11. Binding Demons/Magical Exorcism


‘So Ornias went and said to Beelzeboul, "Come, Solomon calleth thee."
And Beelzeboul said, "Tell me, who is this Solomon of whom you speak."
And Ornias cast the ring upon the breast of Beelzeboul, saying, "Solomon
the King calleth thee." And Beelzeboul cried out with a loud voice, and
cast forth a great flame of fire, and rose up and followed Ornias.’

~ The Testament of Solomon, XIII ~

Having directly witnessed Jesus’ miraculous cures and his authoritative command over demons, the Pharisees grow increasingly suspicious of his activities and eventually charge him with being in collusion with demonic beings and using Beelzebul as the authority by which he performs his miracles (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15). The presence of this allegation in all three Synoptic Gospels suggests that this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees was a well-documented event that can be traced back to the authentic Jesus tradition and/or that the Gospel writers considered this story to be a valuable literary vehicle through which to reveal that Jesus was acting in the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31//Mk. 3:29//Lk. 12:10). It is unlikely that the evangelists would deliberately invent an accusation in which an alternative power source for Jesus’ miracles is proposed since this could potentially tarnish the divine nature and messianic authority of Jesus. Equally, if the ultimate purpose of the accusation is to reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry, then surely it would have been far simpler and less harmful to have Jesus make an instantaneous revelation of his divine power source without the need for hostile provocation. Whether the allegation made by the Pharisees is to be understood as Beelzebul’s possession of Jesus, or Jesus’ possession of Beelzebul, is of central importance for the value of this passage to our present study. The former reading suggests that Jesus was possessed, however the latter clearly warrants a charge of magic.

There are two charges made against Jesus in Mark’s account; that he has Beelzebul (Βεελζεβοὺλ ἔχει, 3:22) and that he is using Beelzebul to carry out his exorcisms (‘by the prince of demons he casts out demons’, 3:22). [1] Whether ἔχει (‘to have’) in Mk. 3:22 signifies possession by a demon or the possession of a demon is subject to much debate. Certainly, situating the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus has Beelzebul (Mk. 3:22) immediately following the observation that ‘he is beside himself’ (Mk. 3:21) and linking the two verses via the conjunctive , the author of Mark suggests that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul and therefore he ‘is beside himself’, ie. exhibiting possession behaviour.[2]

Although the location of the passage in Mark supports a reading of demonic possession, I would suggest that the Pharisees’ accusation is not concerned with Jesus’ possession by Beelzebul, but his control of Beelzebul. Since Matthew and Luke make no mention of possession in their parallel accounts and simply retain the accusation of using Beelzebul to cast out demons (Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15), we may safely assume that they do not intend to address any theories of possession. Furthermore, the accusation is pre-emptively reinforced without reference to possession traits by the author of Matthew in 9:34: ‘he casts out demons by the prince of demons’. If the allegation made by the Pharisees is not one of possession but of spirit control, then this is clearly a charge of magic.

The implicit charge of the magical manipulation of Beelzebul in this passage is drawn out in the parallel allegation found in the Acts of Pilate 1.1 (‘they say unto him: He is a sorcerer, and by Beelzebub the prince of the devils he casteth out devils’) and I would suggest a similar reading of magical spirit manipulation in Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15. Why the Pharisees would raise a charge of magic when their own exorcists were engaging in the very same activities is puzzling, especially since the Jewish exorcists were often suspected of practising magic themselves. [3] Noticing this weakness in the Pharisees’ argument, Jesus defends his actions by questioning the spiritual authority used by the Jewish exorcists to carry out their exorcisms (Mt. 12:27//Lk. 11:19). The answer to which the Pharisees are silently compelled is that both Jesus and the Jewish exorcists act in the same, legitimate power. Morton Smith observes this discrepancy and suggests that since the other exorcists were admired while Jesus was accused of magic there must have been ‘some difference, between him and them, which led to his being charged with magic.’[4] Either the Pharisees were secretly hoping that a comparison would not be drawn to their own exorcists, or Jesus exhibited behaviour and/or used specific techniques that were genuinely considered to be magical and that differed noticeably from the methods employed by the Jewish exorcists. Since the Gospel authors do not portray Jesus using traditional exorcistic techniques such as the use of prayer, herbs and amulets when exorcising demons, the enemies of Jesus may well have assumed, in the absence of these methods, that his miracles were achieved through the magical manipulation of a demonic power. Exorcists regularly encountered an allegation of magic in the ancient world as the procedures used to control demons in order to exorcise them were often identical to the techniques used to employ demons in the service of a magician. This suspicion was exacerbated by rumours that were rife in the early centuries concerning magicians such as Simon Magus, who was accused of performing his miracles using a demon (hence the activities of Simon may have influenced the accusation in Jn. 8:48 ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’).[5] As a result, demons, or even Satan himself, were often considered to be the powers behind the operations of enemies and the indictment that an opponent performed magic with the aid of demons was a common polemical tool in the ancient world.[6]

