Burke's analysis of Mark 5

Continuing a discussion from Aquinas and Apologetics, I would like to invite @Jonathan_Burke to give his viewpoint of the “healing of the demoniac” passage in Mark 5 and especially the weaknesses of the “orthodox” reading of the passage.

For background reading on @Jonathan_Burke’s hermeneutical methodology, see:

Mark 5:1-20 (NRSV)

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.


Because Biblical interpretation can be a hot topic, I would just like to remind everyone of our community guidelines:

In particular, I would call out:

There is value in free exchange of ideas , so that legitimate questions can be addressed, and real concerns uncovered. For this reason, there will not be restrictions against posting heterodox ideas on this forum, even if they are strongly disputed and disagreed with by the host.


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I wonder if you could explain this a bit more to me. I read in your paper that the view of Satan/Devil as a being wasn’t common in 2nd Temple Judaism. But how do you know that Mark is one that didn’t believe in supernatural evil? Is there something in the text of Mark itself, or is there outside evidence?

@Jonathan_Burke, it also seemed to me like the argument in your papers is that 2nd Temple Judaism didn’t talk about Satan as a being, satanic source of evil but during the 2nd and 3rd century Christianity has developed our orthodox view of Satan/Devil, etc. It seems to me then that the writing of the New Testament would occur at the transition? Doesn’t then that affect the socio-historical context? In other words, socio-historical context can fail if the text is a part of a socio-historical transition. What if the NT is actually beginning a new view of the origin of sin, etc.?


An excellent question, Jordan – one I asked in the other discussion, just before I read this.

Another excellent question. Some texts are context-making, so to speak, and to interpret them in light of some alleged historical context, as if it’s a “given” that someone writing in that period would hold to certain views, make certain assumptions, etc., might actually mislead us regarding the texts’ meaning.

  1. Evidence in Mark himself. I’ve cited some of this previously; Mark himself never tells us anything about his own beliefs in supernatural evil.

  2. Intertextuality. I’ve cited some of this previously; New Testament works written for mature Christian believers eliminate supernatural evil. They present ethical and psychological dualism rather than cosmic dualism. I cover some of this in my paper on the wilderness temptation.

I’ll go into this in more detail later.

Second Temple Judaism did talk about a personal being who was a supernatural source of evil, but this being was typically not called “Satan”. Various other names were used. Additionally, there was no one single figure; there were typically two or more figures, with various names. Importantly, the New Testament does not reflect these beliefs; it doesn’t use these names or cite these figures. Additionally, during the first century these beliefs were on the wane in Second Temple Period Judaism, and by the end of that century they virtually disappear.

During the second century, Christians outside Judea started developing the ideas which would later form the “orthodox” understanding of satan and demons. These views don’t start to appear until the middle of the second century. In fact most of the traditional “orthodox” views of satan and demons can’t be dated earlier than the middle of the second century.

For example, the belief that demons were fallen angels, and the belief that the serpent in Eden was Satan, were introduced by Justin Martyr. Today people think these are ideas which are already in the New Testament, but we know for a fact that they were invented first by Justin Martyr. He arrived at these beliefs by reading apocryphal Second Temple Period texts, and borrowing their ideas (we know this because he cites the texts). This is the actual moment of transition, the mid-second century.

This is a legitimate point of course. Any new idea must start somewhere. This is not a matter of socio-historical context failing, it’s a matter of reading socio-historical context with care. This is why it is so important to assess texts synchronically (compared to texts which are of the same era), and diachronically (compared to texts which came both before and after them).

So you need to read pre-Christian Second Temple Period texts (diachronic), and Christian era Second Temple Period texts (synchronic), and second century Christian texts (diachronic), and then assess the extent to which the New Testament books show continuity or discontinuity with those texts. That’s how you detect the “seams” which demonstrate transition from one set of beliefs to another. This is just standard practice in socio-historical analysis.

That’s the whole point of my work on the Apostolic Fathers, because the extent to which the New Testament texts show continuity and discontinuity with those texts, informs our understanding of what the New Testament texts themselves mean. I’ll write more on this later.

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There is nothing wrong with studying the views on demons found in the Apostolic Fathers. Nor is there anything wrong with hoping that the study of those later texts may shed some light on some New Testament texts. Such things often happen. But there is no guarantee that the views of the Apostolic Fathers (on demons or anything else) are a reliable guide to the views of any particular New Testament author. There is no guarantee that because Fathers X, Y, and Z (or some average of the belief of the Fathers) did not accept demons, that Mark did not accept demons. In the end, in the absence of any surviving documents from people who knew and conversed with Mark, all claims about what Mark believed must rest primarily on what Mark wrote. So hopefully, here, Jonathan Burke will interpret what Mark wrote. I thank Jordan for instigating this discussion.


