Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac

The lectionary reading for Trinity 1, Year C, is Luke’s version of Jesus meeting and healing the demon-possessed man in the ‘region of the Gerasenes’ (Luke 8.26–39). The account occurs in all three Synoptic gospels; in Mark (the shortest gospel) the story is in the longest and most detailed version; Matthew 8.28–34 is the shortest, and just includes the main points in summary; here in Luke, the story is only a little bit shorter than in Mark, and Luke includes much of the detail.


Luke’s description of the location in verse 26 is less precise than Mark’s; he suggests that ‘the region of the Gerasenes’ is opposite Galilee, when it is most likely on the north east shore of the lake rather than the north west. (Mark uses a quite different phrase for ‘sailed across‘ in Mark 5.1, and this fits with the frequent crossings of the lake, and prominent mention of boats, which supports the idea of the influence of Peter on Mark’s narrative.) There is uncertainty about the exact location, as the name is not otherwise known, and Matthew includes other variants of the name; the most likely place is Khursi on the north-east shore, which has the ruins of an ancient church building.

Although ‘they’ sailed across (that is, Jesus and the disciples), it is striking that Jesus alone is mentioned alighting from the boat on the shore. The disciples have already been seriously shaken by the storm that overtook them as they sailed (the immediately preceding story in all three gospel accounts) and Mark 4.41 tells us that they were ‘terrified’. So the lack of mention strongly suggest that, coming to a strange land, and seeing such a strange man approaching the boat from the tombs, the disciples thought it best to stay in the boat! In fact, Jesus is the only person who features in the dialogue with the man until the locals are mentioned after the drama has all died down in Luke 8.34.

Luke follows Mark in recounting what happened out of order, as if the chaos in the man’s life is reflected in the chaos of the events as narrative unfolds. First, he mentions that the man comes to meet Jesus; then he includes a (shorter than Mark’s) explanation of who the man is; then he mentions the man’s cry to Jesus; then he explains that Jesus has already been commanding the spirit to come out of the man; and finally Luke completes the explanation of who the man is, which Mark has included earlier.

In doing this, Luke includes two elements which connect with other parts of his narrative. First, Luke notes that the ‘unclean spirit’ had driven the man into ‘solitary places’ (NIV), translating the word eremos that elsewhere refers to the desert (from it we get our word ‘eremitic’ and then ‘hermit‘ for someone who pursues a solitary life). Thus Luke connects this spiritual battle with the battle Jesus has already won in facing temptation in the desert in Luke 4.1–13. The question of power is not far from the surface there, with Jesus returning from the desert ‘full of the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4.14) and the power dynamics are quite explicit here.

The second element of significance is the phrase the man (or demon) uses in addressing Jesus: ‘Son of the Most High God!’ (Luke 8.28). This matches exactly the wording in Mark 5.7, but it has added significance for Luke. For one thing, his readers who have come from a pagan, polytheistic background will recognise the claim being made, that Jesus is not exercising the power of one god amongst many but has a distinctive status in relation to the one God who is over all. But as a result, we find this phrase is of particular importance in Luke’s wider narrative. It is repeated twice by Gabriel in announcing to Mary that she will bear this extraordinary child (Luke 1.32, 35), and it is a phrase used by the spirit-possessed girl in Acts 16.17. So this episode offers evidence of the fulfilment of Gabriel’s words to Mary—but also describes a ministry of Jesus that is continued by the apostles in Luke’s second volume.


Jesus’ asking of the demon’s name accords with ancient belief that to know someone’s name, their true identity, was to have power over them. The exchange fits with the earlier addressing of Jesus by the demon, revealing his true identity, and forming part of this ‘power contest’ between the two. The use of the name ‘legion’, evoking the Roman soldiers who occupy the land of Israel, would have been particularly relevant to Luke’s pagan readers. Some modern interpreters read the exchange back into the political situation, seeing this as a metaphorical exploration of the political dynamic—but that is surely to read the metaphor in the wrong direction. For Jesus and the man, the ‘unclean spirit(s)’ or ‘demon(s)’ are an occupying force who have no rightful place in the man’s life, and Jesus’ deliverance of him forms part of ‘setting [him] free to worship without fear’ (Luke 1.74).

Here, as earlier (Luke 8.29), Luke has smoothed out the narrative by explaining what the demons (earlier, Jesus) say, rather than simply quoting them as in the Marcan account. But in Mark, they ask not to be sent out of the area; here, Luke sharpens the request, so they ask not to be sent ‘to the Abyss’, the chaotic ‘deep’ (Heb tehom) of the Old Testament and in pagan thought the realm of the dead which we also find mentioned in the Book of Revelation (Rev 9.1, 11.7, 20.1 and elsewhere).

