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I'm asking a rather technical question here. I'm wondering where the idea comes from that a person could be "possessed by" a demon; as in, the demon "possesses" / "owns" the person -- as opposed to the person simply "having" / "possessing" a demon which does things through and for the person.

I understand that there are examples in Scripture where demons give people supernatural abilities like special knowledge or unnatural strength. I also understand that there are examples in Scripture of demons doing things to people like speaking through them or throwing them around. However, my car does things to me that I don't want it to sometimes, but it doesn't "possess" me / "own" me. I own my car. It just doesn't always do what I want it to -- it could even cause me harm (if the brakes went out or something) -- but that has more to do with it not doing what I want it to than it "owning" me. Hopefully this distinction is making sense.

The reason I ask is that I looked up the Greek behind a couple of the instances of "demon possession" in Scripture (Luke 4:33; 8:27) and in both places it is translated to say that the person was possessed by a demon, but in both cases the Greek suggests that the person possessed the demon.

Is there anything explicit in Scripture which describes a person being "possessed by" a demon? If not, what is the origin of this belief?

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  • 1
    To help avoid hasty close votes, this question is not about whether Christians can be possessed, or about whether people today can still be possessed. I'm wondering whether anyone ever was "possessed by" a demon in Scripture, and if not, when did this idea arise in church history. So it's not a duplicate of any of those questions.
    – Jas 3.1
    Feb 25, 2015 at 22:38
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    Are you trying to ask whether Devils can take control of men's bodies against their will? Or whether devils are possessed by means of men taking the demons into their bodies either willingly or against the demons will? It's still pretty unclear exactly what you are try ing to ask with this question. The scriptures you've provided, and others in Matt 8 are pretty clear that the Devils entered the bodies of the men who possessed them. Each asked Christ not to cast them out, so I think it's pretty clear that the occupiers were the ones in control.
    – ShemSeger
    Feb 25, 2015 at 22:54
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    @ShemSeger It is very common to speak of "demon possession", as in "possessed by a demon" -- I mean, even a glance at translations shows this. They translate active participles as if they were passive in order to make it look like this is what the text is saying. I think that's strange. The most natural way of translating those passages would be that the people had demons, but instead they say the people were possessed by demons. They're translating that because of their theological bias, which has some origin. I'm wondering what the origin is. (cont...)
    – Jas 3.1
    Feb 25, 2015 at 22:58
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    ...there is a huge theological debate about whether Christians can be "possessed by" a demon, or whether people who are "possessed by" demons are under their complete authority, or whether they are able to overcome the demons' "authority" over them. I'm wondering if we're chasing our tails here when that's not even what the Bible says was happening. Maybe these people wanted demons because they got some benefit from having the demons, and the demons came with consequences. Why do we assume they were "possessed by" the demons and not vice versa?
    – Jas 3.1
    Feb 25, 2015 at 23:00
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    There are even theological debates about whether its possible for a person who has "sold their soul to the Devil" to get saved or not, which is the same sort of thinking. The idea is that the Devil "owns" the person now, and the person is now the Devil's property, unable to choose to leave, etc. This whole "owned by a demon" theology is looking suspect to me now. But before I go on a crusade against the idea of being "possessed", I want to check with the community to see if I'm missing anything obvious.
    – Jas 3.1
    Feb 25, 2015 at 23:04

3 Answers 3

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I think part of the issue may be the differing meanings of the word "possess". We typically use the word today to mean "to own" or "to have"; but this is not the original meaning. Etymonline.com records the original meaning of the word (when it entered English at the end of the 1300s) as being "'to hold, occupy, reside in' (without regard to ownership)". The word is often used in a military sense; one can "possess" the territory of an enemy simply by occupying it and militarily controlling it.

In this sense, one could speak of a person as possessing a demon (one might "have a demon" in the same sense as one "has a cold"); but also one could speak of the demon as possessing (invading, residing in, and taking control of) a person.

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There are several different forms of verbs used in the New Testament translated as possessed. You seem to be conflicting between these two:

δαιμονίζομαι

daimonizomai.....dahee-mon-id'-zom-ahee

Middle voice from G1142; to be exercised by a daemon: - have a (be vexed with, be possessed with) devil (-s).

