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Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 mention that Mary Magdalene had seven demons, which Jesus exorcised.

In spiritual warfare literature, it's common to distinguish different types of demonic influence; example in the article The Extraordinary Actions of the Devil. Another tries to give the following definitions:

  • Demonic Possession - It's when a demon takes over a person's body without their consent. It's what you see in most movies. It involves speaking in tongues, sudden personality changes, sudden violence, even superhuman strength.
  • Physical Pain - This is a sickness or an injury due to a demon being inside a person. It doesn't impact the soul, just the body.
  • Diabolic Oppression - This is when a demon torments a person, causing tragic events in their lives the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, a home. Basically, the story of Job.
  • Diabolical Infestation - It's when demonic entities take over a house, an object, even an animal.
  • Diabolical Subjugation - It's when the possessed invites the demon into their lives. They do this through game play or pledging their soul to the devil. It's real in that if a human wants power, they can trade away their future for that power.
  • Diabolical Obsession - It's when a person has constant, overwhelming and irrational thoughts, making them act in perverse ways. It's hard to detect because it's the most highly functional of all the possessions. But it can lead to suicidal ideation and murder.

But today, especially in Western countries, people tend to "psychologize" those demonic influence into chronic depression, etc, such as how this article tries to contemporize Mary Magdalene's seven demons.

Rather than speculating from modern / Western lens or use Western categories (like the above), my complete question is: using the best studies of demonology in Jesus's time, what is the nature of the 7 demons oppressing Mary Magdalene in terms of how the Gospel writers would have conceptualized it? In other words, what did the gospel writers have in mind when choosing the words to narrate what Jesus did? Is it always a spiritual entity perceived to be gone out like in the Exorcist movie? Or on the other extreme, is it an idiomatic expression for what today we call mental or physical illness? Or is it something in between?

The significance of this question is to enable a more faithful interpretation of the many Gospel passages on Jesus and the Apostles casting out demons, which today's Christian groups (esp. those with Freedom ministries) use as the basis of their practice. Some groups even take Mark 16:16-18 literally as the sign of a true believer ("... in my name they will cast out demons...") and exhorting them to practice Jesus-given authority to regularly perceive demonic influence in yourself / others and exorcise them.

Preliminary research

  1. A 2009 PhD Dissertation Jesus, A Jewish Galilean Exorcist: A Socio-Political and Anthropological Investigation by Amanda Witmer, McMaster University
  2. Book Article Exorcism or Healing?: A Korean Preacher’s Re-Reading of Mark 5:1-20 by Sejong Chun (Vanderbilt University), reviewed here, part of the 2010 book Mark: Texts @ Contexts. This paper contains 5 plausible hermeneutical understanding of the Mark 5:1-20 story, demonstrating the horizon of interpretation we are looking for in this question.
  3. Demons and Politics: A Consideration of Jesus' Exorcisms in Mark a by Bible scholar Andrew Perry, pdf available here at his Academia site, commenting on three 20th century social study theories of exorcism discussed by Paul W. Hollenbach in his well-cited Journal of the American Religion 1981 article Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study
  4. 2007 Master's Thesis The Representation and Role of Demon Possession in Mark by McGill Religious Studies student Eliza Rosenberg, which includes 15-page (!) list of works cited plus a 4-page list of modern exorcism accounts, mostly from news articles from 1995 to 2007.
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    I think this question could benefit from a slightly tighter focus, but does ask a legitimate, in-scope question about the interpretation of an oft-debated passage. Feb 17 at 18:00
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    What is your question really? What demons did she have? There is no way of knowing. Are you trying to rationalize away demonization? Demons are persons without bodies that Entice, Enslave, Torment- spiritual, mental, physical, Compel- compulsive behavior, Defile, Harass, Deceive- misrepresent. And she was delivered when the demons sharing here biological machine (human body) were expelled, removed from being housed in her body and no longer able to hijack the body. If I’m to respond I need a more pointed question.
    – Autodidact
    Feb 19 at 3:57
  • @Autodidact I like your functional description of demons. I definitely don't want to rationalize them away, for I believe in the ontological reality of demons and how Jesus helps free us from them. The focus of this question is the gospel writer's conception of demons that Jesus cast out (I picked Mary Magdalene as an example), which I think directly contributes to regulate freedom ministries that appeal to unorthodox interpretation of NT verses related to casting out demons. In contrast, here's an example of a safe & Biblical freedom ministry. Feb 19 at 14:49
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What was Mary's infirmity

From a hermeneutics standpoint, the text really doesn't specify among the options listed in the OP. The Greek word used in both places, δαιμόνια, is a pretty generic word for demons. (see here).

