10. Jesus the Possessor of Spirits?


There are a number of difficulties that arise when applying a spirit-possession model to the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit as presented by the Gospel authors:

1. If the reader of the Gospels is to understand that Jesus was healing, exorcising and teaching while in a possessed state, then we would naturally expect to encounter evidence within the Gospels of the abnormal behaviour that is typically associated with possessed individuals, such as fits, convulsions and seizures. As reports of this type of behaviour are noticeably absent we may reasonably conclude that Jesus did not exhibit these symptoms, although Davies’ suggestion that the evangelists would have edited out such potentially damaging material is equally as credible.[1]

2. When considering models of possession, particularly possession by a divine spirit, we must not automatically assume that the individual is passive during its manifestation and we cannot discount the possibility that the individual actively sought to attain a state of divine possession. Many magico-religious individuals within various cultures have claimed, and still claim, to experience divine possession, however this state is most often deliberately induced through ritual or trance by individuals seeking a close immediacy with a deity for various purposes, from inspired prophecy to magical activity.

3. There are many other psychological disorders which imitate the symptoms of possession but clearly do not involve the presence of an external, supernatural being. For example, sudden and irrational changes in personality and the notion of a new persona acting in a manner disconnected from the consciousness of the original persona are both behaviours that are typical of the psychological disorder known as ‘dissociation’, a common psychological device that is adopted by an individual in order to deal with anxiety or traumatic situations. When an individual employs a series of alternate personas as a coping mechanism and each of these persona begin to function as an individual persona within themselves, then this normally triggers the condition known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

4. A fourth difficulty when applying Davies’ spirit-possession theory is that the Gospel passages cited by Davies as examples of possession behaviour, namely the odd behaviour in Mk. 3:21 and the teaching on alter-persona speech in Mk. 13:11, are also observations made of magicians in antiquity who have possession of a spirit or are able to manipulate spiritual powers. Although Morton Smith agrees that ‘he is beside himself’ (ὅτι ᾿εξέστη, Mk. 3:21) suggests a form of abnormal behaviour, he also draws close attention to the link between ‘magic’ and ‘mania’ that was made during and in the centuries following Jesus’ lifetime and adds:

‘Magicians who want to make demons obey often scream their spells,
gesticulate, and match the mad in fury.’[2]

5. Interpreting Mk. 3:21 as indicative of abnormal behaviour is a reasonable assumption, however the implication that the crowd had carried out an in-depth psychological analysis of Jesus and arrived at the conclusion that his persona was absent or displaced is a little more difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, the terminology used in Mk. 3:21 is present in other Gospel passages which are clearly devoid of any connotations of possession. For example, in response to Jesus’ exorcism in Mt. 12.23 the author of Matthew writes that the crowds were ‘amazed’ (ἐξίσταντο). Are we to understand that the crowd are also spirit-possessed in this instance? It is more probable that use of this term in this instance is simply intended to portray a sense of wonder and amazement.[3]

6. In addition to the difficulties encountered when establishing symptoms of physical possession in Jesus’ behaviour, an alteration in speech does not inevitably indicate passive possession since it was explicitly linked in antiquity with the practice of magic and the manipulation of prophetic spirits. For example, the possession of a spirit that alters the voice of the magician is mentioned in Isaiah 29:4:

‘Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall be as one that has a familiar spirit out of the ground
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.’

The translation of ob within this passage as ‘one that has a familiar spirit’ (the version given by the KJV) describes the common technique that was used by magicians in the ancient world to command spirits to enter into their bodies in a form of ‘controlled possession’. It is not clear, however, whether the term was generally used to refer to the magician or the spirit itself. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon translates bw) as ‘skin-bottle’, an interpretation which embraces the notion that the magician was the vessel for the spirit and/or that the voice of the spirit was deep and guttural and seemed to come from the abdomen or the ‘armpit’. In the classical period these magicians were called ventriloquists or engastrimuthoi (‘belly-talkers’) as the deep guttural voices appeared to come from deep in their stomachs. Similarly the Latin pytho was applied to the spirit possessing the magician in the Greek mystery cults, hence the phenomena was typically described as having ‘pytho in your belly.’ Morton Smith suggests, with particular reference to the witch of Endor in I. Sam. 28:7, that ob refers to the spirits themselves and hence ‘the man possessed is known as “one who has an ‘ob” (I Sam. 28:7), more specifically, “one who has in him an ‘obot”.’[4] Smith elaborates on the origin of these ‘obot’ as follows:

‘The 'obot (plural of 'ob) are a mysterious class of beings, commonly
            said to be 'spirits of the dead,' but probably some sort of underworld
            deities. Although they are in the realm of the dead, and speak from the
            earth in whispering voices (Isaiah 8.19; 29.4)’ [5]

Alternatively, Christophe Nihan proposes in his study of 1 Samuel 28 that the term ob is used in the Old Testament to refer to the practice of necromancy and although it can be applied to the magician it can also signify the spirit itself, since the Arabic ‘aba’ means ‘to return’ and the spirit is thought to ‘return’ to the earth. [6] Nihan concludes that the use of the word ob can be explained by paying particular attention to the Hebrew term ‘father’, therefore the term ‘would refer specifically to a dead ancestor’ who could be consulted through necromancy.[7]

Since evidence found within the Old Testament reveals that the possession of a familiar spirit often had a direct effect upon the speech of the magician, we must rule out the immediate assumption that a change in speech is a clear indicator of passive possession. On the contrary, an alteration in speech may well indicate that the individual has actively engaged in magical spirit manipulation and he is subsequently in possession of a familiar spirit (we will come to examine the possession of familiar spirits below).

