions, the insinuation that evil spirits or demons exist remained relatively infrequent, and those that do skate near that idea are found for the most part in the later accounts of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels.  Indeed, the nearest thing to an exorcism to be found in Hebrew Scriptures is in 1 Samuel 16:14 where David uses music to calm the paranoid King Saul.

But time, of course, changes all things, and during the approach to the first century of our Common Era, Judaism had become more exposed to various people that had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, and a belief in malevolent influences taking possession of persons or situations again began to displace rationality.  A reference in Mark (12:27) indicates that there were those among the Pharisees who held status as professional exorcists.  Rabbinical literature in this timeframe did indeed have references to individual demons by name and gave specific illnesses they could inflict.

Christian theology, developing primarily in Rome, expanded upon earlier Hebraic ideas, and being influenced also by empire-building mentality expanded upon those ideas into an elaborate hierarchy not only of angels and archangels, but with fallen angels, demons, and devils led by an emperor-like Satan.

The New Testament authors drew upon a wide field of cultures which had been bound into the Roman Empire, and the widespread idea of possession consequently colored early accounts of alleged incidents surrounding Jesus’ ministry.  These show up prominently in Mark 1:21-28; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 9:14-29; Matthew 8:28-34; Matthew 9:32-33; Matthew 15:21-28; Matthew 17:14-21; Luke 4:31-37; Luke 8:26-39; and Luke 9:37-43.  These particular books, it should be remembered, were the earliest of the “Gospels,” with Mark penned c. 55-60, and Matthew written c. 70-75 (Mark was revised c. 70-80), and Luke was compiled c. 84-90.  The only other mention of exorcism in Gospel is found in the Acts of the Apostles (also written c. 84-90), with 16:16-18 and 19:11-19 being in regard to explicit incidents, and two nonspecific incidents are referred to in 5:16 and 8:7.

There has been a lot of squirming among evangelicals over these alleged exorcism incidents, and on the whole they prefer instead to direct attention of the faithful to the spiritual gifts of Jesus, and broadly infer that Jesus bestowed the gift of healing (and by extension of exorcism) upon his twelve apostles.  Curiously, this spiritual gift was a one-time-only offer if we consult Mark 3:16, Matthew 10:1 and 8, and Luke 9:1.  The indication in these books is that the authority to heal and/or exorcise was limited to the apostles’ life time.  The underlying problem with this is that exorcism as a feature presented to his apostles is an activity that later became mixed up with promises of the world’s end time and indications of Jesus’ immediate reappearance, and/or the lowering of god’s kingdom to Earth.  Satan and his evil brood are then to be decisively defeated.  Never explained is: If the apostles’ lifetime ended some 2000 years ago, how has that power of exorcism been relayed to a clique of priests?

In the Roman Catholic Church the name exorcist is given to the members of a third of the minor orders.  This ranking was allegedly established by Pope Fabian (also called a “saint”) in the third century (d. 250).  In the Roman Catholic Church, exorcism is practiced according to their version of Scriptural teaching.  Exorcism also plays a role in the blessing of holy water and oil, and in the rite of baptism for, in accordance with the doctrine of “original sin,” all unbaptized persons are claimed by Satan.  Pope Innocent I (d. 417, also regarded a “saint”) forbade priests to exercise this exorcising power without express permission of their bishop—a rule still in effect.

Does later history offer any advancement of rationality?  In 1614 Pope Paul V established the rites of exorcism of demons in the Rituale Romanum, which was, more or less, recast from Babylonian rites.  It was not much of a  stretch for the pope, who was then distressed at the sexual activities going on in Rome, to latch onto the theatrical means of exorcism to combat the “sins of the flesh and the devil.”  It helped that the belief in possession had again become widespread, and the church could point to the book of Luke which related an alleged incident where a “possessed” man had come to Jesus on the shores of Galilee.  The story goes that when Jesus inquired of the man’s name, the man replied “Legion,” for many demons had entered into him.  Jesus, of course, saved the man by commanding the demons to enter nearby herd of swine, which then galloped away to drown themselves in the sea.

Leap ahead another 383 years from 1614: Things had not changed all that much in Catholic fascination with “possession.”  It was 1997, and Mother Teresa was hovering near death, and the archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D’Souza, ordered a priest to perform exorcism upon the woman because the Archbishop suspected that she was being attacked by the devil.  Her reputation of often letting her patients suffer needlessly in the name of god probably had nothing to do with it.

That little exorcism incident drew some scathing comments from around the globe.  Perhaps it was coincidence that Pope John Paul II approved the new rites for exorcism in October 1998.  The exorcism rites were formally released in January 1999.  The 84-page procedure was published entirely in Latin; and as far as the holy church was concerned it had done its duty, and it was up to each foreign language Catholic faction to translate it.  The 1999 pope-approved version was really only an update of the 1952 and the 1964 versions, however.  Sadly, at the threshold of the twenty-first century the belief in demons was once again given church recognition.

If we take the priestly assertion that “all that is good comes from god, and all that is evil or negative is from the devil,” we have bought into a marketing ploy, not spiritual truth.  Scriptural “evil” and the negative circumstances that matter-life encounters are not instigated by demons or evil spirits; it is commonly human desire and greed that is the cause of the bulk of man’s encounter with “evil.”

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4 Responses to “Casting Out the Devil”

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  2. ITT Tech Virtual Library…

    Casting Out the Devil « Time Frames and Taboo Data Blog…

  3. Thank you for a great post.

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