If the accusation made against Jesus in Mk. 3:22 has its source in the authentic Jesus tradition, then in view of the close association between exorcism and magical practice in the ancient world it is understandable that questions arose concerning Jesus’ power source and accusations of magical demon control were made against him, particularly as Jesus is presented by the Gospel authors as being far from naïve in the operations of evil spirits (eg Lk. 11:24-26). Alternatively, if the presence of the Pharisees’ charge simply functions as an opportunity for the Gospel authors to combat claims of magical spirit manipulation, then we would naturally expect Jesus to respond with evidence to the contrary. This effect is partly achieved by Jesus’ assertion that the Pharisees blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10), however certain elements in the convoluted crescendo which concludes with this statement reveal that Jesus has a keen awareness of the terminology and methods used to control demons and his demonstration of this knowledge has far reaching implications for magical practice.


Even to those entirely unfamiliar with the vocabulary of ancient magic, the principles of ‘binding’ are self-explanatory; by binding something you are either restraining it from operating or forcefully uniting it with something else. Methods of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ are largely based on the theory of ‘sympathetic’ magic which functions on the premise that the spiritual world is tied to the corporeal world by a series of invisible threads that can be manipulated by the magician on earth to achieve similar effects in the heavenly realm. Therefore, whatever is bound or loosed by the magician on the earth is bound or loosed in heaven. Unsurprisingly, ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ are terms that were closely linked in antiquity with exorcism and the control of demons. The apocalyptic writings in particular refer to ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ as a means of restraining (binding) and releasing (loosing) demons. For example, the angel Raphael binds the demon Asmodeus in Tobit 8:3, Raphael binds Azaz’el in 1 Enoch 10:4-6 and the new priest is able to bind Beliar in the Testament of Levi. 18:12. Similarly, Satan is bound (ἔδησεν) for a thousand years in Rev. 20:2 (although Rev. 20:3 says that he will be loosed (λυθηναι) after serving this time).

Magical texts detailing the employment of binding formulae were extremely commonplace in ancient Hellenistic magic. The Greek term for a binding spell is κατάδεσμος (from καταδέω, ‘to bind down’) although these spells are more popularly referred to under the Latin term defixio (from defigo, ‘to nail down’). More than 1, 100 defixiones have been retrieved from a variety of locations and they generally date from around the fourth and fifth century BC and take the form of small, thin sheets of lead that are inscribed with spells which are intended to influence or harm other individuals. Binding formulas were employed in ancient magic for a variety of purposes; either for exorcisms[7], to unite a person with, or bind a person to, a certain state of being such as love, hatred, sickness and health, to restrain thieves from stealing, armies from marching or dangerous animals from biting, to affect the commercial success of a rival by binding their profits or their crops from maturing, to separate lovers or bind lovers together[8], or to affect judicial verdicts by binding the performance of those in court.[9] Christopher Farone classifies the binding formulae of the ancient world into four different categories.[10] The first is a direct binding formula in which the first person singular verb is used (I bind…..) along with the names of the individual to whom the curse is directed. For example, in the incantation accompanying the construction of a defixio in PGM V. 304-69, the magician is instructed to say ‘I bind his mind and his brains, his desire, his actions’ (V. 327-328). The second is a prayer formula which uses a second person imperative to urge the deity to do the action on behalf of the performer. The third is a wish formula, i.e. ‘may it be successful’. The fourth is a similia similibus formula, in which the victim is cursed to become like, or similar to, another object.

