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The Demonological Frame of Mind During Early Christianity

The Demonological Frame of Mind During Early Christianity
© Photograph by Amani AlShaali

The episodes are well-known, such as, the temptation of Jesus by the Devil for forty days is described in rich details in the pages of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although Jesus, due to His divine nature, could have rejected the Devil from the very beginning, He nevertheless allowed the Devil to remain nearby and even dialogued with him. The gospels report that the two had several discussions during the forty days, and that Jesus successfully resisted the Devil’s temptations. The events that consecrated Jesus as an exorcist followed these temptations in the wilderness, that is to say, publically performed exorcisms.

Some miracles performed by Jesus, as described in the New Testament, refer to casting out demons or devils from people believed to be possessed. Both the Orthodox and the Catholic renditions of the Bible, despite their differences, present in similar fashion the events of these exorcisms. An example suffices to highlight these similarities. Both Orthodox and Catholic Scriptures, in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9: 32–34), depict the same scene, only the wording differs slightly: “After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, ‘Never has anything like this been seen in Israel’. But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons’.”

The final case of demonic possession which Jesus encountered unfolded during the very time of the Last Supper. According to the Gospels, Judas had been possessed by the Devil. But Jesus did not exorcise Judas. On the contrary, He spoke to him with kindness, telling Judas, “Friend, do what you came to do”. In this act perhaps Jesus wished to provide a lesson and an example to the other apostles about everything He had taught them to that moment. (Papini, 2009: 88) The exorcisms performed by Jesus are mentioned in three of the four Gospels. In the Gospel of John, there is no remark in this sense, although it is hardly imaginable that John was not aware of the exorcisms performed by Jesus, given the fact that roughly a quarter of Jesus’ miracles mentioned by the New Testament refer strictly to exorcisms. (Valdez, 2006)

Reading the New Testament reveals how exorcisms were performed at that time. In many ways, the exorcist’s procedure during the early Christianity appears described over simplistically. The command addressed to the demon or demons to be cast out was enough to perform a successful exorcism. Jesus and his apostles performed exorcisms and according to testamentary sources, anyone could perform exorcisms without needing approval from religious authorities. (Branişte and Branişte, 2001) During this period, there was no ritual structure nor specific prayers designed to cast out demons.

In addition to the writings of the New Testament with direct reference to exorcisms, other texts have been discovered that, from a Roman Catholic theological point of view, are outside of the scope of official Church doctrine. This is the case of the Apocrypha (i.e., the apocryphal gospels and other writings of unknown authorship or doubtful authenticity). One of the most important collections of apocryphal writings was compiled by Mario Erbetta (1966), an Italian monk who, in addition to old Greek and Latin, was also familiar with several oriental languages such as Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian languages. (Evanghelii apocrife, 2007: 13) Mario Erbetta wrote the following definition of apocryphal writings: “the apocryphal of the New Testament are books not included in the canon, but which through their title as well as through other means, claim or suggest a canonical authority, while their literary genre imitates or transforms new testamentary forms and types” (Evanghelii apocrife, 2007: 14 – the author’s translation). These apocryphal writings, as they appear for instance in the second-century The Infancy Gospel of Thomas shed light upon, and reveal a plethora of lesser-known details of Jesus’ and his mother’s lives. These are writings which fit into the pseudo-epigraphical literary genre, as the narration is given by a famous person from a previous epoch. Authentic historical elements introduce a doctrinal syncretism into which pagan elements and superstitions, developed within popular Christianity, are inserted. (Buzalic, 2010: 149)

These Apocrypha works are teeming with a rich demonology, as Evil is personalized from a “devil” conceived of as a fallen angel and God’s opponent who is transformed into the “Devil” as a sui generis, autonomous entity. This principle of evil evolved into a personalized Devil who at first accomplishes distractive missions, together with other rebel angels, and later becomes the main suspect and simultaneously the culprit for the cases of demonic possessions in Christianity. The leader of these fallen angels is distinguished as having a more clarified status, in the end receiving his own identity under the names of “Satan”, “Belzebuth”, or “Lucifer”. (Buzalic, 2010: 149)

Apocryphal writings also contain episodes of demonic exorcism. The Arabic Gospel of Jesus’s childhood describes exorcisms which detail the way in which they were performed. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is placed in the role of the exorcist, who through her sheer presence near the sight of a possessed person succeeded in casting out the demons. Even the manifestation of an emotion of compassion determined a demon to run away. The story is related in the episode of the “possessed woman”, in the Arabic Infancy Gospel: “And when the Lady Mary saw her, she pitied her; and upon this Satan immediately left her, and fled away in the form of a young man, saying: Woe to me from thee, Mary, and from thy son”. (Arabic Infancy Gospel: 14) Another episode from the same gospel relates just as unusual an exorcism: “And the son of the priest, his usual disease having come upon him, entered the hospital, and there came upon Joseph and the Lady Mary, from whom all others had fled. The Lady Mary had washed the clothes of the Lord Christ, and had spread them over some wood. That demoniac boy, therefore, came and took one of the cloths, and put it on his head. Then the demons, fleeing in the shape of ravens and serpents, began to go forth out of his mouth. The boy, being immediately healed at the command of the Lord Christ, began to praise God, and then to give thanks to the Lord who had healed him. And when his father saw him restored to health, ‘My son, said he, what has happened to thee and by what means hast thou been healed?’ The son answered: ‘When the demons had thrown me on the ground, I went into the hospital, and there I found an August woman with a boy, whose newly-washed clothes she had thrown upon some wood: one of these I took up and put upon my head, and the demons left me and fled’”. (Arabic Infancy Gospel: 11)

These two accounts illustrate a kind of exorcism which is different from that performed by Jesus, who exorcized demons by ordering them to be cast away. But in these accounts of exorcism an indirect, wordless, action drew away from the demons. One can note that these first exorcisms, recounted during the times of early Christianity, cannot be found in the neo-testamentary, “canonical”, writings, either Orthodox or Catholic. Even so, a simple reading of these writings be it even by persons lacking formal certification in Roman Catholic or Orthodox theology, cannot but confirm or endorse the “official” aspects of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic dogmas. That is to say, the fervour with which relics are received and venerated by the faithful for their healing powers is well known in both churches. Like the possessed boy in the story who placed a cloth on his head and cast out the demons, so it is that relics are believed to perform such acts.

Another aspect to which we need to refer is the image of the Devil, the main suspect and simultaneously the culprit for the cases of demonic possessions during early Christianity. Neither the New Testament nor the apocryphal literatures provide us with a physical image of the devil. These texts do not attach a face to the idea of the devil. It is not until the imagination of the Middle Ages and afterwards, during the post-medieval period, that visual representations of the demonic evil appear.

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