Jesus, Historicity, and Exorcism, Part 1

I still intend to write up a brief summary on Christian codices, but for now I want to continue my previous post on Jesus. Jesus’ Jewishness has hardly been discussed in full, and I want to briefly touch upon one other aspect. Exactly how Jewish was Jesus? Is it possible that Jesus was just one more first century messiah figure, and that his followers deified him after his death? Or was he truly unusual even within his own context? Ultimately, the academic question that comes from this is “how much of the New Testament is merely a paraphrase or an interpretation of the Old?” In New Testament Studies, the former questions are dealt with in several historical criteria, and the latter is known as midrash criticism. Taken to its extreme, some scholars (Richard Carrier, for one) have posited that the New Testament is unreliable on the basis that since the Gospels are replete with allusions to (what would be called) the Old Testament, they are not history, and the evangelists have used these references to create a mythological Jesus. I’m not going to directly address that question today. Rather, I’m going to look at one angle of it, and examine how well Jesus fits into the Jewish context that I talked about in my previous post. This should answer the question as to whether or not Jesus was just one more slightly-odd messianic figure in the first century, or if a real man who grew up in Nazareth actually made claims of divinity. In this post, we’re going to examine historical method and Jesus’ exorcisms. In a subsequent post, the exorcism topic will continue, but we’ll be discussing how it ties into Jesus’ message and what Jesus’ message meant to the Jews in the first century, all the while keeping careful tabs on the historicity of the subject matter and various criticisms that may arise.

What we’re also doing by looking at the Jewish aspects of Jesus is using one side of the historical criterion of similarity and double dissimilarity, and tying it to midrash criticism (which itself isn’t going to get a discussion in full, it was merely a means to get this started). Although the criterion has several parts, the crux of it is examining what was unique about a figure over and above its context. In this case, Jesus works particularly well, because we have the dual contextual streams of Second Temple Judaism and the later Christian church. It looks for key points in Jesus’ similarity to his own Jewish context and the later Christian church, as well as points of distinction over and above those two contexts. When a particular passage or saying passes all four (when something is both distinctive from Christian and Jewish contexts, but also similar enough to Judaism and Christianity) it is unlikely to be a fabrication, and thus probably came from Jesus himself. Although I would argue that the vast majority of the material in the gospels pass this on account of their subversive narrative alone, that is not the immediate topic for discussion, nor should anyone take that as a sign that I believe in scriptural infallibility, because I do not. An example will have to suffice to demonstrate the use of this criterion (I used “criterion” because it is not complete without all four parts). The parables make a good application of this criterion of authenticity. They were a well-known Semitic style of speech (thus the similarity to Judaism). However, the parables were typically used in Judaism for clarifying Torah, so their focus on the Kingdom makes them dissimilar to Judaism. They are also dissimilar to contemporary Jewish thought in that while they promised the fulfillment of the covenant by Israel’s god through Jesus, they set this down in a completely unexpected way. They are dissimilar to later Christian writings, as no writing took the form of the parable. From this, there is every reason to assume that the parables are the genuine sayings of Jesus. They are similar to later Christian thought because they were widely received and constantly used, despite being frequently misunderstood.

Those who criticize New Testament scholarship should be aware that there are several other criteria of authenticity on top of that, and that they are incredibly critical. We rarely ever subject other notable figures from the ancient world in Classical Studies to such difficult criticism. New Testament scholars are the most vicious academics that I have ever seen. Typically, in Classical or Byzantine Studies, polite disagreements are left to the footnotes. New Testament scholars frequently write entire chapters on how ideas of their opponents are flawed, and they are shameless and occasionally cruel about it. As for those of you who think that the gospels are clever fabrications designed to pass these criteria (despite the fact that this hypothesis itself fails to pass the criteria, but it is so dissimilar to other ancient documents to be unbelievable and thus also fails the criterion of coherence, I have met several of you), do you really think that no New Testament scholar would have decided to blow the lid off of the entire establishment? Inventive, not to say wildly ridiculous, theories can make an academic career. Anyhow, this digression has gone on for too long. Let us leave behind the tin foil hat types who believe that nothing in the gospels is valid, and return to the first century.