However, the use of binding techniques was not restricted to the harm or manipulation of others. Since the world-view that was active in the first centuries associated sickness with demonic influence, many healers considered it necessary to bind the demon responsible for an illness in order to bring about the cure. Therefore binding and loosing are both terms that were closely related to healing in the ancient world.


Evidence of a correlation between demons and sickness can be found in a variety of biblical and literary sources dating from the second century BC to the first century AD. For instance, the Book of Tobit links sickness with demons and the appearance of a disease as a demonic figure is described by Philostratus who writes that Apollonius halted the spread of the plague in Ephesus by recognising that the demon responsible was disguised as a beggar and having him stoned.[11] With demonic spirits considered to be the source of most illnesses, exorcism was understandably a popular form of healing in the ancient world, for example the Egyptians considered diseases to be caused by demons which must be exorcised in order to bring about a cure.

Demons are typically the source of illness in Luke’s Gospel. For example, the exorcism of the mute demon in Lk. 11:14 results in the man’s ability to speak. Similarly, Jesus rebukes a fever in order to cure Simon’s mother-in-law in Lk. 4:38 and since the address is directed to the fever rather the woman and the term ἐπιτιμάω has previously been used as a command to control demons (Lk. 4:35), we can safely assume that the author of Luke intended this healing to be understood as an exorcism. Furthermore, the link between being ‘bound’ by Satan and a resulting illness is made explicit in Luke’s account of the healing of a woman with a spirit of infirmity in which Jesus asks ‘ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond (λυθηναι ἀπο του  δεσμου) on the Sabbath day?’ (Lk. 13:16). In addition to these accounts, the loosing of the bound tongue in the story of the healing of the deaf man in Mk. 7:31-35 is considered to be a typical example of ancient binding magic. Loosing, as a method of healing, was often considered to be equally as important as binding the demons causing the illness, as Morton Smith comments:

‘a cure may be described as ‘the bond’ of a disease being ‘loosed’. A helpful
magician like Jesus will not only ‘loose’ spells, afflicted persons…but will also
‘bind’ the demons.’[12]

Some commentators have suggested that this healing resembles an exorcism due to its inclusion of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ terminology. Although not referring directly to this passage in Mark’s Gospel, some consider the actions of ‘looking upwards, sighing or groaning, making hand gestures…spitting, invoking the deity and speaking ‘nonsense’ words or letter strings’) to be typical of exorcistic behaviour, thereby suggesting that we should understand this healing as an exorcism.

While binding demons in order to cast them out from the sick was a common practice in the ancient world and the Gospel writers present Jesus engaging in exorcistic cures, the Pharisees’ charge in Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15 is not simply one of binding Beelzebul but of possessing Beelzebul. As we have previously considered, the close association between exorcism and magic in antiquity almost guarantees that some shrewd observers of Jesus’ exorcisms would have assumed that if Jesus was able to effectively command demons and exorcise them, then he could also be in possession of a demon through which he could perform magic. If Jesus’ subsequent response to the Pharisees’ charge of magic had been simply to refute this suggestion, then the allegation could be dismissed as a malicious attack from Jesus’ opponents. However, by using terminology which reveals Jesus’ knowledge of magical methods used to bind spirits, including demonic powers, the Gospel authors situate evidence of magical demonic manipulation in the words of Jesus himself.


I would suggest that it is within this tradition of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ demonic beings that we are to interpret Jesus’ binding of the ‘strong man’ in Mk. 3:27//Mt. 12:29. By asking ‘how can Satan cast out Satan?’ (Mk. 3:23) and using the imagery of the divided kingdom (Mt. 12:25-26//Mk. 3:24-26//Lk. 11:17-18), Jesus ridicules the Pharisees’ claim that he is using Beelzebul to perform his exorcisms and suggests that their allegation is nonsensical. However, in accordance with the theories of ancient magic, this possibility would be entirely plausible.

