Demonic Possession & Oppression; Exorcism
Possession and exorcism in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
Pagan cultures surrounding the ancient Israelites appear to have been obsessed by these two topics. But Judaism was an exception in the Middle East.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain relatively few references to demon possession, and none at all to exorcism. The only references to
evil spirits indwelling humans are found in 3 stories about Abimelech (Judges 9), some prophets (1 Kings 22) and Saul
(1 Samuel 16, 18 & 19). In each case, it was God who specifically sent an evil or lying spirit to torment individuals.
The relative scarcity of demonic spirits in the Hebrew Scriptures might have
been caused by the Hebrew's strong monotheistic beliefs. Their belief in a
single God may have caused them to reject the existence of any other
There has been speculation that the Hebrew Scriptures originally contained descriptions of interactions between people and demons, but that that
material has been deleted from the text. For example:
||The account in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling with an unknown assailant by the side of a river might have once referred to Jacob battling a river demon.
||The account in Exodus 4 where God attempts to kill Moses might have originally described Moses' battle with a demon.
||The description of the smearing of lamb's blood on the door frame in Exodus 12 might have been derived from an ancient ritual which protected the
household from demonic attack.
But these, and similar, suggestions must remain pure conjecture. In no case do they imply either indwelling of a human by a demonic spirit, or discuss
an exorcism ritual.
Possession and exorcisms in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)
Numerous cases of demonic possession and exorcisms by Jesus and his disciples are
reported in the Gospels and Acts. The Epistles by Paul and other authors and the
book of Revelation are silent on these topics.
We can gather certain conclusions about the exorcism procedures used in
Palestine during the first century CE from the Scriptures:
||Cause of possession: In the Bible, victims of possession are never held
responsible for their situation. There are no references in the Christian Scriptures which
imply that their possession was caused by some sin in their life. None of the
victims were criticized for having allowed themselves to become possessed.|
||Animals can be possessed: Matthew 8:30, and parallel passages, describe that demons can possess pigs.|
||Multiple possession: Various passages refer to possession of a single individual by multiple demons. Luke 8:30 describes a man who
was possessed by many demons; he used the term "legion" which was a unit of 6,000 soldiers.|
||Gifts of demons: Demons can grant special powers to people. In Acts 16:16 a woman was given the power to foretell the future by her
indwelling evil spirit. But this appears to be an exception; other passages describe how demons harm people.|
||Illnesses and disorders generated by demons: Luke 9:39 apparently describes a case of epilepsy caused by a demon. Luke 11:14 documents a
person who was unable to speak because of an indwelling demon. Luke 13:10-13 describes a woman who had been unable to straighten her back for almost
2 decades because of a evil spirit. 1|
||Demonic speech: Numerous passages in the Bible describe indwelling demons speaking to the exorcist, presumably by taking control of the
individual's vocal chords.|
||Demons' strength: Mark 5:4 describes how an indwelling spirit causes its victim to have superhuman strength, so that fetters and
chains could not hold him.|
||Demons vary in wickedness: Matthew 12:45 describes how a spirit left a person, but returned with seven others who were more wicked
than the original spirit was.|
||Exorcisms were usually easy to perform: With one exception, Jesus or an
apostle simply ordered the evil spirit to depart, and the demon immediately complied.|
||Some exorcisms require special preparation: Jesus' disciples were
unable to rid a boy of an evil spirit that was apparently causing the child to be both
mute and epileptic. Jesus cured the child and explained that the only way to rid a person
of this type of demon was through prior prayer and fasting.|
||Using items of clothing: Acts 19:12 described how
items of clothing or facecloths that once been used by Paul had magical powers and were
used to cure people suffering from diseases or evil spirits.|
||Only Christians can perform exorcisms: Acts 19:13 describes how
non-Christians attempted to exorcise demons in the name of Jesus and Paul. They failed.
All were attacked and beaten by the demon-controlled man who ripped their clothes off.|
||Commanding in the name of Jesus: After Jesus' execution, exorcisms were
done in the name of Jesus:
||Acts 16:16 described a slave girl who was possessed. Paul exorcised a
"spirit of divination" from her. He commanded the spirit to leave
"in the name of Jesus."
||Acts 19:13 described how some itinerant Jewish exorcists attempted to
exorcise a demon saying "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I
command you to come out." They were unsuccessful, apparently because they were
not Christian believers.
||Danger in exorcism: In Acts 19:13, the demon-possessed
man exhibited superhuman strength. He turned on seven Jewish exorcists, beat them, and
expelled them from the house with their clothes ripped off. The evil spirit had apparently
recognized that the exorcists were not Christian; he refused to follow their commands.|
||The sick went to the exorcist: The sick were brought to the apostles;
the apostles did not seek out the sick. With one exception, all were cured, whether they
suffered from demon infestation or physical illness. Nobody in the Bible had a exorcism
||Return of demons: Matthew 12:43 describes a demon who left a man,
presumably because of an exorcism. He returned later with seven other evil spirits to
repossess the person. However, there is no mention of any of the exorcisms by Jesus or his
followers having produced only temporary cures.|
||Exorcism is dependent upon the victim's faith: In Mark 9:18, Jesus
explained to a man that all things are possible, including the exorcism of his son, to
those who believe.|
J.F. Cogan, "Handbook about Demon Possession for Human Service Workers,"
Copyright © 1998 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-OCT-21
Author: B.A. Robinson