A belief in the existence of evil spirits or demons and their ability both to cause disease and to take possession of people has been common to most societies. Side by side with such beliefs there has usually been a recognition of the power of certain individuals to exorcise such spirits, freeing the sufferer from their malign influence. Such concepts occur in the Bible, though relatively infrequently; they are almost entirely restricted to the accounts of the ministry of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels.
There are no unequivocal examples of exorcism in the Hebrew Bible. David's use of music to calm Saul, who is described as being troubled by “an evil spirit from Yahweh” (1 Sam. 16.14–23), bears none of the characteristics of the later accounts of exorcism with their essential underlying component of a violent “casting out” of an evil spirit. Saul's behavior suggests a severe manic‐depressive psychosis with marked paranoid overtones that gave rise to episodes of impulsive homicidal violence. Music could be expected to have a beneficial effect on the depression (1 Sam. 16.23), but not on the manic paranoia (1 Sam. 18.10–12).
In preexilic biblical traditions, the idea of evil cosmic forces separate from, and over against, the rule of God is not prominent. By the first century CE, however, Satan was generally viewed as ruler of the present age, having gained temporary control of the earth and holding sway over its kingdoms (a view reflected in the New Testament at Matt. 4.8–9; Luke 4.5–6; John 14.30; 2 Cor. 4.4; Eph. 6.12). This power was exercised in individual lives through demons, either in a general malevolent influence or by direct “possession.” In the latter instance, the demon had to be “cast out,” and thus exorcism became a dominant feature of first‐century Judaism, with the professional exorcist having a recognized status. The Pharisees apparently played a significant role as adepts in exorcisms, and there is a passing reference to this at Mark 12.27. The approach was strongly magical, using invocations and spells (foreshadowed as early as Tobit 6.17–18). In later rabbinic literature and other sources, individual demons responsible for specific illnesses are named.
Exorcism was an undisputed feature of the ministry of Jesus. The various references in the synoptic Gospels are little more than vague and generalized comments about the healing ministry of Jesus, often being simply editorial link statements in the narrative. Six specific cases of exorcism are mentioned: the Capernaum demoniac (Mark 1.21–28 = Luke 4.31–37); the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5.1–20 = Matt. 8.28–34 = Luke 8.26–39); the dumb demoniac (Matt. 9.32–33); the blind and dumb demoniac (Matt. 12.22); the Syrophoenician demoniac (Mark 7.24–30 = Matt. 15.21–28); the epileptic boy (Mark 9.14–29 = Matt. 17.14–21 = Luke 9.37–43). The evangelists seem to have been selective in their use of the terminology of exorcism, reserving it for conditions inexplicable for them in other ways and outside the general categories of illness that Jesus healed. Although clinical details are meager, there is suggestive evidence that the synoptic exorcisms were restricted to epilepsy and the abnormal behavior patterns that occur in hysterical (dissociative) states.
Outside the synoptic Gospels, exorcism is mentioned only in Acts: twice in general terms (5.16 and 8.7) and twice of specific incidents (16.16–18 and 19.11–19). There are no further references in the New Testament; it is noteworthy that the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not an exorcist, nor does he come into contact with “possessed” people. It should also be noted that in none of the discussions of spiritual gifts in the Pauline correspondence is mention made of exorcism. A general gift of healing is recognized, but there is no suggestion that this includes exorcism. The synoptic tradition is unique in suggesting that Jesus gave the twelve authority to exorcise, and this appears to have been limited to his lifetime (Mark 3.16 = Matt. 10.1, 8, and also Luke 9.1).
Exorcism in the Bible is thus essentially a feature of the synoptic Gospels in which it is presented as an eschatological activity of Jesus, either as evidence of the arrival of God's kingdom or in preparation for its immediate appearance. His own explanation of the phenomenon, that he cast out demons through the spirit of God (Matt. 12.27–28; cf. Mark 3.28–30), underlines this, pointing to the arrival of the promised endtime and the power of that age. Outside the synoptic tradition, the New Testament sees Satan and his unclean spirits as decisively and finally defeated in the Easter event (e.g., Col. 2.15).
J. Keir Howard