I’ll Believe in Demons When Pigs Fly

I’ll Believe in Demons When Pigs Fly May 17, 2020

I’ll start this post with another tidbit from my Sunday school class from a while back which I have been meaning to share. That particular Sunday witnessed us being “distracted by Satan.” Yes, I did use precisely that phrase. But it was the subject of Satan that grabbed my attention and that of the rest of the class away from the text that we had been talking about. We certainly weren’t blaming a supernatural force for the fact that we did something that we do with great regularity, namely follow a tangential line of discussion into a side issue that connects with the text we are discussing, connecting that text to other texts, the overarching theological questions, and the relevance of our different perspective as people whose views are informed by science and other aspects of life in the 21st century.

In this era of pandemic, you could visit my Sunday school class sometime when we meet via Zoom. Unlike the invitations I might have extended in the past, this one doesn’t depend on your geographic proximity to the building where Crooked Creek Baptist Church meets! Take a look at the snippet from one such gathering that I shared recently, and let me know whether or not this gathering seems appealing, and why.

As you will see in the chapter on Mary Magdalene I have been working on for my book What Jesus Learned from Women, I have been thinking seriously about demons as part of ancient worldview, illness, blame, and healing. Two things that I want to highlight are:

(1) Mary Magdalene may have been suffering from multiple illnesses or symptoms that we today would non only not consider demon possession, but also would not consider mental illness, since as we see in the Gospels as well as other ancient literature, afflictions such as arthritis (see the “bent woman” Luke 10:13-17) are also attributed to demons.

(2) Mary being afflicted by demons might have been attributed to the ill-will of others, an enemy using black magic against her, rather than to anything that she did.

These two points together leave us with a very different way of framing Mary’s story than the ones that have become most influential in our time as well as historically. I’m somewhat worried that my retelling of Mary’s story will seem boring when compared to the sensational versions people are used to. I’m perhaps even more worried that if I don’t do that, I will fail to accomplish one of my aims, which is to convey the sense that Mary was important to Jesus because of the friendship between them and what they learned from each other, and not because she was particularly sinful, out of her mind, or the romantic love of his life.

Connecting this with the story of the man possessed by “Legion,” a man with a cohort of demons, that story seems to have begun as political satire: a Roman platoon of demons tries to perform an exorcistic ritual on Jesus to bind him and prevent him from driving them out of the country. Be that as it may, when some eventually took it literally, were they trying to outdo Mary Magdalene by having the record for the most demons driven out through Jesus’ power be held by a man? I blogged about that story previously here, interacting with Bertrand Russell’s treatment of the story:

From The Archives: Why I Am A Christian

Also related to this topic, David Hayward shared a cartoon that relates to the story I’ve just been discussing, and to which the title of this post alludes. Have you figured out the reason for the title of the post? Different manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark read Gadara or Gerasa as the location where the exorcism was supposedly performed. Neither is close to the lake the Gospel calls the “Sea of Galilee.” One is six miles away, the other 33! (The Gospel of Luke substitutes Gergesa in order to solve the problem.) Either the pigs ran and ran a very, very long way before throwing themselves into the water, or they flew. Hence the title of this post, alluding to a common expression as well as yet another clue in the text that this story may not describe a literal occurrence at a particular location in history.

See also:

John Morehead on possession myth and an article that also allused to the Legion story.

Demonizing Illness…is it again, or is it still?

Was there really demon possession at the time of Jesus?

Why We Can’t Let Go of Our Legions

Know-nothings, Faith-healers, and Quacks: Mystifying and Abusing Mental Illness


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