Saturday, February 26, 2011

Angels & Demons 32: Diagnosis: Demon Possession or Illness?

Jesus is presented in the gospels as one who could cure any type of malady—demon possession or illness. Nevertheless, the synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) find it useful to distinguish between these two major types of maladies. The gospel writer John, on the other hand, only presents Jesus as curing diseases or other bodily malfunctions (not casting out demons), and Paul (as I have pointed out in past commentaries) considers demons to be the equivalent of idols: false gods, who really have no existence whatsoever. Incidentally, John the author of Revelation (in 9:20) appears to agree with Paul—that demons (like idols) are nothing. He writes of unrepentant men who worshiped the “works of their hands”—“demons and golden idols, and silver, and bronze, and wooden, which are not able to see, nor hear, nor walk.”
The following list of illnesses and bodily malfunctions cured by Jesus is fairly complete:

• bent spine Lk. 13:10-21 (crippled woman)
• blind Jn. 9:1-41 (man born that way); Mk. 10:46-52; Mt. 20:29-34; Lk. 18:35-43; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• deaf Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• diseases Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• epileptic Mt. 4:23-25
• fever Jn. 4:46-54; Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41
• lame Jn. 1:5-47; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• leprosy Lk. 17:11-37; Mk. 1:40-45; Mt. 8:2-4; Lk. 5:12-16; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• palsy Mk. 2:1-12; Mt. 9:1-8; Lk. 5:17-26 (paralytic?); Mt. 4:23-25; Mt. 8:5-13; Lk.7:1-10 (near death)
• plagues Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• raise dead Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35; Jn. 11:1-44 (Lazarus); Lk. 7:11-17
• sick on their beds Mk. 6:53-56; Mt. 14:34-36
• various illnesses Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41
• withered hand Mk. 3:1-6; Mt. 12:9-14; Lk. 6:6-11

Conspicuously absent from this list is any type of mental illness. There seems to be a strongly psychosomatic element in virtually all of the cases the synoptic gospel writers term “unclean spirit,” “evil spirit,” and/or “demon-possession.” Even though these gospel writers use this terminology, they do not themselves appear to be diagnosing the maladies. Rather, the diagnoses seem to be generated by the culture, sometimes, even by the families of those who have the maladies (and frequently, by the demon-possessed individuals, themselves).

In my previous commentary, I observed that a possibility existed “that the boy [in Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43] actually had epilepsy and that the father had misdiagnosed it as demon-possession.” A closer look at those accounts shows that, while Matthew 17:18 terms this demon-possession, in Mk. 9:14-29, the father diagnoses the malady as a dumb (or speechless) spirit. In Mt. 17:14-20, the father says he is epileptic; whereas, in Lk. 9:37-43, the father simply says he has a spirit. I have already offered my opinions concerning what may have transpired in this case. I mention the case here to demonstrate that the diagnosis of demon-possession was not always clear or conclusive in the various texts. Did the father believe his son was demon-possessed, truly epileptic, or just the victim of a false belief? Does the father even know? Whatever the diagnosis, the gospel accounts are in unanimous agreement that Jesus solved the problem.

The gospel writers themselves differ, even when discussing the very same cases, on whether the various cases should be termed “demon” or (unclean or evil) “spirit.” What Mt. 4:23-25 calls demon, Lk. 6:17-19 calls unclean spirit. What Lk. 4:31-37 terms demon, Mk. 1:21-28 terms unclean spirit. What Mt. 8:28-34 and Lk. 8:26-39 refer to as demon, Mk. 5:1-20 refers to as unclean spirit. Lk. 8:1-3 mentions Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone, but Lk. 8:1-3 also refers to evil spirits. Mk. 6:13, Mt. 10:8, and Lk. 9:1 all use the word demon, but Mk. 6:7 and Mt. 10:1 refer to the same event with the words unclean spirit. Lk. 7:18-35 describes a case referred to only as evil spirit. Mt. 12:22-32, Mk. 3:20-30, and Lk. 11:14-23 and 12:10 describe another case with all gospel writers agreeing to the demon terminology. It appears that the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, perceived no difficulty with substituting between the terminologies. This does not seem to support a conviction that demons in the Greek sense of the Greek word existed. I suspect that “demon” terminology had simply become a conventional way of referring to a problem with a “spirit.”

