(All Scripture references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version)
I - Introductory Matters
A. Biblical Context
“The second Gospel, like the other three, is anonymous. It does not even allude to authorship (Cf. Lk 1.1-4; Jo 21.24)” (Guelich, Intro, xxv).
b. Early Church Tradition
“There is a strong and clear early tradition that Mark was its author and that he was closely associated with the apostle Peter, from whom he obtained his information about Jesus” (Wessel, 605). “But who was Mark? The answer has generally been based on information from a lost five-volume work of Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis cited by Eusebius” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15):
“Traditionally, ‘Mark’ has been identified with the Mark of 1 Pet 5.13; Acts 12.12-25; 13.13; 15.37-39 and the Pauline corpus. He was ‘John Mark’”. (Guelich, Intro, xxviii).
2. OT Comparisons: Prophet Isaiah
a. “Isa. 65.1-15 contains what could be read by the church as an allusion to Jesus’ entering the Decapolis” (65.1).
b. “Those ‘who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh’” (v. 4)
c. “who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me’” (v. 5).
d. “The LXX adds to v. 3b, ‘burning incense upon bricks to demons (tois daimoniois - tois daimonios) which have no existence” and to v. 11, “who set a table for the demon (to daimonion - to daimonion; Heb., “Fortune”)” (Wink’s endnotes, 183).
3. Exorcisms in the Gospels
a. Synoptic Gospels
(1) Man with Unclean Spirit in Synagogue at Capernaum
(Mark 1:23-28, Luke 4:33-37) (Just, catholic-resources.org)
(2) Beelzebul Controversy
(Mark 3:22-30, Matt 12:22:30, Luke 11:14-15) (Ibid.)
(3) Gerasene Demoniac
(Mark 5:1-20, Matt 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39) (Ibid.)
(4) Syro-Phoenician Woman's Daughter
(Mark 7:24-30, Matt 15:21-28) (Ibid.)
(5) Boy with an Epileptic Spirit
(Mark 9:14-29, Matt 17:14-21, Luke 9:37-43a) (Ibid.)
(6) Another Exorcist
(Mark 9:38-41, Matt 10:42, Luke 9:49-50) (Ibid.)
b. Gospel of John
“There are no exorcism stories in the Gospel of John” (Ibid.).
4. Synoptic Comparisons
a. Matthew 8.28-34 – Matthew’s narrative of this passage calls the place where the event took place the country of the Gadarenes, instead of, Gerasenes as Mark and Luke do. Matthew’s narrative reports two demon possessed people. Mark and Luke only repot one. Also, Matthew’s account is shorter including only 6 verses, whereas, Mark’s account has 20 verses and Luke 13.
b. Luke 8.26-39 – Luke follows Mark’s narrative, omitting some information, for instance Mark’s verses 3-5.
B. Social-Cultural Context
1. The Decapolis: Home of Gentiles
“The social location of this passage is crucial. For this is Jesus’ first entry into the Decapolis, ten proud Greek cities founded or enlarged by Alexander the Great and his successors and settled with Macedonian veterans.” (Wink, 44)
“Boasted of a temple to Zeus Olympus (to whom pigs were sacrificed) and, from 22-23 C.E. on, a temple dedicated to the cult of Caesar. Pompey brought them under Roman control. Augustus awarded Gadara, Hippos, and Scythopolis to Herod; when the Gadarenes failed in their petition against Herod’s cruelty they suffered even more cruelty.” (Ibid.)
C. Literary Criticism: Features that raise questions on how many different authors
(Several features raise the question whether, despite the smooth flow of the narrative as a whole, more than one hand has shared in fashioning the story as we have it.)