In Mk. 3:27//Mt. 12:29 Jesus states that Satan/Beelzebul[13] has been bound (δήση) and therefore he cannot prevent Jesus from plundering his οικος (‘house’) for τὰ σκεύη (‘goods’).[14] The σκεύη in this case are commonly considered to be the souls of the demon-possessed and the οικος is either representative of Satan’s kingdom, the present age or, most traditionally, the body of the demon-possessed individual. However, an alternative reading of the terminology in this passage not only draws out implications that Jesus has possession of Satan, but also that he has possession of his demons. In Mark’s version, the close correlation between ‘kingdom’ and ‘house’ in the division imagery of verses 24-26 leads the reader to assume that these are locations, spiritual or corporal, that belong to Satan. By following immediately into the image of the strong man’s house, it is logical to assume that the house in 3:27 is that which belongs to Satan in 3:25. In support of this, the use of the name ‘Beelzebul’ by the Pharisees instead of ‘Satan’ in all three Synoptic Gospels is probably intended as a play on the Hebrew terms baal (‘lord’ ) and zebul (‘dwelling, or house’) which combine to read ‘lord of the house’ (cf. also Mt. 10:25 in which Beelzebul is the master of the house). If the οικος in Mk. 3:27//Mt. 12:29 is synonymous with the kingdom of Satan, then the goods of the house would naturally be the demons that are under his command. Therefore, with their chief demon in a ‘bound’ state, Jesus claims that he can enter this kingdom and steal the demons as Satan is now unable to prevent them from being stolen, hence perhaps the ‘gathering’ terminology in Mt. 12:30//Lk. 11:23. In order to correct such a reading, the author of Matthew retains the image of a house, the metaphor of burglary and the use of the term δήση (Mt. 12:29), but separates them from Jesus’ comments on the kingdom of Satan (Mt. 12:25) by adding an additional verse questioning the power-source of the Jewish exorcists and an observation that the πνέυματι θεου (‘Spirit of God’) is the source of Jesus’ exorcistic powers (Mt. 12:27-28). The author of Luke includes a similar passage detailing Jesus’ power-source, however he states that the δακτύλω θεου is at work in Jesus’ exorcisms (Lk. 11:20) and chooses to draw his analogy from a battle, using νικάω (‘conquer’ or ‘prevail’) rather than use explicit binding terminology (Lk. 11:21-22).[15] In addition, the author of Luke distances Jesus’ words further from this alternative interpretation by replacing the house of Beelzebul with a palace and clearly stating that the ‘house’ of the demon is the body of the possessed individual (Lk. 11:24-26). Regardless of whether the skeu,h are to be interpreted as the demons of Satan or the souls of the possessed, given that this passage follows immediately from a charge of magic it is very foolish of the Gospel authors to have Jesus respond to this allegation by demonstrating his knowledge of methods used to control demons. Not only does Jesus’ response imply that he has control over Beelzebul, but he also uses terminology that very clearly would have carried implications of magical spirit manipulation in the Jewish culture of the first century.
Both sacred and secular accounts of demonic binding in antiquity reveal that a bound demon is considered to be at the mercy of the one controlling it and it can therefore be expelled from the body of the possessed or compelled to carry out the wishes of the exorcist, even driving out demons on the exorcist’s behalf.[16] The extensive tradition surrounding the exorcistic prowess of Solomon in the Testament of Solomon testifies to this conviction, since he was commonly thought to have had control over a demon that in turn had control over many others.[17] Consequently, binding formulas were also associated with magicians who used them as a method of gaining the compliance of larger demonic figures, such as Satan himself, who would command the lesser demons to assist the magician with his incantations and magical rituals.

In order to silence all speculative accusations and shift the focus away from the figure of Beelzebul, Jesus ultimately identifies the power though which he accomplishes his ‘bindings’ as the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10). Although the full implications of Jesus’ words regarding the Holy Spirit in this passage will be addressed later, the presence of a divine spirit here does not automatically exclude the possibility that it is a demonic spirit that is the principal executor of the exorcism. Indeed, the presence of the Holy Spirit when binding demons may well be indicative of magic in itself. Since demons were often bound using the influence of a higher, divine power, the Holy Spirit may be identified in this passage as the power through which Jesus gains the authority to bind Beelzebul (we must also bear in mind that the employment of a higher, benevolent power when binding demons was often emphasised by magicians in the ancient world in an attempt to acquit themselves from a charge of demonic magic).