The sending of the demons/unclean spirits into the (unclean) pigs offers us a wonderful irony, and one that will have worked for those who know something about Jewish food laws as well as for Jewish readers themselves. That the pigs hurl themselves over the cliff makes clear the destructive power of the demons, destructive power that has already been evident in the life of the man up until now. It is not surprising that this story is paired with the episode that immediately precedes it in all three gospels; together they underscore the power of Jesus to bring peace to a chaotic world, in fulfilment of Ps 65.7: ‘You calm the seas and their raging waves, and the tumult of the nations.’

Jesus has ultimate authority over evil, whether that evil is manifested in nature or in the life of an individual. By the end of these stories, the audience is hopefully much better prepared to answer the pressing question, ‘Who can this man be?’ (Luke 8.25) (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia Commentary on Luke, p 140).


The narrative offers us potent material for reflection on the ministry of Jesus.

First, there is the significant presence of dissociation. The man has become cut off from his community—and it is striking that the end of this episode is focused emphatically and rather surprisingly on Jesus restoring him to the place he has come from, sending him home in every sense of the word. There is dissociation of the man from his body, as he cuts and harms himself, and dissociation from the forces at work in him, as the voice of the unclean spirit(s) speak to Jesus. These dynamics of dissociation are very evident in our world, with fractured communities and broken relationship, the apparent rise of mental health issue, individualism, and the defining of the self detached from bodily identity at the heart of the debates about sexuality and transgender ideology. There is no sense in which I am suggesting that any of these things are the result of ‘demon possession’ but Luke, like Mark, is telling us the impact of Jesus’ ministry on this complex range of issues.

Secondly, contrary to what has been suggested in relation to disability and Jesus’ healing ministry, there is little sense here that Jesus uses the disabled as a ‘prop’ to demonstrate his power, with the individuals concerned ‘marginalised in the narrative’. Jesus uses his power not as a demonstration, but for restoration—restoring the man to dignity (‘clothed’, Luke 8.35), sanity (‘in his right mind’) and community (‘to your own people’ Luke 8.39). Yet the response is fear; the people are not prepared to accept Jesus’ reordering of their world.

This leads the third observation: just as the disciples had been terrified by both the storm and Jesus’ calming of it on the way over to the Gerasenes, the local people here respond with fear. When they ask Jesus to leave, he does so without any objection; Jesus’ ministry will not be imposed on those unwilling to receive it. Yet he leaves the man, not only restored but with a purpose and a mission, to tell of what God (in Jesus) has done for him. He has (in Tom Wright’s words) become the first apostle to the Gentiles, anticipating what will unfold in the larger narrative of Luke-Acts.


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26 thoughts on “Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac”

  1. Thanks for this, Ian.

    My reading of this story in Mark, which is (I think) trying to answer the question of ‘who is Jesus?’, means that I see this story as pointing to Yahweh. He is the God who brings those caught in the place of death, enslaved by an army of evil, into the place of live by casting the unclean army into the sea. Jesus doing this is a pointer to his identity as Yahweh in their midst; an allusion to the exodus events. What do you think of this reading of the Mark passage and do you think there is any overlap with the Luke passage?

    Reply
    • Thanks Ryan. That is an interesting way of drawing theological connections between the two parts of Scripture. I don’t think I see much or any evidence that this was the intention of the writer, in that I am not sure there are any obvious verbal links between the two—are there?

      Reply
  2. Thanks Ian for these great insights; when looking at Mark 5, there is a fascinating link throughout the chapter where first of all Jesus confronts demons – John Wimber suggested, that the storm on the lake was linked because demonic powers have some sort of intelligence system and they knew he was coming for them across the water so tried to stop him (I had an experience of something similar years ago when involved in some ministry to a troubled person). So Jesus first deals with demons which were unclean spirits, in a Gentile area, so unclean for Jews; he drives the unclean spirits into unclean animals – the pigs. Then we have the story of Jairus’ daughter, who was dead; to touch a dead body was to make oneself unclean; then we have the interlude in between with the woman with the flow of blood thus making her unclean and unable to worship, and to touch her was to make oneself unclean. Jesus drives out demons, death and disease, all unclean, and takes their uncleannesses and brings them all wholeness, cleanliness, and peace.

    Reply
    • A visting speaker at my church a few years back asked us a question, “What encounters show to someone with a non-western world-view that Jesus was more than human?”