1. Doublets and repetitions
“Verses 2 and 6 (Jesus meeting the demoniac), vv. 3 and 5 (the demoniac’s home in the tombs, vv. 10 and 12 (the request of the demon), vv. 14 and 16 (the swineherds’ account of the incident)” (Rudolf, 351)
“Verse 6 (the demoniac had seen Jesus from a distance), v. 8 (Jesus had ordered the demon to leave the man), v. 15c (the remainder that the demoniac had had the legion), v. 16b (the swine are mentioned as an afterthought)” (Ibid.).
“Between v. 2 and 6 (Jesus met the demoniac immediately on leaving the boat/the demoniac saw Jesus from a distance and ran towards him)” (Ibid.).
4. Use of a different vocabulary
“Verse 2 mnhmeiwn(mnemeion), v. 3 and v. 5 mnhma (mnema), vv. 15 e 16 daimonizomenoV (daimonizomenos) and v. 18 daimonisqeiV (daimonistheis)” (Ibid.).
D. Different approaches
1. René Girard’s interpretation of the passage
René Girard is a famous French Philosopher, Historian and Philologist (those who study ancient texts and languages) who has approached the passage of the Gerasene demoniac in a totally unique manner. “According to René, the townspeople have a more deep relationship with the Demoniac. He argues that it is really possible to fashion chains too powerful for anyone to break. ‘The Gerasenes and their demons have for some time settled into some sort of cyclical pathology,” Girard writes” (Wink, 45). “In short, the possessed man had become a perpetual scapegoat for the community. It is curious that the swineherds asked Jesus to leave in response to a healing that supposedly, they wanted. Girard argues that the swineherds were actually angry over being deprived of their scapegoat” (Andrew, ATR, fall 1998). The townspeople need him to act out their own violence. “The possessed imitates the Gerasenes who stone their victims, but the Gerasenes also imitate their possessed. It is a relationship of doubles and mirrors that exist between persecuted and this persecuting persecuted individual. The relationship is one of mimetic antagonism” (Wink, 46).
2. Father Cyrille Argenti’s symbolic approach
Father Cyrille Argenti is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in Marseille. His views on Mark 5.1-20 have interesting meditation insights.
He says: “So you notice that before exorcising the evil spirits from the demoniac, he [Jesus] first calms the waves. And this reminds what takes place in the Orthodox ceremony of Baptism. Before christening the child or the adult, in other words, before freeing him from bondage to the enemy, we bless the water – a sign that Christ restores not only the fallen man but the whole fallen creation . . . First he [the demoniac] is in chain and fetters. When man falls under the power of the devil, he becomes a slave” (Argenti, 401). “He [St. John Chrysostom] mentions first who have become slaves of erotic passion. Passion makes a man loses his freedom. But, he stresses more another form of slavery. He speaks of avarice” (ibid, 402).
II - Exegesis Proper
A. Jesus and the Demoniac (v. 1-13)
1. Description of the Demoniac (v. 1-5)
a. Verse 1 – They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes
“By its repetition of the preposition eiV, the Greek text draws attention to the two fold description of the location. It is firstly “the other side of the sea” (a purely geographical location), but it is also “the country of the Gerasenes” (an ethico-religious indication). Far from being accidental, this wealth of detail is extremely significant” (Starobinski, 382). Or perhaps “The very name ‘Gerasa’, which may be a fanciful allusion to the Hebrew grs, ‘to drive out, cast out, expel’” (Wink, 43).
(1) Place’s name controversy or dilemma
Gerashnwn - in Mark and Luke you read – Gerasenes - (30 miles from the shore)
Gadaphnwn - in Matthew the name of the place is – Gadara - (6 miles from the shore)
(2) A better option
“Gergeshnwn - the similarity of name indicates that it has been confused with the nearer Gergesa” (Gould, 87). “A ruin much nearer the shore and called Khersa has been discovered and may have been in the district subject to Gadara” (Turlington, 307). “Not far from this site there is a cliff within forty meters of the shore and some old tombs” (Wessel, 657).
b. Verse 2 – And when he had stepped out of the boat
(1) Chronological Tension
“Many interpreters have noted the chronological tension between this story, which transpires during the day, and the previous one, which occurs during the night” (Guelich, 277).