Total KJV occurrences: 13

And this one:

ὑπάρχοντα

huparchonta....hoop-ar'-khon-tah

Neuter plural of present participle active of G5225 as noun; things extant or in hand, that is, property or possessions: - goods, that which one has, things which (one) possesseth, substance, that hast.

The following Scriptures will help to define these verbs.

Acts 4:32 through 35 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. 34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.

In these Scriptures the verb ὑπάρχοντα is used and actually is more restricted to material object possession.

in these Scriptures the verb phrase δαιμονίζομαι is used:

Mark 5:1 through 13 NKJV Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. 2 And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 3 who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. 5 And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones. Mar 5:6 When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. 7 And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me." 8 For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!" 9 Then He asked him, "What is your name?" And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many." 10 Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country. 11 Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. 12 So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them." 13 And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.

And these two Scriptures are the ones of interest since the verb phrase is used:

Mark 5:15 and 16 NKJV Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 16 And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.

While English is a noun based language Greek is a verb based language, that is why there are differences in the verbs and verb phrases used.

The verb phrase δαιμονίζομαι is used which is actually daimonizomai which is defined by Thayer as:

δαιμονίζομαι

daimonizomai

Thayer Definition:

1) to be under the power of a demon.

Part of Speech: verb

There are many different extents to which a person can be possessed by demons as is indicated here in that the demon answered with one voice but professed to be many demons.

and they have varying control over the person as is indicated in the following Scriptures:

Matthew 12:22 NKJV Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.

Acts 16:16 NKJV Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling.

As far as to what extent a demon can control it's host is not made totally clear, but it is obvious that it can completely change the hosts as is indicated by Mark chapter 5 where the one possessed by Legion acted completely foreign to his normal self.

Sorry I cannot give you more specifics, but I hope this gives you enough to continue your study.

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Maybe some general background helps to understand a more balanced understanding of the original term:

Origin of the Term

The Greek verb daimonizomai originally had a broad application. The Gospels use it to refer to an evil condition caused by a demon, while the Greeks often viewed it as a welcome condition, with benign demons providing guidance and protection, or artistic inspiration.1 For the Greeks, only in a minority of cases was it connected to a state of mental or physical suffering.2 When demons caused inconvenience, “purification” through magic rituals was considered, along with incantations, binding spells, and medicines. In severe cases, victims could be physically bound or chained.3

This Greek noun daimon initially described a lesser kind of intermediate god, a ministering or guiding spirit, or the spirit of a deceased person. Acts 17:18 uses it to note how the Athenians viewed Paul as a preacher of “strange gods” (lit., “demons”). In Acts 17:22, the term is used to describe an audience as very “religious” (lit. “demon-fearing”). Acts 25:19 refers to disagreements over “religion” (lit. “demon worship”).

Greek mythology offered no strict division between good and evil spiritual beings. Demons were messengers of the gods, and not intrinsically evil.4 So the practice of exorcism broke through only slowly among them. Today, our closest grasp of how they viewed daimonizomai would be like being connected to a “spirit guide,” an inspirational or protective spirit.5

The first-century Judeo-Christian worldview, however, saw a strict and mutually exclusive division between faithful angels and demons. Any spirit-filling other than by the Spirit of God was considered totally undesirable. For the Jews, then, anyone under the influence of a demon was presumed to be connected to the wrong source.6 The difference with the Greeks was mainly in interpretation. For example, an artist could be considered by both Jews and Greeks to be demonized. To the Greeks, this was good and desirable, but to the Jews, it was the absolute opposite.

According to Jewish interpretation, demonized people were connected to a wrong source, rather than being in an extreme or pathological condition. Many Jews accused Jesus of being demon-possessed (John 10:20). This was not because he exhibited extreme pathological symptoms; they accused him of being close to a bad source. Others countered that “an evil spirit could not open the eyes of the blind” (John 10:21), and concluded that he was a true prophet. The Pharisees claimed that Jesus cast out demons through Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24), but he refuted it, explaining that he acted by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28). John the Baptist was also accused of being demon-possessed because of his austere lifestyle (Matthew 11:18). Such accusations confirm that the Jews believed “demon possession” was not limited to those who behaved as extremely as, for example, the possessed man of Gadara.