7. A further question which must be raised when considering Davies’ ‘possessed-healer’ analogy is one of Jesus’ own awareness of his possessed state. T. K. Oesterreich draws a clear distinction between a form of lucid possession, in which self-awareness is maintained throughout the possession experience, and hypnotic or somnambulistic possession, in which the individual loses awareness of himself and is left with no memory of the events that took place while in the possession trance.[8] Davies implies that his model of spirit-possession belongs to the latter option, stating:

‘it is not uncommon for possessed people to be amnesiac to a greater or
lesser degree regarding their exploits while possessed, because their
normal memory-forming ego was absent during the time of the experience.[9]

If the miracles of the Gospels were performed while Jesus was in a somnambulistic state, then we would expect to encounter many instances of disorientation or confusion immediately following the miracles or even indications that Jesus was unaware that he had performed a miracle. Again, there is the likely possibility that the evangelists would have omitted any reports of amnesiac behaviour. However, the Gospels authors not only fail to record any amnesiac and disorientated behaviour in their accounts of Jesus’ life, but they promote a strong theme which is completely to the contrary – that Jesus demonstrated great authority and control over his powers. As we shall examine in greater depth below, the Gospel authors include numerous comments from both Jesus’ opponents and followers regarding his ἐξουσια (‘authority’) in the application of his powers and they assert that he is entirely capable of transferring this power to his disciples (Mk. 6:7-13//Mt. 10:1//Lk. 9:1). Either this emphasis on Jesus’ autonomy in the application of his powers was invented by the evangelists in order to invalidate any rumours of spirit- possession or these are authentic observations of the relationship between the historical Jesus and the power-source by which he performed his miracles. Either way, by presenting Jesus in an autonomous and dominant role in respect to his miracle-working δύναμις, the Gospel writers contradict the theory that Jesus was occasionally in an amnesiac, behaviourally unstable and psychologically passive state of spirit-possession.


Since demon-possessed individuals and spirit-inspired prophets were an everyday encounter in the ancient world, a first century audience would presumably have been accustomed to recognising the symptoms of possession. Therefore, if Jesus was exhibiting typical possession-like behaviour then we would expect to encounter some allegations made by observers, in the polemical materials at least, that he was possessed. But this is not the case. When the Gospel authors include a response from the crowds immediately following a healing or exorcism, the crowds do not comment on Jesus’ possession behaviour, but instead on the noticeable degree of ἐξουσια that he holds over his powers. For example, those who witness the exorcism of the Capernaum demoniac immediately respond by questioning the authority behind the exorcism (‘what is this? A new teaching! With authority (ἐξουσια) he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him’, Mk. 1:27//Lk. 4:36). Jesus’ autonomy in the application of his powers is so prominent on certain occasions that the people begin to fear (Mk. 9:14-16) and question the source of his personal power (‘by what authority are you doing these things?’, Mk. 11:28//Mt. 21:23//Lk. 20:2).

Furthermore, since the common definition of the Greek word ἐξουσια is ‘freedom of choice, right to act or decide’[10], the presence of this term in the Gospels by its very definition starkly contradicts the passive state that is central to Davies’ model of spirit-possession.

III. THE TRANSMISSION OF δύναμις  TO THE DISCIPLES (MK. 6:7-13//MT. 10:1//LK. 9:1; 10:17)

In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus grants a select group of his disciples the ἐξουσια to cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead (Mk. 6:7-13//Mt. 10:1//Lk. 9:1). By revealing that Jesus is able to teach his techniques of healing and exorcism to others and having those who have acquire these skills claim great success in their endeavours (cf. Lk. 10:17), the Gospel authors suggest that this power source cannot be exclusive to Jesus and therefore the capability to perform miracles is not the result of a spiritual entity that has possessed him alone. Furthermore, since all three Synoptic authors imply that both Jesus and the disciples are capable of summoning these miraculous powers at will whenever a healing or exorcism is required, this clearly contradicts the typical model of possession in which the possessing spirit dictates precisely at what time and to whom a possession seizure will manifest itself. Further questions regarding the exclusivity of this miracle-working power are raised in the account of Simon Magus, who attempts to buy the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:14-24, and Jesus implies that the Jewish exorcists share in the same source of power to exorcise demons in Mt. 12:27//Lk. 11:19. If we are to understand that Jesus’ miraculous powers were only effective when he was subjected to bouts of possession by the Holy Spirit, is the reader to understand that the Jewish exorcists were also spirit-possessed when they engaged in their miracle-working activities?

Although precise details explaining how these powers are taught to the disciples are not provided by the authors of the Synoptics, John’s Gospel reveals that in one instance Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples (Jn. 20:22). Although John Hull indicates that Jesus breathes on the eyes of the disciples in the Pistis Sophia[11], I would not consider this passage to be comparable with the incident in Jn. 20:22, since by breathing into the eyes of the disciples in the Pistis Sophia Jesus intends to grant them a vision and not to imbue them with any spiritual power. Alternatively, Morton Smith proposes that the reader should understand the transmission of power to the disciples in Jn. 20:22 as the possession of the disciples by the spirit of Jesus while he is still alive.[12] By interpreting the act of breathing as the transference of spiritual power, Smith is appealing to the ancient Hebrew correlation between the soul and the breath of the body.[13] The early Hebrews made a close association between spirit and breath (or wind) since both were considered to be forms of invisible energy and consequently gods are often portrayed in religious and literary texts as breathing power, or spirit, into man and, in a similar fashion, blowing upon objects or people in the ancient world was considered to imbue the object with an element of the bearer’s spirit or power.[14] The blowing out of air was also an integral part of Hellenistic magical ritual and, as we have discovered in the previous chapter, breathing techniques and the blowing out of air are common features of the rituals in the Greek Magical Papyri.[15]