Perhaps the most detailed interpretation that could be read into the text comes from the preceding words in the same verse, Luke 8:2. The verse in its entirety reads:

2 And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,

This suggests that Mary is one of the women who had been healed of "evil spirits and infirmities", which could be just about anything.

Mental illness

It is not uncommon, as the OP noted, for mental illness to be postulated as an explanation for what the ancients were trying to describe in these circumstances (or at least in some of them). What vocabulary would they have used to describe psychological infirmities?

For my own take on what the scriptures have to say about mental illness, see here. For a more in-depth theological discussion of mental illness, SE-Christianity is probably more appropriate.

I will go ever-so-slightly beyond the scope of this site to draw a connection between Luke 4:40:

40 Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.

& John 13:15:

For I have given you an example

When Jesus encountered those who were infirm in body or mind He responded with compassion. Society today often stigmatizes mental illness and would benefit from following Jesus' example.

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  • Thank you for the answer. If you could substantiate it with a published book / journal article on the topic, that would be great, since the aim is for what the gospel writers have in mind when choosing the word to characterize what Jesus did. Therefore, the answer needs to have a plausible historical dimension. Feb 17 at 18:02
  • @GratefulDisciple I added a link to an article by Hollenbach in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which addresses this topic. It probably doesn't give a thorough answer to your question specifically, but addresses the topic generally, and offers footnotes to variety of additional published views on the subject. Feb 17 at 18:11
  • Thanks for the reference. I'll look it up. It will be helpful to include quotes from the reference to include specific plausible theory (based on a plausible historical understanding of demonology) of what kind of possession/oppression Mary had. For example, there at least needs to be some explanation into the number seven. Feb 17 at 18:41
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First, we need to take a look at what the Biblical Commentary says about these 2 bible passages of Luke 8:2, and Mark 16:9. It says about the relevance and significance of why Mary Magdalene was chosen first among the Apostles and the meaning of number 7 and devil.

Biblical Commentaries: Catena Aurea, Mark

Hom. in Evan., 33] But Mark here testifies that seven devils were cast out of Mary; and what is meant by “seven devils” save all vices? for as by seven days is understood all time, so by the number seven [see note d, p.149] a whole is fitly figured. Theophylact: But Mary had seven devils, because she was filled with all vices. Or else, by seven devils are meant seven spirits contrary to the seven virtues, as a spirit without fear, without wisdom, without understanding, and whatsoever else is opposed to the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Pseudo-Jerome: Again, He is shewn to her, out of whom He had cast seven devils, because harlots and publicans shall go before the synagogue into the kingdom of heaven, as the thief reached it before the Apostles.

Bede: In the beginning also woman brought man into sin, now she, who first tasted death, first sees the Resurrection, lest she should have to bear the reproach of perpetual guilt amongst men; and she who had been the channel of guilt to man, now has become the first channel of grace.

Catena Aurea, Luke

GREG. For what is understood by the seven devils, but all vices? For since all time is comprehended by seven days, rightly by the number seven is universality represented: Mary therefore had seven devils, for she was full of every kind of vice.

Lapide: Mark

Ver. 9. Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils. Mark adds this to show the power of repentance and love. With these was Magdalene the sinner so inflamed, that she deserved first to see Christ risen again, that from her sinners might learn not to despair, but vehemently to love; for so they shall surpass the Holy Innocents in grace and glory. So Bede, “Because where sin abounded, grace hath superabounded.” Bede adds, “A woman was the beginner of transgression. A woman first tasted death, but in Magdalene woman first saw the resurrection, that woman might not bear the perpetual guilt of transgression among men.” See what is said on Luke viii. 2.8