      His answer was the encounters with people who were ‘unclean’. If a normal person touched or was touched by an unclean person, then the uncleanness passed to the normal person. But when Jesus touched the unclean, or they touched him, then his ‘cleanness’ pass from him to them.

      Reply
  3. Hello, I am Maciej and I’m from Poland. It’s my first comment here. I read almost all of your posts, especially about Bible studies.

    I like the story about possessed man form the Gerasene. I was always wondering why those pigs had to die. But here is something marvellous about God, that there is no cost for him to save human’s life, to redeem his soul, as it is written in Is 43:
    For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
    I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
    Because you are precious in my eyes,
    and honored, and I love you,
    I give men in return for you,
    peoples in exchange for your life.

    But I want to say something about the demonstration of Jesus’ power that is written above in your article. Of course I do agree that Jesus uses his power for restoration, but I also believe the demonstration of God’s power (and of course Jesus’) is described and depicted in the whole Bible to show us something; to show that only One God has power above all other gods. As you wrote about the irony of the pigs – it shows that demons are on the Jesus’ command. I remind a lecture from apostole Pauls’ letter to Colossians 2,15:
    “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

    Isn’t the demonstration of Jesus’ power clearly described in this verse?

    What about Lazarus? Didn’t Jesus said: Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe? The first goal of rising Lazarus from the dead was to make the Twelve have faith in Him.

    Summarizing, I think there is many many goals and purposes of Jesus’ healing, rising from dead, helping, making signs and miracles.

    Best regards

    Reply
    • Hi there Maciej! Thanks for commenting? Where in Poland do you live? I visited Wroclaw last year.

      Yes, I agree with you that there are many reasons for Jesus’ healing. The Fourth Gospel characterises them as ‘signs’ pointing to Jesus’ identity, and as Ryan’s comment highlights, the incident has the same significance here.

      But, as I comment on my piece about God and disability, we must be careful about seeing these incidents as suggesting that Jesus was motivated by anything other than compassion for the people involved. They are not ‘mere props’ in his demonstrations of power, but the objects of his care and compassion.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for answering. So you visited our capital of culture. I live in the North of the Country – in Gdynia, it is the neighbour city to Gdańsk.

    Of course I agree that Jesus does not treat people as some kind of objects or props as you said and this is well defining word, but as special creation. He treat us with love, mercy and compassion and that is great in our God.

    Reply
  5. What I find odd is that in the Synoptics Jesus seems to find demons in every nook and cranny…yet not one mention of demon possession is found in the Gospel of John! I guess demonology did not fit with the theme of John’s gospel.

    It is also odd how prevalent demon possession appears to have been in the time of Jesus, but I can’t remember the last time my Anglican priest has cast out a demon!

    Reply
    • That’s an interesting observation, and one that I think has been made before. Worth making some responses. First, all the gospels are selective, so in some ways it seems odd to us that any omit anything e.g. why do the synoptics not mention Lazarus? (There is a simple literary/geographical explanation.)

      Second, it is clear that some things we would explain in other ways are accounted for by demon possession. That is not a sceptical comment, merely noting that the gospels were written in a pre-scientific world.

      Thirdly, I think it is fair to say that the average parish priest does not represent the eschatological breaking in of the kingdom of God to quite the degree that the ministry of Jesus does. Therefore it is perhaps not surprising that the Evil One is not so stirred to action.

      Having said that, every C of E diocese has someone responsible for deliverance ministry, and friends of mine have been directly involved in this.

      Reply
      • You make very good points, Ian. It is certainly possible that some of the persons from whom Jesus “cast out demons” were suffering from medical disorders, such as epilepsy. Jesus healed their seizure disorder using metaphorical, culturally relevant language that they would understand. Of course, people with seizure disorders do not cause 2,000 pigs to stampede off the edge of a cliff.

        Some scholars believe that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is metaphorical in its entirety. In the story, the demon identifies himself as “Legion” and the number of pigs is 2,000. There were 2,000 soldiers in a Roman legion. Coincidence??

        There are many wonderful stories in the Gospels. Some are literary jewels. But readers should be very careful not to believe everything written in these books to be historical fact. Most scholars believe that the Gospels were written in a genre that allowed for a great deal of literary and theological embellishment.

        Ian, are there any statistics on the number of demons cast out by New Zealand Anglican clergy in the last year? It would be a fascinating statistic to review, I’m sure.

