Here’s an article I wrote for purpose other than this blog, but some may find it interesting and/or have feedback or comments. Enjoy (maybe).
Gospel Demoniacs In Tombs – Contradiction?
There is a story of Jesus encountering some demon possessed men who were living in tombs, and is found in all three “synoptic” gospels (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39). However, there are what some may consider two possible discrepancies between these accounts. In Matthew we see that there were two demon possessed men, but in Mark and Luke we see that only one was present. The location in which these events occurred is even different between the gospels. Aren’t these blatant contradictions?
Two Men Or One Man? Make Up Your Mind!
This first charge is quite common but comes from a lack of treating the gospels as separate historical documents and understanding how multiple testimony works. Most often, when you have two or more accounts of the same events, the accounts given by the different persons will differ in details – usually because one person may consider different details more important or to be focused upon.
For example, I may go to the mall and meet two Mormon gentlemen who are attempting to persuade me in accepting their system of belief as being true. Later on in the day, I may tell my wife about my encounter and mention both of the Mormon gentlemen which I had met. The next day, I may choose to tell a friend about the encounter, but simply mention one of the Mormon gentlemen because he was the primary speaker (as is always the case with Mormon missionaries).
In likewise fashion, simply because one of the gentlemen was omitted from Matthew’s account it doesn’t mean only one person was possessed, it simply means that Matthew mentions perhaps all the men who were present, and Mark and Luke focus upon the more prominent man. In fact, when we read the accounts from the three gospels carefully, we see that Matthew’s account is more generalized and brief, whereas Mark and Luke’s accounts are more detailed and focused – thus the detailed discussion between Jesus and one of the men in particular – who, because of these extra details, we may infer that this man was perhaps the prominent speaker. This would be akin to me focusing on one of the Mormon men (in the example above), and providing details as to the interaction between me and that one prominent man. Whereas I may tell someone else about a more generalized and brief encounter and mention both men since my account is intended to be wider and brief, as opposed to being focused and detailed.
As a side note, even if this difference was irreconcilable it wouldn’t affect the authenticity of the core events taking place. In fact, because Matthew’s account differs from Mark’s account it’s actually evidence that there most likely wasn’t collusion or a very simple “recopying” occurring on Matthew’s part (since Mark was likely a primary source of Matthew)1. The fact that Matthew has an extra piece of detail not found in Mark (being that of the extra possessed man) demonstrates that Matthew may have had a source other than Mark’s document about this event (perhaps his eyewitness testimony – giving us a potential reason if one wanted to push the idea that this is an event which is attested by two sources, which won’t be attempted in this article).
The second potential discrepancy is the location of occurrence. Mark and Luke use the same terms (Gerasenes or Gergesenes depending on the translation being used) and Matthew uses the term Gadarenes. Similar names, but obviously different when Mark and Luke are compared with Matthew. Did someone not know where this took place?
When one looks at a map of the regions mentioned we find a very interesting insight. To the east of the Sea of Galilee we find two villages – Gadara and Gergesa. As John Wesley noted in his notes on the Bible, “The country of the Gergesenes – Or of the Gadarenes – Gergesa and Gadara were towns near each other. Hence the country between them took its name, sometimes from the one, sometimes from the other.” In other words, the region called Gadarenes derived it’s name from the central village Gadara, and the region called Gergesenes derived it’s name from the village Gergesa. These regions had significant overlap since both villages were near each other.
We also know that in 1st century Palestine Jewish tombs were never located directly inside a city or village, but always located outside the city or village. The region in question was in gentile land, so we don’t know that the tombs were necessarily outside the villages, but positing the location of the tombs between Gergesa and Gadara seems to make complete sense in light of what is given in the text – the tombs would overlap the regions surrounding both villages, thus the area could be named either after Gadara (Gadarenes) or from Gergesa (Gergesenes).
A Few Steps Farther
“So what” some may say. Even though these apparent discrepancies may have been solved, there’s still the fact that we don’t know whether this actually occurred. I would like to not only offer the previously mentioned answers to the apparent discrepancies, but to go even further and apply this section of text to some criteria which historians use in order ascertain whether a certain event or saying is authenticly historical.
Historical Coherence: When historians look at assessing the authenticity of a given text, one criteria used is whether the event or saying in question “fits” within the relevant cultural and historical background. If it does then we have a good reason(s) that the text is authentic.
