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Demonic Possession & Oppression; Exorcism


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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 supernatural entities.

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:

bullet 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.
bullet The account in Exodus 4 where God attempts to kill Moses might have originally described Moses' battle with a demon.
bullet 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.

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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:

bullet 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.
bullet Animals can be possessed: Matthew 8:30, and parallel passages, describe that demons can possess pigs.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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
bullet Demonic speech:  Numerous passages in the Bible describe indwelling demons speaking to the exorcist, presumably by taking control of the individual's vocal chords.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Only Christians can perform exorcisms: Acts 19:13 describes how seven 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.
bullet Commanding in the name of Jesus: After Jesus' execution, exorcisms were done in the name of Jesus:
bullet 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."
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 ministry.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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  1. J.F. Cogan, "Handbook about Demon Possession for Human Service Workers," at:

Copyright 1998 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-OCT-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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