If we can concede that the power source behind Jesus’ exorcisms is not Beelzebul but the Holy Spirit on the strength of Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10 alone, then suspicions remain concerning other passages in the Gospel of Matthew (specifically Mt. 16:19 and 18:18) in which the terminology used by the evangelist carries strong implications of magical spirit-binding.


In Mt 16:19 and 18:18, the disciples are told ‘whatever you bind (δήσης) on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (λύσης) on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ The author of Matthew is not clear on the meaning of these terms and this has led to some considerable scholarly confusion regarding the purpose of this passage. Some have suggested that the authority to ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ that is granted to the disciples is the power is to make important doctrinal judgments, to determine which actions are forbidden or permitted, or even to absolve or punish sins.

I would suggest that the binding and loosing terminology in this passage is to be understood in the same context as the binding of the strong man in Mk. 3:27//Mt. 12:29. Therefore the phrasing of Mt. 16:19 and 18:18 is not purely that of apocalyptic symbolism but it constitutes an appeal to the theory of sympathetic magic and is thereby a further indication of Jesus’ extensive knowledge of binding techniques. That the ability to ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ in Mt. 16:19 and 18:18 refers explicitly to magical spirit manipulation is confirmed by the observation that the ἐξουσία given to the disciples includes the ability to control demons, hence Jesus’ warning to the seventy (two) in Lk. 10:20: ‘do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ (my emphasis). Some scholars are keen to dismiss the theory that Jesus teaches Peter and the disciples the magical technique of binding or loosing, however with its appeal to the theory of sympathetic magic and explicit use of binding terminology, I would suggest that these two passages are to be understood as an instruction to the disciples regarding the manipulation of spirits in the ancient world.

Although evidence of Jesus’ knowledge of binding techniques alone does not sufficiently warrant a charge of magic, reports of the application of these techniques would be unquestionably incriminating. I would suggest that the Gospel writers provide the reader with evidence that Jesus was actively using magical binding techniques in their descriptions of his exorcism of the Demoniac in the Capernaum Synagogue (Mk. 1:21-28//Lk. 4:31-37) and the Gerasene Demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20//Mt. 8:28-34//Lk. 8:26-39).


When defending against the possibility that magical procedures were used by Jesus in his exorcisms, some scholars point to an absence of Solomonic techniques such as roots, rings and lengthy invocations and prefer instead to emphasise Jesus’ messianic authority as the effective element when casting out demons. However, as we have previously established when considering the techniques of natural magic, ancient magic did not necessarily rely on physical rituals alone but often simply employed words or spoken formulae. With this in mind, although physical techniques are largely absent in the exorcism accounts, Jesus’ spoken exorcistic commands could be considered to be magical formulas. Examples of this type of magical exorcism can be found in Mk. 1:21-28 and 5:1-20. In both of these exorcism accounts, Jesus and the possessing spirits are engaged in an intense struggle in which each opponent is attempting to gain the upper hand by using a series of spoken magical apotropaic formulas to overpower the other. The author’s attention to detail regarding the techniques employed by Jesus in order to defend himself and gain authority over the attacking demon within these passages reveals parallels relating not only to magical exorcism, but also to binding methods frequently used by magicians when controlling spirits.


In response to the demoniac’s attempt to overpower him in Mk. 1:24, Jesus rebukes the demon (ἐπετίμησεν αὐτω) and cries out to it: φιμωθητι και ἔξελθε ἐξ αὐτου (Mk. 1:25). The Greek term ἐπιτιμάω, commonly translated as ‘rebuke’, often appears in Mark’s Gospel when someone or something is being silenced (cf. Mk. 1:25, 3:11, 4:39, 8:30, 10:13 and 10:48). Although the presence of ἐπιτιμάω in this passage does not carry any obvious magical connotations, the evangelist’s choice of φιμώθητι (‘be silent’) rather than σιώπα (‘be quiet’, cf. Mk. 10:48) is particularly significant since this word has a strong magical resonance. The term φιμώθητι appears frequently throughout the magical papyri and carries the sense of binding or restricting. The use of a silencing command as a binding formula to restrict the activities of a spirit is common in the Greek magical papyri. For example, in the Mithras Liturgy (PGM IV. 475-829) the magician is instructed as follows:

‘And you will see the gods staring intently at you and rushing at you.
So at once put your right finger on your mouth and say: ‘Silence!
Silence! Silence! (cιγη, cιγη, cιγη,) Symbol of the living, incorruptible
god! Guard me, Silence (cιγη), NECHTHEIR THANMELOU!”
(PGM IV. 555-560) [18]

In view of the widespread use of the silencing formula as a magical binding technique, it is highly probable that the command φιμώθητι και ἔξελθε ἐξ αὐτου in Mk. 1:25 is not simply intended to quieten the demon in order to prevent it from making a public declaration of Jesus’ messianic identity, but it is also a defensive binding technique employed by Jesus to restrain the demon from continuing its attempts to manipulate him. However, the presence of a silencing formula in this passage is not the only instance of a binding technique in Jesus’ exorcisms. The short and apparently innocuous question ‘what is your name?’ in Mk. 5:9//Lk. 8:30 demonstrates Jesus’ knowledge of another well-documented magical binding device; the use of the name.

VIII. THE GERASENE DEMONIAC (MK. 5:1-20//MT. 8:28-34//LK. 8:26-39)

We have previously observed that the knowledge of the name of a god or person was essential when seeking to gain control over a spiritual or human foe in order to restrain them and force them to comply with the magician’s own bidding. The technique of finding out the secret identity of a demon in order to achieve its expulsion has been extensively documented throughout history. For example, in The Testament of Solomon, Solomon asks a demon ‘by what name are you and your demons thwarted?’ to which the demon answers: ‘If I tell you his name, I place not only myself in chains, but also the legion of demons under me’ (11:6). Although the inclusion of ‘legion’ in this instance suggests a dependence on Mk. 5:9, this passage underlines the ancient belief that the possession of the demon’s name was essential when controlling demonic powers. In addition, the magical use of the name appears throughout the Greek magical papyri. In PGMI. 160-161 the magician demands ‘what is your divine name? Reveal it to me ungrudgingly, so that I may call upon it’ and in PGM IV. 3038 the magician commands: ‘I conjure you, every daimonic spirit, to tell whatever sort you may be.’

Since any magician involved in the manipulation of the spirits of the demonic or the dead would be well practiced at this particular binding procedure, its appearance in Mk. 5:9//Lk. 8:30 is highly suspect. The question τί ὄνομά σοι; (‘what is your name?’) has even forced many scholars who are reluctant to concede that magical techniques are present in Jesus’ behaviour. It is difficult to understand why Jesus’ question to the demoniac has been preserved by the evangelists as it not only suggests that Jesus’ knowledge of the demon is limited but the early reader may well have been aware of the magical implications of this technique and consequently applied a magical interpretation to Jesus’ exorcism. If the question is retained in the Markan and Lukan versions since it was required in order to reveal the name of the demon, then we may well ask what other equally dubious techniques have been omitted from the exorcism accounts when they were deemed by the redactors to be superfluous or to carry connotations of magical behaviour.

That the author of Matthew was aware of magical connotations in this pericope is suggested by his drastic alteration of the Markan version. He appears to have omitted all signs of a struggle between Jesus and the demon and the two opposing sides have very little interaction. While the author of Mark states that the demoniac κράξας φωνη μεγάλη (Mk. 5:7), the author of Matthew tones this down to ἔκραξαν, thereby softening the severity of the demon’s aggression (Mt. 8:29). In addition, there is no indication in the Matthean version that the demons have ignored Jesus’ first command for them to leave and Jesus’ request for the name, and consequently the name ‘Legion’, are also omitted. Since the author of Matthew’s Gospel is often keen to lay emphasis upon Jesus’ messianic authority and word, he may have chosen to present a Jesus who has no use of exorcistic technique. However, since Jesus’ request for the name of the demon is clearly indicative of magic, the author of Matthew may also have felt compelled to remove this particular indication of a magical technique at work in Jesus’ exorcisms. Furthermore, the omission of the initial failed exorcistic attempt may also have been necessary to remove the possibility that Jesus had to reapply his exorcistic words, especially since the reapplication of techniques has previously been established as a hallmark of ancient magic.[19]

