The belief that people can be inhabited or even possessed by evil spirits has been a common feature of many societies. Concomitant with this, naturally, is the presence of people who can detect and drive the spirits away. While possession of one sort or another can be found in ancient Jewish scriptures, the concepts of possession and exorcism in the Bible are almost entirely limited to the synoptic gospels in the New Testament.
Why would this be the case? Scholars really aren’t sure. It’s implausible that exorcism was first developed among the Jews by Jesus and his followers, but it does appear as though the conditions for widespread belief in such things may have been relatively recent to Jesus’ time.
Ancient Jewish literature doesn’t have much to say about the presence of evil cosmic forces arrayed against God. By the first century CE, though, such beliefs had become much more common — many, in fact, had come to believe that the Earth was part of a kingdom already ruled over by the forces of evil rather than by God. In a context where the very world is “possessed” by evil, the possession of individuals by evil provided more room to operate. Given the Jews’ declining political power and domination by Rome, such a view is not surprising.
It is likely, then, that there was a popular industry of exorcisms among Jews throughout the first century BCE and CE, but the stories involving Jesus are the best remaining examples that we have. Because of the survival of Christianity, the ideological context of first-century Jewish exorcisms has also been preserved.
Whereas spirit-possession in other cultures has more to do with the presence of a spiritual realm all around us, in Christianity it is dependent upon the assumption that the Earth (to one degree or another) has been given over to Satan. As part of a kingdom dominated by evil, possession by demons is one of the ways Satan uses to influence people and undermine their faith. Exorcism, then, is primarily a type of ministry: driving an evil spirit out of a person is like driving evil out of the world and turns dominion of the person from Satan back over to God.
In the gospels, “Jesus the Exorcist” is engaging in an eschatological activity that heralds the coming of the Kingdom of God. His ability to cast out spirits is described as being dependent upon the power of God and this, in turn, is dependent upon the faith of those around him. The message would have been clear to the audiences of the gospel authors: with sufficient faith, people will be able to partake in the power of God to drive evil out of the world, vindicate the true believers, and help establish the Kingdom of God over all the Earth.
It is interesting that Jesus’ exorcism activities are mostly limited to the synoptic gospels. The gospel of John contains nothing of the practice while Acts contains just four references: two specific and two general. The epistles and Revelations also contain nothing about exorcising evil spirits, despite the fact that Paul does address other “spiritual gifts.”
It’s possible that the ability to actually exorcise evil spirits on a case-by-case basis was thought to be limited to just Jesus and the disciples he personally authorized to carry out his work. Early Christian churches may not have engaged in this on the assumption that they should be focused on holding firm to their faith in the face of much larger evils: persecution by Jewish and Roman authorities seeking to extinguish their religious beliefs.