Vacation Bible School – A Secular Look at Mark 5

Vacation Bible School – A Secular Look at Mark 5 August 9, 2018

Editor’s Note:  Welcome back to VBS, Rational Doubt Blog style.  This year, we’re looking a whole new set of Bible stories, as told by Clergy Project members who have deep knowledge of the Bible.  In my case, growing up Catholic, I was spared much biblical interpretation and was instead steeped in Catechism.  I’m beginning to think I was lucky!  Some of these Bible stories are pretty scary. I’m glad that numerous TCP members have agreed to sort them out for us, from their newfound secular point of view.  Here’s the first one. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By David Madison

Randel Helms has called the Bible “a self-destructing artifact.” Thus it’s no surprise that we keep tripping over embarrassing texts that should make Christians say,

“Oh dear, can’t we just hit the delete button?”

Especially when an episode reflects so poorly on Jesus. In Mark 5 we find story of Jesus’ encounter with a man whom we can suppose was mentally ill. He resided amongst the tombs, yelled a lot and abused himself with stones. He was so strong that he couldn’t be bound with chains.

Mark went along with the ancient superstition that construed mental illness as demon possession. And he locates Jesus squarely in this delusion. He portrays Jesus carrying on a conversation with the demon(s), and he/they know who he is because Jesus has higher ranking in the realm of spirits:

“…he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’” (Mark 5:7)

The indwelling demons didn’t want Jesus to banish them from the country, but begged him to transfer them into a nearby herd of swine.

“So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine…” (Mark 5:13)

This turned out not to be such a good thing for the pigs. Suddenly agitated by the demons, they ran off a cliff into the sea and drowned—all 2,000 of them. So there was a great loss of livestock, and the folks who owned them probably faced financial ruin. There’s no hint whatever that Jesus was sorry about the death of so many animals. We can’t blame the local residents for begging him to move along.

So Christians, come clean: Are you okay that demons are a real thing, that Jesus could have chats with them, and by voice command make them into pigs?

Christianity is dragged down by bizarre folklore designed to advance the gospel writer’s even more bizarre theology. Yes, go ahead and hit that delete button. This story is a stumbling block for those who champion sane religion.


David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.

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  • Tawreos

    I am less worried about Jesus not having a reaction to the deaths of 2,000 pigs as I am about why anyone, in an area where the pig is considered an unclean animal and forbidden to be eaten would anyone have a herd of 2,000 of them. The pigs owners did not have a very smart business plan to begin with.

    • I wrote this in one of my responses earlier: “We’ve got a count of 2,000 pigs in the story because folklore is fond of exaggeration. And by the way, there were plenty of Gentiles in Palestine at the time—a good market for pork.” It was a Roman satellite state, with traffic from all over the Mediterranean.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    One of my favorite stories that makes me wonder is the one about Jesus performing a miracle on the Sabbath. Jesus is in the temple on the Sabbath and I think it’s the one where he cures the widow’s withered hand.

    The elders, instead of falling in amazement that someone could actually cure a withered hand (or otherwise perform some miracle), get all pissy because he did it on the Sabbath.

    Huh? He performs a _miracle_ and the most notable thing about it is that it was on the Sabbath?

    If you read meaning, it’s almost as if they are unimpressed with that miracle. Why would that be? You get the impression that “miracles” back then were pretty darn common. I mean, they must be common enough that you need to restrict your miracles to non-Sabbath days.

    And if miracles were so darn common then, what happened? Where are they now? Where is the curing of the withered hand?

    • Illithid

      Miracles happen all the time. Just not on high-quality video or before skeptical witnesses. The Holy Spirit is shy.

      • Kevin K

        Aunt Betty found her car keys just in time to not be late for church … a MIRACLE. Uncle Bubba Billy Bob shot hisself a deer on the first day of hunting season … a MIRACLE. Cousin Elmo got cured of the cancer after all of the doctors and medicine and stuff … a MIRACLE. The tornado missed their double-wide completely but leveled several the next town over … a MIRACLE.

  • Anne Fenwick

    Have you any thoughts on the fact that the Jewish population of Jesus’s time had no particular reason to own ‘swine’ they being unclean foods? Are these someone else’s pigs? Also, 2000 pigs seems a very large herd by the standards of the ancient world. In Europe, pigs generally foraged and ate waste and I doubt that many areas could support such large groups, even in an ecological zone more suited to them. Maybe it’s not a good translation? Or an anachronism of some sort?

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      IOW, it doesn’t make any sense.

    • This is in one of my replies earlier: “We’ve got a count of 2,000 pigs in the story because folklore is fond of exaggeration. And by the way, there were plenty of Gentiles in Palestine at the time—a good market for pork.”

  • Markus R

    It’s an amazing story. The Gaderenes witness the Son if God prove his office and ability to deliver men from the power of sin and Satan and yet they send him away. Am I OK with the death of 2000 pigs? Certainly (although be it far from me to judge God). He could have sent the demons into 2000 Gaderenes and then drowned them and still been in his rights as God in his judgement. We must keep in mind that unredeemed mankind is the enemy of God and naturally hate him (look what we did to Jesus on the cross). The message for all of us is that Jesus can do what he promised—set us free. And for those who refuse to believe and repent, their fate will be far worse than the unfortunate pigs.