No one is saying it’s a guarantee of anything. However, it is a necessary part of exegesis.

But we can’t understand what Mark wrote unless we read what he wrote in its sitz im leben. You keep trying to hermetically seal the text, insulating it from its lexicographical and socio-historical context. This is a hermeneutic of literalism, as used by… well we know what kind of Christians use this hermeneutic.

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You are completely free to talk about the sitz im leben all you like – as long as you also deal with what is written in the text of Mark 5. On the other hand, talking about the sitz im leben of Mark 5 without discussing specific Greek sentences from Mark 5 is worse than useless. So let’s talk about the text of Mark 5.

Actually, I’ve never done this. You’ve read that into my comments, but I haven’t done it. I’ve never said that it’s worthless to learn things about the social context of Mark or any other ancient text. I’ve never said that such study can’t help one understand a text. I’ve only said that such study can’t justify erasing or ignoring what is written or putting words or notions into an author’s mouth or text.

Mark says explicitly, in the plainest possible Greek, that unclean spirits went out of the man and into the pigs. That is textual data that needs to be explained. You can employ whatever hermeneutical principles you deem helpful, but in the end, your argument will persuade only to the extent that it deals with the data presented in the text. So the time for staying high up in the pure realm of general methodological principles is past, and the time for getting your fingers dirty, mucking about in the philological details of the Greek text of Mark, is upon you. I look forward to your presentation.

But we’re going to discuss specific Greek sentences from Mark 5.

Not until we’ve finished establishing the socio-historical context. You should know this, if you really have the PhD you’ve claimed.

And I never said you did. You keep raising these straw men. What you have done however, is try to insist that you can interpret the text correctly without doing this work, and you have repeatedly attempted to interpret the text without doing this work.

Of course not, but that’s not the aim of socio-historical context. The aim of socio-historical context is to help us understand what the words actually mean.

Of course it is.

Yes. But we have to do the hard work first. You want to skip all the hard work and jump straight to a literal interpretation of the English text, bringing to it a host of theological baggage along the way. You don’t even want to determine how we can know what Mark’s beliefs are, you just insist that we already know what they are from what he wrote, without first taking the critical step of determining what he meant by what he wrote. Your argument is entirely circular.

  1. We know Mark believed in demons because in this passage he speaks of his belief in demons.
  2. We know this passage is speaking of Mark’s belief in demons, because Mark believed in demons.

Oh no it isn’t, we’ve barely started. Nevertheless, I’ve already laid out the roadmap so you know exactly where I’m going with this.

  1. The socio-historical context. To explain this, I both quoted and linked to one of my papers in which I demonstrate that contrary to popular opinion, it is demonstrable that not all the New Testament writers believed in a supernatural satan and demons, so such an interpretation cannot simply be assumed when a text is read; it must be derived legitimately from the text.

  2. Lexicography. To explain this, I linked to two of my papers in which I demonstrate that Greek words typically understood to refer to the traditional understanding of satan and demons, not only have a range of meanings but during the first century were typically not understood as referring to the satan and demons of later periods.

  3. Demythlogization. To explain this, I quoted Twelftree and Dunn as an example of how this is applied to demonic possession in the New Testament by people like myself (and by them). Note that I did not appeal to their authority in an attempt to say this interpretation is correct, I quoted them as an example of how this is applied to demonic possession in the New Testament. What did you think of Twelftree and Dunn’s argument? I also linked to a paper of mine in which I quoted Dunn saying that the apostle Paul himself applied demythologization. That same paper of mine also identifies demythologization in a number of second century Christian texts, demonstrating how it was used by early Christians to reject belief in a supernatural satan and demons.

Fine. Then sometime in April or May, when you have finished doing that, send me a note to tell me that you’re going to actually start talking about what Mark wrote, and I’ll tune in again.

Nope. I have been working on the Gospel of Mark, off and on, for years now, at the rate of several hours per verse for technical philological stuff, followed by still more hours per verse for study notes, discussion and commentary. That’s plenty of hard work.

No, unless you mean “literal” in a much broader sense than fundamentalists mean the term; and I work from the Greek text, as I’ve said before, but you refuse to correct your mischaracterization.