(2) No Tension
“This position is not held by Wessel: Since it was already evening (Cf. 4.35) when they started across the lake, by the time they reached the other side it was probably dark” (Wessel, 657).
c. Verse 2 continued – Immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him
“First of two encounters (Cf. 5.6)” (Guelich, 277). “Verse 6 clarifies the situation. The man actually saw Jesus from a distance and came running to him” (Wessel, 657)
d. Verses 3-5 – He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.
(1) Markan Exclusivity
These verses are exclusive to Mark’s account of the passage.
(2) Why Cemeteries?
“Cemeteries were believed to be the abode of demons” (Anderson, 148)
(3) Characteristics of Madness
“Talmudic prescriptions provide four tests of madness: spending the night in a grave, tearing one’s clothes, walking around at night, and destroying anything given. All such signs are present in this case” (Mann, 278).
(4) Midrashic Development
“The break coupled with reference to the man’s dwelling and the presence of five hapax legomena may support the thesis that the verses represent a midrashic development of the tradition based on Isa 65.4-6 and Ps 67.7” (Guelich 277).
2. Demoniac’s Encounter with Jesus (v. 6-10)
a. Verse 6 – When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him;
(1) From a distance - apo makroqen (apo makrothen)
“This verse resumes and develops the action in 5.2 (Anderson, 148). It is possible that in this verse we find some slight evidence for the two narratives telescoped in Matthew. In this verse the story is resumed, but here the demoniac sees Jesus from a distance, while in v. 2 Jesus meets him as soon as he leaves the boat” (Mann, 278).
(2) The Demoniac’s Plea
“He must have supposed in his demented condition that by prostrating himself before Jesus, by asking him not to meddle with him, by identifying him as Jesus, Son of the Most High God, and by his plea in God’s name not to torment him, maybe Jesus would leave him alone” (Turlington, 308)
b. Verse 7 – And he shouted at the top of his voice, “what have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.
(1) The Most High God
“The specific name “the Most High God” has particular relevance for this “gentile” setting, since it almost always occurs in the LXX on the lips or in the context of Gentiles” (Guelich, 279).
(2) Demoniac’s Intention
“Although his rushing up to prostate himself before Jesus suggests a gesture of worship appropriate to Jesus’ identity, the demoniac’s words reflect a desire to drive Jesus away that is characteristic of the exorcism genre” (Perkins, 583; Wessel, 657). “To keep the Son of God off their back – to protect themselves” (Garland, 204).
c. Verse 8 – For he had said to him, “come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" (1) Command not obeyed?
“Without doubt, the comment stands in awkward tension with what has gone before by implying a previous ineffectual command for the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Thus, Haenchen (192-3) attributes this to a redactor’s misunderstanding of 5.2-7” (Guelich, 280).
(2) Harmonizing the tension
“Jesus had been saying (the verb is imperfect) to the unclean spirit, Come out of the man. However, the deep distress of the man was not readily banished. So Jesus began asking him (again the verb is imperfect and implies some repetition), what is your name?” (Turlington, 308). “Was already saying - elegen (elegen) - This imperfect tense may be used as a pluperfect, ‘he had been saying’, or even in a Semitic sense of ‘command’, but we have attempted to suggest that Jesus was repeating the injunction – a simple command was insufficient, given the gravity of the case. In this view, the question in v. 9 is far more explicable” (Mann, 279)
d. Verse 9 – Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” he replied, “my name is legion; for we are many.”
(1) What’s in a name?