    • Tawreos

      I would say that the story is more unbelievable than amazing. We have a very large herd of pigs in an area where pigs are considered unclean and were forbidden to be eaten and therefore no reason for them to be there. We have someone claiming to cast out demons when mental illness would be a better explanation for the symptoms than demons which are not proven to exist. Even if you don’t have a problem with those two things many religious teachings themselves say that the death of the pigs would free the demon to find a new host meaning he would have spread possession to possibly 2,000 more people which is not a smart move. And threatening that god will treat us worse than pigs for not buying into is extortion and no good reason to believe.

      • Markus R

        Thanks for the reply. Actually the threat of judgement is used throughout the Bible. We are not asked to believe upon Christ—we are commanded to repent and believe. Whether or not we deem God’s means and methods good has nothing to do with it. If the Bible is true, then we are fools not to obey God’s command to turn to Christ. And that is for a different thread/discussion, e,g., is the Bible trustworthy? And what are the means of finding an historical document trustworthy?

        • Tawreos

          Proving that it is historical would be the first step and the bible fails in that regard in multiple areas.

          • Markus R

            We obviously disagree. But I’ll let you have the last word.

          • mason

            the words historical & Bible should probably never be next to each other, except as a oxymoron demo …:)

        • mason

          Your zombie God is a genocidal child killer. You worship Him. What does that make you? (thank goodness your religion is just sadistic Jewish myth)

        • carolyntclark

          “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”… be happy.

        • DoctorDJ

          Command all you want. Your magic words have no power here.


        • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

          If God wanted us to believe he would give us the evidence and proof of his existence that we need to believe, not just pretend that he can order us to believe and we can just will ourselves to do so (And that’s even assuming we had reason to believe your assertion that God commands us to believe, which we don’t)

          • Markus R

            Thanks for the reply, Jack. If we take your position we are deciding what God must do to meet our own standards. Yet the Bible makes it clear when God says that we are without excuse as what can be known of God’s existence is evident in nature and that we choose to suppress the truth (Romans, Chapter 1).

            “Romans 1:19  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”


            “Romans 2:14  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
            Romans 2:15  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and the heir conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

            So the evidence is around us and within us. We stand to receive wrath if we do not repent and believe. As God also says, it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

          • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

            If the Bible were true (which we have no reason to think it is), Romans 1:19 would tell us that not only don’t we need the Bible to know about God, but it can’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
            So why are you quoting the Bible at me?

          • Markus R

            People deny truth all the time. Sometimes out of ignorance. In the case of God’s truth, they suppress it rather than deal with the fact that they are violators of God’s law. I am sharing the truth in hopes that you will consider your eternal fate before a just God and turn to Christ. Of course, I can only share the truth—you must act or not act on it. I’m more than glad to invest time in convincing you that the Bible is true. This is hardly an adequate forum but would do so privately if asked.

    • Hmmmm…that’s some pretty bad theology you’ve fallen prey to, I suspect under the influence of that Master of Bad Theology, the apostle Paul. The title of the book I’m writing now is Bad Bible Theology: An Atheist Refutation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There are some pretty nasty strains in Christian theology, e.g. that God considers sinful humans his enemies. How come he failed so miserably to set things up properly in the beginning?

      We’ve got a count of 2,000 pigs in the story because folklore is fond of exaggeration. And by the way, there were plenty of Gentiles in Palestine at the time—a good market for pork.

      It’s hard for Christians to come to grips with this fact: Mark wrote folklore. If there are any scraps of history in his gospel, it would be quite by accident. He wrote some 40-50 years after the death of Jesus—certainly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. We don’t know his sources; we don’t know where his story of the deranged man came from. It floats free of any grounding in reality. Pious scholars indulge in wishful thinking that Mark had access to reliable oral tradition or eyewitness reports, for which there is no evidence.

      To consider it history, we would have to have CONTEMPORARY DOCUMENTATION about the deranged man incident. That’s what histories rely on, e.g., diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, eyewitness reports written at the time—ALL of which are lacking. The gospels are theological novels, and their theologies different significantly, based on the agendas of the authors.

      • Markus R

        You are suffering a problem with categories. God is not a human. It is humorous to imagine creatures judging their creator, however. I would suggest that you read the work of the leading Christian Biblical scholar turned atheist, Bart Ehrman, as to the reliability and historicity of the New Trstament as a whole.

    • mason

      Ah, another threatening Evangelical troll who longs for the totalitarian zombie King to arrive and rule the planet. The US desperately needs national health care that addresses mental health issuers like political belief in zombies. Pigs are smarter than Evangelicals, much too intelligent to believe swine tales devised by Jewish religious con men.

    • Sophotroph

      It’s an amazing story.