Lapide:Luke

Ver. 2.—And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils. These women followed Christ (1.) out of gratitude, because He had healed their diseases, and cast out the devils which possessed them. (2.) For safety, lest if they were away from their physician, their former ills might again overtake them. (3.) From pious motives, that from His companionship and preaching they might advance in holiness. Mary. In Hebrew, Mary signifies a “bitter sea” of repentance. Bede. Called Magdalene. As we have before explained, from the castle or fort near Bethsaida and Capernaum.  S. Augustine infers that she was a married woman (Hom. 33), and therefore calls her not a harlot but an adulteress. But according to S. Jerome, the author of the commentary on S. Mark calls her a widow, which is much the same thing; so also Jansenius, Luke and others. That she was an inhabitant of Judæa, and like Lazarus and Martha lived at Bethany, is clear from S. John xii. 1. Adricomius, in his description of the Holy Land, tells us that the Magdalene’s home was situated on the shore of the sea of Galilee, and towards the north-east looks out on an extensive plain, and that it was called Magdala from the battlements and towers, wherewith it was fortified. Hence Jerome asserts that she was rightly called Magdalene, that is to say, “turreted” because of her zeal and love. Josephus makes mention of this castle, and tells us that Agrippa fruitlessly sent an expedition against it. In the Hebrew then Magdalene signifies (1.) turreted, or tower-bearing, from the root מגרל migdol, a tower; for she was tall of stature, and of a yet loftier mind. “Thy neck is like the tower of David,” Cant.iv. 4. (2.)Or “magnificent” (Origen), or “magnified,” according to Pagninus, because, says Origen, she followed Jesus, ministered unto Him, and beheld the mystery of His Passion. For the root צרל gadal, means, “to be great and magnificent,” and the Magdalene was greatly exalted by Christ. (3.) Pagninus says that Magdalene means, “remarkable for the standard,” “bearing, or raising the standard,” from the root רצל deghol, which, when the letters ghimel and daleth are transposed, signifies a standard. For the Magdalene raised the standard of penitence and love, and of the contemplative life. Like as we read, “His banner over me was love,” Cant. ii. 4. (4). Or otherwise, as the same writer remarks, the name means, “brought up, nourished,” i.e. led by the teaching of Christ to a holy and a virtuous life. For the Hebrew ברל gadal means the same thing as to nourish and bring up. Out of whom went seven devils, i.e. seven capital sins, pride, avarice, gluttony, luxury, anger, envy, and careless living. Bede, Theophylact and S. Gregory. For in a literal sense we are to understand that she had been possessed by devils or evil spirits, as I have before said, and that they had gone out of her, or (S. Mark xvi. 9) been cast out. So teach S. Ambrose, Euthymius, Jansenius, and others. We may conclude, therefore, that the Magdalene, because of her wickedness and sins, had been possessed by seven devils, and that with other demoniacs she had been made whole by Christ; that on her repentance she had obtained pardon and forgiveness, and, no longer under the power of Satan, but filled with the spirit of God, she devoted her whole after life to the service of Christ. John of Rochester and others. Seven devils, either seven in actual number, or “seven” in the sense of many, or all; for, as I have often pointed out, “seven” is the sign of multitude or totality.

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What is the nature of the 7 demons in Mary of Magdalene that Jesus cast out?

First of all let us take a close look at what the Evangelist Luke has to say about it in his Gospel:

1Soon afterward, Jesus traveled from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with Him, 2as well as some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3Joanna the wife of Herod’s household manager Chuza, Susanna, and many others. These women were ministering to them out of their own means. - Luke 8:2

The Gospel text in itself is quite clear that Mary Magdalene had 7 demons expelled from her. Did she suffer from any ailments as a result of the diabolical possession or even aside of the demonic interferences in her life: possibly.

Now if one wants the gospel writer's conception of demons that Jesus cast out, we need to realize that they took this matter very seriously.

The Scriptures make it clear difference from when Jesus heals someone from a purely physical infirmity, and from an expulsion to of the spiritual entities possessing some individual, known as demons.

Jesus healed a deaf and mute man from his infirmities and physical ills, but no Evangelist ever called him possessed. They understood the reality of a diabolical interference in human life from some form of physical illness.

In general, people considered to be possessed are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions, because possession is considered to be manipulation of an unwilling victim by a demon resulting in harm to self or others. Accordingly, Jesus and his Apostle would regard exorcism as more of a cure than a punishment.

The spiritual reality the was instilled into the followers of Jesus can be witnessed on two accounts mentioned in Scripture. On one account Jesus mentioned that certain types of demon can not be expelled except by prayer and fasting. Obviously there are heavy weights amongst the bad angels.Fr. Gabriele Amorth in his book An Exorcist Tells his Story (page 93-94) that ”when the demon has a biblical name or one given in tradition (for example, Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Meridian Asmodeus), we are dealing with ”heavyweights“, tougher to defeat. The decree of difficult is also relative to the intensity with which the demon possesses a person. When several demons are present, the chief is always the last to leave.” This is the very reality faced by the Apostles In their ministry.

St. Luke goes on to recount in the Book of Acts how the demons hurt some vagabond Jews doing exorcisms. Thus the Evangelists understood the possibility of physical harm that could be done when confronted with a demoniac.

13 Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.