By implying that Jesus’ ability to heal and exorcise was a specific technique that could be taught to others and that the bearer had complete autonomy in the application of this miracle-working power, the Gospel authors clearly contradict a theory of passive possession in which it is typically the possessing-spirit that decides to whom and at what time a possession episode will occur. Therefore, as John Hull suggests, rather than fulfilling the role a ‘spirit-possessed healer’, Jesus appears throughout the Gospels as ‘the model of a supreme magician passing on power to his initiates.[16]


While some scholars have ruled out the influence of the Holy Spirit within the temptation narratives and indicated that there is no evidence to suggest that the Spirit assists Jesus in resisting the Devil’s temptations, others maintain that Jesus remains under the influence of the Spirit throughout the temptations. I would suggest that although the forceful nature of Jesus’ expulsion into the wilderness does appear to support a theory of possession, if the intentions of the Gospel writers had been to portray Jesus as remaining in a state of spirit-possession while in the wilderness then the subsequent inclusion of the anti-magical apologetic material, i.e. the temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke (Mt. 4:1-11//Lk. 4:1-13), is entirely illogical.

If we are defining ‘possession’ as a state in which the normal persona is temporarily suspended and a new persona becomes dominant, then it must follow that during a possession episode the possessed individual is no longer an autonomous person with a mind free to make decisions for him or herself, but instead an instrument under the control of this foreign, external possessing power. Consequently, if the Gospel authors intended the reader to understand that Jesus was spirit-possessed during this period of temptation, then they must have overlooked the fact that the dialogue would not be between the Devil and the person of Jesus, but between the Devil and the new possessing power, the Spirit of God. If we are to believe that Jesus is being tested in his alliance to God here, then the temptation narrative would paint the bizarre picture of a spirit, deriving ultimately from God, being tested in its faithfulness to God. On the contrary, Matthew and Luke affirm that the Devil appeals directly to Jesus’ own human weaknesses by tempting him to use his powers for self-gratification (‘command this stone to become bread’, Mt. 4:3//Lk. 4:3), to further his own authority and self-importance (Mt. 4:8//Lk. 4:5) and to frivolously test the potency of his powers (‘throw yourself down’, Mt. 4:6//Lk. 4:9). By having the Devil attempt to exploit Jesus’ human weaknesses, the authors of Matthew and Luke suggest that Jesus personally determines how his powers are employed and he is able, if he wishes, to swap allegiances, relinquish his power or use his powers to evil or self-gratifying ends. This implication that Jesus has absolute autonomy in the application of his powers clearly invalidates the theory that he is subject to divine-possession throughout the Matthean and Lukan temptation narratives.

V. THE HEALING OF THE CENTURION’S SERVANT (MT. 8:5-13//LK 7:1-10//JN. 4:48-54)

The healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8:5-11//Lk. 7:1-10) is repeatedly studied for its teachings concerning faith, humility and the inclusion of the Gentiles. However it also harbours a significant passage regarding Jesus’ authority over the application of his powers and even hints that a spirit, or even multiple spirits, may be under Jesus’ control. Since this healing takes place at a distance and at the precise moment when Jesus gives the healing word (a fact emphasised by the author of John in Jn. 4:51-53), the Gospel writers must have been aware that this method of healing was highly unusual and yet they do not adequately explain how it was supposedly achieved. Is the reader to understand that Jesus performed a telepathic healing? Or did a whispered prayer to God take place at some point during Jesus’ discourse with the centurion?

Cures from a distance are reported of other healers in antiquity. For example, Morton Smith remarks that the Indian sages were able to exorcise at a long distance[17] and the Talmud contains an account in which Hanina ben Dosa heals a boy through prayer while at a distance from him.[18] A closer examination of distance healing reveals that this type of healing is commonly achieved through three methods; a) by imploring God or employing spirits to carry out the healing on the healer’s behalf, b) through a form of sympathetic magic in which healing ‘effluvia’ leaves the body of the healer and travels to the location of the sick individual, or c) as a result of the healer ‘splitting’ himself into two parts and sending his spiritual half to perform the healing.

The ability to divide the self is a technique laid claim to by many magicians and shamans throughout history. Pythagoras, for one, was reportedly seen in two cities at the same time on the same day and the Greek shamans were capable of detaching their souls from their physical bodies and sending them to various places at a distance to the body, a process known as ‘bilocating’. Although ‘bilocating’ was a common magical practice in antiquity, if we look more deeply into the narrative of Mt. 8:5-13//Lk. 7:1-10 we discover that the central focus of the story is not concerned with the innate powers of Jesus himself, but on his commanding authority over subordinates that will carry out the healing on his behalf.