As I have been demonstrating ever since my commentary “Angels & Demons 23: Angels as the Personification of God’s Word,” the word “spirit” is the equivalent of the word “word.” When the New Testament contrasts the spirit of truth with a spirit of error, it is indicating that these “false words” (or spirits of error) are capable of “possessing” humans who believe them. This is especially true with highly suggestible individuals (including children). As a college professor, I have observed this phenomenon in more than one student. I know of male students who--because they speak with a lisp or have a high pitched voice or are interested in music, dance, or theater—have been told by their contemporaries that they appear to be homosexual. Thinking logically, lisping, voice pitch, and performance aptitudes have nothing to do with one’s sexual behavior. But, to the highly suggestible, the insinuation or suggestion that the male may be homosexual is enough to produce corresponding behavior. Likewise, a similar case exists with females who may have lower-pitched voices or athletic builds. Such suggestions or insinuations have the force of “spirit” for the individuals involved.

I have had students who were told they had aggressive tendencies, and they promptly lived out the implications of the terminology. I have had students who were told they were suicidal, and they succumbed to the force of this “spirit”/suggestion. Bi-polar. ADHD. Name the diagnosis, and, frequently, suggestible individuals so diagnosed will respond with the “appropriate” set of behavioral acts. I am not suggesting that there are not individuals who are truly bi-polar or who truly suffer from ADHD. I just wonder how many individuals who have received a “false diagnosis” or a “spirit of error” become somewhat “possessed” by the false word.
While it is easier to understand the terminology “spirit of error” as a “false word,” allow me to unpack the terms “unclean spirit” and “evil spirit.” Kosher is the Hebrew term designating proper dietary habits. Kosher is translated “clean.” Whatever is not Kosher is “unclean.” Hence, eating mutton, beef, or venison is Kosher or clean. Eating pork, horse meat, or dog meat, on the other hand, is unclean. Jews were promised, in the Law of Moses, that if they would eat Kosher foods, they would be afflicted with fewer diseases. We all know that anyone who eats pork that has not been thoroughly cooked, for example, may be susceptible to Trichinosis. The dietary laws were designed, primarily, to keep the population healthy. There were also Kosher laws concerning cleanliness and what one should do if one becomes ill. Those afflicted with leprosy, for example, were required to quarantine themselves from the healthy population. To warn others of their illness, they were required, even in New Testament times, to cry out “unclean.” Notice that the New Testament does not provide for anyone the diagnosis that he or she has “a demon or spirit of leprosy.” That is because leprosy had quite visible and empirically-detectable physical symptoms. Likewise, while Jesus healed many with “fevers,” no one had a demon or spirit of fever. If someone has no specific, empirically-verifiable physical symptoms, but still behaves as if he or she is afflicted with a disease, you could say that the person is not actually “unclean,” but had a “spirit” of “uncleanness”—or, an “unclean spirit.”

Similarly, the less-used terminology “evil spirit,” the word “evil” as applied to a spirit is used seven times by Luke (in his two works, Luke and Acts). Other than those seven times, the term “evil” is only applied to the term “spirit” once—in Matthew 12:45, discussed in the next paragraph—and even there, Matthew did not use the phrase “evil spirit.” The Greek term translated “evil” in all of these cases is the same term Jesus uses in his prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” It corresponds to the Hebrew word used in the name of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis. After Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they and all their descendents were infused with both good and evil inclinations. This is not a term that refers primarily to the spirit world; it is a term that refers primarily to HUMAN characteristics (albeit, less than desirable characteristics). The word does not conjure up for Luke super-human “evil” beings. It describes that human nature that leads one to sin. As Jesus’ prayer states (in a parallellism): “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Whether the “evil words or thoughts” affecting the one who was afflicted were the words or thoughts of that person so afflicted, or whether they were the “evil words” inflicted upon the victims by the malicious “curses” of other humans, they could be termed “evil spirits.”