        Reply
          • According to Michael Willett Newheart, professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity (2004), the author of the Gospel of Mark could well have expected readers to associate the name “Legion” with the Roman military formation, active in the area at the time (around 70 AD).[4] The intention may be to show that Jesus is stronger than the occupying force of the Romans.[5] Seyoon Kim, however, points out that the Latin legio was commonly used as a loan word in Hebrew and Aramaic to indicate a large number.[6]

          • Given that Mark’s account has the response to Jesus inquiry for the name “my name is legion, for we are many”, understanding ‘legion’ as standing for a large number is very reasonable. 2000 is a large number, but it is not the size of a Roman legion. If this is a constructed story, designed specifically to point to Rome as the adversary, might not a more accurate number have been employed?

        • Some scholars believe that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is metaphorical in its entirety.

          Indeed. But that would be true of those who have a priori rejected the supernatural. I came across this quotation from Bultmann the other day:

          Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil . . . It is impossible to use the electric light and the radio and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.

          If one has made that move, then it is inevitable that one rejects that the story has a basis in an actual event, and so needs to find some other reason for it.

          However, the non-existence of spirits and the non-occurence of miracles are assumptions, which could be based on a false premise.

          Reply
          • I don’t think that is necessarily the case at all. Must everything in the Gospels be viewed with a “black or white” perspective? Isn’t it possible that the supernatural exists, yet, some of the supernatural stories in the Gospels are not historical; they were never meant to be understood as historical events. They were allegories and that is how the original readers understood them?

            Isn’t it possible for the story of the Gerasene demoniac to be an allegory, used by the author of Mark (where the original story appears), as a means of teaching a theological concept? Or, isn’t it possible that this was a folk tale or legend that developed in the years between Jesus’ death and the writing of Mark (circa 70 CE), told by Palestinian Jewish Christians, taking a subtle swipe at the Romans? The original readers would have known that this was a veiled dig at the Romans, and that is was not an actual historical account.

            And not all scholars who believe that this story is allegorical/fictional are atheists/deniers of the supernatural. Here is the abstract of an article written by a theologian at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, in JBL 133, no. 1 (2014) 139-155:

            Abstract:

            This reading engages two important and related dimensions of Mark’s scene of Legion entering the pigs. First, is the name Legion to be understood as signifying numbers (Gundry), or as a largely nonintegrated or secondary military detail (Marcus, Collins), or, as will be argued here, a military reference that is, along with other military terms and motifs, central to the scene? Second, how might we understand the demon’s unusual request to enter the pigs? Seeking to integrate a military meaning for the name “Legion” with an explanation for the demon’s request to enter the pigs, and employing imperial-critical, masculinity, and sociopolitical-narrative approaches, this paper highlights the scene’s polyvalent gendered and military-imperial language that has often been neglected since Derrett’s brief but undeveloped 1979 reference to it. My argument is that the scene inscribes Jesus’s hegemonic masculinity even while it mocks Roman power as an out-of-control, demonic, militaristic, and (self-)destructive masculinity, and fantasizes Rome’s defeat as womanly weakness at Jesus’s superior, commanding, masculine hands. Attention to the scene’s cross-gendering, which draws from imperial-critical and gendered perspectives, has been ignored in previous work.

          • I am not really sure why you think someone writing from Brite Divinity School would necessarily not be ‘anti-supernaturalist’. From this abstract I would guess the reading is imposing a gender ideology on the text.

      • I did a little research on the subject of exorcisms and discovered this: Exorcisms in the ENTIRE Church of England are “rare”. See this quote from an Anglican newspaper, dated January 17, 2017:

        “EXORCISM might be an activity with obvious appeal to the makers of horror films, but it is not a word that crops up much in conversation about deliverance ministry in the Church of England. The need for major exorcisms is rare, the Arch­bishops’ Adviser for the Heal­ing Ministry, the Revd Dr Beatrice Brandon, says.”

        If we only judged the prevalence of demon possession by the statistics of the Church of England, your suggestion that demon possession was much more prevalent during Jesus’ ministry due to the impending introduction of the “Kingdom”, would appear reasonable. However, as you are aware, Anglicans are not the only Christians on the planet today. If one searches Pentecostal literature, one finds that demon possession is still RAMPANT—all over the world! Entire crowds have been exorcised of demons by Pentecostal preachers, according to these sources. And what’s more, according to these Pentecostal sources, exorcisms in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are MUCH more prevalent than in the United States.

        Isn’t it odd that demon possession, now and during the time of Jesus, seems to be much more prevalent among the uneducated, the ignorant, and the highly superstitious? Maybe the reason that so many Pentecostal clergy have exorcised MANY demons, but my local C. of E. priest has never exorcised a single demon in his entire pastoral career is because all of his Anglican parishioners are educated, upper middle and upper class people with sensible heads on their shoulders who would never jump up during a mass begging to have “Bob” the demon cast out of him or her?