The centurion’s words reveal that his confidence in Jesus’ healing power derives from Jesus’ ability to control spirits. The centurion is an official who holds a position of authority and he is accustomed to giving orders to soldiers under him who will immediately carry out his requests. He compares Jesus’ position to his own by saying καὶ γὰρ (‘for also’) Jesus has a military-like authority over others that are under his control.[19] Since the centurion knows from personal experience that a word of command can produce results, he urges Jesus that it is not necessary for him to attend the bedside of his servant as others will carry out the healing if he ‘only says the word’ (μόνον εἰπὲ λόγω, Mt. 8:8//Lk. 7:7). The centurion thereby reveals two personal convictions about Jesus’ power; 1) that Jesus has a military-like authority over his powers, and 2) that Jesus has unknown powers that appear to be at his disposal to carry out healings on his command. The centurion’s observation that Jesus shares a similar military role is echoed in Jesus’ behaviour elsewhere in the Gospels; for example, he often acts like a commanding general, ordering demons out of the possessed with ‘authority’.[20] The author of Luke’s constant use of παρηγγειλεν (‘charge’ or ‘command’) in particular supports this idea and Graham Twelftree comments that ‘the word has strong military associations, and its basic meaning has to do with passing an announcement along the ranks of command.’[21]

Ultimately, Jesus’ positive response implies that the centurion is correct in his observation. He is not rebuked for making such a forthright statement about Jesus’ power source, as is the case in the Beelzebul controversy (Mk. 3:22-30//Mt. 12:24-32//Lk. 11:15-23), but he is commended on his faith and he is rewarded as the healing taking place ‘at that hour’ (Mt. 8:13). Both Gospels also include a rare occurrence of emotion on Jesus’ behalf (‘he marvelled’, Mt. 8:10//Lk. 7:9). The inclusion of Jesus’ emotional response and the general style of the dialogue between Jesus and the centurion suggests to some scholars that this is an authentic account of an observer’s insight into how Jesus was able to heal the sick.

An effort to play down the importance of Jesus’ own authority in favour of emphasising the prevailing authority of God over Jesus has been made by the redactors in their interpretation of the centurion’s self-referential credentials in Mt. 8:9//Lk. 7:8: ‘For I am a man under authority.’ The Syriac versions suggest that in the original Aramaic the centurion’s statement was ‘I am also a man having authority’ (my emphasis) and some commentators suggest that the change to ‘I am a man under authority’ is a deliberate alteration of the text.

By having the centurion state that he acts under authority, the comparison is made between the centurion who acts under the authority of Antipas and Jesus who acts under the authority of God and therefore the whole issue of Jesus’ own authority is conveniently avoided. However, the inclusion of messengers in the Lukan account of the healing may have been an embellishment on the concept of the centurion having authority. The author of Luke has the centurion actively demonstrate his authority by ‘sending’ two sets of messengers to Jesus. If the statements concerning ‘authority’ and ‘command’ were to come from the mouths of the messengers themselves, then this would further strengthen the centurion’s claim that he was a man having authority with subordinates willing to carry out his orders.

Even if we permit the interpretation ‘under authority’ to stand in Mt. 8:9//Lk. 7:8, the subsequent statement ‘with soldiers under me’ in both accounts suggests that the centurion is comparing his own subordinate soldiers to the presence of equally obedient minions over which Jesus has authority. The identity of these ‘subordinates’ is considerably difficult to explain given that Jesus does not elaborate on the centurion’s comment but simply marvels at his faith (Mt. 8:10//Lk. 7:9). Consequently, the reader is not enlightened on the identity of these beings and the mysterious comparison remains as follows:

The identity of these subordinate beings has not been satisfactorily explained. Many commentators ignore their existence in the passage or suggest that these ‘others’ are the diseases themselves that obey Jesus or the demons that are underlying the diseases. Some suggest that the centurion is speaking of the work of his disciples, however as no spoken commands to the disciples are recorded by the Gospel writers, the instantaneous cure would be dependent upon the ironic coincidence that the disciples were healing the slave at the exact time when the centurion encountered Jesus. Alternatively, considering Jesus’ ability to exercise control over demons[22], it is highly likely that the centurion is referring to spiritual beings under Jesus’ authority. More specifically, since the pericope plays upon the concepts of willing servants, a fact emphasised by Luke who has the centurion send messengers to Jesus, then this would suggest that the spiritual beings present in this passage are not compelled demons, but willing spirits. If these anonymous ‘others’ are to be understood as divine spiritual subordinates that are at Jesus’ disposal then the reader of the Gospels is faced with an immediate difficulty. Control over demons was a skill ordinarily expected of an exorcist, but command over good spirits was considered to be the work of a magician. We will fully explore the implications of this interpretation when we come to examine the relationship between the magician and his assisting spirit(s) below, but the overall value of this passage for the moment lies in its emphasis on Jesus’ overarching authority and the consequent invalidation of theories which account for the relationship between Jesus and his spiritual power in terms of passive-possession.

It is clear that suggesting that the historical Jesus was subject to periods of passive-possession is a flawed argument. The key principle upon which the spirit-possession theory repeatedly falters is in its definition of possession as a state over which the individual holds no control and its attempt to apply this definition to Jesus in the Gospels when the Gospel authors fully contradict this possibility by continually emphasising the degree of authority that Jesus possesses over his powers to heal, exorcise and perform miracles of nature. We must therefore abandon the portrait of Jesus as a ‘spirit-possessed healer’ and consider whether Jesus had an autonomous role in the application of his spiritual power or that he had a spirit, or numerous spirits, under his control, as implied by the centurion in Mt. 8:5-13//Lk. 7:1-10.

Authority over spiritual bodies was a characteristic that was typically associated with the shaman in the ancient world. Such individuals were reportedly capable of inducing states of possession and yet they retained a degree of control over their powers. Therefore, since the balance between spirit-possession and spirit-control is very delicate in shamanism, its practitioners represent a ‘half-way house’ between the possessed and the magician and for this very reason a brief examination of shamanism is necessary at this juncture.