“Typically, this request for the name represents a ploy used by the exorcist in gaining control over the spirit”. (Guelich, 280)
“There was the Hebrew word Ligyon from the Latin legion. It is possible that a Semitic word denoting host or legion has been translated by Mark into the nearest Latin word” (Ibid)
“For we are many” - oti polloi esmen (oti polloi esmen) - makes clear that the ‘name’ primarily connoted a vast number rather than an identity by which the exorcist might gain control over the unclean spirit. (Ibid)
“Whatever was the name, it signified a host of evil spirits which made their human host both homicidal and suicidal” (Bowman, 143-44). “Jesus does not confront just one unclean spirit but a whole body of Satan’s troops” (Williamson, 105).
e. Verse 10 – And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.
‘“Out of the country” - exw thV cwraV. (ego tes koras) - what preferences they (the demons) should have for one country over another is one of the mysteries connected with these stories of demoniacal possession. It can be explained only as part of the hallucination of the demoniac” (Gould, 91, Guelich, 281)
3. Jesus Deliverance of the Demoniac (v. 11-13)
a. Verse 11 – 13 – Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “send us into the swine, let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
(1) Pig Characteristics
“When the unclean spirit entered the pigs they became utterly “unpiglike”. Nothing is more certain than that pigs do not move as herds. They are very liable to panic, and then they scatter. The miracle in the story lay in the pig’s forming themselves up to two thousand strong, and rushing over the cliff.” (Duncan, 5)
(2) Evil Spirit Characteristics
“It was popular belief in the first century that evil spirits were not content to wander aimlessly about. They abhor a vacuum and want to inhabit something. A human is best, wanting that, a bunch of pigs will do” (Garland, 204).
(3) Morality issues – Jesus vs. Animal Protective Association
(a) Does Jesus care about animals?
“Why did Jesus, having exorcised the demons, allow them to enter the pigs, an act that ultimately resulted in the destruction of the entire herd? A tentative answer is that Jesus wanted to give tangible evidence to the man and to the people that the demons had actually left him and that their purpose had been to destroy him even as they destroyed the pigs” (Wessel, 658).
(b) A Jewish account
“Some have explained it as a “Jewish” story originally, as though this unintended slur made it more palatable for “Christian” readers. If, as has been suggested, this part of the story stems from a later expansion of an earlier exorcism story set in Gerasa, we only ignore the question by arguing that Jesus did not actually destroy someone’s herd of swine” (Guelich, 282-83).
B. Jesus and the Townspeople (v. 14-17)
1. Verse 14-15 – the swineherds ran off, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.
a. Contrast in the narratives
“There is a contrast in the narratives of Matthew and Mark at this point. In Mark the dwellers in the countryside - agrouV (agrous) - come out to see the demoniac, whereas in Matthew Jesus is the center of attention” (Mann, 280)
b. Community reaction
“When the community arrives, they are not frightened by what has happened to the pigs but by seeing this man now clothed and in his right mind! They do not rejoice at his recovery but are afraid” (Garland, 205). Or perhaps “Their fear was no doubt caused by the presence of one with power to perform such a miracle” (Wessel, 658).
c. Were they also possessed?
“The crowd’s desire to be rid of Jesus, their discomfort in his presence, demonstrates that they too, are in fact demon possessed, subjected to a power or powers hostile to the Kingdom of God” (Williamson, 106)
2. verses 16-17 – Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
“This is the only case in our Lord’s ministry in which his miracles operated against him in this way, and it is to be accounted for by the strange element in this case, the mixture of gain and loss in the result” (Gould, 93). For them, Jesus was a dangerous person to have around the district.
C. Jesus and the Demoniac, conclusion (v. 18-20)
3. Verse 18-20 – As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
a. Work done
“Although the exorcism story proper ends with the evidence that the man has been healed, this episode has been expanded to provide Jesus with his first Gentile missionary. Mark concludes the episode by presenting the man as a missionary in the cities of the Decapolis.” (Perkins, 584-85) “Haenchen (195) notes that Jesus leaves because his work is completed, not because he has been defeated by either the demons or by the people’s rejection of his ministry” (Guelich, 284).