Quite the contrary. You are the one who insists on the theological commitment that demons don’t exist. I have no a priori commitment to the existence or non-existence of demons. I keep an open mind. But when I’m determining what a text teaches, my own views, preferences, wishes, etc. are irrelevant. My job is to bring out what the author seems to be saying, whether I find that teaching attractive or repulsive.

No, this is not my argument. I have never employed #2. My argument rests entirely on #1. If I had never heard of Christianity before, and picked up Mark, and read chapter 5, I would say, “This author teaches the existence of demons.”

I am not concerned with “all” the NT writers, just with the Synoptics, and here, just with Mark.

Of course. That’s why I don’t say: “This is the text of Mark, and Mark is in the New Testament, and the New Testament supposedly believes in demons, so Mark must believe in demons.” I read Mark, and try to determine Mark’s view on demons based on what Mark says, not on what Paul says, or what Revelation says, or even on what Luke or Matthew say.

But I’m not concerned with the meaning of those terms “in later periods”; I’m concerned with the meaning of those terms in Mark.

I look forward to your demonstration that an account of unclean spirits being transferred into pigs is a “demythologized” account. As I said above, drop me a note when the flowers are in bloom, and you’re actually discussing the Biblical text, rather than continuing to list books, articles, and authors in support of your methodology.

A different Mark V, and completely off-topic! :laughing:



A different Mark V, and completely cooler :slightly_smiling_face::




What do we do about the differences between Jesus-and-James’ views … vs. Paul and his followers?

There seems to be a world of difference between the two camps… even if we only go by Paul’s words.

That’s up to you.

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Yeah of course you have. Years of work on the gospel, several hours per verse (you’re really doing “verse by verse” exposition, seriously?), “technical philological stuff”. That explains why your only contributions thus far look like a few hasty minutes with Strong’s Concordance.

This is why your claims to scholarship never seem credible; there’s no evidence for them. Not only are you unable to identify your university, or any of your work, on the few occasions when you do approach the biblical text you don’t actually do the kind of work which an academically trained Bible scholar does. You don’t demonstrate any knowledge of the standard hermeneutical process, you’re explicitly hostile to the historical critical method, and you apply a hermeneutic of literalism.

No, I haven’t made any such insistence at all. I am entirely open to the existence of demons, and eagerly await being presented with evidence for them. To date, no one has done so. Demons are the Intelligent Design of theology.

That’s even more explicitly circular; “We know Mark believed in demons because in this passage he speaks of his belief in demons”. You’re assuming your conclusion.

So again, you are rejecting standard hermeneutical principles. This is not the hermeneutical process of the professional scholar, it’s the hermeneutical process of the fundamentalist.

Again, a rejection of standard hermeneutical method.

  1. There are no passages in Mark which speak of his personal belief in demons. He only references demons when speaking of the experiences of others, which have been related to him indirectly. He never speaks of personal experiences with demons, or having been an eyewitness of demonic activity.

  2. More broadly, there are no passages in any of the gospels whatsoever, in which the writers speak of demons as existing, as opposed to reporting what other people said about demons, or reporting observations.

  3. The Synoptics do not speak of demons in the same way as contemporary texts written by people who really did believe in demons. They don’t use the standard names for demons, they don’t speak of the standard exorcism rituals, and there is a complete absence of apotropaic prayer (prayers to God for protection against evil spirits). The last point is particularly remarkable, since in contemporary Jewish texts we find apotropaic prayers are absolutely standard among people who believed in demons.

  4. There is no evidence in the New Testament that the early Christians recognized the role of an exorcist. In fact there is no term for an exorcist in the entire New Testament. This is remarkable, because communities which believe in demons always have a specific term for an exorcist, and a specific term for exorcism. These terms existed in contemporary Jewish, Greek, and Roman society, but the New Testament never uses them. Again, the New Testament writers do not write the way people who believe in demons write.

  5. The Synoptics are written for people who aren’t yet Christians, whereas John is writing to mature Christians. In the gospel written for mature Christians, demons have vanished. We find the same in Paul’s letters. In both cases the authors write the same way people write when they don’t believe in demons; they simply don’t mention them, and they don’t attribute to them the activity commonly associated with demons. There’s no demonic possession, there are no exorcisms. When Paul speaks of an affliction from which he has suffered for some time, he calls it a “messenger of satan” but does not attribute it to either satanic or demonic attack. On the contrary, he says it was sent by God. This is why even earlier totally orthodox commentators such as the Baptist John Gill (eighteenth century), interpreted this as a non-demonic affliction sent by God, noting that Jews of Paul’s era sometimes used the word “satan” to refer to physical infirmity or the “evil inclination” (the natural impulse in humans to do wrong).

