For Part 2, click here
Today I’ve been looking at the story of the demon-possessed man at Gergasa (or Gerasa, or Gadara) in Mark’s Gospel.1 This story features in my first graduate-school research paper, in which I analyzed Mark’s use of the sea as a theme and metaphor in his narrative. I’m also planning on featuring this story in a video series that I’m currently putting together—hence my interest in the text today. As I was researching, I came across one intertextaul and two intratextual aspects of the story that I had never before realized, and which I’d like to share here.2
After beginning writing, I realized that I had far too much material for one post. I’m imagining that I can get everything out in two parts. This first one will deal with one of the intratextual features (though, in so doing we’ll touch on a bit of intertextuality yet still). Even still, this first post is far too long. Perhaps I’ll be able to conclude in my next post, yet we’ll see how long it goes, and perhaps I’ll have to split it in half again.
Let’s get started then.
First, I’ll just reproduce the text we’re looking at (even though it’s quite long) so you can all follow along with me more easily. It’s Mark 5:1-20, and I’ll be using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as my translation.
1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
The point of interest that I will be covering in the post first came to my notice as I was reading through Robert Gundry’s commentary on Mark, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. His is a rather large, exhaustive commentary, and while I as often as not find his conclusions idiosyncratic and myself in disagreement with them, he gives a superbly detailed analysis of the Greek text’s grammar and syntax, as well as copious notes on what other scholars have said about whichever text.
As I was reading Gundry’s comments on the end of verse 4, which reads, “and no one had the strength to subdue him,” he merely notes that there is similar language to be found in 1:7, 3:27, and 9:18.3 I had never noticed the link in language before—revolving around the term “strength/strong” but when I did it activated a chain reaction of intriguing implications in my mind.
The Greek of this text reads so, “καὶ οὐδεὶς ἴσχυεν αὐτὸν δαμάσαι,” literally in English “and no one was strong/able to subdue him.” Our key term here is the verb ἴσχυω (ischuō), which can mean “to be strong/powerful” or can be used to mean that one has the inner strength/resource for something, giving it more or less the same meaning as “can” in English. So, the basic meaning in this phrase is “no one could subdue him.”
However, I think Mark used this word with more intention than the rather bland meaning of “can.” The Greek word δύναμαι (dunamai; “can, to be able”), is by far the more common Greek word to convey this meaning, being used 201 times in the New Testament, compared to the 28 times that ischuō is used (and from a quick count, it seems like 20 or fewer of these have the sense “can”). Furthermore, it turns out that Mark makes important usage of words in the same family as ischuō, all of whose meaning revolves around the notion of strength/might/power.
The first usage comes at the beginning of Mark’s work in John the Baptist’s proclamation in 1:7. Here John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus says the Jesus is “more powerful,” he uses a word related to ischuō, which is ἰσχυρός (ischuros; “strong, powerful”), and it is here found in its comparative (-er) form as ἰσχυρότερος (ischuroteros; “stronger, more powerful”). Thus, one of the first ways that Jesus is described in Mark’s story about him is as “the stronger one.”
Later, in chapter 3, verse 22, the Jewish scribes launch a full-out assault on Jesus’ character, claiming that he uses demonic powers to perform his miracles.
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
This is a pretty heavy claim when you think about it—that rather than doing good, Jesus is deceiving everyone around him and working for evil.
Rather than offering a direct riposte to his challengers, Jesus responds enigmatically, in parable (verses 23-27).
23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
The gist of it is that it would make no sense if Jesus were casting out evil by the power of evil since this would mean that evil would be destroying itself. No organization can operate that way if it means to accomplish its goal. So, if Jesus was truly casting out evil, then he must be doing it by other means than evil.
After Jesus has pointed out the absurdity of the scribes’ claim, he adds this obscure statement that makes up verse 27: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”
Here again we find the word “strong.” In fact, it is the exact same adjective, ischuros, as we found in 1:7, however this time in its positive (“strong”) rather than comparative (“stronger”) form.
Who then is this “strong one” that Jesus talks about? This figure is very clearly the Satan that he talks about in verses 23 and 25, who is the same as the Beelzebul mentioned by the scribes in verse 22. It is likely that Jesus is making a Hebrew or Aramaic pun on the word Beelzebul here in verse 27 that doesn’t translate especially well in Greek.4 “Beelzebul” is a transliteration using Greek letters of the Hebrew/Aramaic בעל זבול (baʿal/beʿel zebul), which literally means “Lord of Heaven.” The word zebul in Hebrew/Aramaic originally meant “dwelling.” It could be applied to the Temple insofar as it designated God’s dwelling place on earth.5 Through that linkage it came to refer also to heaven as God’s dwelling place. However, in the Jewish mind around the time of Jesus, the term had likely come to refer to the highest deity of the pagan religions around them, the “God of Heaven” (e.g. Jupiter or Zeus). However, to the Jewish mind, this deity was rather a demon than a true God, set against the only true God, Yhwh, the true “Lord of Heaven.” For Yhwh, the term בעל שמים (baʿal shamayim) was reserved. Here שמים (shamayim) means “heaven” or “sky,” and therefore its meaning overlaps with zebul.
