This morning I read the summary of Pope Francis’s October 11th homily on Luke 11:15-26, the Beelzebul controversy. This is the story in which Jesus exorcizes a person and then gets accused of driving out demons by the power of a demon. (It’s also the source of the “house divided cannot stand” saying.) Jesus defends himself, and then gives a teaching about how possession in general works.

At the beginning of his homily, Francis had this to say:

“There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others, say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness’. They do not read this, no? It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: ‘All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill’. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil.”

Antonin Scalia’s recent remark that he believes the devil is person got a good deal of coverage in the press, so I’m surprised that Francis’s words haven’t received similar attention, especially because they go against one of the main ways modern people have interpreted the exorcism stories in the New Testament: people who are said to be possessed by demons were actually suffering from epilepsy, or perhaps a mental illness.
While the NT authors may have understood Jesus to be exorcizing these people, this theory goes, what he actually did was either cure them of their illness, or perhaps reintegrate them into society by his example of compassion. This is the same interpretive move made when the stories of the loaves and fishes are understood not as Jesus miraculously multiplying food but as Jesus teaching people how to share. (Maybe nobody in the ancient world knew how to share until Jesus appeared and introduced the concept.) And it’s also the same approach taken by those who argue that Jesus walked on ice or submerged rocks rather than on the water, or that the six days of creation refer to six “ages” that were millions of years in length.
And while Francis has said some regrettably regressive things in recent days, I think he is in step, maybe unintentionally, with today’s best scholarship in rejecting interpretations that rationalize miraculous stories. While these sorts of approaches are often embraced by progressives and seen as alternatives to an unlearned biblical “literalism,” they ironically stem from just as high a view of scripture as those literal interpretations they reject: everything in the bible must have happened, and if something contradicts what we now know, then our task is to salvage it so that it is compatible with modern science. But, as many scholars have pointed out, this is to miss the point entirely of what biblical authors were trying to do.

9 thoughts

  1. I am always confused when people treat Jesus’ healing someone of a mental illness severe enough to isolate someone from society as though it were NOT a miracle. It’s not exactly an easy fix today.

    1. That’s an excellent point. If someone cured a person from severe schizophrenia, it would indeed seem miraculous.

      But I agree, to try to figure out what might have happened is to miss the point of the story.

  2. Thanks, Sonja. I appreciate where you’re going with this. But I’m afraid I don’t think it’s helpful – or intellectually rigorous, for that matter – to lump together the reductive explanations of ideological rationalism with all attempts to understand the exorcisms of Jesus in terms other than possession by individual demons. Surely there are other hermeneutical options here than either you believe in a personal devil or you’re a wishy-washy liberal. Contemporary sociological studies on experiences of possession among peoples under imperial occupation on the one hand, and recent theological work on (Pauline) principalities and powers (Stringfellow, Wink, et. al) on the other, certainly need to be fed into the conversation. Finally, an exegetical point: “The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible.” With respect to Francis, really? Obviously I’m aware of the weight of Christian tradition here, but OT 101 might suggest otherwise, and at least warrants a hearing.

    1. I get what you’re saying, Kim. After reading yours and Mary’s comments, I can see how my post says (offensively, in fact) that serious engagement with mental illness and biblical interpretation is on par with saying that Jesus walked on rocks, etc. That didn’t even occur to me when I wrote it, which means that I should have thought harder about this topic before posting on it. I know the scholarship you reference well; I don’t think of it in the same category as interpretations that want to collapse too quickly the gap between modern and ancient worldviews, as if we could just swap out “demon” and replace it with “modern medical condition” and all would be well.

      Anyhow, point taken. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I feel I’m on the same page as you, Sonja, not only on this one, but generally on the issues you and your friends post on at this wonderful blog, so I was hesitant even to raise the points I did. So I appreciate your gracious response to my comment, suggesting that we are indeed like-minded.

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