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.
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.
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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.