The word ‘shaman’ derives from the Tungusian šaman or saman meaning ‘medicine man’ and the term has been liberally applied throughout decades of anthropological study to individuals claiming to derive power from a mystical communication with the spirit world. Since careless use of the term has led to it being used interchangeably with ‘magician’, ‘medium’, or ‘healer’, some anthropologists have suggested that in order to preserve the exclusivity of the term ‘shaman’ the designation must be reserved for individuals who share common characteristics and symbolic themes which set them apart from other magio-religious practitioners. As a result, modern anthropological studies tend to unite individuals who display evidence of these common characteristics and derive from various geographic and historical locations under the umbrella term ‘shaman’ in order to separate them from the alternative titles recounted above. For example, modern scholarship associates the Tungus medicine-men with the Greek ‘shamans’ who emerged from the Pythagorean schools during the fifth century B.C. on the basis of a common pattern of behaviours that are particular to these individuals. These common features that are typical of shamanistic practice in various cultures tend to be found in the formative stages of a shamanic vocation, namely the calling, a ‘wilderness’ experience and the reception of a spirit. Since these events are fundamentally associated with the life of the shaman, they are therefore significant factors when considering whether an individual is displaying shamanistic tendencies and behaviours.

The calling to a shamanic lifestyle

The call to a shamanic profession typically takes two forms; a hereditary ‘passing on’ of the shamanic tradition or a spontaneous selection episode in which the shaman encounters a divine being through a series of involuntary visions or illness. If the shaman is recruited by way of a hereditary calling, he must actively seek out spirits with whom to establish contact. However if the calling is spontaneous and initiated by a higher spiritual power, then the newly selected shaman has no voluntary control over his new vocation and the spirits will often impose an illness upon the chosen shaman until he accepts his calling.

The shaman’s ‘wilderness’ experience

Upon receiving his calling, the next stage of a shamanic vocation typically involves a ‘crisis’ period in which the new shaman seeks out solitary isolation, often retreating into the wilderness or underground chambers, where he adopts various forms of self-denial such as fasting and celibacy and engages in prayer in order to prepare himself to receive the spirit. During this period of training, the new spiritual power will manifest itself as an illness or through a series of prophetic dreams or seizures.

Physical and spiritual isolation is sought in many forms of mysticism as a method of attaining a mental state of contemplation and many holy men throughout history have sought isolation in the early stages of their careers. For example, Moses went out into the wilderness of Ethiopia (Exod. 3; 33:11) and Pliny mentions that Zoroaster was in solitude for twenty years in the desert where he fasted, prayed and received divine guidance.[23] Underground caves were typically associated with Greek shamans seeking to achieve a wilderness state or recreate a symbolic descent into the realm of the dead and these locations were used by Pancrates of Memphis, who claims to have become a magician by spending twenty-three years underground being instructed by Isis[24], and Pythagoras, who was in isolation underground in Egypt for ten years.

The shaman’s communication with the spirits

Once the newly-selected shaman has adopted his calling and completed the necessary training, he begins to experience seizures, trance-states or periods of an altered state of consciousness (ASC) in which his soul leaves his body and ascends to the heavens or descends into the underworld. The shaman’s engagement with the spirit world is dissimilar to that experienced by the spirit-possessed healer in that the shaman retains his memory throughout the trance and he is able to induce the spirits to enter his body without fear of being controlled by them. Since the shaman usually operates within a cultural or historical world-view which considers demonic entities to be the root cause of most problems that can befall humanity, by acting as an intermediary and establishing a relationship with benevolent spirits the shaman can employ them to help combat problems caused by other spirits. Therefore, when the shaman returns to his community he discovers that he is able to use these skills to benefit individuals or the community in general, particularly by performing healings, exorcisms and divination.


It is evident that certain events in the evangelists’ descriptions of Jesus’ life have parallels with the behaviours reported of the shaman. For example, the abnormal perceptual phenomena of a voice from the heavens and a spirit descending in the shape of a dove at Jesus’ baptism imitates an account of spiritual election and a call to a shamanic profession (Mt. 3:1-17//Mk. 1:9-11//Lk. 3:21-22). The subsequent temptation narrative imitates the crisis period of the shaman; Jesus withdraws into the Judean wilderness[25] (a place considered the dwelling place of demons, cf. Mt. 12:43-45), where he endures a period of forty days fasting (Mk. 1:12//Mt. 4:2//Lk. 4:2) and encounters demonic and divine spiritual beings (Satan and angels; Mk. 1:12//Mt. 4:11).

Luigi Schiavo proposes that the reader should understand the temptation narrative as an ‘ecstatic text’ in which Jesus undergoes a period of fasting and purification in the wilderness in order to enter into a shamanic ASC trance and communicate with devils and angels.[26] Schiavo suggests that the use of the presupposition evn in Lk. 4:1 indicates that this passage ‘cannot be dealing with a physical change from one place to another (which would be ei,j, but with an interior, spiritual transformation)’, therefore he proposes that the temptation is to be understood as a ‘transcendental experience of religious ecstasy’.[27]

Although it is possible to recount certain events of Jesus’ life in terms of a shamanic profession and a shamanistic framework would certainly allow for the degree of observable evxousi,a that Jesus appears to have over his powers, many of the prior objections that were encountered when attempting to apply a model of passive possession re-emerge in a comparison to shamanism, namely the absence of trance states and questions regarding the exclusivity of power in view of the transmission of ἐξουσια to Jesus’ disciples in Mk. 6:7-13//Mt. 10:1//Lk. 9:1. If Jesus was subject to the seizures and trance states that were typical of shamanistic behaviour, then surely this behaviour would have been recorded in the polemical materials, if not in the Gospels themselves. Not only are shamanic ASC and trance states largely absent from the Gospels, but other techniques used by shamans to induce visions or achieve communication with spirits, such as frenzy and the use of drugs, are also not mentioned. In addition, since the shaman is chosen either as the result of his hereditary tradition or through a calling by the spirits, the inclusion of a passage in all three Synoptics in which the disciples are able to share in Jesus’ power and Jesus himself is able to choose who will acquire this power (Mk. 6:7-13//Mt. 10:1//Lk. 9:1) clearly contradicts the theory that this miracle-working power was granted through a person-specific spiritual election.