14 And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.

15 And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?

16 And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

18 And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.

19 Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. - Acts 19:13-19

The Catholic Encyclopedia goes into detail about exorcisms in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus himself ”expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of diseases”:

Among the Jews

There is no instance in the Old Testament of demons being expelled by men. In Tobias, viii, 3, it is the angel who "took the devil and bound him in the desert of upper Egypt"; and the instruction previously given to young Tobias (VI, 18, and 19), to roast the fish's heart in the bridal chamber, would seem to have been merely part of the angel's plan for concealing his own identity. But in extra-canonical Jewish literature there are incantations for exorcising demons, examples of which may be seen in the Talmud (Schabbath, xiv, 3; Aboda Zara, xii, 2; Sanhedrin, x, 1). These were sometimes inscribed on the interior surface of earthen bowls, a collection of which (estimated to be from the seventh century A.D.) is preserved in the Royal Museum in Berlin; and inscriptions from the collection have been published, and translated, by Wohlstein in the "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie" (December, 1893; April, 1894).

The chief characteristic of these Jewish exorcisms is their naming of names believed to be efficacious, i.e. names of good angels, which are used either alone or in combination with El (=God); indeed reliance on mere names had long before become a superstition with the Jews, and it was considered most important that the appropriate names, which varied for different times and occasions, should be used. It was this superstitious belief, no doubt, that prompted the sons of Sceva, who had witnessed St. Paul's successful exorcisms in the name of Jesus, to try on their own account the formula, "I conjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth", with results disastrous to their credit (Acts, xix, 13). It was a popular Jewish belief, accepted even by a learned cosmopolitan like Josephus, that Solomon had received the power of expelling demons, and that he had composed and transmitted certain formulae that were efficacious for that purpose. The Jewish historian records how a certain Eleazar, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and his officers, succeeded, by means of a magical ring applied to the nose of a possessed person, in drawing out the demon through the nostrils—the virtue of the ring being due to the fact that it enclosed a certain rare root indicated in the formulae of Solomon, and which it was exceedingly difficult to obtain (Ant. Jud. VIII, ii, 5; cf. Bell. Jud. VII, vi, 3).

But superstition and magic apart, it is implied in Christ's answers to the Pharisees, who accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, that some Jews in His time successfully exorcised demons in God's name: "and if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?" (Matt., xii, 27). It does not seem reasonable to understand this reply as mere irony, or as a mere argumentum ad hominem implying no admission of the fact; all the more so, as elsewhere (Mark, ix, 37-38) we have an account of a person who was not a disciple casting out demons in Christ's name, and whose action Christ refused to reprehend or forbid.

Exorcism in the New Testament

Assuming the reality of demoniac possession, for which the authority of Christ is pledged (see Demoniacal Possession Obsession), it is to be observed that Jesus appealed to His power over demons as one of the recognised signs of Messiahship (Matt., xii, 23, 28; Luke, xi, 20). He cast out demons, He declared, by the finger or spirit of God, not, as His adversaries alleged, by collusion with the prince of demons (Matt., xii, 24, 27; Mark, iii, 22; Luke, xi, 15,19); and that He exercised no mere delegated power, but a personal authority that was properly His own, is clear from the direct and imperative way in which He commands the demon to depart (Mark, ix, 24; cf. i, 25 etc.): "He cast out the spirits with his word, and he healed all that were sick" (Matt., viii, 16). Sometimes, as with the daughter of the Canaanean woman, the exorcism took place from a distance (Matt., xv, 22 sqq.; Mark, vii, 25). Sometimes again the spirits expelled were allowed to express their recognition of Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (Mark, i, 24) and to complain that He had come to torment them "before the time", i.e. the time of their final punishment (Matt., viii, 29 sqq.; Luke, viii, 28 sqq.). If demoniac possession was generally accompanied by some disease, yet the two were not confounded by Christ or the Evangelists. In Luke, xiii, 32, for example, the Master Himself expressly distinguishes between the expulsion of evil spirits and the curing of diseases.

Christ also empowered the Apostles and Disciples to cast out demons in His name while He Himself was still on earth (Matt., x, 1 and 8; Mark, vi, 7; Luke, ix, 1; x, 17), and to believers generally He promised the same power (Mark, xvi, 17). But the efficacy of this delegated power was conditional, as we see from the fact that the Apostles themselves were not always successful in their exorcisms: certain kinds of spirits, as Christ explained, could only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Matt., xvii, 15, 20; Mark, ix, 27, 28; Luke, ix, 40). In other words the success of exorcism by Christians, in Christ's name, is subject to the same general conditions on which both the efficacy of prayer and the use of charismatic power depend. Yet conspicuous success was promised (Mark, xvi, 17). St. Paul (Acts, xvi, 18; xix, 12), and, no doubt, the other Apostles and Disciples, made use regularly, as occasion arose, of their exorcising power, and the Church has continued to do so uninterruptedly to the present day.

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