Demons and the Bible (Matthew 8)

Illustration: Jesus gets tempted by the devil

Many readers assume that the belief in demons attested in the New Testament its simply a function of its authors’ sharing in the superstitious beliefs and practices of all ancient peoples. The question of the reality of demons, of course, cannot be settled by archaeology. Researchers can demonstrate, however, that the notion that the New Testament writers simply shared the prescientific views of their contemporaries is simplistic and misleading.

Demons in the Ancient Near East

Ancient Near Eastern society was awash in texts containing magical incantations and amulets intended to protect people from evil spirits (spells for defense against demons are called “apotropaic spells”). For example, one of the feared demons of the Neo-Assyrian times was the lion-headed female figure Lamash-tu, who was thought especially to attack pregnant women and babies. For protection women wore a necklace with a pendant of the god Pazuzu. An enormous number of apotropiac spells have survived from Babylonia, employing magical words and rituals involving plants, animal parts and other sacred objects. Even today in the eastern Mediterranean it is not uncommon to see amulets intended to ward off the “evil eye”.

Demons in Nonbiblical Jewish Literature

Ancient Jewish literature was also fascinated with magic as a means of dealing with demons. The Apocryphal book of Tobit tells the story of one “Sarah, daughter of Raguel”, who had been married – and widowed on her wedding night through the intervention of the demon Asmodeus – seven times. Meanwhile, Tobias, the son of the blind Tobit, journeyed to Media, where Sarah lived, traveling in the company of a man who turned out to be the angel Raphael. While Tobias was sitting by the Tigris River a fish tried to eat his foot. Raphael instructed Tobias to seize the fish and extract its gall, heart and liver. If he would burn the heart and liver in the presence of an individual afflicted by a demon, that person would be delivered. Arriving in Media, Raphael informed Tobias that he was to marry Sarah but that he could thwart the demon, Asmodeus, by burning the fish’s liver and heart when he went in to her. Tobias safely took Sarah as his wife, after which he used the fish’s gall to cure his father’s blindness.

The Testimony of Salomon further illustrates the widespread belief in apotropaic magic. This is a pseudepigraphical work (one that falsely claims to have been written by a famous person of the Old Testament) attributed to Salomon. In this work Solomon received a powerful ring from the angel Michael. With it he could imprison or control demons and deliver people from affliction. For example, Solomon forced the demon Lix Tetrax to help build the temple by hurling stones up to the workers.

Demons in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is remarkably reticent about evil spirits, so much so that it seems to have no developed demonology. Even so, three facts stand out:

* There are no incantations, rituals or amulets prescribed for giving an individual protection from spirits. Considering how much of the Torah is devoted to ritual and to sacred obejects, this is a remarkable omission.

* God is said to have complete authority over the spirits, which cannot operate in the world without His approval. If a “lying spirit” goes out, it is only with divine concent (1 Kings 22:23, cf. Job 1-2).

* The main concern of the Old Testament writers was that the people avoid seeking to avail themselves of magical powers through contact with spirits (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

Demons in the New Testament

The New Testament demonstrates two realities about evil spirits:

* Jesus alone (Luke 4:41) has absolute power over them, but this was a matter of divine authority, not magic or sorcery.

* The New Testament mocks the claims of magicians by describing their inability to deal with real spirits. The failed efforts of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24) and the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14-16) to obtain apostolic authority illustrates the point that the miracles of the New Testament had nothing to do with ancient magic.

Jesus had no use for demonic spirits and did not seek to employ them to do His bidding.

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