Originally posted at my other blog, Soul in Paraphrase
The Gerasene Demoniac
They travelled by boat that day, over the sea, and into the country of the Gerasenes, a pagan people. In this strange place, stranger things occur, and as they leave their boat, a madman greets them. He came from the tombs, for he lived with the dead. A strong man, no one could restrain him, he tore away the iron shackles and heavy chains they used to bind him. No one had the strength to tame him. Over and over, night and day, his screams echoed among the graves and upon the hillside while he cut himself with sharp stones.
From far off, he saw Jesus approach, and rushed towards him, flinging himself to the ground. “Why? What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, stop torturing me!” for Jesus was ordering the unclean spirit from him.
“What’s your name?” Jesus asked.
“My name is Legion, for we are many,” said the spirits in the man, and they begged Jesus not to throw them out of the country. On the hillside, a herd of pigs were grazing, and the spirits pleaded, “send us into the pigs!”
So Jesus gave them permission to do just that. The spirits left the man, and entered the pigs, and all at once the pigs charged, down the hillside, and straight into the sea. Around two thousand pigs drowned.
The pig-herders ran to tell of what had happened. They told it in the town, and they told it in the countryside, and people came to see what had happened. There they saw the man, the one called “Legion”, and he was sitting, dressed and in his right mind! They were frightened, and when this man’s story was explained to them, they begged Jesus to leave.
And so Jesus prepared to leave the country. As he was getting back into his boat, the once-possessed man asked to go with him – but Jesus wouldn’t let him.
“Go home,” he said, “back to your own people. Tell them what the Lord has done for you, and how he had pity on you.”
And so the man went off, and proclaimed throughout the Decapolis what Jesus had done. And the people were amazed.
This is the story of Mark 5:1-20, a tale of transformation, of madness turned into sanity, of a man freed, redeemed, and restored. This is a story of a man who could not be controlled with bonds of iron, but who could be changed completely by the word of the Messiah.
Themes of Purity, Self-Harm and the Gentiles
This is an unusually long and detailed passage for Mark, and there are similar incidents recorded in Matthew (8:28-34) and Luke (8:26-39). There is some debate about the geographical location of the story (Gerasa is 30 miles away from the sea – rather a long way for this narrative, though Gadara, only 5 miles from the sea, is a variant reading, as is Gergesa, a town now lost, but possibly the town of Kursa).
Wherever the actual region is, it seems we are now in gentile territory. The people here are pig-farmers, an activity forbidden to Jews (m. B. Qam. 7:7) and, by the biblical period, pigs have become almost a symbol of paganism (cf Matt 7:6; Luke 15:15-16; 2 Pet 2:22), and refraining from pig-flesh a sign of Judaism. Under the oppressive rule of the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes, Jews had been forced to sacrifice and eat pigs (1 Macc 1:47; 2 Macc 6:2-5), though some of them resisted at the cost of their lives (2 Macc 6:18-7:42). Being among an enormous group of pigs is not Jewish.
Just as pigs are unclean animals (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8) so are tombs (Lev 21:1, 22:4-6; Num 19:16-18). The man with an unclean spirit has been driven to live in an unclean place and, as a gentile, he is unclean even without the spirits assaulting him. The demons within him have a distinctly gentile flavour, too, addressing Jesus as the “Son of the Most High God”, which is only used by gentiles or in a gentile setting (Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; Is 14:14; Dan 3:26, 42; Acts 16:17).
Jesus himself never led a full-scale mission to the gentiles, but this passage shows a precedent – he has come among them, has healed the unclean, and has removed the source of uncleanliness (both demons and pigs) from the land. He has left the demoniac fully and finally cured – strong man that he was (Mark 3:27), he was no match for the stronger man, Christ.
The formerly-ostracised and formerly-demonised man has been restored. Although he wants to follow Jesus, and give up his life to be a disciple, Jesus refuses. Instead, the man is to go back to his society, become part of his family again – and be a witness to what God has done. He proclaims Jesus throughout the Decapolis, becoming the “first apostle to the Gentiles.” 
