Demon Problems, the Bible, and Enchanted Eyewitnesses

Demon Problems, the Bible, and Enchanted Eyewitnesses December 13, 2023

My friend Dr. Joy Vaughan has published an important new book about the biblical world of spirits and exorcism. Phenomenal Phenomena is an academic book, but worth the investment. Vaughan was kind enough to write up a bit about her work and why it is important for better understanding the biblical writers’ “enchanted worldview.” 

Demon Problems, the Bible, and Enchanted Eyewitnesses

by Dr. Joy Vaughan

Luke 13:11-12 tells the story of a woman having a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years. But, when Jesus sees her, everything changes. He calls her over and announces that she is free from her illness. The story does not end here. Next, Jesus lays hands on the woman and she, after being bent over for 18 years, stands up straight and glorifies God! Can spirits really cause physical problems?

Acts 19:13-15 offers an account of a failed exorcism attempt. The account introduces some Jewish exorcists who attempt to invoke Jesus’s name to cast out an evil spirit. One day, the evil spirit speaks back to them, and the possessed man (just one man) jumps on all the exorcists and is able to overpower them with his strength. Vv. 16b describes the surprising result: “He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding?” (NIV) Can spirits really speak through people? Can one spirit empower an individual with enough strength to beat up 7 others?

In an enchanted worldview, matters such as the ones named above are common realities. On the other hand, for some, passages like these can seem incredulous. They beg for interpretive options, and these options are within arm’s reach throughout the history of biblical interpretation.

I would like to introduce you to my new book, Phenomenal Phenomena: Biblical and Multicultural Accounts of Spirits and Exorcism. This book, published with Baylor University Press, answers the call of many biblical scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Todd Klutz, Paul Rhodes Eddy, Gregory Boyd, and Craig Keener (to name a few) to partner with anthropology to consider how biblical and modern accounts of spirit possession and exorcism compare. Joining hands with anthropology offers an opportunity to see through a multicultural lens and consider how those with an enchanted worldview might imagine texts that talk of possessing spirits and demon problems. In fact, anthropology offers a deep well of expertise on matters of spirits, possession, and exorcism from interreligious perspectives.

Do these types of demon or spirit problems, such as the ones found in the biblical text, really happen in our modern 21st century world? A multicultural reading of accounts of spirits, spirit possession, and exorcism would offer a very quick and resounding “yes!” to this question. In fact, anthropologists widely recognize the phenomenology surrounding spirit possession. In anthropology, rejecting the existence of the experience of spirit possession is equated with sustaining the position that the earth is flat.[1] As a result, anthropology offers a widespread account of phenomenology of spirits that begs for comparison with the ancient accounts in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. This multicultural perspective aids New Testament readers with a new hermeneutical lens to traverse through the hermeneutical problems that have often plagued texts such as Luke 13:11-12 and Acts 19:13-15.

When seeing through this lens it is apparent that many modern individuals from a wide variety of religious perspectives attribute certain phenomena to spirits. While anthropologists, NT scholars, psychologists, sociologists and more might debate the interpretations of the phenomena, what is undeniable is the wide attestation of the phenomenology in multicultural research. In other words, it is undeniable that an enchanted readership reflects readers whose worldview is more analogous and perhaps better suited to understand the meaning of these biblical spirit stories.

While this book exposes how modern stories compare with biblical ones in three categories ( 1: spirit Possession and illness, 2: spirit Possession, violent Acts, and extraordinary Strength, 3: spirit Possession, vocalic alterations, demonic speech and oracular activity), it does not seek to end the debate about the interpretation of this sort of phenomenology. Each case is deserving of analysis from as many interpretive lenses as possible. However, what the book hopes to accomplish is to invite a widespread sampling of enchanted eyewitness testimonies to bear on our readings. In other words, anthropological evidence does not support the exclusion of spiritual matters from the interpretive table. A reductive approach misses the opportunity to carefully consider what can be gained from a multicultural reading of spirit possession accounts in the Gospels and Acts.

In summary, the accounts of possession and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts beg to be read first as ancient biographies and historiographies that reflect the eyewitness testimonies of Jesus’s followers carefully handed down through oral tradition and carefully written down. Secondly, a multicultural lens offers a unique bed of enchanted eyewitnesses that also attest to analogous phenomena. While the phenomena might at first seem phenomenal, in the end (after all that research!!) one realizes that these characteristics of spiritual problems and possession are transcultural and can fall into three main categories including 1) illness, 2) violent acts and extraordinary strength, 3) vocalic alterations, demonic speech, and oracular activity. The existence of such phenomenology is diachronic, transcending both time, from ancient to modern, and space, found in every major region of the world today.

It is with high honor that I share Dr. Graham Twelftree’s commendation for the book. Dr. Twelftree’s work on Jesus and exorcism has been critical for catalyzing scholarly pursuits on this topic. His books In the Name of Jesus and Jesus the Exorcist helpfully encouraged my research. He writes: “What do we do with the possession and exorcism stories in the New Testament?… In this richly informed text, Vaughan engages with material from the ancient world, and with modern analogies from Africa, Asia, South America, and the Western world to argue that, however these stories are interpreted, they are to be taken as part of the eyewitness testimony to the activities of Jesus and his followers.”

Check out Vaughan’s new book!

"Thanks for joining us, memorable experience for me too"

2023: Year In Review
"Loved being part of the Tell Her Story launch team, and my daughter lover her ..."

2023: Year In Review
"It is interesting that conservative Christians are open to demon possession around the world, but ..."

Demon Problems, the Bible, and Enchanted ..."
"The power of belief is phenomenal. Scientists call it the placebo effect.When my mom was ..."

Demon Problems, the Bible, and Enchanted ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!