      It is an amazing story. It’s amazing that anybody believes it happened.

    • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

      Or he could have just sent the demons away without killing pigs or people or anyone. But apparently the Son of God needs to bargain with demons.

      And for those who refuse to believe and repent

      Repent for what?

    • heleninedinburgh

      “Look what we did to Jesus on the cross”
      I didn’t do it.

      “And for those who refuse to believe and repent, their fate will be far worse than the unfortunate pigs.”
      Well, that’s a proportionate response. You do realise how much your god sounds like Donald Trump, yes?

  • Keith Taylor

    “Mark went along with the ancient superstition that construed mental illness as demon possession.”
    Which raises interesting speculation about Mary Magdalene that the religious faithful never address. Pope Gregory the Great ruled that Mary Magdalene, and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair, and Mary of Bethany (who is also credited with this act of devotion in one of the Gospels) were all the same person. She is generally portrayed as having been a notorious harlot before her conversion. But nothing in the Gospels really supports that idea.
    We’re only told, consistently, two definite things about her. She was the first person to receive angelic witness that Jesus had risen from the dead — or, in the Gospel of John, actually to see him after his resurrection, though she mistook him for the gardener at first — and she had been possessed by seven devils until Jesus cast them out of her.
    Now, I’ve read dodgem interpretations of this by the faithful, as that all illness was ascribed to demons at the time — but by far the most common popular meaning of the phrase, “had devils” is that the person concerned was demented. Insane. People who denigrated John the Baptist said, “He hath a devil”, meaning that he was crazy. And if Mary Magdalene was perceived as having seven devils, she must have been very conspicuously and wildly insane. Until, it may be, Jesus was able to help her and she followed him around, fairly normal under his calming influence. But she had witnessed his crucifixion, the man she adored utterly, and the effect that would have had on her fragile mind doesn’t need describing.
    It’s not hard to see why this has been so carefully ignored down the centuries. If it’s accepted that the first person to bear witness that Jesus had risen was a woman with a history of insanity, that would cast doubt on the reality of the resurrection if anything could.

  • ElizabetB.

    Liberation theologians see this as a political cartoon against Roman occupation in this semi-Gentile region, probably a combining of numerous folktales. The demons are named “Legion” — soldiers of Rome — No one has been able to bind them in this man, but here it is possible that they can be “cast out” — & to the delight of Jewish readers, into swine, no less. Townspeople ask the liberator to leave, not wanting to incur the displeasure of Empire — too dangerous. Interesting use of story!

    • mason

      Good luck selling that liberation twist to Evangelical nut cases.

      • ElizabetB.

        They note that “Legion” is a Latin term, not Greek, & indicates a division of usually 6,000 men. The “band” of pigs is a term usually describing recruits; the standards flown by the troops in this occupied area showed the wild boar; the swine “rush” down the bank in a term often describing a charging army…. But you’re right! this dog won’t hunt
        in Peoria : )

    • DoctorDJ

      As with any inconveniently idiotic Bible passage, “It’s a metaphor.”

      • ElizabetB.

        Many thanks, DrDJ! I think literalism is the worst thing that ever happens to philosophical, political, or theological writings. Worst, it brings us Qanon, the Holy Fire, and ISIS, but — still a loss — we don’t benefit from the wisdom there because it’s become aversive. I like how Crossan puts it — “My point… is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally.” This Mark 5 story makes me think how in totalitarian countries, often it’s the arts where people express their feelings & gather the likeminded. Out with the Roman hamhockers! : )

      • ElizabetB.

        P.S. Just seeing a comment in a FB process theology group: “My favorite podcast is ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,’ where they are going through the HP books, chapter by chapter, and reading it as if it’s a sacred text. ” She says she liked the concept so much she’s doing one starting with “A Wrinkle In Time.” Would be interesting to listen in : )

  • Rann

    …. and the Vacation Bible School kid in me said, all those years ago……. “Waste of all that good bacon!”

    As youth, I thought this a very strange story……. mind you I had already encountered a fellow child with ASD, so saying the man in the story was being possessed was hard to believe….

  • Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker

    Amazing that Jesus needed permission from the demons before he could expunge them from the man.

    • DoctorDJ

      Weak-ass god!

      • mason

        yeah, … Zeus trumps the Hebrew stuff 🙂

  • viaten

    So 2000 demons enter a human (it must have been crowded in there), then they enter the pigs that then drowned themselves in the sea. (Was that the demons doing or the pigs?) Where did the demons go after that, or does a drowning possessed pig result in a destroyed demon? You’d think Jesus would destroy the demons immediately or at least banish them. It must be mysterious ways, (the “go to” explanation when all others fail). Such a ridiculous story.

  • Aibrean

    And how was there a herd of 2,000 swine in Judea in jesus’ time given the ban on pork, or is this another mistranslation?

    Edit: note to self – read the other comments before posting to avoid unnecessary repetition. Sorry, Tawreos!

    • ElizabetB.

      Hafta admit, it IS a good question to be asked! [at least once : ) ]