The pun is more clearly seen in Matthew 10:25. In this verse Jesus says to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will the malign those of his household.” Here, Jesus is punning “master of the house” with “Beelzebul,” “master of the dwelling.” In the Peshitta, which is the Syriac translation of the Bible into Aramaic, the symmetricity of the pun is more clearly seen, where “master of the house” is בעל בית (beʿel beit, “master/lord of the house”). We can clearly see the similarity then of beʿel beit and beʿel zebul, and the pun is in the fact that both beit and zebul overlap in meaning “house/dwelling.”
Therefore, in Mark 3:27, Jesus is playing on the name Beʿelzebul, taking it in its original meaning. He, as the “lord of the dwelling” is the “strong one” whose house is being plundered. Who then is the one doing the plundering? If we have followed Mark’s story thus far, seeing Jesus casting out demons, healing people, liberating them from the forces of darkness, we can see that Jesus is the one who has bound the master of the house, Beelzebul, the strong one, and is plundering his domicile. By implication, Jesus is portraying himself as the “stronger one,” and suddenly we think back to John’s proclamation in 1:7.
There is even a further connection. In chapter 1, John directly connects Jesus’ being stronger to his being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. John is strong (through implication) and baptizes with water; Jesus is stronger and baptizes with the Holy Spirit. In chapter 3, just after Jesus alludes to himself as the stronger one plundering the strong man’s (Beelzebul’s) house, he continues into a teaching on the Holy Spirit and blasphemy, which seems only loosely connected. However, at least one point of it is to state that rather than being empowered by Beelzebul in his work, he is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Just as in John’s proclamation, Jesus’ strength is directly associated with the Holy Spirit.
This language of Jesus as the “stronger one” who is able to overpower the forces of evil, which are certainly strong yet not stronger, and in so doing to liberate those held captive by them, is a very nice image that helps to tie together the narrative of Mark’s work. But does it have any other source beyond Mark’s own creativity? Quite possibly it does.
Rikk Watts, in his seminal work, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark provides a keen and ample analysis of the possible source of this “strength” language in Mark. First, in post-biblical writing contemporary with Jesus, we find the expectation that God will overpower a mighty demonic force as God liberates his people. Testament of Levi 18:12 reads, “Beliar shall be bound by him,” “Beliar” being an archdemon. Testament of Zebulun 9:6b-8 reads, “the Lord Himself [will] arise to you, the Light of righteousness, and healing and compassion shall be upon His wings. He shall redeem all captivity of the sons of men from Beliar, and every spirit of error shall be trodden down”6 The similarity in theme to Mark 3:27 is striking, namely in the binding/tying up of Beelzebul/the strong man in Mark and Beliar in T. Lev., both archetypical archdemons; and the plundering of property in Mark, which clearly refers to the liberation of people who are held captive by the strong man, and the redemption from captivity from Beliar in T. Zeb.
Watts also notes a possible echo of a Biblical text in this passage, namely Isaiah 49:24-26. One thing that we must remember is that Mark himself tells us in the very beginning of his work (1:2) that his story about Jesus is the same story that Isaiah had told, and then he immediately quotes Isaiah 40:3.7 This then gives us some liberty in looking to Isaiah for connections to Mark’s own story, since Mark essentially tells us, his readers, to do so.
So what is Isaiah 49:24-26 about? These verses form the end of a salvation oracle (spanning 49:14-26) that immediately follows a passage that tells of how God will call a servant to deliver Israel (at least 49:1-6, but it seems that the conversation directly about the servant extends all the way to verse 13). This is significant because Isaiah is then connecting God’s servant from the beginning of chapter 49 to God’s declaration of salvation for his people at the end of chapter 49. If we are reading Isaiah through Mark’s eyes, he is seeing the whole chapter as pertaining to Jesus.
What does Isaiah 49:24-26 specifically say? Here’s the text:
24 Can the prey be taken from the mighty [strong],8 or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? 25 But thus says the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty [strong] shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children. 26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the Lord your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Here in Isaiah we see a similar phenomenon as in Mark: God’s enemies are described as strong—in fact, so strong that we may question whether they can be overcome, which I think is the intent of the rhetorical question at the beginning in verse 24. Yet, Yhwh declares that he will overcome the might/strong in order to take their prey, that is, Yhwh’s own people who are held captive. Here then Yhwh is implicitly naming himself as the “stronger one” who is plundering his enemies. Does this sound familiar in light of Mark 3:27?
If this is the case, then Mark is drawing on this imagery in order to depict Jesus as fulfilling what Yhwh himself had claimed he would do in Isaiah’s prophecy. As we saw, Mark already told us he was basing his story on Isaiah (and specifically on this section of Isaiah at that). However, there is one small difference. In Isaiah’s text, Yhwh is speaking against the Babylonians who had ripped the Israelites away from the homes and taken them into exile. In Mark’s text, Jesus is speaking against Beelzebul and his kingdom who have taken Israel (and presumably the whole world) captive to darkness and evil. These demonic beings are the strong ones against whom Jesus contends, the tyrant from whom Jesus is rescuing the prey, the one against whom Jesus is contending.
