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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Exorcism

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1. Origin and definition.-It is pointed out in the article Divination that man, at a very early period, came to think of himself as surrounded by innumerable spirits, many of whom could enter into and influence him. He realized that it was his duty, and for his advantage, to cultivate friendly relations with these spirits, and one of the forms which this effort took developed into divination. The coming of a spirit into close relations with a man brought on him either calamities or blessings, and from these opposite results the spirits came to be grouped into good and bad. The entrance of a good spirit-a spirit of purity or truth-caused health of body or clearness of mind. Such indwelling in its highest form is inspiration (Job 32:8). The entrance of a bad spirit-a dumb, unclean, or evil spirit-caused disease of body or disorder of mind. In its most decided form this is Possession (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ). The spirits, and the divinities into which some of them developed, were free to enter into or leave a person, but their freedom was limited. As ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’ (1 Corinthians 14:32), so certain persons came to know how, by a proper use of special words and acts, to make the spirits, within certain limits, obedient to them. 1 Such experts were able to bring a person into such close contact with a spirit, or the thing in which a spirit or divinity dwelt, that the spirit could deal effectively with the person. Such bringing into contact developed, (a) where the person was able or willing, into administering to him an oath; (b) where unable or unwilling, into solemnly adjuring him. 2 An expert could call up, call upon, or permit a spirit to enter another person, to work his will in him; or enter into him-self to work with him or reveal secrets to him. 3 He could compel a spirit to come out of a person or thing into which it had entered; with the result, if the spirit was an evil one, that the baneful consequences of possession immediately ceased. The expert who could do this was an exorcist, and his work was exorcism.

2. Derivation.-The word ὄρκος seems primarily to have referred to a spirit, or an object made sacred by the indwelling of a spirit, and so came to mean the thing that brought a spirit into effective touch with a person, hence ‘an oath.’ ὁρκίζειν, in the same way, came to mean to bring these two together, hence (a) ‘to administer or cause to take an oath’ (Genesis 50:5, Numbers 5:19); or (b) ‘to adjure’ (Joshua 6:26, 1 Kings 22:16, 2 Chronicles 18:15, Acts 19:13). When the high priest said to Jesus ὁρκίζω* [Note: This, not ἐξορκίζω, is the reading of D L. The reading in Genesis 24:3 is ἐξορκιῶ.] σε κατὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος (Matthew 26:63), he thereby brought the prisoner into such effective touch with Jahweh that the latter could punish him if he did not speak the truth. ἐξορίζειν, on the other hand, meant the separating of the spirit from the person, and from it comes ἐξορκισμός, the Latin exorcismus, and the English ‘exorcism.’

‘The formula ἐξορκίζω is of Oriental origin. It is absolutely unknown in Greek and Italian tabellae from the fifth century b.c. to the second century a.d.; and, when it does appear, it appears only in tablets which make mention of Oriental deities’ (F. B. Jevons, ‘Defixionum Tabellae,’ in Transactions of the Third International Congress for the History of Religions, 1908, vol. ii. p. 138). A heathen amulet has the inscription ἐξορκίζω ὑμας κατὰ τοῦ ἁγίου ὀνόματος θεραπεῦσαι τὸν Διονύσιον; and ‘the adjective is of constant occurrence in the magic papyri’ (Moulton and Milligan, ‘Lexical Notes from the Papyri’ in Expositor, 7th ser. vii. [1909] 376).

3. History.-As the cause of disease was the incoming of an evil spirit, so the cure of the disease consisted in its expulsion. All exorcists were not equally clever at their work; but, though a patient might, like an old Babylonian, complain that ‘the exorcist has not handled my illness successfully’ (F. B. Jevons, Comparative Religion, 1913, p. 7), still failures were overlooked and forgotten, and exorcism prevailed among all the nations of antiquity, and prevails among all uncivilized peoples to-day (G. T. Bettany, Primitive Religions, 1891, pp. 20, 113, 128; The Book of Ser Marco Polo, translation H. Yule, 1871, vol. ii. pp. 71, 78).* [Note: For a psychological explanation of exorcism see W. McDougall, Psychology, 1912, p. 196; Andrew lang. Making of Religion2, p. 129; T. J. Hudson, The Law of Psychic Phenomena, 1893.] Sometimes, as in the lustratio of the Romans (W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, 1911, p. 209) and the Anthesteria of the Greeks (Gilbert Murray, Four Stages of Greek Religion, 1912, p. 30), the exorcism was national and periodic.