Jesus himself is never specifically quoted as diagnosing a case as demon-possession, but in Mt. 12:38-45, Jesus offers a parable of someone having an “unclean spirit.” I think Jesus was saying that the man in his parable believes that he has an illness and that that sheer belief is enough to produce those “unclean” (or illness-like) symptoms. If the man is cured of this false belief, but does not replace this false belief with true beliefs, he is susceptible to many other false beliefs (or spirits) more evil than the one that first afflicted him. In other words, unless he learns the truth, he remains very suggestible—very susceptible to erroneous spirits.

Many times, in the New Testament, the one doing the diagnosing of the presence of a demon or unclean spirit is the individual who is so possessed. The case of the Gadarene/Gerazene demoniacs is a case in point. They identified the name of the demon/s who possessed them: Legion (because they diagnosed themselves as having many demons). They also knew who Jesus was and believed him capable of casting out the demon/s. When Jesus taught in the town of Capernaum—a village very close to Jesus’ home town of Nazareth—Mt. 4:23-25, 8:14-17, Mk. 1:29-39, Lk. 4:38-41 write of several unspecified cases of demon-possession. Interestingly, all demon-possessed individuals knew who Jesus was. He grew up in the region. Similarly, in Acts 19:15-16, a man possessed of an “evil spirit” knows who Jesus and Paul are, but Jesus and Paul are not the ones performing the exorcism. It seems that whenever the “demon-possessed” individual has a (self-diagnosed) self-recognition of his or her own demon-possession, and a belief in the ability of the one exorcising the demon to do so effectively, success results. In the Acts 19 case, some Jews (unknown to the demon-possessed man) tried to perform the exorcism and failed.

Before we leave the discussion of diagnosis, we should list the several clear cases of misdiagnosis of demon-possession in the New Testament. In Mt. 11:19 and Lk. 7:33-34, Jewish opponents misdiagnose John the Baptist as having a demon. In Mk. 3:19-30 and Mt. 12:22-37, scribes misdiagnose Jesus as having an unclean spirit (Mk.) and using power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. This accusation, Jesus calls the unforgiveable sin. I believe he does so, because the scribes should know (as Paul does) that there is no god or demon called Beelzebub. Rather, Beelzebub is a transliteration of the words Baal Zebul--one of the Canaanite gods. These idols or false gods did not exist! Any scribe who has personally completed hand-written copies of the Old Testament would know that! It is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit to suggest that such false gods are capable of acting at all--let alone attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to these false gods! In Mt. 9:27-34, Pharisees misdiagnose Jesus as using power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. In Jn. 7:20 and 8:48-52, Jewish opponents misdiagnose Jesus as having a demon. In Jn. 10:20-21, Jewish opponents misdiagnose Jesus as having a demon and being insane. In Acts 17:18, Paul’s Stoic and Epicurean opponents falsely accuse him of being an announcer of foreign demons. Just because culture or society (or even very religious people) diagnoses someone as being demon-possessed, the diagnosis is not necessarily accurate.

Who is doing the diagnosing? It may be the demon-possessed person himself or herself, the demon-possessed person’s parent, malicious individuals who may have cursed the individual, or the culture in general who cannot discover empirically-recognizable reasons for the unclean or illness-like symptoms. Jesus is not reported as diagnosing any specific individuals, himself—just curing them. Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to use indiscriminate diagnosis terminology—demon, unclean spirit, evil spirit—but it is not clear whether they are attempting to diagnose or just reporting the consensus (cultural) diagnosis. John the gospel writer does not use any such terminology; he reports no case of casting out spirits or demons. John the author of Revelation sees “demons” as he sees “idols”—the works of human hands. And, Paul says that demons are like idols and false gods—they don’t exist.

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