So, what does this all mean for our story about the demon-possessed man at Gergasa? For starters, let’s look at the mise en scene, the setting and scenery. In a sense, the demon-possessed man is depicted at the furthest depths of impurity, evil, sin, and death. Presumably, this man was a Gentile, a non-Jew, although we cannot be sure of this from the text. If so, he is already distant from Israel’s God by virtue of not being an Israelite, one of the chosen people of Israel’s God. Moreover, he lives among the dead, among the tombs, and we soon find out that he is in swineherd territory. The pigs would have been used as sacrifices to the dead, and most likely the man would have nourished himself by eating the left-out and left-over sacrifices.9 To the Jewish mind, being around tombs and consuming pigs were very defiling acts.
Essentially, this man’s situation represents the furthest you could get from God, who is the source of all goodness, life, and order. Instead, this poor man is at the depths of chaos, everything that is the opposite of life and order—and it shows. It’s tearing his psyche apart and destroying his body. It’s turned him into something more like a deranged, wild animal than a human being.
Mark has told us that no one has had the strength to even restrain this man. He has overcome every attempt to be confined. This is chaos overflowing and spilling out, and nobody can do anything to abate it. For a similar image—think about the danger and plague that atomic power can become. When unleashed chaotically it is anti-creation: it pollutes and destroys everything around it, returning it to primordial chaos, tearing at the seams of the order that sustains our reality, the order that we need to live well in this world. This is similar to the kind of overbrimming destructive chaos that is contained within and is destroying this man—in the Jewish mind associated with sin, impurity, and death.
So, Jesus has come to the far reaches—a necropolis, city of the dead, bastion of all the forces that work against God—and all its power has concentrated in this one poor man, a spokesperson of sorts. Soon we find out why no one has been able to restrain this man. He tells us his name is Legion: a virtual army of unclean spirits has taken up residence inside him.
Before this, we have seen Jesus confronting and commanding demons—yet one at a time. Can his strength match up with thousands upon thousands of them? Is Jesus, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, truly the stronger one? Can he really contend? Does he truly have the strength to plunder the house of the master of all demons?
These are the questions Mark is asking us here, and that’s at least partly why he’s included this story. In his placement of the word ischuō in verse 4, he wants us to think back to 1:7 and 3:27 (also by implication to Isaiah 49:24-26), and to wonder if Jesus really is the stronger one. Jesus had cast out unclean spirits before, but here in this story Mark is ratcheting up the tension, taking it up to 11, as it were.
What do we observe? Is Jesus up to the task? Well, Mark shows us thousands of demons bowing down to Jesus. Thousands of demons begging him to go easy on them. Jesus’ authority is such that they must obey his every command. An army of demons at the absolute behest of this man. Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, truly is the stronger one.
Faced with such incredible power of chaos and evil, such strength that drove this helpless man to behavior that we would hardly expect from the wildest animal, Jesus contends—and overcomes. What is the result? Mark gives us a serene and beautiful picture. Where once there was self-harm, lewdness, insanity, there is now a man, sitting there peacefully, clothed and in his right mind. Can you imagine what is was like for this man to receive such liberation?
Mark sets up this story to show us Jesus’ incredible strength. But there is still a more powerful enemy to be overcome: death itself.
Join me next time as I look at a possible Old Testament echoes from the exodus in this passage, as well as how this whole story might be foreshadowing the end of Mark’s Gospel.
1. All three terms have been found in various manuscripts. Each belonged to real towns and cities around the sea of Galilee, and it’s not difficult to see how these names could become confused.
2. Intertextuality describes the features outside of a text that give it meaning (for example, when a text makes reference to another text). Intratextuality describes the features inside of a text that give it meaning (for example, when a text contains a key-word or image that it repeats).
3. Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 249.
4. All the following observations in this and the next paragraph regarding the term Beelzebul are to be found in William Ewart Maurice Aitken. “Beelzebul.” Journal of Biblical Literature 31, no. 1 (1912): 34–53.
5. I believe I’m basically in agreement with Aitken in not seeing the Temple as a necessary dwelling for God. Though, it is certainly important to God’s dwelling and his presence on earth. Ezekiel 10 and Exodus 25:22 seem to point in this direction. Though, this is elsewhere balanced with God’s transcendence over and omnipresence in the world.
6. These quotations are to be found in Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 147.
7. Mark blends a quotation of Malachi 3:1 with this Isaiah quote, but I think that the main thrust of the quotation is towards Isaiah’s narrative. Malachi is more supplementary.
8. The Greek Old Testament uses γίγας (gigas) here instead of its synonym ischyros. However, by the time that the New Testament was written, ischyros seems to have completely replaced gigas in usage, so one could expect Mark to use ischyros in order to echo Isa 49:24-26. On all this, see Watts, New Exodus, 148, n. 57.
9. Gundry, Mark, 252, 258.