In private life, when a person became ill (‘was possessed’), an exorcist was at once called in who by various means attempted a cure. David by music expelled the evil spirit from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23), though, when the spirit came mightily, he failed (1 Samuel 19:9; Jos. Ant. vi. viii. 2 and xi. 3). Embracing (another form of exorcism) is mentioned in 1 Kings 17:21, 2 Kings 4:34, Acts 20:10. Solomon, according to tradition, acquired a great reputation as an expert practitioner of the art-‘a science,’ says Josephus (Ant. viii. ii. 5), ‘useful and sanative to man.’ He composed incantations by which cures were effected, and also formulas by which demons could be expelled. These were used as late as the time of Vespasian, a notable instance being recorded by Josephus (loc. cit.; see also his account of the root of Baaras [Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) vii. vi. 3]). In the OT Apocrypha there are such references to the art as that in Tobit 6:16-17; Tobit 8:2-3. Our Lord† [Note: Dearmer, Body and Soul, 1909, p. 146; T. J. Hudson, op. cit., chs. xxiii., xxiv.; G. J. Romanes, Thoughts on Religion6, 1896, p. 180 and Gore’s note.] accepted the beliefs of His time on this as on other matters. His words and deeds show us the evil spirits going out of a patient (Matthew 17:18, Mark 5:8, Luke 8:29, Mark 9:25-26); entering into lower animals (Matthew 8:32, Mark 5:13, Luke 8:33); wandering through waterless places (Matthew 12:43, Luke 11:24); cooperating with other spirits (Matthew 12:45, Luke 11:26); and re-entering the patients from whom they had been expelled (Matthew 12:45, Luke 11:26). In contrast to the exorcists of His time (Matthew 12:27, Luke 11:19), our Lord exhibited exceptional skill and unbroken success in the expulsion of evil spirits. He healed ‘all who were tyrannized over by the devil’ (Acts 10:38).‡ [Note: καταδυναστενομένους. The word here employed is used in the papyri thus: ‘I am being harshly treated in prison, perishing with hunger,’ and indicates the physical suffering arising from possession (Moulton and Milligan, loc. cit. p. 477).] Exorcism, it must be observed, is not nearly so prominent in the First Gospel as in the Third, and all instances of its use are omitted in the Fourth (J. Moffatt, The Theology of the Gospels, 1912, pp. 13, 120; J. M. Thompson, Miracles in the NT, 1911, p. 63). It is especially noteworthy that our Lord in expelling evil spirits employed no outward means (except once, the spittle [John 9:6]); He simply commanded and it was done.* [Note: Dearmer, op. cit., p. 168.] Perhaps the secret of His power, His triumphant and universal success, and of the failure of others, is revealed in His words, ‘this kind cometh not out except by prayer’ (Mark 9:29).† [Note: à and B omit καὶ νηστείᾳ and along with A the whole of Matthew 17:21.] Prayer is the complete opening up of one’s entire personality to the incoming of the entire personality of God. Jesus was able to do this and did it; others failed and fail.

The Twelve, after being chosen, were ordained to be with Jesus in order that they might go forth (a) to preach, (b) to have power to heal diseases, and (c) ἐκβάλλειν τὰ δαιμόνια (Mark 3:14-15, Matthew 10:1). When He did send them forth, He gave them power to cast out all unclean spirits (Matthew 10:1, Mark 6:7, Luke 9:1). St. John reported to Jesus that he and other disciples saw one casting out daemons in His name (Mark 9:38, Luke 9:49); while, on the other hand, the disciples sometimes failed in their efforts at expulsion (Matthew 17:19). Our Lord sent out the Seventy (a) to heal, (b) to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom (Luke 10:9). When they returned, they reported that the spirits were subject to them in His name‡ [Note: See art. Name.] (Luke 10:17). Finally, Jesus bequeathed to those who should believe power in His name‡ [Note: See art. Name.] to cast out daemons (Mark 16:17). After the death of Jesus the apostles continued to cure those troubled (or ‘roused,’ ὀχλουμένους, Luke 6:18) with unclean spirits (Acts 5:16), and a similar power was exercised by other Christians over spirits which came out ‘shouting with a loud cry’ (Acts 8:7).

