The legion of evil spirits.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 November 2017

Mark 5.1-10, Matthew 8.28-29, Luke 8.26-31.

Let’s begin with ancient northern Israel’s geography. First there’s Kinneret, the lake.

The Galilean sea.

On its northeast was the province of the Galilee, named for the word galýl/“circle,” referring to its circle of towns. Jesus lived there. On its west was the Dekápolis/“10 cities,” a region of Syrian Greek city-provinces created by the Romans after they conquered Syria in 65BC. Jesus visited this territory often, and it’s where today’s story takes place.

In Old Testament days the Dekápolis belonged to the Hebrews. Today part of it is called the Golan Heights. In Jesus’s day, even though it was full of Greek-speaking Syrians, it was still considered part of Israel, and still part of the territory Antipas Herod supervised. But it was full of gentile, Greek-enculturated pagans. They weren’t even Hebrew like the Palestinians are.

By Greek-enculturated I mean they lived like Greeks. Alexander of Macedon had pushed his own culture everywhere he went, and in fourth-century BC Syria it seriously took hold. Greek language, Greek dress, Greek food, Greek religion. The Syrians worshiped a mixture of Syrian, Canaanite, and Greek gods. I’ve been to their ruins; these people weren’t Jews by any stretch of the imagination. They were so Greek, whenever Jews thought of gentiles, they thought of these guys… and thought of Greeks.

The ruins include lots of monuments to Greek deities. The major deities were called theoí/“gods,” and the lesser deities were called daimónia/“demons.” Or as the KJV calls them, devils. To the Christian mind, all these deities are devils. 1Co 10.19-20 And they were everywhere. Anything and everything was dedicated to a god or demon. Every monument was set up to honor something or someone. If a noble human, there was a caveat that the monument also honored whatever guardian demon protected that person, so when you remembered the person, you were meant to also worship their demon. The hillside was full of these monuments. You could see them from the beach.

And that’s where our story begins: Jesus and his students, after crossing the lake, landed on the beach, in full view of a cluster of monuments. And in full view of some wild man who was living among the monuments, who eagerly—and in utter terror—rushed down to meet him.

Was he of two minds about meeting Jesus? More like of 2,001 minds. Dude was full of devils.

Discrepancies first.

Yeah, okay, there are “bible difficulties” in this story—inconsistencies between, and within, the three gospels which tell it.

Mark 5.1 KWL
Jesus and his students came to the far side of the lake, Gerasa’s land.
Matthew 8.28 KWL
28A Jesus and his students came to the far side, Gadara’s land.
Luke 8.26 KWL
Jesus and his students arrived in Gerasa’s land, which is opposite the Galilee.

As you can see, Matthew says Jesus and his students landed the boat in the territory of the city-state of Gadara, and Mark and Luke say Gerasa. And if you’re a really big fan of the King James Version, your bible says they came “into the country of the Gergesenes.” Mt 8.28 KJV Yeah, that’s a pickle.

Take a peek at that map again. Gadara’s about 12 kilometers from the lake. Gerasa (present-day Jerash, Jordan) isn’t even on the map, ’cause it’s 80 kilometers to the southeast. Gergesa (present-day Kursi, Israel) actually is on the lake, so you can see why the editors of the Textus Receptus—the Greek NT used by the KJV’s translators—leaned towards Ghergesinón/“of Gergesa” instead of Ghadarinón/“of Gadara.”

But commentators point out the gospels don’t say Jesus and the kids landed in any one city, but in that city’s land. Their provincial territory. Which can extend hundreds of kilometers away from the city itself. Heck, Rome’s authority extended that far. So they figure wherever Jesus landed on the eastern shore, it must’ve fallen under the authority of… whatever city they’re going with.

Because commentators really don’t try to investigate the geography and deduce Jesus’s landing spot from that. They pretty much pick the gospel (and translation) they like best.

  • Matthew fans: This guy’s “the Gadarene demoniac.”
  • Matthew and KJV fans: “The Gergesene demoniac.”
  • Mark or Luke fans: “The Gerasene demoniac.”

So there ya go: Three different names for the very same story.

My own tendency is to lean towards Mark, ’cause that gospel was written first. But Matthew presents a more plausible explanation, ’cause the following events took place outside the city, and people ran to the city and back, and it took time to do so. Gergesa’s too close. Gerasa’s way too far, though the city doesn’t specifically have to be Gerasa. Gadara seems to be far enough away to fit the story’s details.