The fact that the Gospels used a well-known, relatively mild term is a factor that we should take into account, although neither the original Greek nor the folkloric Jewish meaning solely determines the Gospels’ meaning.

Today, “demon-possession” is usually consigned to extreme cases, far different from the mild or even positive view of ancient Greece. Between those two extremes—the ancient Greek usage and the present-day extreme meaning—we find the broad spectrum of the initial Judeo-Christian usages, from mild to serious, but never with a positive connotation.

For many today, to translate daimonizomai as “demon-possessed” is controversial, while others reject milder alternatives. Yet the Gospel usage is very generic. It referred to those who were infested in limited areas, to those with serious infestation, or to cases of total demonic domination to the extent that their victims express the thought and awareness of the demon(s) who have settled there.

Daimonizomai and Related Terms

  • Daimonizomai: “demon-possessed” or “being demonized” occurs 13 times in the Gospels.7

  • Echoo: “having” a demon or evil/unclean spirit occurs 17 times in the Gospels and Acts.8

  • En: “with, or in ” an unclean spirit is found two times (Mark 1:23; 5:2).

  • Deoo, in the context of echoo: being “bound” by Satan, “having” a spirit of infirmity, occurs 1 time (Luke 13:11,16).

  • Ochleomai: being “tormented” by unclean spirits is found two times (Luke 6:18; Acts 5:16).

The meanings of the terms overlap, but each term still denotes a specific aspect. “Being demonized” is a general description; “tormented” indicates the pain that is caused. Having a “spirit” or being “in” a spirit indicates that the condition is caused by a (specific) spirit. “Being bound” indicates that certain human functions have been reduced.

Demonic Affliction/Infestation

In our opinion, the expressions of demonic influence, affliction, or demonic infestation maintain the Judeo-Christian implications. They cover the whole spectrum, from less serious to very serious forms.

Jesus and his disciples used the term selectively and not to label people. The Pharisees and the Jews were the ones who sometimes used it suggestively. And though Jesus said of certain contemporaries that they had “the devil as their father” (John 8:44), he never described them as demonized. Even though Judas was referred to as a devil, he is nowhere labeled as “demonized.” Only those who would receive deliverance were dubbed by Jesus as being demonized. The term does not appear in the book of Acts nor in the letters. Despite its broad meaning, we should not use it loosely.

Today, the English term “demon possession” requires an even more careful use because of the extreme load of baggage it carries. An Internet search for “demon-possessed” will bring up all kinds of extreme pictures that are inconsistent with the first century’s common usage of daimonizomai.

(This article is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Farsi.)


Footnotes:
1 Howell mentions the following important consideration: “We must admit that making broad generalizations about a worldview is difficult because of the assumptions that must be made... The Greco-Roman world was a mixture of cultures, as well as the fact that “typical beliefs” (and religions) would vary by region.” Howell, 'Demon Possession in the Greco-Roman World', 2001, 2. For the concept of demons in the ancient world, see Everett Ferguson, 'Backgrounds of Early Christianity', 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 220–222.

2 Op. cit., 91.

3 Op. cit., 103–116.

4 Op. cid., 117.

5 Socrates (AD 469–399 AD) is mentioned as referring to his daemon as a source of inspiration and a customary sign. Plato, 'Apology of Socrates', 40A.

6 Only much later did certain forms of Jewish mysticism (like Kabala) embrace the concept of possession by a benevolent spirit (ibbur). See Matt Goldish, 'Possession in Judaism' (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003), 311.

7 See Matt 4:24; 8:16, 28, 33; 9:32; 12:22; 15:22; Mark 1:32; 5:15; 16, 18; Luke 8:36; John 10:21.

8 See Matt 11:18; Mark 3:30; 5:15; 7:25; 9:17; Luke 4:33; 7:33; 8:27; 13:11; John 7:20; 8:48, 49, 52; 10:20; Acts 8:7;16:16; 19:13.

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    – agarza
    Nov 30, 2023 at 15:03
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