First off, we need to quickly clarify this myth about first century messiah figures, and outline Jewish messianic hopes. From what we see in Josephus and elsewhere, it appears that there were a goodly number of messianic figures. However, they form only a part of the whole, and many are too obscure for us to seriously consider. Regardless of the individual details, we can still see a general trend: popular religious figures in Judea in the first century all expected Israel’s god to intervene in history on behalf of his covenant people. Whether this was Honi praying for rain or Eleazer ben Yair at Metzada (Josephus wrote in Greek, so take that, Hebrew!), they fervently believed that Israel’s god would vindicate them through action upon earth. The story that was common to all Jews in the late Second Temple period was one of the covenant god acting in Israel’s history, and this did not change whether you were a Pharisee, Essene, or wild man eating locusts and honey in the eremos. The idea remained the same, but the means as to how that was to come about varied for each of these groups, although the general sense was that the messiah would be military figure who would overthrow the Romans (in one of the Qumran texts, the messiah actually engages and kills the Roman Emperor in single combat) as the Maccabees never quite did the job. Hopefully, this has elucidated the intellectual climate of the first century. There were indeed numerous messianic figures, but that is not what defines them – it is the expectation that in some way they would act as a vessel for the covenant god in Israel’s history. The importance of this cannot be understated, because it is absolutely key to understanding what Jesus was about, and how he related to his contemporaries.

The topic under scrutiny here is exorcism. What sort of exorcism existed in the Graeco-Roman world? What sort of exorcism existed in 1st c. Judaism? How did Jesus’ contemporaries view his acts of exorcism? Midrash criticism plays only a very limited role, but that provides us with some information to use within the criterion of dissimilarity. That in turn provides us with good evidence that the exorcisms themselves are based upon what was perceived to be real events. As I’ve mentioned before, if they can only be understood from inside Judaism, but are distinct from it, and have few or no parallels to later Christian views on the subject, then it is likely to have been an accurately recorded event.

An important aspect of Jesus’ exorcisms is their lack of paraphernalia. In both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish context, exorcisms were carried out in a methodical fashion with a wide variety of amulets, spices, bowls of water and rings, nor does he use any songs or chants. Nowhere do we see Jesus use much of anything. The other important variation upon this context is by what authority it was carried out. In Mark 5, the demons recognize Jesus, and act in a submissive manner. Interestingly, it is the demoniac who raises his voice, not Jesus. The significance of this is that changes in the tone of voice on the part of the exorcist were part of the standard panoply in pagan exorcisms. The demons themselves are shown to be rather pathetic. They beg Jesus “again and again” according to Mark not to send them out of that region, but importantly, they fail to give a name. Names were particularly important in ancient exorcism. The exorcist needed the name of the demon, and from that could invoke the name of a divine figure that the demon feared. Giving the name of “Legion” may be a last-ditch, but ultimately futile defense on the part of the demons to prevent Jesus from casting them out in the traditional manner. However, we never see Jesus invoke a divine name in an attempt to cast the demons out. They recognize him as superior, and as possessing that authority on his own. From the actual performance of the exorcism, the demonstration of the criterion of dissimilarity should be clear enough. Jesus did not exorcise by the authority of anything other than himself, nor did he exorcise in any way like that of paganism or Judaism. This belief in his own authority is significant, because it is dissimilar to most of his contemporaries. Honi was known as a holy man, but even he had to beg, wrestle, and call out to God in his exhortations to get rain. Like many of the “military messiahs”, he believed that the covenant God would act through him. However, they still perform their deeds in the name of YHVH, not on behalf of their own name and power. Later Christianity is unlikely to have invented Jesus exorcising through his own authority, simply because no early Christian is known to have attempted anything similar; instead, their exorcisms were done in Jesus’ name. However, this is not the end of the discussion on exorcism. Two objections to what I just discussed exist, but up to this point we have failed to take account of them, and I’ll do that in a moment, and the reader will be happy to know that both have quite easy answers, and thus their torment will soon be at an end. The other topic that needs to be discussed is what the exorcisms mean, and how they relate to Jesus as a whole. That will be the subject of a later post, simply because this one is getting long enough, and is in danger of losing its original goal.