Well, those details which match. Discrepancy number two is the number of demoniacs Jesus encountered: One or two?

Mark 5.2 KWL
Once Jesus got out of the boat, a man from the memorials met him—a man with an unclean spirit.
Matthew 8.28 KWL
28B Two demoniacs came out from the monuments to meet him.
Luke 8.27 KWL
27A As Jesus got out on the land, some man from the cities met him—who had a demon.

Aw come on, Matthew.

Gleason Archer’s explanation is kinda amusing: Apparently there were two demoniacs in Mark and Luke, but the authors of those gospels simply never bothered to mention one of them. Guessing he didn’t howl as much.

How serious a problem is this? If there were two of them, there was at least one, wasn’t there? Mark and Luke center attention on the more prominent and outspoken of the two, the one whose demonic occupants called themselves “Legion.” Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties at Mt 8.28

I agree with Archer that it’s not that serious a problem. But since he’s trying to defend the idea the bible has no errors whatsoever, I gotta say he really pooched this one. “A man” and “some man” are not simply “two demoniacs” with one of ’em overlooked as irrelevant to the story. If you’re truly gonna defend factual inerrancy, dude—do your bloody job!

Lastly there’s the discrepancy no commentators mention: In a very few verses, Jesus is gonna find out this dude (or in Matthew, dudes) isn’t possessed by one critter, like the text of Mark and Luke has implied by referring to a singular “unclean spirit” Mk 5.2 and “demon.” Lk 8.27 This poor guy is plagued with thousands of them. Literally. The big huge number isn’t a metaphor for how tormented he was: He actually did have tens of hundreds of unclean spirits rutting around in him.

Interpreters give the authors a pass when they switch from singular to plural, ’cause most interpreters figure the authors were withholding this relevant bit of data for dramatic reasons: Surprise Jesus, you’re not just throwing out one spirit!

But just as I was pointing out the inconsistency between one demoniac and two, there’s a way bigger inconsistency between one unclean spirit and thousands. If one’s a problem (though, as Gleason Archer points out, a not very serious one), so’s the other.

And again: Those same people who give these inconsistencies a pass, frequently turn round and insist the bible’s authors practiced meticulous factual accuracy in a lot of other places—and leave no room for drama, metaphor, or estimation. I’m looking at the young-earth creationists in particular. Some of us only interpret the bible loosely when convenient. Doesn’t make us very consistent.

Back to the demoniac(s).

Because we Christians identify demons as devils, we figure it’s a horrible thing for this man to be demonized. It may blow your mind to know ancient Greeks wouldn’t have thought this way at all. They would’ve thought of a demonized person—I’m not kidding—the same way we’d think of a Spirit-filled person.

’Cause to the Greeks, demons were little gods. And a man full of gods was holy. Sure, a little wacky and strange, but they act this way because the spirits are working on ’em, right? But they were full of divine power—able to break chains! So it was odd, and problematic, but not necessarily evil to them.

Pagans still think the same way about spirits. They’re benevolent, right? They’re here to help. Grant special knowledge. Tell fortunes. Look at all the psychics who ask the spirits to speak through them. That’s precisely the sort of naïveté pagans have when it comes to spirits: They don’t know what they’re playing with. Or that they’re the ones being played.

No spirit but the Holy Spirit has any business possessing a human. Yet this man was full of them. A Roman legion could consist of up to 6,000 soldiers. Spirits, since they don’t consist of matter, don’t take up space in the same way we do. Hence that old theologians’ riddle, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” We don’t know how many. This story was our first clue of how densely you could cram ’em into a human.

Mark 5.3-10 KWL
3 This man had his dwelling among the memorials.
Not a chain nor a person was able to stop him.
4 Though he was often bound in cuffs and chains, none was strong enough to hold him.
5 Every night and day he was in the memorials and hills, screeching and cutting himself with rocks.
6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed to him 7 and screeched with a loud voice,
saying, “What’re you to me, Jesus son of the highest God? Swear to God you won’t torment me!”
8 For Jesus already told him, “Get out of the person, unclean spirit!”
9 Jesus asked him, “What’s your name?”
He told him, “My name’s Legion, because we’re many.”
10 He greatly begged Jesus so he might not send them out of the land.
Mt 8.28-29 KWL
28C Very fierce; so much so, one couldn’t pass by on that road.
29 Look, they called out to say, “What’re you to us, son of God?
You came here before the End Times to torture us?”
Luke 8.27-31 KWL
27B For a long time he hadn’t worn a robe; hadn’t lived in a house, but among the monuments.
28 Seeing Jesus, shrieking, he bowed to him and in a loud voice said,
“What’re you to me, Jesus son of the highest God? I beg you, don’t torment me!”
29 For Jesus already commanded the unclean spirit to get out of the person.
Many times people had arrested him, chained and cuffed him—and he broke the chains.
He was driven by the demon into the wilds.
30 Jesus asked him, “What’s your name?”
He said “Legion,” because many demons entered him.
31 The demons begged Jesus so he might not order them to go into the Abyss.