This is one of very few mentions in the Bible of self-injury (others being the mention of ‘cutting for the dead’ and the self-harm of the priests of Baal, both in the Old Testament). Here, it isn’t a practice associated with pagan religions, but a sign of the deep distress of the suffering man. The cutting itself is not addressed by Jesus (or the narrator), because it is a symptom, not the cause. That cause is identified by Mark as the man being possessed by many unclean spirits, or demons.
For those who preach or teach this passage: Self-injury is a common phenomenon, occurring in all age groups and genders, an often hidden issue which may affect those around you without you being aware of it. It is particularly common among young people (a UK study estimated that 1 in 3 young people have self-harmed), the elderly, and prisoners. Motivations for self-harm include the release of feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, self-loathing and numbness. Care should be taken when interpreting this passage – it has often been used to argue that self-injury is the result of demonic possession, but bear in mind that the biblical account does not specifically connect the two. It describes for us a man in torment, screaming in the graveyard, whose distress also leads to self-harm.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this passage, and to see how to apply it to us today. As someone who formerly self-harmed, and who has a now-dormant mental illness, I am sensitive to connotations of impurity and evil, to possessions and exorcism being applied to people suffering mental ill-health. Yet, this passage unambiguously identifies the man, whose actions we would call “mentally ill”, as demon-possessed and in need of exorcism from Christ.
My opinion, for what that’s worth, is that at least some of the exorcism narratives of the New Testament are describing things we now give another name to – like epilepsy (Matt 17:14-20), musculoskeletal disorders (Luke 13:10-17) or the variety of mental ill-health diagnoses. The biblical authors were not writing for us – their audience was the people around them, and they interpreted the world around them through their own cultural vision. In the Ancient Near East, demon possession was a common diagnosis for things we have other terms for now, and the casting-out of those demons was an effective ritual to bring relief to sufferers. I’m reminded, when it comes to psychiatric disorders, of how a diagnosis of mental illness is made based on its effects on the person, rather than the thing itself. For example, the Mental Health Foundation estimates that between 5% and 28% of people hear voices, but only around 25% of those have a mental disorder. For me, the name of the problem is of less import than how it affects people, and an effective treatment is a great thing, regardless of the methodology behind it. So, I don’t think mental illness is demon-possession, but I think that, within the cultural context of 1st century Palestine, that was a good diagnosis, and Jesus’ treatment was 100% effective, as we see here.
One interesting way of interpreting this passage is through a political lens, where our demon-possessed man functions as the inarticulate protest of his people under Roman rule.
There are many parts of this narrative which tie the Romans into this story, even though they don’t appear in person. The name Jesus elicits from the demon is Legion – the name, of course, for a Roman regiment of around 6,000 men. The connotation that this man is possessed by the Roman oppressors is one that would not have been lost on the hearers of this story, particularly as the Roman legion (Legio X Fretensis) which occupied Jerusalem (and Gerasa) after the Jewish War had among its standards a boar!
Alongside “Legion”, there are other military undertones here, too. Mark refers to a “herd” (agele) of pigs – but pigs are not herd animals. The term agele, however, was used to refer to a band of military recruits. Jesus “gave them permission” to enter the pigs – using a term (epetrepseri) used for a military command, and the pigs subsequently charge (oremesen) into the sea like troops charging into battle.
People, by and large, are not very keen on being subjugated, conquered by a stronger nation. To go from being a sovereign country to being one of many client states of a large empire is difficult, particularly when that empire has the military resources to crush you if you attempt to gain your freedom. When the Jews revolted against the Romans (66–73AD) that struggle ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Gerasa itself was sacked twice – first by the Jewish rebels and then by the Romans.
What happens when you are trapped in a situation you cannot escape? The philosopher Frantz Fanon, who specialised in the psychopathology of colonised peoples, argued that colonised people ‘mystify’ their plight, making something else responsible for their struggle. They may identify God, or demons as the author of their oppression, rather than the coloniser whose power seems too great to fight. Mental illnesses increase under colonisation as people struggle to integrate the presence of their oppressors with their inability to resist them – and that psychological disintegration continues even under revolution.