Having taken great care to remove elements from the Markan version that he considered to be particularly suspicious, the author of Matthew’s insertion of the exorcistic command ‘go’ (ὑπάγετε, 8:32) is surprising. Although it is highly likely that an exorcistic word, phrase or gesture would have been given at this point in Jesus’ exorcism, the Markan and Lukan accounts do not include a word of command by which the demons are transferred into the pigs, they simply state ‘he gave them leave’ (ἐπέτρεψεν αὐτοις, Mk. 5:13//Lk. 8:32).[20] The christological objectives of the author of Matthew could account for this emphasis on Jesus’ authoritative word of expulsion, particularly if this passage was considered to provide a demonstration of Jesus’ messianic authority. If this is the case, then this may well account for why the story of the Gerasene demoniac is preserved in Matthew and yet other exorcisms, such as the Capernaum exorcism, are omitted. However, if the author of Matthew was excluding magical techniques from his Gospel then he may have made a glaring oversight in this instance since this command of expulsion in the form of a flee command appears frequently in rites of magical exorcism.

In addition to the suspicious presence of a binding technique and a flee formula within the Synoptic accounts of the Gerasene exorcism, the transfer of demons into pigs also has its parallels in the ancient magical tradition. Although some scholars believe that the pigs have a symbolic purpose in this passage, the transfer of evil into objects, particularly animals, was a common method of exorcism in the ancient world.[21] This procedure is demonstrated by the Assyrian exorcists who would drive a goat carrying a person’s illness into the wilderness where it would be slaughtered. Similarly, in Babylonia, demons were cast into water which was then transferred into a container. The container was broken and the water was poured on the ground, thereby destroying the demon. More specifically, for comparative purposes with Mk. 5:11-13//Mt. 8:32//Lk. 8:32-33, a Sumerian text dating back to the second millennium BC describes how a demon that is responsible for an illness is transferred to a pig and the pig is subsequently sacrificed in order to effect a cure:

[Take] a piglet […],
[Place it] at the head of the patient,
Tear out its heart (and)
[Put it] on the upper part of the body of the patient,
[Sprinkle] its blood around his bed,
Dismember the piglet to correspond to his limbs,
Spread them (the limbs of the piglet) on the sick man….
…Give the piglet as his substitute,
Give the flesh for his flesh, the blood for his blood –
May (the demon) accept it!
The heart which you placed on his heart, you offer instead of his heart –
May (the demon) accept it! [22]

Having observed first-hand Jesus’ domineering authority when in dialogue with demonic beings, the Pharisees reasonably assume that a man who commands demons can also make them work for him. Consequently, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of possessing Beelzebul and using him as a powerful tool by which he executes his miracles (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15). When considering Jesus’ exorcistic behaviour in the context of early belief systems that were active in the cultural milieu of the first century, it is clear that the allegation made by the Pharisees would have been considered by many people to be an entirely sensible rationalisation of Jesus’ activities. As a result, an accusation of demonic influence could well have been made against Jesus at some point in his ministry and these rumours may have been the impetus for the Gospel authors to address this allegation directly in this passage. However, although Jesus ridicules this possibility and claims that his power derives from the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31// Lk. 12:10), instead of seizing the opportunity to acquit Jesus of charges of demon possession, the Gospel writers have Jesus elaborate on how it is necessary to ‘bind’ Beelzebul and gain control over him in order to free the possessed from their ordeal. Not being satisfied by suggesting demonic manipulation in this passage alone, the Gospel authors also portray Jesus as employing ‘binding and loosing’ terminology and demonstrating his knowledge of the magical laws of sympathy elsewhere in the Gospels (Mt. 16:19, 18:18). Furthermore, the Gospel writers suggest that Jesus was extremely knowledgeable regarding magical methods used to manipulate spirits and entirely competent when applying binding techniques such as silencing formulas and the request for a name. As these binding techniques are employed successfully and Jesus boasts of his ability to bind demons, then for his opponents to make the supplementary claim that these demons are being employed in his service is entirely understandable, if not credible. Nevertheless, if we can dispense with the possibility that Jesus was manipulating demonic spirits on the basis that his power-source is ultimately revealed to be the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31//Mk. 3:29//Lk. 12:10), the fact that Jesus appears to competently employ these magical binding techniques throughout the Gospels will suffice to demonstrate that he is far from ignorant of magical devices used to manipulate spirits and entirely capable of their successful application.

