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Jesus Heals the Demon-Possessed of Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-9)

Analysis and Comment


Jesus Performs an Exorcism

Jesus Performs an Exorcism

    1 And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. 2 And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 3 Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: 4 Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. 5 And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.
    6 But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, 7 And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. 8 For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. 9 And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.
    Compare: Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39

Jesus Among the Gentiles

When we last left Jesus, he displayed his power and authority over nature by calming a storm that came over the Sea of Galilee. He has also, in numerous instances, exercised power and authority over people by healing their illnesses and forgiving their sins. Now Jesus returns to a theme not seen since chapter 1: casting out unclean spirits in an exorcism.

Gadara, where the inhabitants are known as Gadarenes, was a city located southeast of the Sea of Galilee and today is known as Umm Qeis. It was an important hellenized city in the Decapolis (discussed in the next section) and a number of Cynic philosophers and Greek orators were associated with it. There doesn’t appear to have been a large Jewish population here, which suggests that Jesus was involving himself with Gentiles.

Better translations using better source material have Mark describing the events as occurring in the country of the Gerasenes, named after the city of Gerasa. This has been identified with modern-day Jerash, 50 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee and thus far too distant from the lake for the events to make any sense. This is one of the many cases where Mark makes errors about Palestinian geography.

The first act of his ministry among the Jews was casting out a demon; the first act of his ministry among the Gentiles is to cast out a horde of demons (a “Legion” was major unit of the Roman army consisting of four to six thousand men). It also isn’t clear whether this is one or two men (in Mark we have just one man but in Matthew there are two). This incident is the longest such miracle story to be found in the gospels and it is also one of the few which can be thought of has having likely been humorous to the original audience.

This is a good example of a “heightening” technique used by the gospel authors to emphasize certain themes. The method is to repeat the same story or type of story multiple times, preferably with the addition of new difficulties or dangers each time. We even see the tool of repetition being used within this passage: the author repeats the fact that the man was living among the tombs and that he was bound “chains” then “chains and fetters.”

It’s interesting that the possessed man normally stayed away from people but immediately came running to Jesus, recognizing him for who he was. In 1 John 4:2 and 4:15, we read that people capable of doing this are “of God” — so is this possessed man “of God”? Is he possessed because that’s what God wants? What, exactly, makes these spirits “unclean” in the first place and why did they force (or allow) the man to run up to Jesus? Who is “worshipping” Jesus — the man or the demons? The latter makes no sense, but if it’s the man then he hasn’t lost all control over his actions.

In most exorcism narratives, a standard format is followed: Jesus arrives and sees the possessed person, Jesus expels the demon, and finally we get the reaction of others as they watch the demon leave the possessed person. Here, though, the actual exorcism appears almost as an afterthought.

Traditional Christian exegesis treats the man as representing all of humanity. He is plagued by demons (temptations and sins) who cause him pain and suffering. When the community tries to bind him with chains (rules, commandments, laws) in order to protect him, the strength of his demons (sins) allows him to escape so that he can continue doing greater harm.

Eventually he is forced to wander among the dead, alone with his guilt and sins. This changes when Jesus appears. Instead of trying to restrain him with laws and commandments, Jesus frees him of his sins through the power of his love and the man’s faith. At least, that’s the traditional story. Driving out so many “unclean” spirits might have also been regarded as a metaphor for driving “unclean” foreigners from the land — like, for example, the Roman Legions.

But what happens to the spirits?

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