9. Was Jesus Possessed?


Morton Smith and Stevan Davies stand firmly at opposing ends of the theoretical and semantic spectrum with regards to their understanding of Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit. Stevan Davies proposes that Jesus was possessed by the Spirit and therefore he should be recognised as a ‘spirit-possessed healer’. On the other hand, Morton Smith argues that Jesus was the dominant, controlling force in the relationship and consequently he had ‘possession of’ the Spirit. Smith’s theory is deeply unpalatable for Davies who outlines the disagreement as follows:

‘It was not the relationship: “possession of,” but the relationship: “possession by,” the fundamental difference being whether the identity of Jesus of Nazareth was thought to be in control of a spirit entity, or whether the identity of Jesus of Nazareth was sometimes thought to have been replaced by a spirit entity.  And that makes all the difference in the world.’[1]

By elevating the passivity of the individual undergoing a possession experience and emphasising the dominant role of the new persona, Davies’ theory limits the degree of control that Jesus held in the subsequent application of his power and guards against the possibility that he was exerting control over a spirit through the use of magic. However, a brief analysis of the central characteristics of spirit-possession that are repeatedly cited in both ancient and modern studies into this phenomenon swiftly reveals that Davies’ ‘spirit-possessed healer’ is a highly improbable epithet for the Jesus of the Gospels and that it is Smith’s argument that is closer to the mark.


T. K. Oesterreich comments in his substantial volume Possession and Exorcism, a study of possession in both Christian and non-Christian contexts, that the concept of possession loses its relevance as cultures begin to abandon their belief in spiritual beings.[2] Although the practice of divine possession is still advocated in our current religious clime by many Christian charismatic groups, a gradual disregard for the existence of spiritual bodies in our present-day culture clearly accounts for our generally dismissive attitude towards possession and our tendency to assign it to inferior or irrational forms of thinking. Thus we are inclined to associate spirit-possession with either the anthropological study of primitive ritual, or psychological disturbances belonging to the psychiatric school of mental illness, or we simply reduce it to the harmless and entertaining genre of the Hollywood shocker movie.
Since the reality of demonic influences was widely recognised in antiquity, possession was much more commonplace amongst the ancients and cases were treated with genuine caution. It is within this cultural framework of spirit-possession that Stevan Davies suggests that we can understand the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.[3] Davies attempts to demonstrate that Jesus suffered from psychological episodes in which his original persona (Jesus of Nazareth) was subordinated or replaced by a new, temporary persona (the Spirit of God). During these possession episodes, Davies claims that Jesus was able to operate as a spirit-possessed healer. However, he ‘should not be identified as himself but as another person, the spirit of God.’[4]

A deviation from or replacement of the natural personality of an individual is generally considered to be a major indication of spirit possession. A change in personality is generally considered to result from either the temporary loss of the practitioner’s normal persona or ‘soul’, hence the anthropological term ‘soul-loss’, or the temporary possession of the practitioner by an external, supernatural power. It is most often the case that both changes occur simultaneously and the soul is replaced immediately by another. Oesterreich observes that in a state of typical possession, the normal and possessing personas cannot simultaneously exist alongside one another and so the original persona is replaced, the result of which is as follows:

‘The subject…considers himself as the new person…and envisages his
former being as quite strange, as if it were another’s…the statement
that possession is a state in which side by side with the first personality
a second has made its way into the consciousness is also very inaccurate…
it is the first personality which has been replaced by a second.’ [5]

In accordance with this type of possession behaviour, Davies proposes that the observation of the people in Mk. 3:21 that ‘he is beside himself’ (ὃτι ἐξέστη) literally means that Jesus was ‘absent from himself’. [6] This phrase, therefore, is evidence that Jesus was possessed by an external entity in this instance. To support this possession theory, Davies examines Jesus’ reported behaviour in the Gospels and isolates passages in which he believes that Jesus is demonstrating typical traits of possession behaviour.

Studies of both demonical and divine possession have identified a set of common behavioural patterns that are associated with the individual undergoing a possession experience. The first indication of possession is a change to the speech of the possessed and it is not uncommon in both ancient and modern reports of possession to encounter reference to an alternative persona speaking in the first person through the patient or an alteration in speech patterns, pitch or timbre.[7] In light of this, Davies directs his readers to Mk. 13:11 (‘for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit’) and suggests that this passage deals directly with alter-persona spirit speech in which the words are not formulated by the individual himself but originate from the new, dominant persona that has acquired control of the speech of its host. [8]