If the relationship between Jesus and his miracle-working δύναμις cannot be conclusively compared to shamanistic practice due to the absence of trance states, Jesus’ apparent rejection of forms of self-denial and his ability to transmit his power to others, then the next progressive step is to abandon all theories of spirit-possession and consider the possibility that Jesus was able to perform miracles by manipulating spirits through magical means. It is within this alternative framework that Jesus’ opponents frequently attempt to explain the source of his powers and this will therefore be our next consideration.


Spiritual intermediaries providing a linking mechanism between man and God appear in the religious systems of almost every culture throughout history; from the ‘minor spirits’ of Mesopotamian mythology to the jinn of Islam and the angelic/demonic hierarchy of Christianity. The ancient Greeks identified these intermediary spiritual entities by the term dai,mwn (daimon), a word which seems to have been broadly applied to lesser gods, the souls of deceased humans, the gods of other religions and even the human soul itself. To use the Hellenistic term daimon as synonymous with its modern counterpart demon, a term exclusively reserved for evil beings, is to misconstrue the use of the term in the first centuries since the Greek daimones were generally regarded as having both benevolent and malevolent intentions.[28] The intermediate position of these spirits between God and man is described by both Plato and Apuleius[29], Plutarch could not conceive of a world without ‘daimons’[30] and Pythagoras imagined that ‘the whole air is full of souls which are called genii (daimones) or heroes.[31] Whenever a worldview accommodates the existence of malevolent or benevolent spiritual beings such as the Greek daimones, there is often an accompanying magical worldview which claims that extraordinary acts can be achieved through the magical manipulation of these spirit agents. Accordingly, many magicians in antiquity sought to secure a daimon, or even a god, as an assisting spirit who would in turn empower the magician to perform miracles.

The assisting, or familiar, spirit

A spirit whose obedience and power had been obtained by a magician was known in the ancient world as his attending, or ‘familiar’, spirit. The term ‘familiar spirit’ was adopted from the Latin familiaris, meaning a ‘household servant,’ and it was intended to convey the notion of a spirit behaving as a servant to a magician. In a much simpler sense, the term ‘familiar’ implies that the spirit and magician enter into a ‘familiar’ relationship with one another. Justin Martyr mentions the existence of these spirits in his First Apology[32] and Eusebius wrote of their value to the pagans in his Oration on the 30th Anniversary of the Reign of Constantine:

‘they endeavoured to secure the familiar aid of these spirits, and the
unseen powers which move through the tracts of air, by charms of
forbidden magic, and the compulsion of unhallowed songs and incantations.’[33]

The employment of a ‘familiar’ spirit was widely acknowledged in connection with those who claimed to produce wondrous signs and miracles in the ancient world. For example, Solomon was thought to have control over a demon that in turn had control over many others[34] and, in contrast, Plotinus claimed that he had a personal spirit ‘not being from among the demons, but a god’.[35] Plutarch writes that Socrates was in possession of an agathodaimon (‘good daemon’) which whom he had ‘frequent concordance of the daimon with his own decisions, to which it lent a divine sanction’[36] and a belief in the magical use of these spirits survived until the witch trials of the seventeenth century.

As the source of assisting spirits was highly debated in antiquity, individuals suspected of carrying out miracles using familiar spirits were often viewed with suspicion. The Old Testament laws repeatedly condemn those who have familiar spirits as their possession constituted idolatry and they were believed to be the spirits working behind many false prophets.[37] The dubious origins of assisting spirits and the condemnations of those using them in the Hebrew bible resulted in the possession of a familiar spirit being synonymous with the possession of a demon. Therefore a charge of possessing a familiar spirit would be made by an individual’s opponents in order to draw attention to the ‘demonic’ source of his or her powers. It is within this sceptical milieu that Irenaeus accused Marcus of possessing ‘a demon as his familiar spirit, by means of whom he seems able to prophesy’[38] and the Christians accused Simon Magus of performing his miracles using the spirit of a boy who he created out of thin air and then sacrificed (Acts 8).
The ancient Greeks referred to the magician’s attending spirit as a πάρεδρος (‘paredros’) and Leda Jean Ciraolo in her study entitled ‘Supernatural Assistants in the Greek Magical Papyri’ interprets this term as an adjective meaning ‘sitting beside or near’, from the verb πάρεδρεύω,‘to wait or attend upon.’ [39] Rites employing a pa,redroj feature heavily within the Greek magical papyri.[40] For example, in The Spell of Pnouthis(PGM I.42-195) the magician addresses the πάρεδρος as a ‘friendly assistant, a beneficent god who serves me whenever I say’ (I. 89-90). In verses 160-63 of this spell, the magician requests that the πάρεδρος reveals his name and upon obtaining this name, the magician is able to control the spirit and henceforth gains the ability to walk on water, become invisible, kill his enemies and cure the sick. [41] The spirit even supplies water, wine and bread. Of the many benefits resulting from the possession of this assisting spirit, the instructions for the rite promise that ‘you will be worshipped as a god since you have a god as a friend’ (I. 191) and when the magician dies, the πάρεδρος will ‘wrap [up] your body as befits a god’and ‘take your spirit and carry it into the air with him’ (I. 178-179).