When the Christian missionaries penetrated into the Roman Empire, they met the victims of possession, and had to deal with them. At Philippi, St. Paul and Silas encountered a young girl, the slave of a group of masters, who was possessed by a spirit-a Python,§ [Note: The correct reading, according to à AB, is πύθωνα; see art. Python.] which enabled her to utter predictions.|| [Note: | μαντευομένη; see art. Soothsaying.] The girl so forced herself upon the missionaries’ attention that at last St. Paul, ‘in the name‡ [Note: See art. Name.] of Jesus Christ,’ commanded the spirit to come out of her, which it immediately did (Acts 16:16-18). Again, at Ephesus, a city in which exorcism flourished, St. Paul seems to have cast out spirits in the name‡ of Jesus. Further cures of a somewhat uncommon (οὐ τὰς τυχούσας) character were effected, for on certain articles of dress which had been in immediate contact with the body (ἀπὸ τοῦ χρωτός [Note: χρῶς, literally ‘the skin.’ See Nestle in ExpT, vol. xiii. [1901-02] p. 282, and art. Apron.] ) of St. Paul being applied to those afflicted, the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11 f.).

Such success roused a competitive spirit in the minds of other exorcists and revealed to them the power which lay in the use of the name of Jesus. Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, who formed a company of strolling exorcists, determined to utilize the new power. Over a man afflicted with an evil spirit they pronounced this formula: ὁρκίζω ὑμᾶς τὸν Ἰησοῦν ὅν Παῦλος κηρύσσει. The effort proved more than futile, for the recitation of the formula, instead of bringing Jesus into such effective touch with the man that the evil spirit had to yield possession to Him, roused the spirit to stir into activity that abnormal muscular strength often possessed by those mentally deranged (cf. Luke 8:29), and, leaping on the exorcists, the man assaulted them and drove them out of the house stripped and wounded (Acts 19:13-16). The men who had become Christians realized the incompatibility of loyalty to Jesus and the practice of such magical arts, and they publicly burned their copies of the famous Ἐφέσια γράμματα (Acts 19:19).

That this did not mean the absolute abandonment of exorcism the subsequent history of the Church all too clearly proves. The reference to ‘doctrines of daemons’ (1 Timothy 4:1) and ‘the spirits of daemons performing signs’ (Revelation 16:14) shows how exorcism still lingered in the Church. The words which shed light on the struggle from the higher Christian standpoint are those in James 4:7 : ‘resist the devil, and he will flee from you’-words which were an exhortation to the Christians not to resort to exorcism, but to rely on the successful resistance which sprang from a strong exertion of their sanctified wills aided by the power of God. The means employed by exorcists differ in different times and countries. Four only are referred to in the Apostolic Age-hands, cloths, the name of Jesus, and shadowing.

When we pass to the literature of the Fathers, we cannot help being struck with the almost total absence of references to exorcism. This is possibly to be accounted for by the fact that the work of these writers forced them to think more of evangelism and apologetic than of combating the evils of the heathen world. In the spurious Ignatian Epistle to the Philippians (ch. v.) Christ is by way of honour called ‘this magician’ (μάγος αὑτος), and in the spurious Epistle to the Antiochians (ch. xii.) we find ‘the exorcists’ (ἐπορκιστάς) mentioned among the Church officials.

The practice of exorcism continued in the Church. The ordinary Christian practised it, Gregory Thaumaturgus even casting out devils by sending letters to the person possessed. As a rule, however, the practice was confined to the clergy, and by a.d. 340 the ἐπορκιστής constituted a special order, some of whom were ordained, others merely recognized. The rescripts of the Emperors granted to them, as well as to the other orders of clergy, exemption from civil offices. Their work was the care of the possessed, the εὐεργούμενοι, the catechists, heretics, and schismatics, the exorcism being in each case connected with the rites of exsufflation and insufflation (see J. Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticae, 1843, vol. i. p. 362ff. and vol. iii. p. 277ff.; Smith and Cheetham, Dict. of Christian Antiquities , 1875, vol. i. p. 650; Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , article ‘Abrenuntio,’ vol. i. p. 38). The office of exorcist continued to be important: we read, e.g., of St. Patrick landing in Ireland with a number of officials among whom were skilled exorcists (A. R. Macewan, History of the Church of Scotland, vol. i., 1913, p. 36).

Literature.-See the Literature mentioned in the foot-notes of article Divination, and in addition W. M. Alexander, Demonic Possession in the NT, 1902; H. A. Dallas, Gospel Records interpreted by Human Experience, 1903, p. 201; Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion2, 1900, p. 128; R. C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, 1903-04, vol. i. p. liii; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough3 ‘The Magic Art,’ 1911, i. 174ff.; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture3, 1891, ii. 124ff.; articles in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , i. 438ff., and Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , iv. i 565, 578, 612, with the Literature there mentioned.

P. A. Gordon Clark.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Exorcism'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/e/exorcism.html. 1906-1918.

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