A second archetypal indication of possession is an increase in motor movements, known as motor hyper-excitement. When the possessing spirit replaces the original persona of the host it often takes control of the motor movements of the individual, thus exhibiting observable behavioural and psychological irregularities. [9] Evidence of the physical symptoms of possession in Jesus’ behaviour is proposed by Campbell Bonner, who suggests that in the account of the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:33) the statement ἐνεβριμήσατο τω πνεύματι καὶ ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν should be translated as ‘the Spirit set him in frenzy and he threw himself into disorder.’ [10] Bonner adds that the phrase in verse 38 ἐνεβριμώμενος ἑν ἑαυτω also seems to mean ‘in suppressed (or inward) frenzy’.[11] I would suggest, however, that interpreting ἐμβριμάομαι as indicative of possession frenzy ignores the sense of anger and indignation that is associated with the term. For example, Arndt and Gingrich interpret ἐμβριμάομαι as ‘to snort with anger’ and propose that we should interpret the word as ‘an expression of anger and displeasure’.[12] It appears that the presence of the term within this passage simply serves to indicate that Jesus was angry and does not signify that he was exhibiting motor hyper-excitement or any other physical manifestation of possession frenzy.

If we are to recognise that the historical Jesus was subject to periods of spirit-possession and that he was exhibiting all the characteristic symptoms of a possessed individual, then we would expect to find evidence within the Gospels of an initial possession experience in which Jesus first encounters his possessing spirit. Stevan Davies suggests that the Gospel writers record this event and that it takes place at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Mt. 3:1-17//Mk. 1:9-11//Lk. 3:21-22//Jn. 1:32-34).


The bizarre imagery of the descent of a dove and a voice coming from the heavens that are used by the Gospel authors when describing Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Mk. 1:9-11//Mt. 3:1-17//Lk. 3:21-22//Jn. 1:32-34 [13]) are found nowhere else in the Gospels and they are generally considered to be a poetic vehicle through which the Gospel authors present a messianic moment, make revelations regarding Jesus’ divine identity and highlight his relationship with God. Stevan Davies claims that since the baptismal accounts provided by the Gospel authors meet John Meier’s criterion of multiple attestation (the story appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the criterion of embarrassment (the story is not compatible with the interests of early Christianity) and the criterion of dissimilarity (there is no mention of a descending Holy Spirit in other Jewish or early Christian sources), the baptism accounts can therefore be considered to be a historically reliable record of events.[14] Davies then suggests that the baptism accounts essentially describe Jesus’ ‘initial spirit-possession experience’. [15] This adoptionist cum possession theory proposes that Jesus was not possessed by the Spirit prior to his baptism and that he underwent a ‘psychological transformation’[16] during which he was ‘anointed’ with the power to begin his messianic work.[17] To regard the baptism as the moment of the endowment of spiritual power is reminiscent of the first-century Gnostic doctrine of Cerinthianism and the second-century sect of the Ebionites, both of whom believed that Jesus did not have the Holy Spirit until his baptism and that it abandoned him at the crucifixion.

A number of difficulties arise when proposing that the historical Jesus was spirit-possessed and these will be addressed below. However, connotations of spirit-possession may account for the sensitive treatment of the baptismal account by each of the Gospel authors. The author of Matthew has previously explained that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18-20) and therefore he does not require the baptism story to explain the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless, the baptismal account is preserved in Mt. 3:1-17. The author of Luke separates Jesus’ baptism from the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice, preferring to introduce these later when Jesus is praying (Lk. 3:21-22). The author of John chooses to replicate the baptismal story, but he is clearly embarrassed by it since he turns it into a vision by John the Baptist (Jn. 1:32).

Various attempts have been made to account for the appearance of the Spirit as a dove (ὡς περιστερά) in all four Gospels. One particularly persuasive explanation is that the Gospel authors are conforming the physical embodiment of God’s Spirit to the popular conception of spirits, or souls, as airy, bird-like entities. James Frazer observes that it was widely accepted in the ancient world that when a person died his soul would leave his body in bird shape and he adds that ‘this conception has probably left traces in most languages, and it lingers as a metaphor in poetry.[18] In concurrence with Frazer’s comments, the depiction of the spirit or soul of the deceased as a bird is common in biblical, classical and modern literature. For example, James L. Allen Jr. writes in his study of the bird-soul motif in the writings of William Butler Yeats:

‘Because of its ability to rise above the earth a bird is a fairly obvious
and appropriate symbol for a disembodied soul. The identification of soul
with bird is…both ancient and widespread, the naturalness of such an
association no doubt underlying its universality.’[19]

There are various passages from classical literature in which the soul leaves the body in the form of a bird and one example of the early Christian use of this imagery in found in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, in which the saint’s soul leaves his body in the form of a dove upon death.