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.



[1] The same charge of ‘having a demon’ is brought against Jesus in John 7:20 and against John the Baptist in Mt. 11:18//Lk. 7.33.
[2] A similar association between possession and madness is explicitly made in Jn. 10:20 in which the people accuse Jesus saying: ‘he has a demon, and he is mad’.
[3] For example, Celsus says that the Jews ‘worship angels and are addicted to sorcery' (Origen, Con. Cels. 1.26). In addition, Justin Martyr believes that the Jewish exorcists used magical techniques and the name of God when performing their exorcisms (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 85. 3).
[4] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 143.
[5] See Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 26.2, Acts of Peter V and the Clementine Recognitions II.
[6] Irenaeus, for example, believed that his enemies perform their miracles through the help of evil spirits (Irenaues, Adv. Haer. 1.15.6).
[7] See PGM IV. 1227-64 (‘Rite for driving out demons’) in which the magician states ‘Come out, daimon, since I bind you with unbreakable adamantine fetters’ (IV. 1246).
[8] See PGM IV. 296-466 (‘Wondrous spell for binding a lover’) in which the magician says ‘I adjure all demons in this place…attract and bind her’ (IV. 350). 9
[9] For the use of curse tablets to inhibit an opponent speaking in court, see Dickie, Magic & Magicians, p 17. For other examples of bindings in the Greek magical papyri, see PGM VII. 985, PGM XV. 1, PGM XXXII. 5 and PGM CI. 1.
[10] Faraone, ‘The Agnostic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells’, p. 5.
[11] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 4.10; 8.7.
[12] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 127.
[13] I say ‘Satan/Beelzebul’ here because Jesus immediately responds to the charge of using Beelzebul (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15) by saying ‘how can Satan cast out Satan?’ (Mk. 3:23), thereby implying that they are to be understood as the same individual.
[14] We are not told when or how the binding happened, although it is assumed by many that it took place at the temptation. For example, Ernest Best proposes that ‘Christ has already bound Satan according to Mark 3:27, δήσης, aorist subjunctive, would suggest one definite act, and this must be…the Temptation’ (Ernest Best, The Temptation and The Passion: The Markan Soteriology (SNTSMS 2; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965) p. 13).
[15] The tension between the Lukan phrase δακτύλω θεου and Matthew’s πνεύμα will be addressed later in Chapter 13. However this is not the only occasion in which the author of Luke has removed the word ‘bind’. For example, the reference to Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18 has been carefully edited to remove the words ‘bind up the brokenhearted’.
[16] The binding of Azazel in 1 Enoch 10:4-6 is an example of the binding of a demonic leader-figure as the first stage in the defeat of the subordinate demons.
[17] The Testament of Solomon states that Solomon was able to set his demon to work on building his temple (11f).
[18] See PGM IV.555-560 and 575-585 for three more occurrences of ‘Silence! Silence!’.
[19] For the repetition of technique as a major indicator of magical practice, see chapter 13.
[20] Morton Smith compares Mk. 5:13 to PGM LXI. 10: ‘I release you against her’ (avpolu,w se pro.j th.n dei.na) (Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 110).
[21] Pliny asserted a belief in the transfer of evil into objects (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 28.86).
[22] Translation by Frederick H. Cryer & Marie-Louise Thomsen, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Biblical and Pagan Societies, vol. 1 (London: the Athlone Press, 2001) p. 71. For text, see R. C. Thompson, Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum, vol. 17 (London, 1903) pl. 5-6: II. 43 – III. 18 and for a translation of the whole text see Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylon, pp. 13-25.

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