Taking that idea as a model, what we can see here is a man whose personhood has disintegrated under the strain of the Roman colonisation of his land. The strain of living under subjugation has, quite literally, sent him mad as a “form of oblique protest against, or escape from, oppression.”  Only when Christ comes, demonstrating that he is stronger than any Roman legion is the demon-possessed man able to be made whole.
To take the idea even further, once he has descended into madness, the demon-possessed man can do what the townspeople dare not. He symbolically shatters the chains of Roman authority, acting out the pain of his people in visible (though damaging and isolating) ways. Jesus removes the mystification from him, forcing him to name his oppressors – Legion – and showing who the struggle is really against. His madness has a function in his society – like a scapegoat, he bears the pain of his people, and “the townspeople need him to act out their own violence. He bears their collective madness personally, freeing them from their symptoms.” 
Jesus, in restoring the scapegoat to wholeness, naming and then throwing out the Legion, having them drown in the sea (rather reminiscent of Exodus) is a threat. Without the release for the community that the demon-possessed man provides, and with the oppressor now named, what will they do, and how will it be seen? Will the Romans realise this is a symbolic casting out of their troops? And so the townspeople ask Jesus to leave, though he leaves the formerly-possessed man behind, a witness to what has gone on, and the hope that Christ brings.
You may be wondering what exactly this has to do with us, today, particularly if you are someone who has a mental illness, or who is self-injuring.
How will you know I’m hurting.
If you cannot see my pain?
To wear it on my body.
Tells what words cannot explain.
Self-injury is often the acting-out of deep feelings, and many experiences of mental illness are also the mind’s way of dealing with hard situations. Think of the legacy of child abuse in disorders like borderline personality disorder, or of the depression and anxiety that can result from bullying, poverty, domestic abuse, or frustration with everyday life. Sometimes it is less helpful to point to the disorder than it is to look for the causes of that disorder. For some people, psychological disintegration can be the result of what’s around us, either personally or politically. Naming those things, even a legion of them, might help us cast them away, ‘drowning’ them.
For others, mental illness can come out of nowhere, and doesn’t seem to be linked to any personal or political situation. That was my own experience – three deep episodes of bipolar depression, and then nothing, despite frustrating and difficult times since. For me, the story of the Gerasene demoniac tells a different narrative. Here we have a man who has been stigmatised and isolated, whose only contact with the people he knows is when they come to chain him up like an animal. He knows torture from his own mind, and from others, and his first response to Jesus reveals he expects nothing but torture now. Where others are violent, Jesus is not. Others try to chain him away – but Jesus brings him out into the open, and talks to him. He doesn’t recoil from him, nor condemn him, but comes to his aid. He restores him to the man he was, and gives him a story and a purpose. This madman from the tombs, the social outcast, is now a preacher, an apostle, a “sent-one” who goes to tell the world about Jesus.
Food for Thought
We who are not ill have something to learn here.
- When we see someone behaving oddly, madly, destructively, do we see a demon, or do we see someone who might lead others into faith?
- Can we look at the visibly mentally-unwell person and see a future church leader, or do we see someone who needs to be put away?
- Do we shy away from those who behave differently?
- Are we isolating anyone in our own communities?
- How do we see, and how do we behave towards those who are mentally ill?
- Is there anything that we are doing, as individuals, as church, or as society that might be contributing to mental ill-health?
For those who are ill.
There may be a comfort here for you. This is our Lord of Compassion in action – not condemning but restoring, not pushing away but redeeming. Others might have not wanted anything to do with the demon-possessed man, but Jesus didn’t turn him away. This man was restored instantly – which may not be the case for all of us (it wasn’t for me), but, no matter how deep our illness may seem, no matter how far away from others we have wandered – the Lord is here, and his Spirit is with you.
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
 Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 2001, p. 57
 P Hollenbach, cited in Binding the Strong Man, p 192
Walter Wink, cited in My Name is Legion, p76
- “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” Ched Myers (New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 2008)
- “My Name is Legion: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac” Michael Willett Newheart (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004)
- “Mark 1-8:26” Robert A Guelich, vol 34A, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989)
- “The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary” Ben Witherington III (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001)
- “Mark for Everyone” Tom Wright (SPCK Publishing, 2001)