How’d he get full of them? In my article on demons, I explained how people back then could wind up possessed by ’em: Pagan “physicians”—really witch doctors—would first try to cure you with poultices, homeopathic remedies, and essential oils. Yep, the very same quackery as today. But they had one extra item in their toolkit: If all else failed, they could call upon nature spirits to cure you. They’d put a demon in you. And if one didn’t do the job, two. Or three. Or dozens. (Yikes.)

People read about this demoniac’s mad behavior, and assume there’s a connection between being demonized and mental illness. There isn’t really. The man might’ve initially been mentally ill, so his parents turned to the witch doctor to “fix” him, and the end result was two thousand times worse. People assume demonization looks like mental illness, and this is why plenty of demonized people can pass for regular people and go undetected—while people who are mentally ill remain stigmatized by ignorant Christians.

No doubt the demoniac(s) wanted to be rid of the demons, once it became clear they were hurting more than helping. Problem is, it doesn’t work that way. We call it possession because these critters feel they own you. True, there might be someone in the area with some relationship to God; the Pharisees had exorcists, y’know. Mt 12.27 But Jesus elsewhere taught when you throw out an evil spirit (and, it’s implied, don’t immediately turn that person over to the Holy Spirit) the critter may very well come back, and bring company. Lk 11.24-26

Hence the demoniac(s) reached a point where they figured they were beyond help. Nothing to do but scream and cut yourself. Stay away from people; stay out of the city; live among the lakeside monuments, which were all dedicated to demons. Hopelessly surrounded by demons every which way.

Till Jesus arrived.

Demons and judgment.

The first response of the demoniac(s), “What’re you to me/us?” is a Greek way of saying, “We have no relationship.” Really, it’s a euphemism for “F--- you.” The spirits within wanted Jesus to leave ’em be: They expected to have free rein to torment anyone they liked till the End. It wasn’t the End yet! Or was it?

We don’t have a lot of the details about how God judges spirits. Most of it comes from Christian mythology, not revelation in the scriptures. We know God’ll judge them. But the bible, because it was written for humans, only tells us about us. Not so much about them.

What little we do know, indicates once God decides to clamp down on evil spirits’ activity, he sends ’em to the abyssós/“Abyss.” In the KJV it’s translated “the deep” Lk 8.31, Ro 10.7 or “the bottomless pit.” Rv 9.1-2, 11 It might be related to the tehóm/“deep” of Genesis 1.2, but whatever it is, it sounds like prison. Just as evil humans go into ge-Henna till the resurrection, evil spirits go into the Abyss.

The legion of demons had their merry way with this man (or men), but now that Jesus arrived, it was their personal Judgment Day. Apparently spirits, like us humans, don’t always remember God is everywhere. When he’s not obvious, they act like he’s gone. But once Jesus arrives, they can’t help but acknowledge him. They know exactly who he is: The son of the Highest God, El-Elyón, as the one true God was known by gentiles. Ge 14.18-20 He’s their conqueror and king, and they can’t help but obey him. He has every right to put them in the pit.

We get this idea, mainly from bad movies like The Exorcist, that whenever we face evil spirits, we have a fight on our hands. Especially when there’s more than one. And if we have no relationship with Jesus, or we simply don’t trust the Holy Spirit to do the job, we certainly will have a fight on our hands. Devils try to intimidate us into leaving them be. Referring to itself as a legion would’ve intimidated anyone but Jesus: “Holy crap, there’s more than a thousand of them! I need backup!” The sons of Skeva, who had no such relationship, were immediately routed by the first evil spirit they encountered. Ac 19.13-16

But in every other instance in scripture, when someone indwelt by the Holy Spirit comes up against any false god or evil spirit, there’s no contest. In Jesus’s case, evil spirits collapse like a Jenga tower. Didn’t matter if it was one spirit, or 10, or 6,000. Jesus said get out. They’d scream about it, and try to negotiate going anywhere but the Abyss, but they got out.

Where they got out to… I’ll save that story for later.