        Reply
        • I think it is worth considering that the educated, in their belief in their own autonomy, are unwilling to acknowledge those things which are beyond their control.

          Reply
          • But isn’t it odd, Ian, that while educated Anglican exorcists all over the western world are sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the call to exorcise a possessed Anglican…Pentecostals are finding the possessed in every nook and cranny?

            Pentecostals (such as Pentecostal theologian Craig Keener) will suggest that this phenomenon is due to Pentecostals being more open to the Holy Spirit (than stuffy Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians who rarely see demon possession). But isn’t possible that this phenomenon is due to another cause: limited education and higher gullibility?

            I suggest this same situation probably existed in Jesus’ time.

            And another point: If these people were simply suffering from a medical condition, such as a seizure disorder which you allude to, isn’t it odd that Jesus didn’t give these people the formulation for Carbamazepine or one of the other common anti-seizure medications? It would have been so simple and resulted in so much more benefit for these suffering individuals and to humankind in general. But alas, our ways are not His ways.

          • Or…

            “Educated people refuse to believe in fantastical supernatural claims due to an unwillingness to jump to conclusions about those things about which they have insufficient evidence.”

            I would say that the evidence for demon possession is slim to none.

            I’m surprised that educated Anglicans still believe in the reality of these alleged creatures. I assumed that little demons went out of vogue in the Church of England along with witches and warlocks. I am truly shocked that the C. of E. admits that it has an exorcist on standby in every diocese. I’d be curious what the laity would think if this were made more public.

  6. Gary, for contemporary evidence of demonic activity and what the Christian response should look like, I suggest you read Deliverance from Evil Spirits – A Practical Guide by Francis McNutt. It is the best book I have found on the subject and I hope you find it as enlightening as I did.

    Reply
    • Hi John. If I asked you to read a book regarding contemporary evidence for the existence of broom-riding witches would you read it? Would you even consider the possibility that such a book might be “enlightening”?

      I doubt it.

      Why? Because the claim that broom-riding witches exist is silly. And so is the claim that invisible little devils exist which inhabit and control the bodies and minds of human beings. When a respected modern national scientific society publishes a peer-reviewed article which concludes that demon possession is real, you will have my full attention. But until that time, I suggest that you trust science and reason, John, not ancient, scientifically ignorant holy books.

      Do you know why Jesus believed that the Gerasene man was possessed by a demon, John? Answer: Because Jesus was just as superstitious and ignorant about seizure disorders and mental illness as was everyone else in the first century. Science hadn’t yet informed humanity of the etiologies of seizure disorders and mental illness. Jesus was dealing with the best information available at the time. Jesus may have sincerely believed in demon possession, but he was sincerely mistaken.

      Let’s appreciate the literary beauty of these ancient tales but let us grieve for the massive human suffering that has occurred due to the ignorant superstitions of ancient cultures and their religions.

      Reply
  7.  “In the medieval era the average citizen was on the look out for signs of demonic possession or demonic signs. If a farmer’s crops failed he might accuse his neighbor of sending demons into his fields at night. If a woman gave birth to a stillborn baby she might be accused of consorting with demons. Even dogs and cats might be accused of demonic possession.  The penalty for consorting with demons was generally death by fire.  According to the Bible, 1 Peter 5:8 – “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” ”

    Gary: How terribly frightening that some modern, highly educated, people such as Ian and John still believe this superstition. I “pray” for the day when all educated people abandon all superstitions.

    Reply
  8. Sam Harris tells an interesting story about demon possession: The mother of a mentally disturbed young man went from church to church asking for an exorcism of the demons which she believed possessed her son’s body and mind. One church attempted an exorcism of the young man. The exorcism failed. Months later he went on a shooting rampage at his university campus killing multiple people.

    Why didn’t the mother take her son to a psychiatrist?

    Answer: She believed the Bible. When people acted “mad” in Jesus’ day, it was because they were possessed by demons. So why shouldn’t she assume the same in a person who is behaving in a similar fashion today?

    The belief in demon possession and other scientifically ignorant superstitions has caused massive human suffering. I suggest the following: Do not believe any universal truth claim unless it can be backed up with scientific evidence. If the mother in the above story had trusted science instead of an ancient holy book, her son might be mentally healthy and the victims of his mental illness would still be alive!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zV3vIXZ-1Y

    Reply

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