  6. The earliest systematic witness to the beliefs of the first century Christian community, outside the New Testament, is a document called the Didache, written close to the end of the first century It is a kind of church manual and catechism, which was to be recited prior to baptism. Combining both theology and praxis, it is remarkable for having absolutely no references to satan or demons whatsoever, and no references to demonic possession. Not only that, but it contains clear evidence of demythologization; actively rejecting beliefs in supernatural evil. This aligns it closely with late first century Jewish texts from which satan and demons have virtually vanished. Since this document was clearly the product of a Christian community, and since it was written at at time very close to the time when the last of the New Testament documents were written (which also show a disinterest in satan and demons), it is a reliably accurate representation of the late first century Christian community.

  7. Within the second century Christian writings referred to as the “Apostolic Fathers”, there is a similar disinterest in satan and demons. In fact demons are so markedly absent from these writings that modern scholars have struggled to explain it, and the debate as to why this is, continues. I have made my own contribution to the scholarly discussion of this subject, of course.

  8. There is no evidence for the existence of demons. This is the most difficult challenge for demonists. This is akin to people who believe in a global flood. The claim that the Genesis flood was global requires evidence that it was global; simply pointing to a Bible verse and saying “This says there was a global flood” is insufficient. The claim that demons exist requires evidence that they exist; simply pointing to a Bible verse and saying “This says that demons exist” is insufficient. It’s the same with the flat earth, the sun orbiting the earth, and any other interpretation which is empirically testable. Again this returns us to the concept of how we test our interpretation, how do we know when our interpretation is correct. No interpretation of demons in the New Testament can be accepted unless there is evidence for it. This requires evidence for the existence of demons.


There are no passages in Runciman’s History of the Crusades where he says, “I personally believe in the existence of Richard the Lionheart”, but we know that Runciman believed in the existence of Richard the Lionheart, because he wrote about him in declarative sentences in a work which is clearly intended as historical. Similarly, though Mark the narrator never speaks of himself or his personal beliefs, he makes declarative statements about what happened in the past, in a work which you yourself have insisted is historical in character.

An author does not write, in a historical work, “… and having gone out [of the man], the unclean spirits went into the swine”, unless he thinks that this event happened. If he had any doubts about whether it happened, he would put in some caveat, e.g., “… and it was said by some at the time that the unclean spirits went out of the man and into the swine.” There is no such caveat. The statement is bald, unqualified, absolute, and appears capable of only one non-forced interpretation.

Since the question on the table is not “Do demons exist?” but “Did Mark treat demons as really existing?” this is an irrelevant consideration. We are investigating what Mark believed and taught, not whether or not what Mark believed and taught was true.

So, what did Mark believe and teach about demons? I look forward to the textual exposition. I will refrain from further comment on methodological questions until I see that exposition.

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Isn’t this a bit of an over-statement? If anything, ACTS is certainly a discussion of the “early Christians”!

Note how much of the demon theme is invested in this discussion of exorcism!:

Acts 19:10-18:
And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:

So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.
Then certain [ones] of the vagabond [i.e., “perierchomai” or wandering] Jews,
EXORCISTS [i.e., “exorkistēs” or “Demon Expeller”],
took upon them to call over “them-which-had-evil spirits” the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.

Footnote [1]: an exorcist, i. e. one who employs a formula of conjuration for expelling demons: Acts 19:13. (Josephus, Antiquities 8, 2, 5; Lucian, epigr. in Anthol. 11, 427; often in the church Fathers.)
THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, Electronic Database.

And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.
And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?

And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds."

Jonathan, assuming that the so-called author of Luke got all this demon stuff wrong, how would Paul interpret this part of Acts 19?

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Is the text below considered a de-mythologizing by Paul?

1 Corinthians 10:18-21:
Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?
No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.


Those aren’t Christians George, they’re Jews. That passage sends this message.

  1. Exorcists are non-Christians; “exorcist” is an out-group term.
  2. Exorcists are frauds.

That’s the only use of the term in the New Testament, and it’s used as an out-group term of a bunch of frauds. that’s my point. We don’t see Christians using “exorcist” as an in-group term until well into the second century.

This is Paul referring to the non-existent gods of the heathen. This is where lexicography is important. Paul is using the word used in the LXX for foreign gods (see Deuteronomy 32:17). It isn’t until the second century that Christians start saying “Well ok we’ll admit gods of the heathen exist after all, but they’re not really gods, they’re demons pretending to be gods”. In contrast, the New Testament never says “The gods of the heathen are real, they’re just demons pretending to be gods”.

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