The occurrence of exorcisms was common in this area and period. Some extra-biblical accounts of exorcists and miracle performers from the relevant time and area are: Eleazar the exorcist (attested by Jewish historian Josephus in Antiquities of the Jew 8.46-49), Honi the circle drawer (attested by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 14.22, and Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8), and also Hanina Ben Dosa (attested in Mishnah Berakot 5:5, and the Babylonian Talmud Berakot 34b).
Dr. Craig Evans notes in his book Fabricating Jesus:
Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us to understand these major elements should be judged as authentic. [italics added]2
Of course, Jesus’ performing of exorcisms and the subsequent reverence of the demon possessed man as in Mark and Luke’s accounts (Mark 5:20 and Luke 8:31) helps us to understand, in part, the three main elements mentioned by Dr. Evans.
So we know the actions of Jesus in this text most definitely coheres to the historical context from which the New Testament claims it occurred.
Embarrassment: When something is recorded in a purported historical text, there is the tendency for embellishments and fraudulent additions or material to not include elements which would be embarrassing or awkward for the writer(s). When we do find potentially awkward or embarrassing material, we have another sign which increases the likelihood of the material in question as being authentic or historical. Telling the truth sometimes involves describing embarrassing things. Is there anything of the sort in this text about the demoniacs from the tombs?
We are not told whether the people involved were Jewish or gentile. Most likely they were gentile because this region was primarily gentile territory. We are told that there was a herdsman – someone who owned the pigs. When Jesus sends the demons into the pigs he is making a statement which in our culture may not be recognized, but definitely recognized in 1st century Palestine.
It was against the Jewish law to own or eat pigs (Leviticus 11:7-8). We know that whenever the gospel of Mark was written (the earliest gospel composed) it was well after the council decision in Acts chapter 15 – where gentile believers (in Christ) are told that they do not have to keep the Jewish kosher laws. Thus, the gospels would have been written with the understanding that gentiles didn’t have to keep the Jewish kosher laws.
So this is definitely an awkward event since it depicts Jesus making a ‘piggy’ statement alluding to the kosher laws; especially if this was to gentiles who weren’t obliged to follow these laws – a decision that would have been widespread in the Christian community when Mark was written.
Another very important and revealing point is that the text tells us that many people were upset because Jesus sent the demons into the herdsman’s pigs – which wouldn’t make sense if most of the people were Jewish (they would have applauded Jesus in making a statement in line with the kosher laws). It would really only make sense if the people were gentile and Jesus was sending the demons into gentile owned pigs, of which they had no law against; this would make it seem like Jesus was imposing the Jewish laws upon these gentiles – an awkward idea for the early Christian church, and even for John Mark since he was Peter’s scribe. Peter had been one of the person’s who stood up at the council and declared that they put forth the decision that the gentile believers shouldn’t be held accountable to the kosher laws.
When we see these details and how the events really only make sense if the crowds were gentiles, it’s clear that this portion of text fits this criteria of embarrassment very well. It may not be clear as to why Jesus did what he did, but the text places itself right into this criteria.
Dissimilarity: This criteria is left best explained by Dr. Craig Evans: “What this form of the criterion is trying to do is to rule out sayings and deeds that may have originated in Jewish circles, on the one hand, or in early Christian circles, on the other.”3 In other words, if something Jesus said or did is dissimilar to Jewish tradition and/or Christian tradition, it more likely originated from Jesus himself.
We’ve already clarified that the issue with the pigs would not have been invented by the early Christian community, notably during the time when Mark was most likely written.
Another point is the way in which Jesus drove the demons out of the men. Jewish and gentile exorcism from this time was performed very differently than the way Jesus did so. Jesus simply declared the demons to leave – and they left! When compared to Jewish exorcists from Jesus’ time (as already quoted in the first criteria of historical coherence) there were always bizarre rituals associated with successful exorcism.
This is especially seen in Eleazar the exorcist – his exorcism ritual would consist of sticking his ring (which had in it a herbal concoction) to the possessed persons nostrils, then the possessed man would smell the herbs and fall down. Eleazar would speak incantations repeatedly, then he would finally place a cup of water on the ground, command the demon to come out, and to move the water as it came out (in order to demonstrate it’s removal)4. Compared to Jesus’ simple command “Go!”, we see that this is very dissimilar indeed.
