Quick recap of Luke 8:26–39 (and parallel passages Matthew 8:28–34; Mark 5:1–20) –
Jesus has just calmed the elements (the wind and sea deities) on the Sea of Galilee. Arriving now at the opposite (east) end of the lake, Jesus and his disciples quickly encounter a crazed man with an “unclean spirit” – this man has been living outside the town in the community graveyards. He would routinely cut himself with sharp stones and scream into the night. This man also seemed to have super-human strength, as any attempts to restrain him with chains were met with failure.
Upon seeing the men get out of their boat (twelve of whom, if you recall, just had a near-death experience), this man falls before Jesus and screams “WHAT BUSINESS DO WE HAVE WITH ONE ANOTHER, JESUS ‘SON OF THE MOST HIGH GOD’? I ASK YOU, DO NOT TORMENT ME!” Jesus, not answering, begins an exorcism ritual, and at a certain point asks, “What is your name?” The man replies: “LEGION. FOR WE ARE MANY!” At this point, the group of spirits within this man beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss*, but rather to allow them to leave the man and to enter a herd of pigs. Jesus gives them permission – so, the “legion” of demons exit the man and enter the pigs, who promptly rush down the hillside and into the lake to drown themselves.
The herdsmen have been watching all this (and are likely annoyed by now seeing as their livelihood just jumped off a hillside), and they soon bring the villagers of the countryside back with them to investigate. And what do they see? Jesus, the twelve disciples, and the (formerly) crazed man now fully sane, clothed (as apparently he was naked before…), learning from Jesus. The villagers are “gripped with great fear” and thus now they are the ones begging Jesus to leave instead of the demons! Picking up on social cues, Jesus and the twelve return to their boat, instructing the now sane man left behind to remain as a witness to what had happened to him there.
Here, as with our previous section in Luke 8:22–25, I am most interested in fleshing out what we learn about Jesus within the text.
What strikes me immediately are the parallels with our previous section:
1) Jesus seems very interested in doing battle with unrighteous spiritual forces. In 8:22–25 he does battle with the false elemental deities of the weather, such as Baal and Yamm and their Hellenistic/Roman equivalents. Now, Jesus calms the spiritual forces which have seized a man living on the margins of society due to his wild behaviour.
2) In both sections, key questions are asked pertaining directly to Jesus’ identity as Son of God – questions which receive no answer from Jesus. Lk 8:25: “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” Now Lk 8:28: “What business do we have with each other, Jesus ‘Son of the Most High God‘?”
I believe Jesus is quite aware of the disciples’ question of amazement and fear in 8:25, whether or not he actually heard them asking one another this question. He is (again, my interpretation) purposeful in his teaching, preferring to force the disciples to continue to wrestle with the mysteries and uncertainties which they are observing by being part of Jesus’ inner circle. He knows they will learn far better by having to dwell in a tension than to be subjected to high-minded theology dropping continually from his mouth.
But what of the “legion”** of demons and their question? Obviously, Jesus does not feel obligated to answer their question as the one in clear authority of the conversation. But nor does he find it necessary to expound upon his interaction with these spirits for the benefit of the disciples’ understanding. It is interesting to note that Matthew’s account (8:29) extends the question thusly: “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” But Jesus does not answer that question, either.
3) The abodes of the dead and demonic play heavily into both sections. In Lk 8:22–25 it was the raging chaos of the sea, symbolizing the primordial condition of disorder. Now, the tormented man camps out in the graveyards amongst the dead before finding Jesus on the shore. Further, the unclean spirits and their hapless animal hosts fling themselves into the depths (again symbolizing destruction) after begging Jesus not to send them to a different abyss – the nature of which is not expounded upon in the passage. Our attention is drawn to Jesus ‘ authority in both passages over the depths and the grave.
4) Fear. It is impossible to ignore the presence of fear. We are quite used to the idea of Jesus’ miracles being a good thing and a symbol of his divinity and Jesus-y-ness. Imagine what it is like, though, to see these kinds of things first-hand without the comfortable removal of time and place, or the benefit of sermons and Sunday school lessons. All three (Matt, Mk, Lk) have very brief accounts of this exorcism, but later Christian exorcisms recorded outside the Bible are often portrayed as extremely messy, confusing, and time-consuming affairs. I am starting to think that this scene lasted much longer than might be implied by the Gospel accounts. Mk 5:8–9a may be alluding to an ongoing exorcism effort by Jesus: “For He had been saying to Him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And he was asking him, ‘What is your name?’ ”
So, Jesus in real time made a lot of normal people very uncomfortable. The villagers (who are almost certainly not Jewish, but Gentile) beg Jesus to leave, for reasons that are not entirely clear from the text. I can only suspect that they might have viewed Jesus as a powerful deity (as he clearly has power over the spirits inhabiting the man), but one whose identity is unclear. Jesus could be a threat to them, after all. Hellenistic and Roman deities were far from friendly, and frighteningly arbitrary and cold where human subjects were concerned. The people among the Gerasenes likely had no context within which Jesus could be comfortably placed, and this understandably makes them uncomfortable.
(Then why does Jesus go there? Unknown, and the text is not concerned with such reasoning.)
There are likely other similarities which a competent New Testament scholar would discern that I have not (and I freely admit my limitations in the study of the Gospels). Nor have we yet addressed the reality of this exorcism. Are we truly to believe that a supernatural force was inhabiting the crazed man’s conscious body and controlling his actions?*** For now, and for the purposes of learning more about Jesus as a man and as a divine being, it is enough to say that the men and women among the villagers of the Gerasenes, as well as the disciples, believed that demons had possessed the man. They seem to have no doubts as to the spiritual reality of the crazed man’s situation. Jesus, too, initiates and participates in an exorcism which has parallels in other known religious cults outside Judaism.
* The Greek term in Lk 8:31 is ἂβυσσος (ab’-us-sos), which is a term more broadly used in Hellenistic literature to refer to the immeasurable depths. It at times refers to Orcus, a deep chasm in the lowest parts of the earth used as a receptacle for the dead and the abode of demons.
** A Roman legion was the backbone of the Roman military complex, and would have been a very well-known reference at this time. There is not a single definite size for a legion during Tiberias Caesar’s reign (as the entirety of Jesus’ active ministry was during Tiberias’ tenure, though he was born under Augustus) but could be in the range of 4000–5500 men in total. It seems unlikely that the group of spiritual entities inhabiting the man is truly giving an accurate count of themselves to Jesus here, nor would Jesus have understood it as such; rather, the name Legion is given chiefly to express that there are many, many unclean spiritual influences churning within the man. This idea is accomplished very effectively by using the idea of the feared Roman legion, a sizeable army in its own right.
*** I am fascinated by the topic of exorcism in the Bible. Perhaps this would be a good side topic for a full length podcast episode in the near future. Let me know if this appeals to you, dear and faithful reader.