The possession of a ‘familiar’ spirit was considered to be such an integral part of ancient magic that they were deemed to be a contributing factor to most magical operations. These spirits were highly valued for their ease of accessibility and practicality, since they allowed the magician to perform his magic without the need for elaborate ritual or technique. For instance, in admiration of the efficiency of the πάρεδρος in PGM IV. 2081-85, the author of the spell writes that ‘most of the magicians, who carried their instruments, even put them aside and used him as an assistant.’ These spirits were also particularly valued for their instantaneous response to the magician’s requests. For example, upon obtaining command over the spirit in The Spell of Pnouthis (PGM I. 42 – 195) the magician is told ‘he will quickly respond to you about whatever you want’ (I. 78). Later in the same text, the author states: ‘say to him, “Perform this task,” and he does it at once’ (I. 183). The expression ‘quickly, quickly’ also occurs frequently in the Greek magical papyri when commanding a spirit.[42] Consequently, assisting spirits were often employed by magicians to perform miracles at a distance.

Reconsidering the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8:5-13//Lk. 7:1-10) in light of these examples alone, the presence in this Gospel passage of a spiritual power which works under Jesus’ command, responds immediately to his request and performs healings at a distance is highly reminiscent of the magician’s use of a familiar spirit.[43] However it is not solely within this passage alone that our suspicions of spirit manipulation are raised. Further evidence which suggests that Jesus was engaging in spirit manipulation appears sporadically throughout the Gospels. For example, the notion that Jesus could summon angels to his aid is suggested in Mt. 26:52 and we read that angels were willing to ‘serve’ Jesus immediately following the temptations in Mk. 1:13//Mt. 4:11. [44] Furthermore, Jesus warns 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). Although in this instance the term πνεύματα is commonly understood as a neuter term for ‘demons’ or ‘evil spirits’, it is replaced by δαιμόνια in some manuscripts perhaps with the intention to eradicate the interpretation that good spirits were under the disciples’ control.[45]

In addition, two direct charges of the magical manipulation of spirits are made against Jesus by his opponents in the Gospels. In response to Jesus’ healing of the blind and mute demoniac, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of possessing a demonic spirit through which he performs his miracles (Mk. 3:22//Mt. 12:24//Lk. 11:15). Equally, when Herod receives the news of Jesus’ miracles he immediately fears that Jesus has possession of the soul of John the Baptist and that he is using John to perform his miracles (Mk. 6:14-29//Mt. 14:2). Ultimately, Jesus corrects any alleged perversion of his spiritual power-source by claiming that he derives his miracle-working powers from the Holy Spirit (Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10). As the dead and the demonic were considered to be valuable sources of attending spirits in antiquity, the allegations made by the Pharisees and Herod are clearly charges of magic. However, since divine spirits constituted the third and perhaps the most frequent source of attending spirits in the ancient world, implications of spirit manipulation cannot be discounted from Jesus’ defence in Mk. 3:29//Mt. 12:31//Lk. 12:10.

