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.