Gospel frameworks for understanding exorcism

I have started my doctoral research, and had my first supervision last week. I am so conscious of my brain having atrophied for the last decade or so (since writing my book), but it has been a joy to start to engage with intellectually stretching material. It is like an infusion of oxygen into my soul; now I just have to work out how to breathe again. I thought I’d share a discovery with you, which has come from looking at Graham Twelftree’s work, and which is about how to understand exorcism in the gospels.

Before the extract from my paper let me spell out the conceptual issue which is going to be one of the main themes that I shall be pursuing over the coming years. Exorcism necessarily talks about the demonic, for exorcism is about the expulsion of the demonic from someone suffering (“ἐκβάλλω” is the word used in the gospels, meaning to cast out or expel). What is it that is being cast out? To give a framework for seeking an answer to that question, when the Christian tradition uses the language of the demonic is it a) describing the effect of an intelligent, malevolent entity, or b) describing a disorder that is taking place within the suffering person? My working assumption is that most often the answer is b) but that it is essential to retain the possibility of a), as that is what the tradition has stated down the ages: sometimes there really is a malevolent entity that needs to be dealt with. (Also, as an aside, the scientistic/materialistic insistence on the unreality of the intangible needs to be opposed! Oops, my prejudices are showing.)

What I have discovered is that within the gospels themselves, that is, from the earliest practice of Christian exorcism, both a) and b) have been understood to be part of Christian ministry. Which I didn’t know, and which I find quite exciting.


That Jesus himself was a practicing exorcist is not a controversial claim1. According to Twelftree, “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.”2 With regard to Jesus in particular, “From the sayings and narrative material in the Synoptic Gospels I have surveyed it would seem that we could only conclude that exorcism was a part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.”3 In his subsequent work, ‘In the Name of Jesus’4, Twelftree writes in more detail that exorcisms “loom large as one of the most obvious and important aspects of his ministry”, adding “We know of no other healer in antiquity for whom this was true.”5

However this still leaves much that needs to be explored if we are to understand the nature and variety of exorcism as practiced by Jesus and the early church:
1. Styles of Exorcism: “there was probably a range of kinds of exorcisms and exorcists that would have been known to the early Christians”6. A key distinction was between a magical exorcist, wherein the exorcism is conducted through the use of particular words and phrases, and a charismatic exorcist, wherein the exorcism is accomplished through the personal force and ‘power-authority’ of a particular individual. Twelftree concludes that, although there are some moments when it would seem that Jesus is using the set phrases of a magical exorcist7 he is best characterised as a charismatic exorcist: “Jesus used the emphatic “I”, for which I can find no parallel in any other incantation or exorcism story in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, in light of his statement that he was operating by the power-authority of the Spirit or finger of God, Jesus was particularly confident in his ability to use or even be identified with that power source… Jesus deliberately draws attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel the demon.”
2. Different gospel emphases: there is a marked difference between the presentation of Jesus’ struggle with the Enemy (the devil, satan, demons8) between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand, and the Johannine literature on the other. Mark’s gospel treats this aspect of Jesus’ ministry as central and paradigmatic, including by making it the first reported act of ministry in Jesus’ life9; in contrast, in the Gospel of John, there are no exorcisms at all. Part of the explanation for this lies in the different motivations for each Gospel writer. Following Bauckham10 I accept that the accounts given in the gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony, and that Mark in particular is rooted in the stories told by St Peter in prison in Rome in the mid-60s AD. “Mark views exorcism as a battle in which people illegitimately held by Satan are taken, so that Satan is seen to be overthrown.”11 John’s gospel is composed at a later date and is conditioned by a much more developed theological perspective. For our purposes the most important Johannine distinctive is that the defeat of the Enemy is focussed upon the moment of crucifixion (“now is the ruler of this world cast down” – Jn 12.31), and this is presented as the climax of a stupendous cosmic drama. “In a single act involving the heavenly realm, Satan is to be dealt with directly, without recourse to his malevolent minions on earth. In this way the Fourth Evangelist is able to affirm that the lies of Satan’s control of this world is far more pervasive than the possession of individual people, and that the defeat of Satan requires more than isolated activity by Jesus.”12 In sum, for both Mark and John the struggle with the Enemy is central, but in Mark this is accomplished through the healing through exorcism of individual people whereas in John it is accomplished through defeating the Enemy by the one climactic act of crucifixion and resurrection.
3. Exorcisms in the early church: it seems clear that Jesus commissioned his disciples and gave them authority to carry out exorcisms (Mark 3.15, 6.7) but that the different communities gave contrasting emphases to this ministry. In particular the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel and centred on Rome gave most importance to exorcism as a continuing practice.13 This was a form of charismatic exorcism in which the power-authority invoked to compel the demon was that of Jesus himself.
4. Conversion as defeating the Enemy: In the Johannine tradition, in contrast to the Markan, “Satan is not confronted in the form of sickness caused by demons but in the form of unbelief inspired by the father of lies. So exorcism is not the response to the demon possession; truth is its antidote.”14 Thus the crucial way in which the Christian community continued its struggle against the Enemy was by apologetics and through conversion of new believers, “the demonic is confronted not by exorcism but by truth.”15 In other words, “perhaps because of an increasing intellectual sophistication, … an understanding that the demonic could be doctrinal and dealt with and defeated other than through exorcism.”16

Bringing those four elements together it is fair to say that within the emphasis upon Jesus as an exorcist and one who defeats the Enemy there lie different patterns of behaviour rooted in different spiritual frameworks. These do not need to be understood as contradictions, and have not been within the mainstream Christian tradition17 What they have in common is that the struggle with the Enemy is seen as a characteristic of Christian ministry and that there is a duty placed upon the church to continue this struggle ‘in the name of Jesus’. In doing so the church is continuing the ministry of ‘Inaugurating the Kingdom’.


1See Twelftree, G. H. (1993) Jesus the Exorcist : a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Tübingen: Mohr (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 54); hereinafter JtE.

2JtE, p13.

3JtE, p137.

4Twelftree, G. H. (2014) In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; hereinafter NoJ.

5NoJ, p46

6NoJ, p35 and following.

7“Be silent!”, Mark 1.25 and parallels.

8The metaphysical status of all these and associated terms will be considered in detail in a later chapter.

9Mark 1.21-28

10Bauckham, R. (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

11NoJ, p114

12NoJ, p196.

13NoJ, p289 inter alia.

14NoJ, p282

15NoJ, p283.

16NoJ, p290.

17See subsequent chapters…