The two objections fit nicely into two categories: the reasonable, and the moronic. The first objection does not actually refer to an exorcism. It refers to a healing, but is valid all the same. In John 9:6, Jesus spits on the ground to make mud, and only then rubs it into the blind man’s eyes. Someone could easily object that this was a case of using a foreign object to enact a miracle (I refrain from using the word ‘magic’ here, simply because the multiplicity of definitions would detract further from the original point of this post.) However, in Judaism, spittle was seen as having restorative properties. In light of Jesus’ other miracles and their lack of paraphrenelia, are we seriously to consider that his power just failed him this once and that he needed to use a reagent to complete the healing? The better answer is that Jesus was anointing the blind man and welcoming him into his kingdom, the eschatological Israel.

The vitriol directed towards the second objection is based upon it having been used in the past as “proof” that Jesus’ exorcisms and healings are not without precedent. Some have claimed that Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan philosopher, performed many similar miracles, and did so in his own name. This is recorded b Philostratus, and it does bear many parallels. I’ll quote a large part of section 20, book IV:

“Now, when Apollonius gazed on him, the ghost in him began to utter cries of fear and rage, such as one hears from people who are being branded or racked; and the ghost swore that he would leave the you man alone and never take possession of any man again. But Apollonius addressed him with anger, as a master might a shifty, rascally, and shameless slave and so on, and he ordered him to quit the young man and show by a visible sign that he had done so.”

On the surface, this is very similar to what Jesus did. Apollonius enacts the exorcism on account of his own name. He appears to be using no tools. He does not call on any deity that the demon may fear to drive him out. However, a few differences emerge upon a closer inspection. The first is that, although some have claimed that Apollonius was a model on which the “Jesus myth” was built (something I will demonstrate to be ridiculously silly in a moment), the context is clearly different. There is nothing implicitly or explicitly Jewish about this story, but a Jew would have recognized the story as explicitly pagan right from the first line. We read that Apollonius gazed upon the demoniac, and only then did the ghost begin to suffer. Not only does this pale in comparison to the demons begging Jesus not to torment them, this is a classic case of the “evil eye”. In the ancient Mediterranean, the “eye” was regarded as a strong gaze by a slightly more spiritual person than average. The gaze itself was regarded to have the power to cause misfortune and destruction, and we see later church fathers, most notably Basil of Caesarea, particularly irked by the superstition surrounding such things. Even centuries after Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we still see a fear of the “evil eye” in amulets and phylacteries. Nonetheless, the part of the case that the stories of Apollonius of Tyana were the basis upon which the gospels were written that is particularly moronic is that these stories did not exist until much later. In fact, the serious historical life of Apollonius is so obscure that we do not even know exactly when he lived. It appears that may have been a rough contemporary of Jesus, but dates throughout the entire first century appear possible. The other case against this ridiculous idea is that Philostratus did not actually write this Vita until the 3rd century. Up until that point, Apollonius appears to be a rather obscure, unremarkable figure, in comparison with the Galilean peasant who had followers dying in his name within a few years of his death. Given the dating of the Philostratus’ work, and the utter paucity of any remarkable information on Apollonius before the early 3rd century (and thus it is unlikely that he had access to a “pure” tradition that pre-dates his own), it is only reasonable to conclude that these stories were embellished using Christian ideas, not the other way around.

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