‘So at length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed
by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a
dagger. And when he had done this, there came forth [a dove and] a
quantity of blood.’ [20]

Although it is possible that the Gospel authors adopted the simple literary device of a bird-soul as a means by which to represent the physical embodiment of the Spirit, other scholars have suggested that περιστερά, is an error in translation and that the word relates to the manner in which the Spirit descends. Regardless of whether the Gospel authors intended περιστερά, to indicate a physical dove or simply the Spirit’s mode of descent, a theory of spirit-possession would be greatly strengthened if the Gospel writers intended to portray this Spirit as entering ‘into’ Jesus following its descent, rather than simply resting ‘upon’ him. The connection between possession and the presence of a spirit within the individual is demonstrated in the Markan account of the Capernaum demoniac when the unclean spirit is said to be in (evn) the possessed man (Mk. 1:23). Certainly this in-dwelling nature of the Holy Spirit is suggested in the baptismal account provided in the Ebionite Gospel in which the dove comes down and enters into Jesus (peristera/j katelqou,shj kai. eivselqou,shj eivj auvto,n, Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. 30. 13). However, I would suggest that the terminology used by the Gospel authors cannot be used as a reliable indicator of spirit-possession since the terms ‘upon’ and ‘in’ are used interchangeably when depicting the reception of the Spirit in the Old Testament. For example, Isa. 42:1 reads ‘I have put my Spirit upon him’ whereas Ezek. 36:27 reads ‘and I will put my Spirit within you'.

Since Jesus’ wilderness experience follows directly from his baptism in all three Synoptic Gospels, it is clear that the evangelists intend the two events to be linked together. With this in mind, Stevan Davies suggests that Jesus’ expulsion into the wilderness is the direct result of his prior gift of the Spirit at baptism and that the forceful nature of Jesus’ departure is reminiscent of the impulsive behaviour associated with the possessed. Therefore Davies proposes that the Gospel authors are describing a ‘spontaneous possession experience’
. [22] The forcefulness of Jesus’ expulsion is evident in the terminology used in the Markan account. While Matthew and Luke employ the much softer avnh,cqh / h;geto (‘led’, Mt. 4:1; Lk. 4:1), a forceful, violent, external influence upon Jesus is evident in Mk. 1:12, in which the Spirit forcefully ‘drives out’ (ἐκβάλλει) Jesus into the wilderness.[23]

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. 91.
[2] T. K. Oesterreich, Possession and Exorcism: Among Primitive Races in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times (New York: Causeway Books, 1974) p. 378.
[3] Stevan Davies indicates that in the spiritual environment of Jesus’ time ‘the modality of possession…was commonly accepted’ and victims of demon possession and spirit-possessed prophets were an everyday encounter (Stevan Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 59).
[4] Stevan Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 18.
[5] T. K Oesterreich, Possession: Demonical and other (London: Kegan Paul, 1930) p. 39.
[6] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 95.
[7] Oesterreich writes: ‘At the moment when the countenance alters, a more or less changed voice issues from the mouth of the person in the fit. The new intonation also corresponds to the character of the new individuality…in particular the top register of the voice is displaced: the feminine voice is transformed into a bass one, for in all the cases of possession which has hitherto been my lot to know the new individuality was a man’ (Oesterreich, Possession and Exorcism, pp. 19-20).
[8] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 29, cf. p. 46.
[9] Typical possession ‘is nevertheless distinguished from ordinary somnambulistic states by its intense motor and emotional excitement’ (Oesterreich, Possession, p. 39). ‘Muscle rigidity and loss of control of gross motor movements’ are mentioned by Davies (Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 33).
[10] Campell Bonner, ‘Traces of Thaumaturgic Techniques in the Miracles’, HTR 20. 3 (1927) p. 176.
[11] Bonner, ‘Traces of Thaumaturgic Techniques in the Miracles’, p. 176.
[12] William 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. 254.
[13] Although the Johannine version of the baptism is recounted as a vision by John the Baptist, I am including it here as it retains the imagery of the descending dove.
[14] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 64.
[15] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 148.
[16] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 65.
[17] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 148: ‘If Jesus believed himself to be one who was anointed by God, it is anything but unlikely that the anointing in question was his initial possession experience.’
[18] J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Chapter III. 33-34.
[19] James L. Allen, Jr., ‘Yeats’s Bird-Soul Symbolism’, TCL 6. 3 (1960) p. 117.
[20] The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16:1 (trans. J.B. Lightfoot). There is some disagreement concerning the mention of a dove here. For example, Eusebius does not mention the dove and many have thought that the text has been altered. Cf. also the martyrdom of St. Eulalia in Prudentius’ Peristephanon in which it is reported that a white dove left her mouth upon death.
[22] Davies, Jesus the Healer, p. 64.
[23] The term ἐκβάλλει is typically used by the author of Mark in connection with the exorcism of demons, cf. Mk.1:34, 39, 43; 3:15, 22; 4:13; 7:26; 9:18, 28.

No comments:

Post a comment