As for the gentile method of exorcism, an ancient Greek exorcism formula has been found, called the Magical Papyrus. It gives us a look into how gentile exorcisms were performed, and of course, we find it’s very different than Jesus’ method.5 Interestingly, this formula refers to the Jewish God, “Jesus”, as a small part of their incantation. Not only is this gentile formula dissimilar to Jesus’ exorcisms, it actually affirms the widespread impact that Jesus had in performing exorcisms – to the point that pagan exorcisms included Jesus’ name in their formula!
We have many reasons to think the text about Jesus’ exorcisms meet yet another criteria of historicity as Jesus’ method of exorcism is dissimilar to Jewish (and even gentile tradition) and the issue of the pigs is dissimilar to early Christian tradition. The event taken as a whole then is dissimilar to both the Jewish and Christian traditions.
Coherence or consistency: Basically stated, if the sayings or events in question cohere to things which are already regarded as authentic (for example, that Jesus was a miracle worker) then this gives us more reason to view them as authentic.
Jesus is well attested as being a well known miracle worker. Of course, multiple and independent sources in the gospels attest to this (material from Mark, material common to Matthew and Luke, material in John, etc.)
But what about outside the gospels? Was Jesus really seen as a miracle worker? We’ve already seen that in pagan exorcism formulas the name of Jesus, as the “God of the Hebrew”, was being invoked,demonstrating his widespread impacts as a miracle worker – or at the very least, an expert exorcist.
In the Jewish Talmud there’s an amazing piece of attestation about Jesus:
On the eve of Passover they hanged Jesus the Nazarene. And herald went out, in front of him, for forty days saying: “He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come and plead on his behalf.” But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover. 6
Not only is Jesus’ death and other very important details corroborated by, of all people, those who would consider themselves enemies of Christ, they indicate that Jesus practiced sorcery. According to the Jewish tradition, Jesus was well known for miracles (which they attribute as sorcery). They also mention that Jesus “led astray Israel”. This most likely would have only been said concerning someone who was really affecting Israel, otherwise, why would the Sanhedrin (indicated by “they” in the quote above) take the time to tell us some major details about an unpopular and obscure figure nobody knows about? Also, Jesus wouldn’t have been executed if he wasn’t leading “astray” many Israelites – indication of Jesus’ impact as a miracle worker.
The following is one reference about Jesus from a Greek source. There are many sources which corroborate important details about Jesus, but this one from Greek philosopher Celsus fits our needs wellsince Celsus was an adamant critic and enemy of Christianity – but even so, he mentions Jesus’ miracles:
He (Jesus) was brought up in secret and hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and having tried his hand at certain magical powers he returned from there, and on account of those powers have himself the title of God.7
Notice that Celsus’ argument was not that Jesus didn’t exist, or that Jesus didn’t perform miracles, or even that Jesus didn’t claim to be God – all claims which are used by today’s skeptics – but his argument was that, although Jesusdid claim to be God, his miracles were none-the-less sorcery! In other words, Jesus did in fact perform miracles but the source of the power was not from God. This is important since Celsus gives modern people some “slips” of information which actually support our case – Jesus was well-known as a miracle performer.
Once again, these two quotes (Jewish and Greek) are strong support because both sources mentioned were antagonistic and hostile toward Christianity (other criteria of authenticity – enemy attestation). Yet their arguments were not based upon the idea that Jesus didn’t perform miracles (as moderns do), but that the source of the miracles couldn’t have been God. This shows us that Jesus was so well known as a miracle worker in his time that his enemies had no choice but to concede to the fact.
Since we can confirm that Jesus was undoubtedly considered a miracle worker in his time, the text in question about the tomb demoniacs most definitely coheres to this pre-established fact about Jesus.
We’ve seen that the alleged discrepancies blow away once critically examined. In addition, we’ve seen that the text in question actually meets four key criteria historians use to assess the authenticity of a given saying or deed: (1) The text coheres to the historical conditions and background from this time and area; (2) we see the criteria of embarrassment supporting the idea that the events in the text originated from Jesus himself; (3) the issue of the pigs and the form of exorcism meets the criteria of dissimilarity and are therefore likely to derive from Jesus and not from early Jewish, gentile, or Christian influence; (4) we established that Jesus was a well known miracle worker in his time – from hostile sources at that – which makes our text pass the test of coherence or consistency.
There’s no reason to think this section of scripture is not reliable, and in fact, we have some very strong positive reasons to think it is reliable and authentic.