b. Contrast of commands
“The command that Jesus gave is in marked in contrast to Jesus’ instructions to the cleansed leper in 1.44 – ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone.’ This is probably because in the case of the demoniac Jesus was in Gentile territory where there would be little danger that popular messianic ideas about him might be circulated.” (Wessel, 659)
c. Decapolis (See also Social-Cultural Context in the beginning of this exegesis)
“The Decapolis was a league of ten originally free greek cities located (except Scythopolis) on the east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. They had been organized on the Greek model during the Seleucid period, brought under Hasmonean control by John Hyrcanuns, and liberated by the Roman general Pompey” (Wessel, 659). “Josephus mentions it four times, but Pliny gives us our earliest list of the ten cities (Damascus, Philadelphia, Rapana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippo or Hippos, Dion, Pella, Galasa or Gerasa, Cantha)” (Guelich, 286).
d. Yahweh or Jesus?
(1) Lord as God
“kurioV (kurious) - Lord – The message Jesus gives him (demoniac) does not concern our Lord (Jesus) himself, but God, to whom kurios evidently refers” (Gould, 94).
(2) Lord as Jesus
“Undoubtedly ‘Lord’ in v. 19, kurios, means Yahweh. However, it was applied by early Christians to Jesus and this is what the ex-demoniac takes it to mean (v. 20)” (Bowman, 144).
(3) Lord as God and Jesus
“The change from Lord (verse 19) to Jesus (verse 20) serves to illumine the Marcan idea that in Jesus quit particularly and concretely the very grace and mercy of God are experienced” (Anderson, 150)
III – Conclusions
“Without any doubt, the passage in a whole has a single point: the amazing power of Jesus” (Williamson, 103). Jesus is the one who delivers humanity from the power of Satan. It is very clear that Jesus went to the other side of the sea with a specific purpose. His passage by that region was remarkable. He not only showed His love, care and power, but He also “prepared” and sent a missionary for that community. Even for those who went to Him, asking Him to leave; Jesus will always be remembered as the one who had power over the evil spirits and the one who destroyed the herd of swine. There was also another group of people in that district who, “were amazed” when they saw and heard the ex-demoniac speaking about the encounter that changed his life forever.
As we can see above, there are many tensions within the passage. The correct location of the event, the number of possessed men, a command not obeyed, and the morality problem with the destruction of the herd of swine.
“The possessed man’s encounter with Jesus made him fully human again, with a family, a home, and a mission in life. He was no longer a beast whom people thought needed to be tamed, but a human being called to proclaim the explosion of God’s mercy in his life” (Garland, 212).
The real existence of evil forces is also another implication to be pointed out from this episode. Western society is becoming more and more unaware of demons and their power. What happens today is a tenebrous attraction to what is considered evil and dark (in a spiritual sense). The growing number of movies and books that exalt black magic, witchcraft, vampires, werewolves, demons and all kinds of evil beings has extremely increased in our age. Others - including Christians - are totally skeptical and do not believe at all in the existence of these forces.
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Argenti, Cyrille. "Meditation on Mark 5:1-20." Ecumenical Review 23 (O 1971): 398-408.
Bowman, John, The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah. Boer, P. A. H. ed. Netherlands: Leiden E. J. Brill, 1965.
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Marr, Andrew. Anglican Theological Review, fall 1998.
Perkins, Pheme. The New Interpreter's Bible. Keck, Leander E. ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Pesch, Rudolf. "Markan Version of the Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac." Ecumenical Review 23 (O 1971): 349-376.
Starobinski, Jean. "Essay in Literary Analysis: Mark 5:1-20." Ecumenical Review 23 (O 1971): 377-397.
Turlington, Henry E., The Broadman Bible Commentary. Allen, Clifton J. ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969.
Wessel, Walter, W., The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Gaebelein, Frank E. ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
Williamson, Lamar, Jr. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Mays, James Luther ed. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1983.
Wink, Water. Umasking the Powers the Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
February 03, 2006