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] Stevan L. Davies, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance and the Origins of Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1995) p. 102. In addition, note that the term δαιμονίζομαι (‘to be possessed by a demon’, (Foester, ‘δαίμων / δαιμόνιον’, TDNT 2, p. 19)) which is usually used for those possessed by demons, is never used for Jesus in the New Testament.
[2] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London: Gollancz, 1978) p. 32. Smith later adds: ‘in the centuries following Jesus’ lifetime magic continued to be closely associated with madness’ (p. 77). In support of the maniacal behaviour of the magician, Marcel Mauss mentions: 'violent gestures, a shrill voice…are taken often taken to be attributes of magicians. They are all signs betraying a kind of nervous condition, which in many societies may be cultivated by magicians.’(M. Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, trans. Robert Brain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) p. 27).
[3] Particularly since evxi,sthmi is often used by the Gospel writers to express a sense of wonderment upon witnessing a miracle (see Mk. 2:12, 5:42, 6:51; Mt. 12:23; Lk. 8:56).
[4] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 78. Smith adds that a ‘belief in 'obot or similar powers seems to have lived on in Palestine to at least the third century A.D’ (p. 78).
[5] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 78.
[6] Christophe L. Nihan, ‘1 Samuel 28 and the Condemnation of Necromancy in Persian Yehud’ in Todd Klutz (ed.) Magic in the Biblical world: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon, JSNTsupp 245 (2003) p. 29.
[7] Christophe L. Nihan, ‘1 Samuel 28 and the Condemnation of Necromancy in Persian Yehud’, p. 31.
[8] T. K. Oesterreich describes somnambulism as a state ‘in which the normal individual is temporarily replaced by another and which leaves no memory on return to the normal’ (T. K. Oesterreich, Possession and Exorcism: Among Primitive Races in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times (New York: Causeway Books, 1974) p. 39). Similarly, Erika Bourguignon discovered that possessed individuals who use trance usually suffer from amnesia following their ASC experience (Erika Bourguignon, Possession (San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp, 1976).
[9] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 34. In addition, Davies quotes Michael Lambek: ‘Hosts by and large do not remember what occurred while they were in a trance’ (p. 35, quoting from Michael Lambek, ‘From Disease to Discourse’, in Colleen Ward, Altered States of Consciousness and Mental Health: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1989) p. 40).
[10] W. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) p. 277 - 278.
[11] Pistis Sophia, 141.
[12] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 115.
[13] The BDB reflects this association by translating 'ruah' as ‘breath, wind, spirit’ (pp. 924-926).
[15] For example, PGM IV. 3007-86 instructs the magician: ‘while conjuring, blow once, blowing air from the tips of the feet up to the face’. In accordance with this principle, Celsus recounts that the Egyptian magicians are able to ‘blow away diseases’ Origen, Con. Cels. I. 68.
[16] J. M. Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition, (SBT, 2nd Series 28; London: SCM, 1974) p. 2.
[17] Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 107.
[18] See b. Ber. 34b.
[19] It is interesting to note that the RSV omits the kai (‘also’) in both versions (Mt. 8:9//Lk 7:8), although it is retained in the KJV version of Luke’s account.
[20] Cf. Jesus’ exousia in Mk. 1.27//Lk. 4.36 (‘What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him’) and the question in Mk. 11.28//Mt. 21:23//Lk. 20:2 ‘by what authority are you doing these things?’.
[21] Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus: The Miracle Worker (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1999) p. 156, cf. Lk 5:14, 8:29, 56, 9:21, Acts 1:4, 4:18, 5:28, 40, 10:42, 15:5, 16:18, 23, 17:30, 23:22, 30.
[22] Further evidence to support this assertion will be presented when examining Jesus’ exorcisms in Chapter 11 below.
[23] Pliny, Nat. Hist. 11:97.
[24] Lucian, Lover of Lies, 34-46.
[25] As previously discussed above, Matthew and Luke use the softer ‘led’ (Mt. 4:1; Lk. 4:1) to describe Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness, while Mark uses the forceful ‘drive out’ (Mk. 1:12).
[26] Luigi Schiavo, ‘The Temptation of Jesus: The Eschatological Battle and the New Ethic of the First Followers of Jesus in Q’, JSNT 25.2 (2002) pp. 141-164.
[27] Luigi Schiavo, ‘The Temptation of Jesus’, p. 145.
[28] This is demonstrated in the Greek word for ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia), which literally means ‘having a good demon’. Richard Kieckhefer acknowledges the confusion between the terms demon and daimon as follows: ‘one can discern…a tension between the early Christian notion of demons as fallen angels…and the Graeco-Roman conception of daimones (or daemones in Latin) as spirits linked with the world of nature’ (Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Stroud: Sutton, 1997) p. 154).
[29] Plato, Timaeus 90. Apuleius refers to Socrate’s daimon in order to demonstrate that the human soul could be called a daimon while the person is alive and even after death. He adds: ‘there are certain divine powers of a middle nature, sinute in this interval of the air between highest ether and earth below, through whom our aspirations and our deserts are conveyed to the Gods. The Greeks call them ‘daimons’’ (Apuleius, De Deo Socratis, 9).
[30] See Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum, Chapter 13 in Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 5.
[31] Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol. 2, book 8, (trans. R. D. Hicks (London: Heinemann, 1925) 8:32).
[32] Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 18.
[33] Eusebius, Oration on the 30th Anniversary of the Reign of Constantine (Laus Constantini) 13.
[34] The Testament of Solomon, 11f.
[35] Porphyry, Life of Plotinus X.
[36] Plutarch writes that ‘heaven seems to have attached to Socrates from his earliest years as his guide in life a vision of this kind, which alone, ‘showed him the way, illuminating his path,’ in matters dark and inscrutable to human wisdom, through the frequent concordance of the daimon with his own decisions, to which it lent a divine sanction’ (Plutarch, On Socrates’ Daimon 10. (trans. P. H. De Lacy and B. Einarson (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library 1959) pp. 405-07)).
[37] The KJV tends to use the term ‘familiar spirit’, whereas the RSV translates as ‘medium’. Cf. Lev. 19:31, 20:6, 20:27; Deut. 18:11; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chr. 33:6.
[38] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.13.3.
[39] L. J. Ciraolo, ‘Supernatural Assistants in the Greek Magical Papyri’ in Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (eds.) Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Boston: Brill, 2001) p. 279.
[40] See PGM I. 1-42, 42-195; IV. 1331-89, 1716-1870, 1928-2005, 2006-2125, 2145-2240; VII. 862-918; XI. a.1-40; XII. 14-95.
[41] ‘he will quickly freeze rivers and seas and in such a way that you can run over them firmly’ (I. 120-121), ‘he will tell you about the illness of a man…and he will also give [you both] wild herbs and the power to cure…’ (I. 188-190). In lines 181-83, the text instructs the user ‘Whenever you wish to do something, speak his name alone into the air [and] say, [“Come!”]….and say to him “Perform this task,”, and he does it at once….).’
[42] For example, PGM IV. 153: ‘quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately’, also PGM IV. 972-3: ‘now, now; immediately, immediately; quickly, quickly.’
[43] Especially considering the heavy use of military terminology in Luke’s Gospel (see pg. 163 above) and Leda Jean Ciraolo’s observation that the word ‘paredros’ was an ‘adjective used as a substantive to designate a variety of governmental and military officials’ (L. J. Ciraolo, ‘Supernatural Assistants in the Greek Magical Papyri’ in Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (eds.) Ancient Magic and Ritual Power (Boston: Brill, 2001) pp. 279-293).
[44] Unsurprisingly, the author of Luke omits the servitude of the angels. Perhaps this is a further example of the omission of material bearing magical connotations within the Gospel of Luke (the addition of the Angel of Agony in Lk. 22:43-44 is often considered to be an interpolation and is treated as such in many modern bible versions).
[45] According to the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), the variant δαιμόνια in Lk. 10:20 appears in uncial D, also in family 1, the miniscule manuscripts 565. 2542, sys.c.p, bopt and Did Cyr.

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